Concept albums are an interesting phenomenon. While most songs tell some sort of story, concept albums are based around the idea that each song is a small part of a larger story. Some people take these to an extreme, with stories about dystopian futures or evil sorcerers and perform in full costume. They essentially use the medium of a concept album as a way of putting on a production. Other people take a much simpler road and base their album around the same general concept.
The concept album hit its popularity height in the 80s, but as music videos become increasingly popular and artists continue to innovate, it seems concept albums are making a small comeback. And while the concept album is still most popular with rock artists, many of the more famous concept albums of the past decade have been in other genres such as rap, R&B, and folk music. Examples include Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city, which earned five Grammy nominations in 2012, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, which earned itself a reissue for its 10th anniversary in 2016, and Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, which recently made the jump to Broadway as a musical.
Interestingly enough, when you chronicle the history of the concept album, its roots date back not to the glam rock or rock opera scene as you would suspect, but to folk music.
Woody Guthrie – Dust Bowl Ballads
Woody Guthrie’s most well-known album was also the very first concept album which was released in July of 1940. Guthrie was at the time referred to as an “Okie” – a poor migrant farmer from Oklahoma or the surrounding area that fled to California during the dust bowl. The semi-autobiographical album, and Guthrie’s first recorded album, chronicled his experiences during the 1930s dust bowl. Though he later found national fame with the song This Land Is Your Land, his first album helped launch him onto the folk scene.
Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours
Frank Sinatra is often mistakenly credited as the inventor of concept albums. This is due to his popularity and to the sheer number of albums he made that were concept albums. He made a slew of them in the 40’s, starting with In the Wee Small Hours. Up until this point, most albums were just a collection of singles. Sinatra started to change this up by releasing a concept album with serious songs that all followed the same similar themes of loss and love gone wrong. He was inspired to do a serious album in part because of the failure of his first two marriages. The album was a hit, and he went on to do four more concept albums, all of which followed a general theme or story.
The Wall – Pink Floyd
The Wall, generally considered the gold standard for concept albums, is the 11th studio album from rock band Pink Floyd. The Wall was released in 1979 in response to the band’s disenchantment with their celebrity profile, particularly during their previous tour. The story follows a depressed rocker who constructs a metaphorical and physical wall around himself to protect himself from his surroundings. Despite receiving mixed reviews from critics, the album was a commercial success. It went on to inspire songs in later Pink Floyd albums, became one of the top-selling albums of all time, and was eventually adapted into a movie by Alan Parker in 1982.
Green Day – American Idiot
Considered the most notable concept album made since their decline in the 80s, American Idiot is the 7th studio album from punk band Green Day. The album was a departure from the band’s previous music and a direct response to the underwhelming performance of their 6th album. The plot follows Jesus of Suburbia, a lower-middle-class young man, and deals with themes of disillusionment and anarchy during the tumultuous early 2000s and the Iraq War. The album was wildly successful, garnering five popular singles, a hit Broadway musical (where Green Day lead vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong did several runs as the character St. Jimmy), and even a planned film adaption.
Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
One of the more recent concept albums to come out, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer garnered high praise from critics and listeners alike. The story centers around Monae’s character, Jane 57821, as she attempts to break free from a dystopian society. In addition to the album, Monae also released a 46-minute movie which she has referred to as an “emotion picture.” The album garnered a Grammy nomination in 2018.
This is of course not an exhaustive list. There are many other concept albums that have been recorded, whether it be during the height of their fame, like Iron Maiden’s Second Son of the Second Son, or within the last few years, like The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee. All of these albums and more can be found in our music section on the first floor of the library.