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A concept album is a studio album where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story. In contrast, typical studio albums consist of a number of unconnected songs (lyrically and otherwise) performed by the artist. It has been argued  that concept albums should only refer to albums that bring in themes or story lines from outside of music, given that a collection of love songs or songs from within a certain genre are not usually considered to be a "concept album."
1940s and 1950s 
In the early 1950s, before the advent of rock and roll, concept albums were prevalent in jazz music. Singer Frank Sinatra recorded several concepts albums, including In the Wee Small Hours (1955; songs about loneliness and heartache) and Come Fly with Me (1958; songs about world travel). Singer/pianist Nat King Cole's concept albums include Everytime I Feel The Spirit (1958; gospel and spiritual songs) and After Midnight (1956; collaborations with jazz instrumentalists in the style of late-night jam sessions).
After finding success with stand-alone singles, country icon Johnny Cash turned to themed albums, such as Songs of Our Soil (1959; songs about death and mortality) and Blood, Sweat and Tears (album) (1963; songs about blue-collar workers).
In 1966, several albums were deemed as concept albums by their thematically-linked songs, and became inspiration for other artists to follow. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds portrayed Brian Wilson's state of mind at the time, and was in turn a major inspiration to Paul McCartney. Album writers Brian Wilson and Tony Asher insist that the narrative was not intended, though Wilson has stated that the idea of the record being a "concept album" is mainly within the way the album was produced and structured. Later in 1966, Wilson began work on Smile, an intentional narrative, though it was scrapped and later revived in November 2011. Freak Out!, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention's sardonic farce about rock music and America as a whole, and Face to Face by The Kinks, the first collection of Ray Davies's idiosyncratic character studies of ordinary people, are conceptually oriented albums. However, of the three, only Pet Sounds attracted a large commercial audience.
The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) would later bring about the notion of the concept album, with the earlier prototypes and examples from traditional pop music and other genres sometimes forgotten. Original reception described the album as a concept by select definitions of the term. There was, at some stage during the making of the album an attempt to relate the material to firstly the idea of aging, then as an obscure radio play about the life of an ex-army bandsman and his shortcomings. These concepts were lost in the final production. While debate exists over the extent to which Sgt. Pepper qualifies as a true concept album, there is no doubt that its reputation as such helped inspire other artists to produce concept albums of their own, and inspired the public to anticipate them. Lennon and McCartney distanced themselves from the "concept album" tag as applied to that album.
Days of Future Passed, released the same year as Sgt. Pepper's, was fellow UK musicians The Moody Blues' first foray into the concept album. Originally presented with an opportunity to rock out Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" by their new stereophonic label, the band instead forged ahead to unify their own orchestral-based threads of a day in the life of a common man.
The Who Sell Out by The Who followed with its concept of a pirate radio broadcast. Within the record, joke commercials recorded by the band and actual jingles from recently outlawed pirate radio station Radio London were interspersed between the songs, ranging from pop songs to hard rock and psychedelic rock, culminating with a mini-opera titled "Rael."
In October 1967, the British group Nirvana released The Story of Simon Simopath (subtitled "A Science Fiction Pantomime"), an album that tells the story of the title character. It was only a moderate commercial success. The album S.F. Sorrow (released in December 1968) by British group the Pretty Things is generally considered to be among the first creatively successful rock concept albums – in that each song is part of an overarching unified concept – the life story of the main character, Sebastian Sorrow.
Released in April 1969, was the rock opera Tommy composed by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who. This acclaimed work was presented over two discs (unusual at the time) and it took the idea of thematically based albums to a much higher appreciation by both critics and the public. It was also the first story-based concept album of the rock era (as distinct from the song-cycle style album) to enjoy commercial success. The Who went on to further explorations of the concept album format with their follow-up project Lifehouse, which was abandoned before completion, and with their 1973 rock opera, Quadrophenia.
Five months after the release of Tommy, The Kinks released another concept album, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (September 1969), written by Ray Davies; though considered by some a rock opera, it was originally conceived as the score for a proposed but never realised BBC television drama. It was the first of several concept albums released by the band through the first few years of the 1970s. These were: Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970), Muswell Hillbillies (1971), Preservation: Act 1 (1973), Preservation: Act 2 (1974), Soap Opera (1975) and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1976).
From 1975 to 1979, Canadian progressive power trio Rush released three albums containing sidelong epics, regarded by some as concept albums (though not actually concept albums by strict definition of the term; that is, none of the other songs on the album have anything to do with each other or the 20-minute sidelong epic, so there is no pervasive concept or story). The first of these was released in 1975, titled Caress of Steel. The second was their breakthrough album, 2112, released the following year in 1976. Their third was released in 1978, Hemispheres.
Jethro Tull's album Thick as a Brick was deliberately crafted in the style of a concept album after thinking it strange, and perhaps a bit pejorative, that critics described their album Aqualung as a concept album.
In 1975, Willie Nelson released "Red Headed Stranger," a concept country album. That same year, Alice Cooper released Welcome to My Nightmare, a concept album about the dreams of a seven year old boy named Steven.
