"I'm not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself. I want it to sound like the composer." -- Leonard Bernstein
January 15, 2007 9:55 PM   Subscribe

Help me discover some great orchestrated pop music.

I love pop music that has multiple instruments above and beyond the usual guitar/bass/drums, or better yet music which has a partial or full orchestra backing it. Strings, horns, piano, flute, harp, theremin, choir, all of the above...good stuff.

Era and exact genre isn't that important. Examples of what I like and what I'm looking for include:
- most of Belle and Sebastian's later works (and seeing them perform with the L.A. Philharmonic this summer was amazing)
- The Magnetic Fields (though their "extra" instruments are often rather unusual)
- most disco, including modern disco/funk like Jamiroquai or Dimitri From Paris
- some Beach Boys, mostly "Pet Sounds" era
- Camera Obscura
- The Hidden Cameras (which is a different band than the one above)
- Aerosmith performing "Dream On" with a full orchestra backing on an old MTV awards show
- The Who's "Tommy", since it at least includes a French Horn

Suggestions for more, please! Thanks.
posted by Asparagirl to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Cursive's newest album, 'Happy Hollow', not only has all sorts of instruments, it also feels more like an orchestral piece with movements. They keep reintroducing lines from previous songs in the album and giving you a hint of what you will see later.
posted by nadawi at 9:58 PM on January 15, 2007

How about Kiss Alive IV... Kiss (the rock group) performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
posted by amyms at 10:00 PM on January 15, 2007

Polyphonic Spree!
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:02 PM on January 15, 2007

For something completely different... The Punk Rock Orchestra (classic punk songs rearranged for symphonic instruments).
posted by amyms at 10:04 PM on January 15, 2007

Fiona Apple has some fantastic arrangers for her albums, especially "Extraordinary Machine" (the album and the song), which features strings and a woodwind quintet throughout. I also love, love, LOVE "Paper Bag" from "When the Pawn...", which has a [French] horn quartet. Wonderful, wonderful writing.

This coming from a classical musician who usually hates "orchestrated pop music".
posted by rossination at 10:07 PM on January 15, 2007

Stars' "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" is fantastic. Also, some of the more over-the-top Ben Folds solo stuff.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:07 PM on January 15, 2007

Esquivel's space-age bachelor pad music!
posted by ldenneau at 10:13 PM on January 15, 2007

Based on your list you would probably also like The Divine Comedy, and maybe Sarah Slean (try her Night Bugs album)
posted by easternblot at 10:17 PM on January 15, 2007

John Legend has some great orchestral arrangements throughout both of his last 2 CDs.
posted by ASM at 10:19 PM on January 15, 2007

Try searching "chamber pop" or Baroque Pop. And Randy Newman comes immediately to mind. He's known for beautifully orchestrated (and heavily satirical) pop gems as well as film scores. You can't go wrong with Sail Away:

The title track, which Newman has described as a sort of commercial jingle written for slave traders looking to recruit naïve Africans, and "Old Man," in which an elderly man is rejected with feigned compassion by his son, were set to Newman's most evocative arrangements to date and rank with the most intelligent and effective use of a large ensemble by anyone in pop music.

Sounds like it might fit the bill. I saw him perform with the NC Symphony last year and was blown away; it was a truly amazing combination of orchestra and pop.
posted by mediareport at 10:37 PM on January 15, 2007

I recommend Matthew Good's (of the Matthew Good Band fame) debut solo album, Avalanche. Strings, choirs and great (in my opinion) arrangements. Here's one of the singles.
posted by saraswati at 10:40 PM on January 15, 2007

I'm thinking in list form, so there's:

Joanna Newsom's most recent album Ys, if you can tolerate her voice,
Sufjan Stevens,
The Arcade Fire (and by extension, Belle Orchestre),
I can't think of a particular song right now, but there's probably some earlier Broken Social Scene stuff that sounds like what you're looking for (like "Lover's Spit"),
and Great Aunt Ida.
posted by thisjax at 10:42 PM on January 15, 2007

Neutral Milk Hotel: "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"
Of Montreal: "The Gay Parade"
The Zombies: "Odessey and Oracle" (sic)
Wilco: "Summerteeth"
Elvis Costello & the Attractions: "Imperial Bedroom"

Also, seconding navelgazer on Ben Folds--he's really a pretty good arranger. Try the songs "Boxing", "Steven's Last Night in Town", and "Army".
posted by equalpants at 11:13 PM on January 15, 2007

Bjork's album Homogenic is all strings & beats.

