A Brief History of Concept Albums [SLYT: 18 min]
May 23, 2023 5:25 AM   Subscribe

A Brief history of Concept Albums from Song Cycles to the Modern Day What constituents a concept album? How old is the 'concept' of a Concept Album? Does it differ from a Rock Opera? Are Concept albums still even a thing now that ephemeral streaming services are so popular? What's your favourite Concept Album?

Wikipedia defines a modern concept album thus:

" A concept album is an album whose 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 applied to albums considered to be of "uniform excellence" rather than an LP with an explicit musical or lyrical motif. There is no consensus among music critics as to the specific criteria for what a "concept album" is.

The [modern recorded music] format originates with folk singer Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) and was subsequently popularized by traditional pop/jazz singer Frank Sinatra's 1940s–50s string of albums, although the term is more often associated with rock music. "
- Wikipedia: Concept Album
posted by Faintdreams (38 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Yes they are still a thing! I really like Superorganism's self-titled debut album. It's got a lot going on but much of it is on the concept of, well, superorganisms. This is sprinkled across the album but is framed most clearly in the song SPRORGNSM: "When I grow up/ I want to be/ a superorganism come and give it to me/ Put your mind/ in my brain and you'll see/ everything is better when you're everything". Then there's the super catchy Prawn song, from the perspective of those fascinating little social shrimps: "you do you/I'll do me/ chillin' at the bottom of the sea./ oh oh oooh, I'm happy just being a prawn."
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:42 AM on May 23

I've always been partial to Brave New World's Impressions On Reading Aldous Huxley (1972), but d'Voxx's 1984 (2022) is giving it a run for its money.

... and I just noticed that these albums were released a half century apart. Crazy.
posted by phooky at 6:29 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

I'm old, so Jesus Christ: Superstar is still my favorite. It was an album long before it hit the stage.

Though Sgt. Pepper is pretty good too.
posted by lhauser at 6:33 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

I watched this just the other day and it was fun. Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours is very evocative and is great. Janelle Monae's first three albums were all concept albums with a continuing story. I love the album format and really like when there is a theme linking them even if that isn't really a concept album. As much as I love a great song, the longer format where you can vary your presentation and create a larger statement is really where it's at for me.
posted by hippybear at 7:02 AM on May 23

(Classical musics smiling at each other while they ruffle rock’s hair and say, affectionately, Good job, kid!)
posted by clew at 8:08 AM on May 23

I'm gonna go with the two albums by imaginary 60's band The Dukes of Stratosphear, which was really XTC: 25 O'Clock, and Psonic Psunspot.
posted by The Half Language Plant at 8:33 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]

Thick As a Brick, hands down.
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 AM on May 23 [6 favorites]

Also has the distinction of being a pre-Internet demonstration of Poe's Law.
posted by flabdablet at 9:36 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]

Thick As a Brick yt , hands down.

and one step ... further.

and more ...
posted by philip-random at 9:57 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

I always thought Princess Superstar's 'My Machine' got left behind.

The Streets' 'A Grand Don't Come For Free' is also of note.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 10:08 AM on May 23

mine is Fear Factory's Obsolete
posted by glonous keming at 10:08 AM on May 23

The Dukes of Stratosphear

But not Skylarking?
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:16 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]

I found this bit from the Wikipedia article puzzling: 'The author Carys Wyn Jones writes that the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966), the Beatles' Revolver (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"'. Huh? If Tommy isn't a concept album, what is? And Sgt. Pepper may not have an "underlying musical motif", but that's really the point; the Fabsters are bringing together a very eclectic assortment of music that includes both the stuff that they (and maybe their parents) grew up with and what they're messing around with at the moment. That's the concept.

