The Top Ten Concept Albums

June 8, 2012
by Evan

Someone just posted on Twitter a link to a story published by the Wall Street Journal about the rapper GZA. Yeah, WSJ is not above covering the trajectory of various Wu-Tang Clan members’ careers. Apparently The Genius has been inspired by a trip to a planetarium. His next album will supposedly be the first in a series of concept albums about science and outer space. Which totally reminds me of Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon saga, but more focused on stars and planets than sex and surrealism. Whatever. It got me thinking. What are my favorite concept albums? And then I thought, “Oh — that’s a blog entry. I should figure that out and share it with the world.” And by “the world” I mean the four of you who still read this blog. Notably absent from this list: Sufjan Stevens. Because that project where he was supposed to record a different album based on the fifty states was the biggest fucking joke of the ’00s. By the way, what’s that guy up to now? Yeah. Exactly.

The Top Ten Concept Albums

10. The Kinks – The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968) – An homage to English rural/country life and culture that was inspired by a trip to Devon, England in the mid-60s. Ray Davies has also stated that Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood was an indirect inspiration for the concept. According to Wikipedia, “The [eponymous] song neatly sums up the album’s broad theme: “I miss the village green, and all the simple people…” In addition to nostalgia, the album’s songs touch on a wide range of emotions and experience, from lost friends (“Do You Remember Walter?”), memories (“People Take Pictures Of Each Other,” “Picture Book”), technological obsolescence…bucolic escape…social marginalization…public embarrassment…childlike fantasy…straying from home…and stoical acceptance of life.” I’ll bet when you saw that HP advertisement that used “Picture Book” you never knew it what its original message was.

09. Lou Reed – Berlin (1973) – A tragedy involving a couple whose relationship is doomed to fail as they cope with drug use and depression. For example, the song “The Kids” is about a woman (Caroline, who also appears in “Caroline Says (I & II)” losing her children to the authorities. “Sad Song” was original a Velvets demo and “Oh, Jim” was a reworked version of “Oh, Gin” another VU outtake. As far as the rest of the record is concerned, it’s markedly different from everything else Reed wrote post-Velvets because it’s heavy on orchestral arrangements and brass instruments. All Reed plays is acoustic guitar. And since we all know acoustic guitar = depressing, it’s no wonder this is an effective concept album. Nothin’ tells a sad story like an acoustic guitar, amiright!?

08. King Geedorah – Take Me To Your Leader (2003) – This was one of the only rap albums I would admit to liking when I was in college, because it was “smarter” than whatever was popular at the time. I also couldn’t tell it was a concept album at the time, but that’s because I liked to get really, really high before listening to it. Daniel Dumile says of the record, “You should listen to the album for what it is and not expect it to be like the average ‘rap’ stuff you’re probably used to. Geedorah is a space monster. He’s not from the Earth. I made it different on purpose. A blend of ill lyrics and instrumentals. To me it is way iller than any of the whack shit out now…This whole album is Geedorah’s alien perspective on humans. This is done intentionally to show the listener a mirror image of his/herself and the way we see each other. On the album we cover different subjects ranging from race issues to the neglect of children. Some might find the word ‘Nigger’ offensive, or the line about the young girl not being able to read maybe considered a ‘bad taste’ joke. All these insecurities are within us.” See, couldn’t have said it better myself!

07. Magma – Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (1973) – I could have listened to this album a million times without realizing there was a concept behind it, but Magma is one of those highbrow groups I don’t think I’ll ever really understand. Plus, I only really like this album and 1001 Degrees Centigrade and Attahk. So I don’t know too much about all their smartypants records and the stories behind ‘em all. From what I gather, this is another record with all the singing in the made-up language Christian Vander created (eat your heart out, Sigur Ros!) and the concept is that a prophet comes to Earth to deliver a message: if you want to save yourselves, you need to morally cleanse yourself and worship the supreme being of whatever the name of the language is Vander created. You have to learn Zeuhl music, which — ta-da! — is exactly what Magma plays. Phew. By listening to Magma you’re saving yourself. It’s pretty crazy that Zeuhl is a recognized genre of music at this point, but I guess that’s to Magma’s credit. They must have been bigger than I thought.