And if you want to be surprised, but probably not like the music much, I've noticed recently that Aerosmith's biggest post-'70s hits are pretty much all huge overdone horns, drums, and too many vocal overdubs.

Then there's always Dead Can Dance and a lot of the other 4AD stuff from the '80s. And the Beatles later stuff has tons of orchestration. There's quite a bit of orchestration on some of the Rolling Stones' stuff, too (Sticky Fingers springs to mind).

A lot of Bowie's best stuff has a lot of orchestration (see, e.g., Life On Mars, Five Years, etc.)

As I write this, it occurs to me that strings and horns are ridiculously common in pop music, and have been pretty much all along. Using orchestration is, in fact, one of the most played out cliches on most bands' second albums. For a great example of this cliche', see The Killers' latest album, Sam's Town (which is also a great example of overcompression to the point of making your ears hurt).
posted by JekPorkins at 11:16 PM on January 15, 2007

As I write this, it occurs to me that strings and horns are ridiculously common in pop music

Yep... Check out Chicago, ELO, Earth Wind & Fire, etc. etc.
posted by amyms at 11:21 PM on January 15, 2007

The Divine Comedy. It has the grand, orchestral feel you're after (also I love all of the bands you mention and love this band too, so I'm guessing they will fit the bill). Especially the earlier albums - I'd recommend Promenade, Casanova and especially A Short Album About Love.
posted by greycap at 11:34 PM on January 15, 2007

Nth the Divine Comedy - if you can pick up a copy of A Short Album About Love, you'll love it, especially Timewatching, which is a stunning track. There's a lot to be said for their later albums as well, they're slightly more mainstream and less quirky than the earlier ones.
posted by TheDonF at 11:50 PM on January 15, 2007

Lee Hazlewood with Nancy Sinatra: the songs "Some Velvet Morning," "Down From Dover," and "Summer Wine." Fairytales and Fantasies is a greatest hits of sorts.
Serge Gainsbourg: Histoire De Melody Nelson, "Bonnie and Clyde"
Colin Bloodstone (of The Zombies): One Year
John Cale: "Paris 1919"

An orchestra (or at least a lot of strings and horns) is used fairly often in Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), especially in the sixties. Not the easiest stuff to find:
Marília Medalha's self-titled lp from 1969
Nara Leão: Nara (1964), Manhã de liberdade
Chico Buarque: Chico Buarque de Hollanda

Things got really wild in the radical offshoot of MPB known as Tropicália. Here's a thread I posted about the late Rogério Duprat, one of the movement's leading arrangers and composers.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:55 PM on January 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

XTC - Skylarking
"A summer's day cooked into one cake." – A.P.
posted by D.C. at 12:06 AM on January 16, 2007

This is pretty obscure, but I love the album Catatonic State of Mind by The Count. You can listen to the album at that link, and it's all nicely orchestrated. It's all real orchestra stuff, too, no synths.
posted by tomble at 12:21 AM on January 16, 2007

If you are not already, please make yourself familiar with Joe Meek ASAP. He produced hundreds of singles, some of which are more interesting than others. But I hear a new world, his the only full-length album released while he was alive, deserves to be in everyone's collection.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:33 AM on January 16, 2007

I think that "The Soft Bulletin" by The Flaming Lips would fit the bill. They probably achieved alot of their sound on this album from synthesizers, but it's definitely "orchestral" sounding, and a really great album as well - it reminds me of "Pet Sounds".
posted by btkuhn at 1:16 AM on January 16, 2007

The Beatles' Help soundtrack is excellent! Lots of great orchestral renditions of the songs.
posted by wsg at 1:23 AM on January 16, 2007

Also, following up on the Ben Folds suggestions, he has a DVD called "Live in Perth" where he plays an entire set of his songs with the (I believe) Sydney Philharmonic Orchestra. Very good stuff.
posted by btkuhn at 1:26 AM on January 16, 2007

Maybe The Alan Parsons Project?
posted by rom1 at 1:37 AM on January 16, 2007

Nick Drake

his first two albums, Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter contain some excellent (orchestral) arrangements by Robert Kirby
posted by Substrata at 1:45 AM on January 16, 2007

posted by Afroblanco at 2:18 AM on January 16, 2007

I know this may be a bit of a stretch, but you might enjoy some newer Peter Gabriel - specifically the "Up" album from 2002. It is fairly well orchestrated, with a track or two employing the London Philharmonic.

