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20 Albums That Play Like Movies
by Nathan Reece

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The first of its kind.

The first of its kind.
For my birthday this year, I got two albums on vinyl, The Wall by Pink Floyd and Chinese Democracy by Guns N Roses. Though The Wall is obviously much more of an example, I feel that the other is kind of cinematic in its own way. So I started thinking about records that - either from their being concept albums or purely because of their grand nature and thematic elements - play like motion pictures. Though I am including a Guns N Roses album, I shall not be including Chinese Democracy, because - considering the amount of time it took to be released and the complex reactions that I and others have had about different aspects of it - I feel that I could do an entire essay just on that one. I'm including one album by each artist, which may not even be their most prominent one in some cases; this is tough simply because every record by some of these artists or bands is like a movie. I should also say that a notable exception on my list would be The Who, but this is only because the albums I could choose from by them (namely Tommy and Quadrophenia) were only soundtracks to their original movies/plays. But here are the ones that, after searching my mind, I thought were pretty notable, in the order that they were released.

(1) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles

They say this was the first concept album, and I'm inclined to believe that. I can't recall anything before this that had a theme which unified the whole album. Funnily enough, John Lennon said that this notion was always strange to him, because most of the songs could've been on any album. Yet with the package of material that opens the record (the rummaging of instruments, title song/introduction to the idea of the band, and segue into Ringo's character and presentation of the second song), the cover and inner photos of the band, and the outro (the farewell by the band followed by the majesty of "A Day in the Life"), it's tough to deny that it presents a vision.

(2) Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars - David Bowie

This is a vision of a rock star (from outer space perhaps?) that begins with his disillusionment of the world around him and basically ends with his suicide. Just to further the idea that it was a singular vision, Bowie actually became this person for the tour, then never played him again.

(3) Welcome To My Nightmare - Alice Cooper

This was an album by Cooper - his first solo album, without the band (which was called...Alice Cooper?). I haven't heard it yet, but it's a landmark rock album. I'm learning from Wikipedia that it's a journey (by song) through the nightmares of a boy named Steven. I'm sure Cooper is the host, as the album cover seems to indicate. And making it even closer to the experience of the movie is the fact that the album includes spoken bits by Vincent Price! All of these are pretty cool ideas.

(4) 2112 - Rush

Rush may very well be my favorite band, and they're mainly who I was thinking about when I wrote the part at the beginning about certain artists that've made a cinematic record every time. But 2112 is not only their most prominent but the one that's the most movie-like, not only in tone but in structure. The first half is a record unto itself, beginning with creation of life, going through the creation of the guitar, becoming more extraterrestrial and basically ending in a seige of humanity by a different lifeform. The second half is more of a simple collection of songs, yet somehow the feel of it combines with the first half to make the whole thing a vision.

(5) The Wall - Pink Floyd

This is the one that's the
The definition of a movie on record.

The definition of a movie on record.
most like a movie. Infact it became one, along with a very lavish stage presentation that involved visuals both staged and projected on video. It's the story of a rock star's breakdown, it has songs that are sung combine with ones that are more spoken or screamed, and it has an actual plot. If you haven't heard it or seen it, it's impossible to describe and you may have no interest. But there never has - and never will again - be anything like it.

(6) Kilroy Was Here - Styx

Styx made a few concept albums. And none was campier, sillier, or more self destructive than Kilroy Was Here. Supposedly it was the story of a rock musician living in a future world where rock has been outlawed. But according to the bass player, "There was a lot of conflict in the band over that concept. Because no one was sure what the concept was." The specifics are so silly - complete with names like Dr. Righteous and Jonathan Chance, an actual medley of the songs on the album which serves as the last track, and a stage show that included more dialogue than music and the band members dressing in ROBOT COSTUMES - that it comes off as an extremely comical attempt. This was the one with Mr. Roboto on it, and it's an awesome album. But as a concept? Laughable. Yet that's part of what makes it so enjoyable.

