11 Genres of Music Everyone Who Loves Music Should Know
There are literally hundreds of genres of music, with new subgenres cropping up all the time (and sometimes lasting for just a few months before becoming obsolete.) Unless you write about music for a living, or have incredible amounts of free time, it can be difficult not only to keep up, but even to delve into genres from days gone by, especially those outside your musical comfort zone.
Which is why we put together this list. It doesn’t nearly come close to being comprehensive -- again, the number of genres worth listening to is huge and ever expanding. But consider it a fairly random sampler plate of just a few choice options. With any luck, you’ll find new music to enjoy here.
We should also note that if you're a music nerd, this list probably won't be a revelation. But just relax, Internet. And maybe think of it as an excuse to revisit some of your most beloved songs.
1) Pub Rock: Although a fairly short-lived musical genre, pub rock made an important impact and deserves a place on rock’s timeline. For starters, it’s a notable predecessor of punk rock’s development in the UK (after it was transported from its birthplace, New York City’s Lower East Side). What’s more, several of pub rock’s key players went on to become major names in punk, including the Kilburn & the High Roads’ Ian Dury (later with the Blockheads), Flip City’s Elvis Costello (later joined by the Attractions) and, of course, 101’ers Joe Strummer (of the Clash). Though the music was ultimately swept up in -- and essentially swept away by -- punk rock, songs like Eddie & the Hot Rods’ equal parts rough-edged and pop-perfect “Do Anything You Wanna Do” are reminders of why it shouldn’t be forgotten.
2) Lovers Rock: According to (possibly apocryphal) musical history, rocksteady developed in the mid-1960s as a byproduct of the Jamaican summer heat. Kingston dancehalls grew too hot for revelers to keep up with the bouncing rhythms of ska, so bands slowed the tempo just so to keep rooms cooler and nights going longer. Reggae eventually followed, and in the late 1970s UK, the more romantic lovers rock ultimately evolved. If reggae is the political offspring of Rastafarianism and sixties social upheaval, lovers rock is its dreamy-eyed sibling, full of smooth R&B rhythms, velvety crooning and love-obsessed lyrics. Touchstones include Freddie McGregor, Dennis Brown, Beres Hammond, Dobby Dobson and Gregory Isaacs.
3) PC Music: There’s a situationist streak in the PC Music label ethos, one that manifests in a sort of line blurring that makes it difficult to know quite where the performance begins and where it ends. Based in London, the label was founded by producer A.G. Cook in 2013, and its roster of artists -- including Hannah Diamond, Kane West, QT, GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year) and most prominently, SOPHIE (who happens to be male, btw) -- are a mix of actual people and pretend personalities. In terms of sound, the music is almost surreally poppy; every nook and cranny is crowded with samples, synths and pitched-up vocals squeaking out absurdly catchy melodies. It’s music that feels, in a word, manufactured -- plastic, even -- and self-consciously so. The dance music world has been divided over whether this all amounts to nonsense or brilliance, and the debate can sometimes feel like it’s focused on intent instead of sonics. (Is it commentary on our disposable throwaway culture? A deceptively high-minded dissection of hyperconsumerism using low-culture aesthetics? A tongue-in-cheek putdown of the emptiness of modern radio pop? A performance art critique of binary gender norms? Or an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink garbage heap of pop slickness not worth the words I just spent writing about it? Quite possibly all of the above.) In any case, it’s had people talking for the last year or so, which is surely what the label wanted to begin with.
4) Krautrock: German musicians were exploring all kinds of sonic frontiers in the 1970s, often navigating new progressive and experimental music forms. Bands primarily from the art and music underground along the Western side of the Berlin Wall were making new investigations of electronics, and the kosmische musik that emerged was often innovative, pushing at the boundaries of musical possibility in a way wholly unlike that of their American counterparts. The visionary explorations of Amon DÃ¼Ã¼l and, later, Amon DÃ¼Ã¼l II, a seminal band in the genre’s nascent era, forged previously uncharted musical pathways in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Over the next decade, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Kraftwerk, Faust and Can would arise, ultimately wielding influence on a surprisingly vast array of music forms. These include, but are far from limited to, the meditative electro textures of Stereolab, the spacious ambience of Radiohead (who recorded a cover version Can's "Thief”) and hip-hop classics like Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (which directly samples Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”).
