Big orchestral sound in pop, rock etc.

Most of the times pop, rock, soul etc. music is done by the same basic band (guitar/bass/drums) and one or more singers. Now I´m looking for albums that go bigger, where the band uses more musicians to produce a bigger sound. I´ve always been a fan of Elvis´ early 70s live albums and recently came across a few more live albums that may not share the same musical sensibilities, but which have a big orchestral sound: More people playing instruments, more background singers, full stage, full sound. I like that. Maybe you know a few more examples of musicians and bands that dared to go big. I don´t neccessarily mean the “XY plays his old hits with an orchestra“-thing even though that can result in great recordings too. Here are some big sounding albums I like:

Joe Cocker – Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Procol Harum – Live in Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Elvis – All the big Vegas shows from the early 70s
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
Chicago – First few albums (still working my way through them)


Pretty much anything by Renaissance.  Live At Carnegie Hall is a great place to start.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band - Especially one they did a couple of years ago - Layla Revisited - Live at Lockn’. Start there and then explore other’s they’ve done. I think you’ll like them.  They are the keepers of the flame for the big rock band.

Some of my fav pop/new wave albums with big orchestra sounds include:

1. ABC - Lexicon of love (Trevor Horn production)

2. Frankie goes to Hollywood - Welcome to the Pleasuredome. Another Trevor Horn production. In particular, 'Two tribes' which was recorded with a 60-piece orchestra.

3. Early ELO

4. Early Pet Shop Boys albums from 1986-1990

David Byrne "Live From Austin, TX"

Elton John "Elton John"

Collective Soul "Home: A Live Concert Recording with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra"

Any thing by Electric Light Orchestra 

Early albums by the Moody Blues 

Rick Wakeman "The Six Wives of Henry VIII"

King Crimson "In The Court of the Crimson King"


Look no further than almost the entire genre, and most of its subgenres, of progressive music.

In the 70’s, the vast majority of these bands, had a big orchestral sound. Mostly due to the use of the keyboards available at the time. Hammond organ, Mellotron (an instrument that used analog tapes of massed strings, choir, horns, flutes), String Ensemble, various synths, etc.

You already listed Procol Harum, who are sometimes considered a prog band, so you are partway there.

I could list pages of bands and albums to look for.

Yes - Close to the Edge

King Crimson - Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of King Poseidon

Genesis - Foxtrot, Nursery Crime, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Wind and Wuthering

Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) - Storia di un Minuto, Per Un Amico, The World Became the World

Le Orme - Felona e Sorona

And from more recently than the 70’s:

Amglagard - Hybris, Epilog, Viljans Öga

The flower Kings - Stardust We Are, Unfolding the Future

Hostsonaten - Springsong, Winterthru, Autumsymphony, Summereve

And if you are in the avant-gard mood. Still big and symphonic sounding, but atonal, and ’thorny’ sounding.

Univers Zero - Heresie. Clivages, Implosion

Art Zoyd - Symphonie Pour Le Jour Où Brûleront Les Cités, Berlin, Génération Sans Futur

This is just a very short tlist.


- Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys.

- Randy Newman's debut album is heavily orchestrated, but he is far from a Rock band.

- Phil Spector's 1960's productions feature a large ensemble (often three bassists, two pianists, up to four guitarists, numerous string and brass players).

- On their Rock Of Ages live album The Band augmented their 5-piece line-up with a great horn section, the charts written by Alan Toussaint.

Check out “The Carpenters with the Royal Philharmonic”. When I first read about this project I thought “Uh, oh!”. Why mess with a good thing?  Boy, was I wrong. Richard Carpenter produced, orchestrated and conducted The Royal Philharmonic in a reworking of their classic recordings using the original vocal and instrumental tracks, now with beautiful, lush orchestral arrangements. Not your typical small(ish) orchestral sound of studio orchestras heard on some Rock recordings, but the real deal.

For something completely different musically, try Frank Zappa with the London Symphony vols. 1&2.

Thanks everyone for the suggestions. That´s plenty to explore, I´ll be quite busy in the next couple of days.

