How to Be an American Idiot

The Internet may eventually kill "the album" as a concept, but 2006 kept the concept album alive

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My Chemical Romance
photo: Chapman Baehler
Discussed:

My Chemical Romance,
The Black Parade, #17;
"Welcome to the Black Parade," #12
The Killers,Sam's Town, #150;
"When You Were Young," #11
Joanna Newsom, Ys, #9
The Who,Endless Wire, #120
AFI, Decemberunderground, did not chart
Elton John, The Captain and the Kid, #192
Mastodon, Blood Mountain, #44


To date, it has sold 14 million copies worldwide. It somehow emerged victorious at the Grammys two years in a row. 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 nom there, too.

Go ahead and challenge this: Green Day's American Idiot is thus far the most successful rock record of the '00s—commercially, socially, and in those simplest of rock terms: the sheer quantity of rumps shaken and hearts set afire. As the most cohesive, competent, tuneful, and daring mainstream-rock critique of post–9-11 America, it . . . well, you get the idea.

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 The Album was dead, having been smitten from 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: Wherein the Killers revealed themselves to be everything we'd feared and nothing we'd hoped for. Their 2004 debut, Hot Fuss (which charted P&J at #27), 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 driving a Jetta. As evidenced by "When You Were Young" (this year's #11), the Killers can knock out a single. Both the commercial and critical drubbing (uh, #150) the full album endured, however, suggest that's just about all they're good at. Rock more, aspire less.

My Chemical Romance: It ain't Dickens, but at least it ain't Sam's Town. Notably produced by American Idiot's Rob Cavallo—who, notably, also produced the Rent soundtrack—The Black Parade is playful and brash, with a solid pair of hairy nuts on it. Concerning "The Patient," his premature death via cancer, and the "Black Parade" that escorts him six feet under, the record is absurdly big and theatrical; if Rodgers and Hammerstein were alive today and into tattoos, they might've written "Welcome to the Black Parade." (A single that, also notably, pollsters preferred to the whole album, though not with such a Killers-esque disparity.) 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.

AFI: Fascinating exercise: Compare AFI and MCR. Here are two bands who try really, really hard; who sport egregious tattoos and serious Vitamin D deficiencies; whose respective T-shirts you'll see next to one another in many a 14-year-old's closet; who both unleashed concept records in '06. And yet, there's MCR at #17, and AFI at . . . Did they chart at all? So what's the deal? Self-importance. AFI has a smidgen too much of it. For all their pageantry, MCR were smart enough to know that the touchstone for their album was garish '70s excess—Queen, Rush, Cheap Trick, ELO. (That, and Rent.) Whether they know it or not, MCR are showmen first, artists second; AFI, unfortunately, still want us to actually care about their problems, or Miss Murder's problems, or the guy in love with Miss Murder's problems— "How his children cry/He left us all behind," etc. According to frontman Davey Havok (Havok? Really?), Decemberunderground is about "huddling together in darkness and isolation." So, like, Fraggle Rock, basically.

The Who: 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 are 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. Oh well.

Elton John: Sir Elton is an uncloseted kajillionaire who pretty much does whatever he wants now, be it Vegas, Broadway, or this 2006 collection of piano-jammin' rollers, the first in a while that actually echoes his '70s genius. That's fitting, as the album continues the theme introduced on 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, i.e., the relationship between Elton and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, a platonic collaboration that ranks among the most prolific of all time. Taupin composed lyrics for "Tiny Dancer," "Rocket Man," "Your Song," and tons of others, including the 10 here. Way to go, straight dude! No better concept for a concept album than your own outlandish success.

Mastodon: 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. But 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 stone fruit 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.

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