5) Mod Revival: In the late 1970s, mod revival picked up where the stylish mod subculture of the 1960s had abruptly left off. Like its forbearer, it encompassed an entire lifestyle and aesthetic -- one that combined working-class white British and black Jamaican culture. Emerging in the shadow of punk rock, in its newest incarnation, the music added a dash of punk’s attitude and energy to the mix, essentially creating an explosive form of rock and roll that sat upon an R&B backbeat. Any discussion of mod revival has to include The Jam -- and its dashing and charismatic frontman, Paul Weller (aka “The Modfather”) -- who inarguably led the movement. Weller would go on to found The Style Council, release music as a successful solo musician, and become an icon of sorts. A good starter kit for digging into the genre is the “This is Mod” compilation series, which features acts like The Purple Hearts and The Lambrettas (although, oddly, Secret Affair never makes an appearance, probably due to licensing issues). If you feel like going down the mod warren, you might want to watch “Quadrophenia,” have a listen to The Action, The Kinks, The Who and Small Faces (a band which, in its second incarnation as Faces, included Rod “the Mod” Stewart), and revisit outfits like Blur and Oasis, who revived aspects of the scene in the 1990s. For the record, mod never quite dies, it just goes deeper underground for brief periods.
6) Power Pop: In the simplest terms, power pop is precisely what the name implies: pop with an adrenaline shot or, from another angle, rock baited with pop hooks throughout. Sure, the Beatles are the progenitors of the genre, and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson might be considered its godfather. But the most obvious roots are in the 1970s, with bands like the Raspberries, Badfinger (who have one of the most heartbreaking stories in rock and roll) and -- perhaps most importantly -- Big Star, who, while largely ignored during their existence, influenced countless acts that followed. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Cheap Trick, The Cars, Buzzcocks and The Nerves (who originally recorded “Hanging on the Telephone,” a song pop-punk band Blondie later made famous) approached power pop through various and differing prisms, achieving equally addictive results. A decade later, power pop was again embraced by acts like Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and The Posies (who would tour with a reformed Big Star in the early aughts). Weezer, Fountains of Wayne and the fantastic Sloan continue to carry the power pop torch forward.
7) Post-Rock: Here’s the thing about post-rock: the genre label has been affixed to music so sonically diverse, it can be hard to truly define -- particularly in the early days of its application -- where its boundaries exist. In the 1990s, it served as bit of a catchall for indie rock that used traditional rock instrumentation -- guitars, drums, bass, keys -- in nontraditional ways to make music that was alternately droning, math-y, and occasionally, prog-y. Talk Talk’s “Laughing Stock” and Slint’s “Spiderland” are often cited as the albums that yielded the genre, which included totally different sounding bands like Trans Am, Gastr del Sol, Oneida, The Sea and Cake and, of course, Tortoise. Later, commercially successful bands like Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky and Sigur RÃ³s emerged -- to name a few -- although it’s worth noting that they also fall (in some cases, more neatly) under the banner of other genres as well.
8) Northern Soul: In 1960s England, young white mods may have flocked to dancehalls to take in the sounds of black Jamaican ska, but they were also voracious consumers of one American export: Northern Soul. This shouldn’t been confused with the mainstream soul pouring out of Motown -- aka "Hitsville U.S.A." -- at the time. Instead, Northern Soul was made by far more obscure American soul artists, and played in clubs across the North (hence the name) of England, and other parts of the UK. While early enthusiasts were mods, by the 1970s, mod was on the wane and Northern Soul was a full on cult phenomenon, with a crowded scene of DJs and obsessive record collectors developed around it. Though its popularity was in steep decline by the late 1970s, lovers of the music continue to collect timeless 1960 recordings by Maxine Brown, Junior McCants, Ann Sexton, Bob Brady & the Con Chords and Major Lance. Last year, UK director Elaine Constantine made indie narrative film looking back on the era titled, simply, “Northern Soul.”
