Song and poetry, even though concise in form, are perhaps the most powerful medium to tell a story or convey deeper emotions. Their lyrical quality coupled with music, which is audible in case of songs but remains as an inaudible dimension in poetry, has attracted people since the time of its existence. In fact, probably more so than any other narrative forms.
The concept album, therefore, naturally became popular as it told the story of the central fictional character through various songs in the album. The storyline developed with each song. In a way, a concept album is like a mini-series where each song is an episode, providing us with the opportunity to binge-listen to our heart’s content. However, a concept album doesn’t always need a character to hold its narration together. It can be unified by a common theme on which all the songs are based. Neither does the content of the album need to be strictly lyrical, it can be instrumental or compositional as well.
The form came into vogue with the folk singer Woodie Guthrie’s album Dust Bowl Ballads in the 1940s. It was, however, the traditional pop singer Frank Sinatra’s consecutive albums of the 1940s-1950s that popularised the idea. A few years down the line and rock music particularly took a keen interest in the format and, after some experimentation, developed rock opera.
What distinguishes them from normal operas is that they are not scripted for acting. Other genres also played with the idea of a concept album gifting the world some amazing narratives as well as meaningful music. Beginning from the 1940s the form constantly evolved and became more and more popular with time. So, with that in mind, let’s rediscover the top twelve concept albums of all time.
The 12 greatest concept albums ranked:
12. Red Headed Stranger – Willie Nelson
Released in 1975 by the Columbia Records, the album was inspired by the ‘Tale of a Red Headed Stranger’, a song that Nelson used to play as a disc jockey on his programme in Fort Worth, Texas. The song written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz in 1953 was originally meant for Perry Como but couldn’t be released due to some publishing issues. A year later, Arthur Smith released a version which took over the radio instantly. The song told the story of ‘The Stranger’ who rambled into town in his black stallion leading his dead wife’s bay horse. He met a blonde woman in a tavern and shot her as she allegedly tried to steal the horse and left the town.
Edith Lindeman recounts the origin of the lyrics: “I was just sitting at home one night, playing with the idea of colours.” The redhead she had in mind was her husband. She named the town Blue Rock, gave the hero a “raging black stallion” and introduced him to a “yellow-haired” lady riding a bay-coloured horse.
The outlaw country singer Willie Nelson used to perform this song in front of children. In his more creative days with Columbia Records he decided to develop it into a concept album. The album, which had an immense cultural impact in America, is about a fugitive on the run from the law after killing his wife and her lover. The album was a blockbuster and made Nelson one of the most popular country musicians with the title as his nickname.
11. Joe’s Garage Acts I, II and III – Frank Zappa
The three-part rock opera was released in 1987 by the Zappa records. The story is narrated by a government employee known as ‘The Central Scrutiniser’ who tells the story of an average adolescent boy named Joe who hails from Los Angeles. The lyrical themes of Joe’s Garage involve individualism, sexuality, and the danger of large government. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when Joe forms a garage band in a country where music is criminalised. The Central Scrutiniser explains that music leads to a “slippery slope” of drug use, disease, unusual sexual practices, prison, and eventually, insanity.
The narrative takes its sources from the censorship of music during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, where rock music was made illegal. It also alludes to the sexual revolution, which was supported by Zappa, through Joe who is portrayed as a sexually promiscuous male having several unsatisfying relationships with women. Apart from that, the title track has autobiographical elements.
The lyrics offer a humorous commentary on American society and politics and criticises government and religion and satirizes Catholicism and Scientology. The album consists of a large spectrum of musical styles and is noted for its use of xenochrony. Though labelled controversial on its release, the album is undoubtedly among Zappa’s finest works.
10. Berlin – Lou Reed
Released by RCA Records in 1973, Berlin is a tragic rock opera. It tells the story of a couple named Jim and Caroline who are the victims of drug abuse. Other themes include depression, domestic violence, prostitution and suicide.
The concept was created when producer Bob Ezrin mentioned to Lou Reed that although the stories told by Reed’s songs had great beginnings, they never really had an ending. He particularly wanted to know what happened to the couple from the song ‘Berlin’ which was one of Reed’s previous solos.
Though musically simplistic with Reed on his acoustic guitar, the songs are soul-stirring. Much like Reed’s other works, the potential of the album was not recognised during his time but became gained prominence later.
9. The Point! – Harry Nilsson
The sixth studio album by American singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson released in 1970. It is a fable which tells the story of a boy named Obolio who is the only round-headed boy in the entire pointed village where the law says that everything must be pointed.
Talking about the conception of the idea, Nilsson said, “I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realised that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s no point to it.'”
The album captured the public imagination and soon became a hit on pop culture. An animated adaptation of the story was first aired in 1971 directed by Fred Wolf. Later various theatre groups adapted the story for musicals. In 1991, Nilsson gave Jauchem permission to remount his adaptation of The Point! at the Chapel Court Theatre in Hollywood, run by Richard and Tamara Merson.
8. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie
The album which made Bowie’s fictional alter ego Ziggy Stardust famous was released in 1972 by the RCA Records. A rock opera, it wasn’t conceived as a concept album and Bowie put together a story upon its release.
It concerns an androgynous, bisexual Rockstar Ziggy Stardust who is sent to earth as a saviour for an impending apocalyptic disaster. The character is said to be influenced by English singer Vince Taylor, Norman Carl Odam, AKA the legendary stardust cowboy, and Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto.
Bowie’s love of acting led his total immersion in the characters he created for his music. After acting the same role over an extended period, it became impossible for him to separate Ziggy Stardust from his own offstage character. Bowie said that Ziggy “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour … My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.”
