With the release of Taylor Swift’s Midnights came a renewed interest in the concept record—using a central idea as a jumping-off point for a project. While an album doesn’t need an overarching theme to be a stellar body of work, there is something innately enticing about seeing what an artist can do with such parameters. Almost contradictory, musicians seem to break free of confines and soar to new heights with concept records, despite narrowing their scope.
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Concept albums have been in circulation for some 70 years. Sinatra made them. The Beatles too. Beyoncé dominated the format while Rosalía broke down barriers with it. Below, we’re going through just seven (among a much longer list) of great concept records from music history.
1. Lemonade (Beyoncé)
Lemonade was a turning point in Beyoncé’s career. While Jay-Z’s infidelity certainly lit the thematic spark behind the record, intermingled between the break-up anthems are meditations on Blackness, her personal testimony of womanhood, and many more era-defining ideas. As made clear by her accompanying visuals for the album, each song on Lemonade is part of that larger story.
While her previous self-titled record (also a visual album) felt in many ways like “life: as seen from the viewpoint of a superstar,” Lemonade comes from somewhere far more accessible. She is a woman, cheated on by her husband, struggling with forgiveness and reckoning with her place in the world. It’s the story of many women. Beyoncé just happens to relay it with such confidence and attitude that she makes the ordinary feel superhuman.
2. The Black Parade (My Chemical Romance)
For their third full-length effort, My Chemical Romance paired punk with the melodrama of Broadway. The album comes from the gripping viewpoint of a man dying from cancer. From his deathbed, he looks back on his life with a dark humor that makes the slow march to the afterlife seem more like a reason to party than to mourn. Bringing in some symphonic flavors, the emo staples went far beyond what was expected of them in 2006.
3. El Mal Querer (Rosalía)
El Mal Querer started its life as Rosalía’s graduate thesis at Barcelona’s Catalunya College of Music. What it developed into is a stunning retelling of a 13th-century novel titled Flamenca. The Spanish phenom translated the story into something a modern audience could digest: haunting R&B melodies and hip-hop steeped beats alongside tinges of her flamenco traditions. The curtain opens with “Malamente,” setting the scene for the dark romance that awaits the listener across the rest of the album. Each song feels like a journey with winding changes and a heavy amount of drama.
4. American Idiot (Green Day)
A post-9/11 America, knee-deep in the Iraq War desperately needed a steward to guide them back unto a more righteous path—at least that’s what Green Day thought in 2004.
American Idiot follows a lower-middle-class anti-hero called the “Jesus of Suburbia.” He, through the album, expresses the disillusionment of an entire generation of Americans shaped by tumultuous events, like the one listed above. The band uses intricate transitions and sprawling, chapter-like compositions to express a couple of central ideas: how does justifying a war (as they deemed it) “basically to build a pipeline and put up a f***ing Wal-Mart” affect our social values? And who will stand up against it?
5. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (David Bowie)
Thanks to David Bowie, there are few things that feel as ’70s as androgynous aliens and rock star prophets. Though he came up with the story of Ziggy Stardust after the album was created, you’d never know it given how fluidly the songs connect to one another.
As the story goes, Ziggy arrives on earth ready to save the world from certain doom with the power of glammed-up rock n’ roll. With the Spiders in tow, Ziggy becomes an intergalactic superstar. Unfortunately, even he is not immune to the hazardous effects of fame. The story was prophetic in two senses. In one light, Bowie speaks to the perishing of our planet (that is pervasive in the headlines today) and in another, he sheds light on the way rock stars can be beaten down by the industry and their fans alike.
6. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles)
By the late ’60s, the Beatles were the biggest group in the world. As a result, they experienced all the highs and lows that come along with such prestige. As the band would later recall, the lows were beginning to take a heavy toll. To escape it all, they developed a group of alter egos: the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Though the term “concept album” is used a little looser here—given that the songs have little thematic throughline—operating under a new moniker and imbuing a sense of play that they may not have afforded otherwise makes this album a masterpiece that has a clear, overarching objective.
7. In The Wee Small Hours (Frank Sinatra)
In the mid-’50s, artists weren’t generally aiming to create cohesive statements with their records. Instead, they were focused on securing a few singles and filling the leftover space with soon-forgotten B-sides. That was until Frank Sinatra sat down at a bar stool, tapped the counter for another, and lit up a cigarette for In The Wee Small Hours.
Generally considered one of the first concept records ever, Sinatra compiled 16 of the glummest songs from the Great American Songbook to tell his tale. Across the album, he takes a dejected stance on life after romance amid a thick, moody atmosphere. When listening to the album, you yourself begin to feel blue—so much so that you long to have a stiff drink in some quiet corner to mull over your mistakes.
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