The concept album is something that continues to span all music genres. Some tell a continuous story, while others use each song to contribute to an overall theme.
Regardless of the path that is taken, the process can be arduous and has even been known to tear bands apart. However, the end result is usually pretty memorable. Here's our list of some of the more notable concept albums ever made.
In many ways, Pet Sounds is the solo work of band leader Brian Wilson. Not only was this a blueprint for the conceptual albums listeners would later come to know, but it was also a major experiment for The Beach Boys. After this progressive journey that includes some unique accompaniment, the band was no longer considered a full-blown pop group — for better or worse. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows" still remain some of the best songs of all time.
Often regarded as the gold standard for concept records, Sgt. Peppers is a representation of the Fab Four's maturity as songwriters and composers. The rousing closer, “A Day in the Life,” is an example of that mature pop sound, while the trippy “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is as conceptual as they come. Ringo Starr's “With a Little Help from My Friends” adds to the polished, sing-a-long feel of the album.
Though this Kinks' progressive gem is well worthy of a spot on our list, it should be considered one of the band's most underrated efforts within their stellar catalog. Critics lauded the project about Ray Davies' tribute to the days of old in England. There is also a healthy blues influence on the record, especially the track “Last of the Steam Powered Trains."
The Who put out two of the best concept albums ever made, and though critics and fans will argue as to which is better, there's no doubt Tommy received the more massive acclaim. The story of the "deaf, dumb and blind kid, (who) sure plays a mean pinball," and his friends the Pinball Wizard and the Acid Queen, is also one of the most iconic records of all time. It was the band's breakthrough effort that led to a movie and stage versions of the stellar rock opera.
This Gaye classic features only nine songs, but the overall synergistic flow of the album is what makes it special. Classics like the title song and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" are the backbone of a release that is among the most socially conscious efforts in the history of music. And, for the time period, one of the most important, which it should still be hailed as today.
The best part about Tull's most recognizable piece is that it's a conceptual project making fun of concept albums. The record is one continuous song (ultimately edited for radio play), divided into two parts and, when listening to it on vinyl, spans both sides of the record. The brilliance of leader Ian Anderson, Brick is a poem from the fictional, young boy Gerald Bostock. It's also the epitome of '70s progressive rock.
Another case for whether an album is truly conceptual from the text-book sense. Still, the story of Bowie's androgynous alter-ego from another world is conceptual enough, but also perhaps the most influential glam rock album in music history. Highlighted by the super-charged "Suffragette City," the record not only made the legendary artist a star, but also opened the door for a glam movement that touched everybody from the New York Dolls to Van Halen.
Again, there's some gray area as whether to consider Desperado a concept album in regard to a linear storyline. For the sake of this list, it works. The Eagles take a trip through the Old West with what should be considered its most ambitious project and one truly fitting for a band of great "outlaw" songwriters. The popular title cut and "Tequila Sunrise" obviously stand out.
While Tommy drew mass appeal, The Who's other well-regarded concept album might actually be a better overall piece of work in terms of writing and composition. Led by the "Real Me” and “Love, Reign o’er Me," Quadrophenia was the brainchild of guitarist Pete Townshend, telling the tale of a young mod trying to fit into 1960s London. The band shed its pop side at times on this album, and it worked.
Word is, ELO leader Jeff Lynne had been toying with the idea of a concept piece for some time. He finally made it happen with this masterful tale of fantasy through dreams to escape a disillusioned world. Critics were quick to the point out the influence of the Beatles in the record, while the centerpiece of the project remains one of the group's biggest hits in "Can't Get It Out of My Head."
This was singer Peter Gabriel's swan song with the band, but he certainly left his mark. About a boy taking in all that New York City has to offer, with this album, Genesis would become a household name. While the making of the record wasn't easy for Gabriel and the rest of the group, it still stands up well from a lyrical, musical and production standpoint. The title cut is an epic example of that.
Not all hardcore Rush fans consider this a true concept album, but it certainly has the feel and flow of one. That's good enough for us, and most fans can agree that it's a true listening experience. The seven-part title-track opus is a futuristic ride that might be the band's most ambitious work within its entire stellar catalog. As usual, the brilliance of drummer Neil Peart, who wrote most of the lyrics, is evident throughout.
