Concept albums are very nearly a dirty word in modern music. Written off as either overtly pretentious tripe with some not-so-hidden agenda or self-indulgent prance through the authors psyche, there’s little room for them on most CD shelves (or, more realistically, iPod playlists). But what of the forgotten gems? That is to say, what of the concept albums that were actually—whisper it—good? I’ve compiled a list of the best ever concept albums—pretension and all.
10. American Idiot – Green Day
The first concept album I ever heard was one I received for my tenth birthday—a raw, ripping tirade riddled with great punk guitar riffs and lyrics that erred on the right side of clever. An album following the metaphorical Jesus of Suburbia through the depleted horrors of modern America, it led thousands of teenagers up in arms. Until 21st Century Breakdown came out, that is.
9. Tommy – The Who
While many might pick Quadrophenia as The Who’s finest foray into conceptual territory, there’s something to be said for Tommy—a loosely tied-together tale of the eponymous deaf, dumb and blind kid (who sure plays a me-e-e-ean pinball). It’s one of those rare albums where every song works equally as well on it’s own as it does as part of a whole, and the whole thing’s just a magnificent slice of uninhibited late-sixties rock.
8. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie
No list of concept albums would ever be complete without this utter masterpiece from Bowie. At it’s core, it’s completely ridiculous. Bowie prances around singing about little men from space in tight trousers. But his ethereal voice and charismatic delivery sear throughout this celestial magnum opus—a salute to ambition and carrying it off.
7. Danger Days: The Life and Times of the Fabulous Killjoys – My Chemical Romance
If we’re discussing actual concept albums, what would turn out to be MCR’s last full album acts as a far more cohesive whole than The Black Parade. A modern glam-rock saga, it follows the Fabulous Killjoys across a dystopian future with guns, cars, sex and a lot of synthy dance numbers. A guilty pleasure that shouldn’t be.
6. The Defamation of Strickland Banks – Plan B
After producing what was essentially a run-of-the-mill hip-hop album, British rapper Ben Drew rose from the ashes to international acclaim for his superb sophomore album. Polished, clever, and passionate, it follows fictional rapper Strickland Bank’s fall from grace, and lays claim to one of the best singles of the year in the form of swing-rap number “She Said.”
5. The ArchAndroid – Janelle Monae
This is, delightfully, not the kind of album you’d expect from a pretty girl with a great voice. Monae took hold of utopian concept with both hands in this two-suite symphony; a mixture of funk, pop, rock, rap and dance, there’s everything to like about this powerful and confident futurist piece. And what’s even more sickening? This was her first album. Too talented for her own good, that woman.
4. Leviathian – Mastodon
An album based on Moby-Dick? Um, yes please. This incredible piece is more than just a slice of slightly clever metal. It’s a rich, intelligent dissection of the themes of the book surrounded by an amazing and cohesive score, displaying the always-interesting Mastodon at the height of their powers. Pretentious? You’re damn right. And all the better for it.
3. Scenes from a Memory – Dream Theater
To describe Dream Theater as a metal band would be to do them somewhat of a disservice, particularly when it comes to this album. Scenes from a Memory is an eclectic mix of instruments, styles and time signatures. At heart, it’s an incredibly ambient album that’s nonetheless one of the most fascinating (and symphonic) collections put to paper in the last twenty years.
2. Resistance – Muse
While some might argue over whether this is Muse’s finest album or not, it’s certainly their most coherent concept album. A scatter shot through genres—rock, swing, lounge, orchestral, electronic, Queen. It blatantly name-checks Orwell’s 1984 in the first song and continues in that vein of the histrionic, the dramatic, and the all-round entertaining that we’ve come to expect from a Muse album.
1. The Wall – Pink Floyd
Yes, we’ve got to have the monarchs of the concept album universe at the top of the list, and The Wall represents their best work as far as I’m concerned. Born from disillusionment and dissatisfaction, it’s a slightly pompous but ultimately brilliant tear through a band having a second wind of the finest kind. The instrumentation is transcendent, the lyrics relatable and the vocals utterly memorable. Simply put, its a little slice of perfection.
Metallica, U2 and Green Day: together. I smell the distinct scent of worldwide domination and cold, hard cash.
In a recent interview with MTV, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich spoke of his desires to form a joint tour between the three alternative behemoths:
“U2 came to San Francisco two summers ago and we ended up having a lot to drink with them and Green Day following a dinner. I was told in the wee morning hours following this outing that members of U2, Green Day and Metallica agreed to tour together. We haven’t talked about it since, but speaking for myself I’d be very up for that.”
