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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Albums That Tell A Story

A while ago I had a conversation about concept albums, and I insisted that a friend of mine listen to my favorite album: The Wall by Pink Floyd (and also by Roger Water's Raging Ego, aka "Apologies for Spiting In Your Face, Audience").

The conversation migrated to his lament that concept albums, or at least albums with an overarching theme or good story telling seemed to have gone the wayside since the 70's, with a smattering here and there in the 90's. At first I was stymied, because all of the albums that instantly prang to mind happened to be 90's and prior. Like oh crap, what about Nine Inch Nails? Er, or like the Moody Blues. And uh, crap. Like more Pink Floyd? And...Bowie...ah shit.

But then I started scrolling through my massive iPod collection of music, and realized that there are some great thematic albums that are post 90's.

Here are my favorites:

6. Pretty much anything by The Decemberists: The Decemberists are clever story tellers, and 90% of their songs involve actual events from history, centuries old tales, or faintly melancholic tales of life lived before modernity. I heart The Decemberists for their rock folksy vibe, Colin Meloy's strong yet warbly voice, and eclectic lyrics.

Some favsie songs to check out are:

"O Valencia!" A Romeo and Juliet styled song of love and feuding families.

 "The Rake's Song" is a dark tale of a Rake who decides to rid himself of his own children in order to become a playa' again.

"Leslie Ann Levine" A child's ghost haunts the hills where she was birthed prematurely.

5. Muse – The Resistance: I am an unabashed Muse fan, and going to see them in concert was a mind-bending experience of just how ridiculously talented musically they are. While The Resistance is not my favorite Muse album, still it blew me away. With strains of Orwellian uber-goverments taking control of the masses, the songs fight with all the power of a sonic boom. With the lead singer Bellamy's soaring rock opera shit-kick-you-in-the-ear-drums falsetto, and symphonic strings and classical piano mixed in with bass thumping anthems, this thematic album will have you fist pumping for an uprising.

4. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible: Or you know, pretty much every Arcade Fire album. And yet, Neon Bible is my favorite. Though I feel their theme is a little cynical and heavy handed, Neon Bible chronicles stories of television's mind-control of the masses, including religious/ridiculous televangelists, the widening gaps of the rich and poor, and all of the problems of middle America. While I find the theme completely cynical for a Canadian indie rock band, the songs soar with wild accompaniments, including a large church organ (you must absolutely listen to "Intervention" for the organ alone), choirs, strings and good old acoustic guitars.    

3. The Killers – Sam's Town: I've purchased every Killers album when it comes out, and they remain one of my very few exclusive instant buys. Sam's Town is still my favorite, because it has that sort of instant nostalgia as the album winds its way through a childhood growing up in good old town America, spending the afternoons being reckless and young. Where Arcade Fire's Neon Bible is cynical, Sam's Town is an unabashed ode to growing up in Middle America and going back home.

2. Bloc Party – Weekend in the City: This is my favorite Bloc Party album, and I've honestly written more than a few stories to its tracks. The powerhouse behind the theme is Kele Okereke, who ruminates on living in the bustling hubbub of a modern city, with all of its pains and promises, from "Where Is Home?" which questions the concept of race and hatred, to "I Still Remember" which floats with crisp chimes about a simpler time of adolescence and learning to love. As usual, many of the tracks are imbued with a break neck ferocity of energy.  

1. Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over the Sea: This one is a tiny bit of a cheat, in that it actually came out in 1998, but I didn't stumble across it until the early 2000s. So there. NMH is one of those strange entities that people either absolutely love and admire, or judiciously despise as the hipstery dregs of indie, lo-fi nonsense noise. Arrangements are spare, and Jeff Mangum's voice is raw, emotional, unflinchingly honest, and often off from the notes his voice struggles to reach. Mangum admitted in a couple of interviews that he wrote In the Aeroplane Over the Sea after reading The Diary of Anne Frank. The lyrics of any NHM song are so full of surreal imagery that it almost feels like reading a description of a series of circus freak-like photographs.

The first time I listened to In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, it took me a day or two to fully digest it. It wasn't like anything else I'd heard before.

If you listen to one song at all from this, I'd suggest "Two-Headed Boy." Ack, what am I saying? Listen to it all.

Listen. To. It. Now.

Any of you out there have any favorite story/concept albums?  


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