Playlist: 10 Musical Moments that Shifted the Paradigm

Playlist: Breakthrough Musical Moments that Shifted the Paradigm

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Gain a new perspective from artists who buck the status quo from this playlist featuring Bob Dylan, the Sugarhill Gang, Radiohead and Lil Nas X.

Par·a·digm noun. A typical pattern or example. A standard, perspective or set of ideas. A way of looking at something.

When artists shift the paradigm, we all feel it. Artists who play by their own rules know a happy accident when they hear one. When the audience says acoustic, they go electric. When label executives and other gatekeepers say, “you can’t do that,” these artists say, “watch me.”

Technical difficulties? Not a problem for country music icon Marty Robbins. Leave the fuzz as-is.

Label wants you to re-record the album? Yeah, that’s gonna be a “no” from Tom Scholz and Boston.

Billboard kicks your song off the country chart? Fine with Lil Nas X. Let’s go viral on TikTok. And then go platinum 15-times.

Music would be uninspiring without these iconoclasts unafraid to defy convention, carve out a space for themselves, and plug in and play loud.

Press play to gain a new perspective on music history with our playlist of iconic moments when artists shifted the paradigm.

1961 — Marty Robbins Says, “Don’t Worry” About Fuzz

In 1961, country balladeer Marty Robbins was a rising star in Nashville. His 1959 album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, was a hit due to the strength of “Big Iron.” The dusty ballad about an old-fashioned cowboy duel hit number five on the Billboard Country Chart upon release and remains popular after being featured in the video game Fallout: New Vegas.

Luckily, Robbins stayed as cool and collected as his cowboy protagonist when technical difficulties produced an unusual sound that would alter the course of musical history. Upon hearing studio playback of the 1961 single “Don’t Worry,” Robbins and session guitarist Grady Martin were met with a distorted tic-tac bass track, the result of a faulty recording console. Rather than redo the performance, Robbins left the broken sound as-is. The tone proved so popular that it was reverse-engineered to create one of the first guitar effects pedals—fuzz.

Keith Richards later used a fuzz effect (on purpose this time) for his guitar riff in The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and the rest is history. Musicians around the world still crave fuzz, and it might not have ever happened if Robbins had insisted on a redo.

1965 — Dylan Goes Electric

Bob Dylan shocked audiences when he took the stage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar and a rock and roll band. Some folk purists at the time considered rock music too brash; too childish to be taken seriously. They weren’t into that rowdy stuff.

The crowd erupted into boos when Dylan played his latest single, “Like a Rolling Stone.” But the change in direction was a hit with radio listeners, who sent this six-minute single to the number two spot of the US Billboard charts. But despite the song’s radio success, hecklers attended Dylan’s concerts in droves.

During a notorious 1966 performance at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England, an angry audience member screamed “Judas!”, accusing Dylan of abandoning his audience in folk music. Doubling down on the alleged betrayal, Dylan turned to his band and told them to, “play it f****** loud!”

Dylan’s decision to electrify his repertoire was a moment of career reinvention that altered the course of rock and roll. Soon, songwriters like Linda Rondstadt and Gram Parsons would refine this volatile mixture of genres into country- and folk-rock. More recently, groups like the Meat Puppets and Wilco fuse roots and folk music with hardcore punk and alt-rock, following in Dylan’s footsteps of musical reinvention.

1976 — Boston’s Tom Scholz Does It Himself

In 1975, Tom Scholz was a product engineer at the Polaroid corporation. A year later, he was known around the world as the maverick producer, songwriter and guitarist of Boston, whose 1976 hit “More Than a Feeling” introduced hard rock to the idea of “working from home.”

Scholz wrote and recorded the songs on Boston’s debut album between 1970 and 1975 in the basement of his home in Watertown, Massachusetts. When these recordings arrived at Epic Records marked as a “demo tape,” the CBS-owned label signed the band and scheduled a recording session in Los Angeles. But as far as Tom Scholz was concerned, the album was finished. To see that their debut album remained true to Schloz’s vision, Boston pulled the greatest bait-and-switch in rock history.

With the label distracted by the rest of the band recording “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” at a studio in Los Angeles, Scholz, at home in Massachusetts, hired a mobile recording truck to create the master tape from his basement recordings. Artists like Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen soon got onboard with the trend, choosing to be their own producers and engineers on McCartney II and Nebraska.

1979 — The Sugarhill Gang Have Hip Hop’s First Hit

Though the Fatback Band’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” is credited as the first hip hop recording, the Sugarhill Gang brought rap to the masses with “Rapper’s Delight,” a 14-minute 12” single containing an interpolation of Chic’s “Good Times.” It was the first rap song to crack the Top 40, and while not technically sampling (session musicians played the “Good Times” rhythm on a loop), the idea originated here.

The technique caught on, making possible classics like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and “Old Town Road,” in which Lil Nas X raps over a beat containing a Nine Inch Nails banjo sample—thus explaining the Trent Reznor songwriting credit.

1991 — Nirvana Makes a Splash

Nirvana helped give hair metal the boot and usher in an underground signing frenzy at major labels when they released “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in September 1991. Prior to “Teen Spirit,” Nirvana was a popular act on the indie label Sub Pop, where their debut album Bleach sold 40,000 copies but wasn’t heavily promoted or distributed. At the urging of Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, Nirvana signed to major label DGC for their second album, Nevermind.

