From pinball wizards and political activism to personal tales of love and loss, these concept albums have them all. Here’s 23 musical story-tellers who made memorable and ambitious records threaded with amazing stories…
1David Bowie – ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders from Mars’
David Bowie – ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders from Mars’ (1972):
Of all Bowie’s alter-egos, Ziggy Stardust – the flame-haired, bisexual, alien rockstar unveiled in 1972 – is potentially his finest. The record of the same name follows the story of Stardust, critiquing earthly views of sex, love and rock’n’roll as it goes, all to the most glorious soundtrack around.
2Pink Floyd – ‘The Wall’
Pink Floyd – ‘The Wall’ (1979):
One of the most famous concept records of them all, ‘The Wall’ follows troubled central character Pink (modelled on a mixture between Floyd bassist Roger Waters and eccentric former member Syd Barrett) as he battles with his place in society, eventually going to self-imposed exile as the metaphorical wall of his isolation grows stronger.
3The Beatles – ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’
The Beatles – ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967):
Under the guise of the fictional Sgt. Pepper and his troupe, The Beatles’ were given license to pursue their sonic experimentation even further than the groundwork laid on ’66’s ‘Revolver’. The first popular example of a concept record, it provided yet another example of The Fab Four’s boundary-smashing ability.
4Bon Iver – ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’
Bon Iver – ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ (2007):
Though commonly thought to be an ode to a heart-stealing former lover, ‘For Emma, For Ever’ ago was instead a concept album about “a place that you get stuck in; a pain you can’t erase”, said creator Justin Vernon. Recorded in a secluded cabin in Winsconsin, it deftly documents an exquisite tale of loneliness, longing and loss.
5The Eagles – ‘Desperado’
The Eagles – ‘Desperado’ (1973):
The second album from the LA group saw them channelling their inner cowboys with a theme based on the Old West. Centred on lead track ‘Doolin Dalton’ and its talk of “duellin'” and “red-eye whiskey”, it even found the band dressed up in full hat’n’holster regalia on the cover.
6Green Day – ‘American Idiot’
Green Day – ‘American Idiot’ (2004):
One of this century’s more notable concept albums came from Billie Joe Armstrong and co, who told the tale of Jesus of Suburbia and his battles between “rage and love”. Influenced by the horrors of the Iraq war, it was a timely nod to a disillusioned generation.
7Jay Z- ‘American Gangster’
Jay Z- ‘American Gangster’ (2007):
Inspired by the film of the same name, Jay-Z was entirely consumed by the crime flick while penning his 10th studio LP, leaving it on repeat on a screen in the studio for the duration. The film itself followed the true story of a drug-smuggling gangster from North Carolina.
8Kendrick Lamar – ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’
Kendrick Lamar – ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ (2012):
An autobiographical record detailing Lamar’s youth and young manhood in the drug-infested streets of Compton, ‘Good Kid…’ was the record that made Kendrick a household name. Such was its conceptual status, the album sleeve even bore the legend ‘A short film by Kendrick Lamar’.
9The Kinks – ‘The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society’
The Kinks – ‘The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society’ (1968):
A concept album of sorts, ‘The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society’ documents a state of mind and a sensibility more than anything. Detailing old-fashioned traditions and documenting a nostalgic sort of Englishness, it came complete in its own internal world.
10The Who – ‘Tommy’
The Who – ‘Tommy’ (1969):
The rollercoaster story of a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball, ‘Tommy’ is arguably the concept album to top them all. The story behind the album was so good in fact that it was even turned into a feature film in 1975.
11My Chemical Romance – ‘The Black Parade’
My Chemical Romance – ‘The Black Parade’ (2006):
While you could argue that My Chemical Romance’s career was largely comprised of a series of elaborate concepts, third album ‘The Black Parade’ was the most well-orchestrated of them all. As well as performing as their alter-ego Black Parade band, the album itself told the story of The Patient and what happens as he transitions into death.
