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Concept album

In popular music, a concept album is an album which is "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical". Most often they are pre-planned (conceived) and with all songs contributing to a single overall theme or unified story, this plan or story being the concept. This is in contrast to the standard practice of an artist or group releasing an album consisting of a number of unconnected (lyrically or otherwise) songs performed by the artist. Given that the suggestion of something as vague as an overall mood often tags a work as being a concept album, a precise definition of the term proves problematic.

In the world of musical theatre, there is a separate and distinct form of concept album known as the album musical, in which the performers are playing characters in a story, a type of recording which encompasses such "rock operas" as The Who's Tommy and The Wall by Pink Floyd.

Problems with defining a concept album

In the contemporary rock era (from 1966 onwards – the point at which critics started to differentiate between "pop music" and "rock music" as a more serious form), there were, broadly speaking, two types of concept album: those that were essentially thematically-linked song cycles such, which did not claim a storyline, and those that presented a narrative that threaded the songs. Music critics of that era did not usually distinguish between the two types of concept album. An album that met either criterion was commonly referred to as a concept album. However, the distinction between the two types of concept album is important to note in respect to claims that are made as to which album may have been the first concept album in the rock era. Given this legitimate distinction, there are probably several contenders in each genre.

Another difficulty in classifying whether a given album qualifies as a concept album arises from the fact that both musicians and their listeners, through the rock era, increasingly viewed the record album as a unified art form, not simply a collection of songs. Songs on many albums may have a certain sense of cohesion even if there is no unifying lyrical theme or narrative structure. That sense of cohesion may be imposed simply by the particular lyrical or musical concerns of a composer or group of composers at the time a record was recorded. Thus, many albums that cannot genuinely be labelled concept albums in a strict sense get so designated by their fans. The album OK Computer by Radiohead is an example of this tendency. In this case, there was no intention by the performers to produce an actual concept album (although proponents of the view that it is one have pointed to apparent hints of a circular narrative in its lyrics, as an example of an apparent narrative). Some albums without any single theme or narrative structure may nonetheless have a deliberate structure in which the order in which the songs are heard expresses a particular artistic intention. Such an album, or other collection of songs, may be best viewed as a song cycle, a broader notion, with roots in classical music, that may encompass many concept albums.

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 i 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 Pete's House Warmin', in which he starts out playing alone, supposedly in 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 Records 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", et cetera). 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.

1960s

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.

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!; and Face to Face by The Kinks, the first collection of Ray Davies's idiosyncratic character studies of ordinary people. However, none of these attracted a wide commercial audience.

This all changed with the Beatles' 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 classic pop 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.

The Who Sell Out 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".

Side two of the Small Faces' 1968 Album, 'Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake', features a series of songs which form a narrative - albeit a 'nonsense' one - with narration from Stanley Unwin.

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 (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (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).

1970s

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 classic 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 Dark Side of the Moon meets the criteria and is generally referred to as a concept album, but the band members have questioned this. Yes also put out various 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 and the rise of punk rock. The group's keyboardist Rick Wakeman released many concept albums since the 70s in his solo career, most notably The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, this one based on the novel by Jules Verne Also about a book was Camel's The Snow Goose, which was instrumental because the writer, Paul Gallico, prohibited the band to quote excerpts from the book. 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. 1974 also saw the Walter Mitty-esque concept release Eldorado by the Electric Light Orchestra. The progressive rock band Jethro Tull also contributed largely to this genre with the concept album Thick as a Brick, which was the band's and one of rock music's first ever albums to consist entirely of a single song. The reasoning behind this album, largely, was to spoof Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and many other pretentious concept albums of the time. This was followed by A Passion Play (1973). However, the next Tull release was a concept album War Child (1974) meant to be the soundtrack of a movie. Transsylvania Phoenix, a Romanian prog rock band released in 1975 their album "Cantafabule". Hard rock and shock rock band Alice Cooper released a near-continuous stream of concept albums throughout the 1970s, beginning with Killer (1971) and culminating in From the Inside (1978). Canadian progressive hard rock trio Rush broke through to popular success with their 1976 release 2112, widely known as a concept album but actually a "half-concept album," since only side one is a single narrative suite; the second side contains unrelated songs. The concept album theme in progressive rock hit an all-time high when Chicago based Styx released five self-produced concept albums between 1977 and 1983. (The Grand Illusion - 1977, Pieces of Eight - 1978, Cornerstone - 1979, Paradise Theatre - 1981, and Kilroy Was Here - 1983). In 1984, when the RIAA created the Multi-Platinum album certification, Styx became the first band in history to have 4 consecutive studio albums certified Multi-Platinum, a feat that wasn't matched for several years. Glam rocker David Bowie, built the concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars around his central character and alter ego Ziggy Stardust.

1980s

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 Theater (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). Blue Öyster Cult released the album Imaginos in 1988, which included new versions of the songs Astronomy and Subhuman (retitled Blue Öyster Cult) and seven new songs, including one on which Joe Satriani played lead guitar.

