Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Top 10 All-time List of Rock Concept Projects

With Porcupine Tree's latest concept album offering The Incident, the idea came to mind about the strongest and most influential concept albums of all-time...and I like lists...and I don't list things that often, so if I do I:
  1. Had better be interested in the subject matter (check), and
  2. Had better know something about the subject matter (check too, although I can always learn more).
That being said, I'm hoping I have something to contribute here, and that it might start some discussion.

Here's the list, in countdown format.


#10. ~ Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree (2007).

Totally effective in its subject matter, PT originator and songwriting mastermind Steven Wilson grabs the listener by the throat and doesn't let go.

The project tackles a societal issue that has risen into the forefront in recent years, but flies under the radar in many respects -- very serious matters
effecting every household in America with children, and the Western World for that matter -- to what extent we medicate our children.

Wilson's take on the subject weave to and fro throughout a bleak urban landscape, creating the imagery of doped up child-zombies walking around with nothing to do, no hope, and no future. After having it on for awhile, if you really listen to the lyrics, the story will put you into the mind of a doped up child and you'll forget who you're listening to.

The whole project is amazing...from the thematically shocking in-your-face opening of the title track, to the beautiful melancholia of "My Ashes," to the winding journey of "Anithetize," every song holds up on its own, yet they all weave together perfectly. "Sentimental" is the strongest track on the album, and while the guitar work might echo something from David Gilmour on The Wall for many, it doesn't lack originality. The album's closer, "Sleep Together," gives the whole experience of Fear of a Blank Planet the necessary dramatic finish.

If you're a parent or guardian dealing with medicating your child during critical years of development (and we're talking about more than aspirin), this piece of art will probably conjure up more questions than answers...but sometimes answering those hard questions can lead to a better result. I believe that's part of what Wilson's up to here...a wake-up call.

In retrospect -- after listening to this project repeatedly over the last two years -- Wilson's story and themes on this album end up suggesting a symptom of a much larger and serious issue, which should immediately come to mind for those of us who have read books such as The Geography of Nowhere by
James Howard Kunstler. However, Wilson and Porcupine Tree hint at that too, as the album's title suggests.

While they're not mainstream or very well known, this band and Wilson's focused artistic vision -- with the exception of probably Radiohead -- are pushing the rock format in new directions in the early part of this century while reprocessing and giving a refreshing twist to musical ideas originally spawned by the likes of Pink Floyd (soundscapes), Rush (tight jamming), Kraftwerk (innovative synth layers), and the 2nd wave of the 60s British invasion.

It's really too bad they're not more popular and commercially successful, as they're catalog is full of unique and amazing gems...and despite being limited in scope, they actually LOSE money when they tour...plus Wilson has hinted at wrapping things up soon to focus on other projects such as Blackfield and No-Man, and wants to get into more of the production end. It would be very, very sad and a tremendous loss to music to see these guys go away.


#9.
~ "Cygnus X-1" and "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres"
from A Farewell to Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978) by Rush.

Okay...I know this looks strange, try to follow the logic
here. After their 1976 magnum opus 2112 (see #6 on this list), Rush decided to do what I don't believe any other band has managed to pull off: a concept piece that spans two successive albums.

Hence, the mention of two albums...it's more about the Cygnus suite than anything else, and if you were to listen to the two albums in succession on your MP3 (in a most exquisite Rush
marathon of 20+ albums, like I do sometimes - not kidding), you'll notice they're linked since Kings ends with "Cygnus Part 1" and Hemispheres starts with "Part 2" (um, excuse me, that would be "BOOK II")

...and who in the hell refers to an 18 minute album side as a "book?" If nothing else, Rush gets
on the list with this project for creativity and placing a totally interesting and original spin on how to tinker with the album format.

It's also worth mentioning that they would later do a "Fear Trilogy" over the span of three successive albums from 1981-84 -- in reverse order.



#8. ~ Quadrophenia by The Who.

Arguably the band's last great effort, then the creative juices suddenly seemed to stop flowing, as a listen to this album's follow-up Who By Numbers might reveal.


Another interesting take on British society, this project bleeds more gritty reality and less in the way of bubbly fiction, opposed to Tommy. It's commentary on what many Americans like myself interpret as a bizarre landscape of 1950s James Dean-ish street gang fighting is both obscure and fascinating all at once, which I believe adds to its appeal...probably due in part to a lack of understanding of Brit streetgang history in the 20th Century.

The Mods and Rockers are having it out on the English coastline! Say that again? Uh, I guess you had to be there.

Sonically, this album is also really strong in its mixing and studio wizardry...that sound of a
crashing ocean at the beginning, with the solo trumpet and rainfall. The hints of tunes to come...then the band explodes into an all-out jam. Fucking awesome stuff.