12Frank Sinatra – ‘Watertown’
Frank Sinatra – ‘Watertown’ (1970):
A strange and commercially unsuccessful anomaly in Sinatra’s catalogue, ‘Watertown’ found the iconic singer narrating the sad story of a man abandoned by his wife over the course of 11 tracks.
13Arcade Fire – ‘The Suburbs’
Arcade Fire – ‘The Suburbs’ (2010):
Frontman Win Butler described Arcade Fire’s glorious third record as “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs”. Within it, the band managed to make the miniature seem massive and the every day concerns of everyday people sound like the most important subjects in the world.
14Foxygen – ‘…And Star Power’
Foxygen – ‘…And Star Power’ (2014):
Transforming into fictional band Star Power, Californian oddballs Foxygen created one of the most downright mental records in recent memory. A double album set over four acts, it was a jumble of screams, samples and everything in between strung together by a sonic descent into madness.
15The Who – ‘Quadrophenia’
The Who – ‘Quadrophenia’ (1973):
Appearance number two for The Who – Britain’s undoubted kings of the concept album. This time around, the band turned their attentions to a young mod named Jimmy as he tries to find his true self and work out what he’s doing with his life. Again, the LP was eventually turned into a film.
16Queens Of The Stone Age – ‘Songs For The Deaf’
Queens Of The Stone Age – ‘Songs For The Deaf’ (2002):
Though the tracks themselves aren’t necessarily related, ‘Songs For The Deaf’ – the mighty Queens’ third studio effort – loosely takes the listener on a drive through the California desert, with its song linked by snatches of radio stations picked up along the way.
17The Small Faces – ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’
The Small Faces – ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ (1968):
While Side One includes fairly normal (well, relatively speaking) pop songs including ‘Lazy Sunday’ and ‘Song Of A Baker’, Side Two narrates the strange story of Happiness Stan, told in a form of Spike Milligan-esque gobbledegook. Small Faces: brilliantly odd minds.
18Sufjan Stevens – ‘Illinois’
Sufjan Stevens – ‘Illinois’ (2005):
While Sufjan’s plan to create a record dedicated to each of America’s 50 states seems to have been shelved (‘Illinois’ was the second and last, after ‘Michigan’), he at least made a more than worthwhile stab at documenting this midwestern area. Referencing the people and places of the city, it’s Illinois through and through.
19The Pretty Things – ‘S. F. Sorrow’
The Pretty Things – ‘S. F. Sorrow’ (1968): One of the world’s first rock operas, ‘S.F. Sorrow’ follows main character Sebastian F. Sorrow through his mundane life as he battles to overcome its obstacles, eventually journeying into his subconscious to learn the greatest lessons of them all.
20Frank Zappa – ‘Joe’s Garage’
Frank Zappa – ‘Joe’s Garage’ (1979): Described by Zappa as “a stupid little story about how the government is going to do away with music”, ‘Joe’s Garage’ told a fearful tale about bureaucracy and censorship vs the individual. Dressed up in Zappa’s characteristically eclectic style, however, it was anything but dull.
21Electric Light Orchestra – ‘Eldorado’
Electric Light Orchestra – ‘Eldorado’(1974):
The first of the group’s concept album, ‘Eldorado’ felt almost more like a musical than a rock record. Following the central protagonist as he slips into a fantasy dream world to escape from his boring everyday life, the album is as magical and theatrical as they come.
22Genesis – ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’
Genesis – ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’(1974):
Taking in themes of split personalities, heaven and hell and truth and fantasy, ‘The Lamb…’ finds Genesis (helmed, at that point, by Peter Gabriel) soundtracking the escapades of Rael as he travels to the underworld to rescue his brother.
23MF Doom – ‘Mm Food’
MF Doom – ‘Mm Food’ (2004):
No prizes for guessing what the overarching concept of this one is. An ode to eating, ‘Mm Food’ (also an anagram of MF Doom) features song titles including ‘Beef Rap’, ‘Guinesses’ and ‘Fillet-O-Rapper’. Mmm… rappers.