Interesting as well that you should mention the Magnetic Fields...I believe Peter Gabriel covered one of their songs (Book of Love, I think?) for the 2004 movie "Shall We Dance?" The song made the movie worth watching, for me ;]
posted by gaiamark at 3:24 AM on January 16, 2007

This is probably a very left-field suggestion, but the Popshopping series is perfect for crazy 60s/70s orchestral pop. Plenty of horns and strings, and much of it basically sounds like amped up soundtrack music. About as far as you can get from the Hidden Cameras and Magnetic Fields, so be sure to preview some tracks to see if it's up your alley.

Saint Etienne is more traditionally indiepop, and Good Humor in particular has a lot of piano/strings/horns. Sound of Water is split between electronic keyboard excursions and fairly orchestral arrangements ("Late Morning," "Sycamore," "Just A Little Overcome" and the utterly fantastic "How We Used To Live").

Some of the Elephant Six offshoots also qualify: Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal have already been mentioned, but also check out Ladybug Transistor and early Essex Green (late Essex Green is also really good but leans more on guitar/keyboards). Olivia Tremor Control may also be up your alley if you like the neo-psychedelic bent.

Random bands worth mentioning: Novillero is a fantastic Canadian indie rock band that manages to utilize a horn section without sounding like a ska band. Cinnamon's Vertigo should also be at the top of the list if you're up for two heaping spoonfuls of syrupy strings ("Nothing" is especially melodramatic). Pram uses a lot of toy instruments in their songs, as well as a lot of trumpet.
posted by chrominance at 3:25 AM on January 16, 2007

scott walker, any record that is called scott and has number after it. they have cool string arrangements.
posted by snofoam at 4:27 AM on January 16, 2007

Also, you might check allmusic.com for people who do string arrangements for pop music, specifically someone like Van Dyke Parks. If you click on "Credits" it will show you a list of albums they've worked on.
posted by softlord at 5:50 AM on January 16, 2007

Brian Wilson's Smile
posted by Packy_1962 at 6:10 AM on January 16, 2007

It seems like you're looking for either 1) pop music performed by orchestra, or 2) pop music with "classical" orchestration/accompaniment/bits.

For the first, there is a Beatles album that is a collection of their tunes performed by (I believe) the London Philharmonic. I have a CD and will check at home later for exact details, and re-post (if I forget, feel free to email me).

For the second, there are a lot of examples.
- Buddy Holly had a few; "True Love Ways" and "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" come to mind. Probably more.
- LOTS of Beatles songs had accompaniments. Horn ("For No One", ), cello ("Eleanor Rigby"), harp ("She's Leaving Home"), strings ("I Am the Walrus"). [a wikipedia search will give you a ton more]
- Moody Blues, "Kights in White Satin".

I don't know if it counts as an answer to your question, but how about Billy Joel's "classical" album, "Fantasies & Delusions"?

A wikipedia search of ' "rock and roll" orchestra' resulted in a bunch of hits.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 6:22 AM on January 16, 2007

Barry Ryan's Eloise?

Seconding the Scott Walker recommendation, but the key is to avoid Tilt and The Drift, which while earth-shatteringly brilliant albums, are not really what you're after.

Pulp seemed to take a surprisingly orchestral direction for This Is Hardcore and We Love Life. Granted, the orchestral bits are mostly Soundtrack samples.

Also: Lambchop (for a slightly more country-ish take on MOR)
posted by ktrey at 6:54 AM on January 16, 2007

I second the lambchop recommendation, especially Is a Woman and Aw C'mon/No You C'mon. You might like Deserter's Songs by Mercury Rev as well. There's always Donovan too...
posted by danb1 at 7:01 AM on January 16, 2007

Maybe The Alan Parsons Project?
posted by rom1 at 10:37 AM CET on January 16

Rom1 has an excellent suggestion as I was just listening to Ammonia Avenue of the Alan Parsons Project while I read your question ;)
posted by RobHoi at 7:29 AM on January 16, 2007

Try the new Aereogramme record, "My Heart Has a Wish That You Would Not Go".
posted by jon_kill at 7:33 AM on January 16, 2007

Also, check out "Laughing Stock" by Talk Talk.
posted by jon_kill at 7:34 AM on January 16, 2007

The Pipettes, a pretty convincing throwback to Phil Spector style pop with big strings.
posted by subtle-t at 8:04 AM on January 16, 2007

Here's seconding the awesome Zombies. You've heard their one hit, "Time of the Season"(Remember? "What's your name, who's your daddy?") but you should hear their whole record "Oddessey and Oracle," which is one of the best orchestral-pop records I've ever heard. Here's my favorite song from it, Care of Cell 44, which seems to be a love letter to someone coming home from prison soon. Awesome.

