Rock’s Best Concept Albums
Back when people actually took the time to sit down and listen to records from front to back, nothing delivered a more rewarding experience than concept albums. Mostly based around a structured narrative, though sometimes a loose theme would tie all the songs together, concept albums were the equivalent of rock 'n' roll theater on an artsy scale. From tales of intergalactic rock stars to stories of isolated youth, our list of Rock's Best Concept Albums is filled with some of popular music's most ambitious projects of the past 50 years.
A couple of other concept albums were originally supposed to follow 'Tommy,' but Pete Townshend eventually scrapped them, scattering their songs and ideas on other records. So 'Quadrophenia' ended up being the Who's next rock opera, a story about disenchanted teenagers in mid-'60s London, tied together by some of Townshend's strongest songs, including 'The Real Me,' '5:15' and 'Love, Reign O'er Me.'
While many other rock artists during the last part of the '60s dismissed and pushed aside the mores and ideals of their parents and earlier generations, the Kinks embraced them, finding peace and a sense of harmony in the aftermath of the Summer of Love. Frontman Ray Davies invests too much heart and perspective for this song cycle about lost British traditions to be mere satire of the nostalgia and sentiment found in its words and music.
Syd Barrett, Roger Waters' former Pink Floyd bandmate, turned up as a subject in three of the band's best and most popular records (all three make our list of Rock's Best Concept Albums). Barrett's presence is most deeply felt in 'Wish You Were Here,' which chronicles his descent into madness and the music business' ties to it in songs like the nine-part 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond.'
Unlike 'Quadrophenia' and 'Tommy,' the Who's other celebrated concept albums, 'The Who Sell Out' doesn't tell a story. Instead, the album weaves together songs (like 'I Can See for Miles') with fake commercials (like for deodorant) so that the whole thing plays like 40 minutes of a pirate radio station. It's pop-art filtered through the era's psychedelic shadings.
Pete Townshend's masterpiece is as much a defining part of the late '60s as Vietnam and Woodstock. Its story -- about a deaf, dumb and blind boy -- turns hippie idealism into a messianic fable of acceptance and rejection. But it's the music, constructed as a rock opera complete with an overture and recurring musical themes, that holds together this double-record epic.
Roger Waters tapped his own life story -- father killed during World War II, hellish school years, a--hole rock-star behavior -- for Pink Floyd's tale of isolation as seen through the eyes of fictional character Pink (there's a little bit of Syd Barrett in him, too). As he builds, brick by brick, a wall around himself, Pink (and Waters) eventually turns to self-reflection. It's a powerful work, buoyed by some of the group's greatest songs, including 'Another Brick in the Wall Part II' and 'Comfortably Numb.'
Pink Floyd's eighth album, more or less, was a symbolic break from their past -- the moment where their long, drawn-out prog tendencies gave way to tighter, shorter and more focused "song"-oriented tracks. And they marked the occasion with their best concept album, a '2001'-like mind-expanding look at the fragility of life, time and sanity through the lens of their own experiences. They'd go on to explore some of 'Moon''s themes -- music-business greed, Syd Barrett's mental breakdown -- on later records.
David Bowie had already reinvented himself from quaint London folkie to space-age glam rocker, but it was his 1972 transformation into Ziggy Stardust that gave him his most indelible persona and made him a worldwide star. As its title implies, 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars' tells the story of an intergalactic rock star who uses drugs, sexual ambiguity and ego to relay his message to the masses. Yes, there's a metaphor in there somewhere.
The Beach Boys' classic 'Pet Sounds' wasn't designed as a concept album, and it may not even appear to be one on the surface. But there's no mistaking the underlying theme of teenage anxiety in Brian Wilson's ambitious, and gorgeously orchestrated, song cycle. It's the moment where '60s pop gained the sophistication of Frank Sinatra's classic concept albums of the '50s. Without it, there'd be no 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' ... or probably any other album on this list.
Like 'Pet Sounds,' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' is pulled together more by musical themes and loose thematic ties than any sort of story or narrative. But no album in the rock era sounds more of a piece than the Beatles' masterwork, from the carnival atmosphere to the paisley-colored hues that dot each and every song. Like 'Pet Sounds,' 'Sgt. Pepper''s is the sound of teenage music growing up. But it also opened up a whole new world of respect for pop music, and has influenced ambitious artists ever since.