American Idiots

The internet may kill albums someday, but concept albums roll on.

My Chemical Romance: What's the patient's name? Tommy?
My Chemical Romance: What's the patient's name? Tommy?
To date, it has sold 14 million copies worldwide. It was nominated for seven Grammys and took home one: best rock album of 2005. It picked up seven MTV Video Music Awards. Kerrang! readers voted the title track "The Greatest Rock Video Ever." There's a movie in development. The band behind it appeared with U2 during the halftime show at the Monday Night Football game that reopened the New Orleans Superdome -- one of 2006's most inspired performances. Grammy nod there, too.

Go ahead and challenge this: Green Day's American Idiot is thus far the most successful rock record of the decade -- commercially, socially, and in those simplest of rock terms: by the sheer quantity of rumps shaken and hearts set afire.

Is it not curious, then, that 2006 saw a minor flood of concept records, particularly among pop and pop-punk bands that allegedly pander to allegedly concept- record-averse teenagers? As pundits informed us (over and over and over again) that albums are dead, having been smitten upon the mountaintop by the fearsome 99-cent download, brazen bands produced albums designed to be consumed as a whole. To begin with, let us examine the trio of eyeliner-rock bands who most likely stole a few cookies from Green Day's jar in 2006:

The Killers
Sam's Town

. . . Wherein the Killers revealed themselves to be everything we'd feared and nothing we'd hoped for. Their 2004 debut, Hot Fuss, had hooks, a little style, and faint echoes of the Stones. It was dumber than a pack of tube socks, but in one of life's happy accidents, that very stupidity allowed the band to just shut up and rock. Sam's Town, however, is a concept record about Silver State basket cases. Oops. Turns out these geniuses are about as good at setting a scene as a chimp is at driving a Jetta. As evidenced by "When You Were Young," the Killers can knock out a single, but that's just about all they're good for. Rock more, aspire less.

My Chemical Romance
The Black Parade

It ain't Dickens, but at least it ain't Sam's Town. Notably produced by American Idiot's Rob Cavallo -- who also produced the Rent soundtrack -- The Black Parade is playful and brash, with a solid pair of hairy nuts on it. The record concerns itself with "The Patient," his premature death by cancer, and the "Black Parade" that escorts him six feet under, and is absurdly big and theatrical. If Rodgers and Hammerstein were alive today and into tattoos, they might've written the title track. But here's the point: If all these new rock bands are gonna wear costumes and eyeliner, they may as well put on a damn show. Thanks, MCR! You're douchebags, but you're our douchebags.


Fascinating exercise: Compare AFI and MCR. Here are two bands that try really, really hard: Both released concept records in '06; both sport eyeliner, egregious tattoos, and serious vitamin D deficiencies; and you'd expect to see both bands' respective T-shirts next to one another in many a 14-year-old's closet. So what's the diff? Self-importance. AFI has a smidge too much of it. For all the pageantry, MCR was smart enough to know that the touchstone for its album was garish '70s excess: Queen, Rush, Cheap Trick, ELO. (That, and Rent.) Whether they know it or not, the members of MCR are showmen first, artists second; AFI, unfortunately, still want us to actually care about its problems.

The Who
Endless Wire

Now, the older guys. This isn't a concept album through and through, but it apparently includes songs from one -- about a fella named Ray High, who's a rock star. An aging rock star. An aging rock star who once did a lot of drugs. (Huzzah!) But whatever, it's the first Who album in 24 years, and even if these guys (well, the two of them who're still alive) didn't invent the conceptual concept, they certainly immortalized it ("Fiddle About," yo!). They do the arpeggio thing from "Baba O'Riley" again, but it's less impressive in a world of MIDI. Oh, and Tom Waits shows up on a track. No, wait -- that's just Roger Daltrey trying to sound grizzled.

Blood Mountain

At some point during "Circle of Cysquatch," dude is singing through a garbage disposal and then gets set on fire. So he runs around screaming (and on fire) until he falls on some spikes that have bombs on them. So then he blows up into a thousand bloody pieces that rain down on a field trip of kindergartners. Actually, this is a concept record about climbing a mountain (a blood mountain), getting lost, being hunted, and trying to survive. I'd repeat that, but it'd give you a nosebleed.

Joanna Newsom

Though not officially a concept record, any LP that has an oil painting of its artist on the cover qualifies to some extent. Furthermore, Ys is 2006's best example of an album whose every song -- whose every note and syllable -- is inextricably and essentially a single part of a very singular whole. Those acquainted with the genius present here know that there's not one stonefruit too many, that there are exactly the correct number of roans, that it just wouldn't be the same without this or that trill, pluck, squeak, or warble. If everyone made music that was even a tenth of what this record is -- if they even tried, if they shelved the MTV ambitions and the Pitchfork dreams, if they just hung it all up and sat down and concentrated on the artistry and craftsmanship of it all -- well then, roughly 27 people, this writer included, would be slightly happier.