A concept album is an album in which its tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually. This is typically achieved through a single central narrative or theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, or lyrical. Sometimes the term is applied to albums considered to be of "uniform excellence" rather than an LP with an explicit musical or lyrical motif. The exact criterion for a "concept album" varies among critics, with no discernible consensus.
The format originates with folk singer Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) and was subsequently popularized by traditional pop singer Frank Sinatra's 1940s–50s string of albums, although the term is more often associated with rock music. In the 1960s, several well-regarded concept albums were released by various rock bands, which eventually led to the invention of progressive rock and rock opera. Since then, many concept albums have been released across numerous musical genres.
There is no clear definition of what constitutes a "concept album". Fiona Sturges of The Independent stated that the concept album "was originally defined as a long-player where the songs were based on one dramatic idea – but the term is subjective." A precursor to this type of album can be found in the 19th century song cycle which ran into similar difficulties in classification. The extremely broad definitions of a "concept album" could potentially encompass all soundtracks, compilations, cast recordings, greatest hits albums, tribute albums, Christmas albums, and live albums.
The most common definitions refer to an expanded approach to a rock album (as a story, play, or opus), or a project that either revolves around a specific theme or a collection of related materials. AllMusic writes, "A concept album could be a collection of songs by an individual songwriter or a particular theme — these are the concept LPs that reigned in the '50s ... the phrase 'concept album' is inextricably tied to the late 1960s, when rock & rollers began stretching the limits of their art form." Author Jim Cullen describes it as "a collection of discrete but thematically unified songs whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts ... sometimes [erroneously] assumed to be a product of the rock era." Author Roy Shuker defines concept albums and rock operas as albums that are "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical. ... In this form, the album changed from a collection of heterogeneous songs into a narrative work with a single theme, in which individual songs segue into one another."
Rick Wakeman, keyboardist from the band Yes, considers the first concept album to be Woody Guthrie's 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. The Independent regards it as "perhaps" one of the first concept albums, consisting exclusively of semi-autobiographical songs about the hardships of American migrant labourers during the 1930s. In the late 1940s, the LP record was introduced, with space age pop composers producing concept albums soon after. Themes included exploring wild life and dealing with emotions, with some albums meant to be played while dining or relaxing. This was accompanied in the mid 1950s with the invention of the gatefold, which allowed room for liner notes to explain the concept.
Singer Frank Sinatra recorded several concept albums prior to the 1960s rock era, including In the Wee Small Hours (1955) and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958). Sinatra is occasionally credited as the inventor of the concept album, beginning with The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946), which led to similar work by Bing Crosby. According to biographer Will Friedwald, Sinatra "sequenced the songs so that the lyrics created a flow from track to track, affording an impression of a narrative, as in musical comedy or opera. ... [He was the] first pop singer to bring a consciously artistic attitude to recording."[nb 1]
In the early 1960s, concept albums began featuring highly in American country music, however the fact went largely unacknowledged by rock/pop fans and critics who would only begin noting "concept albums" as a phenomenon later in the decade, when albums became closely aligned with countercultural ideology, resulting in a recognised "album era" and the introduction of the rock concept album. The author Carys Wyn Jones writes that the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966), the Beatles' Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and the Who's Tommy (1969) are variously cited as "the first concept album", usually for their "uniform excellence rather than some lyrical theme or underlying musical motif".
Other records have been claimed as "early" or "first" concept albums. The 100 Greatest Bands of All Time (2015) states that the Ventures "pioneered the idea of the rock concept album years before the genre is generally acknowledged to have been born". Another is the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe (1963). Writing in 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music, Chris Smith commented: "Though albums such as Frank Sinatra's 1955 In the Wee Small Hours and Marty Robbins' 1959 Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs had already introduced concept albums, Little Deuce Coupe was the first to comprise almost all original material rather than standard covers." Writing in his Concise Dictionary of Popular Culture, Marcel Danesi identifies the Beatles' Rubber Soul (1965) and the Who's The Who Sell Out (1967) as other examples of early concept albums. Brian Boyd of The Irish Times names the Kinks' Face to Face (1966) as the first concept album: "Written entirely by Ray Davies, the songs were supposed to be linked by pieces of music, so that the album would play without gaps, but the record company baulked at such radicalism. It’s not one of the band’s finest works, but it did have an impact."
