My Top Concept Albums

I’m a music geek. I have been since I was a child. My parents introduced me to their music at a young age. After that, I developed a slight obsession with Guitar Hero, joined the school marching band at age ten, and started on my journey to being the music snob that I tend to be now. Is my music taste anything more than trashy? Probably not. Do I care?

Hell no.

Anyway, music has been a major part of my life for many reasons, but the prime being that each song, in its own right, is a story — whether this is a good story that’s worth telling is subjective —  and storytelling makes up the majority of the joyous thing in my life — hence my writing major.

What better way to tell a story than to release a concept album, an album in which each song leads to the next, connecting all of them in an intricate story instead of making your album a compendium of different ideas. It is because of this principle that concept albums mean more to me than most others. Despite that, I don’t know of too many concept albums, which is upsetting. That being said, here are my nine favorite concept albums of my limited experience with them.


 

9. Electra Heart – Marina and the Diamonds

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A girly choice, I know, but I cannot quite explain the love I have for this album. I didn’t really get into Marina and the Diamonds until after the release of Froot, but there’s something about this album that I’m drawn to. Maybe it’s Marina’s use of four different archetypes when it comes to women telling their different stories. Maybe it’s how she seems to represent the darker sides of women and their lives, something we don’t often see being put out by your average pop diva. Maybe it’s just Marina’s incredible vocal work and catchy songwriting. Who knows? But, regardless, Electra Heart is, unironically, one of my favorite concept albums and albums in general.

Favorite Song(s): “Valley of the Dolls,” ; “State of Dreaming” ; “Teen Idle”

 

8. Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies – Volbeat

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A somewhat unconventional choice, Volbeat is an — unfortunately lesser known — Danish band with by far one of the most unique sounds I know of. Michael Poulsen (vocalist) has one of the most interesting voices I’ve heard. I remember sitting with my dad and asking how me made his voice sound like an electronic bass, since it seemed impossible for that to be natural. I was wrong, which was amazing. Anyway, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies is often considered a concept album due to it’s focus on gunslingers in the 19th century. The album has an astounding quality to create not just a story, but an entire atmosphere that immerses yourself in a western, the opposite of what you’d expect from a metal band. The combination of Volbeat’s natural metal sound — and incredible music ability — and the interesting use of old western stylistic choices creates for an entire new world that the listener can temporarily live in.

Favorite Song(s): “The Hangman’s Body Count” ; “Cape of Our Hero” ; “Our Loved Ones”

7. … And Justice for All – Metallica

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Remember when I said I listened to my parents’ music? Well, by parents, I mostly meant my dad, but whatever. Metallica was his favorite band for years, so, in turn, I fell in love with them as well. I remember sitting in the kitchen as a child while my dad reached for his guitar. I remember listening to the opening measures of “One” more times than I can count. Hell, I hadn’t even heard the song in it’s full glory at the time. So, anyway, what is it that makes this album so special? Well, let’s start with the burning question I’m sure some of you have: Is this even considered a concept album?

In truth, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if the band ever explicitly stated that this was a concept album, but those who have listened to it can draw connections between each of the songs as, lyrically, they tend to revolve around injustice and legal inequality in regards to war, censorship, and so on. The central concept seems to be this idea that blind justice is a lie, a beautiful thought, really, since it’s very, very true. This, at least, makes me consider it a concept album, but feel free to dispute me.

Favorite Song(s): “One” ; “Blackened” ; “The Shortest Straw”

6. Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones – Black Veil Brides

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I know, I know. Black Veil Brides is an emo trash band that really isn’t that great and has a douche of a lead singer and blah, blah, blah. I’ve heard it all before, trust me. I know that they’re not the greatest and that I will probably get a lot of hate just for putting them on the list, but hear me out. No matter how you feel about the band, let’s look at this album. Wretched and Divine tells the story of a dystopian world in which a group of rebels, “The Wild Ones,” seek to rebel and go to war with F.E.A.R., a group that is ravaging the world.

Now, let’s take all of that into consideration. Post apocalyptic rebellion? Originality and freedom overcoming fear and oppression? I don’t know what about you, but that whole idea speaks to me. The clearness of the story and the use of radio transmissions is what teleports a listener into this war. I felt as if I were fighting alongside the Wild Ones and, despite me just sitting at home on my couch with my headphones in, I felt a sense of victory as we approached the finale. Say what you want about Black Veil Brides, but the storytelling in this album puts it on this list, like it or not.

Favorite Song(s): “New Years Day” ; “Nobody’s Hero” ; “Wretched and Divine” ; “We Don’t Belong”

5. Master of Puppets – Metallica

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Yay! More Metallica! That means more of Mary’s childhood, right? Yeah, you’re right. So, remember when my dad pulled out his guitar and played “One” for me? Well, he didn’t just stop there. My dad also had a thing for the very opening of “Master of Puppets,” which was interesting on an acoustic guitar — damn, I remember when I thought my dad was the world’s greatest musician. On top of that, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” was one of my favorite songs of all time, even before I’d heard the original recording, because of my dad played it so often and I grew fond of the ballad. Master of Puppets is my favorite Metallica album period, and for good reason. This was also the last album with Cliff Burton before his death, so that makes it significant in the band’s history.

And, we’re onto the same question as before: is this a concept album? In my opinion, yes. Each song seems to confront the ideas of the abuse of power in some respect. I don’t think the songs are meant to tell a single specific story, but they have a unifying concept. Does that count?

Favorite Song(s): “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” ; “Orion”

4. The Black Parade – My Chemical Romance

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My Chemical Romance is my favorite band. Period. We all new this album would be on here somewhere, right? The Black Parade is the defining album of MCR’s career, and for a good reason. Musically, it’s their best work with the most emotional songs and an excellent showing of Gerard’s vocal range and passion. There is a certain fire you can hear in his voice that sets him apart from other vocalists. Anyway, The Black Parade tells the story of a man dying of cancer and his journey into the afterlife. Not very intricate, but with beautiful songs that prove to be very memorable and effective.

Favorite Song(s): “Disenchanted” ; “Famous Last Words” ; “Cancer” ; “Sleep” ; “Dead!”

Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys – My Chemical Romance

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More MCR! Yay! Anyway, Danger Days is actually my favorite My Chemical Romance album and not for the reasons it probably should be. Musically, it is just slightly inferior to The Black Parade, being a much more tame, almost alt-pop-rock sound rather than the odd rhythms and dark lyrics found in their older “emo” stuff. However, it’s this album’s story that captured my heart. Black Veil Brides took the idea from MCR — actually, they probably didn’t, but they are extremely similar so… — but this album follows a group of rebels in a post-apocalyptic society. The society is controlled by Better Living Industries, a group that makes living easy for the people of Battery City, but takes away their emotions through tablets. Outside of the city are the Killjoys, a group of rebels that include: “Party Poison” (Gerard Way), “Fun Ghoul” (Frank Iero), “Jet Star” (Ray Toro), and “Kobra Kid” (Mikey Way) as well as an unnamed girl. The story follows them on their journey to defeat Better Living Industries.

The album, according to the band, is about being who want to be and personal freedom, while Better Living Industries serves as a metaphor for society taking away things that make people different, cutting art, etc.

Beautiful.

On top of that, Gerard Way wrote a comic book to continue the story, which I recommend. Though, if you really want to read Gerard’s work, I suggest The Umbrella Academy.

Favorite Song(s): “The Only Hope for Me is You” ; “Bulletproof Heart” ; “DESTROYA”

2. American Idiot – Green Day

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This one is a no-brainer. American Idiot is partially responsible for reviving the idea of the concept album. It’s perfect, one of the few perfect albums in existence (I’ll probably post about that at some point as well). Green Day’s iconic album tells a long and weird story, but follows Jesus of Suburbia as he runs into characters like St. Jimmy and Whatsername after leaving his boring home and family for the city. The album also has some political themes, mostly criticisms of the Bush administration. The overall tone of the album is that of rebellious teenagers who fancy themselves freedom fighters, a coming-of-age-type of story as Jesus is faced with the rage vs. love ideal. The ending is left to the listener’s interpretation.

Also, if your album is good enough to get a show on Broadway, you deserve a spot on the list.

Favorite Song(s): “Homecoming” ; “St. Jimmy” ; “Wake Me Up When September Ends” ; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”

 

1. Operation: Mindcrime – Queensrÿche

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Another album that my dad introduced me to, Operation: Mindcrime is another concept album that keeps a listener engaged with nearly flawless storytelling techniques. The story is more elaborate than that of most concept albums, following a character with an actual name, and it is a story that parallels that of a fictional character close to my heart: The Winter Soldier.

If you don’t want the album’s story spoiled for you, skip the next paragraph, since I feel the story is crucial to this album’s place on my list and I feel the need to tell it.

That being said, the story follows a man named Nikki, who wakes up one day with amnesia. His memories hit him all at once and he remembers his past as a politically-unhappy drug addict who is manipulated into joining a revolutionary cause. He is then taken under the care of Dr. X, who merely says the word “mindcrime” in order to turn Nikki into a mindless puppet, one that Dr. X uses to carry out murders necessary to his cause. After essentially turning Nikki into an assassin, Nikki meets Sister Mary, whom he develops a bond with. He starts questioning what he’s doing. Dr. X, fearing Nikki might grow rebellious, orders him to kill both Mary and the corrupt priest she words under. Nikki kills the priest, but refuses to kill Mary and the two decide they want out of the resistence together. When Nikki tries to leave, Dr. X tempts him with the fact that he is an addict and only with Dr. X can he be provided his fix. Nikki is conflicted and leaves, only to return to a dead Mary. Unable to cope with the loss — and the idea that he may have killed her unknowingly — he starts losing his mind. Eventually, he is arrested under suspicion for Mary’s murder — as well as the murders he knew he committed — and put in a mental hospital as his memories fade. The album end with Nikki watching something about all the recent political homicides, jogging his memory and returning us to the beginning of the album.

The story is so perfect and the telling of it is absolutely beautiful. There is no cooler concept album out there, honestly. I mean, musically,  I have other favorites, of course. I prefer listening to My Chemical Romance or Green Day most of the time, but this is, by far, the best done concept album I have every come across. The pure technique and storytelling aspects of this puts it at the top of my list.

Favorite Song(s): “I Remember Now” ; “Operation: Mindcrime” ; “Eyes of a Stranger”

 


 

Special Thanks to my Dad: You’re one of my best friends in the entire world. Thank you so much for having faith in me, being there for me, and being one of the few people in the world who will have extensive conversations with me about past and modern music. Thank you for all of those times that you played your guitar for me as a kid. Thank you for introducing me to a new world through song. Most of all, thank you for being my dad. I love you.


 

– Mary

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