10 Essential Punk Rock Operas

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10 essential punk rock operas

Last week, Titus Andronicus released The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a 98-minute narrative work that chronicles the sad-sack story and eventual redemption of “Our Hero.” And it’s definitely the band’s most ambitious work, if not their best (though it’s a contender for sure). But it’s also not the first time they did something of this scale; no, that would be 2010’s The Monitor. But the ambition of Titus Andronicus isn’t entirely unique for a punk band. Going all the way back to The Clash, punk bands have been adding more challenging and sprawling concepts to their albums for decades, and while most of them end up being unfinished in a way, a lot of them are truly stunning works. So, to celebrate this grand punk ambition, we’ve assembled a list of 10 essential punk rock operas. See them, hear them, touch them, feel them, and then sod off.

punk rock operas The JamThe JamSetting Sons
(1979; Polydor)

At a relatively slender 32 minutes, The Jam’s Setting Sons is maybe better described as a punk rock operetta. Planned to be a concept album about three childhood friends (and maybe Nuclear war survivors? It’s a little hazy) who grow up to pursue very different life paths, the grand ambition of Setting Sons ended up being hampered by tight production schedules, and as such the album didn’t end up being the full-blown narrative that Paul Weller had envisioned. Not that it doesn’t all have a cohesive flow about it, particularly in those songs that Weller composed specifically for the conceptual work. It veers into other directions, including a fairly random inclusion of a cover of “Heatwave,” which closes the album for some reason. But when Setting Sons adheres to its initial concept, it’s some of the band’s best work. – JT

Husker Du - Zen Arcade Twin Cities albumsHüsker DüZen Arcade
(1984; SST)

There are two things we know to be true about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade. One, it’s a hardcore punk masterpiece. Two, it doesn’t end in the most satisfying way. The storyline is about a teenager whose life is a nightmare, then experiences the outside world to discover that it’s actually a lot worse. But hey, surprise, it was all a dream! Yeah, not the greatest close to an otherwise intense and powerful concept-based album. But hey, look at most of these albums and you’ll find that the ending isn’t really all that great (with some notable exceptions). No matter, the road to getting there is paved with blistering, bruising songs that showcase both the power and the breadth of Hüsker Dü’s talents. It’s as much a sprawling psychedelic opus as it is a punk album, and a thrilling journey—from the full-throttle assault of “Something I Learned Today” to haunting overdose lament “Pink Turns to Blue”—no matter where it ultimately leads. – JT

Schlong punk rock operasSchlongPunk Side Story
(1995; Hopeless)

Technically it’s a musical—possibly the only old Broadway musical many of us can stomach—but Bay Area band Schlong’s operatic treatment of Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s West Side Story was a minor miracle when it came out. Transposing the Romeo and Juliet plot from Puerto Rican immigrants to substance-enabled punks wasn’t much of a conceptual stretch, but Schlong’s cast of thousands’ mercilessly clubbing “Maria,” “America” and especially “Gee, Officer Krupke!” is, seriously, oddly reverential in spirit to the original. And the instrumental “Dance at the Gym” is a sweet-natured comic romp that proves guitarist Gavin McArthur could actually, if the situation dictated, play the original score faithfully, even sentimentally, showing there’s a lot more classicism influencing some punk bands than you might think. (Burrrrrp.) – PP

punk rock operas Mike WattMike WattContemplating the Engine Room
(1997; Columbia)

Mike Watt played a major part in making one of the most epic punk records of all time: The Minutemen’s 1984 double-album Double Nickels on the Dime, featuring more than 40 songs and some good jokes at Sammy Hagar’s expense. But it isn’t really a concept album, other than perpetuating the concept of jamming econo—the Minutemen’s artistic ethos. But in 1997, Watt released a conceptual work bound by a narrative about the camaraderie of sailors working below deck on a Navy ship. It’s inspired in part by Watt’s own father, who is pictured on the cover art. And it’s also maybe the best thing that Watt has done since his Minutemen days (no disrespect to fIREHOSE). Its 15 songs are taut, inventive punk rock yarns with well-written story nuggets and an infectious affection for its subjects. – JT

21st Century post-hardcore albums CursiveCursiveThe Ugly Organ
(2003; Saddle Creek)