80's 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, (the story is very similar to La Femme Nikita) 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, as did W.A.S.P.'s The Crimson Idol.

The eighties also brought back an earlier form of the concept genre—albums with unifying themes, not necessarily coherent stories. An example is Journey's Escape in which all of the songs had to do with rebellion and escaping from one's present situation.

The jam band Phish recorded The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday in 1987, chronicling the adventures of Colonel Forbin through the fictional world of Gamehendge. The album was never officially released, but was completed and has circulated heavily by fans, both as the studio recording and as live performances.

1990s

With the invention of the World Wide Web and other multimedia technologies concept albums entered an era where much of the concept would extend beyond the album. An early example of this is The Smashing Pumpkins album Machina/The Machines of God. The album's storyline was told through many outlets: the album, its artwork, the band's web site, and cryptic fliers handed out at concerts. In 2007, this was taken to new heights by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Months before the release of the band's Year Zero album, an alternate reality game began telling the story of a group of future rebel fighters sending messages to the past. Tracks from the album were hidden at concerts on USB drives, clues led to more web sites which all explain more details of the story.

Power Pop group Jellyfish released their second album Spilt Milk in 1993. It follows the story of Chester and Sebrina, who grow up together and fall in and out of love, with tragedy and redemption for the (by the middle of the album) rock star Chester.

Also, whilst at its height of popularity, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers released a concept album, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers The Album: A Rock Adventure albeit jumbled attempt, it followed the storyline involving the arrival of Lord Zedd, but doesn't mention the Thunderzords or the loss of Tommy Oliver , The Green Ranger, prior to him becoming the White Ranger, although he is mentioned at the end of the album.

Rock band Everclear released two albums, Songs from an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile and Songs from an American Movie, Vol. 2: Good Time for a Bad Attitude dealing with lead singer Art Alexakis's second divorce.

Screamo band Drop Dead, Gorgeous released Worse Than a Fairy Tale in 2007. The album tells the story of a serial killer in a small fictional town, called Saylor Lake. Each song tells the story of another murder, and gives clues to as to who did it. The website www.worsethanafairytale.com featured artwork and more clues in the months leading up to the release.

Irish rock band U2 released Achtung Baby in 1991 which, along with the Zoo TV tour that followed; expounded on the supposedly corrupting effects of television and the resulting cultural decadence of the time. This theme is quite well expressed in the video for the song "Even Better Than The Real Thing" from the album.

Rock band Coheed and Cambria's albums follow a story entitled The Amory Wars, a science-fiction story written by the band frontman Claudio Sanchez. The story also extends into the comic book and graphic novel realm. There fifth, unreleased album will be a prequel to the series, but other than that not much is known about the prequel album.

Concept albums are often among metal bands inspired by mythology and fantasy fiction. Examples of that kind are Blind Guardian's Nightfall in Middle-Earth, based on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion; Therion's Secret of the Runes and Manowar's Gods of War, both based on Norse mythology; and others. All albums by Rhapsody of Fire, Avantasia and Bal-Sagoth feature continuous scenario in their lyrics.

Progressive metal band Dream Theater released Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory in 1999 that deals with the story of Nicholas and the discovery of his past life, which involves love, murder, and infidelity as Victoria Page.

Horrorcore rap duo Insane Clown Posse tell the story of The Dark Carnival in their six Joker's Cards albums. ICP's Violent J also shares his re-imagining of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with his solo work, Wizard of the Hood.

2000 to present

One of the 2000s most famous concept albums is American Idiot by punk rock band Green Day. The album is about the main character, known in the album as "Jesus Of Suburbia", who leaves his residential town to go to the big city, where he falls in love with a girl (referred to as "Whatsername"), and gains an alternative ego as "Saint Jimmy". Eventually, due to his criminal behaviour, Whatsername dumps Jimmy, who "commits suicide" and becomes Jesus of Suburbia again. After ditching his alter-ego, J.O.S. returns to his suburbial town.

Another progressive metal band, Protest the Hero, released a concept album entitled Kezia in 2005, telling the story of an eponymously-named woman who is sentenced to execution for ambiguous reasons. The album is broken up into three main sections which tell the same story from the perspectives of three different characters, as well as a final section consisting of a single song. The band's following album, Fortress, while less narrative, continues this pattern of three separate movements.

Symphonic-Progressive group, Spock's Beard, released their two-disced concept album, Snow, in 2002. The story revolves around center protagonist, John Sikeston, whose albino appearance earned him the derisive moniker Snow, as he leaves his midwestern home and travels to New York City to find who he is and what his life is meant to be.

Metal group Mastodon has released two concept albums, Leviathan, and Blood Mountain, both telling a different story; Leviathan loosely follows the story of Moby Dick, and Blood Mountain follows a mystical story of climbing a mountain alone. Additionally, and to a larger scale, each of Mastodon's studio albums are representations of elements, Leviathan being water, Blood Mountain earth, and their earliest album Remission being fire.

