10 Best Concept Albums, Ever

Before the dawn of the modern age, music was more than something on your iPod. Music was a means of communications. Minstrels strolled around the English countryside singing stories about war, poverty and that little thing called the plague. Music was a means of communication between far away places before humans figured out it was easier to carry around a letter than a lute.

Enter the concept album.

The concept album is the minstrel ballad of the 21st century, only less about the plague and more about disillusioned youth, glitter and sergeants named after spices. Concept albums tell a story and are essentially a musical (minus the stage and plus an imagination). If the music world operated on a Caste System, concept albums are the Brahmins and Bieber borders on the untouchables. Here are some of the best concept albums to help transform your iPod from rock songs to rock opera.

10. Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral (1994)

Basically this album is Nietzche stabbing himself with nine inch nails. It a whole set of songs about the Nihilist concept of the human condition. It’s like a therapist confiding in a therapist relying on Trent Reznor’s vocabulary.

9. Styx - Paradise Theater (1981)

What’s really cool about this album is on the surface it’s a fictional account of the rise and fall of the Paradise Theater in Chicago. However, the theater is really a metaphor for the changing societal landscape and the shift from love to disillusionment between the 1970s and 1980s. There’s songs about the economy, politics and even a Nancy Reagan-approved song about drug addiction.

8. The Flaming LipsYoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)

A metaphor for the battling ideas of war and pacifism after Sept. 11, a Japanese woman named Yoshimi (who is a black belt) fights robots (which are, duh, pink). While the concept fades away after the first half of the album, it’s still a really fun, yet meaningful, take on 21st century life.

7. The KinksArthur (Or the Delcine and Fall of the British Empire) (1969)

This album waxes poetic on post-WWII England. It follows the life of Arthur Morgan, a carpet-layer who is (you guessed it!) disillusioned about the destruction of his country and the fledgling post-war economy. It’s actually slightly upbeat, considering the content.

6. Woody GuthrieDust Bowl Ballads (1940)

(Arguably) America’s favorite folk singer created (arguably) the first concept album…ever. It’s essentially “Of Mice and Men” set to music. It tells the story of Guthrie’s experience in the midwest during the dust bowl era and the hardships the migrant farmers faced.

5. David BowieThe Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)

Bowie, Bowie, Bowie. This dude’s entire life is a concept. Basically every album he ever made had some kind of theme, but Ziggy is the best. Hands down. Now, Ziggy is very simple to understand – Ziggy is a rockstar and also the human manifestation of an other-worldly alien whose mission it is to present the earth with a message of hope in its last five years of existence. Nope. Not at all complicated. Throw in some drugs, sex and body glitter, and you’ve got yourself an epic concept album.

4. Green DayAmerican Idiot (2004)

The Jesus of Suburbia lives off a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin…which is obviously a great foundation for a story. Once again we have disillusionment as the crux of the narrative only this time it’s directed towards George Bush and a few illegitimate wars. It was also adapted for Broadway, which was pretty awesome. It’s the Millennial generation’s version of out next album, which is…

3. The WhoTommy (1969)

Released just before the Summer of Love officially began, Tommy is a lot like American Idiot in that it follows a boy (Tommy) who must deal with coming of age in a household full of secrets and antiquated rules. Tommy goes through life, essentially alone because his father (who was presumed KIA) kills his mother’s lover (who she found when she thought Tommy’s father was dead). Tommy sees this and it pretty much ruins his life until he discovers he’s good at playing pinball.

2. The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

This album changed what a concept album could be. Sgt. Pepper isn’t a story, it’s a fake band based on The Beatles–it’s an alter ego. This construction allowed the Fab Four to step outside themselves and really step in to what they could be (propelled by drugs). John Lennon claimed there wasn’t a concept outside of the first few songs, but Paul McCartney begged to differ. Despite the dispute, it’s still widely regarded as a new kind of concept for a concept album–the character driven instead of the plot driven. And “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day In the Life” are two of the best songs of all time.

1. Pink FloydThe Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

A lot of people would have put The Wall here instead, but in all honesty, The Wall is awesome but it was a cop-out. The Wall focuses once again on societal issues and wah-wah life is hard, while Dark Side is a continuous exploration into the human condition, emotions and what really makes us tick. It’s like anthropology for people on LSD–which is 100 times more awesome than rambling about education, pudding and meat.

Honorable Mentions:

Titus Andronicus – The Monitor (somehow makes the Civil War seem cool)
Meatloaf – Welcome to the Neighborhood (mainly because Meatloaf is awesome)
Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto (not as lame as you thought it would be)
Anything by Rick Wakeman of the band Yes.

Caitlin Tremblay I work at Thomson Reuters in NYC and I'm a 2011 graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. I could live off of Ring Pops and cucumbers and I still pay for music. I think tattoos, Chuck Klosterman, Rolling Stone, red pens, day planners and Shakespeare are rad. You can find me on Twitter (@CTrembz).

View all posts by Caitlin Tremblay

4 Responses to “10 Best Concept Albums, Ever”

  1. Arafat Kazi

    You know, I don’t want to put on my Comic Book Guy attitude here, but seriously, you mention Rick Wakeman (good) but specify that it’s him without Yes, which is one of the great concept album bands? No Rush? No Genesis? No Jethro Tull? No King Crimson??? No Joe’s Garage????????

    What I find the most offensive is that American Idiot isn’t even Green Day’s best album. And the fact that Coldplay is even on this list.

    Still, I guess kudos for including Meatloaf. We all need an idiosyncratic choice. Mine would have been Age of Plastic by The Buggles but that’s because I like silver pants.

    Reply
  2. mowbray

    STYX! THIN!
    great list but…

    queensryche operation mindcrime… you may not like the music but the story line was good
    rush 2112
    who quadrphenia
    radiohead ok computer

    I’m good with american idiot, though I agree not their best

    Reply
  3. Matthew

    thank you for including Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay. It has a comic book series that goes along with it. Which really helps you understand the story.

    Reply

Leave a Reply