1. Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays: The Mountain Goats

Numerous bands and singer-songwriters throughout the years have made concept albums based entirely around a certain book, from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds (a retelling of H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds) to Locrian’s The Crystal World (inspired by J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World) to Grimes’ Geidi Primes (about Frank Herbert’s Dune). That said, more artists should do it. As formats, the novel and the full-length album have much in common when it comes to scope, and of course, musicians are often happy to talk about their literary influences (if not reference them in song). John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is one of them. Not only does the indie troubadour have a debut novel of his own, Wolf In White Van, on the shelves now, he once stated in an interview that one of his favorite novels is Joan Didion’s 1970 masterpiece Play It As It Lays. Darnielle should be held to that confession: A Mountain Goats album that turns Didion’s stark portrait of Hollywood despair into, well, stark and despairing songs could be a beautiful thing. [JH]

Advertisement

2. John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire: The National

There’s a ton of complex joy and darkness in John Irving’s 1981 novel The Hotel New Hampshire for the members of The National to sink their teeth into. There’s rape, incest, suicide, revenge, a trained bear, fame, sadness, communists, and Vienna—all things that would make perfect sense delivered in the band’s pitch-black murmur. Just imagine Matt Berninger singing lyrics about unrequited love, a dog named Sorrow, and a suicide note from a dwarf that reads, “Sorry. Just not big enough.” And just when it looks like life is only a hell to be lived through, happiness will briefly poke its head out. [JM]

3. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt’s songwriting, melding as it does irony and romanticism into achingly lovely songs that contain their own levels of annotation, strikes me as the perfect instrument to create a musical adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s prankishly postmodern Pale Fire. Split in half between a grieving writer’s poetic rumination on his daughter’s suicide and the increasingly convoluted gloss of a scholar who thinks the poem is really about his fictional homeland’s ludicrous history, the story would offer Merritt ample opportunity to exercise both sides of his talents simultaneously. Eccentric heartbreak guaranteed. [DP]

Advertisement

4. Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: Tom Waits

Tom Waits has always worn his literary influences on his whiskey-soaked sleeve, with the usual suspects including Kerouac, Bukowski, and Burroughs. You can add Raymond Chandler to the list, particularly during Waits’ ’70s Skid Row troubadour phase. The most personal of Chandler’s detective novels, The Long Goodbye finds Philip Marlowe at his loneliest and most disillusioned as he bumps up against the rich and powerful of Los Angeles. It’s a milieu perfectly suited to a Waits album loaded with boozy piano ballads evoking Chandler’s city of fallen angels as well as adventurous Tin Pan Alley-via-Captain Beefheart experiments (think Franks Wild Years) chronicling Marlowe’s personal journey into darkness. [SVD]

5. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: Jonathan Coulton

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide is a science fiction/humor classic with a tinge of melancholy and loneliness; its hapless protagonist has been set loose in a gigantic, nonsensical universe where no one really cares what he thinks or feels. The protagonists of Jonathan Coulton’s many story-songs should relate: They’re equally dazzled by the world around them, and baffled and hurt at its apathy about the secret longings in their hearts. It seems like a natural team-up, given Coulton’s status as the king of singer-songwriter nerd-rock and science-fiction humor in musical form. He and Adams even have a similar love of complicated wordplay, and different but still simpatico senses of wry, absurd, straight-faced humor. The song exploring the many ways in which it’s clear that 42 is the meaning of life would probably be especially dense and hilarious. [TR]

Advertisement

6. Ron Currie Jr.’s Everything Matters!: Death From Above 1979

Junior Thibodeau, the young protagonist of Ron Currie Jr.’s 2009 novel, Everything Matters!, has a lot on his mind. Thibodeau is born with intimate, detailed knowledge of the looming apocalypse, which inexorably approaches the Earth in the form of a giant, planet-killing comet. Death From Above 1979 feels like the obvious choice to adapt Currie’s novel—tales of love and loss, depression, friendship, and baseball-hitting savants told in short, thrashy bursts. The band recently got back together after a long hiatus and released a new record this month—an album and a future that was never supposed to happen, if the band’s statements around the time of their breakup are to be believed. But if Currie’s novel teaches us anything, it’s that the future is fluid, even when it’s written in stone. [DT]

7. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time Quintet: Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is no stranger to concept albums: His finest work, 2005’s Illinois, was the result of a since-abandoned (and never sincerely intended) attempt to make an album for each of the U.S.’s 50 states. More than his embrace of gimmickry, though, it’s Stevens’ ability at evoking melancholy, and the gentle Christian themes that underlay his music, that make him the the perfect man to create an album based on Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time and its sequels. The warm, gentle sadness of “Casimir Pulaski Day” or “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” would fit in perfectly with the beautiful melancholy L’Engle used to ground her often-cosmic stories of teens and children battling against ultimate evil. Those conflicts are invariably resolved, not through force of arms, but through empathy and understanding—outgrowths of L’Engle’s quietly-held religious beliefs, beautifully mirrored by Illinois songs like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” or “Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!” where the singer-songwriter pushes himself to identify with—and maybe even love—villains both personal and public. Plus, in this scenario we get to see Stevens’ propensity for run-on song titles be applied to L’Engle concepts, with songs like “Charles Wallace, In Transit Via A Unicorn With A Propensity For Snark,” and “A Star Explodes, But The Fight Continues, Or, A Trip To The Horse Farm With Mrs. Whatsit.” [WH]

Advertisement

8. Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote: Elvis Costello

These days, Don Quixote is a symbol for all that is doomed and noble; a figure of tragic idealism, forever trapped in a cynical, brutal world. While this is a reasonable approximation, Cervantes novel paints a darker, more bitter portrait. The original version of the Knight Of The Woeful Countenance is a complex figure, a violent, senile old man whose aspirations to chivalric glory lead him to abuse others and himself in pursuit of an absurd fantasy. Which would make him (and the novel that tells his story) a perfect subject for Elvis Costello’s biting, witty lyricism (and The Attractions’ bright, pissed off sound). A concept album mixing the sarcastic fury of Armed Forces with the experimental broadness of Imperial Bedroom might serve as a fitting tribute to one of the cruelest, most heartbreaking, and greatest novels ever written. [ZH]

9. Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome To The Monkey House: St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s recent self-titled output, with its futuristic fuzz, is already reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s futuristic subject matter in Welcome To The Monkey House. Her move toward a more jagged and dangerous sound embodies the dystopian world of “Harrison Bergeron,” to a T, making a Vincent/Vonnegut pairing harmonious if not downright destined. Past lyrics (“Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate”) also prove St. Vincent wouldn’t shy away from Vonnegut’s honest commentary on the human condition. And it would be rad to see St. Vincent’s take on “All The King’s Horses” in a music video. [BJ]

Advertisement

10. Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife: The Decemberists

The Decemberists have recorded many a story-song, and already have two concept albums based on literature: the 2004 EP The Tain, based on Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, and the 2006 album The Crane Wife, inspired by a Japanese folk tale of the same name. So Colin Meloy’s band is well-qualified to retell Téa Obreht’s novel about stories and myths, The Tiger’s Wife. The book tells the story of a young doctor who travels to a fictional war-torn country as a relief worker, only to discover the superstitious locals are less interested in medicine than they are digging up a cemetery for mysterious purposes. While there, the doctor takes a side trip to learn the truth about the death of her grandfather, while recounting two stories he told her—one about a man who claimed to be immortal, and one about a deaf-mute girl who has a strange relationship with an escaped tiger. The stories within stories, and fact blurring into myth, have the potential for a fascinating song cycle, and the novel’s mixture of heartbreak and whimsy is directly in The Decemberists’ wheelhouse. [MV]

11. George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire: Wu-Tang Clan

The greatest media franchise of our generation is a sprawling, decades-in-the-making tale of swords and sorcery. It’s filled with politics, betrayal, and more larger-than-life characters you can keep track of. We’re speaking, of course, about the Wu-Tang Clan’s discography, a sprawling epic of dozens of albums. These multiple masters of complicated continuity and violent storytelling would be perfect for recreating George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy novels of A Song Of Ice And Fire, with each Wu-Tang member taking the role of a different point-of-view character. Just imagine the ever-intertwined Ghostface Killah and Raekwon as the bickering Stark sisters, Arya and Sansa, or the GZA’s cold, logical tones narrating the shift from political pawn to violent crusader of Daenerys Targaryen. Ol’ Dirty Bastard (RIP) would play the part of Ned Stark (RIP) for evident reasons. And when the time came to add more characters, Wu-Tang’s got it covered. Method Man could hold his own on The Wall as Jon Snow, but who would complain about Redman joining him as Samwell Tarly? Ignore those other half-attempts at Game Of Thrones rap: A Wu Of Ice And Fire couldn’t possibly fail. [RK]

Advertisement