A concept album is an album in which its tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually. This is typically achieved through a single central narrative or theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, or lyrical. Sometimes the term is referenced to albums considered to be of "uniform excellence" rather than an LP with an explicit musical or lyrical motif. The exact criterion for a "concept album" varies, with no discernible consensus.
The format originates with folk singer Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) and subsequently popularized by traditional pop singer Frank Sinatra's 1940s–50s string of albums, but the term is more often associated with rock music. In the 1960s, several well-regarded concept albums were released by various rock bands, which eventually led to the invention of progressive rock and the rock opera. Since then, many concept albums have been released across many different musical genres.
Concepts are general ideas, thoughts, or abstract notions. There is no clear definition of what constitutes a "concept album". Fiona Sturges of The Independent stated that the concept album "was originally defined as a long-player where the songs were based on one dramatic idea – but the term is subjective." A precursor to this type of album can be found in the 19th century song cycle which ran into some of the same difficulties in classification. The extremely broad definitions of a "concept album" could potentially encompass all soundtracks, compilations, cast recordings, greatest hits albums, tribute albums, Christmas albums, and live albums.
The most common definitions refer to an expanded approach to the rock album format (as a story, play, or opus), or a project that either revolves around a specific theme or a collection of related materials. AllMusic writes, "A concept album could be a collection of songs by an individual songwriter or a particular theme -- these are the concept LPs that reigned in the '50s ... the phrase 'concept album' is inextricably tied to the late 1960s, when rock & rollers began stretching the limits of their art form." Author Jim Cullen describes it: "a collection of discrete but thematically unified songs whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts ... sometimes [erroneously] assumed to be a product of the rock era." Author Roy Shuker defines concept albums and rock operas as albums that are "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical. ... In this form, the album changed from a collection of heterogeneous songs into a narrative work with a single theme, in which individual songs segue into one another."
Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman considers the first concept album to be Woody Guthrie's 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. The Independent regards it as "perhaps" one of the first concept albums, consisting exclusively of semi-autobiographical songs about the hardships of American migrant labourers during the 1930s.
In the late 1940s, the LP record was introduced, with space age pop composers making concept albums soon after. Some of the themes were about exploring wild life; some were made to be played while dining or relaxing; others were more abstract and centered on emotions. This was accompanied in the mid 1950s with the invention of the gatefold, which allowed room for liner notes to explain the concept.
Singer Frank Sinatra recorded several concept albums prior to the 1960s rock era, including In the Wee Small Hours (1955) and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958). Sinatra is sometimes credited as the inventor of the concept album, beginning with The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946), which led to similar work by Bing Crosby. According to biographer Will Friedwald: "Sinatra sequenced the songs so that the lyrics created a flow from track to track, affording an impression of a narrative, as in musical comedy or opera. ... [He was the] first pop singer to bring a consciously artistic attitude to recording."[nb 1]
The author Carys Wyn Jones writes that the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (May 1966), the Beatles' Revolver (August 1966) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and the Who's Tommy (1969) are variously cited as "the first concept album", usually for their "uniform excellence rather than some lyrical theme or underlying musical motif". Commentators and historians frequently cite Pet Sounds as the first concept album of rock music.[nb 2] According to music critic Tim Riley, "Strictly speaking, the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out! [June 1966] has claims as the first 'concept album', but Sgt. Pepper was the record that made that idea convincing to most ears."[nb 3] Musicologist Allan Moore says that "Even though previous albums had set a unified mood, it was on the basis of the influence of Sgt. Pepper that the penchant for the concept album was born."[nb 4]
There exists claims for other records as "early" or "first" concept albums. In the early 1960s, concept albums began featuring highly in American country music, but the fact has been largely ignored by rock/pop fans and critics who would only begin acknowledging "concept albums" as a phenomenon nearly ten years later. The 100 Greatest Bands of All Time (2015) states that the Ventures "pioneered the idea of the rock concept album years before the genre is generally acknowledged to have been born". Ultimate Guitar's Matt Springer says that the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe (1963) is "considered to be one of the earliest examples of a rock concept album". Brian Boyd of The Irish Times names the Kinks' Face to Face (October 1966) as the first concept album: "Written entirely by Ray Davies, the songs were supposed to be linked by pieces of music, so that the album would play without gaps, but the record company baulked at such radicalism. It’s not one of the band’s finest works, but it did have an impact."