Next time you end up drinking a lot with U2, get the contracts involved and get going – PLEASE.
Ulrich’s love affair with the Irish megastars is well-documented. Indeed, in a 2010 interview with Australia’s Faster Louder, Ulrich referred to himself as:
“the hugest U2 fan — I would borderline call myself a groupie, actually. Playing with U2… I would fucking play on the parking lot. They’re one of the only other bands that are still functioning after 30 years, just like we are, and I feel a lot of kinship in what they do and I just really admire and appreciate… They’re really inspiring to me. I love their music, I love their way of reinventing themselves, and I love their way or thinking big and small. And it sort of works on all levels.”
Whether or not it happens is another matter, but perhaps slightly closer to the realms of possibility is a Metallica headlining slot at legendary festival Glastonbury. The drummer told MTV UK that he’d be game:
“We’ve been fortunate enough to play every other festival on this planet numerous times, so Glastonbury is the only one that’s eluding us,” Ulrich said. “There’s such a vibe and it’s maybe the most quintessentially English festival.”
Soundwave 2014 just got real. The Australian festival has just added Green Day, Korn and Alice in Chains, Avenged Sevenfold and Megadeth to its books.
Festival organizer AJ Maddah, dubbed the most powerful person in the Australian music industry last month, was said to have been in negotiations as late as this morning, but again, pulled out all the stops, and proved his salt as a music mogul, securing a mighty line up indeed.
Maddah himself had said that there was no way in a million years that next year’s line up could’ve topped this years, and to be fair, this year’s was pretty impressive, with 300 million sales amongst the headliners alone. The festival also drew an estimated 270,000 fans across five venues in February. In March, Maddah tweeted: “We’re not going to top [the 2013 lineup]. It was our 10th anniversary, so a 1 off big show [sic].”
That being said, Soundwave 2014 is off to a pretty good start, with at least 240 million album sales between the main acts, which include Green Day, alternative metalheads Korn and grunge pioneers Alice in Chains, as well as Stone Temple Pilots (with Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington as frontman, after Scott Weiland was dumped this year) and cult American funk-metal act Living Colour.
Other big names include English alternative act Placebo; Megadeth, considered one of “the four pillars of thrash metal”, filmmaker and sometimes musician Rob Zombie (aka Rob Bartleh Cummings), Newsted (led by former Metallica bass player Jason Newsted) and Scottish rockers Biffy Clyro, named Best British Band at the 2013 NME Awards.
Soundwave started in 2004 as a one-day show in a single city – Perth. Now, the festival regularly sells about 200,000 tickets and sits up there with Big Day Out and the EDM fests Stereosonic and Future Music Festival.
As is usually the case, the lineups for the Reading and Leeds music festivals are shaping up to be among the biggest of the European festivals this year with Nine Inch Nails, Eminem and Green Day announced as performers.
Other notable artists this year include Fall Out Boy, Phoenix, Skrillex, Alt-J, Tame Impala, Johnny Marr, Azealia Banks, A$AP Rocky, System of a Down, Deftones, the Lumineers, Brand New, New Found Glory and Editors. More artists will be announced at a later date.
As is always the case, both the Reading and Leeds festivals will take place on the same weekend, which will be August 23-25 this year. The lineups for the festivals are the same as the artists travel to each festival. Technically the headliners of the festivals are Eminen, Green Day and Scottish rock trio Biffy Clyro, the latter of which will play after Nine Inch Nails at the festivals.
At a festival launch party recently, organizer Melvin Benn told reporters why he was excited to have Green Day back at the festival this year.
“They’ve got this vibrancy that only teenagers have, they’re extraordinary,” Benn said, according to stereoboard.com. “Let’s not beat about the bush, they’re a headline band for Leeds and Reading. We always want them to come and headline because they bring such great fun and excitement and they’ve got great songs.”
Benn also said that he believes Biffy Clyro “are absolutely ready” to make their first headlining appearance at the festivals.
This year’s festivals will be the first to feature the new BBC Radio 1Xtra stage, which will host UK grime acts Devlin and Wiley, among others.
The Reading Festival is the older of the two festivals, and is reportedly known as the oldest popular music festival that still exists because of its origins as the National Jazz Festival in the early 1960s.
If we’re being honest, the first two installments in Green Day’s back-to-basics trilogy, ¡Uno! and ¡Dos!, did not differentiate themselves enough to warrant the ambition of the band in releasing their music this way. ¡Tre! is where they absolutely have to prove that three albums were necessary, to make up for the heaps of filler thrown to the masses with the first two volleys.
