The concept album, either the best or worst idea a band can have. Instead of making a movie, staging a play, or making a short-run miniseries on HBO, the story is told entirely through the album’s music. But for all the scrutiny these works get, no one seems to want to discuss how good their story is.
So I sat down with some of the classics of the medium, and not anything that has been seriously expanded upon: no albums that have been turned into a full stage show, a novel, or movie, I wanted to judge them purely on their music. They also had to be albums with a full narrative, not just songs with a loosely shared plot thread or story aspect. I also refrained from looking up anything about them and their stories until I had listened through it at least once to get a good first impression.
Here’s what I found:
The Music: For years, people told me to listen to this thing and boy howdy does it rock. Rip-roaring prog sound full of high-pitched Geddy Lee screams (we’ll get to him later) with some epic guitar solos. Yes.
The Story: The story, however, I’m much less okay with. In fact it made me angry. Really angry. First, it sells itself as some kind of revolutionary prophetic-by-way-of-nothing-ever-really-changes cynicism, it quickly drops anything clever in favor of some great big thing about the dangers of heroin (put the spoon down, kids!) and some good old fashioned misogyny.
Because when it comes right down to it, after everything Sister Mary gives up for Nikki, up to and including her life, all he can think about is what she does for him. What she has to offer him. A woman who he’d like us to believe he cares quite a bit about dies rather tragically and all he can think of is ‘Who will clean up my room for me now?’ and ‘who’s gonna make my dinner?’. No thank you.
The Music: More of a “Very Long Concept Track With Multiple Movements Because We’re Pretentious Like That” than a full album, but any list that doesn’t mention this masterpiece is incomplete and there are over 2,112 reasons why. From epic guitar battles between screaming electric and melodious acoustic and Geddy Lee in his prime upper range, this one cannot be missed.
The Story: While yet another “rock music is banned, this is censorship, power to the people” story, this one’s probably the most well done. It features a protagonist of simple origins almost anyone can relate unwittingly trapped near-mythical Orphic tale where one can instantaneously tune and play a guitar without YouTube tutorials fighting against a religious oligarchy that controls the everything – and this one’s pagan-flavored for once!
There’s a beautiful Shakespearean-style soliloquy that weirdly gets interrupted by aliens but that’s okay because- DOES THAT SAY ‘AYN RAND’.
Okay. I have it on good authority that Neal Peart gets over this and really regrets the name drop but holy wow is that a thing to to overlook.
You’re lucky I love you, Rush.
The Music: Mentioned previously here on the November O’Malley blog, Deltron was Gorillaz before Gorillaz, more electronic and space-y than its trip-hoppy successor. Many of you may recognize some of these tracks from Tony Hawk games as well as a few other sports-oriented things, but unfortunately this cosmic compilation has been largely forgotten.
The Story: While the music may be cool and smooth, don’t let it fool you: the story is downright hilarious.
The tale of some everyman beaten down by The Man who won’t let music be free (notice a pattern yet?), the titular Deltron has to fight his way through his fascist, commercialized society and lead a revolution through a series of world-shattering rap battles, culminating in one last showdown with the Galactic Rhyme Federation Champion. Yeah. Tell me that isn’t the best thing you’ve ever heard.
Kilroy Was Here
The Music: Remember when I said that a concept album can be the worst thing a band can do? This is one that literally killed the band that birthed it into the world. Gone were the “Renegades” and “Blue Collar Men”, we now do opera. With costumes. Racist costumes. (Don’t believe me? Look really close at those ‘roboto’ faces and then remember all the lines about Japan. YEAH.)
The Story: “Kilroy Was Here” was a mess. Named inexplicably for some WWII-era graffiti we’d already gotten over by the time the 80s rolled around, it stars Richard Orin Charles Kilroy which, you guessed it, spells R.O.C.K. I’m sure you can guess where this tale is going.
It goes nowhere, they basically forget they had a plot going until maybe the end and then they reprise another song that had nothing to do with the story as the final track.
This album broke Styx’s streak of multi-platinum hits. They made a full-on short film for “Mr. Roboto”. They tried to make it a real theater… thing. A part of music history died for this album and it wasn’t even close to worth it. Kore wa koko de chikau kotobadesu, Mr. Roboto.
(it’s only barely a concept album)
Those Who Didn’t Make the List:
“Seven and the Ragged Tiger” – Duran Duran
(Has some rad music videos but is only a concept album if – in the words of my mother, a lifelong Duranie – you consider “cocaine as a concept”)
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – The Beatles
(Ditto, but with LSD among other things.)
“Hotel California” – The Eagles
(It’s really just that one song and while you can turn off the song any time you like, but it will never leave your brain)
“Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross” and “Charlemagne: The Omens of Death” – Christopher Lee
(Way better than any history book but you already know the ending)