Concept albums tend to verge on the hokey, and most of these entries fit that classification as well. And yet, it’s always fascinating to see how bands manage to hold a coherent concept throughout the duration of a record while still producing quality songs.
Albums not included on the list that are probably deserving of mention include any of The Kinks’ string of concept records, The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! and Rush’s 2112.
10. Coheed and Cambria – Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow
Coheed and Cambria, initially pegged as an emo band, quickly shed that label as singer Claudio Sanchez toned down the screaming and turned up the Rush-esque histrionics. You might not know it from the cryptic lyrics, but all of C&C’s releases are chapters in an intricate sci-fi saga.
9. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday
Much like the early work of Bruce Springsteen, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn has been writing songs about a core group of characters since his days with Lifter Puller. With Separation Sunday, Finn pulls out his Catholic upbringing and mixes it with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll for his most concise concept record yet.
8. The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
The story here starts out fairly clear-cut: it’s about main character Yoshimi battling pink robots. However, after the first four tracks, the concept dissolves into vaguer ponderings about love and mortality.
7. The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Billy Corgan’s double album represented a cycle of light and dark, life and death. This was furthered by the sun and moon designs on the albums two discs. It also spawned four of the Pumpkins’ most recognizable songs: “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “1979,” “Tonight, Tonight” and “Zero.”
6. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
This is Bowie’s futuristic story of a rock ‘n’ roll singer living in a time when rock ‘n’ roll is dead. Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes,” recorded by Mott the Hoople, was also intended to further the Stardust storyline, as evidenced in this quote from Bowie’s mindblowing interview with Rolling Stone’s William S. Burroughs:
"The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There's no electricity to play it. Ziggy's adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, 'cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. 'All the Young Dudes' is a song about this news. It's no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite."
5. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
The storyline – about a juvenile delinquent trying to save his brother – reportedly was born from singer Peter Gabriel’s dreams. Phil Collins has said the story actually examined a split personality, perhaps implying the main character and his brother were one in the same. Heavy.
4. Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade
Zen Arcade, the godfather album to the alternative rock movement, also tells a story across its 70+ minutes. The main character, an unhappy adolescent, runs away from home and spends the album looking for something more fulfilling. The band was so intent on preserving the story’s cohesiveness that no singles were released from the record. Unsurprisingly, it was a commercial failure but a critical success.
3. Pink Floyd – The Wall
After a start in British psychedelia led by lysergically enhanced singer/guitarist/songwriter Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd was left to flounder in the early ‘70s when Barrett dropped out. However, bassist Roger Waters found his groove with 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, and The Wall was the band’s most completely realized concept album.
2. The Who – Tommy
The Who, despite a reputation as a viciously hard rocking outfit, actually released several concept albums, including The Who Sell Out and Quadrophenia. Tommy, however, is the band’s magnum opus: a story about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a pinball wizard and then a messiah. Who can’t relate to that?
1. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The concept here is loose indeed: though bookended by “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band” and its reprise, most of the other tracks don’t adhere to the idea that The Beatles were a different group clad in brightly colored marching band uniforms. However, although the concept wanes, the songwriting doesn’t.
There definitely are plenty of other strong concept albums out there. Which ones did we miss? Are there any that shouldn’t be included?