Today marks the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s seminal concept album The Wall, so this week we’re asking:
What is your favorite concept album?
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to Pedro The Lion’s Control since it was first released in 2002, but even to this day, I never cease to be amazed at how elegantly constructed the entire affair is. This was the first album that convinced me literary rock music could sell an entire album-length narrative without ever sounding pretentious or oblique. Plus, it does so while delivering a churning blend of angular rock that actually meets and enhances the mix of acid observations and shitty self-serving metaphors from the unnamed protagonist, capturing its dark view of a disastrous marriage.
Pre-prog rock, Frank Sinatra was setting up the whole concept of the concept album with 1955’s In The Wee Small Hours. In the midst of his tumultuous marriage with brunette bombshell Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s vocal emotionality reached new heights (and depressive depths) on this record, which he privately referred to as the Ava album, with tracks like “Mood Indigo” and “When Your Lover Has Gone” perfect for solitary wallowing. The all-encompassing concept here is “My heart just got kicked in the gut.” If you’re in a similar state there is no better breakup soundtrack, but In The Wee Small Hours also works if you just feel like staying indoors for the weekend, drawing the curtains and hanging out with the amber liquor.
If you’d told me five years ago that an album of songs about professional wrestling would become one of my most listened-to of all time, I’d have accused you of taking a few too many German suplexes to the skull. And yet, this is the power of The Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ, John Darnielle’s glorious exploration of the grandeur, energy, and deep-set sadness of the Game Of Kings (Who Like To Wrassle). From the breathless energy of “Choked Out” to the melancholy compromises of “Heel Turn 2,” BTC covers the full sweep of human emotions and experiences—just like wrestling itself.
I’ve got four words for you: Mega Man rock opera. That’s the gimmick behind The Protomen, but the actual band and its incredible Act II album are so much better than even that extremely enticing description would imply. The premise of the games is used as a jumping-off point (bad scientist makes bad robots, good scientist makes a good robot). But The Protomen use that—and some unexpectedly good songwriting talents—to tell a surprisingly powerful story about standing up and fighting for what you believe in… that just happens to be told through a bunch of endearingly straight-faced power ballads about robots.
“I Am An Excellent Steel Horse,” the first track on Rock Plaza Central’s Are We Not Horses?, is quite literally about horses made of steel. The whole LP, which rocketed the twangy Toronto collective out of obscurity back in 2006, is built around mechanical horses programmed to think they’re living, breathing ones. That concept permeates the narrative thrust—singer and lyricist Chris Eaton is also a novelist—but also the album’s sonic makeup: There’s a clip-cloppy nature to the percussion, which occasionally replicates the animal’s snorts and whinnies, and a rustic, dust-spackled vibe emanating from the ever-present strains of banjo, violin, and brass. Are We Not Horses? isn’t a three-act tale, but rather an atmospheric, thoughtful riff on the questions of identity, authenticity, and deception buried in that evocative premise.
Nothing speaks to my inner drama queen more than Marina And The Diamonds’ Electra Heart. The brilliantly crafted, shallow, and ruthless character of Electra Heart is a reflection of American culture and the centerpiece for Marina’s second album. From the power-pop synths of “Bubblegum Bitch” to the dreamy melody of “Teen Idle,” you are taken on an emotional rollercoaster painting the prima donna as a heartbreaker and a homewrecker in pink, fluffy frills. And just as every thrill ride must come to an end, Marina boldly kills off her made-up persona to give her next musical endeavor a fresh start.
It would probably have taken me a couple of listens to figure out that Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is a concept album, given how abstract and opaque Jeff Mangum likes his metaphors—that is, if everyone hadn’t been describing it as “the record about the guy who’s in love with Anne Frank” at every college-radio party I went to my freshman year. And yeah, it’s pretty weird for a ’90s singer-songwriter to be obsessed with a teenage girl who died in the Holocaust, but In The Aeroplane Over The Sea isn’t just about that. It’s also about the inevitability that everything you love will one day crumble into dust and be forgotten, and the audacity of trying to find meaning and hope in existence anyway. There are also a lot of references to semen; those, I cannot intellectualize. But the record always makes me cry anyway.
Blame it on recency bias, but Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer gets more powerful and cohesive with each listen and watch (if you haven’t already, check out the “emotion picture” of the same name). After years of cultivating a musical persona that doubled as armor from an ever-intrusive public—which, admittedly, led to some great music—Monáe set out on an exhilarating musical journey as Jane 57821, a flesh-and-blood woman trying to escape from a repressive regime. The result is part liberation, part exultation; to wit, Monáe’s announcement, which was made just before the album debuted, that she’s a “free-ass motherfucker.”
My favorite concept albums have stories between the grooves: John Darnielle building a house for the Alpha Couple (and a launch pad for his hi-fi period) on The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee; Pinkerton springing from Weezer’s abandoned space-rock-opera Songs From The Black Hole. And then, there’s Smile, the “teenage symphony to God” that consumed Brian Wilson in the late 1960s, its songs surrendered to later Beach Boys recordings before being endlessly constructed and reconstructed in bootlegs and, eventually, official releases. Wilson’s 2004 solo version and the 2011 compilation The Smile Sessions confirm decades of reverent whispers: It’s a massive undertaking that goes in a million rewarding directions, Wilson’s unquiet musical mind racing through the American songbook, channeling what he finds there through Van Dyke Parks’ lyrical whimsy, the rock-solid backing of The Wrecking Crew, and The Beach Boys’ richest vocal harmonies. We’ll never hear the purest expression of Smile—the one that never got out of Brian Wilson’s head—but I’ll settle for multiple versions of what he wanted “Surf’s Up” to sound like in 1966.
For me, no concept album matches the layered experience of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. It poses its titular question from the perspective of a Vietnam vet returning to America circa 1970, raw from the horrors of war and observing everyday life back home with weary eyes. The view is grim—communities struggling to survive, much less thrive; “oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas”—but Gaye’s music is the opposite: generous and spiritual, a celebration and evolution of Black music overflowing with love. What’s Going On framed a timeless question in a uniquely modern way, and, almost 50 years later, it only feels more urgent.