As for me, it's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:36 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]

That is all.
posted by sudogeek at 10:38 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

1959 was a big year for jazz concept albums: Kind of Blue (modal jazz), Time Out (unusual time signatures), The Shape of Jazz to Come (de-emphasize chords, anticipate free jazz). The concepts were musical, rather than narrative or thematic.
posted by JonJacky at 11:31 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]

I'm gonna go with the two albums by imaginary 60's band The Dukes of Stratosphear, which was really XTC: 25 O'Clock, and Psonic Psunspot.

I don't really have a "favorite album" any more, but if I had to pick one it would probably be Psonic Psunspot. There are dozens of us!
posted by The Tensor at 11:44 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]

I'd pick Skylarking over Psonic Psunspot but I do love both.

Two other great concept albums that are worth mentioning, The Forgotten Arm by Aimee Mann, and Solid State by Jonathan Coulton. (Which also has an XTC and Aimee Mann connection, as Mann did some vocals on the album and Dave Gregory contributed some guitar work on the album...)
posted by jzb at 11:54 AM on May 23

I've always liked Pyramid by Alan Parsons.
posted by Splunge at 1:13 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

Thick As a Brick yt , hands down.

Very much a favorite of mine. It runs through my head all the time unbidden. However, keep your memories pure. Do not think that experiencing Ian's TAAB II album will enrich your life. It is not an album of honor. Nothing is valued there.
posted by hippybear at 2:02 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]

I've always liked Pyramid by Alan Parsons.

I was just listening to this one today at work! It's a great record - the one that 'I, Robot' should have been.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 2:28 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

Chess. OMG, Chess. It was the soundtrack of my junior and senior years of college, and through it never really "worked" (financially, at least) on Broadway or the West End or later, the concept album was everything I could have wanted.

Until Hamilton, in fact, there was no other music in my life that I found myself constantly humming, quoting, and punning. I've broken up friends' squabbles by saying, "I think both your constitutions are terrific; so now you know, be good boys."

No end-of-relationship song has ever hit as hard for me as:

"But if you hear today
I'm no longer quite so devoted
To this affair
I've been misquoted"

I am forever indebted to Tim Rice and "the ABBA guys" (Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) for creating this musical which, although the plot may leave me dissatisfied, delivered a soundtrack so stellar that it has become part of me.

While there are so many people who know "One Night in Bangkok" only as a sort of novelty song (and don't even know it's from a musical), for me, all I can think of Chess is, "Heaven Help My Heart."
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 4:08 PM on May 23 [4 favorites]

The Wrong Kind of Cheese: Let's start a club! I cannot express how much I entirely adore Chess in its many variants, although the Broadway version not so much except it brought us Someone Else's Story which is totally amazing. The West End production seems to continue to be the gold standard as far as clarity of plot and stuff goes, but they will fuck around with this one forever. Much like a game of chess, I'm not sure there is any satisfying endgame. But the music and lyrics and everything are just SO GOOD!

I've made more than a couple of Chess posts here across the years, and I have at least one more up my sleeve, maybe soon.
posted by hippybear at 4:19 PM on May 23 [3 favorites]

Beyonce's Lemonade
posted by Mesaverdian at 5:50 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]

David Bowie’s outside. So good!

Also Pink Floyd the wall, classic.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:01 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

Thick As a Brick, hands down.

In The Court Of The Crimson King, says hold my beer.
posted by fairmettle at 7:08 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]

The Lamb.
posted by whatevernot at 7:33 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

I'm enough of an avowed public prog head I'm literally NOT listing albums and everyone else is listing them for me.
posted by hippybear at 7:36 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

My personal favorite concept album is Moon Colony Bloodbath by the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice, about a weird dude living on the moon who becomes a cannibal. It is a killer record.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 8:09 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

speaking of fifty years ago, it was late 1973 (age fourteen) that I finally owned a proper FM radio. Up until then, I had to get by on top 40 pop and whatever few albums I had access to. Very few. Of course, I already knew FM was cool. I'd heard it at friend's etc. But finally I had full access in my room, all day and night.

