Baroque pop - the best pop and rock records featuring orchestras and classical influences
Throughout the history of pop and rock music, orchestral and classical elements have been used to add depth, complexity and emotion to records. Whether using an actual orchestra or infusing elements of classical music into a song, many records in this style are among the most critically acclaimed and biggest fan favorites of the past 60 years. Narrowing down this list was a monumental task and no doubt there are countless songs we have missed. A special thanks goes out to the members of the Facebook group “Orchestration and Music Production” who voted in the poll we conducted and helped to decide what should be on this list.
The Beatles - Yesterday/Eleanor Rigby (1965/1966)
Choosing just one Beatles songs for this list was a near impossible task as both Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby are classic pop tunes with prominent orchestral parts. The mid 60’s saw a number of artists such as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Zombies and of course, The Beatles all experimenting with a sound that fused orchestral elements with rock music that is sometimes referred to as baroque pop. The orchestral parts on each song were composed by producer George Martin who is sometimes referred to as the 5th Beatle. Eleanor Rigby was the clear winner of our Facebook poll by a large margin!
Louis Armstrong - What A Wonderful World (1967)
It is difficult to believe now, but “What a Wonderful World” barely caused a ripple in the USA when it was released, selling fewer than 1000 copies. It did reach number 1 in the UK charts and has since become one of the most loved songs of the 20th century thanks in no small part to its stirring orchestral melody. The extensive list of cover versions, including most famously by Israel Kamakawiwo as a medley combined with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, has also helped cement the songs place as an all time classic.
Moody Blues - Nights in White Satin (1967)
This initially wasn’t one of the songs we were going to include on this list, but thanks to its popularity on our Facebook poll we have corrected this negligent oversight! Yet another that wasn’t initially a huge hit, it’s emotional and powerful lyrics saw the song grow in popularity and eventually find success on subsequent reissues. The track was composed by singer/songwriter and lead guitarist Justin Hayward and the orchestral parts, which were left off the original single version, were played by the London Festival Orchestra. Part of the genius of the song is the way that it successfully bridged the two predominant sounds of the era of Mersey-Beat inspired pop music and psychedelic prog rock.
Deep Purple - Highway Star (1972)
Deep Purple have had perhaps a greater influence on the fusion of classical and orchestral music with heavy rock than any other band. In 1969 they were the first heavy rock band to perform with an orchestra when they played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. Ritchie Blackmore has stated he “felt the whole orchestra thing was a bit tame” and after 1970 the band took heavier turn while still maintaining the classical influence.
Released in 1972, Highway Star features both an organ and a guitar solo that are heavily inspired stylistically by baroque composers Vivaldi and Bach. Both solos adapt classical features such as arpeggios, square phrase structures and descending harmonic progressions. While it wasn’t the first song to feature classical elements fused with hard rock it would go on to be one of the most influential.
Led Zeppelin - Kashmir (1975)
Kashmir is considered by many fans (it came in second place in the Facebook poll we conducted!), as well as all four members of Led Zeppelin to be one of their finest works. Evoking feelings of going on an epic adventure, it was inspired by a drive through the Moroccan desert. The interesting interplay rhythmically of the drums in 4/4 time and the main riff in 6/8 creates the tension that gives the track its power. The orchestral instruments and drums are prominent while the guitar, tuned in a non conventional way, is relegated to the background. The harmonies and melodies of Kashmir are heavily inspired by “Eastern” and Arabic music. This influence is highlighted in the video we’ve included here of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant performing the song with an Egyptian Orchestra.
Smashing Pumpkins - Tonight, Tonight (1995)
Thanks to the rise of the synthesizer and the sax solo, orchestral sections took a back seat throughout the 1980’s, but they certainly returned with a bang in the 90’s with artists such as Sinead O’Connor, Nirvana, Oasis, Bush and The Verve using orchestras to great effect. One of the highlights of this period is “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins from the album “Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness” which was released in 1995 to critical acclaim. The orchestral part was arranged by singer Billy Corgan and cellist Audrey Riley and recorded with a 30 piece string section from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Unlike other songs from the period, the strings well and truly take the center stage and help build the song up to its pulsating, powerful climax.
Joanna Newsom - Ys (2006)
Ys, Joanna Newsom’s second studio album is an intricate and ambitious album that can be a somewhat challenging listen due to its structure of 5 songs ranging from 7-17 minutes in length. Yet it was released to critical acclaim and has become one of the most loved albums of the 20th century so far, featuring in countless best album lists. Orchestral parts feature on four of the five songs and they beautifully bind together Newsom’s whimsical and poetic storytelling. The arrangements were done by veteran composer Van Dyke Parks who has worked with seemingly just about every major pop artist of the last 50 years.
Gain(가인) - Carnival (The Last Day) (2016)
Orchestras are not only used in Western pop music and are in fact common in music scenes around the world. Take the South Korean K-pop industry for example where orchestras are frequently used to give extra depth to ballad type songs. Gain started her career as part of the group Brown Eyed Girls before embarking on her solo career. While she may not be as well known outside of South Korea as contemporaries Girls Generation or BTS, she has had moderate success in her home country while gaining a reputation as a boundary pusher both thematically and stylistically. With an arrangement by Inyoung Park, the strings on “Carnival” give the song an upbeat vibrancy that evokes musical scores. A complex arrangement, rapid fire drumming and multiple distinct sections make “Carnival” far from your typical K-pop track.
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