Ziggy Stardust. The Wall. Sgt. Pepper’s. The Red-Headed Stranger. The 20th Century set the bar pretty high for concept albums. But 21st is off to a decent start. We’ve compiled our 20 favorites from this young century, with an emphasis on a strong concept. In other words, these are ranked as much by the quality and execution of the concept as they are by the music.
18. Green Day – American Idiot
The concept: An everyman named Jesus of Suburbia leaves for the big city where he meets up with a punk rock freedom fighter.
As good as Green Day has always been at cranking out irresistibly anthemic pop punk, you always got the feeling they had something bigger in ’em if they would only grow up a bit and really go for it. 2000’s Warning exhibited a maturity and reach that suggested they were on their way, but it was a mere tease compared to American Idiot, the band’s first truly great album and the first punk-rock opera of the new millennium. Green Day pulls it off brilliantly, using the characters Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy and Whatsername to capture the essence of how it feels to be alienated in contemporary America. Billie Joe Armstrong writes and sings with newfound wisdom and depth, and the music evokes both the predictable (Buzzcocks, Who and Kinks) and the unexpected (The Beatles and Beach Boys). But there’s nothing derivative about Green Day now; love ’em or hate ’em, they’ve crafted a unique brand of rock.—Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen
17. The Antlers – Hospice (2009)
The concept: A hospice worker and a dying patient represent an emotionally abusive relationship
Certainly not a feel-good record and certainly not background music, it’s thought provoking and stunning through and through. After a few listens, I found myself caught up in the story as if I were reading a tragic novel. “In the spring of 2007, I started writing some lyrics, and I could kind of hear this melody in my head,” The Anterlers’ Peter Silberman told Paste. “I was just writing lyrics to this melody, a lot of them—pages and pages—they were all about the same thing. They were divided as if they were different songs, but they all sounded the same. I started to notice that everything evolved around this one idea. It was basically telling the story of a relationship that had fallen apart. It was kind of a damaged, manipulative relationship, guilt ridden, with a heightened sense of mortality. … I think it was later that weekend that this idea of telling the story through the analogy of a hospice just seemed to fit really well.”—Kate Kiefer
16. Okkervil River – Black Sheep Boy (2005)
The concept: 10 songs about the black sheep boy referenced in the Tim Hardin song of the same name.
This ambitious collection allows for Will Sheff’s narratives to unfold around a central theme of the black sheep who wears the golden fleece.
15. The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
The concept: There’s this woman, Yoshimi, and she battles robots. Which are pink. And evil.
The concept peters out after the first four songs, but those deal with war and pacificism and evil and insecurity in the wake of 9/11. Our hero, a young Japanese black belt named Yoshimi won’t let the robots eat the protagonist.
14. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor (2010)
The concept: Pounding rock commemorating the Civil War
If Bruce Springsteen sowed the seeds of small-town introspection, his fellow New Jerseyites Titus Andronicus are flooding the fields. The punk quintet deconstructed postindustrial life with its gut-wrenching debut, The Airing of Grievances. And The Monitor crushes the rosy spectacles of heartland rock, peeling away the façade of barroom camaraderie to reveal an entire generation inured to those highs. The comedown is a deeply pessimistic exploration of Americana and its now-quixotic quest for authenticity, loosely tethered to a fictional Civil War-era travel narrative spanning the trackless forests between New Jersey and Massachusetts. Sprawling 14-minute closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads” is named after the Civil War naval stalemate between the Monitor and Merrimack ironclads, a futile battle echoed in Stickles’ narration of ever-increasing self-destructive excess: “And there is no race more human / No one throws it away like they do.”—Michael Saba
13. The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee (2002)
The concept: The Alpha couple struggle to save their dying marriage on Southwood Plantation Road
John Darnielle had sung about the Alpha Couple several times before this album fully devoted to their plight. On Tallahassee, they move into a house as run-down as their marriage, where they reflect on their relationship and drink heavily.
12. Lupe Fiasco – The Cool (2007)
The concept: A hard-luck drug-dealer gets killed, zombiefied.
