Last week, The Weeknd dropped the year’s first blockbuster album, Dawn FM. His last album, After Hours, unspooled a cinematic storyline that paid tribute to various films; this time, he uses radio as a narrative device, as the songs play like listening to an adult contemporary station. Jim Carrey is the reassuring, slightly creepy voice of a DJ on 103.5 Dawn FM, while The Weeknd’s cheesy sing-song station ID jingle is one of the album’s catchiest earworms.
The Weeknd isn’t the first musician to use this concept. Classic albums by some of the most revered bands and rappers of all time have also been structured like a radio station flipping between tracks, sometimes criticizing the state of radio, sometimes paying tribute to the medium, and sometimes just goofing around. Here’s a look back at 9 of the best albums from the past half century that deployed the concept.
9. Queens of the Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf (2002)
This was Queens of the Stone Age’s big breakthrough album, with Dave Grohl sitting in on drums, spinning off the hits “No One Knows” and “Go With The Flow.” It’s running theme, with a car radio tracing a road trip from L.A. out to the California desert, lampoons the same kinds of rock stations that now had the band in heavy rotation. The album opens with KLON Los Angeles Clone Radio proudly proclaiming, “We play the songs that sound more like everyone else than anyone else.” But by the end, the epic centerpiece “God Is In The Radio” establishes a slightly more favorable view of the FM dial. Musicians including The Cramps frontman Lux Interior and Marilyn Manson’s Twiggy Ramirez play the DJs that pop up throughout.
8. Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never (2020)
OK, it’s not technically a radio station album–instead, Daniel Lopatin tweaks radio static and glossy Top 40 aesthetics into something avant garde yet strangely beautiful. But it’s easy to imagine that Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, executive produced by Tesfaye, was on some level a precursor to Dawn FM, which features Lopatin’s production on 13 tracks. The two began collaborating after Lopatin scored the Tesfaye-starring Uncut Gems.
7. Various Artists – Reservoir Dogs: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1992)
Quentin Tarantino’s debut unfolds over the course of a weekend, with the fictitious radio station K-Billy’s “Super Sounds of the Seventies Weekend” as a sonic backdrop and infamously deadpan comedian Steven Wright playing DJ. The soundtrack album, then, becomes essentially a half hour of listening to K-Billy, complete with extra Steven Wright interludes, as he dryly introduces AM gold like “Hooked On A Feeling” and “Stuck in the Middle with You.”
6. The Carpenters – Now & Then (1973)
This may have been the first really popular work of ‘60s nostalgia. The entire second half of the brother/sister duo’s fifth album was taken up by the single “Yesterday Once More” and an interlinked medley of hit songs from 1961-64, including classics by the Beach Boys, Bobby Vee, and the Chiffons. Carpenters guitarist Tony Peluso plays the part of the radio DJ escorting you through the oldies, with Richard and Karen’s cousin Mark in a cameo as a listener who calls into the station.
5. Vince Staples – FM! (2018)
The Odd Future collective has never chased radio hits, so it’s interesting that radio-themed interludes have been a recurring feature on albums by members like Frank Ocean (Channel Orange) and Tyler, The Creator (Flower Boy). Vince Staples is Odd Future-adjacent, and–perhaps with a nod to his Long Beach predecessor Snoop’s Doggystyle skits–he filled his third album with radio interludes from L.A. radio icon Big Boy, going so far as to draft Tyga and Earl Sweatshirt to contribute brief snippets of songs heard in passing in the station’s rotation. And with a fleet 22-minute running time and crisp tracks by Kenny Beats and Hagler, the often heady and morbid Staples has never sounded more at ease than when conjuring FM!’s boombox-at-the-beach atmosphere.
4. Malcolm McLaren – Duck Rock (1983)
London boutique owner Malcolm McLaren parlayed his fame as the Sex Pistols manager into a brief musical career, and on his first album he teamed up with synth pop producer Trevor Horn and the American hip hop DJ duo The World’s Famous Supreme Team for an early glimpse into/appropriation of hip hop culture, record scratching, and breakbeats. . Duck Rock songs were punctuated by clips of the Supreme Team’s Divine The Mastermind and Just Allah The Superstar on the air on WHBI 105.9 FM New York; “Double Dutch” in particular still sounds great.
3. Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)
Like other early Death Row releases, Snoop Dogg’s debut solo album – which some influential observers believe is even better than The Chronic – is full of lewd skits: Snoop in the bathtub with a woman, a spoken cameo from radio skit godfather George Clinton, the sound of a guy taking a piss. And of course, Snoop debuts his new music on a foul-mouthed radio station, WBALLS at 187.4 on your FM dial, with comedian Ricky Harris playing the role of “DJ Saul T. Nuts.”
2. The Who – The Who Sell Out (1967)
Concept albums were in vogue in 1967, mostly thanks to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Who responded by making their ambitious third album into a pirate radio broadcast featuring promo jingles taken directly from Radio London, one of the illegal British stations broadcasting from an offshore transmitter in the mid-‘60s. The Who took it all a step further, creating their own ad breaks with original songs about products both real (Heinz baked beans) and imagined (the non-existent deodorant brand that inspired Pete Townshend’s mini-masterpiece “Odorono”). Breezier and funnier than later rock operas like Tommy, The Who Sell Out is the pinnacle of the band’s early years and a fan favorite that includes their biggest American chart hit, “I Can See For Miles and Miles.” It’s a masterpiece of 60s pop art.
1. De La Soul – De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
The radio station-themed album truly came into its own when “skits” became a staple of hip-hop albums in the late ‘80s. The ultimate skit auteur was the producer Prince Paul, who raised them to an artform on his work with De La Soul. The group’s second album, De La Soul Is Dead, upped the ante with two separate narrative devices framing the songs through over a dozen skits. In one storyline, a group of unimpressed teens listen to the album, and in the other, smooth talking DJs from the fictitious radio station WRMS take calls and cue up songs. It’s a disorienting and hilarious album, and one of the rare instances of a rap album where the skits actually elevate and contextualize the music perfectly. It’s one of the best albums from a hip-hop era extinguished by copyright law. Hopefully De La Soul is Dead will finally be streaming soon!