In terms of playing, the band's in top form and Daltry's voice has never sounded edgier or better. Another high point about this album to note, in addition to the strong storyline; Entwistle's bass acrobatics are a total brainmelter. He's all over place in this recording. Easily his stongest Who album in terms of showcasing his talents on mastering the bass...which he did in his classic pose near Moon's drumkit with an expressionless face while his hands moved everywhere liked a blurred Bugs Bunny cartoon.

It's too bad we never had the chance to experience Townsend's Lifehouse project in its full
entirety (rejected by the rest of the band, and what eventually became 1971's Who's Next); based on what that project manifested into, for all we know it very well could have been the best concept piece ever by The Who, putting Quadrophenia and Tommy to bed (hardy har har, pun intended). The indicators are there in the form of "Baba O'Rielly," "Bargain," "Behind Blue Eyes," and "Won't Get Fooled Again." I guess we'll never really know.

#7. ~
Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche (1988).

The most ambitious concept effort of the 1980s by any rock band, during a time when it was anything but cool to put one out. At this time hair metal was the deal, with a
never-ending assault of 3-4 minute cheeseball singles to go with it. The 70s during this time were being dissed, and up to this point concept pieces were relegated to only a mere handful of classic bands. By the late 80s, it all seemed like a bygone era, and not the cool thing to do anymore.

This album by Queensryche is what made it "okay" for bands to dive back into the concept
project, as it was essentially the first successful project since The Wall from Pink Floyd (see #5 on this list) in 1979...if there were other concept projects put out in that 10 year period, I can't think of any -- and either they weren't successful, or taken seriously.

Not only did Queensryche reopen a door to a room that appeared to have been forbidden and
locked shut, they packaged it in the form of an edgy, raw, and downright shocking political manifesto.

Coming out of the heels of the Reagan Era and it's trickle down policies, this project embraces much of the frustration felt by the mid to left politicos as the 80s approached its end.


#6. ~
2112 by Rush (1976)

I once read somewhere that this album had a big influence on Marilyn Manson, and that it scared him to death. It scared Marilyn Manson.

He must have been
talking about it from a conceptual standpoint. Drummer Neil Peart takes the readings of the controversial Ayn Rand, from books such as The Fountainhead and Anthem (from which the band's record label is named)...subject matter which has been interpreted and accused of touching on fascism, among other things. Moreover, an odd author like Rand isn't typically the sort of influence you hear rock bands citing.

However with Rand's influence on Rush, you need to look deeper. What Peart, and ultimately the rest of the band adopt from Rand's writings lean more towards her artistic manifesto.

It's that element that ultimately gives shape to the story in the title track of "2112;" a sci-fi tale about a futuristic society where individualism has been decimated in the complete interest of "the average" -- that is, until the character in the song discovers an old guitar hidden behind a
waterfall, and...well, you know...all hell breaks loose with "the priests." Yep, priests are involved.

I hate it when that happens. Seriously now.


It's also Rand's artistic manifesto that gives shape to the bands drive to succeed on their own terms, as they have discussed in numerous interviews over the years.

2112 was the band's mid-70s breakthrough, and at the time they recorded it, EVERYTHING was on the line...their record deal hung in the balance due to the lack of commercial success from their previous work, Caress of Steel. Very few believed they would find success; even folks close to the band doubted it and suggested they fall back on the conventional ways of rock. Ironically, it was the artistic approach to Caress, their development as songwriters on it (notably with the piece "The Fountain of Lamneth"), and it's LACK of success that actually set up their success for 2112. Despite the commercial failure, they hadn't failed as artists.

The band collectively understanding the difference between those two factors was essential to how they approached this project.

So now what do they do? They say f**k it. If we're going to go down, we're going
down with the guns ablaze. Against pressure from their label, they write a 20+ minute piece with seven movements and place it as the first track of the album (side 1 at the time of vinyl issues).

It proves successful...and the band never looked back. The body of work Rush has put out
since, and their insistence to tour off every single album to present it -- an effort now spanning nearly 40 years -- speaks for itself...and another project of new material is due out in 2010.

On 2112, you can hear them playing on it with a furious edge. If the band sounds like they're playing pissed off, it's because they are. Don't screw with these well-mannered Canadian gents, you'll unleash the beast.

In my opinion, 2112 isn't just an album, it's a way of life...for the band, and for it's dedicated fan base. 2112 is a lifestyle and a creed. It's about having a backbone in the face of adversity, sticking up for yourself or what you believe in, and not compromising your principles -- in much the way the band was feeling a
t the time they recorded this. It's about putting your fist in the air and telling THE MAN where to stick it! (Something I personally enjoy doing on a repeated basis in a variety of ways, both creative and stupid.)

If you're ever angry after a tough day at the office, put this on and F'N CRANK IT!!! You'll feel much better.


*Special note: the live version of "2112" on the live album Different Stages is also amazing and worth checking out...and it's the only time the band ever performed it live in its entirety...this time in 1996-97.

#5. ~ The Wall by Pink Floyd (1979)

The last classic work by this band, but unfortunately it's also the project that tore the Waters-era Floyd apart -- and as a result deprived a whole generation of Pink Floyd fans of seeing a Waters-era Floyd perform live -- until a selec
t few saw the band come together for one magical night in 2005 (see my post about this event).

The Wall is an undisputed masterpiece on several levels...while of course there's the MOVIE of The Wall, the LIVE PERFORMANCE of The Wall (probably the most interesting component -- and least known), and now PLAYS of The Wall performed around the world (mainly in schools, with Waters' exclusive permission, of course), this of course is speaking to the original ALBUM of the same work.


The album, a sonic tour de force, spans nearly every identifiable form of music and seems to throw every conceivable piece of ear candy at the listeners. There's some great tunes on this project that turned into staple Floyd classics that can be heard on the radio today; notably "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2," "Comfortably Numb," and "Run Like Hell." While every track is memorable and has a role in the larger work of the album, other highlights include the beauty of the under-your-skin emotive "Mother," the horror of WWII German buzz bombs and innocence lost in "Goodbye Blue Sky," the freefalling horndog-on-the-town element of "Young Lust," the hopeless sorrow of "Hey You," arguably Waters' best-ever singing performance (if not his most interesting in terms of dynamic effect) in "Nobody Home," and the originality of the scary/humorous/poking-at-authority's ass of "The Trial." I think the kitchen sink is somewhere in there too.

However, look closer at those song titles...what sort of mood do they convey?

What they suggest are merely the tip of a massive iceberg of a downer...and that's actually intended as a compliment rather than a diss...but a compliment with a HUGE warning label.

This project lends itself to that classic Floyd motif -- in a most in-your-face manner, unlike the graceful and interpretable Dark Side of the Moon (see the end of this listing). With all its incredible sonic attributes, textured features, and hooks, The Wall won't leave you smiling and feeling positive...frankly, it will probably leave you depressed and confused -- if not wondering "how you can have any pudding if you don't eat your meat."

...but, as I
suggest in other parts of this post, that's the beauty of a true and raw artistic statement. It makes you feel something, good or bad...but isn't that part of what's involved with living a meaningful life anyway?

I'd say that's part of what Roger Waters was thinking when he wrote this. Not all of this project is autobiographical -- as there's some Syd Barrett and other reflections on the world of rock stardom thrown in -- however I think it's obvious that the guy obviously had some things to work through, notably the fact that he lost his father in WW2.

I'd imagine part of his therapy was to put it out there. It manifested in this project, and on its successor, The Final Cut. The Wall (notably the movie), along with other fantastically inventive and outside-the-box projects, morphs into the area where Pink Floyd is heavily misunderstood as a druggie band...and barring Syd Barrett's issues with LSD in late 60s, they're NOT a druggie band. The Wall is about Waters baring his soul to the world, and I admire the man for his bravery. I wish other musicians could be as real and creative at expression as he is.

The faint of heart or those damaged by horrible childhood experiences should be warned...The Wall will either be your therapy or drive you insane...but either way, you're probably doing yourself a favor and can find help -- for the sake of you and everyone around
you. All being said, The Wall commands a close and meaningful study. There's nothing else like it out there.

#4.
~ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (1967)


The seed for the concept album was planted here...and while Sgt. Pepper isn't whole-heartedly a concept album, many of the ideas that led to projects by other bands down the road would point back to this.

This CD just recently got better, being released this year in its remastered version! You can also get it as part of a comprehensive Beatles box set.

Of course, there's no denying the opening track, which is reprised at the end with "A Day in the Life," one of the all-time greatest rock tunes ever.


An interesting back-story to Sgt. Pepper is how the Beatles received their influence from The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album (didn't make this list - however it might make a Top 20 list). It goes to show how our most inspiring and influential musicians, and artists in general, definitely don't live in a vacuum.

#3. ~ Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes (1973)

First thing, I'll admit that I'm more of a Trevor Rabin-era Yes fan (i.e. projects such as 90125, Big Generator, and Talk), and have had a tough time absorbing the more obscure portions of their earlier catalog from the 70s. However, that doesn't make me lose any less respect for their art.

Still, this is rock at its proggiest, in a fashion that might make the boldest listener's head explode...or if you're not on drugs, it might drive you to use them...or to throw the next mini-moog synthesizer you see ceremoniously off the top of a skyscraper just to prove a point.


Seriously...I've had enough conversations with hardcore Yes fans to know the significance of this album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, which stands out in a long line of Yes concept projects. This is the concept album not just taken to a whole new level, but into the realm of otherworldly. While the spiritual level of the album, and Jon Anderson's shtick, is in a motif that I personally don't quite grasp, that doesn't make it any less effective and meaningful. It commands our respect and praise.

There's deep, deep stuff going on here. Hardcore Yes fans "get it" the way I "get it" with 2112 by Rush...so, in the interest of all due respect to Yes fans, I will defer to one of them.

An Amazon reviewer writes:

"Tales" is a deeply philosophical album that is not for the meditative faint of heart. While much music is created to be toe-tapping and easy to sing to, "Tales" is in that genre usually called progressive rock, in a sub-genre that requires intense analysis to understand. The result is an album that is inaccessible and incomprehensible to a casual listener. In order to understand this music you must read the lyrics and listen, and listen, and then listen some more. Even then you might fail to gain a glimmer of Yes' intent.
"Tales from Topographic Oceans" would have to qualify as one of the most if not the most deeply complicated rock music ever created. Again, if you are a casual listener the complexity of the music can be frustrating or boring. However, if you consider that classical music is often complex, and to be understood requires extended focused listening, it should be of little surprise that Yes took that complexity for its own in the development of this music, creating a symphony in four movements.
Whoa! Enough said, I already have a headache and I haven't even put the thing on yet. Seriously, I look forward to sitting down with this project one day, when I have the time and patience to give it the required due diligence to explore it further.

I gave it the high ranking because of its artistic boldness and depth unlike any other concept album, and how it serves the diehard Yes fan in spades...and while I've given it a few listens and walked away wondering and not totally getting it, that's MY issue. I can still appreciate the boldness of the statement and the uncompromising artistry.

#2.
~ Tommy by The Who (1969)


The ranking is high because of the originality...Tommy is THE original rock opera.

With this project, The Who gave birth to the first bona-fide concept piece.

Tommy is structured as the perfect double album, with an interesting story line...and like The Wall, it formed into a movie, live performance, and has made it to the stage -- and in the case of the latter, I had the opportunity to see one of those live stage performances -- and loved it.

I highly recommend seeing any rock album performed as a play, it gives the original work a wonderfully fresh twist.

#1. ~ The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (1973).


Hands down, IMO, it's the best rock album of all time, and therefore also the best concept album. Pure bliss and perfection; both compositional, sonically, and in the band's playing. The album cover evokes the feel and vibe of the album in its power, mystery, and simplicity.

Less is more.

See? Just when you read that, didn't the idea of that just mushroom out into lots of things? Sure it did. Shut up.


Dark Side of the Moon is a graceful, timeless, and perfect ride wrapped in the power and mystery of the whole Floyd thing. If the definition of the "power of music" was in the dictionary, this album cover would be next to it.

I see this album as a bold statement about modern life. It has a mellow vibe, offers variety, and unlike The Wall is more accessible and interpretive. However some are generally turned off by the often dark motif of Pink Floyd, and this project has it's share through Water's songwriting...but isn't that the beauty of art? Sometimes sad or dark music revealing the pain of real life can be healing -- and can be the most beautiful. It rejuvenates our soul.

Any idiot can write songs about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. This is the rock format at its deepest and most artistic. Even if you don't really like anything about Pink Floyd, this is the exception to that rule...and while it's Floyd, it's really not...there's Divine Intervention at work here. This album has the power to resonate with you forever and change your outlook on life.

Simply put, nothing touches it...nothing. I can't say that anything else in the rock genre even comes close -- Dark Side is in a higher league on its own. 'Nuff said...again, less is more.

If you don't know, just listen to the damn thing! Seriously, if you haven't heard it before, then find a killer stereo system and set aside some time...light a candle and turn down the lights...it's a moment you'll never forget.

If you're not a rock person -- and could only own one rock project in your lifetime -- this is it.


So that's a wrap!

As a final note here...it's about time that I post something meaningful up here...sorry for how I've been putting off posting something decent on this site for awhile.


I believe this blog space is more meaningful when I put something together that involves a deeper level of thought, and that requires some time and insight...so when time is short with other things, the beefier postings can fall off. Blame it on life stuff I guess.

I realize there are only 10 works mentioned here, with no honorable mentions to boot either...so I apologize if something glaring and obvious was left off! Part of it could be due to bands I'm not a big fan of -- the Genesis and ELP camps come to mind, for example...and there's lots of new stuff out there I might not be aware of. So please chime in and leave a comment on who should be added, as I'd consider expanding this to a Top 20 or Top 25 list...but you need to bring forth a compelling reason!

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