Disco dystopia: what are the best apocalyptic albums?

This month sees the 40th anniversary of the release of David Bowie's Orwell-inspired Diamond Dogs. From Gary Numan's 'machine' phase to Janelle Monáe's messianic android – influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis – here are some of the best end-of-days LPs

This month sees the 40th anniversary of a transitional moment in David Bowie’s career: the release of the Diamond Dogs LP. His first set of original songs since "retiring" his Ziggy Stardust character (and firing his band, the Spiders from Mars), the record has its roots in a theatrical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 that Bowie had hoped to make, but which had to be scrapped when the writer’s estate denied him rights to the material.

Instead, Bowie incorporated some of Orwell’s ideas on to side two of Diamond Dogs, grafting it into a wider narrative about a post-apocalyptic future where the titular characters roam the streets of Hunger City, armed with knives and fur coats torn up and used as leg-warmers (Bowie has retroactively credited himself with inventing punk via this "urban scavenger" aesthetic, the cad).

The album is a fascinating mess and exactly the sort of madness no one would dream of attempting now. Or would they? Here are five more dystopian visions on wax worthy of your time.

Gary Numan – Replicas (1979)

Mix the pristine futurism of Kraftwerk with the paranoia of Philip K Dick and mid-70s Bowie and you’ve got Replicas, the first album of what Gary Numan would later describe as the “machine” phase of his career. The concept revolves around a nightmarish vision of a future populated by androids known as machmen who hunt down dissenting humans ("crazies") who have been forced to live underground (the dystopian resident’s locale of choice). Numan makes it all work by presenting a series of stiff, amnesia-fogged narratives that allow him to flatly intone things like, “Oh look, a rape machine” (on the chilling Down in the Park, later covered by Marilyn Manson). But Replicas’ real genius lies in its portrayal of alienation in the technological age – Are Friends Electric? alone anticipates a generation of social-networking-obsessed neurotics three decades in advance.

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Parliament – Funkentelechy vs the Placebo Syndrome (1977)

Mothership Connection may have seen Parliament become the first funk band in space, but it was Funkentelechy, with its introduction of the archly unfunky villain Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, that put a truly dystopian spin on George Clinton’s demented P-funk imaginings. In between taking pot shots at consumerism and disco, Clinton’s righteous alter-ego, Star Child, does battle with Sir Nose, a supervillain whose chief power (unless you count his excessively large nose) is being too cool to dance at parties. OK, so Clinton’s sci-fi mythology is loosely conceptualised and mad as a funky ball of teats, but it’s also more serious than you might think – part of an Afrofuturist tradition that transposes the struggle for racial equality and social justice into outer space.

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Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (2009)

Clearly not one to hang about, Janelle Monáe made her debut album the second and third parts of a trilogy, which began with 2007's Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) – an EP that focused on the exploits of a messianic android called Cindi Mayweather, who is sent back in time to free Metropolis from a secret society that uses time travel to keep its inhabitants in bondage. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra, OutKast and the aforementioned Mr Clinton, Monáe's vision of the future portrays androids as shunned "other" figures – a plight historically shared by African Americans. In fact, her stern-faced touting of such concepts in interviews led one exasperated hack to wonder aloud if Monáe herself wasn’t an android "designed to test the desperate incredulity of music journalists".

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King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

Before prog rock’s sci-fi penchant got out of hand (see Pink Floyd’s The Wall; Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus), King Crimson succeeded by leaving enough spaces to let your imagination do the heavy lifting. The London group’s debut boasts 21st Century Schizoid Man's cryptic evocation of modern madness, and the medieval futurism of the haunting title song – replete with weird allusions to “prism ships” and “prison moons” – featured on the soundtrack to Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi adaptation Children of Men. Bonus points, too, for being that rare breed of prog record not to feature crap artwork on the sleeve.

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The Thermals – The Body, the Blood, the Machine (2006)

The worst excesses of the Bush era come in for a kicking in this witty and surprisingly perceptive punk-pop gem from the Thermals, which beat Nine Inch Nails’s similarly dystopian – but comparatively dim – Year Zero by almost a year. Based around the story of a young couple attempting to flee a future America hijacked by religious fundamentalists, the record offers a prescient critique of the Christian right (this was back when a pre-Tea party Sarah Palin was still out on red watch in Alaska). In between, frontman Hutch Harris (a self-described “recovering Catholic”) takes trenchantly funny swipes at the puritan work ethic (An Ear for Baby’s “work is freedom, sloth is sin / so pull out your dead roots / pull out your best suit / you know, the one they're gonna bury you in”) and the then vice-president, Dick Cheney, who he imagined writing the words to Back to the Sea: “'Cos God is with us, and our god’s the richest / Our power doesn’t run on nothing / It runs on blood.” With characteristic modesty, Hutch later observed of the record: “I think people take us a lot more seriously now. I’m not sure they should.”

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Do you have any more to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below.

Alex Denney

The GuardianTramp

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