I’ve always liked concept albums. From Genesis and Pink Floyd to the Mars Volta and the Decemberists, I’ve always loved collections of songs that tell a story. But the one band who are probably the most overlooked in this area are The Hold Steady. I think it’s largely because of the genre they work in. You don’t expect the band often refered to as the best bar band in the world to weave the sorts of stories that flow from song to song (and in their case from record to record). And while I think that the new Decemberists album is probably the best concept album of this year, I think “Stay Positive” by the Hold Steady is up there with it (albeit in a very different way). If you listen to all four Hold Steady albums one after the other it is possible to trace the stories of the main characters, but mainly what you get is a snapshot of a world full of dealers, pimps, hoodrats and voyeurs. It’s a fascinating world, but not one I would want to be a part of, and it is as far away from the traditional fantastical idea of a concept album as you can get. But in the end I keep coming back to their records, and keep wanting to piece together the underlying narrative behind the songs. And that is exactly how I’ve felt about every concept album I’ve ever loved, which suggests they are doing something very right.
If I had to list my concept albums of the 21st century, it would go something like (in no particular order):
- Frances the Mute by the Mars Volta
- Stay Positive by The Hold Steady
- Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady
- The Crane Wife by The Decemberists
- The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
- The Raven by Lou Reed