Concept albums don’t necessarily require fantastic themes. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, of course, spends much of its time in one man’s disintegrating mind. Its multiple personalities aside, The Who’s Quadrophenia finds its drama amidst the turmoil of growing up in the mod culture of mid-‘60s Britain. But the concept album certainly isn’t allergic to flights of fantasy, either, as many a Roger Dean album cover can attest. Nor are they the sole property of drug-fueled prog rock bands.
2010 saw at least three high-profile concept albums: two with science fiction themes, and one with its roots deep in Greek mythology. Janelle Monae’s excellent The ArchAndroid set the bar high early in the year, containing Suites II and III of her Metropolis epic (the first part being 2007’s Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase EP). The backstory, worthy of a Funkadelic album, revolves around Cindi Mayweather, a 21st Century clone made from 28th Century DNA who is also the ArchAndroid/Chosen One who will free her people. Absolutely none of this backstory is necessary to enjoy the album. The ArchAndroid is, above and beyond its science-fiction conceits, an excellent example of “kitchen sink” R&B that veers from classical-influenced interludes to funky raveups (“Tightrope”) to emotional catharsis (“Cold War”) to cosmic balladry (“57821”) to just about anything else you can think of. There’s a tight structure holding it all together, though, and that’s where the ArchAndroid tale adds another level of appreciation for this ambitious work. This thing crackles with enough creative energy to power a whole city’s worth of Archandroids.
Equally ambitious, if less well-known, is Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown. This self-styled “folk opera” retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a setting that vaguely recalls Depression-era America. American music forms (jazz, blues, folk, ragtime—anything with a little swing in its hips or dirt in its heels) abound, supporting equally poetic lyrics about hard times, hard choices, and the ways in which the powerful keep us divided. A stellar cast (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as Orpheus, Mitchell as Eurydice, Greg Brown as Hades, the Haden Triplets as the Fates, Ani DiFranco as Persephone, and the Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller as Hermes) brings the whole thing home with grace and power. Brown’s Hades, in particular, exudes callous power. Hadestown is a wondrous album that, despite its old-time vibe, feels remarkably appropriate to our current economic troubles. At the very least, Hadestown should be bundled with every copy of Hamilton’s Mythology that gets handed out to students every fall.
Rounding out things is a project that’s not well known despite the presence of a very high-profile member. Ryan Adams, under the name Orion, offered up his sci-fi metal epic Orion. Initially released only on long-sold-out limited-editon vinyl, Orion is as self-indulgent as you’d expect of a heavy metal concept album about an intergalactic war, containing song titles like “Ghorgon, Master of War”, “Electro Snake”, and “Victims of the Ice Brigade”. It also holds up as a serious metal album, so it seems like every eye-rolling moment is balanced out by a riff-heavy moment that’s truly inspired.
You could also argue that, in some ways, the Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs fits into this list as a concept album. Album-wise, that’s a bit of a stretch, even for someone like me who views most suburbs as the work of a Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. Standout track “City Without Children”, however, definitely traffics in something of a post-apocalyptic vibe, and Spike Jonze’s video for “The Suburbs” depicts an America that’s either been invaded or is under some type of martial law. So there’s a very heavy current of dread running through the album that might not be completely tied to the band’s meditations on memories and their relation to the places where they happened.
There was some interesting soundtrack work as well. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s soundtrack for The Road kicked the year off in tense and elegiac fashion. Cormac McCarthy wasn’t the first person to write about an apocalypse, but he may win the prize for creating the coldest and most ashen end of the world. The film works beautifully, and Cave and Ellis’s soundtrack is perfectly matched. I’m not sure where else it’s offered, but Amazon sells an apparently legit CD-R disc of score music from the Supernatural television show. Many fans seem to be disappointed that the classic rock side of Supernatural‘s music hasn’t been collected, but I think Christopher Lennertz and Jay Gruska’s instrumental work is really well done, and you can’t beat punnish titles like “Blood Drops Keep Falling On My Head”, “Lilith Unfair”, and “Luci’fer, You Got Some ‘Splainin’ to Do!”. A nice addition to the DVDs of this show that quickly transcended its initial “urban legend of the week” format to tell some extremely good tales of wars in Heaven and an Apocalypse (with a Biblical capital “A”) just itching to get started. The second soundtrack CD to HBO’s True Blood also hit shelves, serving as a good reminder of how the show (regardless of what you might think of the actual stories) always made good use of music without losing sight of its twangy Southern setting. Songs like Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Gasoline and Matches” are always a pleasure to hear, and it’s doubly nice to hear them providing good support for the show’s visuals. Now if we can just get a Walking Dead soundtrack containing Bear McCreary’s excellent score, the year will be complete.
2010 offered some good standalone songs as well. Karen Elson’s The Ghost Who Walks opens strong with the title track (about a vengeful spirit) and “The Truth Is in the Dirt” (“Here she comes, it’s killing time / Flames are burning behind her eyes”). Blitzen Trapper’s “The Man Who Would Speak True” tells of a man whose tongue “had been replaced by a green and a growing flower”, who can speak only the truth. It’s kind of like the dark side of the Thomas the Rhymer legend, with a body count that would make Nick Cave proud. In fact, there’s a magical realism vibe that runs throughout the band’s Destroyer of the Void, in songs like “The Tailor” (“I’m as old as time / And maybe half as blind / What some of you might call infinity / I am the tailor of earth and electricity”) and “The Tree” (“I passed the ancient seer / Entering the atmosphere / In a tree that never ends with my lover and our friends”).
Josh Ritter outdoes himself with “The Curse”, one of the year’s very best songs. A stately waltz tells the tale of a mummy falling in love with the archaologist who discovers him. It’s a beautiful, sad tale that tracks the relationship from its beginning to its bittersweet end. On “Folk Bloodbath”, Ritter brings together folk icons for a violent bit of closure:
And out of Delia’s bed came briars
And out of Lewis’ bed a rose
And out of Stacker Lee’s came
Stacker Lee’s cold lonely little ghost
The angels laid them away
I’d even include Ritter’s “Another New World” on this list. While nothing supernatural happens in this tale of an Arctic adventurer trapped with his ship in the ice, you could make the argument that the entire expedition starts because of the belief in some unkown land beyond the Arctic ice—either some tropical paradise, or an opening to a Hollow Earth (in keeping with a theory that might have been making the rounds at the time of the song’s tale).
In fact, the songs get too plentiful to list. There’s Howlies’ “Zombie Girl”, which blurs the line between a traumatic girlfriend and the living dead, Ke$ha’s “Cannibal”, Marty Stuart’s “Ghost Train Four-Oh-Ten”, Mad Tea Party’s “Rock and Roll Ghoul”, and so many more. And this is without even getting into metal (which, admittedly, I fell behind on this year). A special prize, though, should go to South Park’s “My Neighbor Cthulhu”, a catchy My Neighbor Totoro parody sung by Cartman as he rides Cthulhu (released by BP drilling) from one scene of mayhem to another.
The more you look, the more examples of the fantastic you find in music this year. The records and songs listed above merely scratch the surface, but they struck me as the most prominent or the most interesting. Please feel free to add to the list in the comements below.