‘Brutal Love’ opens the album with Green Day’s interpretation of doo-wop, and it’s one of the strongest tracks of the entire trilogy. The band is adept at manipulating their sound to mix with just about any genre or style, and they seldom if ever fail when they do it. The trouble is that, as evidenced by ¡Dos! and its 70s-singalong opener, the boys seem to struggle with keeping unique qualities from petering out over the course of a record.
You can’t just open with a sound that is a bit different and then play 11 songs which are indiscernible from American idiot, and have the audacity to claim it is a new direction or a great step in the band’s evolution. That is exactly what they have done up to this point, and it has resulted in one or two standout tracks for each disc in the set while the lion’s share of songs feel almost completely unnecessary.
‘Missing You’ is about as typical a Green Day tune as might be possible, dashing my personal hope that their stylistic exploration could last more than one track. It seems like Green Day has a default setting that even they are tired of, but they push themselves to try new things– to great success! The problem is that they have to push so hard to do it, and when they lean back on their hands the music finds its way right back to center.
From here to the tenth track it feels like nothing important happens at all. The songs bleed together, they lack energy and all feel slightly slowed down. ‘Drama Queen’ shows potential, but it’s all stripped away with both hokey lyrics and production. The only song to really try to grab the listener’s full attention is ‘Sex, Drugs and Violence’, but it winds up being remarkably tame for a song boasting that sort of title. If the main thing that differentiates this album from the previous two is that it is somewhat boring, it is a rousing success. Up to this point it feels like ¡Tre! is the weakest of the three releases.
As I listened to the record I was left feeling confused by the way things were going. It’s not that any of this is objectively terrible, but this isn’t what the band wants to do or what they appear to think they are doing. They went into a room together to work out some music that was raw, a bit different, and personal. What they came out with however were 37 songs that seem highly formulaic, sound exactly like their back catalog, and could have been written by a committee. There is a massive disconnect between the way the band thinks and speaks of their music and what they actually put out.
‘Dirty Rotten Bastards’ brings a bit of life to the record, with just two more songs to go. The song lies somewhere between an older breed of punk rock and a sea shanty, and it manages to make full use of its six and a half minute runtime. Up to this point it is the best they have offered, and this one song, considered on its own, achieves everything the band set out to do. This is pop-punk with a worthy twist, and it feels like the sort of thing Green Day should be spending their time on.
Following that refresher on what the band’s strengths really are, ‘99 Revolutions’ comes across as an excellent addition to their catalog. If there were a few more songs like it on ¡Tre! this one would likely fail to resonate, but with the lull that is the very broad and dreary center of this record the final three tracks are refreshing, and validating of Green Day’s style.
The closing track is ‘The Forgotten’, a beautiful piano ballad with a simple chord progression that would be a hit single in just about any era under the right circumstances. Billy Joe sings of the passage of time in simplistic poetry, knowing exactly how to close a record. Or three of them.
Every single time that an artist or a band puts out a double album, or in this case a three album set of 37 songs, the question has to be asked: Would this have been a whole lot better if they took the ten best tracks and put all of their energy into that single disc? The answer is yes, definitely, without a doubt, one thousand times yes. There are great moments, and the final three tracks of ¡Tre! may be the strongest section of all, but there are just too many flaws, lulls, and skippable tracks to say that anyone needs all 37 songs. Worse, the three albums do not feel as if they each have a well defined soul of their own, as if songs from any of them could be swapped without making much if any difference. So what was the point?
Even the good songs are going to be that much more forgettable because they came as a part of a massive onslaught of music which conditions the listener not to really care or pay attention. It wouldn’t take a lot of trimming to turn this collection into one of Green Day’s best albums, but the band’s ambition, and maybe their collective ego, might have gotten the better of them here.
Release Date: December 11, 2012
Image Courtesy of Reprise
After canceling all scheduled dates this year after announcing frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s stint in rehab, Green Day is now set to tour North America starting next March.
The newly released concert dates begin with a show at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on March 28, and the band is scheduled to stay on the road through an April 12 show in Quebec City, Quebec. In between those dates, the group will perform in Moline, Illinois; Pittsburgh; Rochester, New York; Philadelphia; Fairfax, Virginia; Uncasville, Connecticut; Brooklyn; Providence, Rhode Island and Toronto. However, the dates the band previously had scheduled in January and February have now been cancelled rather than postponed.