1960s–70s: Rock operas and progressive rock
Author Bill Martin relates the assumed concept albums of the 1960s to progressive rock:
In discussions of progressive rock, the idea of the "concept album" is mentioned frequently. If this term refers to albums that have thematic unity and development throughout, then in reality there are probably fewer concept albums than one might first think. Pet Sounds and Sergeant Pepper's do not qualify according to this criterion ... However, if we instead stretch the definition a bit, to where the album is the concept, then it is clear that progressive rock is entirely a music of concept albums—and this flows rather directly of Rubber Soul (December 1965) and then Revolver (1966), Pet Sounds, and Sergeant Pepper's. ... in the wake of these albums, many rock musicians took up "the complete album approach."
Popmatters' Sarah Zupko notes that while the Who's Tommy is "popularly thought of as the first rock opera, an extra-long concept album with characters, a consistent storyline, and a slight bit of pomposity", it is preceded by the shorter concept albums Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake (Small Faces, 1968) and S.F. Sorrow (The Pretty Things, 1968). Author Jim Cullen states: "The concept album reached its apogee in the 1970s in ambitious records like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and the Eagles' Hotel California (1977)." In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Dark Side of the Moon number one among the 50 greatest prog albums of all-time, also noting the LP's stature as the second best-selling album of all time. Pink Floyd's The Wall (1979), a semi-autobiographical story modeled after the band's Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, is one of the most famous concept albums by any artist.[nb 5]
According to author Edward Macan, concept albums as a recurrent theme in progressive rock was directly inspired by the counterculture associated with "the proto-progressive bands of the 1960s", observing: "the consistent use of lengthy forms such as the programmatic song cycle of the concept album and the multimovement suite underscores the hippies' new, drug-induced conception of time."
1980s–present: Decline and return to popularity
With the emergence of MTV as a music video network which valued single over album, concept albums became less dominant in the 1980s. Some artists, however, still released concept albums and experienced success in the 1990s and 2000s. NME's Emily Barker cites Green Day's American Idiot (2004) as one of the "more notable" examples, having brought the concept album back to high-charting positions. Dorian Lynskey, writing for GQ, noted a resurgence of concept albums in the 2010s due to streaming: "This is happening not in spite of the rise of streaming and playlists, but because of it. Threatened with redundancy in the digital era, albums have fought back by becoming more album-like." Cucchiara argues that "concept albums" should also describe "this new generation of concept albums, for one key reason. This is because the unison between the songs on a particular album has now been expanded into a broader field of visual and artistic design and marketing strategies that play into the themes and stories that form the album."
- In the late 1940s, Boogie-Woogie and Stride pianist Pete Johnson recorded an early concept album, House Rent Party (1946), in which he starts out playing alone, supposedly in a new empty house, and is joined there by other players. Each has a solo single backed by Johnson, and then the whole group plays a jam session together.
- The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson said of Pet Sounds: "It wasn't really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album; it was really a production concept album."
- Frank Zappa said that within Freak Out!, "It wasn't as if we had a hit single and we needed to build some filler around it. Each tune had a function." The Beatles' John Lennon commented: "Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn't go anywhere ... it works because we said it worked."
- He continues that: "Things might have looked different had Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys managed to complete the album Smile at the time. ... it would have suggested an entirely different possible line of development for the concept album, wherein parts of tracks reappeared in others producing a form frankly far more sophisticated than any of its contemporaries."
- Both Tommy and The Wall were adapted into feature-length films in 1975 and 1982, respectively.
- Cucchiara, Romina (November 10, 2014). "The Concept Album As a Performative Genre". PopMatters.