Yes also produced concept albums during the '70s, most notably Tales from Topographic Oceans, which would become a defining album of prog rock, but its critical backlash would lead to the genre's decline in popularity and the rise of punk rock. The group's keyboardist Rick Wakeman released many concept albums on his own, most notably The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which was based on the novel by Jules Verne.
An obscure example was 666 by Aphrodite's Child, an double album based on various passages from The Bible, which was controversial for the title, and the sleeve note stating "This album was recorded under the influence of Sahlep.", of which many thought was a demon, a drug, or an occult ritual. It is in fact a drink popular around the eastern Mediterranean and made from the dried powdered roots of a type of orchid.
Another progressive rock act, Genesis, released the concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in 1974, a double disc that told the story of the street punk Rael. Rock musician David Bowie also made three popular concept albums; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, about the fictional character, Ziggy Stardust and his band; Aladdin Sane; and Diamond Dogs.
Elton John's 1975 album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy chronologically tells the story of his and lyricist Bernie Taupin's meeting to the recording of their first album, Empty Sky. Hugely successful, it became the first album to enter the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 (similarly entering at No. 1 on the RPM national album chart in Canada).
Styx began its series of concept albums in 1977 with The Grand Illusion – focused on self-constructed and societal walls (similar to The Wall by Pink Floyd) – then followed it with Pieces of Eight in 1978. Pieces of Eight is about the pursuit of dreams in favour of material possession.
In the 1970s and 80s, The Alan Parsons Project was a British progressive rock group which specialized entirely in concept albums.
Though the progressive rock genre was beginning to decrease in popularity, concept albums had become a medium that continued. The progressive bands that were still around were still having major successes with concept albums.
Bruce Springsteen's 1987 album, Tunnel of Love, is unified under the concept of love and the struggles of love. Written at a time where he was going through a divorce, Tunnel of Love is considered to be one of his best and most lyrically sound albums.
In 1985, the British neo-progressive rock band Marillion achieved their only UK Number One album – and the best-selling album of their career – with Misplaced Childhood, a concept album featuring lyrics by frontman Fish which were partly autobiographical. The album was played as two continuous pieces of music on the two sides of the vinyl and produced the band's two biggest hit singles, "Kayleigh" and "Lavender".
Styx continued to have multiplatinum albums with their 1981 release Paradise Theater (a concept album about a decaying theater in Chicago which became a metaphor for childhood and American culture) and 1983's Kilroy Was Here (a science fiction rock opera about a future where moralists imprison rockers).
The British group A Flock of Seagulls, released their self-titled concept album based on an alien invasion.
French Euro disco singer Amanda Lear released the concept album Incognito in 1981. The nine track album was based on the Christian classification of vices, the seven deadly sins, with Lear adding two vices of her own: bureaucracy and nostalgia.
Members of the British alternative comedy group The Comic Strip have released concept albums. In 1984, Alexei Sayle released The Fish People Tapes, an episodic serial based on his Capital FM series Alexei Sayle and the Fish People. The same year, Nigel Planer, in character as hippy Neil Pyke, his character on The Young Ones, released Neil's Heavy Concept Album, a parody of late 1960s psychedelic concept albums.
In the 1980s, concept albums also became popular among rock bands like Kiss, with their album, 1981's Music from "The Elder", which went on to become the group's poorest selling and charting album in their history, primarily because of its radical departure in musical style compared to Kiss's previous offerings. Queensrÿche fared better later the decade, releasing the rock opera Operation: Mindcrime in 1988, which tells a story of a young man, Nikki, awoken from a coma suddenly remembering work done as a political assassin. The comedy group Buckner & Garcia released a novelty concept album, Pac-Man Fever, that went gold and produced a hit single of the same name; all of the songs on the album pertained to popular video games of the time.
The heavy metal band King Diamond gained cult status during the 1980s releasing mostly all concept albums. Releases such as Abigail, "Them," and The Eye told elaborate sagas of horror and the supernatural.
In 1985 Kerrang! magazine ran a coverstory on Phenomena, announcing "the return of the concept album". Tom Galley had started the project, and together with his brother Mell and Metalhammer magazine founder Wilfried Rimensberger developed it into an international multi-media rock music project with contributions from a string of rock superstars, that, apart from so far a total of 5 albums, produced the Dreamrunner album and an ongoing following around the world. Phenomena's main story lines are dealing with the supernatural and unexplained, that were also turned in to scripts for musical, rock opera stage productions, feature films and video games. Iron Maiden also released Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which follows the folklore and myths of a seventh son of a seventh son having mystical powers.
The Stranglers released two concept albums in 1981: in February, The gospel according to the Meninblack which deals with the Men in black and their link to religion and at the end of the year, La folie which explores all the facets of love.
In the 1990s prog rock had all but faded from popular music. With the advent of alternative rock, however, a number of artists still continued to use the format.
In this decade, the rock band Marilyn Manson created three rock opera concept albums, namely Antichrist Superstar (1996), Mechanical Animals (1998) and Holy Wood (2000), which formed an ambitious concept trilogy. Though each one came with individual conceptual backgrounds, they are also meant to be taken together to form a larger abstract storyline. The albums were released in reverse order thus in the larger overarching 'fourth storyline' is divulged in reverse chronological order.