"Popular consensus" for the first rock concept album, according to AllMusic, favours Sgt. Pepper. According to music critic Tim Riley, "Strictly speaking, the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out!  has claims as the first 'concept album', but Sgt. Pepper was the record that made that idea convincing to most ears."[nb 2] Musicologist Allan Moore says that "Even though previous albums had set a unified mood, it was on the basis of the influence of Sgt. Pepper that the penchant for the concept album was born."[nb 3] Adding to Sgt. Pepper's claim, the artwork reinforced its central theme by depicting the four Beatles in uniform as members of the Sgt. Pepper band, while the record omitted the gaps that usually separated album tracks.
Author Bill Martin relates the assumed concept albums of the 1960s to progressive rock:
In discussions of progressive rock, the idea of the "concept album" is mentioned frequently. If this term refers to albums that have thematic unity and development throughout, then in reality there are probably fewer concept albums than one might first think. Pet Sounds and Sergeant Pepper's do not qualify according to this criterion ... However, if we instead stretch the definition a bit, to where the album is the concept, then it is clear that progressive rock is entirely a music of concept albums—and this flows rather directly of Rubber Soul (December 1965) and then Revolver (1966), Pet Sounds, and Sergeant Pepper's. ... in the wake of these albums, many rock musicians took up "the complete album approach."
Popmatters' Sarah Zupko notes that while the Who's Tommy is "popularly thought of as the first rock opera, an extra-long concept album with characters, a consistent storyline, and a slight bit of pomposity", it is preceded by the shorter concept albums Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake (Small Faces, 1968) and S.F. Sorrow (The Pretty Things, 1968). Author Jim Cullen states: "The concept album reached its apogee in the 1970s in ambitious records like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and the Eagles' Hotel California (1976)." In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Dark Side of the Moon at number one among the 50 greatest progressive rock albums of all-time, also noting the LP's stature as the second best-selling album of all time. Pink Floyd's The Wall (1979), a semi-autobiographical story modeled after the band's Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, is one of the most famous concept albums by any artist. In addition to The Wall, Danesi highlights Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) and Zappa's Joe's Garage (1979) as other culturally significant concept albums.
According to author Edward Macan, concept albums as a recurrent theme in progressive rock was directly inspired by the counterculture associated with "the proto-progressive bands of the 1960s", observing: "the consistent use of lengthy forms such as the programmatic song cycle of the concept album and the multimovement suite underscores the hippies' new, drug-induced conception of time."
With the emergence of MTV as a music video network which valued singles over albums, concept albums became less dominant in the 1980s. Some artists, however, still released concept albums and experienced success in the 1990s and 2000s. NME's Emily Barker cites Green Day's American Idiot (2004) as one of the "more notable" examples, having brought the concept album back to high-charting positions. Dorian Lynskey, writing for GQ, noted a resurgence of concept albums in the 2010s due to streaming: "This is happening not in spite of the rise of streaming and playlists, but because of it. Threatened with redundancy in the digital era, albums have fought back by becoming more album-like." Cucchiara argues that "concept albums" should also describe "this new generation of concept albums, for one key reason. This is because the unison between the songs on a particular album has now been expanded into a broader field of visual and artistic design and marketing strategies that play into the themes and stories that form the album."
"A Token of My Extreme", by Frank Zappa, is a song on the 1979 concept album Joe's Garage [Part II]. The main character from this triple-album rock-opera has his mind messed-up by Lucille then "finally does something smart" and "pays a lot of money to L. Ron Hoover and the First Church of Appliantology."Aqualung (Jethro Tull album)
Aqualung is the fourth studio album by the rock band Jethro Tull, released in 1971. It is regarded, despite the band's disagreement, as a concept album featuring a central theme of "the distinction between religion and God". The album's "dour musings on faith and religion" have marked it as "one of the most cerebral albums ever to reach millions of rock listeners". Aqualung's success signalled a turning point in the band's career, which went on to become a major radio and touring act.
