The best thing to do in life’s times of trouble is to take time out, breathe, and relax. And sometimes the best way to relax is through a concept album, structured and built up by a collection of artists who are invested in the world they are hoping to show to the world at large. And the best way to do that is through the medium of conceptual art.
Led by a hook of some sorts, the albums spearhead a certain level of spontaneity and brevity that stems from the land at large, based on a level of commitment and confidence that grows from the ground up. Such is the strength of the work because of the albums as a whole.
Driven by the presence of the theme, the ten conceptual albums that were chosen for the list are the very same albums that have given me great pleasure at times of personal distress and emotional duress. It lets the tailspin of life latch onto a floating object that spins into the distance far, far away.
Life changes, perception changes, and the world keeps spinning, but at least we have these albums to help us get to that point of enlightenment in a perenially grey Britain. But there’s beauty to the absence of colour, and this colour comes into a place of understanding through the level of exhibition and demonstration in the medium of music.
The 10 best albums to escape to:
10. Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends – Coldplay (2008)
Coldplay‘s fourth album was also their best work, and proved to be one of the band’s most expressive moments as a group of soundscape artists. The record was based on the stories of the French Revolution, as Chris Martin made the intention of creating a story that both revered and reimagined the world of the war through a musical drama that deviated from the more intimate terrains of the pastoral pop era, into something that was more cerebral yet still as effortlessly commercial.
The title track is, by some measure, the most astonishing single in the band’s canon, but there’s more to the album than symphonic anthems, as was clear from the pleasantly Bshoegaze-adjacent ‘Violet Hill’. For those less interested in the narrative or yearning, the album also boasts some of Will Champion’s best drumming, and the monster fills on ‘Strawberry Swing’ prove his physical prowess.
9. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – Genesis (1974)
There was no way Peter Gabriel could continue with Genesis once he completed The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway because there was no way bandmates Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford would let him have so much creative control over another record. And yet Gabriel’s departure profited everyone in the band, as Genesis rebooted themselves as a snazzier pop outfit, bolstered by a dynamic frontman, and Gabriel was free to pursue any artistic avenue he was allowed to. But for many people, Gabriel’s best work was on this album, a dizzying concept album based in the heart of New York.
Gabriel’s work detailed the personal journey of a man caught beneath the weight of the New York skylines, and the music – barrelling and brusque – captured the essence of the work. Ultimately, the tour was Gabriel’s last with the group. “In some ways, I felt a sense of personal loss,” Banks said. “But it was a relief as well, I can’t deny that. We then had something to prove, which gave us a new goal. Fortunately, the audience wanted to stay with us.”
8. The Lexicon of Love – ABC (1982)
Where The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was an uncompromisingly visceral venture into the paralysis of the central characters, The Lexicon of Love from ABC is a much bouncier, frothier affair and one that was produced by producer superpower Trevor Horn. The album stemmed from a failed romance, and anthems ‘The Look of Love’ and ‘Poison Arrow’ explored the mosaic through a collection of blinding licks.
The yearning, romance and verve of the album was crying for a sequel, but the writer didn’t countenance the prospect of creating another companion piece on 2016. “I’ve had a lot of people on Twitter saying, who the hell do you think you are?” – but it’s obviously a companion piece to the first record, he explains. “It’s a kind of Godfather Part II. What has happened to these characters? Are they older, wiser, stupider, happier? I genuinely wanted to make a sequel with me as I am now, as a 57-year-old man.”
7. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles (1967)
George Harrison didn’t consider the album a concept album, George Martin was loathed to use the title, and John Lennon felt ashamed of the proclivities and pretensions of the conceptual work in 1970 when he released the rawer Plastic Ono Band. But the album stemmed from Paul McCartney’s vision to write a Beatle from the perspective of another group, preferably one from the 1920s. The album was his tribute to English vaudeville, which likely explains why it’s the favourite album of The Beatles’ back catalogue.
Truthfully, the band skirt away from the concept at various junctures and points, but the high points – ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite’, ‘Fixing A Hole’ and the towering title track – are based on the pretence that the band are a group from the 1920s. And yet the album’s strongest track, ‘Within You Without You’, is the one least attached to the album, proving that the album could be powerful by downplaying the trappings of the album, in favour of a striking aphorism.
6. The Band – The Band (1969)
The Band’s second album was the album that saw guitarist Robbie Robertson take control of the group’s songwriting catalogue, creating a sprightly, sprawling album that detailed the history of Southern America. Robertson, a Canadian, was deeply interested in the history around him, as he spent his afternoons reading about the nation that stood next to his native Canada. He was caught in the importance of the moment, deeply invested in the purpose of the work, and with Levon Helm, he had a voice that could deliver his strongest composition: ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’.
