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
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 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 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.
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 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).
Elton John's 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection is a concept album based on country and western/Americana themes. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, from 1975, chronologically tells the story of his and lyricist Bernie Taupin's meeting to the record 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).
David Bowie released two concept albums during the 1970s; 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, about the fictional character Ziggy Stardust and his band, and the post-apocalyptic Diamond Dogs in 1974.
Jethro Tull's 1972 studio album, Thick as a Brick, was crafted as a "bombastic" and "over the top" parody of the ideological concept album, and reached #1 on the Billboard Top 200. Contrary to popular belief, Jethro Tull's previous album, Aqualung, is not a concept album. (Its supposed concept is an indictment of the church for interfering with man's relationship with God).
Pink Floyd released 4 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.
Following the success of Close To The Edge (1972), Yes released Tales from Topographic Oceans in 1973. With four movements spread over four sides of a double LP, and the sprawling lyrical and instrumental interpretation of Indian Shastric scriptures, the album pushed as far from the "three-minute pop song" as rock had ever ventured, redefining progressive rock in the process. Its critical backlash, however, would contribute to an eventual decline in the genre's popularity, and to the rise of punk rock. The group's keyboardist Rick Wakeman released many concept albums during his solo career, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, 1984 and Return to the Centre of the Earth, and were often accompanied by lavish dramatic stage productions during live performances.
Genesis, like Yes, gradually progressed from moderate-length compositions (around six to eight minutes), to eventually occupying a full side of an LP with the 23 minute Supper's Ready on their fourth album, Foxtrot (1972). In 1974, the band released their grandest concept: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The double album tells the surreal story of a New York City juvenile delinquent named Rael, who is swept underground to face bizarre creatures and nightmarish dangers in order to rescue his brother John.
Gentle Giant released several concept albums in the 1970s, beginning with Three Friends (1972), their first album to achieve chart success in America. In A Glass House would follow in 1973, The Power and the Glory in 1974, and Interview in 1976. The band's intricate compositions would lend themselves to concept album hallmarks with theme and texture often recurring throughout an LP to create a cohesive and interrelated whole.
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.
Kansas released Leftoverture in 1976 and Monolith in 1977.
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.
Though the progressive rock genre had begun to decline in popularity, concept albums were still proving successful for well-established progressive rock bands.
Genesis reinvented themselves as a sleek trio with the release 1980's Duke. This tale of fame, wealth, success and lost love was the band's first full LP concept since 1974's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was a huge commercial success and begun a new, pop-oriented era for the band. "Turn It On Again" and "Misunderstanding", both became top 20 hits.
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.
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 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.
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 Pye, his character on The Young Ones, released Neil's Heavy Concept Album, a parody of late 1960s psychedelic concept albums.
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.
Bolland & Bolland released The Domino Theory in 1981, a concept album critically covering war and US intervention politics, spinning off the minor hit single In the Army Now which was subsequently successfully covered by other artists such as Status Quo.
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.
Roger Waters returned once again to the concept album format for his third solo album, Amused to Death in 1992. On this he explores the influence of television and the mass media featuring Jeff Beck on lead guitar. A segment of the album, "What God Wants, Part 1" would reach #4 in the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. Pulp released The Sisters EP, in which the first two tracks of the four have a linking narrative surrounding two sisters.
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 1995, RZA and his various Wu solo projects took on concept form. In his work on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., featuring Ghostface Killah, RZA orchestrated something of a hiphop opus reliving the tales of Mafioso, street hustlers rhyming and gaming their way to the top. The album sparked further impressions of others on the New York rap scene at the time. Though tracks had been done as concept, the mix of sampling films, rap, and street life were combined in this particular Wu solo effort.
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.
Radiohead, as with Jethro Tull two decades earlier, don't need to agree with the concept album classification to have created an album that fits the defining criteria perfectly. 1997's release OK Computer hosts a richly textured song cycle focusing on societal alienation, Technophobia, and Millennial anxiety. It would win a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album.
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.
2000 saw the advent of what would become Coheed and Cambria's catalog-spanning science fiction epic, The Amory Wars, based on frontman Claudio Sanchez's comic book series of the same name. Under the name Shabütie, the band released Delirium Trigger, an EP containing five songs, three of which would later be included on the first full installment of the story in musical form, The Second Stage Turbine Blade (2002). To date, the band has recorded seven full-length albums within the framework laid down by Sanchez's story.
Green Day's concept American Idiot was released in 2004. The album describes the story of a central character named Saint Jimmy. 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.
Silverstein wrote the album A Shipwreck In The Sand, which tells the story of a man who burns down his house to kill his cheating wife and his children, but realizes his mistake and pulls them out of the fire. The court of law discovers his intent and he overdoses in a motel room to escape his fate.
The Mars Volta's sophomore effort came in the form of 2005's ambitious Frances the Mute. Five mysterious segments segue into each other, clocking in at 77 minutes. It is based upon a diary found in the back seat of a repossessed car.
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.
The entire discography of hardcore punk band Defeater, who released their debut album Travels in 2009, tells different parts of on overarching story. Each album or EP released follows a different character within the story, with the lyrics serving as narration and exposition.
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 Mike Shinoda. However, critic Christopher Weingarten of The Village Voice and many others attributed it to the concept genre.
The Japanese band D released their sixth album Vampire Saga in 2010. The album served to consolidate events and create backstories for the characters in their ongoing Vampire Story, revolving around the vampire king Dreizehn Schwarzschild and his son Justice.
Anaïs Mitchell employed guests like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown and The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller as characters like Persephone and Hades, for her 2010 concept Hadestown, about Orpheus' quest to rescue his love from the Underworld.
Janelle Monae in 2010 followed Metropolis, Suite I with The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) about a mass-produced android bestowed with a soul who is sentenced to be destroyed. It was nominated for Best Contemporary R&B Album.
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.
Marina and the Diamonds' Electra Heart album (released in 2012) describes the story of the character Electra Heart, created by Marina as "a vehicle to portray part of the American dream." The album follows Electra Heart and her four archetypes: the housewife, the beauty queen, the homewrecker, and the idle teen. She described the album as "an ode to dysfunctional love" and elaborated, "I based the project around character types commonly found in love stories, film and theatre, usually ones associated with power and control in love, as opposed to weakness or defeat [...] Rejection is a universally embarrassing topic and Electra Heart is my response to that. It is a frank album."
Heavy metal band Stone Sour released a double concept album. They first released House of Gold & Bones – Part 1 in 2012, which was followed by its sequel, House of Gold & Bones – Part 2, released in 2013. Both were released to commercial and critical acclaim and are considered the band's best effort so far.
Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, m.A.A.d City is considered a concept album. The theme centers around Kendrick's life in Compton, California and how he strived to escape it. Each song in the album follows this theme and furthers the story line.
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