The Ugly Organ was not this Omaha-based post-hardcore/emo group’s first rock opera. That honor goes to 2000’s Domestica, which chronicled frontman Tim Kasher’s failed marriage and served as a revival of the briefly deceased group. But The Ugly Organ showed Kasher stepping up his narrative game to provide a dark, twisted dive into the otherwise mundane exploits of a troubled singer-songwriter (possibly Kasher himself). But, musically, Cursive stepped up to the plate to provide an epic mix between jagged punk and uncanny, vaudeville-esque instrumentals. But the VIP trophy for The Ugly Organ goes to cellist Gretta Cohn. While she can be found on a few EPs and other rarities with the group, Ugly Organ marked her only full-length outing with the band, and her contributions to each song here are invaluable to setting the daunting tone that sells Kasher’s words. – ATB

Murder by Death punk rock operasMurder by DeathWho Will Survive, And What Will Be Left of Them
(2003; Eyeball)

That “The Devil in Mexico,” the first track on Murder by Death’s Who Will Survive, And What Will Be Left of Them features Gerard Way will certainly lead to some comments about why we left off My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade. But let’s not get into that right now; Murder by Death’s relatively brief (42 minutes) punk-country western tells the story of the devil himself, getting drunk and starting fights in Mexico, and subsequently taking it upon himself to destroy the town. It’s part Nick Cave, part Charlie Daniels, and with a whole lot of hard-rocking badassery, and with Adam Turla’s cool, Cash-like vocal talents to boot. It’s a bit like the gothic country cousin to The Ugly Organ in fact—the two bands once had a lot in common, right down to the finishing touch of cello. – JT

punk rock operas Titus Andronicus - The MonitorTitus AndronicusThe Monitor
(2010; XL)

Titus Andronicus aren’t the only bands on this list to have more than one punk rock opera, but they’re definitely the band with the two most elaborate ones. Their latest is a three-LP opus, but 2010’s The Monitor is almost as sprawling in its scope, retelling the Civil War, in a manner of speaking, through a Jersey-born kid who ends up in a sort of existential warzone in Boston. There’s drinking, loathing, and a lot of Springsteen and Billy Bragg references. Basically, if punk, New Jersey or the Civil War interest you—or better yet, all three—it’s a kind of angsty utopia (via real-world dystopia) in song. What holds it together, besides the driving and epic punk songs themselves, is Patrick Stickles’ lyrics, which are so detailed they almost require a Cliff’s Notes. But sometimes, it just all makes sense when he screeches that one perfect line: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!”  – JT

punk rock operas david comes to lifeFucked UpDavid Comes to Life
(2011; Matador)

Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, named after a song on the band’s debut album Hidden World, has a pretty simple storyline: Boy meets girl, girl dies in factory accident, boy mulls the meaninglessness of existence. It’s that third part that ultimately comes to represent most of the album (David’s paramour, Veronica, actually dies pretty early in this narrative), so after a few tracks, it gets a little hard to follow exactly what’s going on here. And really, that’s the purpose of a rock opera, right? Get into some pretentious, overblown meta-commentary that doesn’t entirely make sense? Whether it’s clear what’s going on or not, Fucked Up make the journey a hell of a lot of fun, by packing these conceptual ideas into hardcore rippers like “Queen of Hearts,” “A Little Death” and “Running on Nothing.” – JT

punk rock operas Against Me!Against Me!Transgender Dysphoria Blues
(2014; Total Treble)

For the sake of full disclosure, Transgender Dysphoria Blues only partially qualifies as a rock opera/concept album. It’s true that many of the songs here came out of a project that Laura Jane Grace was previously working on: a full-length concept album about a transgender prostitute. But somewhere along the way, this Against Me! record became something a little different; part conceptual, part confessional. The end result was one of the best punk records last year and—in this writer’s humble opinion—an instant classic. And, while not a strict rock opera, it’s still perfect for this list because its 10 individual songs form such a strong, cohesive unit that the listener can’t help but structure a narrative to insert themselves into. And that’s exactly the appeal; Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the most empathetic set of anthems you’ll ever hear. – ATB

punk rock operas la disputeLa DisputeRooms of the House
(2014; Staple)

For their third album, Michigan post-hardcore quintet La Dispute decided to write a break-up record, but there was nothing conventional about it. Rooms of the House is the story of a failed relationship, sure, but it sidesteps a linear narrative; instead, its 11 songs span decades, focusing as much on the life its two central characters live (together and apart) as it does on what goes on in the world around them, as well as the idea that our possessions have a history of their own. The result is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable work that is complex yet richly rewarding. – GO

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