Where Music and Reading Collide: Albums and Tunes for Story Lovers

I think I’ve made it fairly clear thus far on my blog that I’m a huge fan of setting the scene around myself, especially when reading, with a expertly-curated soundtrack. For me, it just feels like the whole experience of getting lost in the story becomes utterly complete when I’m being serenaded by music softly wafting my way. However, there are times in which I’m not really feeling reading a story — sacrilege, I know! — but, instead, wanting to listen to a story. No, I don’t mean via audiobook; in this instance, I mean songs or even full records telling the tale of a cast of characters as they set off to complete a goal. If you’re looking for a new, exciting way to get swept up in a fictional world, maybe give some of the below a spin!

Fun fact: Clicking on the right-hand picture under each heading will send you to a link to each album or song!

The Decemberists – Hazards of Love

Ah, the band and album that inspired the creation of this list. Since the release of their first album, Castaways and Cutouts, in 2002, the Decemberists have been known for their ability to craft a fully-formed, complex tale of woe over the course of a five or seven or thirteen-minute song. (Please do yourself a favor and listen to the songs in those links.) However, in 2009, the Portland, Oregon-based quintet got together and said, “Hey, so we’ve been putting out all of these songs about people falling in love and dying or getting betrayed by their lovers. What if we did all of that, got some of our other talented musician friends, and made an album just following one doomed set of love birds?” Granted, the above all sounds pretty negative, but hear me out: this album is one of my favorites of all time for a reason. It follows the course of Margaret and William, a medieval princess and a young shapeshifter, who quickly fall madly in love after a chance meeting in the forest one night. Margaret falls pregnant following this encounter, which sends William’s mother, the Queen of the Forest, into a jealous — and potentially murderous — rage. The hour-long drama is packed full of intrigue, beautiful duets, ghosts of children past, and SAT-level words that are bound to make even the most stuffy wordsmith grin. So much happens over the course of the album that it really does take a few listens to truly grasp the implications of what actually befalls our main characters. It ultimately ends in the most beautifully bittersweet duet between lead singer Colin Meloy and guest artist Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond). Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I need to put the CD back in constant rotation in my car, because it’s been about six months since I last listened to this record and annoyed my partner about how much I love it.

Forgive Durden – Razia’s Shadow

In real life, I make it no secret that I’m still stuck living in 2005-2008 with my undying love for the entirety of Fueled By Ramen’s lineup and releases during that time. However, there was one band that I cast off to the side until my senior year in college: Forgive Durden. Maybe it was my growing disdain for anything Chuck Palahniuk and Fight Club (the appropriately literary source of the band’s name), or maybe I was too swept up in Cobra Starship’s Viva La Cobra to care. Either way, when I was first treated to this record, my world got a little bit brighter. Not only does it feature all of my scene-kid favorites — Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie, Say Anything’s Max Bemis, The Hush Sound’s Greta Salpeter, Saves the Day’s Chris Conley, and the Matches’ Shawn Harris AND MANY MORE — but the story Razia’s Shadow tells is absolutely incredible. Told in two acts, the album follows the tale of two angels who secretly fall in love while serving their creator, O the Scientist. However, after one falls from grace as a result of feeling unfairly ignored by O, his actions ultimately end in the destruction of the world as they know it, which splits in to the lands of light and darkness. One hundred years pass, but residing within the hearts of two denizens of the opposing sides just might be the secret to restoring the world to its previous state. There have since been several attempts to bring Razia’s Shadow to the stage, but no production has been successful in capturing the magic locked within the original. Ultimately, I’m content to just slip my headphones on and lose myself in the album’s wonder.

Janelle Monáe – The Metropolis Concept Series

(each album cover is a link to the playlist of the album)

It would be an absolute disservice to everyone that is currently reading this post, will eventually read this post, or lives on this planet to not even mention the majesty that is Janelle Monáe’s incredible, multi-album Metropolis concept series. Monáe, which to those who are not in tune with her genius may recognize from her feature on Fun.’s single “We Are Young,” has been at work on this series for almost ten years. Considering that she’s only 29 years old, it certainly is something to be admired. The story explores the themes of social and political inequality, self-love, technology and being the Q.U.E.E.N. that you are. Given that the plot line of Monáe’s story currently exists over the course of three albums at this point, it’s difficult to boil down all of the action into a brief summary, but, damn it, I’m gonna try. The series follows the trials and tribulations — mostly trials — of Cindi Mayweather, a young prototype for the popular Alpha Platinum 3000 android model. Although artificially intelligent, Mayweather herself is a prominent musician in the dystopian world of Metropolis. Unfortunately for androids everywhere, their rights are severely and brutally limited compared to those given to their flesh-and-blood-based counterparts, despite being capable of all of the same cognitive and emotional functions. However, after she falls in love with a human, Anthony Greendown, Mayweather’s life in the spotlight quickly turns into one on the run after a government-placed bounty is called on her head. While in hiding, she releases transmissions to androids and humans alike sharing her story to those who are intricately entwined in ending the schism between human and android-kind. Of course, the story has still yet to be completed and Monáe is still working on her follow-up to The Electric Lady. We don’t know what’s going to happen yet to the lovers, but I’m so excited to find out.

Regina Spektor – Samson

While neither Spektor or myself are particularly religious, there’s something somewhat intriguing about the biblical-era story of Samson and Delilah. The original story itself follows Samson, a man who has a contract with God about maintaining his great physical strength as long as he does not cut his hair. However, his wife ends up cutting his hair one night in a fit of anger, causing him to lose the strength he so cherished. One thing that we have to consider is that, historically, we’ve only heard everything from Samson’s side of the story and the betrayal he feels from Delilah’s actions. What Spektor does in this song from her 2006 release, Begin to Hope, is offer Delilah’s perspective in the tale, explaining what exactly — well, according to Spektor, at least — fueled her to perform this contract-breaking act. Really, it might not have been all Delilah’s doing as we all once thought. Spektor beautifully captures the essence of the love between these two characters with her delicate piano playing coupled with her sorrowful, passionate voice crooning out the iconic phrase, “You are my sweetest downfall.”

Sufjan Stevens – John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

There is no shortage of options to choose from when it comes to Sufjan Stevens regaling someone’s life story, but when I think of songs that stick with me for good, there’s none that comes to mind quicker than this one from his 2005 magnum opus, Illinoise. Inspired by the true life events of midwestern serial killer John Wayne Gacy, the song is a three and a half minute foray into the inner machinations of the mind of one of the most infamous men of the late 20th century. I’m going to spare you the literally gory details of what Gacy was up to in his Chicago home, but the way in which Stevens recounts the tale is one that will send foreboding chills down your spine the moment the piano and guitar intertwine at the beginning of the song. Mournful, haunting and eerily introspective, Stevens really has listeners thinking about how easily one could descend into madness internally while maintaining the utmost outward image of perfection.

Did you give any of these selections a try? Is there something I missed on this list? Let me know in the comments below!

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