10 Essential concept albums of the ’90s

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concept albums of the 90s

The concept album has made a comeback in a big way since the millennium turned over, whether in the form of Titus Andronicus’ triple-LP The Most Lamentable Tragedy, or Kendrick Lamar’s meditation on fame, hip-hop and Tupac, To Pimp a Butterfly. Concept albums go back many decades of course, back to before most of Treble’s contributors are born, though it’s not often that the ’90s are referenced as a period of conceptual works in pop music. It’s not that they didn’t exist, of course, but something about all that angst made us overlook the fact that there were deeper storylines going on within the playlist. Some of them are nebulous and loosely defined. Others follow a strict narrative. Many of them are worth revisiting, however, so this week we’re looking back at 10 of the best concept albums of the ’90s.

The Afghan Whigs Gentlemen at 21The Afghan WhigsGentlemen
(1993; Elektra)

Even in an era dominated by the angst of grunge and alternative, The Afghan Whigs’ 1993 masterpiece Gentlemen stands out as a stark document of emotional devastation as a relationship falls to shit. It is in no way an easy listen, as frontman Greg Dulli spits out the lowest, basest poetry of sexual dysfunction, love gone awry and deep self-hatred. It goes beyond depressed solipsism, though, as Dulli uses “My Curse” to rightfully castigate himself from a woman’s point of view, personified by Scrawl’s Marcy May. For all the darkness here, the Whigs’ singular fusion of punk aggression, massive riffs, dynamite hooks and R&B rhythms on “Debonair,” “What Jail Is Like” and “Now You Know” ensure your ears are well-treated as your mind is brought through the wringer. – LG

Nine Inch Nails - Downward spiralNine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral
(1994; Nothing/Interscope)

The concept of what is often considered the greatest Nine Inch Nails album is a fairly loose one, held together more by sound and atmosphere than story. Yet the lyrical content is unified in its obsession with different methods of control. Trent Reznor rages against everything he perceives as trying to dominate him, from organized religion and sex to his own depression, anger and addictions. It culminates in the title track’s suicide anthem and the coda of “Hurt,” where the narrator desperately wishes for another chance. Beyond all of that, though, The Downward Spiral bangs, from the distortion-heavy rages of “Mr. Self Destruct” and “March of the Pigs” to the slower burns of “Closer” and the angsty haunted house that is “I Do Not Want This.” And when it quiets down for tracks like “A Warm Place,” none of the intensity or rough beauty is diminished—there’s a reason why “Hurt” struck the late Johnny Cash deeply enough to convince him to record his own version. – LG

concept albums of the 90s BowieDavid BowieOutside
(1995; Virgin)

Bowie’s 19th studio album, and perhaps his most conceptually creative, Outside—subtitled the Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle—tells a tale of a dystopian 1999 in which Bowie’s persona, Nathan Adler, is a government official whose assignment is to investigate the new phenomenon of Art Crime. In this post-Nietzche society, artists have been murdering and mutilating humans for the sake of art, and Adler seeks to draw a line somewhere in the expansive gray as he follows the murder of Baby Grace, a fourteen-year-old girl. Outside was Bowie’s first and only collaboration with Brian Eno since the Berlin Trilogy (with the exception of “I’m Afraid of Americans,” which was originally written during the Outside sessions), and runs a lengthy 74 minutes. Upon release, Outside was met with mixed reviews, but it’s held up surprisingly well over time, and Bowie’s recent passing has led to its reconsideration as one of his most ambitious works. – PS

Nick Cave albums Murder BalladsNick Cave and the Bad SeedsMurder Ballads
(1996; Mute/Reprise)

Murder ballad tradition has informed Nick Cave’s songwriting since his days in The Birthday Party. In fact, there’s probably a pretty tall stack of bodies collected throughout his career, though no pile of cadavers runs as high as the one on the album actually titled Murder Ballads. Blending grisly narratives from the public domain with a series of trademark Cave originals, Murder Ballads is a deeper dive into the macabre than usual for The Bad Seeds. Sometimes it’s pretty and graceful, like the Kylie Minogue duet “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” and sometimes it’s profane, as with the homoerotic take on “Stagger Lee.” And then there’s “The Curse of Millhaven,” and well, nobody really gets out of that one alive. As concepts go, that of Murder Ballads is morbid, dark, and sometimes a little gross. It’s essential Nick Cave, of course. – JT

Dr. Octagonecologyst concept albums of the 90sDr. OctagonDr. Octagonecologyst
(1996; Bulk)

Kool Keith made a name for himself in the late ’80s as a member of the influential hip-hop outfit Ultramagnetic MCs, but in the mid-’90s, he teamed up with producer Dan the Automator and created a new persona for himself as a villainous and demented, mutant doctor named Octagon. Following the narrative on Dr. Octagonecologyst, the duo’s debut album, can be a little tricky, but through tracks such as “3000” and “Earth People,” we learn of his futuristic, extraterrestrial origins, via “halfsharkalligatorhalfman” his horrific DNA mutations, and via “Elective Surgery” and “A Visit to the Gynecologist,” his services—both surgical and pornographic. Both genius and juvenile, Dr. Octagon as a concept is executed not so much with surgical precision as psychedelic sprawl. It’s surreal and gross and strange, but at the end of the day, it’s a mind-bending hip-hop journey worth taking, even if making sense of the destination proves elusive. – JT

