Against Me!’s sixth album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, out today, might not be the punk rock group’s finest work, but it’s the one that’s receiving the most attention. In 2012, vocalist Laura Jane Grace, born Thomas James Gabel, came out as a transsexual woman in Rolling Stone. It was a big moment for music (the sickening backlash was kept to a minimum), and an even bigger landmark in Grace’s life. She channels much of what she went through, and is still going through, on Dysphoria, a concept album about gender identity disorder.
“Punk” and “concept albums” seem to be in direct opposition to one another — it’s hard to tell a story in two-minute snippets between screams — but here are six examples that spit in the face of convention.
1. Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü
Zen Arcade is not only the greatest punk concept album of all-time, a furious combination of blistering hardcore and to-die-for melodies, it might be the greatest concept album of all-time, period. It tells the story of a young man who runs away from an abusive home. He joins the military, finds religion, and begins to build his life back together, before his girlfriend dies from a drug overdose. It turns out the whole thing’s a dream, but Zen Arcade, and especially “Turn On the News,” leaves an everlasting impression. I’LL…NEVER…FORGET…YOU.
2. Setting Sons by the Jam
The Jam’s fourth (and possibly finest) album, Setting Sons, was originally conceived as a concept album about three childhood friends who reunite years later after a war and realize they have nothing in common, before a rushed production cycle led Paul Weller to include disconnected songs. Still, a throughline can be followed in Setting Sons, with songs like “Little Boy Soldiers” painting a morbid picture of relationships gone by.
3. Punk Side Story by Schlong
Think there’s nothing less punk than a concept album? Think again: how about a concept album…that’s a retelling of West Side Story, but with punks. Amazingly, it’s great; Bay Area-based Schlong took Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics to heart, but still sound they’re like having a drunken, sh*t-kicking good time. Now do Wicked.
4. Pope Adrian 37th Psychristiatric by Rudimentary Peni
Pope Adrian 37th Psychristiatric is more fascinating than great, but that’s to be expected when you consider the album was written by frontman Nick Blinko while he was checked into a psychiatric hospital. Against his will, mind you; he was detained under Section 3 of the United Kingdom’s 1983 Mental Health Act. (“You can be detained under s3 if you are well known to mental health services and there is little need for assessment.) While in the hospital, Blinko thought he was a pope, Pope Adrian the 37th (based on Pope Adrian IV) specifically, and he began penning songs as the fictional religious figure. It’s madness, literal madness, but it’s also totally engrossing. Blinko didn’t have to try to get into his character’s mindset; he already thought he was someone else.
5. American Idiot by Green Day
Hate all you will, but American Idiot is a really, really good pop-punk album. It’s not without its faults, but I’ve found that the people who most hate American Idiot are the same people who think Green Day IS punk. They’re not. Not really. They’ve always played fast and loud, but Dookie, Insomniac, Nimrod, they’re all polished pop with raucous guitars. American Idiot made this is obvious, and it pissed a lot of POSEURS off. But goddamn, those “Jesus of Suburbia” hooks. You know the story: Jimmy heads to the big city, he falls in love with Whatsername, something something George Bush sucks. Oddly, for an album that sounds SO 2004, when Bush was reelected president, American Idiot has aged remarkably well. Except for “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” F*ck that song.
6. David Comes to Life by F*cked Up
Following the “plot” of David Comes to Life is exhausting: David works at a light bulb factory, falls in love with Veronica, they hook up, David becomes paranoid, they attempt to bomb the light bulb factory, Veronica dies, Vivian is introduced, Vivian tells David that a narrator named Octavio St. Laurent is telling his story…It goes on like this for awhile (the album’s nearly 80 minutes long), but F*cked Up makes it worth the effort, with Pink Eye’s voice of gravel shouting over the slabs of thick guitar overdubs. David is a huge album from a huge man.