- Sturges, Fiona (1 October 2009). "The return of concept album". The Independent. Retrieved 25 April 2016.
- Cullen 2001, p. 98.
- Elicker 2001, pp. 227–229.
- Shuker 2012, p. 5.
- Jones 2008, p. 49.
- Elicker 2001, p. 227.
- Elicker 2001, p. 228.
- "AllMusic Loves Concept Albums". AllMusic. 10 February 2014. Retrieved 25 April 2016.
- Rick Wakeman (narrator) (6 May 2016). When Pop When Epic: The crazy world of the Concept Album (BBC documentary).
- "The return of concept album". The Independent. 2 October 2009. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
- McKnight-Trontz 1999, p. 10.
- Rojek 2004.
- Friedwald 1995.
- Silvester, Peter, A Left Hand Like God, A Study of Boogie-Woogie, pp. 98-99
- Jones 2008, p. 44.
- Lambert 2007, p. 249.
- Tunbridge 2010, p. 173.
- Riley 1988, p. 11.
- Zappa & Occhiogrosso, 1989, pp. 65–80.
- Sheff 1981, p. 197.
- Moore 2016.
- Elicker 2001, p. 234.
- Moskowitz 2015, p. 689.
- Springer, Matt (October 7, 2015). "52 Years Ago: The Beach Boys Release a Concept Album About Cars, ‘Little Deuce Coupe’". Ultimate Guitar.
- Boyd, Brian (Jun 4, 2016). "The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys: 12 months that changed music". The Irish Times.
- Martin 2015, p. 41.
- "The Pretty Things: S.F. Sorrow – PopMatters Music Review". PopMatters. 6 January 2009. Archived from the original on 23 June 2008. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- "50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time". Rolling Stone. June 17, 2015.
- Barker, Emily (July 8, 2015). "23 Of The Maddest And Most Memorable Concept Albums". NME. Retrieved January 23, 2017.
- Mathijs & Sexton 2012, p. 211.
- Macan 1997, p. 13.
- Guitar World Staff (October 26, 2015). "The Top 10 Concept Albums of All Time". Guitar World.
- Lynskey, Dorian (13 July 2015). "Why everyone from Beyoncé to Daft Punk is releasing a concept album". GQ. Retrieved 25 April 2016.
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- Elicker, Martina (2001). "Concept Albums: Song Cycles in Popular Music". Word and Music Studies: Essays on the Song Cycle and on Defining the Field. Rodopi. ISBN 90-420-1565-9.
- Friedwald, Will (1995). Sinatra! the Song is You: A Singer's Art. Simon and Schuster.
- Jones, Carys Wyn (2008). The Rock Canon. Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-6244-0.
- Lambert, Philip (2007). Inside the Music of Brian Wilson: The Songs, Sounds, and Influences of the Beach Boys' Founding Genius. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4411-0748-0.
- Macan, Edward (1997). Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-509887-7.
- Martin, Bill (2015). Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-1978. Open Court Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8126-9944-9.
- Mathijs, Ernest; Sexton, Jamie (2012). Cult Cinema. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-4443-9643-0.
- McKnight-Trontz, Jennifer (1999). Exotiquarium: Album Art from the Space Age. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-20133-3.
- Moore, Allan F. (2016). Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-05265-4.
- Moskowitz, David V., ed. (2015). The 100 Greatest Bands of All Time: A Guide to the Legends Who Rocked the World [2 volumes]: A Guide to the Legends Who Rocked the World. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-4408-0340-6.
- Riley, Tim (1988). Tell Me Why: The Beatles: Album By Album, Song By Song, The Sixties And After. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-55061-9.
- Rojek, Chris (2004). Frank Sinatra. Polity.
- Shuker, Roy (2012). Popular Music Culture: The Key Concepts. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-57771-0.
- Shute, Gareth (2013). Concept Albums. Investigations Publishing. ISBN 978-0-473-22685-5.
- Tunbridge, Laura (2010). The Song Cycle. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-89644-3.