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Concept album

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Concept album

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Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most famous and one of the first concept albums in rock and roll. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most famous and one of the first concept albums in rock and roll.

In popular music, a concept album is an album which is "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical" (Shuker 2002, p.5). They are most often pre-planned (conceived) and with all songs contributing to a single overall theme or unified story, this plan or story being the concept. This is in contrast to the standard practice of an artist or group releasing an album consisting of a number of unconnected songs that the members of the group or the artist have written, or have been chosen to perform or cover. Given that the suggestion of something as vague as an overall mood often tags a work as being a concept album, a precise definition of the term proves highly problematic.

In the meaning attributed to the words "concept album" in the contemporary rock era (from 1966 onwards - the point at which critics started to differentiate between "pop music" and "rock music" as a more serious form) - there were broadly speaking two genres of concept album: those that were essentially thematically-linked song cycles such as The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which did not claim a storyline, and those that presented a narrative story that threaded the songs - such as The Who's Tommy. Music critics of that era did not usually distinguish between the two genres of concept album. An album that met either criterion was commonly referred to as a concept album. However, the distinction between the two types of concept album is instructive to note in respect of claims that are made as to which album may have been the "first" concept album in the rock era. Given this legitimate distinction - there are probably several contenders in each genre.

Early examples

What could very loosely be considered the first concept albums were released in the late 1930s by singer Lee Wiley on the Liberty Records label, featuring eight songs on four 78s by great showtunes composers of the day, such as Harold Arlen and Cole Porter, anticipating more comprehensive efforts by Verve Records impresario Norman Granz with Ella Fitzgerald by almost two decades. In folk music, Woody Guthrie's 1940 debut album Dust Bowl Ballads is also an early possibility. In 1973 country and pop music icon Bobby Bare recorded "Lullabys, Legends and Lies" which was written by Shel Silverstein. The record was arguably the first Concept Album for country music.

Frank Sinatra, both with early albums originally released as 78s for Columbia Records such as The Voice of Frank Sinatra from 1945, and continuing through his thematically programmed albums of the 1950s for Capitol Records starting with the ten-inch 33s Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy, is generally credited with both popularizing and developing the concept album, and it was at this time that the specific term was first used. Perhaps the first full Sinatra concept album example is In the Wee Small Hours from 1955, where the songs – all ballads – were specifically recorded for the album, and organized around a central mood of late-night isolation and aching lost love, and the album cover strikingly reinforced that theme.

However, notion of a concept album did not really gel at that point, and was not widely imitated, aside from occasional examples such as country singer Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs from 1959, or, as the first example from rock, Little Deuce Coupe from 1963 by The Beach Boys, each of whose 12 songs were about America's car culture.

60s rock

In 1966, several rock releases were arguably concept albums in the sense that they presented a set of thematically-linked songs - and they also instigated other rock artists to consider using the album format in a similar fashion: Pet Sounds, again by the Beach Boys, a masterful musical portrayal of Brian Wilson's would-be state of mind (and a huge inspiration to Paul McCartney); the Mothers of Invention's sardonic farce about rock music and America as a whole, Freak Out!; and Face to Face by The Kinks, the first collection of Ray Davies's idiosyncratic character studies of ordinary people. However, none of these attracted a wide commercial audience.

This all changed with The Beatles' celebrated 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. With this release in June of 1967, the notion of the concept album came to the forefront of the popular and critical mind, with the earlier prototypes and examples from classic pop and other genres sometimes forgotten. The phrase entered the popular lexicon. And a "concept album" - the term became imbued with the notion of artistic purpose - was inherently considered to be somehow more creative or worthy of attention than a mere collection of new songs. This perception of course related to the intent of the artist rather than the specific content.

In fact, as pointed out by many critics since its original reception, Sgt. Pepper is a concept album only by some definitions of the term. There was, at some stage during the making of the album an attempt to relate the material to an obscure radio play about the life of an ex-army bandsman and his shortcomings but this concept was lost in the final production. On it, the Beatles supposedly adopt fictionalized personae, and the title song, styled as the theme song of the fictional "Lonely Hearts Club Band", wraps around the rest of the album like bookends. However, most of the songs on the album are narratively unrelated to the theme, and the fictional characters have little life beyond the introduction of Ringo Starr as "Billy Shears" in the segue between the first two tracks. On the other hand, the slice-of-life character miniatures and short story structure of many of the songs, especially those penned primarily by Paul McCartney, echo elements commonly found in other thematic works such as musicals and opera. This feeling was reinforced by the album's device use of running musical tracks one after the other (without a pause) or linked with transitions rather than the customary silent space between tracks. Even more striking was the album's opulent cover, packaged inserts, and full lyrics printed on the back, all of which suggested a unified work more than just a collection of songs. In any case, while debate exists over the extent to which Sgt. Pepper qualifies as a true concept album, there is no doubt that its reputation as such helped inspire other artists to produce concept albums of their own, and inspired the public to anticipate them. The Beatles themselves were very proud of Sgt. Pepper for its artistic achievements but both Lennon and McCartney distanced themselves from the "concept album" tag as applied to that album.

