The Top 10 Rock Operas You Need to Know
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Created in the late ‘60s in Britain, the rock opera is one of the longest-lasting forms of the concept album. The idea––telling one narrative over the course of an entire album––is brilliant. While it was reduced to a gimmick by second-rate bands for much of the end of the 20th century, there has been a renewed admiration for them.
Note: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, a song cycle about a Vietnam vet disillusioned upon return by the hatred and violence sweeping America, has not been included. While this is one of the most acclaimed albums of all-time, it is pure R&B and calling it a rock opera would be a stretch.
1. Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), The Kinks: Released just a few months before The Who’s Tommy, this album was superior, but went largely unnoticed. After Ray Davies spent a few years making exquisite English pop, he returned to his hard rock roots. Telling the story of Arthur Morgan, a middle-aged World War II veteran who feels lost in his retirement, Arthur combined Davies’ satirical lyrics on English culture with his brother Dave’s rugged guitar work––and added in blaring horns for good measure. Lampooning hypocritical upper class values on “Victoria,” “Drivin’,” and the title track, making unapologetic condemnation of war on “Yes Sir, No Sir,” “Some Mother’s Son,” “Brainwashed,” and “Mr. Churchill Says,” or applying personal reflection to his character on the slower “Shangri-la” and “Australia,” Ray Davies made his masterpiece with Arthur.
2. Quadrophenia, The Who: The Who’s second stab at the rock opera turned out to be the most triumphant. Pete Townshend, never one to shy away from convoluted ideas, told the story of Jimmy, a working-class, schizophrenic teenager with four distinct personalities. Channeling teenage angst on a level that hadn’t been reached since their start in 1965, Townshend bears Jimmy’s fury and exhaustion to his mental illness. Classic tracks like “The Real Me,” “Cut My Hair,” “The Punk and the Godfather,” “5.15,” and “Love Reign O’er Me” shows every member––Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwhistle––at full throttle.
3. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie: As a response to the phoniness of the rock scene in the early ‘70s, David Bowie told the story of Ziggy Stardust, a bisexual alien rock star that captivated the world. A lot of Bowie’s best tracks are here: “Five Years,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” This is also the peak of his collaboration with guitarist Mick Ronson, one of the great guitarists of the ‘70s.
4. Berlin, Lou Reed: Often referred to as the most depressing album of all-time, this is not for anyone looking for some easy listening. It tells the story of Jim and Caroline, two addicts, and their disintegrating relationship (and lives). Initially received with disgust, many have come to appreciate this album as one of Reed’s strongest solo efforts, with favorite tracks including “Lady Day,” “Men of Good Fortune,” “The Kids,” and “Sad Song.”
5. The Wall, Pink Floyd: A rock star named Pink becomes so out-of-touch with his fans, and the public in general, that he decides to isolate himself from the world. The Wall is the last great album from the Floyd, as Roger Waters’ increasing control began to create strains with the other members. Written as a way to cope with his own crumbling mental state, some of the band’s biggest hits came as a result. “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” and “Comfortably Numb” can be found on Classic Rock radio all the time. But, there’s more holding this album together, such as “Hey You,” “Goodbye Blue Sky,” and “In the Flesh?,” the album’s best song.
6. Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü: This hardcore punk trio opened up to some pop sensibilities and released a classic album as a result. The story, about a boy who runs away from the abuse of his home only to find the world just as bad, briefly joins the military, fails to find spirituality, and loses a girlfriend to drugs, is as dark as many rock operas come. But, the intense rage of “Something I Learned Today,” “The Biggest Lie,” “Pink Turns to Blue,” and “Turn On the News,” is perfectly countered with the more fragile “Never Talking to You Again,” “Hare Kṛṣṇa,” and “Monday Will Never Be the Same.” This was a turning point for hardcore punk.
7. Tommy, The Who: Pete Townshend’s first rock opera was a messy story: a boy becomes deaf, dumb, and blind to escape from abuse and finds a means of communication through pinball. But, the songs make up for a shoddy narrative. “Amazing Journey,” “Christmas,” “The Acid Queen,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Go To the Mirror,” “Tommy Can You Hear Me?,” “I’m Free,” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” are staples in the Who cannon. Their most underrated song is “1921.” It may not have been their strongest effort, but that is just a testament to how great the band was.
8. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Ben Folds Five: Reinhold Messner looks back on his life, trying to see where everything came apart, especially when it came to all is failing relationships. Derided upon release, this album was not the funny ditties everyone had come to expect from Ben Folds Five. But, with the influence of classical piano and jazz, along with rock, this is a fantastic album. Folds’ snark is still present, but there is more emotion. Choice cuts include “Narcolepsy,” “Hospital Song,” “Army,” “Your Redneck Past,” “Regrets,” and “Lullabye.”
9. The Crane Wife, The Decemberists: Based on Japanese folklore regarding tales of greed and murder, The Crane Wife is the most ambitious album from The Decemberists. The folk influence is ever-present and the jangling guitar leads the cycle. With the two 10-minute plus pillars, “The Island” and “The Crane Wife 1 & 2,” along with “When the War Came,” “Shankill Butchers,” and “Sons & Daughters,” this record can be harrowing, jubilant, and horrifying. Sometimes all at once.
10. Southern Rock Opera, Drive-By Truckers: A sprawling cycle about the South with songs about racism, poverty, the hatred of George Wallace, Birmingham, and Southern rock; this the most ambitious album from the band. Leader Patterson Hood struggles with his Southern identity, overcome by guilt and anger. The Drive-By Truckers have never let the history of the South slide and this history of their home is respectable.