(7) Appetite For Destruction - Guns N Roses

I may be alone in thinking this plays like a movie, but the main reason I think so is because of the last song. It starts out with a young man's entrance to an urban hellhole, and chronicles his troubles with the law, his drinking escapades, his wishes for a better place, his sexual escapades and his pining for certain women. Yet a violent, hostile, selfish attitude is prevalent throughout the album. Then in the last song, "Rocket Queen," another selfish tirade, the mood suddenly switches and the song becomes a selfless declaration of love. After all this material about a violent delinquent, the listener learns he has a heart after all.

(8) Operation Mindcrime - Queensryche

This is probably the heavy metal version of The Wall. It takes a few listens to understand the story (I haven't quite yet), but rudimentally, it involves a man who's programmed by government agents to murder his caretaker, not realizing until the album's end that this is what he's done (I had to read a synopsis of this). Even if the story is complex, great album.

(9) Batman Soundtrack - Prince

Prince did three movies and subsequent soundtracks. The third one, Graffiti Bridge, even included samples of dialogue. But the album he released that was most cinematic, in my opinion, was the soundtrack to the 1989 BATMAN movie. It also included samples of dialogue, and it was more than a collection of great songs (that's my opinion). It was also a souvenir from the movie, one you could get before it was released, as an appetizer, then enjoy long after. Plus it's a perfect companion piece to the movie, with a futuristic sort of sound. Infact without the songs, that movie wouldn't have had the same effect. Some people count it as one of his weaker albums, and I've never understood why.

(10) Fear of a Black Planet - Public Enemy

This is the album Public Enemy released the year after their classic song "Fight the Power" debuted as such an integral part of Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING. And it fully launched them into the public eye. It begins with a lot of people's angry comments about Public Enemy's music, and ends with a sound bite from group leader Chuck D that basically leaves the future of the group in doubt. Along the way we get a full spectrum of militance,
An incendiary story of survival.

An incendiary story of survival.
lashing out against 911, prejudiced people, Hollywood, the government and more. Plus it's all done over a backdrop of seamless, brilliantly orchestrated samples and original musical creations. Chuck D called it their Sgt. Pepper's, and it's easy to see why.

(11) Pandemonium - The Time

Just as big a part of PURPLE RAIN and GRAFFITI BRIDGE were The Time, led by Morris Day and featuring Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet Jackson's legendary producers. In the same summer the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack was released, this reunion album by the group premiered. And to me it's hands down the better album, song-wise and as far as cohesion. It opens with an onstage announcement of their reunion and a full fledged skit featuring Day and his backup man, Jerome Benton. What follows is a song-by-song unfolding of a moment in, well, time. It would be the last album the group would release for more than twenty years, and the last at all under that name.

(12) Efil4zaggin - NWA

The final full-length album that NWA released was not their most prominent. And it was the only one that didn't include Ice Cube. Yet in my opinion it's a brilliantly conceived journey through the minds of violent black men. On this record (it's title is Niggaz4life spelled backwards for a safer transition into record stores) the group basically took the dangerous reputation they got from the profanity and incendiary ideas that were included on their previous album, Straight Outta Compton, and went all the way with it: the album's graphically violent, almost cartoonishly so. It's also divided into two different halves, the second of which focuses on the manipulation and abuse of women. It's tough material, but the album's done with such skill, both verbally and musically (I think it's Dr. Dre's best work as a producer) that it's incredibly listenable. This album shocked people, not only with its content, but with the fact that it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts.

(13) Death Certificate - Ice Cube

Hot on the heels of the album above came the second full length solo album by the man most consider to be the group's strongest writer. Death Certificate was also divided - more specifically and noticeably - into two halves. But it was also more clearly a story. The "Death" side begins with a declaration that young inner city black men are in danger, then goes all the way to the death of one of them, detailing the various experiences that killed him. The "Life" side begins with the birth of one of these men, and goes full-fledged into a militant mindstate which Cube saw at the time as being the right direction for inner city youths. It's a confrontational record to the point of being unlistenable by some, and just as offensive as Efil4zaggin, but in a different, less exploitative sort of way.

(14) Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) - Wu Tang Clan

This was the debut album by the Wu Tang Clan, and it's cinematic quality can be traced all the way to the group's name, which was the name of a tribe in certain old school Kung Fu movies that the group loved. It actually opens with a sample from one of these movies ("On guard! I'll let you try my Wu Tang style!" Haha!) and uses more as the album goes on. It also introduces the members slowly but surely until their personalities are clear, by the end giving a full picture of the damage hip hop's largest crew is capable of.

