Top 20 Concept Albums

The long-playing record was never intended to be a singular work of art; the early days of popular-music essentially delivering collections of singles shuffled around between works, just products used to keep bands on the road. In this digital age, the rise of the MP3 and the devaluing of the stand-alone album makes them nearly the same. But recent years have found a rise of adventurous songwriters, rebelling against single-track-downloading by writing whole, cogent, conceptually-driven statements. You could call the online era the golden age of the concept album. Here's a host of wonderful recent works and their most important forebears.

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Antony and the Johnsons 'I Am a Bird Now' (2005)

Antony and the Johnsons 'I Am a Bird Now'
Antony and the Johnsons 'I Am a Bird Now'. Secretly Canadian

When Antony Hegarty arrived in New York in the early-'90s, the gay community had been decimated by AIDS, and nights in gay bars often felt like wakes. Cutting his teeth as piano balladeer, he played sad songs to make the trannies cry, and, over the next decade, honed his repertoire until it was so beautiful that it was ruthless. I Am a Bird Now unleashed this on the world, and Hegarty felt like a force of nature. His second LP delivered a set of transgender torchsongs that told of transgression, transformation, and taking wing; the record's central motif the symbol of a man-becoming-woman as chick-becoming-bird. It was an ugly ducking narrative of astonishing beauty and piercing clarity, with Hegarty's songbird warble a perfect tool of its gender confusion.

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Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs' (2010)

Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs'
Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs'. Merge

Epic Canuck rockers the Arcade Fire were hardly at a lack for ambition on either of their first two albums, 2004's Funeral and 2007's Neon Bible, but 2010's The Suburbs took things a step further. Here, Win Butler authored a (Grammy winning!) song-cycle inhabiting the landscape in which he —and, in turn, an entire generation— grew up, looking at the lives of those for whom manicured lawns were like prison walls. Where, on Funeral, Butler was himself a kid dreaming of rebellion and emancipation, here he returns to the suburban sprawl all grown up, no longer sure of his own ideals in the face of adulthood and financial success. In such, suburbia isn't just a place to escape from, but go back to, the cycle of life rendered as depressing cul-de-sac.

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Carla Bozulich 'Red Headed Stranger' (2003)

Carla Bozulich 'Red Headed Stranger'
Carla Bozulich 'Red Headed Stranger'. DiCristina Stair Builders

Red Headed Stranger isn't just a concept album, but a concept album about a concept album. Here, former Geraldine Fibber/future Evangelista leader Carla Bozulich remade Willie Nelson's 1975 outlaw-country classic in its entirety. Where expectations might be for Bozulich to radically reimagine the text, she often hues close to her source. That makes for interesting tension between her guttural voice and natural inclinations towards dissonance, and the original's smoother, straighter ways; things growing more uneasy the closer this pseudo-feminist appropriation sounds to the original. Bozulich even recruited Nelson as guest backing vocalist, adding further layers of daring and strangeness (is Nelson effectively paying tribute to himself?) to the set.

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The Decemberists 'The Hazards of Love' (2009)

The Decemberists 'The Hazards of Love'
The Decemberists 'The Hazards of Love'. Capitol

The Decemberists had made conceptually-driven records before —their 2005 EP The Tain was a single 18-minute track based on a mythological Irish epic; their 2006 LP The Crane Wife was loosely inspired by a Japanese folk-story— but The Hazards of Love was a bona fide rock opera. A 17 song, hour-long musical of linear plot, the band's fifth album spins a tragic tale of a young lady named Margaret, her numerous suitors, a Woodland Queen, and various nefarious developments. Songwriter Colin Meloy wields his vocabulary of fanciful Victoriana with viciousness, these Hazards of Love including black magic, bloodshed, infanticide, and vicious ghosts. The Decemberists took the concept-album concept a step further, too, playing the whole LP live in sequence.

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Dirty Projectors 'The Getty Address' (2005)

Dirty Projectors 'The Getty Address'
Dirty Projectors 'The Getty Address'. Western Vinyl

Dirty Projectors would make more famous concept albums than this —their 2007 breakthrough Rise Above, which recreated Black Flag's Damaged in its entirety 'from memory'; 2010's Björk collaboration Mount Wittenberg Orca, a suite of songs about a whale pod— but none seemed as truly, defiantly, conceptually kooky as The Getty Address. Here, Dave Longstreth sends a hero named 'Don Henley' on a spiritual pilgrimage into the desert, with peyote fueling his insights into the spirit of the land. The LP is a parable equating the American Empire with the Aztec Empire, the chain-store frontlines of far-flung sprawl symbols of environmental degradation and the obliteration of nature. If you have the notes, you can follow along fine, otherwise it's a long, wild, strange trip, indeed.

