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August 30, 2005

The Best Rock Operas

I've been listening to a new album recently: American Idiot by Green Day. The album is scathing critique on American culture, and while I don't necessarily agree with all the sentiments, the music is stunning. It is pop/punk genius. Plus it is one of my favorite forms of rock and roll albums. It is a rock opera.

Wikipedia defines a rock opera as:

A rock opera or rock musical is a musical production in the form of an opera or a musical in a modern rock and roll style rather than more traditional forms. It differs from conventional rock and roll music, which is often a song that is unlinked in plot or story with other songs, but overlaps considerably with concept album, song cycle, or rock musical. More recent developments include metal opera and rap opera.

Essentially a rock opera is an album that attempts to tell a story through the songs on the album. Sometimes the songs are tightly bound together (Jesus Christ Superstar), while other times they are loosely intertwined (Sgt. Peppers).

Having said all this, I love rock operas. I feel they are usually the height of an artistic breakthrough for a band. So, when I found out that American Idiot is a rock opera I had to have a listen. Wow. Stunning. Beautiful. And also vulgar (being pop/punk). Anyway, in honor of this awesome album I now present my all time favorite rock operas:


  1. Yoshimi Battles. the Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips -- Man I love this album if only for the song "Do You Realize?" One of the most beautiful songs of the past 20 years. As a rock opera it is a little confusing, but the music is so good, so different, so ... weird that I put it on the list. May be more of a concept album really. It is debatable.
  2. Quadrophenia by The Who -- Their second best rock opera and it would probably be third if they would have come through on the Lifehouse project. "Love Reign O'er Me" is a classic.
  3. American Idiot by Green Day -- Yep. I'm sold. It hasn't won all these awards for nothing (Best Rock Album Grammy). It is a fantastic album. Musical and pop genius.
  4. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis -- This is pre-Phil Collins Genesis, the Genesis of Peter Gabriel and it is beautiful. While it is a very tight rock opera in terms of songs and story line, the story is merely a vehicle for the wonderful music that drives the entire album. Rumors continually persist that Gabriel will rejoin Genesis to perform this masterpiece again someday. Maybe, maybe not. I would be surprised though.
  5. The Wall by Pink Floyd -- There are two rock operas that will be remembered for a long, long time. This rock opera by Pink Floyd is the post 1980 rock opera. It represents so many things to so many people from the fight against oppression (Berlin Wall) to a personal fight against depression. Musically and lyrically it is hard to top.
  6. Tommy by The Who -- This cannot be argued. It was the first and it continues to be the best. A commentary on fame, religion, psychosis, and familial relationship, Tommy ranks up there as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

So, there you have it. Feel free to suggest others.

Posted by snackeru at August 30, 2005 4:22 PM | Lists


One album that is more called a concept album and isn't quite a rock opera is Queensryche's Operation:Mindcrime. This was the first metal album that I heard that I just could not get enough of (in the sense that it was new, not an inherited opera a la the Who). It's not as good as your list, just wanted to through the best metal opera out there...

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at August 30, 2005 9:26 PM

Good addition, Craig. I'm interested in what you mean, though, by "inherited ala The Who." Are you suggesting that The Who did not write Tommy or that the story was taken from somewhere else? Because it wasn't. Pete Townshend wrote Tommy and the movie and broadway play came after. Anyway, just wanted to clarify.

Posted by: Shane at August 30, 2005 9:52 PM

Nice post. I'll have to give that Gensis one a try.

Posted by: bjhess at August 30, 2005 10:02 PM

No, I meant one that was already in existance when I was born (or made shortly thereafter) by inherited. I agree that Tommy is the best, no question. Queensryche's album was one that came out when I was a teenager. So I was "there" when it came out. Hope that explains it.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at August 31, 2005 10:25 AM

Pretty much my soundtrack to the summer has been the new Hold Steady record, "Separation Sunday".
The lead singer grew up in Edina and he tells the story of a girl growing up in South Minneapolis and feeling the pull of rock and roll, drugs , etc... while trying to keep her faith. Can't recommend it highly enough. I even got my 12 year old daughter (who also loves the Green Day record) into it and now she wants a Hold Steady t-shirt.

Posted by: Jim in St. Paul at August 31, 2005 10:16 PM

Don't forget Husker Du's Zen Arcade. I guess you could call that a punk opera.

Also Neil Young came out with a album a couple of years ago I think called Greendale or something like that. It was pretty weird and I really didn't get the story.

Have to agree with Shane that Tommy's #1. I would put Green Day #2, and Zen Arcade #3

Posted by: freealonzo at September 1, 2005 7:19 AM

I heard "One night in Bankok" on the radio the other day and was impressed with the longetity of that peice from "Chess" an otherwise forgotten '80s rock opera. Perhaps it falls in the musical category not rock opera, but at least that one piece rocks twenty years after it's release.

Posted by: Cheesehead's Wife at September 1, 2005 9:32 AM

Thanks for all the suggestions everyone. Zen Arcade and Separation Sunday are definitely on my list. And I remember "One Night in Bangkok!" Good one there.

Posted by: Shane at September 1, 2005 1:22 PM

Believe it or not, "Jailbreak" by Thin Lizzy is also a rock opera. Shane, surely you overlooked this fine album by one of your favorite bands. The album features a group of young rock and roll rebels (The Boys of the "The Boys are Back in Town" fame) overthrowing a worldwide dictatorship with the help of a galactic superman who watched the entire universe on his giant TV set. I fully expect that Thin Lizzy will be a staple in your iPod, Shane, for many months to come! While I agree that Tommy and The Wall are numbers 1 and 2, surely you would have to agree that the genius of Thin Lizzy trumps anything Genesis has ever done!

Curt (with tongue planted firmly in cheek)

Posted by: Curt Hanson at September 1, 2005 4:06 PM

woa, woa, woa, people, what about Dream Theater's "Scenes From a Memory"? don't tell me no one's ever heard of it! well get a hold of it and you'll agree with me on puttingg it on the list. man what brilliance!!!

Posted by: Fede at September 5, 2005 9:26 PM

Many good comments on good bands. I agree with Fede that DT is a great addition to the list, but I disagree on the album. Dream Theater is a group of ultra-talented musicians(yes vocals are an instrument in my opinion too) and their 6 Degrees of Inner Turbulence has got to be one, if not the best, awesome representation of the modern Rock Opera. Each song flows into and builds upon the next to give a complete vision of mankind's worst inner fears and trials. The two disc set is a must have to any rocker's collection of Opera. Disc 2 is my absolute fav, but you need to listen to both for a complete perspective.

Posted by: Jaylbird at November 12, 2005 11:32 AM

I have to disagree with your ranking on Quadrophenia; I believe it's much more mature musically and lyrically than Tommy. It's less accessable, but I think it's better.

The Lamb was...well, weird. That's all I can say about that one.

I also think that Spock's Beard's rock opera, Snow, was very well crafted.

Posted by: Fish at April 3, 2006 4:11 PM

I forgot to add that The Wall was released in 1979, so it's technically not post 1980.

Posted by: Fish at April 3, 2006 4:12 PM

What? No love for the Kinks here? Even if you dismiss their series of mid-70s "rock operas" (which many do), they made "Arthur" in 1969 (coinciding with the "Tommy" album) and it's an amazing record, a fascinating case study of the evolving middle class through the 20th century. And if you use the looser definition of "rock opera," their albums right before Arthur (Village Green Preservation Society) and after (Lola) are pretty solid too.

Also, the Small Faces, "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake." Side two is incredibly unique, although probably an acquired taste...

Posted by: spycake at April 3, 2006 7:33 PM

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