Recorded at Island Records' studio in London, it was their first album with John Evan as a full-time member, their first with new bassist Jeffrey Hammond, and last album featuring Clive Bunker on drums. Something of a departure from the band's previous work, the album features more acoustic material than previous releases; and—inspired by photographs of homeless people on the Thames Embankment taken by singer Ian Anderson's wife Jennie—contains a number of recurring themes, addressing religion along with Anderson's own personal experiences.
Aqualung has sold more than seven million units worldwide, and is thus Jethro Tull's best-selling album. The album was generally well-received critically and has been included on several music magazine best-of lists. The album spawned two singles, "Hymn 43" and "Locomotive Breath".Black Ribbons
Black Ribbons is a dystopian concept album by Shooter Jennings with his band Hierophant. The album features dialogue written by horror author Stephen King, who also narrates the album. The album was released on March 2, 2010.
The first single, "Wake Up", was released on December 22, 2009.Bloody Mary Morning
"Bloody Mary Morning" is a song written by American country music singer-songwriter Willie Nelson. Nelson wrote the song inspired by his struggles to become a "better parent". It was originally released in the 1970 RCA Records release Both Sides Now with the title "Bloody Merry Morning".
During a party in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1972, Nelson performed the song along with others he planned to include on an upcoming concept album. Nelson impressed another guest at the party, Atlantic Records vice-president Jerry Wexler. Wexler offered him a contract to be a part of the new country music division of Atlantic, which Nelson accepted after ending his unsuccessful run with RCA.
"Bloody Mary Morning" was included in Nelson's concept album Phases and Stages, where the meaning of the song was shifted by the context of the album, changing the theme to a man who is left by his wife. Released as a single, it peaked at number 17 in Billboard's Country singles in 1974, later becoming an essential part of Nelson's live performances repertoire.Chess (musical)
Chess is a musical with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the pop group ABBA, lyrics by Tim Rice, and a book by Richard Nelson based on an idea by Rice. The story involves a politically driven, Cold War–era chess tournament between two grandmasters from America and the USSR and their fight over a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other. Although the protagonists were not intended to represent any real individuals, the character of the American grandmaster (named Freddie Trumper in the stage version) was loosely based on Bobby Fischer, while elements of the story may have been inspired by the chess careers of Russian grandmasters Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.Chess was a significant and powerful piece of music theater for its time as it allegorically reflected the Cold War tensions present in the 1980s. The musical has been referred to as a metaphor for the whole Cold War, with the insinuation being made that the Cold War is itself a manipulative game. Released and staged at the height of the strong anti-communist agenda that came to be known as the "Reagan Doctrine", Chess addressed and satirized the hostility of the international political atmosphere of the 1980s.
Like several other productions, namely Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, a highly successful concept album was released prior to the first theatrical production in order to raise money. In the case of Chess, the concept album was released in the autumn of 1984 while the show opened in London's West End in 1986 where it played for three years. A much-altered U.S. version premiered on Broadway in 1988, but survived only for two months. Chess is frequently revised for new productions, many of which try to merge elements from both the British and American versions, but no major revival production of the musical had been attempted until 2018, when revivals were planned for both the West End and Broadway.
Chess placed seventh in a BBC Radio 2 listener poll of the U.K.'s "Number One Essential Musicals".With a new orchestration, Chess enjoyed a successful revival in Kristianstad, Sweden, performed in Swedish. An expanded program ultimately performed 47 shows to standing ovations every night. Thereafter, three different new revivals of the musical followed, one in London's West End, one on Broadway and one touring five different theaters in Denmark, that will all premiere in 2018. Also, Chess premiered in Finland in September 2018 at Svenska Teatern.Deltron 3030
Deltron 3030 is an alternative hip hop trio composed of producer Dan the Automator (as The Cantankerous Captain Aptos), rapper Del the Funky Homosapien (as Deltron Zero/Deltron Osiris), and DJ Kid Koala (as Skiznod the Boy Wonder). They also collaborate with a variety of other musicians under many futuristic pseudonyms.Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida
Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida is a 1999 concept album that contains songs from, but predates the main production of, the 2000 musical Aida.
