1. David Bowie — “Ziggy Stardust”
(1972) To the casual listener, the Bowie classic “Ziggy Stardust” may sound simply like the story of a rock star, his rise to fame and ultimately his tragic decline. Upon closer inspection, there’s so much more. Ziggy is actually an alien being sent to Earth with a message of hope, peace and love. The human manifestation of this alien is a prominent rock star, who indulges in excessive drug use and promiscuous sex. These excesses, combined with loyal fans who turn against him, lead to his demise. It has been said the album was a sort of “self-fulfilling prophecy” for Bowie. At the time of recording, he was only a moderately known entertainer, not the international superstar he became only a year later.
2. Metallica — “Master of Puppets”
(1986) Almost 25 years old, “Master” stands as the pinnacle of Metallica’s career and the peak of their collaborative songwriting. “Master” is set around a theme of control, and the outside forces that influence and direct people’s lives. There are drugs (“Master of Puppets”), the military (“Disposable Heroes”), mental institutions (“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”) and corrupt religion (“Leper Messiah”). The record finds the band playing what could be described as prog-metal, stretching songs out to eight minutes and incorporating classically influenced arrangements. “Master” is also notable for being the last recording with bassist Cliff Burton, who died in a bus wreck while touring for the record.\
3.Sonic Youth — “Sister” (1987) The seminal New York band’s fourth album featured songs inspired by the life and work of author Philip K. Dick. The title “Sister” refers to Dick’s twin sister, who died shortly after birth — the memory of her haunted him his whole life. “Sister” is also notable as it represented a departure from the chaotic noise of the band’s earlier work. For the first time, the band experimented with more traditional pop structures, such as “Schizophrenia” and “Catholic Block.”
4. The Decemberists — “The Hazards of Love” (2009) Lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy set out to write a song called “The Hazards of Love.” He ended up with a full-on rock opera. The story consists of a love narrative, with main character Margaret falling for a forest-dwelling, shape-shifting young man named William. To add conflict to an already puzzling story, Meloy includes sub-plots about William’s mother, a jealous fairy queen. There’s also the villain “Rake,” who murders his own children after his wife mysteriously dies. Got all that? The female characters are voiced by Becky Stark and Shara Wooden of the bands Lavender Diamond and My Brightest Diamond, respectively.
5. Cursive — “Domestica” (2000) “Domestica” chronicles the tumultuous relationship between two characters, “Sweetie” and “Pretty Baby.” Both characters appear throughout the album, on “The Casualty,” “The Martyr,” “A Red So Deep” and “The Radiator Hums.” The end of the record leaves the status of the relationship ambiguous, but singer Tim Kasher has said in interviews that the couple stays together. The themes of love, despair and loss seem to mirror Kasher’s personal life, as his marriage ended in divorce shortly before the band began writing the album. Luckily for us listeners, Kasher’s pain was expressed with a high level of emotional sincerity, both musically and lyrically. “Domestica” is widely hailed as a classic emo rock record. At 10 years old, the album still sounds ahead of its time.
6. Deltron 3030 — “Deltron 3030” (2000) Deltron 3030 is a hip-hop supergroup of sorts, consisting of Dan the Automater (production), Del tha Funkee Homosapien (rapper) and DJ Kid Koala. The record “Deltron 3030” is a futuristic vision of Earth where Deltron Zero (Del’s alter ego) battles giant, evil corporations that have taken over. All of the lyrics for the record were written by Del in two weeks, and seem to be influenced by a little chronic smoke. Del is a well-known sci-fi buff, and the record seems to be a tribute to the comics, cartoons and books that have influenced him. The album features a host of other hip-hop heads, all adopting futuristic sci-fi alter egos. The production value is incredible, featuring some of Dan the Automater’s best beats.
7. Mastodon — “Leviathan” (2004)
Creating an album based on the Herman Melville novel “Moby Dick”` might sound a little silly. That is, unless you’re widely considered the best current metal band in the world. “Leviathan” features 10 tracks, such as “I Am Ahab,” “Seabeast” and “Blood and Thunder.” Somehow the heavy-rocking, prog-metal champs pulled off an album of epic proportions without making it look like a forced gimmick.
8. The Mars Volta — “De-Loused in the Comatorium” (2003) When Mars Volta lead vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s close friend Julio Venegas died, he wrote a short story regarding the circumstances surrounding his death. That story became the basis for the lyrical content that would comprise the band’s debut full-length, “De-Loused In The Comatorium.” The lead character (based closely on Venegas) is called Cerpin Taxt. Taxt tries to kill himself with a lethal dose of morphine and rat poison, which instead ends up putting him in a weeklong coma. While in the coma, Taxt experiences epic visions and explores his own psyche. When he awakes, he can’t cope with the real world, and jumps to his death. Produced by Rick Rubin and released in 2003, the album is both the band’s biggest seller and the most critically acclaimed.
9. Arcade Fire — “Neon Bible”
(2007) There was a lot of discussion of whether “Neon Bible” was truly a concept album. There are plenty of religious recurring themes and references, and the band has said their songwriting was influenced by “TV preachers” they watched in YouTube clips. Aside from the religious aspects, the band said the ocean and television were also central images for the record. Lead songwriter Win Butler has said that the ocean imagery symbolizes a lack of control, while television subconsciously affects our world view. There was a huge effort put forth to capture those ideas in the composition and recording of the album. Sessions for the album took place in the band’s home city of Quebec, as well as Budapest and New York, right along the Hudson River.
10. The Good Life — “Album of the Year”
(2004) “The first time that I met her I was throwing up in the lady’s room stall” is the opening lyric on “Album of the Year.” “Album” chronicles a relationship month by month over the span of (you guessed it) a year. The first three tracks discuss the relationship between the main male character, who is dating a bartender. By tracks four and five, there are accusations of infidelity. Tracks nine and 10, “Inmates” and “Needy,” explore the dissolution of the relationship, while “A New Friend” is about the man that the bartender begins dating soon after calling it off with the main character. The album ends with “Two Years This Month,” a sound collage with samples of the record interspersed with dialogue between the two main characters. The track ends with an A cappella reflection on the relationship. “It’s been two years this month, since the last time we spoke,” he gently sings, his voice full of remorse and heartbreak.