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In popular music, a concept album is an album that is "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical". Commonly, concept albums tend to incorporate preconceived musical or lyrical ideas rather than being improvised or composed in the studio, with all songs contributing to a single overall theme or unified story. This is in contrast to the practice of an artist or group releasing an album consisting of a number of unconnected (lyrically or otherwise) songs performed by the artist.


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 showtune 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, early examples included Woody Guthrie's 1940 debut album Dust Bowl Ballads and Merle Travis's 1947 box set Folk Songs of the Hills, in which each song is introduced by a short narrative. In the late '40s, Kansas City pianist Pete Johnson recorded the album House Rent Party, in which he starts out playing alone, supposedly in a new empty house, and is joined there by J. C. Higginbotham, J.C. Heard, and other Kansas City players. Each has a solo backed by Pete and then the whole group plays a jam session together.

Frank Sinatra released many thematically programmed albums of the 1950s for Capitol Recordsmarker starting with the ten-inch 33s Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy. 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, with the album cover strikingly reinforcing 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 Ray Charles's The Genius Hits the Road (1960), where each song references one of the United States ("Georgia on My Mind", "Mississippi Mud", etc.). Also released that year, Johnny Cash's Ride This Train chronicled tales of Americana, woven together with narrative by Cash and train sounds. Each track begins with "Ride this train to ..." and tells the story of that city.


Perhaps the first examples from rock were the albums of The Ventures. Starting from 1961's Colorful Ventures (each song had a color in the title), the group was known for issuing records throughout the 1960s whose tracks revolved around central themes, including surf music, country, outer space, TV themes, and psychedelic music. Ray Charles also issued his Modern Sounds recordings, which departed from his well-known R&B and soul style to conceptually country music records.

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: The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was a masterful musical portrayal of Brian Wilson's state of mind at the time (and a major inspiration to Paul McCartney). Although it has a unified theme in its emotional content, the writers (Brian Wilson and Tony Asher) have said continuously that it was not necessarily intended to be a narrative. However, later in 1966, Brian Wilson had begun work on the Smile album, which was intended as a narrative. The album was scrapped before completion, only to be revived in the 2000s. The Mothers of Invention's sardonic farce about rock music and America as a whole, Freak Out! by Frank Zappa and Face to Face by The Kinks, the first collection of Ray Davies's idiosyncratic character studies of ordinary people are conceptually oriented albums. However, out of the albums above, only Pet Sounds attracted a huge commercial audience.

This all changed with The Beatles' most celebrated album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967. With the release of Sgt. Pepper, the notion of the concept album came to the forefront of the popular and critical mind, with the earlier prototypes and examples from Traditional pop music 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 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 firstly the idea of aging, then as an obscure radio play about the life of an ex-army bandsman and his shortcomings. These concepts were lost in the final production. 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. Lennon and McCartney distanced themselves from the "concept album" tag as applied to that album.

Days of Future Passed, released the same year as Sgt. Pepper's, was fellow UK musicians The Moody Blues' foray into the concept album. Originally presented with an opportunity to "rock out" Dvořák's 9th Symphony (From the New World) by their new stereophonic label, the Moodies instead forged ahead to unify their own orchestral-based threads of a day in the life of a common man .

The Who Sell Out by The Who followed with its concept of a pirate radio broadcast. Within the record, joke commercials recorded by the band and actual jingles from recently outlawed pirate radio station Wonderful Radio London were interspersed between the songs, ranging from pop songs to hard rock and psychedelic rock, culminating with a mini-opera titled "Rael".

In October 1967, the British group Nirvana released The Story of Simon Simopath (subtitled "A Science Fiction Pantomime"), an album that tells the story of the title character. It was only a moderate commercial success. 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.

Released 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 another concept album Arthur (September 1969), written by Ray Davies, considered by some a Rock Opera but originally conceived as the score for a proposed but never realised BBC television drama. It was 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), Muswell Hillbillies (1971), Preservation: Act 1 (1973), Preservation: Act 2 (1974), Soap Opera (1975) and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1976).