Nevermind went to number one in 1992, marking the end of the hair metal era and bringing the Gen X “alternative” subculture into the mainstream. After Nevermind’s unexpected success, all bets were off at major labels. If an unknown road-weary grunge band from Aberdeen, Washington can be famous, anyone can.

In an attempt to find “the next Nirvana,” labels signed confrontational acts like Texas sludge-rockers the Butthole Surfers, Japanese noise collective the Boredoms and grunge forebears the Melvins to major label deals. The sudden interest in underground music made Nirvana unlikely rockstars and launched the careers of dozens, if not hundreds, of influential artists.

The Library of Congress added Nevermind to the National Recording Registry in 2004 for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important."

1997 — Lilith Fair Sends Women to the Front

Prior to 1997, festival gigs and radio airplay for women were a zero-sum game. If one woman booked a show, another got stuck with unfilled tour dates. Concert promoters and radio station music directors constantly placed women in competition with one another under the assumption that audiences wouldn’t want to hear two women back-to-back.

Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair festival raised over $10 million for charity to prove a point—audiences will, in fact, attend a concert tour where the artists are women. Three years, 130 tour stops and 1.5 million satisfied fans later, Lilith Fair was finished. But its legacy lives on, inspiring artists like Brandi Carlile and Haim.

In its first year, Lilith Fair featured mainstage headliners Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman and Fiona Apple, among many others. In addition to appearing at Lilith Fair, Fiona Apple had a breakthrough year in 1997, winning the Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for her song “Criminal,” from her debut album, Tidal.

1998 — Cher’s Producer Tries to Keep Autotune a Secret

Can you “Believe” we were nearly deprived of Autotune? The popular vocal effect, heard on everyone from Shania Twain to T-Pain, was discovered by accident by producer Mark Taylor during the mixing of Cher’s dance-pop hit “Believe.”

Cher’s record sales were declining, and she was looking for a sound to put her back on top, but Taylor was initially “too embarrassed” to play his mix with the glitchy, robotic vocal. In most cases, Autotune is nearly undetectable—a slight pitch correction to nudge singers back in-key. Taylor pushed the software effect to its limit, causing an abrupt and jagged modulation in pitch that took the chorus hook over the top.

In an interview with the New York Times, Cher said that her label’s president wanted to remove the effect, but she stood fast. “You can change that part of it over my dead body!” she said. Upon leaving the label meeting, Cher turned to Mark Taylor and said, “Don’t let anyone touch this track or I’m going to rip your throat out.” Cher’s decision to believe in her vision proved right—“Believe” spent seven weeks at number one. And the technology behind its paradigm-shifting sound remained a closely guarded secret.

Before finally spilling the beans about Autotune, Taylor insisted in interviews the effect was created with a Digitech Talker effects pedal designed to mimic the vocoder effect used by Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk.

1999 — Let’s Have a (Loudness) War

Red Hot Chili Peppers didn’t start the loudness war—radio stations have always competed to be the loudest stop on the dial—but they became its most severe casualty following the release of their 1999 album Californication. While the album’s musical composition is gentler than previous RHCP releases, the album is mastered so hot that some fans find it a painful listening experience.

With label executives and radio station managers in agreement that “loud = $$$,” the CD version of Californication was mastered to be so loud that entire songs are distorted. While this helped songs like “Otherside” sound huge on a boombox, audiophiles weren’t having it. One irritated fan launched a petition for an unmastered version of the album.

Even with the needle in the red, Californication was a hit. The album sold over 15 million copies worldwide, making it the most successful Red Hot Chili Peppers album.

2007 — Radiohead Lets Fans Pay Their Way

Before Bandcamp uprooted old ways of online music distribution, Radiohead broke the internet upon the release of their 2007 album In Rainbows with a “digital tip jar” allowing fans to name their own price for a download. Forbes magazine called the experiment one of the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business,” but the Grammy Awards thought otherwise. The physical edition of In Rainbows sold three million copies its first year and won Grammys for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package.

Musically, In Rainbows saw Radiohead return to a full-band approach that integrated the electronics of Kid A and Hail to the Thief into a more human sound. “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi” has guitars that can be clearly identified as such, but the droning effects and studio other tricks remain.

2019 — Lil Nas X Rides “Old Town Road” From Tik Tok to Number One

Lil Nas X made history in 2019 with “Old Town Road,” the fastest-ever diamond certified song and the highest certified single of all time. As of September 2021, the song is 15-times platinum in the United States and has sold over 18 million copies worldwide.

Like most independent artists, Lil Nas X posted the first version of “Old Town Road” to Soundcloud and promoted it on his Twitter account. That’s where the similarities end.

Once it hit Tik Tok, the song’s momentum sped from a trot to a full gallop, going viral in an endless stream of country trap posts. The “Yeehaw Agenda” was underway. Just four months after Lil Nas X’s original mix topped the Billboard Hot 100, a remix featuring ‘90s country megastar Billy Ray Cyrus did the same. Together, the two versions of “Old Town Road” held the number-one spot for nineteen weeks—a new world record.

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