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Top 5 Historical Concept Albums

Top 5 Historical Concept Albums

by Tom Baker, 18 January 2013

My pub quiz team's consistently low scores will attest to the fact that I am not exactly Richard Starkey when it comes to the subject of history (or racism). Dates, names, eras, Henry VIII's wives - all of them went in one ear and out the other when I got taught them at school (and in one eye and out of the other when I read about them in the Horrible Histories books).

Where I do tend to excel in the pub quiz is, you mightn't be surprised to hear, the music rounds. Except when they're about the 70s. So I got to thinking - is there a way I could use my ability to absorb, osmosis-like, lyrics and themes from music, and retain that information for far longer than necessary (I still know all of Hybrid Theory off by heart) to help my learn some history? Yes is the answer, by the way, it was a rhetorical question. So here are the five best albums I've come across during my own little revision period, each of which are chock full of historical characters, stories and trivia - most of them pretty grim, as you might expect from this lot.

1. Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament - The Violence

The most recent and also the most grim of our five historical concept albums. Darren Hayman, previously of Britain's "biggest small band" Hefner, had already put out two albums about his native Norwich and the surrounding East Anglian county, but the content was stuck very much in the here and now. The Violence, as the title might suggest, looks back at the bloody past of the singer's home region.

Backed ably by the accomplished alt-folk stylings of the Long Parliament, Hayman delves into the disturbing history of witch trials conducted by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins during the 1600s, singing about burnings at the stake and the wider context of the English Civil War in his distinctive nasal-but-melodic manner. Better than reading an 800-page tome on Cromwell any day.

2. Johnny Cash - America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song

He might have lied about shooting a man in Reno - so far as I know, anyway, and even if it turned out to be true the statue of limitations has probably long since passed - but you can trust the Man in Black's far-reaching musical history of his home country. THE LAND OF THE FREE, HOME OF THE BRAVE, ETC ETC.

Across 21 tracks of (the acceptable side of) country music and narration, Cash manages to bring us up to speed with everything from the Alamo to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to Bigfoot, that slight menace ever-present in his heavy baritone saying a lot more about the undercurrents - and frequent overcurrents - of violence in the United States' often fraught past than even his song writing can.

3. Neon Neon - Stainless Style

Something a bit more contemporary, and cheery - it's a concept album about John DeLorean! What? No, John Dorian is JD from Scrubs. John DeLorean, meanwhile, is the guy who invented the DeLorean - the Back to the Future car, as it's better known (or "I will learn to drive when someone buys me that", as I call it).

He's an interesting fella, as this record - of suitably shiny and slightly retrograde electro-pop, produced by Boom Bip and sung by Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys, his dulcet Welsh tones a bit at odds with the glamorous LA settings - taught me: affairs with Raquel Welch (amongst others), hanging out with Michael Douglas, burying the plans for his cars as the company became bankrupt. Bear that in mind next time you watch Doc Brown talking about not needing roads.

4. Serge Gainsbourg - Rock Around The Bunker

Back to the dark stuff now I'm afraid, though it's difficult to get too downbeat in the presence of French pop-loathario Serge Gainsbourg (at least, on the surface). Rock Around The Bunker may seem a slice of classic 70s French pop at first, Gainsbourg's delivery so laid back you wonder how it was even picked up by the microphones, and it has a light 50s-rockabilly inspired sound - but when you notice track names like 'Nazi Rock' and 'SS In Uruguay', you'll notice something's up.

The album, something of an anomaly in Gainsbourg's none-too-serious repertoire, is principally about the events of World War II from a French perspective - specifically drawing on Gainsbourg's own experiences of the time, as a Jewish child living in a Nazi-occupied country. Still, that might still not be easy to pick up from the breezy arrangements - and they're actually a lot less disturbing than a lot of Serge's other records (see, for instance, 'Lemon Incest', the duet recorded with his then-13-year-old daughter Charlotte...)

5. Sufjan Stevens- Michigan and Illinois

Well, I think I just about passed American History 101 with Professor Cash, but what about bringing me up to speed with the more contemporary local history of that great nation across the Atlantic? What's that? Sufjan Steven is writing and recording albums about every single American state? I'll never need to touch a book again! I don't need my high school diploma any more!

Okay so it didn't quite turn out that way - he got distracted by making like a zillion Christmas albums - but Sufjan's first two entries in his aborted 50 States series are absolutely chock full of historical events and characters from the states of Michigan and Illinois, from the horrific child murders of John Wayne Gacy Jr to the river of Alanson to the holiday celebrated in honour of Casimir Pulaski, a Polish cavalry officer who helped to train and rally troops during the American Revolution. Hey, these two baroque-folk concept albums really did teach me something! That is when I wasn't being sent into beautiful day dreams by Sufjan's voice and writing his name over and over in my work book.

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