Just listened to it again, and I'm all happy now.
posted by koeselitz at 8:36 AM on January 16, 2007

Left Banke
posted by rhizome at 8:37 AM on January 16, 2007

This is my kind of question.

The Decemberists
Broken Social Scene
Arcade Fire
Final Fantasy
Sufjan Stevens
Andrew Bird
Neutral Milk Hotel
AC Newman
Belle and Sebastian
The Lucksmiths
John Vanderslice
The Zombies (whose singer's name was Colin Blunstone)
Sigur Ros
Sondre Lerche
Essex Green
Grizzly Bear

If I could emphasize one album that you are likely to have not heard, it would be Andrew Bird's Mysterious Production of Eggs.

And my album, to be released in March or so, will fit this bill exactly.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:39 AM on January 16, 2007

Elton John
Train's "Drops of Jupiter"

The Beatles' Help! soundtrack was the US release.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:52 AM on January 16, 2007

Most of my go-to stuff in this category has already been mentioned here, so I'll just nth the Divine Comedy, Electric Light Orchestra, Flaming Lips, XTC, the Decemberists, Scott Walker, et al. All fantastic music.

A few more that spring to mind: The first half of the Style Council's Confessions of a Pop Group is a piano suite.

If you have any interest in Philip Glass, he created the Low and Heroes symphonies, based on Bowie and Eno's collaborations.

There are a couple of great orchestral arrangements of Sex Pistols songs on the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle soundtrack -- if you ever listen to Jonesy's Jukebox on 103.1, I believe the orchestral version of "EMI" is the lead-in music. They also did "God Save the Queen." Check iTunes if you don't want to get the entire disc.

Also for individual songs, there's also "Wings of a Dove" by Madness, which has a nice gospel choir arrangement. And Crowded House worked with a traditional Maori choir on the beautiful title track for Together Alone.
posted by scody at 11:16 AM on January 16, 2007

Actually, lots of 1985-ish Madness is arranged up the wazoo like that. In particular, "The Sun and the Rain" depends heavily on a very large string section - to great effect, imho.
posted by genghis at 11:55 AM on January 16, 2007

Gads, I can't believe I forgot to mention Vienna by Ultravox -- the title track, in particular, contains possibly my all-time favorite string arrangements in a pop song.
posted by scody at 12:01 PM on January 16, 2007

I get the curled upper lip from mrs. dome, but I really enjoy "Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd". It rocks, just differently than the original.
posted by ChromeDome at 12:57 PM on January 16, 2007

I don't think this one was mentioned yet:

Want One, by Rufus Wainwright. One of the few albums my classical-music-loving wife and I, with my pop 'n rock sensibilities, don't argue about playing.
posted by Bearman at 2:58 PM on January 16, 2007

My bad. It was "A Day in the Life" (London String Orchestra).
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 3:27 PM on January 16, 2007

I haven't seen The New Pornographers listed, but I only scanned through this post quickly, along with AC Newman
And then I'll continue to probably second or third the following:
anything by ELO
The Starlight Mints (whistles and cellos!)
The Fiery Furnaces
The Flaming Lips (esp. The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi)
Galaxie 500
Sufjan Stevens (my personal favorite)
and The Pipettes
posted by dearest at 4:02 PM on January 16, 2007

An orchestral sound can certainly be heard in Guess Who songs like "These Eyes". Also, look for the work of arranger Ben McPeek in songs of theirs like "Sour Suite".
posted by evilcolonel at 4:36 PM on January 16, 2007

Another one, this one from the vaults of late '60s orchestral pop psychedelia: Present Tense by Sagittarius.
posted by scody at 5:17 PM on January 16, 2007

Silverchair - Diorama
posted by cholly at 6:03 PM on January 16, 2007

Some DeVotchKa fits the bill, especially the EP of mostly covers they put out last year.
posted by ktrey at 12:48 PM on January 17, 2007

I saw Pink Martini a few days ago. They are normally about a 16 piece band including a singer playing latin/exotica-esque music. But they appear to have made a habit of teaming up with local orchestras for their touring performances. Worth catching.
posted by rongorongo at 8:57 AM on February 9, 2007

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