06. Pretty Things – S.F. Sorrow (1968) – I listened to this album — again — forever without knowing it was a concept album. Probably because the story was written in between each song’s lyrics, and who reads lyrics these days? Or in previous days. I don’t think I’ve tried to read/learn lyrics since the mid-90s. I didn’t stand a chance of learning the story of S.F. Sorrow because I’m too much of a pussy to handle the lyric inserts of record. I might damage them! Anyway, the story is about a guy named Sebastian F. Sorrow and how he grows up, gets a job, gets laid, falls in love with the girl next door (or across the street, whatever), gets drafted, moves to America, the chick dies coming to visit him, goes on a crazy trip, loses his mind and basically retires himself to a life of complete solitude. Pretty depressing. Kind of like The Wall but better? Yeah, definitely better. Pink Floyd totally lost it after Meddle. And, in case you’re wondering, they peaked with Saucerful…

05. Kraftwerk – Radio-Activity (1975) – Half of the songs are about radioactivity and the other half are about the radio. See? That’s why it’s such a clever title, guys! What punny fellows those Germans were. Radio Stars isn’t about pop culture stars, it is about pulsars and quasars, you fool! This has always been my favorite Kraftwerk album, as I think it is for most people, but I thought I should announce it to the world anyway. Some of these songs are really depressing, you know? This was another record I used to get high and listen to a lot when I lived in New Jersey. Especially during the winter months, when I was trapped up in my bedroom watching ice and snow outside at night. And then I’d get really baked and play video games or watch bad movies on mute with this playing. I think I liked to match this one up with either Breakdown (starring Kurt Russell). Or maybe that was Houses Of The Holy. My memory is a little foggy.

04. Aphrodite’s Child – 666 – Ah, Vangelis. I’ve always told people you were good for something besides the Chariots of Fire theme. But no, they never listen to me, do they? Probably because they haven’t heard the pleasure of hearing 666. What’s the concept? I don’t know…there was a circus troupe performing a show based on the Apocalypse (which is supposed to be like the Beatles’ and Sgt. Peppers) and while that’s happening, outside the circus tent maybe the real apocalypse is occurring. Only the narrator believes what’s happening outside is bad, and everyone else thinks it is part of the show. But then they realize it’s not, and there’s a big Good vs. Evil battle between the apocalypse and the staged apocalypse. Who wins? Listen and find out. Or don’t. I could give a shit.

03. Nirvana – The Story Of Simon Simopath (1967) – The story is about Simon, duh, and he’s a big fat loser who dreams about growing wings. I’m not sure if he’s really fat, but how else would you describe the loser kid in school? Once he turns into an adult (in the way distant year of…1999.) he goes to work — just like the rest of us! — by sitting in front of a computer all day. Pretty prophetic, right? We were all losers in school and now we’re bloggers trying desperately to turn these stupid computers we work at into money-making machines. And of course Simon suffers a nervous breakdown and hops aboard a rocketship (those are pretty common in 1999 — I remember mine really vividly…where did I put it again?) and meets a centaur and a miniature Goddess. Pretty typical. Oh yeah and there’s a jazzy wedding reception following the marriage of Simon and the goddess. Does he grow wings? No but he got laid so I guess that’s kind of the same thing, right?

02. Dr. Octagon – Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996) – Well, yes. Obviously. Kool Keith’s Doc Oc character is the greatest homicidal, extraterrestrial, time-traveling gynecologist and surgeons ever created. Some of the themes and lyrics seem childish, but there’s so much insane surreality and abstract shit going on here that you can’t really classify as a typical juvenile rap record. This one even blows King Geedorah to shame. The basic premise is that the doctor is from Jupiter, most of his patients die while he’s trying to help them, and he likes to perform sex acts on his female patients and nurses…but then it gets into totally crazy territory where Dr. Dooom poses as a patient of Octagon’s on another record and kills him, but then he and another character try to resurrect Octagon…there’s that whole penal colony of Oceania trip and the A&R guy from the record label… and then shit gets really weird. I don’t even think I understand most of it. Which, I mean…that’s impressive. Kool Keith created a story that’s so convoluted and far-out that even I can’t understand it. Which is why it has to be one of the best concept albums ever recorded, right? Because who the fuck knows what’s going on?

01. Franco Battiato – Fetus (1971) – What, you were expecting some Billy Corgan recording project that he just proclaims to be a concept album without telling you what the story is because it’s an obvious lie? No, I’m going with Battiato’s best album as my choice for the greatest concept album ever recorded. It’s all about birth and rebirth and energy and life and death…it’s pretty fucked up, really. It starts with a song about how many women he’s fucked and how many babies have been flushed down Europe’s drains in order for him to lead a good, clean life. Then later the unborn child sings about how it’s not even wanted, how its “life was born in hate.” It’s fucking ridiculously insane, especially with the stereo-mixed wah-wah effect of babies crying, the roto-scoping synthesizers playing tricks with your brain like an obtuse binaural beat… It’s just got so much going on that you probably don’t recognize the concept the first five or ten times you listen to it (or maybe you didn’t study Italian like I did, so that might get in the way of your understanding, in which case pick up the English translation version). Once everything clicks for you, it will become one of your favorite records of all time, period. That’s how it is for me, at least. And what I say goes. So either get in line and follow me or go read some other music blog. I’m sure you’ll just love that Arcade Fire band…

The Kinks – Picture Book [MP3]

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8 comments

  1. |

    […] original here: The Top… This entry was posted in acoustic, acoustic guitar, All, and, guitar, How to play Acoustic […]

  2. |

    Of course, Quadrophenia and Pet Sounds are far too popular and obvious for you to consider aren’t they?

  3. |

    Pet Sounds isn’t a concept album except for that it came straight from Brian’s head (through Tony Asher’s pen?). It does not tell a story like the records included on the list. There’s no narrative, just overarching themes. And Quadrophenia? No thanks.

  4. |

    A good top-10 if I do say so myself… although I’d dismiss King Geedorah and Dr. Octagon because, let’s face it, rap/hip-hop ain’t music!
    A couple thoughts and then my honorable mentions…

    Am I the only one who thinks Battiato’s Pollution is at least as good and perhaps better than Fetus? I love ‘em both but I do think Pollution too often gets overlooked!
    Magma rocks… and your 3 essentials (MDK, 1001 Degrees Centigrade and Attahk) are a brilliant starting point… but hopefully after these one would also be inclined to grab Köhntarkösz, the stellar Live album from ’75, Üdü ?üdü and perhaps the really great comeback effort Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré.

    Now since we’ve agreed to dump 2 from your list for being unmusical I’d add the bloated, oft-impenetrable Tales from Topographic Oceans from Yes and perhaps Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull as noble replacements.

    Honorable mentions go to Eloy’s The Power and the Passion, the new boys on the scene Cosmic Trip Machine for their classic Vampyros Roussos as well as their The Curse of Lord Space Devil… both gems and destined to be classics! IQ’s Subterranea is probably top-5 or even top-3 material. Camel/Nude, Frank Zappa/Joe’s Garage and Thing Fish, Gentle Giant/Three Friends, Spock’s Beard/Snow, Marillion/Misplaced Childhood are a few glaring omissions.

  5. |

    Serge Gainsbourg “l’homme à la tête de chou” for some erotism! Let’s not forget Melody Nelson. Oh Evan, I want to teach you french!!!!

  6. |

    By all means, teach me French, Nathalie!

  7. |

    Solid picks, Tyler. Very solid.

  8. Dothemath
    |

    “I miss the village green, and all the simple people” comes from the song “Village Green”, not from the (eponymous) “The Village Green Preservation Society”.

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