BY TYLER DAVIDSON
Concept albums are fantastic works of art, using music to tell cohesive stories and allow you to be wholly immersed in a completely different world. And let’s face it, right now is a pretty good time to be able to live in another world. So, in no particular order, here are 20 concept albums that you can use to let your mind roam around another world for a while.
MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE
Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys
The final studio release from MCR before their breakup was a neon-tinged post-apocalyptic adventure that produced some killer hits in “Na Na Na” and “Sing.” In The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, Gerard Way and Co. play NES Light Zapper packing, Day-Glo alter egos with Mad Max-esque handles like “Party Poison” and “Fun Ghoul,” all the while battling a nefarious corporation called Better Living Industries. And who is the head baddie? Why, none other than comic book royalty Grant Morrison. Watch the wasteland saga unfold in the music videos off of this album, or even better, read about it in comic book form, but either way, it’s a blast to explore.
THE MARS VOLTA
De-Loused in the Comatorium
An absolute masterpiece of prog rock excellence, De-Loused in the Comatorium tells a wildly trippy tale. We follow a protagonist named Cerpin Taxt, a stand-in for real-life El Paso artist Julio Venegas, a friend of vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala who passed away in 1996. As the album progresses, Cerpin Taxt suffers an overdose on morphine and rat poison, subsequently falling into a week-long coma. While it’s not as bright or cheery of a tale as some of the others on this list, its content is obfuscated enough that it’s easy to simply get lost in the music, if the world itself is maybe a touch too stark. As an added bonus, as if the one-two combo of Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez isn’t enough, the album also features bass work from none other than Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
You can’t have a list of concept albums and leave out Bowie’s legendary classic, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie’s titular alter ego is a bisexual rock star from outer space, one that would later inspire much of Marilyn Manson’s Omega on Mechanical Animals. Stardust is a messiah of sorts, coming to save the Earth in its final half-decade of existence. The album’s story comes to a tragic conclusion (no spoilers here beyond that), but nonetheless, Bowie spends 11 tracks weaving a fantastic glam rock extraterrestrial tale. Even on their own, songs like the title track and “Suffragette City” hold up remarkably well, but with the intricate fiction added in, it’s an escape like no other.
Razia’s Shadow: A Musical
Sounding for all the world like something straight off of a Broadway stage, Thomas Dutton’s Forgive Durden enlists a who’s who of mid 2000s emo/pop punk royalty for Razia’s Shadow: A Musical. In the sprawling lore of Razia’s Shadow, the world is created by O the Scientist (played by The Dear Hunter’s Casey Crescenzo), after which half of it is plunged into everlasting darkness. The story shifts its focus quite a bit from there, at times following mythic heroes like Ahrima (Dutton) and Nidria (Lizzie Huffman) on “The Missing Piece,” other times following manic tertiary characters like Doctor Dumaya (The Matches’ Shawn Harris). But whether minor or major, the guest spots are wonderful, showcasing everyone from Brendon Urie to Max Bemis, and the unrelenting positivity of the album’s “love conquers all” message will tug at your heartstrings.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE
Songs for the Deaf
Songs for the Deaf is a unique concept album in that, while it doesn’t necessarily tell one single story, it’s all tied together in a loose fiction. Opening track “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” opens with the sounds of a car starting up and the first of several fictional radio interludes throughout the album, courtesy of “DJ Kip Kasper” (Dwarves’ Blag Dahlia) playing tunes on KLON Radio. From there, the album feels like playing an unreleased Grand Theft Auto game, with songs switching from radio station to radio station, feeling like a virtual road trip (perfect timing). With DJ clips from Twiggy Ramirez, Lux Interior and more, all that’s left is to open a window, turn on a fan, and pretend you’re rocking out on a Southern California drive across the open desert.
One of the most iconic concept albums of all time, Pink Floyd’s rock opera The Wall tells the lonely story of Pink. From the time his father dies in World War II, Pink begins retreating inward, brought up in a war-torn England by an overbearing mother before becoming a rock star and losing himself in the trappings of fame. It’s a stark tale of depression and loneliness, but it’s a beautifully crafted story, not to mention one that includes classics like “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)” and “Comfortably Numb.”
