Monday, March 26, 2012

20 Albums for Sci-Fi and Fantasy Geeks

When I applied for a position as the sci-fi columnist with LitReactor last month, I had to pitch a whole slew of ideas for articles and top-ten lists. Sadly, I did not get the job, but some of the ideas I came up with were too good to pass up, hence the recent top-ten-list kick I've been on here on my blog. Not that this is really a top-ten list. It's more a list of notable albums for science-fiction and fantasy geeks, and hell, there's not even 20 albums like I said in the title above. It turned out that coming up with the idea for the list was a lot easier than actually compiling the list itself, so I recruited the help of a bunch of other speculative fiction authors and musicians. Here's what we came up with:

Piper at the Gates of Dawn – Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd got pegged as a sci-fi trip-out band early in their career, largely because of their psychedelic live shows and their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Original singer and songwriter Syd Barrett had a penchant for fantasy and sci-fi lyrics, and Piper features a healthy mix of both. “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” are acid-driven space voyages while “Lucifer Sam,” “The Gnome,” and “Scarecrow” are pure fairy-tale fantasy. Pink Floyd continued to explore some vaguely sci-fi and dystopian themes on subsequent albums without Barrett—notably on Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall—but none of their albums were so thoroughly speculative-fiction themed start to finish as Piper.
-Garrett Calcaterra

Warrior on the Edge of Time – Hawkwind

English spec-fic writer Michael Moorcock is most famous for creating the albino antihero Elric, but he had many other Eternal Champions as well: Dorian Hawkmoon, Erekose, and steamship captain Oswald Bastable, amongst others. Hawkwind’s 5th album, while perhaps not their best, provided a loose adaptation of the Eternal Champion. Songs written by Moorcock include “The Wizard Blew His Horn” and “Warriors.”
-Ahimsa Kerp, spec-fiction author and travel writer

II, III, and IV – Led Zeppelin

I was only going to include Zeppelin as an honorable mention. Arguably, they've written more fantasy-themed songs than any other band, everything from Tolkien pastiches (“Ramble On” and “The Battle of Evermore”) to Norse mythology (“Immigrant Song”) and Greek mythology (“Achilles Last Stand”).  On the other hand, none of their albums sustain a consistent fantasy theme all the way through. Danger Van Gorder (below) convinced me I at least had to include these three albums, and really, he didn't need to twist my arm all that hard.
- Garrett Calcaterra

You gotta get Zeppelin in there. My knowledge of their entire library is a bit lacking, but my instinct is to flag their third album; it's full of Norse and Celtic jibberjabber. If you can nominate one song of theirs, though, it's gotta be “Ramble On.” As a millenial, or whatever the hell you call my generation, I was shocked to revisit the song after Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings opus and discover that thirty-plus years ago (and between mud sharkings and what have you) Plant and his buddies had directly name-checked LOTR characters and mused (cannabically, I imagine) on what it must have been to be a simple troubadour in Middle Earth, unable to defend a girl so fair from the forces of Darkness. “Guess I'll keep on rambling.”
-Danger Van Gorder of Countless Thousands

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie

Ziggy Stardust is one of the first albums I can think of that featured a singer playing the role of a character, in this case Ziggy Stardust, an alien in human form. Musically, it's pretty rocking. It's a great album to drop acid to.
-Ed, music fan, anonymous family member of Wheel House

2112 – Rush

Rush just might be the biggest geek band ever. 2112, their first commercial success is a big reason why. The album is a dystopian-themed album set in the year 2112, replete with an epic title track, which clocks in at over twenty minutes, with seven movements.
- Garrett Calcaterra