In the wake of the Sgt. Pepper triumph, concept albums became the rage among serious rock artists, with mixed results. The Rolling Stones attempted to duplicate Sgt. Pepper with more explicitly drug and occult-inspired overtones with Their Satanic Majesties Request, but it proved to be a commercial and artistic failure, one that the Stones quickly learned from and moved on. The album made no attempt to fashion a concept around the disparate songs on the album. The unifying nature of the album (such as it was) came primarily from the musical atmosphere and the subject matter of the lyrics. And the psychedelic cover art. The Stones themselves never identified the album as a concept album.

The album S.F. Sorrow (released in December 1968) by British group The Pretty Things is generally considered to be among the first creatively successful rock concept albums - in that each song is part of an overarching unified concept -- the life story of the main character, Sebastian Sorrow. Despite its effective production qualities and strong material, and although it received almost unanimously glowing reviews on release, the album was not a major commercial success. However, the fact that the album format had now been effectively used to present a threaded storyline was noted by other artists such as Pete Townshend of The Who and Ray Davies of The Kinks - both of whom were already working on their own projects in this genre. In this respect, the Pretty Things album did have an impact on some influential artists and on rock culture itself. Prior to this release - the band had been considered an R&B (rhythm and blues) band - but their venture into producing a concept album did at least result in the band being re-cast in general perception as a progressive rock band - an important and valuable transition at that time.

Released just five months later in April 1969, was the "rock opera" Tommy composed by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who. This acclaimed work was presented over two discs (still unusual in those days) and it took the idea of thematically based albums to a much higher appreciation by both critics and the public. It was also the first story-based concept album of the rock era (as distinct from the song-cycle style album) to enjoy commercial success. The Who went on to further explorations of the concept album format with their follow-up project Lifehouse - which was abandoned before completion and with their 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia.

Five months after the release of Tommy The Kinks released their own rock opera Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (September 1969) written by Ray Davies - the first of several concept albums released by the band through the first few years of the 1970s. These were: Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970), Preservation Act 1 (1973), Preservation Act 2 (1974), Soap Opera (1975) and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1976)

Two albums released in the autumn of 1967 were also concept albums - though they did not get the same media attention later accorded to The Who's Tommy.

Days of Future Passed (1967) by the Moody Blues, alternated songs by the group with orchestral interludes to document a typical "everyman's day". Though music critics did not accord the album or the band the same respect given to bands deemed to have more street credibility such as The Who and The Kinks - the album was very successful commercially.

The Story of Simon Simopath by Nirvana produced by Island Records' founder Chris Blackwell was issued in October 1967 in a "gatefold cover" (most unusual packaging for a debut album) which presented a text giving the storyline of the album - described as a "science fiction pantomime". The album attracted positive critical attention but did not enjoy big sales in the UK.

70s prog

Concept albums are especially common in the progressive rock genre of the 1970s, although rarely did that equal a lasting commercial or critical legacy for the band or artist involved. Most notably, Pink Floyd recast itself from its 1960s guise as a quirky, intermittently successful psychedelic band into a cash-generating monster with its classic series of concept albums, beginning with Dark Side of the Moon from 1973. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull wrote a number of successful concept albums, notably "Thick as a Brick" which was long song around 43 minutes in length and which included material intended to "spoof" the concept album genre. But in the mid to late 1970's, concept albums grew to be plagued by the suffocating nature of ever more pretentious, self-conscious themes. These themes tended to drive the songwriters, and the quality of the individual songs suffered. A prime example of this was Styx' overblown and unintentionally humorous 1983 album Kilroy Was Here, a late and poorly received entry into the genre that effectively marked the end of the 1970's-style theatrical rock operas. (although Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime (released May 3rd, 1988) was able to find critical and commercial success.)

