What is a concept album?

By Chris Moore:

You may be saying, okay, I know what an album is — it’s a collection of songs, usually by one artist, that is released as a unit. When an artist releases new music, those who love to listen to new music have a decision to make: buy the single or take the plunge and buy the whole album. An album offers a range of emotions and types of songs that a single simply cannot. A single is usually the most catchy and commercial tune on the album; the album, on the other hand, contains not only the single, but also a series of other songs, such as ballads, jam tracks, instrumentals, and so much more. An album contains material that would never make it onto the radio, for a variety of reasons, and it is the mark of a good new music artist that you feel at a loss for not owning the entire album.

So, the question remains:

What is a concept album?

The answer will most likely be less interesting to those who only buy singles. However, for those who enjoy albums, the concept album is the ultimate achievement of a recording artist. In terms of songwriting, the new music on an album is usually connected by some loose theme, or at least by a somewhat similar sound. There are happy and sad songs, songs of love and songs of rejection, politically charged or politically ambiguous songs; the list is endless, and the songs are usually there in one place because the songwriter composed them at approximately the same time.

A concept album is a collection of recordings that all relate directly to a fairly specific theme. The concept is the lens through which the songwriter orders and arranges his material. For instance, the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed is based on the concept of one person’s average day. Thus, the album begins with songs about dawn and morning, moves on to the afternoon (this is where their hit “Tuesday Afternoon” is positioned), and ends in the evening and night (logically, this is where perhaps their biggest hit, “Nights in White Satin” can be found on the album). Many of the songs, such as the two aforementioned radio singles, can stand on their own, but the progression of the album is such that you have the experience of a complete day, from daybreak to nightfall.

Since the advent of what is considered to be the first concept album — the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — songwriters have developed concept albums based on a multitude of creative and interesting ideas. The aforementioned Beatles album came about as a way for the Beatles to expand outside the bounds of what it meant to be a “Beatles album” at that time, taking on the guise of this new “Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Later, Brian Wilson would compose SMiLE, and much later, he would release this album of interlocking and overlapping tracks, repeating musical progressions and ideas in interesting and unique ways.

The Moody Blues’ first seven albums are notable for being based around concepts — their best ideas for concept albums include an exploration of unconscious thoughts in Threshold of a Dream and their message in a bottle, so to speak, to distant future generations in To Our Children’s Children’s Children. While each of their albums had radio-worthy singles, the true strength of their early work was in creating these cohesive larger pictures, these concept albums.

As recently as 2008, concept albums are still used by songwriters to express larger ideas that cannot be fully covered in one track of new music. If you listen to new music, you may have already heard the Counting Crows’ Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings or the instant hit from Coldplay, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.

What follows below is a brief catalog and set of links to reviews of some of the most significant concept albums of our time.

1967 – The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

1967 – The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed

1967/2004 – Brian Wilson – SMiLE

2005 – Jim Fusco – What About Today?

2006 – The Now People – The Last Great 20th Century Love Affair

2008 – Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

2008 – Counting Crows – Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings

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