(15) Ready To Die - Notorious BIG

If it seems like my list has taken a turn towards rap, it's because I think that in the 90s, rap music really took the baton started by rock bands in earlier decades. This album, one of only
A throwback and a statement of the future at the same time.

A throwback and a statement of the future at the same time.
two by the legendary, soon to be deceased rapper, is nothing less than the story of a single life on record. It begins with a montage consisting of Biggie's birth, transition into early existence, entrance into the harsh street life around him, and finally the first song, where he details how hard life is for him as a young drug dealer. Throughout the album we hear much more about his life, until at the end of the last song, he kills himself. Pretty strong statement.

(16) The PULP FICTION Soundtrack

Of all the soundtracks I've ever heard, this one comes the closest to seeming like an actual movie unto itself (and the RESERVOIR DOGS Soundtrack comes close!), just by replaying songs from the movie and craftily placing bits of dialogue from the movie between them. As a young man in the 90s, this was an indispensible piece of pop culture.

(17) OK Computer - Radiohead

If my generation had an album that was a successor to Pink Floyd's 70s work, it was probably this one. I remember vividly sharing the experience of listening to this one night in the late 90s with a few of my friends. It's an album that I deem cinematic because of its sheer epic scope and grandiose arrangment alone. Perhaps it's also a statement about transition into the future of music and life itself, which the title seems to indicate.

(18) Chronic 2001 - Dr. Dre

This is the sequel to The Chronic, which was indisputably one of the most important rap records ever made. But even though that album was quite cinematic as well, to me this one was even more so. It even begins with the rising sound that accompanies George Lucas' THX logo. After this you hear the sound of Dre's lowrider approaching a few of the album's rappers, followed by Snoop Dogg's lead-in to the first song. As the album progresses, the rappers who represent Dre's inner circle are introduced one by one (including Eminem, who was brand new at the time and features in a few carefully placed supporting role bits). The record makes a genuine statement as well, going from a perspective of world-weariness and paranoia at the beginning to the mourning of a loved one lost to violence at the end. From the man who helped create gangster rap, this was a message of his desire to leave it behind.

(19) The Fragile - Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor was a big part of my adolescence, able to put into words and music what I and so many others were feeling at the time (and since then). Although The Downward Spiral was like a bible to me during that time, and the one that was based on a story-like progression, his next album - released five years later - is the one I deem the most cinematic. The sheer way that it seems to shift between moods, the different tones of each half of the record, the well-placed instrumentals, and the journey from anger and loss at the beginning to a place of doubt at the end (along with the feeling that the whole thing is a cycle its creator will never really get out of) make this quite a triumphant achievement.

(20) On An Island - Dave Gilmour

The man who helped set the foundation for concept albums in general returned several years ago with an album that was an aural movie unto itself. Beginning and ending with an instrumental, with a collection of great songs in between, it creates a mellow feeling of peace and warmth that's infectious. Where Roger Waters was the anger behind Pink Floyd, Gilmour was a big part of its mellow and peaceful side. This album, for fans of a band with so many cinematic records, is a great present. A journey of beautiful sounds, you might say, and the story of maintaining a peaceful mindstate.

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Sep 8, 2012 4:47 PM
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We're of slightly difference generations, it seems (I mean, I was four when Downward Spiral came out), so while I am aware of the existence of most of the albums you've listed, most of them I haven't actually listened to. I agree with your assessments of the ones I am acquainted with and will add the ones with which I am not to my to-listen list. Also, I will not state which albums fall in which category to save myself some embarrassment.

Two recent albums that come to my mind that I would describe as cinematic are Demon Days by Gorillaz and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. That second one actually has a short film associated with it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg5wkZ-dJXA), which I highly recommend watching if you haven't seen it before. Please don't mistake me for a Kanye apologist. He's a whiny little b*tch and needs to get over himself, but that album is pretty epic, just not enough so to justify his arrogance. Thoughts?
Sep 9, 2012 4:04 PM
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Well I definitely don't think a four year old would get much out of The Downward Spiral. Hopefully you heard it at a later age! ;)

When I was making my list, I did want to include some newer albums, but about the closest I could get was the last two System of a Down records, which was pretty much a double album. But by that point I'd decided to leave it at twenty, and I was kind of rushing to finish. Since I already included a few solo records by people whose groups I already had albums by on the list, maybe including the System of A Down ones would've made more sense.