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
Inspired by Steve Harris’ experience reading Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son, 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son takes a heavy metal approach to the concept of a figure with various paranormal gifts. The album’s ominous opener, “Moonchild,” is based on an Aleister Crowley novel, telling the tale of a powerful unborn child who will be fought over by magicians both good and evil. From there, the odyssey is disjointed, but all the same tells an extravagant tale of this being, through tracks like “The Clairvoyant” and “Infinite Dreams,” perfect for being transported into an otherworldly realm.
Yes, for all of the Green Day memes that you see on October 1st, it’s easy to forget that “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is a fantastic song on a fantastic concept album. American Idiot tells the coming of age journey of Jesus of Suburbia, a teen who departs the hometown he hates so much for the bright lights of the city. Along the way, the album introduces characters like firebrand punk St. Jimmy, while it imparts an allegory based on various interconnected themes like rebellion and personal ethics. While over a decade and a half have elapsed since American Idiot dropped, it’s still worth getting lost in the tale of Jesus of Suburbia.
1969’s Tommy is a classic rock opera, albeit one that can dip into some dark territory. At its core is the character of Tommy Walker, “deaf, dumb and blind,” but with a highly powerful imagination as a result. After Tommy descends into an awful tale of familial abuse and LSD, he rises back up and becomes, among other things, a master of pinball and an ersatz cult leader. For extra credit, after listening to the album, check out one of the countless adaptations of the album, either on stage or the 1975 film of the same name.
Avenged Sevenfold’s latest, 2016’s The Stage, is not only one of the band’s very best offerings, it’s also the band’s very first concept album, using their unique take on metal to tell various stories related to artificial intelligence and various other sci-fi tinged topics. Using the titular stage in reference to planet Earth, the album pivots from nanobots on “Paradigm” to Dominican philosopher Giordano Bruno on “Roman Sky” to space travel on “Fermi Paradox” and everything in between. For an even more surreal trip from the Huntington Beach metal kings, go back and revisit “A Little Piece of Heaven” off of their self-titled album, a gory love story in the vein of Oingo Boingo.
The Triptych Trilogy: Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals, and Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)
The story of this goth trilogy could change depending on who you ask, but no matter which way you look at it, Marilyn Manson’s early career trilogy contains some absolutely groundbreaking work. The most common theory is that the story is told backwards. In Holy Wood, Adam Kadmon finds his way in a sort of pseudo-Disney World that shares a name with the album, falling prey to Holy Wood’s prevailing ethos of “Guns, Gods and Government.” He goes on to assume the identity of Omega on Mechanical Animals, an alien rock star very much in the vein of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, who studies normal humans and their apparent lack of emotion. Finally, on Antichrist Superstar, our protagonist, now known as The Worm, raises arms with those who have been beaten like he has in revolution against the “Beautiful People.” But as his followers wear on his nerves, he loses himself in becoming the tyrannical “Disintegrator,” destroying everything around him in the process. It’s a lofty tale that crosses fictional realities as well as very real musical styles, from goth metal to glam rock and back again.
NINE INCH NAILS
While tales of a dystopian, totalitarian government may hit just a hair too close to home for some right now, there’s no denying that Year Zero and the accompanying ARG that surrounded its 2007 release were masterfully executed. In the (now not-so far off) year 2022, in the wake of terrorist attacks, the government operates as a Big Brother-esque state, with institutions like the Bureau of Morality created to keep its citizens in check. But in a Terminator style turn of events, a group of rebels began sending various websites back to the present in order to keep the dark chain of events from ever occurring. Meanwhile, sonically, the album is incredible, and if “HYPERPOWER!” doesn’t compel you to get your heart pumping, I just don’t know what to tell you.
MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE
Welcome to the Black Parade
Perhaps one of the greatest emo concept albums of all time, MCR’s most triumphant achievement tells the gut-wrenching story of The Patient, as he slowly succumb to illness. The album begins with the stark beeps of an EKG machine, The Patient delivering an invitation to the listener from his deathbed to take in his tragic tale. After he flashes back to a warm childhood memory with his father (“Welcome to the Black Parade”), he ponders on various points in his life and the myriad emotions he’s feeling faced with his own mortality. Tragic as it may sound, the record is filled with soaring anthems and heartwarming ballads that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
COHEED AND CAMBRIA
The Amory Wars Saga
Coheed and Cambria’s entire existence is ostensibly conceptual in nature, with their entire discography wrapped up in what is known as The Amory Wars. A grand, sweeping epic perfect for fans of ancient mythology, The Amory Wars is far too dense of a story to be summed up easily, but in essence, it tells a complicated, fantastical sci-fi tale set in a star system called Heaven’s Fence, in which Coheed Kilgannon and Cambria Kilgannon attempt to stop the nefarious Wilhelm Ryan from taking over the Fence’s 78 planets. There are tertiary characters, like the Kilgannons’ son, Claudio, as well as the eponymous Dr. Sirius Amory, but it’s all told against a backdrop of such wonderful, proggy goodness. Luckily, it’s also available in comic form, courtesy of silver-tongued frontman Claudio Sanchez.