The last time I listened to Rush's 2112 was probably at my friend Paul’s house 31 years ago. We would find a creative way to smoke a little pot, put the record on his turntable, and settle in. Today I just listened to it again via YouTube... sober. Listening to it now I realize how much I listened to it back then. Even after all these years I knew every drum fill, guitar riff and even though I’d forgotten most of the lyrics I knew exactly what vocal note Geddy was going to hit next. Getting stoned back then and listening to that music—loudly—took me to another place. While it played I didn’t really listen to the story being told, but the music took me into my own story. You can’t help but feel like a rock star when you’re air drumming to Neil Peart. That story has a happy ending since it’s become a reality for me (the drumming part, not the rock star part). It also inspired creativity in me. While listening to that music, high, no distractions, I could go wherever. I could travel through time, be someone else for while, see the country, space, go underground, whatever. I stopped listening to RUSH in the early 80’s after Moving Pictures, but listening to 2112 today, here at my kitchen table at age 47, it still had the exact same effect. In spite of roommates, TV’s, and dogs all around I was taken to another place by stomping rhythms and lofty chords. I even visualized a scene for a possible story. That tells me 2112 is still relevant.
-Pete Vander Pluym, drummer/singer for Wheel House and film director

El Dorado and Time - Electric Light Orchestra

El Dorado is about a man who delves into his sleep world and falls in love with it and the dream world around him. Eventually, he gets so caught up in this false reality, he decides he wants to stay there forever and forget the hurt of the real world. Orchestrated and written by Jeff Lynne, I think this is some of his best writing before he went completely commercial.
-David Kurtz, musician

Electric Light Orchestra's Time, the 8th highest charting album in the world in 1981, was a concept album telling the story of a man from 1980 being transported through time by a witch to the 21st Century. While there, he takes an android clone for his wife, visits the moon, and then returns to his hometown to reminisce about the differences. Finally, he is returned back to his own time after he has learned to appreciate what he had.
-Mark Wise, short story writer and commentator on the Yahoo! Network

Mothership Connection – Parliament

A cliche concept album about an extraterrestrial civilization dying out because of their lack of solid funk. Their plan: to steal the music of Parliament to save their race. Bootsy Collins shines on bass and Bernie Worrell on the keys, like usual. The horn section includes the Brecker brothers. In my opinion, one of the best funk albums of the seventies.
-David Kurtz, musician

Whenever someone mentions George Clinton or Parliament or Funkadelic, I inevitably chime in, truly convinced this music is the answer to all that is wrong in the music world today. At first listen it just seems to be some heavy hitters laying down thick, groovin' dance music, but upon closer inspection it is also politically and racially driven, often with sci-fi metaphors like alien life forms and chocolate cities.
-Mandy Burke, Vocal artist and member of Wheel House

A Kind of Magic – Queen 

Although it’s only the unofficial soundtrack to Highlander (there is no official soundtrack), this album features all the songs from the movie. The album name and many of the songs are references to dialogue from the film. The real highlight is “Who Wants to Live Forever,” the poignant duet between Freddy Mercury and Brian May.
-Ahimsa Kerp, spec-fiction author and travel writer

Operation: Mindcrime - Queensryche

Operation: Mindcrime tells the story of Nikki, an addict who becomes involved with a group of revolutionaries and commits a series of political and religious assassinations while under hypnotic suggestion. Generally considered one of the classic progressive metal albums, it's a true rock opera, complete with requisite vocals and ten-minute epic songs; it also made a great live show (which you can see in Operation: LIVEcrime). It's one of the most cohesive concept albums I've heard, with all the songs progressing the story simply and clearly, without even the need for a libretto (although it does come in handy). Although it doesn't deal as much with technology, I've always thought of Operation: Mindcrime as falling pretty neatly under the umbrella of Cyberpunk, in that it deals with characters shoved to the fringes of society and focuses extensively on themes of loss and regret.
-Corey Beasom, speculative and historical fiction author

OK Computer – Radiohead

With this album, Radiohead deviates greatly from their previous work both lyrically and instrumentally. Thom Yorke states that he was heavily inspired by books he was reading at the time, one of which was Philip K. Dick's VALIS. And “Paranoid Android” is a direct reference to Marvin the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. While not technically a concept album, OK Computer is heavily themed around a futuristic world taken over by technology and extreme capitalism to the point where the narrator in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” longs to be abducted by aliens. Musically, Radiohead makes a drastic shift to a more electronic, disjointed sound, adding more stringed instruments, a Mellatron (which sounds like the name of a human-eating robot) and even a glockenspiel (which is just fun to say). Yorke says that much of the recording was done in one take, saying that if they thought too much about it, the sound became too neat and clean. The result is a perfect example of form matching content as Radiohead sends the listener into a world that feels one part cyberpunk, one-part suburban dystopia.
-Eric Scott Tryon, bassist/drummer for Wheel House, fiction writer