Not that it's recent, but I'm also now wondering why I didn't include Rob Zombie's Hellbilly Deluxe, because it's a perennial Halloween favorite for me, and has a lot of movie input.

I obviously recommend all the ones on my list, so I'm honored you're adding them to your to-listen list. I'll do the same for the two you mention. Infact I appreciate you giving me two more recent titles.

I've heard the big song off Gorillaz' first album a lot of course, and maybe one or two other singles, but that's it. I've liked what I've heard, and the idea of the band in general. So giving one of their albums a shot will be fun.
I looked up Demon Days, and there are a lot of really cool people doing guest appearances on that, so I'm excited about hearing it.

I wouldn't say I agree with everything Kanye's ever done, but I've always thought he was really amusing. It's kind of comical to me, the way he seems to do really controversial things without even realizing it or seeming to make an effort to do them. Plus he does really good music. I haven't heard the record you mentioned, or seen the movie, but I'll check em out. I did hear the one he did with Jay Z - infact a friend let me borrow it and I listened to it a few times. That's one that has a cinematic quality too, and I could've probably added it to my list but I didn't think about that one.

Ever see the South Park about Kanye? Pretty entertaining.
Sep 13, 2012 4:28 PM
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If you liked Watch the Throne (the Jay-Z/Kanye combo album), I think you'll love My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

If you haven't before, you definitely need to listen to Demon Days. The hits from Gorillaz that make it to the radio are great on their own, but it's a different (and better, in my opinion) experience to digest a whole album. And given the nature of the band, watching the music videos is essential. Their debut album and the more recent Plastic Beach are both very good, but the individual tracks in no way come together like the ones on Demon Days.

On a side note, I credit Gorillaz for being my first foray into GOOD music. While I cannot say it was my first album (that was more likely Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys), their debut is the first album I distinctly remember going to the store and purchasing myself, around 11 or 12, and it completely changed how I thought of music.
Sep 15, 2012 7:48 PM
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I'll for sure check both of those out. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a great title, for starters. Gotta be good. Kanye's a really big GNR fan, and he and Axl Rose get along pretty well from what I've read. I sort of see him as the black Axl, just with the controversy and sh*t-stirring and all. I think either he or Jay Z says as much on Watch the Throne.

I couldn't believe when I saw some of the names on the list of credits for Demon Days: not only people like Dennis Hopper that aren't even musicians, but musicians like Neneh Cherry, who had a really big hit that I like a lot in the late 80s but who I haven't heard about at all since then. Interesting mix.

That's brave to admit about your first album! The truth is, the first time I heard "Hit Me Baby One More Time," I thought it was brilliant, and I was around the age you are now at the time! Plus I've always really liked that Soul Division song from around that era - I just always thought it sounded like a funk song from the early 80s.

That's pretty cool that the Gorillaz record was the first one you went yourself and bought. When I read that, I tried to think of the first one I would've gone to the store myself and bought (I think I did that a little later than you did) - I think it was probably Tori Amos' Crucify EP or the first Bone Thugs N Harmony EP. I don't know why they were both EPs, but it was one of those, to the best of my recollection.

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This is an outlet granted to me by the makers, in which I will espouse grand words, unleashing in written form the very movie-related praise and outrage I'm probably thinking about and/or discussing at the time anyway.

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Other columns by Nathan Reece:

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Nathan Reece
I was born in a log cabin that was built in a sewer. After serving during wartime, I woke up from this vicious dream and learned to tapdance.
It's a commendable trade, but not a recommendable one. As I've said many a time, on one hand, I have five fingers. Yet on the other hand, I have
five fingers. Sometimes I sleep. I would probably watch more sumo wrestling if it was on TV more often. The first movie I saw at the theater was Superman
II...the last was The Terror, and this much is true. Far be it from me to call myself stupid, but if I did so (and believe me, I would), I'd say it behind
my back. Then I would figure out how I did it. Sometimes I sleep. Love, Nate.

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