Musicals in Concept

Many musicals make their first appearance as a concept album, because of the lowered cost of recording an album over mounting an entire stage production. Notable examples of this are Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar (Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber) and Chess (Rice and Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson). Albums recorded in this form are used to prove profitablity - both to attract investors and to raise capital through album sales. This also allows the composer to tweak the final musical production, such as when the sympathetic portrayal of Eva Peron in Evita was changed as a result of public reactions in 1977.

Later examples

Within the progressive metal genre, Dream Theater ended the 20th Century with Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory in 1999. This concept album was a sequel to their original song from their 1992 album Images and Words, about a present day man's nightmares of his death in his previous life in 1928. Again, in 2005, Dream Theater released Octavarium, however this album's concept is based around a musical octave. Another band known for their concept albums in this genre is Pain Of Salvation, who recently released their sixth studio-album BE.

In the intervening decades, concept albums have often been out of vogue, but Radiohead duplicated that kind of acceptance both from the critics and in the marketplace with OK Computer from 1997, and the related Kid A and Amnesiac albums of 2000 and 2001. The Mars Volta have created two highly complex concept albums. The first of which, De-Loused in the Comatorium, chronicles the morphine-induced coma of the character Cerpin Taxt. The Streets album, "A Grand Don't Come for Free," is a concept album as well. It chronicles a portion of the life of Mike Skinner as he loses £1,000 and finds love. In 2004, the punk rock band Green Day released the concept album American Idiot to rave reviews and commercial success; the album features through the songs the story of an outcast young man that leaves his hometown and goes to the city while dealing with emotional problems.

Since the 1980s, concept albums have been frequent in the power metal and epic metal genres. One of the most notable power metal bands to use the concept ablum is Kamelot. Kamelot's last two releases, Epica and The Black Halo, are two parts of a tale following the protagonist Ariel and his interations with the many different forms and experiences with the evil Mephisto. The two album story is based on Goethe's Faust.

Mothership Connection, a funk concept album by Parliament Funkadelic Mothership Connection, a funk concept album by Parliament Funkadelic

Except for George Clinton's P-Funk albums from the 1970's, the first recent R&B concept album is TP.3 Reloaded, by R. Kelly released in 2005, which features 5 chapters of the "Trapped... in the Closet" soap opera. The album received a great deal of press for being ground breaking in the R&B genre. Kelly subsequently released a Trapped... in the Closet DVD of music videos containing chapters 1-12, completing the rambling tale of unfaithful lovers.

An example for a Techno concept album is Metropolis by Jeff Mills (2001), yet another alternative score for the movie of the same name.

Similar plans

An emerging subset is the historical album, which is more closely tied with specific historically accurate references to persons or places.

An ambitious extension of the concept album idea could be realized in a series of albums which all contribute to a single effect or unified story. Contemporary examples include Coheed and Cambria's in-progress tetralogy of records and's Lost Alone and Dreamweb albums which describe an on-going sci-fi themed story in a Matrix-like universe. Brave Saint Saturn has planned a trilogy to tell the story of mankinds first mission to the planet Saturn. Arguably the most ambitious of these is Sufjan Stevens' Fifty-States project, in which he plans to write a series of albums encompassing the concept of the entire United States of America, one for each state, totalling fifty records.

The concept album genre overlaps with rock opera, of which the most famous early example is The Who's aforementioned Tommy (1969). Like Sgt. Pepper, Tommy greatly boosted the visibility of the concept album idea, and the genre also overlaps to a lesser extent with rock musical, of which the most famous early example is Hair (1967).

This style of album has made its way into the rap genre, namely Cage Kennylz & Camu Tao's 2001 release of Are The Nighthawks (album) and Cage Kennylz & Tame One's 2004 release of Waterworld (album). The Nighthawk's album was a trip into the darkside of being a cop, while Waterworld was a blast of PCP induced rhymes, being referred to as a drug related themepark. Rapper Nas had also planned for his third release in 1998 to be a double-album entitled I Am... that would detail the birth, death, and resurrection of a Jesus-like character known as Nastradamus, but heavy bootlegging forced him to change plans and release two separate albums with many new songs, abandoning the concept he had earlier. Many of the songs that did not appear on either album were subsequently released on 2002's The Lost Tapes.

See also


  • Shuker, Roy (2002). Popular Music: The Key Concepts. ISBN 0415284252.

External links

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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