I’ve always enjoyed the emotion & thought that goes into a concept album, & I find them to be a lot of fun in general because I think it’s fascinating that a story told through music can have such a huge impact & application in our modern world. In my opinion, all the best concept albums need an element of misery in order to make them compelling, so here’s a selection that have made a lasting impression on my ears:
1: The Antlers – Hospice
Hospice tells the story of a relationship between a hospice worker and a female patient suffering from terminal bone cancer, their ensuing romance, and their slow downward spiral as a result of the woman’s traumas, fears, and disease. Frontman Peter Silberman has been reluctant to divulge explicit details regarding the meaning of the record, and the extent to which it is autobiographical, but it certainly has the power to emotionally destroy the listener.
2: Clipping – Splendour & Misery
The album, with a mix of futuristic and classical instrumentation, tells the story of an enslaved person, referred to as Cargo #2331, in the future in outer space. The album was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, an award given every year by the World Science Fiction Society for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements. The award is typically for television and film presentations, so kudos to the band for putting themselves (albeit unintentionally) in the running for it.
3: Danny Brown – Old
If Danny Brown’s ‘XXX’ was a concept album about desperation, then ‘Old’ is a concept album about existential confusion. Growing up might not sound like a dramatic subject, but it’s something we can all relate to. The album is divided into Side A & Side B, aesthetic devotion that’s small but satisfying & not seen too often these days. But what’s great about this record is just how mixed up it is – Brown’s past, present & future, his crazy side, his calm side, party songs & ‘difficult listening’ songs. A disturbing plunge into the recesses of a human mind.
4: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Like Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar is one of the best rappers working today, & like a lot of concept albums, we’re taken on a dark cinematic journey into the soul. In a nutshell: Kendrick starts to become successful, but can’t escape his environment (Compton). So, he shuts himself off from the world and starts analysing his mind. He gains knowledge & starts applying it to himself and those around him. Lo & behold, it turns out that Kendrick was the caterpillar who was being pimped, but now he’s a butterfly and free. OK, so I just gave you the Sparknotes version – just listen to this dense but dazzling masterpiece.
5: Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
Many of the lyrics in Illinois make references to persons, places, and events related to the state of the same name: A UFO sighting by police officers where several persons reported seeing a large triangular object with three lights flying at night. A reference to the World’s Columbian Exposition, which took place in Chicago in 1893. A song that documents the story of the 1970’s Chicago-based serial killer John Wayne Gacy & a song that interweaves a personal story with the state holiday Casimir Pulaski Day. And that’s just 4 tracks, there’s still another 18…
6: The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free
A rap opera which follows the story of its protagonist’s relationship with a girl named Simone, alongside the mysterious loss of £1000 from his home (the eponymous “grand”) & his efforts to recoup the money. Several tasks are attempted during the day, but they don’t go to plan. This is like Homer’s Odyssey – the South London version. Mike Skinner doesn’t care about pinball wizards or ancient alien races & when this album was released it was unprecedented.
7: Dr. Octagon – Dr. Octagonecologyst
Damn – where do I even start with this one? The debut solo album of American rapper (noticing a theme?) Kool Keith & produced by Dan The Automator, Dr. Octagonecologyst introduces the character of Dr. Octagon: a homicidal, extraterrestrial, time-travelling gynecologist & surgeon. Kool Keith’s lyrics are often abstract, absurd & avant-garde, using surrealism, non-sequiturs, hallucinatory psychedelia, & horror & science fiction imagery, as well as sexual & juvenile humour. This is an undefined area where hip-hop meets porn & whenever I give it a spin, I’m always bowled over by it’s originality and vision.