One of my favorite types of albums has long been the concept album. In today’s “must have a hit” musical world, the concept album swings the pendulum in the opposite direction. It takes the album as a whole to tell a story, share an experience, or explore related emotions. It puts the individual songs on the backburner in favor of the overall experience of the album.
While increasingly rare (their heyday was in the 1960’s, and they’ve steadily declined in popularity since), concept albums offer a unique listening experience and will showcase the artists storytelling abilities. Some of my favorites include:
Smashing Pumpkins – Adore
Oft panned by hipster Smashing Pumpkins fans, Adore is a masterpiece from beginning to end. While clearly wandering the path set forth by their preceding albums, Adore is a thoughtful reflection on the ups, downs, rights and wrongs of love.
Radio singles “Ava Adore”, about obsession and control, and “Perfect”, about the end of a relationship not wanting to be ended, veered the least from the comfort zones of SP fans. However, it was the rest of the album that really shine in my eyes. “Crestfallen” is a wonderfully melancholy song about a longing that was never meant to be, “Shame” is a reflection on a one-night-stand, and “For Martha” is a quiet, yet powerful, song about losing love to death.
In the end, this is probably my favorite Smashing Pumpkins album with its attention to detail, raw emotions and careful craftsmanship.
My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade
One of my favorite albums of all-time, and the entire album is about death and dying, with The Black Parade being a metaphor for a funeral procession. Starting with “The End.” and “Dead!”, the tone is set for the remainder of the album.
From there, we get a myriad of different views and outlooks on dying. “Welcome to the Black Parade” is about carrying on following a death, “Mama” is about the violence and depravity of war, “Sleep” is about taking the final steps into death, “Disenchanted” is a reflection on the seeming meaningless of daily life…each a different take on life.
Striking closest to home, “Cancer” is from the perspective of someone about to succumb to cancer, and the shame of their current state with the regrets of a life cut short.
Overall, it’s a powerful and emotional exploration of a traditionally sensitive subject, and one that I can’t stop listening to.
My Chemical Romance – Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys
Yes, it’s MCR again…both because I love their music, and because they reinvent themselves with each ablum and go gung-ho with it.
Danger Days centers around the futuristic story of a group of masked underground anti-heros who fight the oppressive establishment represented by “Better Living Industries” (a.k.a. “BL/ind”). “Na Na Na” is basically a flippant and giant middle finger to the “establishment”, saying they won’t play by its rules; “Sing” is a rallying cry for the downtrodden to speak out for what is right; “S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W” is about the impending threat of nuclear war; “Summertime” is about finding good (feelings of love) in a difficult time of oppression; and “DESTROYA” epitomizes the anti-hero theme with its cutting lyrics (“They don’t believe in us / But I believe we’re the enemy”). In between these tracks there are also a series of “radio” spots from the underground broadcast station of the “Danger Days” world, which actually help contribute to the whole story.
I could go on about this album, because, again, it is very powerful, emotional, and well thought-out. And while many of the songs stand out on their own, this is one album where it is best to start at the beginning and let it run in order (because, yes, sometimes the order is there for a reason).
Everclear – Songs from an American Movie, Vol. 1 & 2
A two-for-one special from my favorite band, these albums were two separate releases over the course of 2000. Together, the albums loosely tell the story of Art Alexakis’ (lead singer) second marriage and divorce. Volume 1, also Everlear’s last platinum album, covers the highs, lows, and disappointment of a relationship gone wrong, but resulting in good (Art’s first daughter), while Volume 2 covers the anger, rage and frustrations that came from the fallout.
And it all stays in the vein of Everclear, with their catchy melodies and sincere lyrics as Art shares his life with the listeners (as he has throughout his career).
Besides the radio hits of “AM Radio” and “Wonderful”, some of my other favorites from the albums include “Overwhelming”, a song about being tired of playing second-fiddle in a relationship, “When It All Goes Wrong Again”, about not being dragged down when things do go wrong, “Babytalk”, about people changing when they get in a relationship, “Here We Go Again”, about the beginnings of a new relationship, and “Otis Redding”, about longing for the good times from a relationship gone bad.
While these albums mark the beginning of the end for the original Everclear trio (the band has since been reinvented, with Art carrying on the band), there is a lot of power and depth to these albums, and it was, by-and-large, a divergence from their edge-of-pop-friendly track record. And while Volume 2 was less well received and critically reviewed, I tend to prefer it slightly over Volume 1.
I’m going to add all the albums by Gorillaz in here as well, though they really are a concept band more than concept albums. However, each release they have made has been a new chapter in the story of this fictitious group that becomes far more intriguing as you connect the dots between the different songs, albums and videos.
That’s my short list for now. Have you come across any other great concept albums?