Top 5 Concept Albums of the 21st Century

Published on The Indiependent

The concept album has seen a rebirth this century, with new-coming debut albums and established artists boasting albums that tell narratives or portray united concepts as a crucial aspect of their repertoire. No longer reserved to tales of dragons and mythical tales, or the sounds of David Bowie and Pink Floyd, concept albums have become a means for criticism, self-expression or artistic exploration. The 21st century has seen this album type make a comeback, with the following qualifying for a rank amongst the best produced since we partied like its 1999.

5. Crybaby // Melanie Martinez

The newest poster-child of the internet, Melanie Martinez has crafted an album loaded with the dichotomy of being both adult and childish. Her song titles and imagery are firmly rooted in the nostalgic innocence of childhood, whilst her themes stand juxtaposed within the adult world. Combining the childish call of “Mom please wake up” with “Dad is with a slut / And your son is smoking cannabis” creates a sense of lost innocence and lack of tact, assaulting your eardrums with the concept embedded throughout. The two worlds are presented side-by-side, co-existing yet also serving as two very detached stages of life.

Martinez is evidently attempting to create distance between her reputation as a reality star, boasting a semi-successful campaign upon The Voice US. Focusing upon the childhood innocence suggested by the song titles, her visuals feature a myriad of fluffy toys and DIY, self-filmed effects to recreate a sense of the fetishisation we view our childhood with. Lyrically, the content speaks of something more twisted, in which childhood activities such as a game of tag are morphed into a sinister account of sexual assault. A reminiscence of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is echoed within this modernised, musical setting. Continuing on from her debut release ‘Dollhouse’, the singer continues a well thought out concept in a backdrop of hypnotic beats, ethereal vocals and sinister metaphors to create a strong conceptual album.

4. American Gangster // Jay Z

Utilising one of the most artistically exceptional movies of modern times as his inspiration, Jay Z distils the cinematic brilliance and the vivid concept of a fully realised gangster into an album filled with funk, soul-filled beats and intelligent lyrics. Pivotal to the album is the conceptual inspiration itself, in that the brainchild is a movie laden with metaphors, cinematic artistry and scenes of suspense and drama – with the album delivering all of this and more as it progresses from track to track. Immediately, the artistic inspiration becomes apparent in ‘Intro’ boasting Idris Alba, utilised as a trailer of sorts for both the movie and the album, mirroring directly the cinematic experience the album seeks to promise.

Musically, each track delivers a sound that suits perfectly to the film, seemingly designed to coexist with a pivotal movie scene or as a background for a fast-paced montage. The rapper utilises themes such as the American dream, fallen heroes and illegally acquired wealth to paint the rich story of the American Gangster archetype associated with the movie. However, Jay Z moves beyond the realm to deliver critical accounts of censorship issues and the Jena 6 controversy. Here, the concept album gains depth and personality, with attitudes and criticism being presented by the rapper himself nestled alongside movie-inspired tracks. Overall, the album becomes a piece of imagining cinematic mastery through sound, and achieves its ambitions both conceptually and musically.

3. The Suburbs // Arcade Fire

Documenting the stories of the unsung heroes of suburbia, Arcade Fire championed the everyday and elevated the mundane problems of millions into an album of musicianship and artistry unrivalled in its easy listening sound.Win Butler, the band’s front man and lead singer, described the album in an NME interview as being “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs”, with the album designed to present the suburbs rather than critique or promote it. Famed for their heavy hitting ideals in ‘Funeral’, the band focuses more upon blending grand statements into music that can be savoured and enjoyed in this album – with the message playing as an extra layer of content as opposed to an ideological statement that stands alone.

Epitomising the album’s concept is the record ‘We Used to Wait’, a song that highlights the captive nature of the suburbs. Telling the story of how people long to escape the suburbs, it highlights the inevitability of a return to this familiarised environment. It’s a sad lament that establishes the truth of life in a simple, effective means. Despite the apparent distaste and disapproval of the eponymous suburbs, the album also establishes a sense of optimistic acceptance – with many songs resonating with listeners as an anthem of their surroundings and upbringing. The concept is flawless, championing the realities of life for millions, merely telling their story to the world in a musically talented package of sixteen songs.

2. American Idiot // Green Day

Resonating with thousands as an album of their youth, ‘American Idiot’ is a conceptual album that has born platinum accolades, a label as a “rock opera” and even a musical adaptation. Combining political criticism with a story line centralised around a character known as “Jesus of Suburbia”, Green Day narrate a tale of doomed youth, failing America and self-discovery. Much like any great novelist, the band embeds their political critique behind the smokescreen of a detached narrative – using characters fictional settings such as Anytown, USA and a plot to actively attack the Bush administration in an intelligent, imaginative way – mimicking the style and substance pioneered by bands such as The Who.

Our protagonist suffers rejection, heartbreak, despair and drug abuse before progressing onto self-discovery and an attempted ascent to former glory. We experience life through the character’s eyes, feeling his emotive pain and wanting him to progress and improve, much like we do for characters in our favourite book or film. The album feels like a modern tragedy, echoing the works of Aristotle and Shakespeare in its narrative methods. Ultimately, however, the music takes the centre stage, filled to the brim with rock ballads that require screaming from the rooftops and an eclectic mix of iconic songs that can unite the music tastes of everyone.

1. Electra Heart // Marina and the Diamonds

The modern soundtrack of teenage angst and the epitome of the 21st century’s ideals, ‘Electra Heart’ is the album that propelled Marina and the Diamonds from moderate chart success to international pop starlet. Centralised around the creation and exploration of the eponymous protagonist, Diamandis presents archetypal characters of American society, writing songs through their personas or as an outsider analysing their character. Electra Heart herself seems to boast a multiplicity of personalities which serve as a tool to portray ‘The Archetypes’; ‘Primadonna’ tells the story of the beauty queen, ‘Teen Idle’ serves as a reflection of the idle/idol teen, Su-Barbie-A becomes the epitomised housewife whilst the ‘Homewrecker’ character flows throughout. Marina has crafted a fully-rounded, flawed character through which she pens pop ballads and musical numbers which effectively depict Electra as a narcissist with self-loathing issues, driven for pop stardom so as to create a conceptual album bursting with feminist critique and societal criticism.

What elevates this concept album above others is the visual feast offered alongside. Each archetypal side to Electra Heart came with a string of artistically brilliant photos, witty captions and a variation of videos and stories to bring both the album and the character to life. Marina combined the album and the internet to create a 21st century sensation flowing with criticisms, artistic visions and, most importantly, a fully imagined protagonist. Coupled with lyrics such as “I wanna be a virgin pure / a 21st century whore” and “I broke a million hearts just for fun” the singer has created a pop concept album that is yet to be matched. The album stands alone in the world of concept albums, boasting a visual cornucopia of goods alongside a musical offering of pop ballads and ethereal vocals – all factors serving to create the best conceptual album of the 21st century.

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