Sadly, not too many people sit and listen to an album from start to finish anymore. This is a shame, as it can be an incredibly rewarding experience, particularly if it is a concept album. These are records that tell a story through each individual track or have an idea or theme that is present throughout. Sometimes referred to as “rock operas,” the artists fully intended the listener to enjoy the entire record from start to finish. There have been dozens of beautiful, sad, moving and entertaining stories and concepts delivered by many of the best in the business, including these 10 incredible albums.
10. The Who – Quadrophenia
After the success of Tommy (more on this to come), Pete Townshend developed another brilliant story to tell through another hard rocking album. In this rock opera, we follow the story of a young mod called Jimmy in London who likes drugs, girls, and fighting. Through being disenchanted and clashing with his parents, Jimmy decides to take the train down to Brighton where he had previously had great experiences with other mods led by Ace Face. Upon arriving in Brighton, Jimmy finds that Ace Face is working as a bellboy. Being disillusioned and feeling that life has rejected him, he steals a boat and sails out to sea where he contemplates his life in the rain. The ending makes it unclear what his fate is. The concept was received so well that a 1979 film was made which is loosely based on Townshend’s original story.
9. The Mothers of Invention – Freak Out!
Released in 1966, Freak Out! is regarded by many to be one of the very first concept albums and certainly one that inspired the majority on this list. Much like the rest of Frank Zappa’s brilliant body of work, Freak Out! is his satirical perception of American pop culture and rock music. Unlike many records that are made today, each song serves a purpose on the album and there is a thought process that goes behind the track listing. Zappa stated “it wasn’t as if we had one hit single and needed to build some filler around it. Each tune had a function within an overall satirical concept.” The album is famous for being a major influence on The Beatles, who released their own concept album the next year—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band (more on this to come). An avant-garde record, it gained a cult following.
8. Rush – 2112
Whilst the second side of 2112 is not a part of the concept, you can’t talk about the greatest concept albums without talking about Rush’s brilliant 1976 release. On Side A, 2112 is comprised of seven tracks/chapters which tell the story of life in the year 2112 after a galaxy-wide war in 2062 results in all of the planets being ruled by the Red Star of the Solar Federation. The Priests of the Temple of Syrinx control all content, but an unnamed protagonist finds an ancient guitar and learns to play his own music. He goes to the Priests hoping that they will praise him for his discovery, but instead they destroy it and shun him for unearthing something that led to the collapse of civilization. He then dreams of the world before where people could be creative, but is so depressed upon awakening that he kills himself as another war starts.
7. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Released in 1974 and the final record to feature Peter Gabriel, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tells a story of a New York kid called Rael who goes on a surreal journey of self-discovery. He is forced underground where he encounters all kinds of bizarre characters (including a very strange sexual experience with three snake-like women and being castrated) and must attempt to save his brother, John. It is revealed throughout the album that Rael is actually searching for a missing part of himself, and Phil Collins stated that the album is about split personality. It is incredibly abstract, surreal and beautiful, and certainly some of the British band’s finest (and strangest) work. Peter Gabriel stated that several of the events and places that are part of the story were derived from his dreams, which must be very odd indeed.
6. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Deemed by many to be the greatest album of all time, Dark Side of the Moon is a mind-bending record that explores themes of conflict, greed, time and mental illness. It largely explores the deteriorating mental state of the band’s former lead singer and guitarist Syd Barrett. This is most notable in “Brain Damage,” where the lyrics explore mental illness stemmed from the elevation of fame. Each of the 10 tracks reflect various stages of human life and the nature of the human experience, beginning and ending with a heartbeat. It is an epic and experimental listening experience, yet it also marked a significant departure away from the band’s extended instrumental excursions. This made the album more accessible, and consequently it contains many of their most popular songs such as “Money” and “Time.” Over 40 years on, it remains one of the most popular albums of all time.
5. Frank Zappa – Joe’s Garage
Not only was Frank Zappa one of the great guitarists, but he was also one of the finest song writers of all time. He is famed for his satirical lyrical content, and this is perhaps most evident on the 1979 classic Joe’s Garage (originally released as two records). Zappa described it as a “stupid little story about how the government is going to do away with music,” and it follows the story of a typical adolescent, Joe, who forms a band in his garage. As told by the “Central Scrutinizer,” Joe attempts to become a rock and roll legend but ends up giving all of his money to a government-assisted religion, gets arrested, and when released he goes insane after finding a dystopian society where music has been criminalized. In addition to being a fantastic and witty story, it also features some of Zappa’s most popular and famous songs.
4. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
One of the most popular albums ever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967 and spent 27 weeks atop the UK charts. As an early concept record, it is deemed important in the development of art and progressive rock. The concept is that it is a performance by a fictional band who are alter egos of themselves. This gave the band the freedom to experiment musically. The album opens with a pit orchestra warming up and the sound of an audience waiting, making it appear like a live recording. McCartney then acts as the master of ceremonies, introducing the band leader, Billy Shears (Starr), who then performs “With a Little Help from my Friends.” Whilst the concept may not be as evident throughout as the other albums on this list, Sgt. Pepper’s remains an incredibly important and influential concept record which aided the development of progressive rock.
3. The Who – Tommy
The Who are the masters of the concept album, and many consider them to be pioneers of the “Rock Opera” with 1969’s Tommy. Composed by Pete Townshend, Tommy tells the story of a young boy who sees his father murder somebody. His mother then brainwashes him into believing that he did not see or hear it, seeing all of his senses shut down so that he is left deaf, dumb and blind. His parents try and fail to find a treatment, but they become frustrated and begin to neglect Tommy who is tortured, molested and given LSD. After becoming a “Pinball Wizard,” it is later determined that his disabilities are psychosomatic, and after a mirror is smashed he regains his senses. He starts his own religion which expands into a holiday camp, but his followers reject his teachings and leave. It is now an important and influential rock record.
2. Pink Floyd – The Wall
Few bands are capable of creating stunning concept albums which are as fantastic musically as they are thematically, but Pink Floyd are not like most bands. As with Pink Floyd’s other albums, insanity and isolation are key themes which Roger Waters fully explores here in what is a powerful and moving story. The Wall follows the story of Pink (based on Waters and Syd Barrett), whose mother is overprotective of him following the death of his father in WWII. He becomes tormented by his teachers, he becomes a rock star, has a break down in his marriage and starts taking drugs. All of the traumas that he goes through sees another brick added to “the wall,” which represents his isolation from society. He suffers a nervous breakdown and places himself on trial in his mind, with his inner judge ordering him to “tear down the wall.”
1. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
With the entire world still reeling from the tragic passing of David Bowie in January, more and more people are now revisiting his phenomenal back catalog and some are discovering it for the first time. Many consider his standout album to be The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which is a brilliant concept record that also contains some of his most famous songs. With the rise of the glam-rock era, Bowie reinvented himself as the flamboyant and androgynous Ziggy Stardust. His story is told through this 1972 album, where he is a bisexual alien who becomes a rock star to bring a message of hope with the world ending in five years. He becomes somewhat of a prophet and a victim of his own rock star excess. This brilliant creation enabled Bowie to explore the “rock star” theme, including sex, drugs and politics.