Radiohead - ok computer concept albums of the 90sRadioheadOK Computer
(1997; Capitol)

As concept albums go, OK Computer is a pretty loose one. Fans on Reddit and Radiohead message boards have assembled their own narratives to tie together the various loose threads that dangle throughout the album’s 12 tracks, but it’s not a story album, necessarily. In fact guitarist Ed O’Brien even said it wasn’t really intended to be a concept album. So it’s a wonder that it’s all woven together so expertly under the umbrella of an outside world that seems to be advancing too quickly for one to fully grasp where it’s going. Pre-millennial paranoia, the failings and distrust of technology and disillusion with modern life are recurring themes, as are methods of transportation and the violent or life-changing outcomes of being a passenger (miraculous survival of crashes in “Airbag” and “Lucky”; contact with extraterrestrials on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”). OK Computer is big on art rock sounds and prog rock ideas, but it’s ultimately a pop record with a lot of heavy emotions—mostly despair—underneath a lot of loftier ideas about where the future is taking us. I guess it’s a concept album about modern life, as much of a cop-out as that might sound. But I have yet to hear a better representation of it. – JT

Neutral Milk Hotel AeroplaneNeutral Milk HotelIn the Aeroplane Over the Sea
(1998; Merge)

Jeff Mangum has never said outright that his second and last album with Neutral Milk Hotel is a concept album about Anne Frank. And it likely isn’t—not all of it, anyway. But Mangum has certainly confirmed how Diary of a Young Girl influenced “Holland, 1945,” and said in an interview when asked if “Oh Comely” was about Frank, “it could mean that if you want to.” More broadly, and more accurately, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is about the parallel ideas of love and loss, and how they’re inseparable. The people in Mangum’s songs are simultaneously affectionate and grief-stricken, warm-hearted and cut down by tragedy. Characters express a desire to merge bodies with lovers both alive and dead, and every song is haunted by ghosts or memories. That each narrative is rendered with rustic, old-style instrumentation and perfectly crafted melodies makes it all the more heartbreaking each time. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea might be about Anne Frank on some very loose level, but it resonates because it’s universal—whomever the inspiration is. – JT

concept albums of the 90s Ben Folds FiveBen Folds FiveThe Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
(1999; Epic)

When Folds & Co. titled Reinhold Messner, they weren’t even aware that he was a real—and quite famous in mountaineering circles—person. Somehow, the name tattooed the subconscious of drummer Darren Jessee as a teenager and it stuck with him. The full picture of the album is like that. They may not have set out to create songs with connecting themes and motifs, but they are there if you search for them. The songs can be enjoyed individually, but if you so choose you can glean the story of a narcoleptic nomad with a regretful redneck past. The album ends as it begins, with a song about sleeping. It raises the question: was the entire “biography” a dream? After all, what is a dream if not an unauthorized biography? – CG

spring albums magnetic fieldsMagnetic Fields69 Love Songs
(1999; Merge)

It’s right there in the title—this is an album of love songs. More accurately, it’s three albums full of love songs. In the late ’90s, the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt conceived of an ambitious idea for a theatrical musical production composed of 100 love songs. After deeming that a little too long, however, he shaved it down to the next logical number—69, naturally—and turned it into one of the last great concepts album of the 1990s. All points on the love spectrum are covered, from the snotty (“Punk Love”) to the surreal (“Experimental Love”) to the impossibly cool (“When My Boy Walks Down the Street”). And love isn’t treated with kid gloves here; Merritt often depicts it as difficult and burdensome, or sometimes ill-fated. But via beautifully written melodies such as “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing,” Merritt and his cast of collaborators prove more than anything that love makes suckers of us all. – JT

concept albums of the 90s Prince PaulPrince PaulA Prince Among Thieves
(1999; Tommy Boy)

Prince Paul gets a lot of credit for pioneering the rap skit and, early on, he would use them to weave together loose narratives for De La Soul albums (ex: the game show on 3 Feet High and Rising or the bullies on De La Soul is Dead). A Prince Among Thieves, howeverwas his first full blown concept album, telling a story with a beginning, middle and tragic end. With an easy to follow narrative concerning an aspiring rapper and appearances by Chris Rock, RZA, Everlast, Kool Keith, Biz Markie and many others, it would be natural to assume that this album rode the hype train to some solid record sales. Unfortunately, it was unfairly ignored despite its fantastic, layered production and truly great performances by the aforementioned artists. Its status has grown a bit in the intervening years (being sampled on Since I Left You by The Avalanches has certainly helped), but Prince Paul still made it a point to have his next album, Politics of the Business, be a concept album about releasing a concept album with little financial success. – KN

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