And FM was still cool in those days -- still programmed and hosted by people who LOVED music. That era was soon to end, but not yet, not in my town anyway.

And right there, right then, end of 1973, you had a sort of zenith point for concept albums (or certainly albums that featured vast suites of music). The Who's Quadrophenia, Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans, Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (everything they did was all the same basic concept), Emerson Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery ... and more. All of them getting plenty of play on the radio, usually just excerpts but sometimes (usually late at night), you'd get whole sides, entire albums.

So, of course, I just assumed that this was what serious albums were supposed to be. Big statements, ambitious swings for distant fences, themes that recurred, the wholes always being more than the sums of their parts.

I knew what a concept album was before I knew what conceptual meant.
posted by philip-random at 10:07 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

Pink Floyd the wall, classic

Yeah, maybe. I was meh on The Wall when it first came out because I was expecting to be moved by it the way I was by Dark Side and Wish You Were Here and Animals and I just... wasn't.

Except for Comfortably Numb. That got high rotation on my little cassette player (first thing I did with all my vinyl was transcribe it to cassette, just so I wouldn't wear out my vinyl).

Kind of funny, now I think about it, how my reaction to what so many people reach for as the canonical Concept Album was to pull the best track off it and just play that forever. Which was something I never did and still don't do with anything else from them; these days, if I'm listening to Pink Floyd I'm listening to whole albums all the way through just like I did as a kid.

I liked the movie though.
posted by flabdablet at 12:02 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]

Under the very loose definition put forward above, I think Lana Del Rey's new album counts as a concept album, and one I can't stop listening to.

But I'm not sure that the whole concept of an album of music isn't well past its sell-by date.
posted by rikschell at 5:22 AM on May 24

One of my kids and I saw a concert-style Chess a few years ago that was absolutely stunning. My first girlfriend, circa 1985-1988, introduced it to me along with other post-ABBA music by the members. Have loved it all these years.
posted by Well I never at 5:24 AM on May 24

Also, I’ve been a big I, Robot fan since the 80s as well but had never sought out Pyramid so definitely will be doing that soon.
posted by Well I never at 5:26 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]

I've always liked Pyramid by Alan Parsons.

Why have I not listened to this one? I have his other albums from around that era.

Update: I like the compositions okay, but I really don't like some of the singing. Now I recall how he was sometimes criticized for having bland and faceless vocalists. I actually have mixed feelings about Parsnips, who is a genius when his music comes together, and not when it doesn't. His frequent session band on Pyramid is swell. It sounds like some of these cats appeared on his Al Stewart production, and maybe some early Kate Bush albums.
posted by ovvl at 8:44 AM on May 24

Darren Hayes (ex Savage Garden)'s "official" concept album is This Delicate Thing We Made, which is all time-travelly and is about him reflecting on his childhood vs now etc etc, but some years ago he released a secret one-off side project called We Are Smug that I love. It's weird and very unlike his other work (but closest to his b-sides which I found interesting). I don't know if there was any specific concept behind it beyond "let's do a weird electronica album" but I wish he'd do more of that!
posted by creatrixtiara at 8:28 PM on May 24

I keep meaning to mention and then forgetting... The Ambassador [Bandcamp link]. Gabriel Kahane's love letter to Los Angeles is completely a concept album. It's not rock, it's not classic, I don't know what it is, but every song is named after an address in LA and it's a wonderful, remarkable, poignant, and insightful portrait of that complicated city. If you know the song Empire Liquor Mart, it comes from this song cycle.
posted by hippybear at 4:15 PM on May 25

It's not officially listed/described as one anywhere but I've always felt Depeche Mode's Violator works out to be a concept album about a relationship that breaks up because of infidelity.
posted by gentlyepigrams at 4:19 PM on May 25

Maybe more of a song cycle but I’ve always loved Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. Underrated perhaps but includes one of the most beautiful songs of the modern era: All That Heaven Will Allow
posted by billsaysthis at 8:24 PM on May 27

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