Monáe’s alien themes unique, but fall short of ‘best sci-fi concept album’ title

Did you feel an otherworldly presence last week? Because we at Illini Media sure did: The Daily Illini, buzz and WPGU all had close encounters with a self-proclaimed android who touched down in Champaign Sunday performing numbers from her sci-fi tinged rock opera “The ArchAndroid”.

Janelle Monáe has had a breakout year. She performed at the 2011 Grammys and her ArchAndroid album was one of the best reviewed of the year. Much of the praise heaped on Monáe mentions her genre-bending sound and otherworldly, incredibly dense concepts loosely based on the hugely influential silent film “Metropolis”. For many people, Monáe’s weirdness is her allure.

But “weird” is certainly not a new concept in pop music, and neither is the idea of a concept album with a sci-fi plot. How does Monáe’s concept stack up against others in the genre, you ask? If you couldn’t make her show Sunday at Foellinger Hall, read on to see where Monáe’s epic falls on my five best sci-fi concept albums of all time.

*5. “Man On The Moon”, Kid Cudi*

Cleveland-based Kid Cudi released a trailer to 2009’s “Transformers” using music from his debut album. It was an apt pairing, as both works dealt with extraterrestrial beings. But let’s stop comparing the two there. Cudi’s “Man On The Moon” is not about space travel a la David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”; rather it’s a metaphor for his struggle with personal demons that keep him isolated and unhappy. Like all great sci-fi, it uses space as a setting to touch upon the shortfalls of human behavior, in the form of club anthems, no less.

*4. “The ArchAndroid”, Janelle Monáe*

ArchAndroid is the second installment in Monáe’s “Metropolis” series in which she tells a far-out story that cannot be summarized in a single sentence. It’s even more complex than David Lynch’s “Dune.” But the music beautifully encompasses aspects of big band, swing, jazz, hip-hop and rock and roll nearly side-by-side throughout 18 tracks. ArchAndroid is ambitious in its artistic scope and is executed perfectly by a team of producers (I regard it as the best album released by Bad Boy Records).

*3. “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”, The Flaming Lips*

Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has said that Yoshimi is not actually a concept album, but that might be a bit of a cop out; from track opener “Fight Test” to “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 2”, the first four songs tell the story of one woman’s quest to free society from oppressive (and pink) robots. The story fades out from there in favor of cryptic musings on living in the present, but the album’s lush orchestration and electro-pop is catchy and interesting throughout. (Lips collaborator Dave Fridmann deserves producer of the decade for this effort.) The band won a Grammy for this album, but more importantly they finally won over a mainstream audience through hit songs like “Do You Realize??”

*2. “Kid A”, Radiohead*

Fans familiar with the depressing rockumentary “Meeting People Is Easy” might have been able to predict Radiohead’s next musical endeavor. But for the majority of the population, “Kid A” was a revelation; its disjointed, electronic melodies and Thom Yorke’s spliced and auto-tuned vocals showed the music world that pop can be difficult, beautiful and successful all at the same time. The title is in reference to the first cloned human child (which may or may not exist), but follows no clear narrative. Still, the work remains an indictment of a society that impersonalizes communication and living standards with robotic efficiency. It is the standard to which all modern avant-rock will be compared to.

*1. “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars”, David Bowie*

Truly a concept album in scope, Bowie’s masterpiece tells the story of an extraterrestrial rocker and his grapple with fame and success in the face of the end of the world. Spanning 11 tracks, Ziggy’s storyline is surprisingly concise and comprehensive. There are morals to be extracted from the content, but what makes the record timeless is Bowie’s unique combination of freak-guitar rock, theatrical orchestration and folk flourishes. Ziggy personified all that was excessive, freaky and artistic in ‘70s rock.

_Joe is a senior in Media._