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Five for Friday: Sci-Fi-Inspired Albums

The classics rarely retire. See the Rolling Stones, The Who, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, Public Enemy, and Patti Smith, among many, many others. Also see "Star Trek." The science-fiction staple is now well into its sixth decade and returned to TV this month courtesy of "Star Trek: Discovery." Set years before the exploits of Kirk, Spock, and Uhura, the series promises vintage Trek trappings while attempting to bring the show into the modern serialized era. We'll let the Trekkies and Trekkers debate whether it works, but the show has us dreaming of new frontiers. Unfortunately, space travel won't be a norm in our lifetime, so we turn to these five sci-fi-inspired albums instead.

Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid
In 2007, Janelle Monáe introduced her planned seven-part storyline of Cindi Mayweather, an android sent from the future to fight oppression – and maybe teach a few folks to love in the process. Influenced by classic German film Metropolis, Monáe's still-in-progress sci-fi epic – a musical project potentially delayed by her activist and cinematic endeavors – took experimental flight on 2010's The ArchAndroid. Creating a grand metaphor dedicated to all who fight for equality, Monáe uses R&B as a jumping-off point to explore a galaxy of otherworldly sounds and ideas. She paints a bleak picture of the future in the swift, disco-meets-girl group shimmy of "Locked Inside," kicks up funky dance frenzy on the revolutionary statement of "Cold War" and goes all rockabilly cabaret on "Come Alive (War of the Roses)," where it becomes apparent this android not only has a heart but quite a bit of spunk.

The Alan Parsons Project, I Robot
For its tale of the folly of man and machine, the Alan Parsons Project works overtime to approximate the precision of what could be a progressive pop album composed by droids. But this isn't mere computer music. It's hard to believe any robotic creature would try to be as groove-based as Eric Woolfson, Alan Parsons, and the duo's team of collaborators. Still, the keyboard-heavy arrangements aim to predict the tone of the musical landscape once the machines take control. And since man created robot in his image, the synthetic creatures don't exactly reinvent the wheel. But the album shows how aurally ornate and grandiose an Isaac Asimov-inspired concept can be. The good news? The machine takeover will be funky, as evident by "The Voice," and the dance floor will still be a safe haven, at least if "I Wouldn't Want to be Like You" turns out to be prescient.

David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
To ignore David Bowie's 1972 effort here would be akin to leaving out 2001: A Space Odyssey in a similar chronicle of sci-fi films. Both remain wildly open to interpretation. Loosely a concept album, Bowie's provocative work – remembered partly for the brash alien garb the singer wore onstage – centers on the artist's alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous extraterrestrial rock star. Is there an underlying story, or was the record simply a way for Bowie to live out some of his more fanciful desires in concert? Often, Ziggy Stardust gets portrayed as a god-like figure, a "starman waiting in the sky" who stands for hope and maybe sexual liberation, but who lives via the adoration of his fans. No matter, as this record remains a trip straight to Bowie's planet. There, one will find the symphonic strummer of "Starman," the bluesy keyboard snarl of "Suffragette City," and the punky handclaps of "Hang On To Yourself" among nine other theatrical-rock landmarks.

Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030
"We're high-tech archeologists," raps Del the Funky Homosapien near the beginning of this sci-fi hip-hop opera. He isn't kidding. The 2008 album still sounds ahead of its time even as it aims to resurrect many an old-school rap trick. It believes mightily in the power of battling via verse – indeed, the art proves key to future liberation – and does away with much of the egoism and consumerism seen as polluting modern music. Set in the year 3030, the record follows the awakening of Del the Funky Homosapien's Deltron Zero, a former mech soldier turned freedom fighter who aims to save the universe via art. A supergroup of sorts, Deltron 3030 features indie hip-hop production heavyweights Kid Koala and Dan the Automator. The two have a blast with zany – and sometimes loopy – arrangements. See "Things You Can Do," with its carnival-like touches, or "Positive Contact," loaded with mid-80s beats and retro-cool synths. If only all efforts for diplomacy could sound so exciting.

Parliament, Mothership Connection
A work that cemented R&B's ties to science fiction, Mothership Connection remains part escapist fantasy and part social commentary. The 1975 album creates a world in which opportunity is afforded to all. Parliament anchor George Clinton even said the album was inspired by "Star Trek," a show that broke down racial and gender barriers by placing minorities and women in leadership roles. While emphasizing the funk rather than the sci-fi, the set states its intentions from the start, in which the space-travelling mothership has taken control of the radio. "We will return it to you as soon as you are grooving," Clinton states with James T. Kirk coolness. "Unfunky UFO," the third track, should do the trick, given it features the shockingly elastic bass of Bootsy Collins and the synth magic of Bernie Worrell. The latter plays give and take with the horn section throughout, mimicking them one minute and twisting their tones into something more alien the next. Consider it a journey to places no band had gone before.

September 29, 2017

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