Concept albums are considered de rigueur in the progressive rock genre of the 1970s, hence the name of the genre itself. Most notably, Pink Floyd recast itself from its 1960s guise as a quirky psychedelic band into a commercial mega-success with its series of concept albums, beginning with The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, then Wish You Were Here from 1975, Animals from 1977, 1979's rock opera The Wall and its lesser-known follow-up The Final Cut in 1983, with Roger Waters behind the themes and storylines. The Wall also shares many themes – both conceptual and melodic – with bassist Roger Waters first solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, the two albums being conceived at roughly the same time.

Yes also put out concept albums during the 70's, most notably Tales from Topographic Oceans, which would become a defining album of prog rock but whose critical backlash would lead to the genre's decline in popularity and the rise of punk rock.The group's keyboardist Rick Wakeman released many concept albums on his own, most notably The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which was based on the novel by Jules Verne.

Another progressive rock act, Genesis, with Peter Gabriel in the lead, released the concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in 1974, a double disc that told the story of the street punk Rael. Rock artist David Bowie also made an extremely popular concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, about a fictional character, Ziggy Stardust, and his band from Mars.


Though the progressive rock genre was beginning to decrease its popularity, concept albums had become a medium that continued. The progressive bands that were still around were still having major successes with concept albums. Styx continued to have multiplatinum albums with their 1981 release Paradise Theatermarker (a concept album about a decaying theater in Chicago which became a metaphor for childhood and American culture) and 1983's Kilroy Was Here (a science fiction rock opera about a future where moralists imprison rockers).

In the 1980s, metal bands released albums like Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime; which tells a story of a young man, Nikki, awoken from a coma suddenly remembering work done as a political assassin, then falling in love with a nun, mixing around with heroin, seeking help, then being ordered to assassinate his love, and Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son; which follows the folklore and myths of a seventh son of a seventh son having mystical powers, such as being clairvoyant, enjoyed major successes in the 80s.

1990s to present

With the advent of the World Wide Web and other multimedia technologies, bands such as The Smashing Pumpkins (with the album & Machina/The Machines of God), and Nine Inch Nails (with the album Year Zero) exploited emergent cultural phenomena such as the alternate reality game to provide additional web-based content beyond that on the album itself.

A very popular recent example of a modern rock concept album is Green Day's 2004 album, American Idiot, which was a number 1 album in 9 countries, including the US and UK, and spawned multiple hit singles. American Idiot follows the transformation of a disillusioned suburban teenager ("Jesus of Suburbia") into a darker, city-living persona ("Saint Jimmy"). Songs on the album tell of Saint Jimmy's exploration of his new self, meeting and falling for a girl (and their eventual breakup), and his reverting to his Jesus of Suburbia persona and returning home to the suburbs.

Deltron 3030, the debut album by hip hop supergroup Deltron 3030 is a concept album set in a dystopian year 3030. Allmusic Deltron 3030 review The album follows Deltron Zero's fight against an oppressive government and powerful corporations, while also battling to be the Galactic Rhyme Federation Champion.

The Streets' second album A Grand Don't Come for Free, released in May 2004 follows the story of a protagonist losing £1000 and striving to make up the money.

See also


  1. Shuker, Roy: Popular Music: The Key Concepts, page 5. ISBN 0-415-28425-2. 2002.
  2. Allmusic review by Richie Unterberger
  4. Glenn Povey and Richard Ashton interview with Gilmour, Brain Damage, February 1988
  5. “21st Century Breakdown” follows Green Day’s “American Idiot,” the politically charged concept album from 2004 that has sold more than five million copies domestically and an estimated 12 million worldwide., The Morning After ‘American Idiot’, The New York Times
  6. Petridis, Alexis, "A Grand Don't Come for Free, The Streets", The Guardian, May 7, 2004.

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