“We want to thank everyone for hanging in with us for the last few months,” said the band in a statement announcing the new dates. “We are very excited to hit the road and see all of you again, though we regret having to cancel more shows.”
Armstrong also posted a note of his own to the band’s official website.
“Dear friends … I just want to thank you all for the love and support you’ve shown for the past few months,” Armstrong wrote. “Believe me, it hasn’t gone unnoticed and I’m eternally grateful to have such an amazing set of friends and family. I’m getting better everyday. So now, without further ado, the show must go on. We can’t wait to get on the road and live out loud! Our passion has only grown stronger.”
The band’s website also lists a slew of festival and arena dates in Europe beginning in late May and running through the middle of June.
The tour will support three albums the band released this year, the last of which was moved up from its original scheduled release date in January to earlier this month to make up for the postponed and canceled shows.
When I wrote my review for the first of Green Day’s three-part album release, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tre!, I said that parts two and three would have to differentiate themselves in some way or the whole collection might be just about irrelevant. Putting out records in this way lends a band a great deal of flexibility to be creative or experimental, and to reach three entirely different audiences, but that first release was mostly pop-punk filler. It was disappointing. I enter into this review hopeful that they are yet willing to change things up.
‘See You Tonight’ is a very unique opening for a Green Day record. It sounds like a stoner singalong from the 1970s, and does a fantastic job of creating an intimate atmosphere to set the stage for the record, but it’s over very quickly and the album never really ventures back into that territory.
These songs all have a slightly older sound than those on ¡Uno!, at times venturing back to Green Day’s garage roots, and even further back as they dip into more 70s and 80s punk and ska influences. While ¡Uno! didn’t do enough to separate itself from the watered down pep-punk which saturates what remains of that market, ¡Dos! is a markedly more interesting album. However, it would be hard not to earn at least that as a mark in the positive column, and this is still highly derivative music.
‘Fuck Time’ isn’t a complaint about the number of hours in the day, or a YOLO-like message about living it up while one is young, but a direct order. Guess what we’re doing tonight, baby? Oh yeah, it’s fuck time! The song just doesn’t seem to work; It feels like the band is trying to be cheeky for its own sake and– while that can be a good thing sometimes– it is more likely to elicit a grimace than a hot date.
For a band to go for a more vintage punk style makes feeling authentic that much more difficult, but also that much more important. Green Day does not pull off this magic trick, and instead this is another collection of poppy, disposable music, just with a few different motifs thrown in which end up feeling like gimmicks in most cases once you have context.
‘Wild One’ sounds like a song made for prom, which brings it firmly in-line with the songs on ¡Uno! which I described as feeling like they were designed exclusively for teen movie soundtracks. By this point in the record they seem already to have lost any ambition to make a thematic or noticeably different record, if that was ever their intention.
‘Nightlife’ is probably the most interesting song on the album, but it might also be the least successful. It creeps up behind you with funky bass, innuendo and spy guitar, and features some female rapper who sounds like Ke$ha without any attitude. While interesting, the only problem is how forced it all sounds, to the point of being almost comical.
The album fades out and whimpers away, and by that point it seems to have lost any lingering remnant of the unique qualities from those first few songs. On paper it can be said that this collection of music is a bit different than ¡Uno!, but barely, and in practice the experience is exactly the same. Disappointing.
Release Date: November 19, 2012
Image Courtesy of Reprise
Soundgarden posted their reunion release, King Animal, on iTunes, and the songs will be streaming until the album is released next Tuesday, November 13. One note: the way the streaming is set up, you can’t skip between the tracks, so you’ll have to listen to the album as an album.
King Animal is Soundgarden’s first studio album in more than 15 years, and also their first since the group reunited a couple years ago. The group did, however, release an album on the soundtrack of the “Avengers” movie.
In a recent interview with CNN, frontman Chris Cornell spoke of how the band has now returned to its indie roots.
“I guess if anything, we’ve reverted back to the way we operated as an indie band,” Cornell said. “We acted like free agents. And we can do that now, like we did then, because the music business has changed so much.”
Green Day’s new album ¡Dos! is streaming on Rolling Stone. The album is the second in a trilogy the group will release this year. Appropriately, the first was ¡Uno! and the third, coming next month, will be ¡Tre!.
The latter album will be released December 11, more than a month ahead of its originally scheduled release date of January 15, 2013. The band moved up the release date after it was forced to postpone a slew of shows in the wake of singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s stint in rehab. Armstrong checked himself into a rehab center following an onstage rant at the iHeartMusic festival in Las Vegas in September.
