While the double album began as a physical necessity, it remains relevant for high conceptual material and extended thematic development. Following in the footsteps of The White Album, The Wall and Songs in the Key of Life, double albums can immerse the listener into a larger universe where instrumental interludes, variation in song type and length and dynamic storytelling are possible.
In honor of today’s release of M83’s double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, we’re counting down our favorite double albums of the past 20 years. We didn’t include rarities, compilations or re-releases that were released after 1990.
10. Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera (2001)
Split up into two acts, Southern Rock Opera is often seen as the Athens, Ga., band’s magnum opus. And the whole thing couldn’t be set up any better with frontman Patterson Hood rambling on about car crashes and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the first track. It’s highly conceptual, following the fake band Betamax Guillotine, but the music never suffers.
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (2000)
When it comes to instrumental double albums in recent memory, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven takes the cake. It’s orchestral and intricate, painting a huge picture that ebbs and flows like the movements in a symphony.
8. Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death (1997)
We just couldn’t overlook this classic rap album that had such a profound influence on the hip hop that came after it. As the seminal mafioso rap album, Life After Death was Biggie’s second, final, and best-selling album. The fact that it was released posthumously makes its presence that much more heavy and its rhymes that much more influential.
7. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic (2009)
Forming itself around the struggle between nature and technology, Embryonic takes its thematic concept and applies it to its music. Creating an interesting blend between lo-fi distortion and hi-fi synth, Embryonic is one of The Flaming Lips’ most experimental and ambitious albums, but also one of their most compelling.
6. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)
Whether it was their depiction of the resurrection of Lazarus in Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! or their album of murder tales, Murder Ballads, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds have always been drawn to big stories and high concepts. The two albums feature different sides of the band’s theatrics that work together to form a grandiose statement on blues and experimental rock.
5. Over the Rhine – OHIO (2003)
The songs on Over the Rhine’s gloriously self-indulgent double-disc, OHIO, feel gritty and real, unpolished and perfect. Just like people. All the artifice (both musical and emotional) has been carefully dismantled, traditional instruments—upright piano, pedal steel, acoustic guitars—have been dusted off, arrangements have been simplified, windows into souls have been propped open a bit wider. In stark contrast, Karin Bergquist’s voice has never felt as undressed and painfully honest as it does in these songs, as if she’s opened her gut and tugged the melodies out like a breach baby. This process is partly masochistic, partly exhibitionist, entirely self-consuming: but such is true art. Detweiler and Bergquist spend approximately 90 minutes untangling the mysteries of home, but not simply the one in Ohio.—Jason Killingsworth
4. Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
Evidenced by their recent announcement of another double-album, Smashing Pumpkins is certainly no stranger to high concept. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness revolves around the cycle of life and death, but more than, is just an incredibly fluid concept album that gave the Smashing Pumpkins the breathing room they needed expand their musical palette and become one of the most important rock bands of the 90s. When they claimed that Mellon Collie was the The Wall of Generation X, they weren’t kidding.
3. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) (2010)
Although The ArchAndroid is not technically a double album in that it wasn’t released on two CDs, its 18 tracks, almost 70-minute running time, and two-part concept makes The ArchAndroid a definitive double album. As far as high concept goes, The ArchAndroid is an impressive achivement, with Janelle Monae taking us through her sci-fi, Metropolis-inspired story of an enslaved race of androids and they’re fight for freedom. The musical experimentation and genre-bending is where things really get interesting though, making this one of the unique pop/hip-hop records in recent memory.
2. Wilco – Being There (1996)
Although Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is unanimously ranked as Wilco’s best album, their sophomore double-album, Being There, is their most ambitious. By contrasting their more traditional alt-country songs with psychedelic rock and sonic experimentation, Being There set the stage for the legacy that would be the rest of the career and introduced their sound in a big way. In other words, there would be no Yankee Hotel, without Being There.
Wilco – Outtasite
1. OutKast – Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (2003)
Although this double album is really essentially two solo albums in disguise, the outcome is no less breathtaking. Even though Andre 3000 and Big Boi had become more separated artistically than they had ever been before, the cohesion here proved they could still very much function stylistically as OutKast and crank out some of the most experimental and memorable hip hop of the decade.