Decline of the 'concept album' as an art form

This weekend I listened to “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” for the first time in about 30 years. Sure “Suffragette City” gets plenty of air time on classic rock format stations, but listening to “Lady Stardust” and “Soul Love” reminded me that while there were individually excellent songs on album, what was perhaps greatest about this artistic work was how it all tied together in telling a story.

Bowie was by no means the only artist to release a concept album. The concept album as a form may have reached its’ pinnacle of popularity during the 1970’s, but based on my purely anecdotal impressions, the popularity of artists creating concept albums seems to have declined considerably over the last 30 years. Maybe this is intrinsically tied in with the general splintering of media formats that’s occurred during that interval, but perhaps there are other explanations to account for this?

What do you think are the greatest concept albums of all time? Your personal favorites, that is.

Part of it may be due to the lack of an outlet for them - the concept album existed at the same time as freeform FM radio, it was not unusual to hear an entire album side on stations like KAAY from Little Rock.

Some artists continue to explore the format - like Kate Bush’s brilliant 2005 album Aerial, one disk individual songs, one disk a suite about a perfect day.

Heck, even your home isn’t necessarily an outlet these days with a la carte purchases of MP3s. How often does anyone sit and listen to a complete album side any more?

Now people will chime in to say they just did it yesterday and I believe you but you’re still in a definite minority.

I sometimes wonder if artists/producers still bother trying to craft an album that holds up as a whole these days versus just throwing 12 tracks onto an ‘album’ to be bought off iTunes and played in a random mix.

Although its heyday is past, the concept album is not dead. See, for example, Paste Magazine’s 2010 list of The 18 Best Concept Albums of the 21st Century (So Far) or TVTropes’ list of concept albums by decade.

Personal favorites include Daniel Amos’s Songs of the Heart, and some of the Kinks’s concept albums, including the brilliant Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).

Green Day’s “American Idiot” is certainly a concept album, as is “Year Zero” by Nine Inch Nails (which had an alternate reality game associated with it, another concept entirely), so the idea isn’t dead entirely, and it never will be, really: It’s an art form, and it takes a lot to fully kill an art form.

That said, forms do rise and fall, usually linked to technology. The album was linked to technologies which made it more economical to package and sell whole bunches of songs on the same physical artifact, whether it was a vinyl record or a cassette tape or a compact disk, such that what the consumer experienced was a specific sequence of songs, possibly with a side change in the middle. A lot of artists proceeded to do absolutely nothing worthwhile with this new form, making lots of albums which were produced based on all the shit they happened to have at the time, in no specific order.

Other musicians thought albums could be something more than butcher’s shop sweepings, so they took advantage of what they had. The Beatles. I’m talking about The Beatles. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the shot across everyone else’s bow in this field, the coherent made-to-be-an-album album which everyone tried to imitate, some unto madness. (Smile, Brian!) Freeform FM (In Stereo!) certainly helped the popularity of these experiments, but most of the records were sold to people who listened to them alone with headphones on. They weren’t dirges, but they weren’t just dance music, either.

So now we have a generation that’s found digital downloads and streaming, and the best thing about the Internet is that it’s infinite. There’s no arbitrary limit to how long a song can be. These days, music can be as long or as short as its creators want it to be, meaning long-form music is no longer an arbitrary collection of short pieces but is, instead, created and packaged as a whole. (That article I linked to is all about modern concept albums produced in the digital download era.)


What would you call Beyoncé’s Lemonade except a great, current concept album??

In terms of favorites, there are plenty. I would start with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, and sure, Ziggy as two personal favorites.

I don’t see the concept album as dying, just morphing to fit the new media, and also less easy to find and identify as a “concept album.” Just like folks asking “where is the good music these days?” in general: its out there, but you have to know where to look in today’s fragmented, universally-broad internet.

My favorite concept album…

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Seconded. Though *Arthur… *and Lola vs. Powerman… are strong contenders. Another favorite of mine is The Who Sell Out by Ray Davies’ eternal congenial peer/equal/rival Pete Townshend. Quadrophenia is a monster of an album and has the better songs, but few albums have a funnier or more inventive concept than …Sell Out, and the faux advertisements and jingles are executed so well.

ETA: if somebody should ask: “what about Tommy?” - great songs, great sound, but the story is bullshit.

