The Best Departure Albums Ever

The Beastie Boys’ new album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, dropped this week and it sounds like nothing less than a full-on retreat to 1992. Given the inertia the Boys displayed on their last full-length, To the Five Boroughs, this return to Check Your Head-style instrumentation and arrangements is more than welcome. It’s nice simply to hear the Beastie Boys doing what they do best, even if they’re not breaking any new ground or pushing forward in any way.

We are all so terribly old

It’s striking and somewhat odd that it took a return to form for the Beastie Boys to make another good album, given that they made their hay with two of the greatest departure albums ever made. Paul’s Boutique shocked all of us who thought that Licensed to Ill was nothing more than a fun, one-off lark, using sample-laden and reference-packed sacks to show that Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock were more than novelty rappers. And then Check Your Head immediately followed, adding a funk style, playing with song structure and replacing a lot of the samples with live instruments. To have two such wildly different albums back to back, and for both to be great, is an underrated achievement, even among the Boys’ large following.

Pop music critics overuse the term “departure album,” applying it too often to records that are nothing more than moderate steps forward. A true departure album marks a decided shift in an artist’s sound, approach or songwriting. For example, Wilco’s Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot have both been called departure albums, when they’re really just part of a progression.

Now, that doesn’t mean a departure album must involve a hip hop band going country, or a pop singer turning to Norwegian death metal*, but the change must be more dramatic than Being There —> Summerteeth, or adding a keyboard to a standard four-piece rock band.

* Though I would pay a lot of money to hear Bruce Springsteen’s legendary, shelved hip hop-inspired album from the ’90s.

Departure albums play a mythical role in pop music history, and now we’re taking a look at the best ones ever made — at least the best ones ever made by people other than three New York City Jews.

Bon Jovi/Lost Highway
With 2007’s Lost Highway, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora and the gang turned away from the slick populist rock of their past and rushed headlong to a sweet country sound that seemed as natural as it did earnest.

U2/Achtung Baby
U2 used the concept of a departure album as much as a marketing maneuver as an actual musical detour, but damn if it didn’t work. Following the debacle of the critically skewered Rattle & Hum, Bono promised the band was leaving to go “dream it all up again.” The blitz of hype surrounding Achtung Baby focused on the band “discovering irony” and sonically “chopping down The Joshua Tree.” As with all things U2, both of those ideas were overblown and overstated. But Achtung still saw the band trying drastically new rhythms, new guitar tones and leaving behind some of their more cringe-inducing lyrics. If you can past Bono calling himself The Fly and the breathless Rolling Stone write-ups, you can see that Achtung is a radical departure from the band’s earlier work — and their best album ever. U2 continued down the electronic/experimental rabbit hole the next few years, with results both surprisingly good (Zooropa) and depressingly bad (Pop), before the inevitable return to form comeback suite.

Paul Simon/Graceland
Other had done the switchover from pop to “world music” first, and been more authentic about it, but nobody combined traditional Western rock songs with African beats and elements as well as Paul Simon on Graceland. The album’s blend of Simon’s songs with new, foreign rhythms and instruments, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s vocals sounded so natural that it was hard to believe this was the first time those disparate sounds had gone together.

Kanye West/808s and Heartbreak
West threw people for a loop when he released 808s, with its marked turn away from his hits and toward Autotuned breakup ballads. It’s remarkable how well this album has held up over the years — it may even stand as West’s best overall, from top to bottom. He displays a vulnerability on 808s that’s as much a departure lyrically as the titular instrument is musically.

Bob Dylan/Bringing It All Back Home
A compulsory, dull but absolutely necessary inclusion. This 1965 album not only featured Dylan plugged in on record for the first time, but it found him straying from his traditional folk roots both lyrically and sonically. Even the acoustic songs seem miles away from “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Ryan Adams/Rock & Roll
Wait…really? Really. Rock & Roll doesn’t sound like anything else in Adams’s sprawling, mostly alt-country catalog. Critics crucified Adams when the album came out, calling him a rock dilettante because he didn’t really mean it, because he was play-acting. Well, that’s a bullshit reason not to like a very good album. This is the second-best Strokes album, and Adams produced it effortlessly.

Radiohead/Kid A
Kid A is not the best, or even the third-best, Radiohead album, but it deserves a spot on this list for the balls it required to release it.

Prince/The Black Album
Recorded in 1987 as a follow-up to Sign O’ The Times (itself a departure, but not a major one) but not released until 1994, The Black Album showcased Prince’s truly dark side for the first and last time. He took baby steps toward hip hop, including his first stab at violent lyrics, and settled for deep, unsettling funk. Soon, Prince would drop The Revolution for the inferior New Power Generation, find some version of God, and leave behind so much of what made him unstoppably cool.


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