The Top Ten Greatest Concept Albums of All Time

…in no particular order:

Harry and the Potters‘s self-titled album, Harry and the Potters.

I’m a big fan of Potter Puppet Pals‘ “The Mysterious Ticking Noise”, but I doubt that’s the type of music that Ron and Harry would make if they started a band.  I imagine that if they were to pick up instruments, they would make music that was distinctly indie rock.  They would sing songs like “I am a Wizard” and “Gryffindor Rocks”.  Well…Massachusetts band, Harry and the Potters, agrees wholeheartedly. They record songs from the Harry Potter universe with a sound that’s a cross between the White Stripes and the Ramones with the sensibilities of They Might Be Giants mixed in to keep themselves from getting to serious. Pop in the CD and you could easily imagine Harry singing out “The Dark Lord Lament” and “Problem Solving Skillz” with Ron on guitar and Hermione on keyboards. As Harry might say:
I didn’t go anywhere near the goblet of fire
Who could have put my name in the goblet of fire?
Who wants me involved in this tournament?
These circumstances are so mysterious.
How did I become the fourth Triwizard Champion?

Beatallica‘s Grey Album

I picked up this album after it was described to be as a “mash up” album, but it’s a mistake to assume that this is some DJ mixing Beatles tracks and Metallica tracks. In fact, Beatallica is a highly original band playing on the two bands songs without ever playing them.  The actual effect of the album is far more surreal than any mash-up album.  Imagine if John Lennon fell asleep one night and had a nightmare that he was the frontman for Metallica being forced to write songs in the Metallica style as he slips in and out of lucidity, his subconscious in an epic tug-of-war between Lars and Paul.  Yeah…it’s something like that.  Starting with “Blackened the USSR” (which sounds like Metallica trying to sing “Back in the USSR” but forgetting what song they were singing) and running through “We Can Hit the Lights” (which is almost “Hit the Lights” to the tune of “We Can Work It Out”…but not quite). It’s not just Beatles and Metallica that are pulled into the mix, much like the seemingly random imagery that appear in a great work by Dalí or Kahlo, you’ll hear references to Bananarama, White Lion, and Warrant. Even Madonna is sampled, but not of her singing, from the infamous online faux-copy of “American Life”.

They Might Be Giants, Live at the Edison Historic Site in West Orange, NJ

This album has not been released, so I felt that perhaps I shouldn’t include it.  Then I thought about the reason it hasn’t been released and it’s specifically for the reason that I wanted to include it on my top-ten list of concept albums. It was recorded live at the Edison Center, so fittingly it was recorded on one of Edison‘s wax cylinders. To take the motif further, they recorded the album without any electricity at all…just the way the first “records” were originally recorded: the instruments were all acoustic, there was no mixing involved, and the sound went through a metal cone that funneled the songs into the first sound recording device. The wax cylinder hasn’t been released since most people don’t have a player and the cylinder can only be played a dozen times before the needle playing the cylinder destroys the wax on which it is recored, but “I Can Here You” has been made available on both Factory Showroom and Dial-a-Song. Hopefully they will transfer the whole concert to CD eventually or even reproduce the wax cylinder itself!  I’d but one, and…hell… they don’t even actually have to record the concert on it!  I’d have no way of knowing what (if anything) is actually recorded on it!

Phish‘s White Tape

Although a clear reference to the title BeatlesWhite Album, Phish covers none of the songs from the White Album, nothing is sambple or borrowed from it, and the sound is distinctively very Phish and not very Beatles. (Anyone looking for Phish covering the Beatles should look for the live recording of their 10/31/94 concert where they actually cover the White Album in its entirety.) While there is nothing specifically to link the White Tape to the White Album, the comparison Beatles:White Album::Phish:White Tape still feels right. The White Album has been described by The New Rolling Stone Album Guide as having “loads of self-indulgent filler,” identifying “Revolution #9” in particular as “justly maligned,” and suggests that listeners in the CD era may have an advantage over the album’s original audience since they can program CD players to skip over unwanted tracks. Likewise you might want to skip over some of the tracks on The White Tape (assuming you have The White Tape on CD).  The most self-indulgent of the filler is “Minkin” a song that drops in tracks of Mike Gordon‘s mother talking about the family cat fading in and out reminiscent of the “number nine” chant.

William Shatner‘s Transformed Man

If you are familiar with Shatner‘s cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, you may only know half the story…literally. The popular edit of the song is the second half of a longer track called “Spleen/Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. The latter half is now famous, but the first 2:52 is a dramatic reading of Charles Baudelaire‘s poem “Spleen”. It is a disturbingly dark, nightmarish poem to which “Lucy” stands in counterpoint. “Lucy” is often ridiculed for its silliness, but it makes sense after Shatner declares, “Hope, conquered, cries, and despotic, atrocious Agony plants on my bent skull its flag of black.” Each track on the album follows this pattern (“Cyrano de Bergerac/Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Hamlet/It Was a Very Good Year” for example), each song brings epic poetry together with a pop song for artistic contrast. “Spleen” might be the darkest, so of course “Lucy” needs to be the silliest.  If you’ve judged William Shatner‘s musical career on half of one track taken out of context, you should listen to the whole album in its entirety and you might think differently.