I think you just need to know where to look. Some recent concept album artists that I really like that are still going today:

Ayreon is one of my favorite musicians. He’s a Dutch musical artist who writes his own music and gets guests to play and sing for him. Every album except his first few are elaborate sci-fi concepts involving aliens. At least 4 are double albums telling stories involving humans and their interactions with mysterious beings from other worlds. Into the Electric Castle is my favorite, it would be in my top “desert island cd’s”, actually the top album, so if I could only pick one that would be it.

Another favorite is Rhapsody of Fire (formerly known as Rhapsody, but I guess it was not unique enough). At least the first 5 albums were all chapters in the same story about a “warrior of ice” who was chosen to battle the evil facing his land. The band is from Italy and English is obviously not their first language, but I love them despite a few hokey lyrics here and there. Also, Christopher Lee (yes, the actor) sang on a few albums. Great stuff!

A few other mentions:
Glass Hammer is a prog band (they say you don’t see too many of those any more) that has a bunch of concept albums, including a couple of Lord of the Rings albums, one based on author C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra books, and some of their own stories. The song “Dwarf and Orc” from the Middle Earth album is one of my favorite songs, and I’ve shared it with people who also shared it and eventually started getting groups of people to sing along with it!

If you are a fan of Tolkien and heavy metal, you’ve probably heard of Blind Guardian, a speed metal band from Germany who, until roughly 2000 based all their albums on Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The album “Nightfall in Middle Earth” was based on Tolkein’s The Silmarillion, and is a favorite of mine.

And most of you have probably heard of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who mostly have Christmas albums, but 3-4 non-Christmas ones, including “Beethoven’s Last Night”, which is one of my favorites ever.

Even limiting myself to 1 album per artist I can think of at least 8 other albums that I own that are current-century concept albums. (I was certain that at least 1 Coheed and Cambria album would be on that list but apparently not.) So others who are well-versed in music can probably name others that I myself have missed.

The concept album is alive and well in symphonic metal.

Ah, where is Red Headed Stranger when you need him?

French hip-hop producer and sampler Wax Tailor released his concept album Dusty Rainbow From The Dark in 2012: it’s the story of a young boy in his bedroom with a set of headphones discovering the power of music, and it is glorious. There’s even an old-school narrator between tracks a la Stanley Unwin on the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.

Yes, Nightwish released Imaginaerum in 2011 and it is one of my favorite albums of all time. It also has a movie that goes along with it.

The Sword had a very 70s-sounding hard rock SF concept album with Warp Riders in 2010, and it’s fucking epic.

By the way, here is Christopher Lee singing with Rhapsody.

The Magic of the Wizard’s Dream

I suppose iTunes has changed how people buy music: more by the individual song than for the album. But I’m an old ruddy daddy: I try listening to new stuff but mostly it doesn’t move me.

One of my favourite artists has released several concept albums in the last decade. Well, actually, in 2 cases, it’s concept EPs. One (February & Heavenly) is a fairly loose concept, playing with the relationship between her two personae in a different way than the others, which also have (very simple) plots, but still. (The other actual album, I Kill My Heart plays with the February/Heavenly relationship differently still.)

OK Computer is 20 years old now (time flies…) but it’s still far more recent than the 1970’s. It’s regularly voted one of the greatest albums of all time and is unquestionably a concept album.

I think this misses the point a little. It was designed to be a “rock opera” and opera plots are very often (always?) ridiculously implausible and melodramatic bullshit. That’s sort of part of the art form.

I have to say I dislike opera style plots intensely, but complaining that an opera (or rock opera) has a bullshit plot is like complaining that the blues always uses the blues progression. That’s what it is.

In many sub-genres of metal, actually.

Aye, that was one of the metal albums I’d’ve mentioned too. With the execrable exception of Night City it’s a fantastic album; I reviewed it on my blog back then.

Mastodon’s Leviathon, Blood Mountain and Crack The Skye are all concept albums.

Coheed & Cambria pretty much only exists to tell about The Amory Wars.

Opeth’s Still Life is excellent but for me their best is the Damnation half of their double album concept with Deliverance. Love that ddamn album.

Texas headbangers Upon A Burning Body released a couple of awesome concept albums a few years back, one based on Pacino movies and another based on Robert Rodriguez’s movies.

There’s loads of concept albums still being made.