Curse you, Thomas Hatton.
I say this out of love, of course. My editor-in-chief at Proglodytes sent a message out of the clear blue sky yesterday, asking his staff for their favorite concept albums. Then we could put a podcast around our choices. Really, Tom? Really?!? Like I don’t have enough on my plate right now? I truly don’t have time for something as subjective as THIS!
Naturally, I jumped at the chance.
To be a fan of rock music (progressive rock, in particular) is to be a fan of the “rock opera,” aka concept album. These are albums that tell a story, usually focused around a central character who comes into play during nearly every song. It’s not unusual to put a double-LP set around these concepts, since they take a while to develop and resolve. There have been some great ones throughout the years, along with a few not-so-great one.
Tom’s original idea was to name the “best” concept album. The older I get, the less fond I am of “Best” lists. They’re far too subjective, and imply the listener has heard everything there is to offer. I don’t buy into that at all. Music is an individual pursuit, and everyone hears it differently. So to call something the “best” just doesn’t make sense to me. I thought it would be a lot more fun to talk about our favorite concept albums, instead. To be certain, there is no “wrong” answer this way.
What a great deal of fun. And what a slippery slope!
The album I thought was my favorite popped into my head almost immediately. But it was quickly nudged aside by something else. Then several other records came to mind. Good grief! I’ve listened to a lot of high-minded music over the years!
For the sake of this piece, I’ve narrowed it down to five records. I want to say that was no easy task, but it kind of was. Several other albums came to mind, but I give credit to the five I chose for rising above the crowd relatively quickly. That being said, let me give you the quick list of the albums I didn’t put in my Top Five:
- The Who: Tommy
- Frank Zappa: Joe’s Garage
- David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust
- Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here
- Rush: 2112
- Primus: The Desaturating Seven
- Prince: The Rainbow Children
Those were off the top of my head! I’m sure there are others. And I’m sure some of you will remind me of them.
Let’s take a look at what I did choose, shall we?
5. PETER GABRIEL, OVO. From where I sit, this album has been criminally overlooked. It is — yet isn’t — part of Peter Gabriel’s commercial catalog. It’s as though his fans knew about it, but nobody else did. Hell, it almost snuck past me! The album serves as the soundtrack to the Millennium Dome Show in London, and was released in June of 2000. The story surrounds three generations of “sky people,” a concept much better explained by Gabriel than me. The vocals are provided not only by Gabriel, but by Richie Havens, Neneh Cherry, Paul Buchanan, and others. It makes my list because of its rich, multi-layered textures and a distinct sense of groove one comes to expect from Peter Gabriel. As a stand-alone album, OVO is marvelous. As a concept record, it’s even better.
4. PINK FLOYD,The Wall. An obvious choice? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Roger Waters’s story of a rock star driven mad by unresolved father issues, an overbearing mother, and the pitfalls of stardom made for one remarkable album. The movie is equally compelling, even when it appears to come off the rails here and there. It doesn’t hurt that The Wall contains one of my favorite moments in rock music, “Comfortably Numb.” If David Gilmour’s solo isn’t my favorite guitar solo of all time, it’s in the Top Two.
3. STEVEN WILSON, Hand. Cannot. Erase. Steven Wilson’s album is inspired by the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a London woman whose death went unnoticed for nearly three years, even though she had family and friends. It’s a story of isolation and how love and popularity aren’t necessarily enough in this day and age. (Again, Wilson explains it better than I do.) Wilson wrote the album from a feminine perspective, which helps it attain maximum impact. And the music and musicians are absolutely top-notch. Within this piece is my OTHER favorite guitar solo of all time, performed by Guthrie Govan.
2. GENESIS, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Looks like Peter Gabriel managed to get on my list twice, this time with his last effort as the lead vocalist for Genesis. This is the story of Rael, a young Puerto Rican searching the grimy streets of 1970s New York City for his brother, John. The album is a true musical odyssey, performed by a superb band at the top of its game. For many progressive rock fans, The Lamb is the musical Holy Grail. It’s hard to argue with that. One of my favorite tracks is also one of the most unknown, but what else is new?
And my personal favorite:
DAVID BOWIE, Outside. Sporting the subtitle of The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle, Bowie reunites with producer Brian Eno to tell the tale of a dystopian world at the end of the 20th century from several points of view. Of course, Bowie assumes all of these personalities. He and Eno put together a marvelous musical tapestry, tying together elements old and new to create an incredible musical stew. I have admired Bowie since the ’70s, but we had gone our separate ways for five or six years. This is the album (released in 1995) that brought me back into the fold, and opened the door to some of the most amazing music of Bowie’s career.
There’s my list. What’s yours?