The Who‘s Tommy

I considered other musicals, especially Jesus Christ Superstar: The Brown Album, since, like Tommy, The Brown Album existed as an album before it existed as a musical, but unlike Superstar Tommy‘s best form was and always will be the album version. Although a rock opera’s manifest destiny would usually be a stage version, neither the Broadway version nor the movie can touch the recordings of The Who performing their own piece. The movie’s soundtrack is certainly impressive with its collection of performers (Elton John, Tina Turner, and Eric Clapton, to name just a few) and is certainly a better offering than the crisp, clean Broadway version which clinically and systematically removes the rock ‘n’ roll from the score, but for my money having Pete, John, and Roger tell the tale is perfect simplicity in both musicality and in storytelling. Perhaps it’s the verfremdungeffekt of distancing the actual performers from the fictional characters allowing the listener to consider the story of Tommy more clearly apart from the phenomnelogy…or maybe it’s just that The Who rocks harder than anyone else ever.

Nine Inch Nails‘ The Downward Spiral

This album makes the list because it feels like the destruction of a human being to me even if I can’t understand it intellectually. The lyrics are nothing short of nihilistic plotting a dizzying trajectory of a tale as the protagonists life spirals down. It’s rather like an aural version of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The imagery is dense, starting with the sound of a prison beating from George LucasTHX 1138 through to the sounds of quiet sobbing from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  I imagine that the best way to enjoy the album would be to put the right panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” on a spinning wheel, spin as fast as you can at the beginning of Mr. Self-destruct”, and time it so that the painting gradually slows to a stop at the beginning of “Hurt”.  If you can figure out how to do this, then invite me over and we’ll listen to the album together.

Savatage‘s Dead Winter Dead

I will not argue that “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” is one of the best Christmas songs ever recorded, but that’s literally only 1/13th of the story. The song was originally released as “Sarajevo 12/24” back when the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was still known as the prog band Savatage, and the song is just one moment in an epic story of a Serb boy and a Muslim girl falling in love against the backdrop of the Bosnian War. I want to be mad at Paul O’Neil bailing on Savatage to record Christmas Eve and Other Stories, but since the “Other Stories” are pretty darn amazing Christmas carols so it plays in heavy rotation at my family’s house. Fans of prog rock are probably already familiar with Savatage, but for everyone else “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” just might be your way into prog music. (For those not familiar with prog rock: take Transiberian Orchestra and add a dash more heavy metal, then take the melodies and imagine them more modal or perhaps even atonal or downright dissonant.)  If you’ve ever wondered what Sarajevo has to do with Christmas Eve, then perhaps you should try out this love story that explores the problem of evil in our world.

Pat Boone‘s No More Mr. Nice Guy

In the 1950’s Pat Boone was the answer for Americans who were too racist to listen to great songs by the original artists. The R&B of the songs were toned down so that they wouldn’t sound too black, and Pat Boone turned them into pop southern gospel ballads. The British invasion pretty much killed his career, but in 1997 he put out a comeback album. This time his target was not black musicians but those heavy metal bands, and much like he did in the 50’s he covered such songs as “Crazy Train” and “Enter Sandman” into his own style. Man, did that piss people off. Not the metalheads, the Christian right!He was summarily dismissed from his show on Trinity Broadcasting.  Some people just don’t understand irony. Seriously, somewhere along the line Boone realized that he was taking himself far to seriously and also realized that the intentions of his musical career were misguided.  To recognize this, he put out No More Mr. Nice Guy as a “parody of himself”.

Madonna‘s I’m Breathless

The presence of “Vogue” almost disqualified this album from the list, but if you pretend that the song isn’t there…what you have is an album by fictional character Breathless Mahoney from the Dick Tracy serial. The album is one of three soundtracks for the 1990 film, and I’m Breathless features the least amount of songs from Dick Tracy.  Only three songs from the album were in the film: “Sooner or Later”, “More”, and “What Can You Lose?” Madonna of course played Breathless in the film and continued to record songs off-screen in character to finish the album. Andy Paley wrote seven original songs for Mahoney. Although spurned by Madonna fans, she told Rolling Stone that it’s one of her favorite albums. Rolling Stone went on to say that “no other pop star today could – or probably would – make an album like this.” Madonna is always reinventing herself, so it shouldn’t be surprising that she can also reinvent someone else!

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