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 refer only 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." It is also worth noting that, while all rock operas are concept albums, not all concept albums are rock operas.
Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) is considered one of the first concept albums, consisting of semi-autobiographical songs about the hardships of American migrant labourers during the 1930s.
In the early 1950s, before the advent of rock and roll, concept albums were prevalent in jazz music. Singer Frank Sinatra recorded several concept 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 After Midnight (1956; collaborations with jazz instrumentalists in the style of late-night jam sessions) and "Penthouse Serenade" (1955; songs detailing the "cocktail piano" era.).
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 (1963; songs about blue-collar workers).
Early rock concept albums
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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.
Save for a Rainy Day, by Jan & Dean, had a concept featuring all rain-themed songs. In between each song there is a sound of rain. Dean Torrence recorded this album in 1966 as Jan & Dean soon after Jan Berry had his car crash near Dead Man's Curve in California. Torrence posed with Berry's brother Ken for the album cover photos. Columbia Records released one single from the project ("Yellow Balloon") as did the song's writer, Gary Zekley, with The Yellow Balloon, but with legal wrangles scuttling Torrence's Columbia deal and Berry's disapproval of the project, Save for a Rainy Day remained a self-released album on the J&D Record Co. label (JD-101). Sundazed Records reissued Save for a Rainy Day in 1996 in CD and vinyl formats, as well as the collector's vinyl 7" companion EP, "Sounds For A Rainy Day," featuring four instrumental versions of tracks from the album.
The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June 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 Lonely Hearts Club Band, was fellow British musicians The Moody Blues' first 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, British psychedelic rock group Nirvana released their debut album, The Story of Simon Simopath, to moderate commercial success. The songs' lyrics depict the life and death of the titular hero, blending various mythological themes, such as the existence of centaurs and goddesses, with those of science fiction.
S.F. Sorrow by British group the Pretty Things, released in December 1968, 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.
The album Head by The Monkees, released in 1968, and the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, was their final album and only concept album. It contains psychedelic songs that ventured away from their usual pop rock offerings such as "Porpoise Song". It also contains "Do I Have To Do This All Over Again" and "Can You Dig It", which are very different from their usual songs.
The rock opera Tommy, released in April 1969, was composed by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who. This acclaimed work was presented over two LPs 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).
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Pink Floyd released four concept albums during the 1970s; The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977), and The Wall (1979). The most notable of these is The Dark Side of the Moon, which achieved a level of commercial success far beyond that of any other progressive rock album before or since.
In addition to Britain, bands from the European mainland were pushing the limitations of the three-minute song format, regularly requiring two sides of a single LP to complete a statement. Magma, from France, debuted in 1970 with an eponymous concept album, Magma, about refugees fleeing a doomed Earth to settle on the fictional planet Kobaïa. From Greece, Aphrodite's Child, helmed by keyboardist Vangelis, released 666 in 1972. The double album, based on various passages from The Bible, was controversial for its title and sleeve notes. Italy's Banco del Mutuo Soccorso released Darwin! in 1972, a success that lead to the band to signing with Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Manticore Records. Triumvirat, a German progressive rock band signed with EMI to produce several concept albums including Mediterranean Tales, Pompeii and in 1975, what is considered by many[who?] to be a masterpiece of the genre, Spartacus.
The Americas also produced their share of concept albums during this period. 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.
Concept albums were hardly the exclusive product of progressive rock bands in the 1970s. From Country to Glam, artists from all genres would embrace the popularity of the LP to explore broader concepts that the 45 would have made impossible. Michael Nesmith blossomed creatively after quitting The Monkees, as an originator of what would become Country rock and in 1974 released the elaborately packaged concept album The Prison: A Book with a Soundtrack. Willie Nelson is a pioneer of concept albums within country music. In 1974 he released Phases and Stages describing a divorce from the viewpoint of the woman on Side One and the man on Side Two. His 1975 album, Red Headed Stranger, about the fatal estrangement of a cowboy from his unfaithful wife, followed and would reach #1 on the American country charts.
Although the progressive rock genre had begun to decline in popularity by the late 1970s, concept albums were still proving successful for well-established progressive rock bands, and a new subgenre, neo-progressive rock, emerged in the 1980s.
Genesis reinvented themselves as a sleek trio with the release of 1980's Duke. This tale of fame, wealth, success and lost love was arguably the band's first full LP concept since 1974's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was a huge commercial success, becoming their first UK number one album, and began a new, pop-oriented era for the band. "Turn It On Again" became the band's second UK top ten single. Whether Duke qualifies as a concept album is a matter of some confusion. It has been described as "in part a concept album, in part not". It has been said that "there does not seem to be a 'bigger picture' behind the songs, and it is uncertain whether there ever was an underlying concept".
Inspired by The Wall, glam rock band Kiss recruited Lou Reed for lyrical assistance and released Music from "The Elder" in 1981. Due to the album's radical departure in musical style compared to Kiss's previous offerings, Music from "The Elder" became the group's poorest selling and charting album in their history. It has, however, grown in cult status since its release.
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". The band's follow-up in 1987, Clutching at Straws, has also been described as a concept album.
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 elaborate concept would produce the bands last top ten hit in the U.S. with "Mr. Roboto", but arguments over the direction of the band toward increasingly dramatic concept productions led to breakup in 1984.
In the 1990s neo-progressive rock had all but faded from popular music, but some bands, such as Marillion, still had a sizeable cult fanbase. With the advent of alternative rock, however, a number of artists still continued to use the format within that genre. Other concept albums to then emerge not only from rock, but also from hiphop were to soon follow, especially in the mafioso themed, N.Y. stylized music of acts like Mobb Deep, Capone-N-Noreaga, and other Wu-tang works.
Green Day's concept American Idiot was released in 2004. The album describes the story of a central character named the Jesus of Suburbia . After its release it went on to achieve success worldwide, charting in 27 countries and peaking at number one in 19 of them, including the US and the UK. It also won a Grammy in 2005 for Best Rock Album and was nominated for Album of the Year.
Danny Brown's XXX, released in 2011, is considered a concept album about growing up, the fall of Detroit, and the impact of drugs on both. The album received critical acclaim, including being named SPIN's #1 rap album of 2011.
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