Five Great Concept Albums (That Are Not Called “Tommy” or “The Wall”)

rushAs a musician, a concept album must be a tough undertaking. Not only do you have to make every song relate at least tangentially to a central idea, but those songs have to be decent as well! Many groups have tried (I’m trying to think of a failed concept album but i literally cannot because they’re just that unmemorable), but only a few have succeeded.

(general murmur of approval)

Groups besides The Who and Pink Floyd, I mean.

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(uproar and disapproval)

It’s true. Listen:

5. Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship – Blows Against the Empire

What would happen if the members of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and CSN gathered in a San Francisco studio and spun a ridiculous tale about a group of hippies who steal a government spaceship in order to form a utopia on another planet?

This happened. As Jefferson Airplane began the Cronenbergian transformation into Jefferson Starship, Paul Kantner took the reins with this fully-formed homage to the sci-fi work of Robert Heinlein. Listen for harmonies by David Crosby and Graham Nash and banjo by Jerry Garcia, not to mention Grace Slick and not one, but two drummers of the Grateful Dead (Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman). It’s fucking nuts, but it works.

Also, I’ve written about it previously.

Also, this:

4. Phish – Rift

Phish’s live shows are filled with explosive energy and a real “anything goes” mentality. Songs flow into one another seamlessly as the band truly involves the audience in an authentic experience. However, when Phish steps into the studio, the results are less consistent. When the group attempted a concept album with 1993’s Rift, the odds didn’t look too good. But never tell Phish the odds. Rift turned out to be a dense, layered, and thematically rewarding entry into the concept album canon. It never strays too far from the central idea (a series of dreams based around a tumultuous  relationship) but doesn’t adhere too closely to the theme to become worn out. This is a great lesson for whipper-snappers.

3. This Heat – Deceit

I can tell I’m getting old because I repeat myself constantly. This is another album that I’ve written about for this site before.

That may be true, but it still remains one of the most effective statements against–well, everything–that I’ve ever heard. Commercialism, imperialism, blind jingoism and even the latent fascism of the Reagan era gets skewered in this unforgettable portrait of a post-nuclear society. Sort of a musical counterpoint to the work of authors like J.G. Ballard and Don DeLillo. Also you can dance to it (Not really).

2. Husker Du – Zen Arcade

Even though we’re not mentioning the two amazing and obviously great concept albums by The Who in this list, it’s certainly not out of line to suggest that the ambiguously moral teen angst perfected by Pete Townshend had a major influence on Husker Du’s magnum opus. After all, Zen tells the story of a teenage protagonist who longs to break out of his sterile and suburban environment and defy his square parents. He flees safety, spending an eventful night among the addicts and opportunists in the big city, and ultimately decides he’s not ready for that shit, crawling back into his childhood bed. But again, we’re not mentioning Quadrophenia, are we?

Regardless of the influence, the album is packed with slashing guitars snare rolls and copious attitude that could only be the work of “The Du,” and the group occupy every conceivable nook and cranny of punk rock, creating a work that has been equaled in its scope only a handful of times. This is the quintessential teenage album of the 1980’s.

1. Rush – 2112

If Zen Arcade is for the punk rock freaks and druggies, then 2112 is for their  “D & D” neighbors (for the record, I was a little of both in high school).

Rush’s seminal concept album explores a world where music as we know it no longer exists and every bit of art we consume is decided for us by an oppressive regime. One legendary man finds an ancient guitar and begins creating new music. Ultimately, he is destroyed by the priests of the regime for being different.

The lesson here: Never be different. Ever.

Unless you’re Rush.

Photo credit: By Enrico Frangi (Uploaded by User:Jonasz) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

5 comments to “Five Great Concept Albums (That Are Not Called “Tommy” or “The Wall”)”
  1. This was an interesting list. Who knew that Jefferson Starship partook in making a concept album. I would have to add The Mars Volta’s de-loused in the comatorium. During high school it was my everything and helped me get into more and more music. We also had a great concept album/rock opera come out this year in the form of Titus Andronicus’ The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Good stuff indeed.

  2. I thought about including Titus, actually. I just figured I didn’t have enough time to become properly acquainted with it (also, despite loving the group, I found it a tiny bit bloated).

  3. The Kinks “Preservation” trilogy of albums are the best top to bottom. The live show was even better. The concept of political corruption is sooo relevant today. Husker Du?????

    • I agree, Kinks do not get as much credit for being one of the best bands of all time. This is especially true of socially relevant music.

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