In 1994, industrial metal band Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral which focuses on a life going in a downward spiral. In 1996, Meat Loaf released Welcome to the Neighborhood, a concept album that tells the story of a relationship. Heavy metal band Iced Earth, released their 1996 album The Dark Saga which is based upon the comic book character Spawn, created by Todd McFarlane. Alternative metal band Fear Factory, released several concept albums in the 90s. Also, in 1994 Charly García recorded "La hija de la Lágrima". He was the first musician in Argentina to record a concept album.
In 1999, progressive metal band Dream Theater released Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, a story concept album. This was a specific follow-up to a song called "Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper", which was released on the band's 1992 breakthrough album, Images and Words, and is followed by the 2002 album "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence". While "Pt. 1" introduced a story, further parts of the "Metropolis" story were unseen on that album or subsequent releases for seven years. Although the band had created a twenty-minute follow-up to Part 1 in the mid-nineties, it hadn't been released. After the band gained complete creative control from their record company, they decided to expand their follow-up of the Metropolis story into a full album: Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. This album builds on concepts introduced in "Part 1", both lyrically and musically. Although it did not achieve the same levels of commercial success as the band's later releases (it reached #73 on the Billboard 200), it has been hailed by many fans and critics as Dream Theater's masterpiece and the band's defining album.
The Swedish progressive extreme metal band Opeth released two concept albums in the late 90s. In 1998 they released My Arms, Your Hearse, telling the story of a man who has died and become a ghost. Their fourth album Still Life told the story of an exiled man who has come back to his home town to find the woman he loves.
2000s and 2010s 
American singer-songwriter Tori Amos released Strange Little Girls and Scarlet's Walk in 2001 and 2002. The former was a collection of covers of songs written and performed by men, reinterpreted by Amos from a female point of view, while the latter was based around the travels of a woman called Scarlet across America, as well as being related to the concept of post-9/11 America. Five years later, in 2007, she released another concept album called American Doll Posse, which consisted of five female characters based on Greek mythology, who represent different aspects of Amos' personality. Also, the album was her first to have a political nature.
Linkin Park released A Thousand Suns in 2010, which front lyricist Chester Bennington originally stated was to be a concept album, but was later denied by the album's producer's Mike Shinoda; However, critic Christopher Weingarten of The Village Voice and many others attributed it to the concept genre.
See also 
- Shuker, Roy: Popular Music: The Key Concepts, page 5. ISBN 0-415-28425-2. 2002.
- Shute, Gareth (2013). Concept Albums. Auckland: Investigations Publishing. p. 13.
- "The return of concept album". The Independent. 2 October 2009. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- Jim Cullen (1 June 2001). Restless in the promised land. Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. p. 98. ISBN 978-1-58051-093-6. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
- "The Fabulous Ventures – Band History". Sandcastle V.I. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- Laura Tunbridge, The Song Cycle, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), ISBN 0-521-72107-5, p.173.
- "1) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: Rolling Stone". Rolling Stone. 1 November 2003. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- Eder, Bruce (2009). "The Moody Blues: Biography". AMG [All Music Group, a subsidiary of Macrovision]. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
- "113) The Who Sell Out: Rolling Stone". Rolling Stone. 1 November 2003. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- "The Pretty Things: S.F. Sorrow – PopMatters Music Review". PopMatters. 6 January 2009. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- "Pete Townshend Biography – Discography, Music, Lyrics, Album, CD, Career, Famous Works, and Awards". Musicianguide.com. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- "Ray Davies Biography – Discography, Music, Lyrics, Album, CD, Career, Famous Works, and Awards". Musicianguide.com. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- "Yes". Warr.org. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- "History of Punk – Genesis, ELP & Yes". Punk77.co.uk. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- "Don't Fall In Love With A Dreamer", Kim Carnes performs live in Santiago, Chile. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- "Music Feature | Concept Albums Are Once Again in Vogue in the Digital Age". PopMatters. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- "Columns | Adrien Begrand | Blood and Thunder | The Queen Isn't Dead". PopMatters. 16 March 2006. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- Welcome to Phenomena
- "The Iron Maiden Commentary". Maidenfans.com. 11 April 1988. Retrieved 18 January 2009.[dead link]
- Buckley, David (1997) : "No mercy" (biography of the Stranglers). Coronet books.
- Lanham, Tom (2000-11). "Marilyn Manson: Absinthe Makes The Heart Grow Fonder". Alternative Press (Alternative Press Magazine, Inc.) (#148): 76‐86.
- Basham, David (16 December 1999). "Manson To Walk in The "Valley of Death" For Next LP". MTV News. MTV Networks (Viacom). Retrieved 17 November 2010.
- Basham, David (29 February 2000). "Marilyn Manson Tweaks "Holy Wood" Plans". MTV News. MTV Networks (Viacom). Retrieved 22 March 2011.
- Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (album review) | Sputnikmusic
- Montgomery, James (15 February 2007). "Nine Inch Nails' Conspiracy Campaign – News Story | Music, Celebrity, Artist News | MTV News". Mtv.com. Retrieved 18 January 2009.