There’s more bad news for Green Day fans as the group cancels all their remaining dates for 2012 due to Billie Joe Armstrong’s stint in rehab. Additionally, all January and Febuary 2013 dates have been postponed. The news comes just days after Metallica filled in for Green Day in the headlining spot at the Voodoo Music Experience in New Orleans.
The tour originally was scheduled to kick off in late September, though that was moved back after Armstrong checked himself into a rehab center for treatment of “substance abuse.” This came after an onstage rant from Armstrong at the iHeartMusic Fest in Las Vegas this year.
At the time the initial dates were postponed, the band said they’d only miss a few appearances, but have instead cancelled all remaining dates this year, which was scheduled to run through December 10.
“Obviously, the timing for this isn’t ideal, but Billie Joe’s well-being is our main concern,” said Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt in a statement. “We are happy to say that Billie Joe is doing well, and we want to thank all of you for the outpouring of support and well wishes that we have received, and we can’t wait to see you all again.”
There is some good news to come from all this, however, as the band has decided to move up the release date of its upcoming album ¡Tre! to December 11 from the originally scheduled date of January 15, 2013.
“We feel bad that we have to delay our tour, so to make up for it we want to give our fans the music earlier than we had planned,” said drummer Tre Cool in the statement. “If we couldn’t be there to play it for you live, the least we could do was give you the next best thing.
The album will be the third in the trilogy released by the band. ¡Uno! is already out, and ¡Dos! will be available November 9.
Green Day was my favorite band when I was eleven years old, and it’s sort of surreal to me that they are still going and making almost exactly the same sort of music almost twenty years later. I imagine there is a generation who think Green Day got their start with American Idiot, and who may be surprised to learn that the members of the band are all around forty years old and still rocking the eyeliner.
They’ve gotten a little ambitious with ¡Uno!, which is the first of a trilogy of albums they plan to release over the span of only a few months. With something like this or a double album it’s always a concern that there will be a lot of filler, and the onus here will be on Green Day to prove that idea wrong.
“Nuclear Family” is barely indistinguishable from their early work, but is noticeably more pop-oriented. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s worth being upfront about for those who are going to focus in on the notion that the band have sold out, which feels like an old idea at this point. Most of the album’s songs fall into this category, and while it isn’t particularly exciting stuff it is at least catchy and singable.
The second largest breed of songs on ¡Uno! feel as if they were designed for teen movie soundtracks. “Stay The Night” is a very strong and early example of this, while “Fell For You” is one I can see being a popular prom choice. “Oh Love” might be best for the drive home from prom, for some lucky little punk out there.
While the concept of selling out does feel dated and sort of irrelevant to me, the one genre of music in which this might still be important is punk rock. Green Day is a band that is unarguably cut from that cloth, so the steady march of formulaic music for mass consumption doesn’t always mesh well with the attitude on display.
Billie Joe recently threw a tantrum on stage at the iHeart Radio Music Festival, when the band’s time was cut dramatically short. He was understandably upset, but no less was it comical to me when he began to try to smash his guitar on the stage and friend Mike Dirnt dutifully followed suit with his bass. In both of their cases it seemed like an automated situational response, but it reminded me of the idea that these guys are in fact a punk band of some mutation. It’s a shame to me that there is none of that aggression on this record.
This album shows signs of some musical laziness, or even confusion. “Carpe Diem” features a strange and lackadaisical chant of “celebrate, celebrate”, which feels thoroughly depressing, and I’m really not sure it’s supposed to sound that way. The whole song has a feeling of sarcastically mocking the idea of seizing the day, rather than actually encouraging positivity, and it just seems that the music and lyrics aren’t thought out or matched at all. “Let Yourself Go” on the other hand sounds completely genuine, and I think this is the one meant to be taken less than seriously.
“Kill The Dj” is slightly funky and more intentionally different from the rest, and I think the fact that it strays the furthest from what most would probably expect of the band is its strength. If Green Day had no interest at all in maintaining an image they might be better suited to this kind of music at this point in their careers.
With three of these albums coming out in sequence, they are either going to be wildly different from one another, or there is going to be a ton of repetition. This first entry into the trilogy is very much what should be expected of Green Day, and filler there is in no small amount. If this is a sign of things to come I’m not sure what value there could be in two more healthy servings of songs that already bleed together quite a lot, but on its own it’s alright. Here’s hoping for something more from ¡Dos! and ¡Tre!
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Image Courtesy of Reprise