7. American Idiot – Green Day
The album which released on September 21, 2004, is about ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ who is a lower-middle-class adolescent anti-hero of America. It was inspired by contemporary political events like the Iraq War, 9/11 and the presidency of George Bush. But there are only two explicitly political songs on the album (‘American Idiot’ and ‘Holiday’).
Though referring to contemporary events and social disillusionment and dysfunctionality as a result of those events, Armstrong wanted the album to be timeless and become more an overarching statement on confusion. He himself was confused by the cultural war that divided people on the topic of Iraq war: “This war that’s going on in Iraq [is] basically to build a pipeline and put up a fucking Wal-Mart.” The album also takes aim at giant corporations putting small companies out of business. Cool made an example out of record shops closing when a national retailer makes it to town. “It’s like there’s just one voice you can hear,” he said. “Not to sound like a preachy person, but it’s getting towards the Big Brother of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four— except here you have two or three corporations running everything.”
The album is a punk rock opera where the band has experimented with styles like Polka, New Wave and Latin. Armstrong said, “For us, American Idiot is about taking those classic rock and roll elements, kicking out the rules, putting more ambition in, and making it current.”
6. Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) – The Kinks
Originally made as a soundtrack to a Granada Television play, the album was released in 1969. The Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies wrote it along with the novelist Julian Mitchell. The story is partially inspired by the Davies brothers’ older sister Rose, who emigrated to Australia in 1964 with her husband Arthur Anning. The lead character in the album, the fictional Arthur Morgan—modelled after Anning—is a carpet layer whose family’s plight in the opportunity-poor setting of post-war England is depicted.
Julian Mitchell said during the album’s LP release, “Arthur Morgan…lives in a London suburb in a house called Shangri-La, with a garden and a car and a wife called Rose and a son called Derek who’s married to Liz, and they have these two very nice kids, Terry and Marilyn. Derek and Liz and Terry and Marilyn are emigrating to Australia. Arthur did have another son, called Eddie. He was named after Arthur’s brother, who was killed in the battle of the Somme. Arthur’s Eddie was killed, too—in Korea.”
The album wasn’t a commercial success, it got critical acclaim. It reached number 105 on the Billboard album chart, their highest position since 1965.
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
If there was one album which signified the breadth of talent The Beatles had at their disposal it was Sgt. Pepper. Released in 1967 as part of the band’s new move away from being the Fab Four and heading towards a more conceptualised piece, the album is widely – and quite rightly – seen as Paul McCartney’s best work.
Macca became the artistic drive of the band during this time as Lennon became distracted by fame and the band’s manager Brian Epstein sadly passed away. With the new impetus to create, Macca constructed one of the most resolute pieces of art the band ever composed.
It seems as though, over time, that concept has hampered its viewing. Nowadays the album’s uniqueness and idiosyncrasies are chalked off as indulgent but that hasn’t stopped it still being McCartney’s favourite. “I’d pick Sgt. Pepper’s, meself, because I had a lot to do with it,” he responded when asked.
4. The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
The album isn’t only a conceptual masterpiece but also sees Pink Floyd provide some of their best singular songs too. As well as ‘Money’, ‘Time’ and ‘Breathe’ the album holds perhaps one of their most beloved tracks of all time in ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’. They are individually brilliant but when the songs are sewn together the tapestry created is that of legend.
There’s a lot of iconography attached to The Dark Side of the Moon and it would seem all of the band members also agree on its validity as their greatest album. “I think that when it was finished, everyone thought it was the best thing we’d ever done to date, and everyone was very pleased with it,” remembered Nick Mason.
Wright said of the album, “It felt like the whole band were working together. It was a creative time. We were all very open.” It is this openness and reflective sound that turned Pink Floyd from prog-rock pioneers into bonafide rock icons—untouchable.
3. Tommy – The Who
The album was released in 23rd May 1969 and was mostly the work of Pete Townshend. He was inspired by the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba and attempted to translate his teachings into music.
The story revolved around a young boy named Tommy whose traumatic past affected his mind so much that in order to try and forget the past and repress it he shut out all his senses and became a deaf, dumb and blind boy. When he was forced to accept the truth, he broke free from his fears and paved a new path for him becoming a religious leader with thousands of followers. But with the abandonment by his followers, he again sunk into the dark world of self-doubt.
It was an important and influential album in the history of rock music marking the breakthrough of The Who.
2. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
The eleventh studio album by the American soul singer Marvin Gaye was released on May 21, 1971. Genre-wise it can be classified as R&B, thus making it a noteworthy contribution to concept albums.
The narrative established by the songs is told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to his home country to witness hatred, suffering, and injustice. It also included the themes of poverty and drug abuse. Gaye can also be credited for taking up the ecological issues through this album in a time when such things were overlooked.
Inspired by a protest song that Renaldo Benson heard during Bloody Thursday and later passed it down to Gaye, it was an immediate commercial success and bagged several critical acclaims as well. In 2001, a deluxe edition of the album was released, featuring a recording of Gaye’s May 1972 concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
1.The Wall – Pink Floyd
Released on November 30, 1979, the rock opera told the story of Pink, a jaded rockstar whose eventual self-imposed isolation from society forms a figurative wall. Roger Waters conceived The Wall during the band’s In the Flesh tour. He modelled Pink after himself and their former band member Syd Barrett.
In the tour Waters despised the experience, feeling the audience was not listening and that many were too far away to see the band. He said, “It became a social event rather than a more controlled and ordinary relationship between musicians and an audience.” That night, Waters spoke with producer Bob Ezrin and Ezrin’s psychiatrist friend about the alienation and despair he was experiencing, and he articulated his desire to isolate himself by constructing a wall across the stage between the performers—himself, along with the rest of the band—and the audience.
The album is known as one of the best concept albums with over 30 million sold copies. It has rightly been seen as a cornerstone of the concept album schtick and, judging by this release, it’s hard to see an album that could beat it.