Expanding on the song, “The Cool” from Fiasco’s debut album Food & Liquor, The Cool is focused on its Michael Young History, aka The Cool, a murdered drug dealer who comes back to life as a zombie. History was abandoned by his father and fell under the influence of a gangster couple, The Streets and her husband The Game. After an affair with The Streets, he’s shot dead only to wake up six months later with his body decaying. He heads back to the city to try to rebuild his drug business, realizing that there’s “no Heaven for a gangster.”
11. The Avett Brothers – Mignonette
The concept: Three shipwreck survivors eat the fourth
The true story anchoring this inspiring, heartbreaking album is one of a British crew whose yacht, the Mignonette, was lost in a storm off the coast of Africa in 1884. Four survivors escaped in a tiny boat with no food or water and—after being stranded for 19 days—ate the weakest member of their party. Upon being rescued, one guilt-wracked crew member confessed to the group’s desperate act, revealing the truth even when it meant they’d all be executed. So—long story short—the Avetts wanted to capture not only the tragedy of this twisted tale, but the unshakeable honesty of its protagonist.—Steve LaBate
10. The Honeydogs – 10,000 Years (2004)
The concept: During an apocalyptic war, a testtube baby is stolen by a clairvoyant woman and, after a life of petty crime, he becomes a war hero, martyr and savior.
Employing a Tommy-like narrative—beginning with the birth of a genetically perfect test tube baby and concluding with the discovery that the sex-determining 23rd chromosome is “evil’s home”—Levy examines, in heatedly impressionistic detail, the profound moral issues of our time. In all its wrenching detail, 10,000 Years is a contemporary epic poem that embodies the tenor (and terror) of these troubled times as it moves from poverty and violence in America’s cities to religious and cultural warfare on a global scale, forming in its totality a frightening pre-apocalyptic vision underlain with just a glimmer of hope.—Bud Scoppa
9. Pedro the Lion – Winners Never Quit (2000)
The concept: A corrupt politician goes way too far
Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan revisited the concept album with 2002’s Control about a unfaithful businessman killed by his wife, but his first Winners Never Quit packs an even greater punch. Faced with losing an election, a self-righteous politician fixes the results, justifying his corruption for the good of his cause. When his wife threatens to expose him, he murders her. His brother, the black sheep of the family, notes the irony of the long fall from grace.
8. Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown (2010)
The concept: An update of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice
Mitchell employed guests like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown and The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller as characters like Persephone and Hades, as Orpheus tries to rescue his love from the Underworld.
7. Jay-Z – American Gangster (2007)
The concept: Songs based on the character Frank Lucas from the film of the same name.
On the Charlie Rose Show, Jay-Z said, “It’s a New York City true story, you know. So as soon as the movie came on, it was like familiar, things that my pop seen and my uncles seen and, you know, different things like that, things I’ve seen growing up. So they resonated with me in a way, the story, as well as, I mean, even though everything happens, you know, the way it turns out, you know, it’s one of those movies that where you champion the bad guy, because the bad guy, you know, he don’t seem like a bad guy, and the good guy—I mean the good guys are bad. You know, that complex—the complexity of human beings in this thing was amazing to me. I loved the complexity of the human beings.”
6. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
The concept: A rumination on sprawl that’s both loving and critical
At 16 songs and an hour-plus runtime, The Suburbs is Arcade Fire’s most ambitious and concept-driven effort to date. Vast stretches of the album feel tamped down, as if it’s sonically emulating its subject. Where past Arcade Fire songs built upwards, these unfurl flat and wide; the euphoric spikes that served as Funeral and Neon Bible’s beloved rallying points are strangely absent here, spaced farther and farther apart. Arcade Fire seems to be testing us, luring us down into the lowlands. A vein of emptiness and Beckett-esque waiting courses throughout; as so often in real life, these suburbs are a kind of purgatory with no exit in sight. The neighborhoods that once offered promises of allies and escape now revert to walled-off prisons, where “human voices [are] only echoes.” On album climax “Sprawl I (Flatland),” Butler is likely drawing on his childhood in the vast Woodlands suburb of Houston, Texas in this tale of bicycling through an old neighborhood, searching in vain for a childhood home amidst mazelike, uniform streets.—Andy Beta
5. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (2009)
The concept: A woman who falls in love with a shape-shifting deer. A widower murders his own children.