9) Dream Pop: Elizabeth Fraser, singer of the Scotland’s Cocteau Twins, possesses one of the most astonishing and beautiful voices in music. Formed in 1979, the band’s gorgeous and entrancing soundscapes -- against which Fraser’s vocals, nearly operatic and often nonsensical -- were catalytic in the creation of dream pop. The Jesus and Mary Chain, another brilliant Scottish outfit, were working in much more fuzzed-out terrain, applying their exceptional pop sensibilities to songs formed out of noise, distortion and feedback. (I’d be remiss not to mention Dinosaur Jr. and House of Love here.) By 1987, sonic experimenter Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine was creating huge, atmospheric walls of sound that were hypnotic in their swirling richness. Along with British bands like Lush, Slowdive and Ride -- who shyly stared at their feet during performances, earning the genre the nickname “shoegaze” -- they produced some of the most spellbinding music of the early 1990s, with My Blood Valentine’s 1991 release Loveless seen as one of the genre’s pinnacle moments. Dream pop ultimately influenced American outfits like Mazzy Star and the hugely underrated Black Tambourine, and has come back in a massive way in recent years, making its mark on innumerable bands from Beach House to TOPS to Washed Out to far too many others to name.
10) Cosmic American Music: It’s impossible to overestimate the legacy of Gram Parsons -- the founder of country rock, an influence on outlaw country, and the godfather of alt. country. To discuss Parson’s indelible imprint in music, I reached out to Eric Shea, lead singer of Hot Lunch, authority on all things Gram Parsons, and the man behind the world’s longest running Parsons tribute concert, the Bay Area’s annual “Sleepless Nights.” “You gotta start in Bakersfield,” said Shea. “Buck Owens was really the first guy to play honky tonk over rock and roll drums.” Parsons, born to a wealthy Southern family riddled with dysfunction, formed the International Submarine Band in 1966. The group’s only album -- 1968’s “Safe at Home,” released after the band’s demise -- reflected Parson’s love for the music of Owens, the hardscrabble tales of Merle Haggard, and the tear-streaked lyrics of George Jones (whom Parsons reportedly dubbed “the King of Broken Hearts”). The same year, Parsons joined the Byrds, propelling them far deeper into pure country territory. “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” the album that emerged, is endlessly cited as a seminal recording in country-rock. Parsons then co-founded the The Flying Burrito Brothers with the Byrds' Chris Hillman, and the band layered gospel, blues and rock and roll atop a country foundation -- “Cosmic American Music fully realized,” in Shea’s words. They put out “The Gilded Palace of Sin” in 1969, but Parsons had left by the release of 1970’s “The Burrito Deluxe,” and was mostly kicking around with The Rolling Stones (likely influencing their country leanings at the time) and living a life of drug and alcohol-fueled indulgence. During this period he also met Emmylou Harris, and requested that she appear on his first solo record. With backing band The Fallen Angels, Parsons recorded two albums in 1973: “GP” and “Grievous Angel.” Between the release of the two, at age 26, he died of an overdose of morphine and tequila. Though commercial success eluded him in his lifetime, Parsons has long been the subject of both critical and cult adoration, a titanic figure in country rock. He has inspired a number of admirers too legion to mention including, most recently, Sturgill Simpson.
11) Street Punk: Although Wikipedia has two different entries for Oi! and street punk, in the real world, those terms are generally used interchangeably. A late 1970s response by British working class kids to the trendiness and artifice that had invaded punk rock, Oi! was a blend of soccer chants, pub culture, rock and roll, and three-chord punk itself. Sonically, the music generally feels anthemic, begs to be sung along to, and keeps things straight forward and simple. (To quote street punk stalwarts The Last Resort, “No mess. No fuss. Just pure impact.”) Unfortunately, the National Front made every effort to co-opt the genre, resulting in a deep schism that left traditional street punk on one side and racist and nationalist Oi! on the other. The extremist right-wing associations tainted the popular image of the music (and the scene around it) forever, though there were -- and remain -- plenty of Oi! bands creating music that is vocally anti-fascist and anti-racist. A very incomplete list of old school bands to check out includes pioneers Sham 69 and Cock Sparrer, as well as The Business, Blitz, The 4-Skins, Violators, Menace, Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects.