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The Five Greatest Concept Albums Ever, Period

June 29th, 2005 - 10:01 pm

In no particular order, because that would be even more pointless and stupid than this list.

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers

Frank Sinatra’s 1956 masterpiece is arguably the first concept album, and still one of the finest. Previously, albums were collections of singles related only by the artist singing them. Sinatra wanted to make an album which would carry a single mood with a single sound all the way through. Well: Mission accomplished. Frank’s vocals are upbeat without being saccharine, and romantic without being coy. But without Nelson Riddle, the whole project might have been doomed. Riddle sticks with a tried-and-true big band – but his arrangements are wittier, more charming, and far more urbane than any previous big band had dared to attempt. Sinatra, growing comfortably into middle age, starts the album belting out “You make me feel so young…” without fanfare or introduction. Then Riddle’s band kicks in, and wonderful things happen.

The Nightfly

Released in 1982 onto an unsuspecting public, Donald Fagen’s first solo effort was good. So good, that it prompted one critic to wonder what Fagen’s old bandmate, Walter Becker, had ever contributed to their Steely Dan partnership. In Fagen’s own words, the songs “represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties.” Not everyone may enjoy Fagen’s overly-polished musical stylings, but his lyrics powerfully evoke the Cuban Missile Crisis-era fears and fantasies of a teenage boy. The intro to “New Frontier” says it all:

Yes we’re gonna have a wingding
A summer smoker underground
It’s just a dugout that my dad built
In case the reds decide to push the button down

I wasn’t born until the summer after the Summer of Love, but Fagen’s album can somehow still take me back to 1962.

Magnolia

Technically, “Magnolia” is a soundtrack album and shouldn’t be eligible for this list. On the other hand, filmmaker PT Anderson wrote the movie to fit Aimee Mann’s songs – not the other way around, as is usually case for movie soundtracks. The musical result, however derived, is a Robert Altman-esque collection of dysfunctional, semisynchronistically connected SoCal characters, all in desperate search of love or healing or something they’re unlikely to ever find. The music is sparse without feeling bare-bones, and a couple tracks feature some killer licks from guitarist/singer/songwriter Michael Penn. The first track is a cover of Three Dog Night’s “One” which puts the original to shame. The last track, “Save Me,” (“You look like/a perfect fit/for a girl in need/of a tourniquet”) is itself enough to make “Magnolia” either the last great concept album of the ’90s, or the first one of the Naughts.

I’m Breathless

Songs “from and inspired by” Warren Beatty’s underrated Dick Tracy movie. You like showtunes? Madonna gives you showtunes. You like clever (but never pretentious) Steven Sondheim lyrics? He wrote almost the entire book. In whole, this so-wrong-it-should-have-been-a-disaster record takes you gleefully back to an Art Deco comic book world that never really existed. A particular joy is the Latin-themed “I’m Going Bananas.” When always-all-too-serious Madonna can pull off singing…

I’m non compos mentis
And I feel like a tooth being drilled
A nerve being killed
By a dentist
For I’m non compos mentis.

…with all the goofy charm and verve of a modern-day Carmen Miranda, then you know you’re listening to something special. The last song, a full-on dance “mix” with some really bad Beatty vocals, might leave a sour taste at the end. But with that one aside, this is an undervalued album inspired by an underappreciated movie. And since this is Madonna’s album, it ends, not with her getting killed off like in the movie, but with landing Dick Tracy. Killer concept.

The Wall

Pink Floyd’s 1979 magnum opus needs no introduction. If you’re like me, however, and you define rock’n'roll by loudness and youthful defiance, then this two-disc collection is the loudest, most unrelenting rejection of adulthood ever recorded. Other than that, there’s nothing left to say. Either you agree with my last pick, and you’ve been nodding your head ever since reading “The Wall” in boldface up above, or you’re too old and too deaf to care. Either way, that was the Floyd’s point.

NOTES

What, I didn’t list “Sgt Pepper”? You’re damn right I didn’t. Yeah, it was the most influential concept album ever recorded – but today it doesn’t make the Top Five (or even Top Ten) cut. Almost forty years later, the concept now seems too arch, and the lyrics are far too precious. Keep a copy on hand for when your kids go through their inevitable Beatles phase – sometime between the ages of 11 and 14. Other than that, listening to a couple of favorite cuts on the radio now and then will more than satisfy your need to be a Pepper.

Also, it was a tough choosing between Floyd’s “The Wall” and “The Dark Side of the Moon.” It came down to this. “Moon” has neverending stoner appeal, but I find it doesn’t go well with grownup vices, like scotch or homeownership. “The Wall,” however, was and remains everything rock’n'roll should be: Loud and defiant.

Getting this list down to just five candidates wasn’t easy, either. Doing so forced me to leave out “Little Deuce Coupe,” the Beach Boys’ 12-song ode to America’s love for big fast cars. Even worse, it left no room for David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” In fact, I ought to have made this a Top Ten list, and also included “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” (Iron Maiden), “Joe’s Garage” (Frank Zappa), and “One Nation Under a Groove” (Funkadelic).

On the other hand, we’re already 900 words into this essay. If I’d have made a Top Ten list, I’d have had to charge you for it.

As always, feel free to tell me just how lousy my picks were.

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