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The Flaming Lips 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots' (2002)

The Flaming Lips 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots'
The Flaming Lips 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots'. Warner Bros.

Charged with taking 1999's death-filled

The Soft Bulletin

on the road, psych-pop oddballs the Flaming Lips made the magical decision to turn their liveshows into over-the-top celebrations of life that acknowledged the inevitability of death; sentiments alive in their newly-penned anthem "Do You Realize??" When a young Japanese friend of the band's died, Wayne Coyne strung this sentiment into a concept-album narrative; where the super-hero-esque Yoshimi (named after Boredoms drummer Yoshimi P-We), battled an evil race of Pink Robots, obvious symbols of disease. Yet, the story never becomes a fantasy, and there's no happy ending. Here, their heroine's death is a fait accompli, but she still fights back, out of the sheer joy of being alive.

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Hüsker Dü 'Zen Arcade' (1984)

Hüsker Dü 'Zen Arcade'
Hüsker Dü 'Zen Arcade'. SST

Coming from the militant US hardcore scene of the early-'80s, it was a provocative move for Hüsker Dü to author a narrative-driven double-album. Whilst they made their 1984 landmark Zen Arcade with DIY spirit —the entire 23-song set was recorded and mixed in the space of 85 hours— songwriters Grant Hart and Bob Mould dared to work with lyrical ambition, authoring a coming-of-age story that doubled as a coming-out story. Its tale follows an alienated small-town runaway trying to find himself (in the military, in religion, in sex, in drugs) with increasing despair, only to —in that hokey TV episode device— wake up and realize it was all a dream. The lingering question stands like symbolic closet: strive to make your own fate, or meekly accept your ordained lot?

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Jenny Wilson 'Hardships!' (2009)

Jenny Wilson 'Hardships!'
Jenny Wilson 'Hardships!'. Gold Medal

Jenny Wilson's debut album, 2005's Love and Youth, was a suite of songs about adolescence, but, by the time Wilson authored her second, too much had changed in her life to look back on her formative days. Wilson was now a mother, twice over, and the arrival of children in her life had, predictably, obliterated her safe knowledge of who she was and where she fit in the world. Wilson rose to the moment, authoring a poignant concept album about womanhood and motherhood, culturally-sanctioned misogyny and the persistent role of mother as martyr. Brilliantly, she explored this through the motif of armed struggle; wondering why society makes heroes of its war veterans, yet derides its mothers; rewarding those who take life, but not those who make it.

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Jordaan Mason and the Horse Museum 'Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head' (2009)

Jordaan Mason and the Horse Museum 'Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head'
Jordaan Mason and the Horse Museum 'Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head'. Screech Owl

Anyone taking outsider artist Henry Darger's 15,000-page, posthumously-published 'novel' In the Realms of the Unreal as its inspiration is no stranger to ambition. Jordaan Mason's 61-minute debut album may be modest in comparison to Darger's six decades of anonymous toil, but it possesses its own grandeur. Heavily indebted to Neutral Milk Hotel, the songs match rough acoustic strums to marching-band horns, with Mason's nasal wail intoning terrifying lyrics throughout. Here, a couple of no fixed gender fumble their way through lives together; with courtship, marriage, birth, disease, and death. Though it's a fantastical grotesquerie, Mason's text is socio-political parable, too, exploring how homosexuals navigate the "traditional narrative of a heterosexual relationship."

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The Kinks 'Are The Village Green Preservation Society' (1968)

The Kinks 'Are the Village Green Preservation Society'
The Kinks 'Are the Village Green Preservation Society'. Pye

With the arrival of The Who Sell Out and The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow, the English Invasion introduced the concept album to rock'n'roll. Where others made grander, more operatic statements, no one authored sustained narratives as cogent and forceful as The Kinks' Ray Davies. The Village Green Preservation Society kicked off a string of concept albums in style, with a set of peerless, jangling, classic pop united in singular theme. It paints a portrait of a rural English village and its eccentric inhabitants, but it's a lament for changing times, proudly wearing songs like "Last of the Steam-powered Trains" on its sleeve. Here, Davies authors a singular lament for the English traditions being swiftly lost to mass, consumerist culture.

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The Magnetic Fields '69 Love Songs' (1999)

The Magnetic Fields '69 Love Songs'
The Magnetic Fields '69 Love Songs'. Merge

Stephin Merritt had never identified with the indie world, but his particular loves —'30s showtunes, '60s country, '80s synth-pop— were so out-of-time in the grunged-up '90s that's where he ended up. Tired of toiling in the underground, Merritt —a lover of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter— wanted to take his act to Broadway. So he came up with a plan of writing 100 love-songs in any and all genres, as a CV for hiring producers. Eventually, he scaled it down to the more-salacious 69; and rolled them out on a triple-album that played like wildly-varied mix-tapes. If 69 Love Songs was Broadway or bust, Merritt failed. If his grand concept was a calling-card to greater acclaim, however, it was a spectacular success: instantly becoming the Magnetic Fields' most popular album.

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The Microphones 'Mount Eerie' (2003)

The Microphones 'Mount Eerie'
The Microphones 'Mount Eerie'. K

Raised on remote Fidalgo Island near the Canadian border, Phil Elverum grew up in the shadows of Mt. Erie's towering 1200 feet. To him, it was Mount Eerie, a looming, terrifying peak that served as a constant reminder of man's inconsequential stature in the face of nature. Elverum's Mount Eerie is an indie-rock opera about this; sending its protagonist on an Odyssey up the mythical mountain, where he comes face to face with the environment itself: the earth, the sun, and the universe all manifest as living beings. Musically, Elverum stages this as five long sections, built on Taiko drumming, distorted bass, and washed out choruses, and overlaid with wilderness sounds —whale-calls, snowfalls, wind and rain— as reminder of the immensity of nature.

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The Mountain Goats 'Tallahassee' (2002)

The Mountain Goats 'Tallahassee'
The Mountain Goats 'Tallahassee'. 4AD

For his first proper studio LP, Mountain Goats songsmith John Darnielle undertook his first long-form endeavor. The itinerate sage had long penned songs solely about fictional characters, but his (many) prior records had been, in such, short-story collections. Tallahassee takes a crack at album-as-novel, the sustained narrative detailing a failing marriage in pop-song form. Our man/wife move to the titular Floridian town, and their house comes loaded with potent symbols: crumbling foundations, overgrown yard, clogged gutters, "rotten wooden stairs," "sinking into disrepair." As the once-happy couple slide into drunkenness, despair, and drama, Darnielle's eye for lyrical detail is sharp, and the clearly-told story never wavers.

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Neon Neon 'Stainless Style' (2008)

Neon Neon 'Stainless Style'
Neon Neon 'Stainless Style'. Lex

Stainless Style is less rock-opera, more synth-opera. Here, beatmaker Boom Bip and Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys not only live up to their doubly-garish band-name, but create an audio shrine to the '80s as time-capsule. The LP's post-disco tone speaks of its theme: the life and times of John DeLorean, the sports-car pioneer whose crowning achievement was his own car line, most famous for its 'gull wing' doors and Back to the Future appearance. Charting DeLorean's humble beginnings, vertiginous rise, playboy reputation, pseudo-hip-hop-cred, and cocaine-blighted demise, Stainless Style has plenty in common with Scarface, and, from its opening "Neon Theme," it sometimes feels like Neon Neon are writing the score to an imagined, unmade biopic.

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Neutral Milk Hotel 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' (1998)

Neutral Milk Hotel 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'
Neutral Milk Hotel 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'. Merge

The phrase 'concept album' denotes a kind of scholarly intention, but Jeff Mangum's masterpiece feels more like a bloodletting. Its united suite of songs wasn't a work of conscious authorship, but subconscious fury; the tunes Mangum's attempt at translating persistent, vicious nightmares into songs. After reading Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, Mangum became haunted by her, and nightly dreamt of using a time-machine to return and save her. He set all this —in images of utter terror and furious emotion— to a mix of fuzzed-out lo-fi pop and full-blooded marching-band bomp, with its theme banding together even the kookiest experiments. Against all odds, it proved to be a work of perfection, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea lauded as one of the greatest albums ever.

