Years ago, it was virtually unthinkable for mainstream music to lack a chorus, as most listeners expected to sing along to hooky central motifs between verses, bridges, pre-choruses and other sections.
Of course times change and so do the conventions of songwriting, especially when it comes to subgenres like art rock, progressive metal and the like. Over the past few decades, countless artists have subverted expectations by structuring their songs differently, resulting in experimental takes on how these components intersect.
Or, as the 10 great tunes below show, sometimes artists forget the chorus entirely. That’s not to say they don’t have catchy choruses or other recurring passages, but technicallythese tracks circumvent the norm in simple or sophisticated ways.
Iron Maiden, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Taken from the 1984s Power slavethis lengthy polyphonic adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem is among Iron Maiden’s most ambitious and literary works. Focused on “a sailor who causes a divine curse by killing an albatross” – as Bruce Dickinson once said explained – it is ripe with compelling references to the saga amidst its adventurous jolts. However, because it combines several segments, there is no main theme that serves as the focal point. Yes, portions such as “Sailing on and on and north across the sea” might seem to fit, but given all the inventive detours halfway in, it doesn’t quite qualify.
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Whether you’re sick of it or you love it, it’s virtually impossible to refute that this is Queen’s ultimate statement. Apparently written about someone confessing to murder, it later became analyzed like Freddie Mercury’s “coming out song”. In any case, its chameleonic trajectory traverses a few styles, including singer/songwriter piano ballad, grand a cappella and operatic hard rock. Each chapter is highly individualized and concise, so there isn’t enough room in a single movement to implement a chorus even if Queen wanted to. However, there are definitely repetitive phrases, and “wherever the wind blows” is indeed the key phrase.
The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”
Although they routinely collaborated on material (and were credited as Lennon-McCartney), John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s output rarely felt like a lump of ideas. Sgt. Pepper closer “A Day in the Life” is an exception, as its groundbreaking atypicality lies in Lennon writing the characteristically somber verses while McCartney penned the characteristically gregarious bridge. It is thus essentially two half-songs brilliantly fused together avant-garde orchestration, sound effects and Lennon’s crooning. Neither person’s contribution is given time to fully develop, but still exploration of youthful exuberance, bleak news stories and burgeoning drug culture is nevertheless utterly masterful.
Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower”
Moving on to something less complicated, Jimi Hendrix’s blaring psychedelic version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” – released less than a year after Dylan’s John Wesley Harding – is indisputably one of them biggest covers of all times. It is also commonly seen as the final version, so much so that Dylan began imitating Hendrix’s rendition in concert around 1974. Like many of Dylan’s works, its meaning is open to interpretation, and it avoids the popular verse/chorus back-and-forth template for freer poetic approaches (in this case couplets). Really, it’s just three extended verses separated by a guitar solo, and it’s perfect.
Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand”
This is where Led Zeppelin dived fully into the prog rock explosiveness of contemporaries such as Yes, Rush and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Reflecting their growing interest in Eastern aesthetics, it blends more inspirations and subjects in its narrative, from the titular Greek hero to Robert Plant’s 1975 car accident (and subsequent broken ankle). While its numerous changes in tempo and keys offer a lot of variety as they surround Jimmy Page’s exciting guitar work, they never surround a chorus. Instead, Plant simply sings a series of long verses made up of compelling rhymes. Obviously, his non-lexical vocabulary at the end doesn’t count either.
Radiohead, “Paranoid Android”
Radiohead’s first single, “Creep” from 1992, may have been relatively traditional, but the English quintet quickly stepped outside the usual compositional boundaries. Case in point: “Paranoid Android,” a stunning four-part rock odyssey about consumerism and political corruption whose unpredictability was motivated of the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. From its initial acoustic dreaminess and subsequent dissonant freakout to its soothing catharsis and final reprisal, it oozes hypnotic melodies and arrangements. But the closest it comes to a continuous line – “What is it?” / (I may be paranoid, but no android)” – is more of a chorus as it is only two simultaneous phrases.
Metallica, “Fade to Black”
Despite not being nearly as complex as most of Metallica’s future material, “Fade to Black” remains a classic testament to the potential of modestly moving songwriting. Sure, its lovely acoustic guitar work, pulsing rhythms and crushing riffs are captivating, yet the key to its powerful illustration of suicidal thoughts are James Hetfield’s fervently sung sentiments. They are divided into two verses (“Life seems to disappear” and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”) and a bridge (“No one but me can save myself, but it’s too late”). Therefore, he never intervenes with a fetching chorus that counteracts his prevailing hopelessness.
Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”
The title track of Black Sabbath’s second LP from 1970 is both a hugely significant and a hugely basic heavy metal track. Like Geezer Butler revealed to Guitar world in 2004, it was “written off as an afterthought” because they “lacked a three-minute filler for the album.” (They also argued about whether it ripped off Led Zeppelin.) Of course, the only time Ozzy steps away from his frantic verses is when he yells, “Can you help me occupy my brain? Oh yeah!” under the bridge. Given its influence and popularity over the past 52 years, it’s hard to imagine “Paranoid” any other way.
Between the Buried and Me, “Telos”
Admittedly, BTBAM has better standalone tracks, but when it comes down to them without a chorus, this extract from Parallax II: Future Sequence suite is hard to beat. Described of guitarist Paul Wagoner as the “meat” of the saga, “Telos” is a huge whirlwind of intricate cosmic fury related to the internal and external dialogues (aka “Prospects”) of its two protagonists. While frontman Tommy Rogers Jr. oscillating between different sections over the nearly 10-minute duration, it’s all too sporadically structured to fit into any kind of “regular” formation. That said, it’s still packed with typically catchy moments.
Opeth, “Ghost of Perdition”
“Ghost of Perdition” is the most representative Opeth tune because it exquisitely fuses the demonic tendencies of their earlier periods with the progressive/jazz rock leanings of their more recent collections. Lucky for us, it’s also devoid of a central hook, instead portraying its tale of Satanism, murder, and similar dark subjects through a series of verses, choruses, bridges, and instrumental segues. Featuring some of mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt’s greatest death and clean vocals, not to mention ceaselessly imaginative arrangements, its excellence is only possible because it’s so appealingly unconventional. Then again, Opeth have always bucked trends to chart a unique path.