Moon Safari - Air
This album got me through whole woodworking sessions in my shotgun garage/shop in Burbank, as well as late nights with dates, and time alone at my piano trying to figure out the ethereal melodies and floating female voices. It's great listening for when you're alone in your room, just dreaming, or background music for a party.
-Pete Vander Pluym, drummer/singer for Wheel House and film director

Obsolete - Fear Factory

In a word, Obsolete is angry. Predating The Matrix by a year, this industrial metal album deals with the same themes of man vs. machine. It relates the story of edgecrusher, a man who leads the human resistance against the machines in AD 2079, and his failed attempt to free mankind from its enslavement. The songs themselves are all thematically related, but it is the story that is fitted over and between them that really turns Obsolete into a concept album. I always think of this album as the soundtrack for the Animatrix, especially "The Second Renaissance." I liked this album enough that I used it as a touchstone for one of my stories. 
-Corey Beasom, speculative and historical fiction author

Robot Hive/Exodus – Clutch

Clutch's music has always been a bit of an enigma—part metal, part blues, part stoner rock, part southern rock—and this album typifies their eclectic style. It starts off by getting all biblical on your ass with the fire and brimstone tracks “Burning Beard” and “Gullah,” then turns cyberpunk with the intoxicating “10001110101,” only to get truly nutty with the Cthulu and basilisk references of “Circus Maximus.” I can't say that it's a concept album, but after listening to it, you can't help but feel like you've traveled to a crazy dystopian American, sort of a cross between Neil Gaiman's American Gods and a Chuck Palaniuk novel yet to be written.
-Garrett Calcaterra

The Second Stage Turbine Blade – Coheed and Cambria

Coheed takes the whole damn concept cake because they don't just have one concept album, they have five. Their epic saga, called the Amory Wars, follows the personal vendetta of a messiah-like character called The Crowing, who is out to avenge the wrongful death of his parents, Coheed and Cambria. Their debut album, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, is my personal favorite. They also go the extra mile because they've released multiple comics and novels in attempts to explain this story.
-Jake Mazon, singer/guitarist for Passions Just Like Mine

Crack the Skye – Mastodon

Mastodon has never shied away from SciFi / fantasy themes—see Blood Mountain. With Crack the Skye, the genre-bending Southern-sludge-prog-metallers craft a spooky tale that is more engrossing than virtually anything else found in the modern metal catalogue. What's not to love about a storyline involving an astral-traveling paraplegic, Rasputin, wormholes, and Russian cultists? Here, the quartet's songwriting matches their impressive technical abilities, and the result is a time- and mood-warping record that is nearly impossible to pause after the opening octave drones of “Oblivion.” Most impressively, a pair of epics—“The Czar” and “The Last Baron”—scream by in a fraction of their true running time (a combined 24 minutes), and the listener is left begging for just one more verse / bridge / chorus at the conclusion of each. Yes, the music is complex and technical, but the songs take priority here; not once does the group wander off into Dream Theater-type wankery that would otherwise diminish such an impressive effort.
-Erik Syrstad, rocket scientist, guitar player/wanker


  1. So, it seems io9 has lifted my idea for this blog post. I actually applied for a columnist position with them and sent a link to my blog along with my application on Apr 12. On Apr 16, they conveniently put up a discussion thread on their FB page asking for nominations for the top sci-fi and fantasy albums ( ), and now the full top 100 list is out on their site. I'm really not all that butt hurt about it--it's a pretty obvious idea, after all--but still, I wanted to set the record straight in case anyone comes across both lists (oh, and because they didn't hire me for the position either, the chumps). Anyhow, here's io9's very comprehensive list, their top 100 sci-fi and fantasy albums:

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