Pianist Richard Manuel sang the falsetto on the lilting ‘Whispering Pines’, a tune he wrote the music for. Manuel and Robertson worked together on ‘When You Awake’ and ‘Jawbone’, but the rest of the album is Robertson’s work alone, creating a drama that puts as much focus on the characters, as it does on the barrelling solos.
5. Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel (1968)
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released six albums during their time together, but Bookends is the most striking, and certainly the most diverse, detailing a mini-opera about New York. Indeed, it’s also evidence of Garfunkel’s importance in the orbit, spinning a collage of voices on ‘Voices of Old People’, in a complex sound vignette that is more successful than John Lennon’s wanting efforts on The White Album. ‘Homeward Bound’ and the mournful title track showcase the band’s comfort in the world of avant-pop.
The second half shows a jauntier, more playful representation of New York, from the frothy ‘At The Zoo’, to the chorus heavy ‘Mrs. Robinson’, detailing the many facets of the grand city at large. The city is fittingly European, which was apposite, considering the album it sat on.
4. The Dark Side of The Moon – Pink Floyd (1973)
This album is Pink Floyd’s most fondly remembered effort, but none of the band’s members considers it their masterpiece. “I think that when it was finished, everyone thought it was the best thing we’d ever done to date,” drummer Nick Mason recalled, “and everyone was very pleased with it, but there’s no way that anyone felt it was five times as good as Meddle, or eight times as good as Atom Heart Mother, or the sort of figures that it has in fact sold.” Indeed, the band tend to hold up Wish You Were Here and The Wall as the band’s greatest work, but it all spawned from The Dark Side of The Moon, Roger Waters’ great dissertation on the suffering of the human heart.
Behind the scenes, Waters and Mason recorded members of Wings, and although Paul McCartney’s interview went unused, guitarist Henry McCullough’s “I was really drunk at the time” was used during the instrumental sections. McCullough wasn’t the only Irishman to make the entry- but that’s how the light got in.
3. Queen II – Queen (1974)
Queen borrowed a trick from Simon & Garfunkel when they decided that they would have an earnest side (‘White Side’), and a wackier one (‘Black Side’), delivering an album of reverie, rebellion, romance and rollicking guitar riffs. Brian May considered it a watershed moment for the band, and he delivers three striking ballads, from the barrelling ‘Father to Son’, to the more whimsical ‘White Queen’ and ‘Some Day, One Day’. The only song that doesn’t subscribe to the concept is ‘The Loser In The End’, Roger Taylor’s fiery rocker that opens with a sly wink at John Bonham.
Freddie Mercury writes the second side entirely alone, ending with ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’, an inspired, albeit unlikely, hit for the band. ‘March of The Black Queen’ had more ideas in six minutes than many bands put across whole albums, and the batty ‘Fairie Feller’s Master Stroke’ stemmed from Mercury’s history as an art student. It’s the band’s most artful album, one of their best too.
2. Zen Arcade – Hüsker Dü (1984)
American rockers Hüsker Dü released their second album in 1984, detailing the tale of a young escaping from an unfulfilling personal domestic life. But the hooks – frequently crisp, and brimming with radiant invention – more than made up for the lack of cohesion, and Bob Mould sounds riveting, clearly enjoying the opportunity to work on the outlet, as both a singer and a guitar player. ‘Monday Will Never Be the Same’ is a gorgeous representation of the songwriter’s determination to make peace with himself.
In some ways, it’s a continuation of the narrative The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway spun, creating a killer, cerebral work that stems from a place of great original instinct. The work – sprawling and singular in its destination – is also refreshingly underproduced, exhibiting a sense of purpose that demonstrates a sense of identity in the world of pastoral rock.
1. Welcome to My Nightmare – Alice Cooper (1975)
Is this the face that launched a thousand ships? Well, it didn’t need to launch 1,000, because it launched the best one: Alice Cooper. And on his debut album, he made a bold statement that detailed the beginnings of his journey into the outlandish and steamy side of rock, detailing an album that explored the nightmares and personal traumas of a character named Steven. The title track has remained a mainstay of his career, and still pops up in his solo set to this day.
Cooper has hinted at a theatrical adaptation of the work, although as of the time of print, the adaptation has yet to come to fruition. But the singer is hoping it will come to light a la Meat Loaf. “There’s always been talk about doing a Broadway show or something in the West End,” he revealed. “The play is already written, it’s called Welcome To My Nightmare. All the songs are already in order, just take it to Broadway and make it bigger. It’s pure Alice Cooper.”