V: The New Mythology Suite
2000’s V: The New Mythology Suite is Symphony X at their best, a sprawling array of nods to various beliefs and mythologies, set against mind-bending prog metal. From the first of the Atlanteans, Ptah-Khnemu, to the Children of Belial to the ultimate power of Five to which the album’s title refers, V does a deep, deep dive into a very specific creation myth, inspired by stories of ancient Atlantis and Egyptian mythology. Epic battles? Mysterious crystals? Armies of the undead? It’s all here! So if you’re feeling particularly existential, you could do a lot worse than Symphony X.
Welcome to My Nightmare
Alice Cooper’s first solo outing, 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare, is quintessential Alice, a spooktacular trip through the nightmare addled brain of a poor boy named Steven. Narrated by horror legend Vincent Price as “The Curator,” the album tells grotesque tales like Steven’s nightmare about being devoured by a giant spider (“Devil’s Food”) or, even darker, his penchant for, well, “associating” with corpses (“Cold Ethyl”). Ever the showman, Cooper would create many more concept albums centered around the “Steven” character, telling countless eerie tales, but none have quite the impact that Welcome to My Nightmare does. For an extrasensory journey through Cooper’s personal hellscape, check out a video walkthrough of the haunted house of the same name from Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights event.
ICE NINE KILLS
The Silver Scream
It’s already cool enough that every single track off of Ice Nine Kills’ 2018 release The Silver Scream is inspired by a different horror film. What’s even better? Much of the album exists in music video form, bookended by vignettes of lead singer Spencer Charnas as a movie obsessed serial killer. These mini-movies have a hell of a lot of work put into them, pushing a four minute song like “The American Nightmare” into a 12 minute cinematic journey, chronicling the fictional Spencer’s chats with his therapist and the ensuing cat and mouse game when the latter realizes that something is seriously afoot. Over the next five videos, as the saga concludes in the Pennywise homage “IT Is The End,” you’ve gotten not only a heaping helping of some of the best metalcore in years, but some awesome scenery chewing from Charnas.
Just like so many of the rock operas that preceded it, 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime follows a lone protagonist as they rally against the oppressive society in which they’re trapped. After our protagonist, Nikki, is reminded of their past as a heroin addled patsy for the mysterious Dr. X, the album unfolds as a dystopian tale of brainwashing, betrayal, and, of course, murder. This, as well as the story’s cyclical nature, call to mind like-minded albums like The Wall, but what Queensrÿche has crafted here is heavy metal theater, a bracing story set to some of the greatest progressive metal of all time.
The Entire Discography
While Rion Vernon may have retired the Dr. Steel persona over a decade ago, his philosophy of “Building a Utopian Playland” lives on, and whether you buy into his mad scientist propaganda or not, he made some phenomenal music. We get a taste of the good doctor’s backstory on People of Earth’s “Ode to Revenge,” telling the story of his escape from being institutionalized and his subsequent promise to conquer the world in his own unique way: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is to get revenge / And watch everybody burn,” he bluesily croons, a sort of Tom Waits by way of Dr. Horrible. Over the course of five albums, the Dr. Steel character took shape—a demented toy maker hell-bent on world domination. Check out tracks like “Planet X Marks the Spot,” “Back and Forth,” and “The Singularity” for a taste of what Rue Morgue once described as “industrial hip-hop opera.”
Kool Keith’s alter ego, Dr. Octagon, most famously shows up on this, his 1996 full-length debut. For those who don’t want to just slip into another world, but an entirely new universe, reality, dimension, etc., you can’t go wrong with a murderous, time-traveling gynecologist. His unorthodox list of services includes everything from moosebumps to chimp acne, services that sometimes lead to the demise of his patients. It’s bizarre, it’s hilarious, but it’s also one of the most influential hip-hop albums of the 1990s, boasting not only endless ambition and creativity, but also unshakable tracks like “Earth People.”