This post is going to be about a true “Marmite” issue … concept albums! People tend to fall on either side of the fence when it comes to them – and in the age of the mp3 player, and widespread shorter attention spans, it’s understandable why people might shy away from “enduring” a whole album. Perhaps you think that a concept album = a self-indulgent, hour-long prog jam. And without mentioning any names, some of the albums on this list might live up to that reputation, but it can’t hurt to try! And with some of the most legendary names in rock and pop having tried their hand, who knows? Maybe you’ll be swept up in one of these all-consuming albums.
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
Famously written as a response, and indeed tribute to mastermind Brian Wilson’s love of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is the sound of summery delirium, and when you take into account Brian’s youth at the time of writing the album, his talent is simply overwhelming. Some deem this to have been the first concept album, but even as a massive fan of it, it does not have as marked a concept as some of the other works on this list. However, it is a very cohesive and immensely loveable piece of work.
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
I reckon you’ll have heard of these guys, and this album, before. Like Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper is often more of a concept album in its cohesiveness – previous Beatles’ albums were more of a collection of songs than an album that flowed as smoothly as this one. It is ostensibly based on a fictitious band -the act you’ve known for all these years – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!
Further reading: The Act You’ve Known for all these years – the life, the afterlife, of Sgt. Pepper by Clinton Heylin
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Everyone’s favourite 65-year-old rock’n’roll chameleon released this album in 1972, bringing with it a new character for Bowie to inhabit, that of an alien rock star, eventually destroyed by humanity. This album brought us some of Bowie’s most popular and enduring songs, including “Starman” and “Suffragette City”.
Further reading/viewing: Moonage Daydream: the life and times of Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie and Mick Rock, Ziggy Stardust, the motion picture
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Murder Ballads (1996)
Nick Cave loves to play with themes across albums, and this is one of his darkest efforts, with the theme being as transparent as the title. Cave recruited several celebrity acquaintances to enrich this album, including Shane McGowan, Kylie and PJ Harvey, and spun ghastly tales, either told from the perspective of the murderer, or in some cases, the victim (“Where the Wild Roses Grow feat. Kylie). The final song cannot resolve the unease these stories inflict upon the listener, but is still a haunting song that could be a perfect funeral ballad.
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (2009)
I love the Decemberists, though their reach-for-a-dictionary lyrics and lead singer Colin’s nasal vocals are offputting for some. Their fifth album is their first true concept album and it has a dark concept involving human/fawn relations, mass infanticide, and a sad ending. One piece of advice I can offer is that Colin sings as multiple characters in this album, which jeopardised my initial understanding of the storyline. It also features a starring turn from My Brightest Diamond, who plays the queen of the forest. Readers beware: it would be fair to describe the music as a kind of folk/prog fusion, which I find pretty entertaining, but your mileage may vary.
Green Day – American Idiot (2004)
Better known for being one of the earlier, cheerful though angsty pop-punk bands, Green Day surprised us with their 7th album, which offered a believable insight into post-9/11 American discontent, with the same bouncy, earworm-inducing musical sensibilities. The album was later converted for stage performances, and if you’re interested, you can catch it at the Playhouse this autumn.
Love – Forever Changes (1967)
Perhaps owing to not being The Beatles, this similarly psychadelic record, released the same year as Sgt. Pepper… was sadly overlooked by many upon its release. A slice of pop perfection from the summer of Love (heh heh), despite its beautiful melodies and rich orchestration, this album certainly has some funny lyrics: “oh the snot has caked against my pants/it has turned into crystal” , but it also depicts the era’s desperation, which seeps through the album in a way that may have sat uncomfortably with listeners of the time, who may have preferred their music to distract them from the horrors of war, rather than remind them of it.
Further viewing: The Forever Changes Concert (DVD)
The Mars Volta – Frances the Mute (2005)
I think we’ve got this far without an hour-long prog jam-fest, but I did warn you it was coming. The Mars Volta used to be in the beloved band At The Drive-In but split in half, due to musical differences (which have been reconciled enough for them to reform this year… but I digress). The thing you need to know about The Mars Volta is that they do not like being put into boxes, and as such, despite having released several concept albums in their career, they prefer for their listeners to interpret their (often loose) concepts themselves. However, in this, their second album, they gained inspiration when their friend and band member found an old diary in his new car. This album contains one of their most accessible songs, The Widow, which was later included in a Guitar Hero game!
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane over the Sea (1998)
Perhaps the most beloved of all contemporary indie concept albums! Once more, listeners might be affected by the nasal vocals of Jeff Mangum, but I urge them to give it a try. This album is diverse, surprising, credible and heartbreaking. Jeff Mangum has stated that the diary of Anne Frank influenced the creation of this album, which will give you an idea of why this record is so affecting – and important.
Further reading: Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper
Is it cheating to include two albums by the same artist? It goes against my rule of mixtapes, but I feel there would be backlash should I post about one of these classic Floyd concept albums, and not the other.
Further reading/viewing: The Dark Side of the Moon: the making of the Pink Floyd masterpiece by John Harris, Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon: the Independent Critical Film Review (DVD)
The Making of Pink Floyd The Wall by Gerald Scarfe, Is There Anybody Out There?: The Wall live 1980-81 (CD)
Sparks – Lil’ Beethoven (2002)
Here’s a heads-up; Sparks aren’t for everyone either. They are an extremely weird, but absolutely genius band. Those that know me would tell you not to get me started on them. But given that this was their 19th album, I don’t think you should ignore them anymore. This is maybe more of a rock opera than a concept album. One of the qualities of Sparks’ music is that the repetition gets into your head extremely quickly. Lil’ Beethoven is perhaps their most repetitive album, but the modern, yet classical music on this album somehow manages to engage the listener in a truly addictive fashion.