Alternative Rock band Boys Night Out released a concept album, "Trainwreck". It tells the story of a man who is plagued by horrible nightmares that cause him to be violent in his sleep, also known as night terrors. The man awakes to his wife dead on the floor with a telephone chord wrapped around her neck. realizing he killed the woman he loves he goes the place he works and cuts off his hands at the wrist. The album is the inner monologue of a man with nothing to live for but wanting to live.

The Mars Volta, an experimental rock band, is notable for their concept albums, the majority of them carried by a narrative (such as their debut album 'Deloused in the Comatorium', which follows the journey through the mind of a man in a coma caused by a suicide attempt). However, it could be argued that, according to the criteria, that their album ' Amputechture' is not strictly a concept album, due to the lack of a narrative.

Post-rock band Explosions in the sky released concept album The Rescue in 2005, based around the band breaking down in the middle of nowhere in their van. The songs are titled "Day One" to "Day Eight", each detailing a day spent stuck there.

Two important conceptual albums were made in 2003 and 2005 by Mägo de Oz, an important Spanish Folk Rock Band. It names Gaia, and it is a trilogy: Gaia, Gaia II - La voz dormida and Gaia III, which has not yet gone on sale and is a highly anticipated album. The albums are based in the evils that humans make to Gaia, the goddess of the earth which is part of Latin American culture. The presentation of these discs was carried by Spain and Americas with one of the most important staging and expensive of the story.

A Grand Don't Come for Free by The Streets is a concept album. In the story, the central character loses and tries to recover £1000.

Power metal band Kamelot released two concept albums, Epica and The Black Halo, that tell two parts of a story loosely based on Faust.

The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance is a concept album. The album is about a patient's walk to death.

In 2007, hard rock band , formed by Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx, released The Heroin Diaries, a soundtrack to Sixx's book The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star. The album chronicles Sixx's heroin addiction in the mid-1980s, and is a notable concept album in that it is actually non-fiction.

Jay-Z released the concept album American Gangster based on the movie of the same name.

(Opeth) Still Life Album Shakespear story

Incurable Tragedy by Into Eternity is a concept album about guitarist Tim Roth's recent loss of friends and family that were close to him.

"From Them, Through Us, to You" is the debut album and concept album from Madina Lake which is the first part of the band's three part album story set in the 1950s about the fictional town of Madina Lake in which local celebrity Adalia goes missing. The format of the story is created so that fans must figure out the story not only through the music, but also through music videos, album artwork, a website game and band merchandise. The band is planning to also release three books to go along with all three albums.

Ciara's upcoming album Fantasy Ride is a concept album, with each disk having a specific genre of music, Groove City, Crunktown and the Kingdon Of Dance.

Sepultura's album Dante XXI is a concept album based on the three sections of Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradiso (paradise). Sepultura's upcoming album, A-LEX, will be another concept album based off of the book "A Clockwork Orange".

Hip-Hop group Little Brother has released two concept albums. One, The Listening (Little Brother album), has a fictional radio station and the other, The Minstrel Show, as a fictional TV station which is a satire of urban TV networks.

In 2008 the legendary heavy metal band Judas Priest released Nostradamus, their first ever concept album which focuses on the 16th century prophet Nostradamus.

Alice Cooper has released many concept albums, usually following the story of a psychopath in one way or another. For example, his latest album, Along Came a Spider, tells the story of 'Steven', a killer with a fixation for arachnids.

The up and coming alternative band The Saultwotter Byeprawdux's third album (three total studio albums have been announced by Saultwotter Byeprawdux, but all have yet to begin production) Bleachers Is Gone is a concept album telling the story of an outcast kid named Bleachers and his life, from birth to death.

On May 13, 2008, post-hardcore band Showbread released the double concept album Anorexia Nervosa which tells the stories of two twin sisters' different ways of finding happiness and fulfillment in life, only to find that their toils bring them nothing.

Set Your Goals, a California pop-punk band released a concept album in July of 2006. The album is based on and refers to how bands (specifically Fall Out Boy) usually "sell out" after the 1st or 2nd album, or, when they gain popularity. The title of the album, Mutiny! is also in reference to how bands "sell out".

American rock band The Hold Steady released their concept album 'Boys and Girls in America' in 2007. It has several recurring characters, such as Holly and Gideon. It is an album about the boredon of modern American kids, who try to lose their boredom by looking to drugs.

Musical Theatre

The concept album has also been important in the world of musical theatre. Several major musicals originated as "album musicals," including You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Chess and The Who's Tommy.

As a recording genre, the album musical predates the currently held definition of a concept album, dating back to the era of 78-rpm records with such original works as Gordon Jenkins' Manhattan Tower (1946) and The Letter (1959) starring Judy Garland. The primary difference is that on most concept albums, the performers or bands are singing as themselves, whereas on an album musical, the performers are playing characters in a story. On most Judy Garland albums, for example, Judy sings as herself, but on The Letter, she is playing a character.

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