Today I listened to Chicago V (I´m going through the discography) and maybe it´s a bit too jazzy for my taste but the overall sound of the band is very pleasing. Rock with horns. Nice.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood´s „Welcome to the Pleasuredome) was the second album I ever bought. It still holds up, even though I don´t listen to it that often. The second album has some great songs and production, even though it´s a bit less over the top.

Early Pet Shop Boys is right down my alley, even though I didn´t think of them. But hey, „It´s a sin“ is big. One song I love to return to every now and then is the long version of „It´s alright“. Recommended!

I´m very much into early Genesis and Yes, I love the sound of the B3 and Mellotron and it always presented a hurdle when bands started using other synths. I know few of the other bands @simonmoon recommends (thanks!) and will check them out. I can already return the favour and recommend Magma´s „Mekanik Destruktiv Kommandöh“: On the one hand it´s really out there on the other it´s so rhythmic and rocking, a bit of a take it or leave it thing. I love it.

I had not heard at all of the Carpenters album. And maybe I would have dismissed it as a cash grab and lazy, but now I´m intrigued. Thanks!

Santana´s first is great, even though I like the Woodstock performance better (it´s included in the legacy edition 2CD set). Late 60s and early 70s salsa albums have a lot of players on them: „Fania All Stars Live at the Cheetah“ is a good example.

Joni Mitchell – „Miles of Aisles“ – that is also a nice album.

Thanks again everyone!

If you want to get very ambitious and adventurous, look for a copy of St. Giles Cripplegate, a 1972 album of modern Classical music written by Jack Nitzsche and performed by The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham (Reprise Records MS2092).

Nitzsche was Phil Spector’s arranger and orchestrator (including the incredible "River Deep, Mountain High"), and did the same for a number of Rock bands, including Buffalo Springfield (on Neil Young’s "Expecting To Fly") and The Stones. He and Ry Cooder produced Neil Young’s debut album, and Jack later played piano on a number of Neil Young records, including Harvest. He’s all over the debut album of Crazy Horse, a fantastic album. He also did a number of soundtracks, such as Performance, The Exorcist, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. A very talented guy.

Check out Elton John live in Australia with the Melbourne symphony orchestra.  Great performances and recorded well.  

@bdp24 We´re entering neo-classical terrain here – that´s not exactly what I meant in the original post, but still: I´m listening to this right now and it has beautiful moments.
To be honest, the arrangement of „River Deep, Mountain High" is a bit too much for me, distracting from the song.
I´ll check out the other albums you recommend though, Nitzsche surely know how to handle an orchestra.
One more adventurous release I can recommend is „Ys“ by Joanna Newsom. It´s all harp and singing plus a full orchestra (arranged by Van Dyke Parks). She´s really taking folk into new directions there.

@pops Thank you! Maybe this will finally get me into Elton John. Before I heard „Mad Dogs and Englishmen“ I wouldn´t have touched Joe Cocker records with a stick, but I´m glad I gave it a try.

@chmaiwald: I got the Joanna Newsom album because of the involvement of Van Dyke Parks, and even after multiple listens haven’t been able to get into it. I’ll try again!

Speaking of Van Dyke Parks, his debut album Song Cycle is another heavily orchestrated album, and a stunner. Also an audiophile quality recording.

@chmaiwald If Mad Dogs and Englishmen is your cup of tea, then I’m sure you’d love Tumbleweed ConnectionHonky Château, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John. Very Leon Russell-esque (the bandleader, musical director and co-producer of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and someone who Elton considered a mentor and inspiration) especially those first two.  
I’d throw in Elton’s Madman Across the Water, albeit with the caveat that it is not as great an LP, top-to-bottom, as the others, but YMMV.


 I can already return the favour and recommend Magma´s „Mekanik Destruktiv Kommandöh“: On the one hand it´s really out there on the other it´s so rhythmic and rocking, a bit of a take it or leave it thing. I love it.

I am already very familiar with Magma!

Love them! Seen them live several times. Incredible. Truly terrifying levels of musicianship by all members of the band. 

They are also one of the only prog bands that I know of, that continue to create new music, that rivals their earlier material in quality. 

K.A. (2004)

Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré (2009)

Félicité Thösz (2012)

Are right up there with their best of the 70's.