With music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, the album features Elton John performing the songs along with pop stars Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Shania Twain, Boyz II Men, Spice Girls, James Taylor, LeAnn Rimes, Kelly Price, Lulu, Angelique Kidjo, and Dru Hill. Additionally, two tracks, "A Step Too Far" and "Elaborate Lives", feature the voices of Aida cast-members-to-be Heather Headley and Sherie Rene Scott. The album was certified gold in April 1999 by the RIAA.
"Written in the Stars" was released as a single, reaching No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The single was certified gold in April 1999 by the RIAA. "The Messenger" makes its only appearance here, as it would be cut from the Broadway production and consequently left off the cast album.
This record is sometimes known as the "Concept Album" for Aida, both because it came before the production and to distinguish it from the 2000 release of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida: Original Broadway Cast Recording, a conventional original cast recording of the Broadway production.Evita (album)
Evita is a concept album released in 1976 and produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Having successfully launched their previous show, Jesus Christ Superstar, on record in 1970, Lloyd Webber and Rice returned to the format for Evita. The album was recorded at Olympic Studios in London from April to September 1976 and released in the United Kingdom on 19 November 1976.From Sea to Shining Sea
From Sea to Shining Sea is a concept album and 26th album by country singer Johnny Cash, released on Columbia Records in 1968 (see 1968 in music). Each track on the album was written by Cash; none of them were released as singles. The album was included on the Bear Family box set Come Along and Ride This Train.
"The Walls of a Prison" reuses the melody of "Streets of Laredo" from Cash's 1966 album Sings the Ballads of the True West.Gloryhallastoopid
Gloryhallastoopid (Or Pin the Tale on the Funky) is a 1979 album by the funk ensemble Parliament. It was their penultimate album on the Casablanca Records label, and is another concept album which tries to explain that Funk was responsible for the creation of the universe (see P Funk mythology). It reuses samples from previous albums, notably the Mothership Connection and Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome.Little Deuce Coupe
Little Deuce Coupe is the fourth album by American rock band the Beach Boys, and their third album release in 1963. It reached number four in the United States during a 46-week chart stay, and was eventually certified platinum by the RIAA. It is considered to be one of the earliest examples of a rock concept album.The album was released three weeks after Surfer Girl. Four of the tracks from Little Deuce Coupe ("Shut Down", "409", "Our Car Club" and "Little Deuce Coupe") had already appeared on previous albums, and discounting an alternate recording of "Be True to Your School", no tracks from the album were issued as an A-sided single.Love, God, Murder
Love, God, Murder is a Johnny Cash compilation box set (and 84th overall release) released in 2000. It features three themed CDs of songs Cash chose from his catalog. Love features relationship songs, mostly written for June Carter Cash. God is a collection of Gospel and spiritual songs. Murder features another recurring topic of Cash's career, and perhaps his favorite subject, but one that he encouraged people "not to go out and do". Each album was also released separately on the same day. In 2004 Life, a fourth compilation was released.
Although the albums within the box set are compilations, they demonstrate Cash's lifelong affection for releasing concept albums. Examples of previous Cash theme albums include Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964), Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965), America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song (1972) and The Rambler (1977).
Each of the three discs contains liner notes by a celebrity. Love has liner notes by Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, U2's frontman Bono contributes liner notes for God, and Murder's liner notes are by film director Quentin Tarantino.Ride This Train
Ride This Train is the eighth album by country singer Johnny Cash. It was originally released in September 1960 (see 1960 in music) and re-issued on March 19, 2002, (see 2002 in music) with four bonus tracks.
It is considered to be Cash's first concept album. The album is billed as a "travelogue", with Cash providing spoken narration before each song to give context, in several cases playing historical characters, such as John Wesley Hardin, and describing different destinations around the United States visited by train. The songs themselves are not generally railroad-themed.
The original album was included on the Bear Family box set Come Along and Ride This Train. The success of this LP inspired his first label, Sun, to release the compilation LP, All Aboard the Blue Train which consisted of previously released "train" inspired songs, including his hit, "Folsom Prison Blues".Tales from the Thousand Lakes
Tales from the Thousand Lakes is the second full-length album by metal band Amorphis. It is a concept album, the lyrics are based on the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. While still predominantly death metal, the album shows a greater influence of doom metal than the band's debut, along with more melodic, heavy metal-inspired riffing and elements of progressive rock and traditional Finnish folk music. The album also introduced synthesizers and clean vocals to the band's sound, though the latter was used sparingly.
