Even though most (if not all) concept albums come off as comical or mediocre, I find them immensely enjoyable. Music is not notoriously known for telling an engaging story, but just the hint of a deeper meaning is enough for me to listen that much more intently, to try to find that glimmer. And usually, as the story unfolds, I find myself thinking that the story would be barely passable in a movie or story. I always convince myself, though, that it works in this context. I give albums with a message the benefit of the doubt that I certainly don’t give to books. I think that’s what makes concept albums so interesting to me--I’m willing to fully buy into a story even if it is basically garbage.
Sometime, somewhere, a person was tired with making individual songs, so they focused on creating a story using the full hour of an album. It was probably Sinatra, so it was probably very good1. This caught on, and now we have new concept albums fairly regularly. The unification of a collection that was formerly unrelated is the same reason I love short stories that function together. I cannot always defend the story itself, but the idea is an attractive one to me. Regardless of how ridiculous the message almost always turns out to be (usually involving an oppressed young person), I can make the excuse, “At least they are trying it.”
Personally, I get something more out of listening to an entire album as opposed to individual songs. There is something to be said about an artist establishing an order to which their songs should be listened. In most cases, an album just seems to be the proper way to listen to all of the songs. A concept album is the extended form of this, as the songs tell a story and need to be listened to in a set order. I’ll briefly go through some of the most famous examples, as well as some of my favorites.
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1969 - Probably the first and possibly the most famous concept album, The Who’s Tommy presents a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who grows up in the 1920s. Most people know of the character’s prowess as a pinball player, but the album goes into more of his experiences with his family, dealing with difficult topics such as abuse. The album is also The Who’s first foray into concept albums, as they returned to format in 1973 with Quadrophenia.
1979 - If not for Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall would be unquestionably the most famous concept album, and it probably does the best job in storytelling. It tackles the emotional problems of the protagonist, Pink, in ways that some novels can’t approach. It was turned into a successful, albeit disturbing film three years later in 1982, and the show was still performed for decades by Roger Waters, who wrote the album. Like The Who, this is not Pink Floyd’s only example of a concept album, but it is certainly the most clear and the most profound.
1984 - I might be cheating here by using a soundtrack to a movie, but, honestly, Prince’s music of Purple Rain is the important part of the movie, not the story. And the music is really incredible, probably Prince’s best material. It may still be considered a concept album, in my opinion, because it does tell a ludicrous futuristic love story.
2000 - In what could be the very first “hip-hopera,” the rap supergroup consisting of Del the Funky Homosapien, Dan the Automator, and Kid Koala released the album, Deltron 3030. Set a millenia in the future, the rappers need battle dangerous robots in space. If it sounds ridiculous, it is. It’s also great. And there are some good messages and themes present as well.
2004 - I have an unreasonable love for Green Day’s American Idiot, and I would defend it as one of the band’s best albums. It is an album I can sing (and occasionally have sung) every word along with the band. The music is intense, and the lyrics have moments of brilliance, even if they beat the listener over the head in blatant political overtones. Even though I realize that the story isn’t great, I’ve been championing a movie since the album’s release. It came out at just the right time for me and will always be one of my favorites.
* * *There are several more I could have listed here that are just as good, but there are really too many to mention. It seems like albums that tell a story are becoming more and more prevalent. This is a cool thing. I realize the stories of concept albums can sometimes be lacking, and the music isn’t always great, but I am always excited about the possibilities. It just gives more of a reason to sit down with an album and have an experience. Just as the artist intended.
1 In fact, some say In the Wee Small Hours was the first concept album. So, yeah, that’s a pretty high standard to meet.↩