The Best Modern Concept Albums

Traditionally, the concept album has been limited to Dungeons & Dragon playing metal bands. Recently however, a multitude of top musicians have produced some classic concept records. Here's the best...
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Traditionally, the concept album has been limited to Dungeons & Dragon playing metal bands. Recently however, a multitude of top musicians have produced some classic concept records. Here's the best...

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Wizards? Check. Unicorns? Check. A humble knight’s magical quest through the mythical land of Ellendor? Double check. No, no, no, no, concept albums have changed since they all featured an obligatory warrior in a double-horned helmet and the names Emerson, Lake or Palmer on the cover. Good people now make them too. Many a modern record tells a story, sometimes involved, sometimes very loosely. Here are a few that have struck me in recent years. And I know I didn’t do The Streets. I KNOW I DIDN’T DO THE STREETS.

MF Doom – Mm… Food (2004)

Agh! So hard to pick one release by hip-hop tricksterMF Doom, aka Madvillain aka Dangerdoom akaViktor Vaughn aka lots of other things. All his records and collaborations tend to bounce around one single idea or principal preoccupation. But this slightly goofy romp though all things food-related, with the usual classic superhero cartoon and film samples combined with his genius rapping, satiates in a way that only songs about figs can. And has there ever been a better song title than ‘Guinnesses’?

Fucked Up – David Comes To Life (2011)

Considered by the band to be more of a ‘rock opera’ than ‘concept album’ – Fucked Up’s third release tells the story of a poor slob who works at a lightbulb factory in 1970’s England. But then the story subverts when the protagonist David realises he’s just a character and tries to wrestle his own destiny from the unreliable narrator. Heady stuff, especially from a band whose albums tend to get filed under ‘Hardcore’ and has a name guaranteed to alienate many. It achieves what it set out to do; using punk rock at its rawest to tell a complicated tale with intelligence.

Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)

One of the most remarkable rebirths in recent years has been the sudden return of Jeff Mangum, up there with Jandek regularly gigging. I really thought we’d seen the last of Jeff, since he vanished in the late 1990s and swiftly took up the role of the indie JD Salinger. Then last year, he suddenly popped up and curated ATP as if nothing much had happened. Still no new music though since this album about, in part at least, Anne Frank. Roundly shrugged at on release, it is now considered one of the best records of the 1990s.

Soweto Kinch - A Life in the Day of B19: Tales of the Towerblock (2006)

Part jazz, part hip-hop, I’m amazed Soweto Kinch’s second album isn’t more appreciated. Its time will come I’m sure. The first part of a supposed two-part concept piece, the second installment is yet to arrive, despite having a tentative release date in 2007 (frustrating as this one ends on a cliffhanger, just what is in the basement?). With Soweto playing a variety of roles; dialogue, tunes and narration (by Moira Stewart, yes MOIRA STEWART) illustrates life in on a grim Birmingham tower block. A modern masterpiece.

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (2005)

Sadly, Sufjan Stevens’ planned 50 state endeavor stalled on the second state: Illinois. Even though he later admitted it was more of a joke than a grandiose project, the notion of such a ludicrous proposal is as endearing to me as its execution. What was he going to do when he got to North Dakota? Do we really want to hear a whole album about North Dakota? Actually that might be pretty good. Taking historical events, famous figures and neighbourhoods to reference topics as personal as faith and fatality, Illinois toggles between huge blocks of ideas and microscopic intimacy in song style and subject matter.

The Week That Was – The Week That Was (2008)

From the premature ashes of the not quite dead yet Field Music came the solo projects School of Language and The Week That Was, featuring all the people from Field Music in a ‘it’s us, but it’s not really us’ way. The Week That Was is both a story of a crime and a story of how we would all react to a crime without the mass media gently guiding us on our way. Pianos, drums and strings seem to be everywhere. The energetic ‘Airport Line’ deserved to be a hit and the elegiac ‘Come Home’ is devastating. Brief, brutal slightly sinister and at the same time massive in scope.

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Grandaddy - The Sophtware Slump (2000)

An album about the failure of technology – but possibly about the failure of people, particularly the person writing about the failure. Something of a cry for help dressed up in the concept album staples of robots, far off planets, alienation and dystopia. It was drowned out by OK Computer, acknowledged by the band themselves, who later realised it was dumb to tread the same water so soon after the Radiohead boys had conquered the Q reading world. Recorded alone in a hot barn – and it shows.

The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree (2005)

After the fictional reflections of Tallahassee and the methamphetamine teenage narrative of We Shall All Be Healed, The Sunset Tree delves headlong into domestic violence. And it is harrowing. It deals with the issue in a highly personal and mundane way, approaching it in the way filmmaker Alan Clark might have done, or in the clinical way Frederick Wiseman reflects on it in his documentary Domestic Violence. Little victories, imagined bravery, dreams of revenge, it’s presented in the perfectly accessible way only an incredibly accomplished songwriter like John Darnielle can accomplish.

Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030 (2000)

A hip-hop supergroup of sorts, but while many supergroups seem to dilute the sum of their parts, Deltron 3030 brings out the best in everybody. Kid Koala, Dan the Automator and Del the Funky Homosapien combine to propagate the most mind-warping beats, both great and goofy, all set in a dystopian future. Corporations are running the world and its up to our Deltron Zero heroes to defeat them through the power of rap and obscure samples. The lazy buggers are finally about to release a follow up.

Mastodon – Crack The Skye (2009)

After wrestling with those concept album staples of fire, water and earth on their first three releases, there was only one way Mastodon could go. The sky’s the limit, or rather, it isn’t.  It has to be a concept album, you see that extra ‘e’ on ‘Skye’? That’s a dead giveaway. According to assorted band members, the record is about, wormholes, astral projection, aether, Tsarist Russia and, of course, Satan. Whatever it is, or isn’t, it’s definitely metal. That’s all that matters