Zappa's three-act concept gem was certainly before its time, and one some fans and music credits were not ready for. Today his edgy and raw story about a place where music was not allowed would be totally accepted and praised. Regardless of the time period, this Zappa album has stood the time test.
The Floyd has always been a progressive and conceptual rock band, but this was as bombastic and grandiose as they come. This semi-autobiographical work of bassist and leader Roger Waters let rock fans know that "we don't need no education" while also dealing with family loss and being a burned-out rock star looking to reinvent himself. It's also responsible for one of the band's greatest songs in "Comfortably Numb." Fellow musician Bob Geldof played the lead role in the movie version, and Waters still tours on the album.
Perhaps metal's best storytelling band, Maiden has always seemed a bit progressive. It took it to the hilt with this late 1980s effort that delved into the world of folklore. Though the album received a hit-or-miss response from die-hard Iron Maiden supporters, songs like “The Evil That Men Do” and “The Clairvoyant" are some of the band's best work.
Arguably metal/hard-rock's most commercially well-known concept album. While hair bands were dominating the Sunset Strip and MTV, these Seattle rockers were showing off their originality, creativity and quality musicianship behind a dark tale involving a recovering addict sucked into a revolutionary organization. Geoff Tate's range-reaching voice adds even more punch to the project, which produced Queensrÿche staples “Eyes of a Stranger” and “I Don’t Believe in Love.”
NIN's mainstream breakthrough is brilliant on many levels. However, the way Trent Reznor is able to weave his own self-destruction and personal demons into a pop-fueled experience worthy of MTV is perhaps most impressive. "Closer" brings the listener in, while the haunting "Hurt" almost has us feeling Reznor's emotional and physical pain. Thanks to its overall production value, The Downward Spiral is up there as one of the best overall records of the 1990s.
One of the more creative and unique conceptual listening experiences can be found on what should be considered QOTSA's best project. The album follows a drive through the California desert, interspersed with radio bits and talking DJs, as if the listener was also riding along with the band. The hard-charging "No One Knows" is perhaps the group's most notable song. Dave Grohl played drums, while Dean Ween also offered his services to the album.
Green Day was an accepted pop-punk machine well before releasing American Idiot, but this record and subsequent stage play that followed, turned Billie Jo and Co. into mainstream giants. It's the band's most mature work, attacking a questionable U.S. government and calling out the overall dysfunction of the country. Fueled by the title track, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” Holiday” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the album sold 16 million copies and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album.
Over a three-year stretch, the multi-talented and versatile Stevens wrote two albums about states (there was 2003's "Michigan"). The second was this piece of brilliance that topped many Best of 2005 lists. It's almost like a musical road trip or history lesson through and about the state of Illinois, complete with memorable tracks on state-associated topics like "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "Casimir Pulaski Day."
These New Jersey Emo-rockers hit it out of the park with their third studio effort. One of the best albums of 2006, The Black Parade tells the story of a terminal cancer patient taking stock in the life that's left and preparing for what is after. Highlighted by the magnitude of singer Gerard Way's dramatic and theatrical voice, the bombastic title track should go down as the band's signature song.
Taken from the movie of the same name, Jay went to No.1 with an album about getting rich for all the wrong reasons. As usual, the record is exceptionally produced to the point that any music can probably appreciate the greatness that comes across from an artist who needed a professional jolt at the time. It doesn't hurt to have the likes Lil Wayne pitching in. "Blue Magic" captures the album's overall theme to a T.
The exceptional storytelling is what's prominently displayed on this Arcade Fire album that can be debated for its place in the traditional concept album world. Whatever side one might be on, all should agree that the lyrics work like a well-written novel about the upbringing of bandmates Win and Will Butler in Houston. The Suburbs won the Grammy for Album of the Year and is highlighted by the stellar "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)."
Not only is this one of the best concept albums of all time, but it's also perhaps up there among the overall great rap projects. It was Lamar's debut on a major label and offers a raw, unabashed and uncensored view of his time growing up in Compton. Thanks to the Dr. Dre-helped hit "The Recipe” and “Backseat Freestyle," the album earned multiple Grammy nominations.
Beyonce's most creative work and arguably her best, it's a personal album that features plenty of emotion while also delivering a variety of sound. From hip-hop to reggae to gospel, "Lemonade" is a wonderful musical ride through the superstar's life, in a lot of ways, and "Formation" should be within the top five of her catalog.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.