Have a long-playing audio adventure with these genre-defying albums that take listeners on a thrilling musical journey through unique sonic worlds.
Between sprawling science-fiction R&B epics, genre-defying punk operas, multi-act musical dramas, interstellar free jazz and theatrical character sketches, these eleven albums take listeners on a thrilling musical journey through the artists’ own worlds, rich with sights, sounds and emotion. Enjoy!
Kamasi Washington — The Epic
Across six sides and nearly three hours, Kamasi Washington’s 2015 album The Epic imagines a universe where the sun revolves around electric Miles Davis records, ’60s free jazz and John Coltrane.
Illuminati Hotties — Free I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For
It’s Sarah Tudzin’s world, we just live in it. When she isn’t working as an in-demand engineer and producer for Coldplay, Lady Gaga, and others, Tudzin rules the airwaves as Illuminati Hotties, cranking out thoughtful and hilarious observations about life on the timeline.
On Free I.H., Tudzin twists her voice like a tenderpunk Maria Bamford to populate her music with vivid characters oozing with personality. Her guttural ad libs, infectious valley girl singalongs, hushed whispers and fourth-wall breaking cheer routines prove that this is, in fact, the one we’ve been waiting for.
Fucked Up — David Comes to Life
Fucked Up build a hardcore punk world of Shakespearean proportions in 2011’s epic David Comes to Life— a four-act musical about a lightbulb factory worker in 1970s England with enough tragic, heart wrenching drama to be penned by the Bard himself.
Unwound — Leaves Turn Inside You
Some records contain worlds so immense they require their own recording studio. Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You is one of those records. In 2001, the Olympia, WA noise-rock trio of Justin Trosper, Vern Rumsey and Sara Lund built their own recording studio—MagRecOne—to create their swansong double LP.
From the opening drone of “We Invent You” through the Dixieland jazz sample that wraps up “Who Cares,” this otherworldly art-punk album is overflowing with mellotrons, strings, ARP synthesizers, and enough studio-as-an-instrument trickery to make Brian Eno think twice.
Janelle Monáe — The ArchAndroid
Afrofuturist R&B meets German expressionist science fiction in Janelle Monáe’s 2010 debut concept album, The ArchAndroid.
Inspired in part by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, The ArchAndroid continues the story of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android sent to warn the citizens of Metropolis about The Great Divide’s plans to suppress freedom and love. The music spans neo soul, art rock, hip hop, folk, classical, big-band jazz, folk, glam, and electro-pop—and the lyrics are deep. The ArchAndroid is about “breaking the chains,” says Monáe.
Sigur Rós — ()
No earthly language could describe the elegance of Sigur Ros’ melancholic ambient post-rock soundscapes—so they invented their own. The vocals on () are sung in Hopelandic, the made-up language the band sometimes uses in place of Icelandic or English. Though the band describes Hopelandic as “gibberish vocals that fit the music,” its emotive quality is so clear that you’ll know exactly what they mean.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
Stitched together from field recordings, bursts of lo-fi noise and triumphant nine-piece orchestral rock, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven remains Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s crowning achievement and one of the most immersive post-rock albums of the 2000s.
Mike Watt — Contemplating the Engine Room
Remember seapunk? Well, this is different. Featuring a pre-Wilco Nels Cline on guitar, this punk rock opera by former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt flies the freak flag loud and proud.
Contemplating the Engine Room tells three stories at once— Watt’s own autobiographical spiel about his life on tour with the Minutemen, his father’s story as a Navy man, and the overarching “day in the life” story of the titular three-man boiler-room crew. With enough musical twists and turns to make you seasick, this punk rock opera keeps you on your toes until the final curtain call.
MF DOOM — Mm…Food
Before the drooling Homer Simpson meme, there was Mm…Food, MF DOOM’s hip hop concept album tribute to all things edible and delicious. In a 2004 SPIN Magazine profile, DOOM says Mm…Food is about “things you find on a picnic, or at a picnic table.” Don’t listen to this one on an empty stomach.
Cursive — The Ugly Organ
Art is hard. Cursive’s The Ugly Organ has roots in real life drama—in 2002, during the grueling tour for the Domestica album, Cursive songwriter and vocalist Tim Kasher suffered a collapsed lung. And the Ugly Organist was born.
Exhausted from screaming at the top of his lungs about divorce—much of Domestica is based on Kasher’s relationship struggles—The Ugly Organ steps back to examine the troubled relationship between art and pain with expanded instrumentation and a classic three-act structure. Check out “Sierra” to hear cellist Gretta Cohn bring a new dimension to Cursive’s art-punk thrashing.
Gorillaz — Gorillaz
Not everything in two dimensions is flat. The kaleidoscopic debut album by Gorillaz— the “virtual band” formed by Blur songwriter Damon Albarn and Tank Girl comic artist Jamie Hewlett—is a technicolor montage of Latin rhythms, subsonic dub bass and post-modern punk attitude. Oh, and did we mention the band is animated?
The Guinness Book of World Records certified Gorillaz as the world’s “Most Successful Virtual Band” upon the album’s 2001 release— hitting number three on the UK charts and fourteen in the US. Since then, Gorillaz has sold over seven million copies worldwide. Sunshine in a bag, indeed.
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