This is the first Amorphis release to have an official keyboardist, Kasper Mårtenson, as any previous of the band's releases had the band's own drummer, Jan Rechberger, provide the empty keyboardist role until the band decided to have a keyboardist and also to find one being Mårtenson. With Mårtenson in the band, it is the first time the band's original lineup changed by having an additional member.
The album was an influential release in the development of the melodic death metal and folk metal genres.
The original limited version (on digipack) had a cover of "Light My Fire" by The Doors added as a bonus track. It was later re-released in 2001 with most tracks from the Black Winter Day EP and the "Light My Fire" cover added as bonus tracks.The Elder
The Elder is an independent film adaptation of the 1981 Kiss concept album, Music from "The Elder". The film's plot derives from that concept, devised by Kiss co-founder Gene Simmons.
The film is being produced by British author and musician Seb Hunter and partner Owen Oakeshott. The film has so far not been acknowledged or sanctioned by Kiss or their management.The Mad Hatter (album)
The Mad Hatter is an album by Chick Corea. Released in 1978, it is a concept album inspired by Lewis Carroll's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday
The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday (often abbreviated as TMWSIY) is a 1987 concept album written by Trey Anastasio, the guitarist and lead vocalist of the American rock band Phish, as his senior thesis while attending Goddard College. Composed in 1987, the thesis included an essay piece and collection of songs (recorded by Phish) relating an epic tale from the band's fictional land of Gamehendge.Though the album was recorded, it has never been released officially. Phish circulated the studio recording of the suite in 1987 and 1988 and it quickly became a collector's item. At one time Anastasio announced plans in Doniac Schvice, Phish's newsletter, to release the material as an interactive CD-ROM. However, this never happened and the album can only be found in bootleg or in fan-traded form.
On the album, the story of Gamehendge is told in nine parts, with short spoken narration in between. The saga can be compared to rock concept album projects like The Doors' Celebration of the Lizard or Rush's 2112 suite.
The story's primary protagonist is Colonel Forbin. Other major characters include Tela, the "jewel of Wilson's foul domain" and the "evil" Wilson himself. Several of the album's spoken narrative sections are accompanied by background music borrowed from sections of the Phish songs "Esther" and "McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters" .
The final track, "Possum", is the only song on the album not written by Anastasio, having been written by former Phish member Jeff Holdsworth and later added to the Gamehendge cycle.
Many of the album's tracks have long been included in Phish's regular song rotation and played during the band's live performances. In addition, various versions of the entire Gamehendge saga have been performed, complete with narration, on five occasions in the band's history, usually as the entire first set of a live show.
A large number of other Phish songs also relate in some way to the Gamehendge saga, and appear on later albums and in live performances, including "Llama", "Punch You in the Eye" and "The Divided Sky".
The Mockingbird Foundation, a charity founded by Phish fans to fund music education, is named for the "famous mockingbird" in the saga.The Muse (soundtrack)
The Muse is a soundtrack released by singer Elton John in August 1999 for the original motion picture The Muse. The album is a departure for Elton, as it is mainly the orchestrated score of the film, which he wrote in its entirety. The only vocal track is the title track, which was co-written with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin.
It was his third soundtrack following the release of Friends in 1971 and The Lion King in 1994. It preceded the Broadway cast version of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida (2000) although a concept album version in advance of the show was released in 1999.The Rambler (album)
The Rambler is the 56th album by American country singer Johnny Cash, released in 1977 on Columbia Records. A concept album about travelling, its songs, in between, include dialogue between Cash and hitchhikers picked up or other people he meets during the album's cross-country trip. It is the last, and one of the few Johnny Cash albums to only feature songs written by Cash himself. It is also his last non-religious concept album, and was included on the Bear Family box set Come Along and Ride This Train. The Rambler reached #31 on the country album charts; the two singles, "Lady" and "After the Ball", had minor chart success.