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Of Montreal 'The Gay Parade' (1999)

Of Montreal 'The Gay Parade'
Of Montreal 'The Gay Parade'. Bar/None

Inspired by The Village Green Preservation Society and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes undertook this luridly-colored, suitably campy concept album. Here, the band wields its insufferably twee ways like a kind of weapon, taking whimsy and cutesiness to compositional extremes; this approach backed up by The Gay Parade's loaded, double-meaning title. The 16-song set is a portrait of a storybook small-town populated entirely by kooky caricatures and ridiculous motifs. The whole shtick —and album— peaks on the penultimate "Nickee Coco and the Invisible Tree," five epic minutes in which the whole fictional town —and roughly 20 members of the Elephant 6 collective— join in a joyous chorus.

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Owen Pallett 'Heartland' (2010)

Owen Pallett 'Heartland'
Owen Pallett 'Heartland'. Domino

After his final Final Fantasy LP, 2006's He Poos Clouds, was a Dungeons & Dragons themed concept album, it hardly seemed as if Owen Pallett could make a grander, nerdier work. Lo, along came Heartland, a fantasy epic set in an imaginary realm. With Pallett playing the land's brutal omniscient deity, we meet a cast of characters (Cockatrice, Blue Imelda, No-Face) and the tale's hero, Lewis, a poor farmer who the songwriter/God calls to lead a peasant's revolt. When things go awry, Lewis loses his faith ("I shiver with... the indifferences of the Storyteller") and slays 'Owen' in a symbolic act of the art severing itself from the artist. It's a potent piece of metafiction, like "Duck Amuck" remade with Czech orchestra and Arcade Fire members and astounding lyrics.

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Shirley & Dolly Collins 'Anthems in Eden' (1969)

Shirley & Dolly Collins 'Anthems in Eden'
Shirley & Dolly Collins 'Anthems in Eden'. Harvest

Many might misidentify Shirley and Dolly Collins' devotion to traditional folksong and archaic instruments as a form of rose-tinted Romanticism, harkening back to England's glorious past. But, rather, Shirley, a veritable walking repository of folksong, is a devoted student of history who knows that those who don't learn from it are doomed to repeat it. Dismayed at British involvement in Vietnam, here she takes charge of a traditional repertoire —played on contraptions called crumhorn, sackbut, sordun, rebec, and rackett— steeped in the casualties of conflict; songs running with the blood of young men sent away to death and the tears of the lasses they left behind. Its entire Side A is one single 28-minute suite that advances the album's ideology with perfection; and the whole thing is near perfect.

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Sufjan Stevens 'Michigan' (2003)

Sufjan Stevens 'Michigan'
Sufjan Stevens 'Michigan'. Sounds Familyre

Given all of Sufjan Stevens' LPs are concept-albums in one way or another, it was hard to settle on one. But Michigan stands out as the concept-album that took Stevens to the world, not to mention as the first of a planned series of 50(!) concept-albums. The super-ambitious multi-instrumentalist initially intended to author a record for every state in the union; digging through state history and setting it to impressionist song-form. Yet, Michigan was nowhere near as scholarly as its follow-up, Illinois; the fact that Stevens started with his home-state hardly a coincidence. Here, he pulls personal histories and piles them up with portraits of natural splendor and economic devastation, making for a poignant portrait the Midwestern state.

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The Thermals 'The Body, The Blood, The Machine' (2006)

The Thermals 'The Body, The Blood, The Machine'
The Thermals 'The Body, The Blood, The Machine'. Sub Pop

Many were calling Bush/Cheney/Rumself America 'dystopian' —the war for oil, the Patriot Act, the glorified gulag at Guantánamo— far fewer were actually authoring narratives that harkened back to the dystopian sci-fi tales of yore. Lo-fi Portland punks The Thermals were up to such a task, though. Their third LP, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, was a timely political parable whose sustained narrative depicted a pair of young lovers trying to escape from the Orwellian nightmare of an evangelical, totalitarian America. With much pointed irony, songwriter Hutch Harris hijacks the bible, evoking Old Testament tales of persecution, damnation, and liberation as the adventure's heroes look to free 'future' Americans from the yoke of oppression.