Rock Operas and Concept Albums

By Danielle J.

You know Tommy and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, but what about contemporary rock operas or concept albums? One of my favorite bands, Titus Andronicus, just released a rock opera composed of twenty-nine songs performed in five acts called The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Titus Andronicus is no stranger to this sort of thing, as their second release, The Monitor, was an epic concept album inspired by the Civil War, complete with musicians reading Abraham Lincoln speeches in between tracks. It’s one of the best rock records of the last decade and I can’t recommend it enough. The release of The Most Lamentable Tragedy got me thinking about other recent concept albums which manage to bring the rock’n’roll without being gimmicky.

Cover art for Black Sheep Boy by Okkervil RiverBlack Sheep Boy (and appendix). The album gets its name from the 60’s folk song of the same title, originally by Tim Hardin. The album uses the voice of Black Sheep Boy to express a multitude of dark emotions, some very sharp, some more abstract. The world it creates is one of unrequited love, loneliness, princesses and really, really long songs. It also has some very strange and lovely instrumentation. It’s definitely worth listening to in one sitting if you have the time and inclination. Make sure you get the version with the appendix!

Cursive: The Ugly Organ. The Ugly Organ is a carnival-esque album about the perils ofCover art for The Ugly Organ by Cursive being an artist and a critically acclaimed band with all the accompanying pressures and expectations. The Ugly Organ itself is the dark force that churns out songs, ruins relationships, and causes artists to self-destruct. There are songs about writing songs and songs about feeling sad about being sad. A good example is from the song “Butcher the song”: “I’m writing songs to entertain/but these people/they just want pain/They want to hear my deepest sins/the songs from the ugly organ.” If it sounds melodramatic, that’s because it is, but it works (I swear!). It’s self-deprecating and more than self-referential, but it’s heavy and loud enough (with all manner of guitars and string instruments) to keep it from being too sappy or pretentious.

Bonus points: Pedro the Lion’s Winners Never Quit, about a politician’s fall from grace and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, a sweeping album about exactly that.

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