The Hazards of Love, follows the fair maiden Margaret who comes across a hurt fawn while walking in the woods. As she tends its wounds, it transforms into a charming young man named William. They fall in love and Margaret becomes pregnant, but the Queen of the Woods who has adopted William helps the cold-hearted, child-killing Rake steal Margaret away across the mighty river. Fortunately for our heroes, the ghost of the Rake’s three children come back and take revenge on their dear old dad. William then finds Margaret, and they both live happily ever after—at least until they try to cross back over the river and drown in its waters. It’s not the cheeriest tale, but it’s accompanied by a completely original combination of ’60s British folk, ’70s prog rock, ’80s crunchy metal and ’90s alternative all wrapped up in a pioneering indie-rock package. My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden lends her quivering voice as the Forest Queen, and Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark is well-cast as Margaret. Other guests include Jim James and Robyn Hitchcock. Not everyone can tolerate rock musicals filled with harpsichord, and talk of thistledown, lithesome maidens and Offa’s Wall. But those folks probably didn’t make it through Picaresque’s nautical themes or The Crane Wife’s three-song suite about a Japanese folk tale. The Hazards of Love is the payoff for fans who’ve been drawn to Meloy’s nerdy bookishness. English lit majors and prog rock fans of the world unite!
4. Aimee Mann – The Forgotten Arm
The concept: Lovers run off together with an unhappy ending
The Forgotten Arm follows the travails of a Virginia carnival worker and a down-and-out boxer who meet in Richmond not long before he’s sent to Vietnam. Inevitably the boxer returns with a drug addiction and the carnival worker spends most of the album contemplating the relationship’s fiery tailspin, trying to muster the courage to eject.—Dave Sims
3. Janelle Monae – Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase (2007), The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) (2010)
The concept: A love-lorn android travels back in time to free the future
In the year 2719, Platinum 9000 android Cindi Mayweather is mass-produced for the wealthy citizens of Metropolis. Bestowed with a soul, Cindi joins the cyber soul rebellion and falls in love with billionaire Sir Anthony Greendown—a major breaking of the rules. When she’s sentenced to disassembly, she escapes to the wondergound, where her true destiny as the ArchAndroid is revealed. She’s sent back in time to put an end to The Great Divide, a covert operation which suppresses freedom and love.
2. Drive-by Truckers – Southern Rock Opera (2001)
The concept: The rise and literal fall of a Southern rock band
Patterson Hood talked with his producer Earl Hicks about writing a semi-autobiographical screenplay loosely based on the plane crash that killed Lynyrd Skynyrd. That project became Drive-By Truckers third studio album, with Betamax Guillotine serving as the fictional band. The first act deals with a young boy trying to reconcile his love of the South while acknowledging the region’s demons. As the boy becomes a rock star, poor choices lead to a tragic ending. But the real villain of the story is Alabama governor George Wallace, as the songs tackle poverty, class, race and Southerness.
1. Sufjan Stephens – Illinois (2005)
The concept: The 21st state, unabridged
Like he did on 2003’s Michigan, Sufjan Stevens explores all facets of Illinois, from the history to the culture to his own personal reflections. From Superman to John Wayne Gacy Jr. to Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln are covered in Paste’s best album of the last decade. Stevens collected facts and anecdotes about the great state of Illinois, stringing them together in ambitious rhyme schemes and wrapping them in meticulous arrangements. “Decatur, or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother” is superficially a song about a city, but beneath the textbook trivia is Stevens’ story of reconciling with his father’s wife. The gut-wrenching “Casimir Pulaski Day” is about a friend dying of bone cancer, and “The Seer’s Tower” looks at idol worship from the perspective of Chicago’s tallest building. And then there’s “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” the hushed, nightmare-inducing acoustic song about the rapist and serial killer who preyed on teenaged boys, hiding their bodies under the floorboards in his Chicago home. “His father was a drinker and his mother cried in bed / Folding John Wayne’s T-shirts when the swing set hit his head,” Stevens sang, referencing a true story—at 11, Gacy was hit in the head by a swing. But the song’s conclusion is what got people talking: “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him,” Stevens half-whispered as the music quieted behind him. “Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” It was startlingly confessional, “a remark about potential more than anything else,” the songwriter says now. “We’re all capable of what he did.”—Kate Kiefer