Remember that elementary school assignment where your teacher asked you to draw what the future looked like?
For most, the resulting picture was probably a starry-eyed, optimistic view of the world that touched on the seemingly unlimited possibilities of science. And, most likely it included flying cars. Musicians have similarly been trying to forecast the future through their art. whether attempting to create new sounds and redefine what’s possible, or attempting to predict what the great beyond has in store for all of us, the future has long been a go-to topic of interest. But, instead of that innocent vision that we had in our youth, artists tend to look at the unknown with a more critical, cautious and almost fearful eye. Regardless of genre and generation, songwriters have found common ground in foreboding and paranoid tales of dystopian societies where oppressive regimes and technology crush the rights of individuals and censor creative pursuits. Well, that and the occasional intergalactic party perspective. Below is a list of forward-thinking and far-out albums that boldly attempt to predict the future and/or provide early examples of technological breakthroughs that helped changed the trajectory of music as we know it. These include daring departures for famous musicians, under-the-radar releases from little known favourites, and the fun-loving, sci-fi, alter egos of afrofuturists. Enjoy.
Bruce Haack – The Electric Lucifer (1969)
An unsung hero in early electronic music, composer Bruce Haack was best known for his homemade electronic creations he enthusiastically promoted on shows like Johnny Carson and even Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He was making children’s music and soundtracks for commercials before taking a psychedelic detour down the acid rock route. His sole rock release, The Electric Lucifer, was a concept album preaching love in a war between Heaven and Hell. Featuring a dominant Moog synthesizer and a small arsenal of Haack’s homemade instruments–including a vocoder prototype he named ‘Farad’ – The Electric Lucifer is a jaunty gem that at times sounds like carnival music on a head full of acid or a psychedelic storybook.
Prince – 1999 (1982)
Prince was always one step ahead of the game. Sure, we all sang and danced to the title track when the year arrived, but Prince had been singing it since 1982! While the sleek beats and sexy singing style may divert your attention away from the message, the song is a doomsday party anthem. ‘War is all around us/My mind says prepare to fight/So if I gotta die/I’m gonna listen to my body tonight,’ he sings, trading verses with the female vocalists of The Revolution. While the rest of the record doesn’t deal in international politics or the end of the world, there’s a constant message of self-confidence, seizing the moment, letting go, but not giving up—and, of course, sex. Prince would continue to push the envelope as only he could, often with a focus on time. Sign o’ the Times came out in 1987, and then there’s 3121, which came out in 2006. Unlike many of our fellow futurists, Prince version of the future wasn’t always awful. As he mentioned in his Batman theme song, ‘The Future’, ‘I’ve seen the future and it works.’
Neil Young- Trans (1982)
Neil’s never been shy about withholding the release of a record he didn’t like. On the Beach didn’t get a CD release until the 2000s, and the great Hitchhiker (recorded in 1976) didn’t see the light of day until 2017. While Neil never had a problem with Trans, a lot of his audience did. And so did his record label. While the album starts off with a somewhat typical nasally Neil ballad, Young quickly abandons all trace of tradition, and by track two, that worn out warble is hijacked by vocoder and synclavier. By the time ‘We R In Control’ drops, it’s nearly impossible to know it’s Neil until the cold and futuristic redux of the CSNY classic ‘Mr. Soul.’ While Young later mentioned the record came about while using technology to communicate with his son who has cerebral palsy, Geffen would sue Neil for making ‘unrepresentative’ music ‘uncharacteristic’ of his previous work. For Neil Young and his fans, it was a departure for sure, but looking back, the record is proof that even the greats can and should be able to change. Listening to the album today, it’s certainly more tolerable. Just ask bands like Trans Am, whose rocking records are built upon Young’s sonic blueprint.
Sun Ra – Space is the Place (1974)
Sun Ra always seemed like he came from another time and another place–that time being the future and that place being space. Leaving behind his given name (Herman Poole Blount) early in his career, Sun Ra later claimed to be an alien from Saturn on a mission to preach peace. Almost every one of his records exists on a cosmic level. The relatively tame but forward-thinking The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (released way back in 1961) may not be his most outlandish record, but it proves his sights were already focused on the future. We Travel the Spaceways, released in 1966, includes compositions written as far back as 1956—that’s one year before the Soviet’s Sputnik sent the first humans into space. How clairvoyant. When Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy came out in ’67, Sun Ra helped set the course for psychedelia. And, at a time when people were just beginning to broach the idea of the year 2000, Sun Ra was ready with Disco 3000. In 1974, Sun Ra and His Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra shot headlong into the unknown with Space is the Place. A sonic blueprint for the beyond, the record features shrieking sax and trumpet freak-outs, pretty piano comedowns and spacey cinematic atmospherics.
Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music (1975)
Following in the footsteps of his highest charting solo album comes the most confounding, polarising and least popular album of Lou Reed’s career. Comprised of four songs, each about sixteen minutes in length, the double LP was ahead of its time for a select few, and downright unlistenable for others, who returned the record en masse. There’s a cacophony of guitar drones, anxiety-inducing squeals, piercing hisses, white noise, amped up static, and tape manipulation juxtaposed into a sound collage that seems to lack any structure or concepts like a beginning, middle and an end. For those of you who wish the album would never end, that wish is granted as the album ‘ends’ in a lock groove (an idea from Warhol) that keeps the final portion of the record on an infinite loop (Lou denied allegations that the record was a sonic middle finger and a way out of a contractual obligation with RCA). Today the album is back in circulation and many are quick to point out its importance as an early example of noise rock, drone and industrial music—all of which are more tolerable now. In the liner notes, Reed claims, assumedly tongue-in-cheek, that he invented heavy metal with this release.