The Most Iconic Concept Albums Of All Time

Jackson Sawa | June 28, 2019 4:00 pm

Concept albums are a collection of songs in which each track plays a significant role in making the album feel like a unified piece. This can be accomplished lyrically, instrumentally, compositionally, or just about anything that ties the record together as a whole. Unsurprisingly, music critics don’t have a clear definition as to what makes a concept album, since it’s up to the listeners to decide for themselves. However, there are some records that are undeniable concept albums. Take a look to see which ones stand out among the others!

The Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

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After recording the track “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, Paul McCartney suggested that the Beatles record an entire album under the guise of the fictional Sgt. Pepper band. This way, they would have the freedom to be even more experimental with their music, knowing that they wouldn’t have to perform the songs live if they didn’t want to.

Released in 1967, the album spent 27 weeks on the UK Albums Chart and 15 weeks at No.1 in the US. It has been revered by both critics and fans for its boldness, earning four Grammys including Album of the Year, the first rock LP to do so.

The Beach Boys: Pets Sounds (1966)

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When writing and composing Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s goal was to create “the greatest rock album ever made.” Many critics define Pet Sounds as a concept album for its “uniform excellence” rather than the lyrics telling a story or for having the same musical motifs.

Yet, some have even gone so far as to say it’s the first rock concept album ever produced. Although the album was more well-received in the UK than the US, over time, it has come to be referred to be one of the top most influential records in music history.

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

Ziggy Stardust
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Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Known as “The Chameleon” for his various alter-egos, Ziggy Stardust is arguably Bowie’s most famous. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a concept album about Ziggy Stardust, the red-haired, androgynous bisexual rock star from space.

Bowie went on tour as Ziggy Stardust to promote the album which peaked at No.5 on the UK Albums Chart and No.78 on the Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart. As of 2017 it had sold over 7.5 million copies and has been reserved for preservation by the Library of Congress.

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1979)

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One of the most popular concept albums of all time, The Wall follows Pink, a fictional character assumed to be a combination of both Roger Waters and former member Syd Barrett. Pink is an apathetic rockstar whose isolation from society is symbolized by a wall.

The album turned out to be a commercial success, topping the charts in the US for 15 weeks and No.3 in the UK for three weeks. While some found it pretentious, it is not regarded as one of the best albums of all time. In 1982, it was then turned into a feature film of the same name so the story could be fully understood.

Frank Sinatra: Watertown (1970)

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Watertown tells the tale of a man from Watertown, New York with a series of monologues from a narrator whose wife abandoned him to move to New York City, leaving his two sons behind. Sinatra agreed to do the album in 1969 after experiencing low sales, thinking a concept album would be intriguing to his fans.

However, things didn’t work out as planned, and the album received mixed reviews and poor sales. It ended up being the only one of his albums to not break into the Billboard Top 100 chart.

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On? (1971)

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Beginning with an opening theme and ending with the same one, most of the songs on What’s Going On transition into one another, telling the story of a Vietnam War veteran returning home to see what has happened to the United States since he left.

Upon its release, the song became an instant hit both with fans and critics, later being named a classic of 1970s soul music. The song has since been considered one of the greatest of all time and is named No.6 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The Who: Tommy (1969)

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The Who’s 1969 rock opera album, Tommy, is about as close to a concept album that you can get. It follows a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid, who sure plays a mean pinball” as he makes his way through life. Pete Townshend was inspired to write the album after studying the works of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master.

The album was successful upon its release with some claiming it was the Who’s breakout record. Its success led to the development as a Seattle Opera production, an orchestra, a Broadway musical, and most notably a musical starring Townshend, among other famous musicians at the time.

The Eagles: Desperado (1973)

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Apparent by its title, the Eagles second album, Desperado, has Old West themes, with songs such as “Outlaw Man,” “Doolin-Dalton,” “Tequila Sunrise,” among others. To really drive the idea home, all of the members are wearing Old West regalia on the front of the album, the only album that features all the members on the cover.

Ironically, even though “Desperado” is the opening track and now one of the Eagles’ signature songs, it was never released as a single on the album.

Green Day: American Idiot (2004)

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Regarded as a “punk rock opera” concept album by the band, American Idiot is the tale of Jesus of Suburbia, who is a lower-middle-class American teenager. It follows his experience as he lives through stressful events, specifically the Iraq War during his formative years.

Being their seventh studio album, American Idiot is considered a comeback album for Green Day after their underwhelming album Warning in 2000. Charting in 27 countries it peaked at No.1 in 19 of them, taking home the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005.

My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade (2006)

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My Chemical Romance’s third studio album, The Black Parade, features the band playing as their alter-ego: The Black Parade. The rock opera follows The Patient as he transitions into death, his experience in the afterlife, and his reflection of his time on earth.

The album debuted at the No.2 on the Billboard 200 as well as the UK Albums Chart, eventually becoming certified as triple platinum by the RIAA. My Chemical Romance’s inspiration for the concept album has been cited to come from Queen and Pink Floyd’s take on rock operas, although stylistically can be linked to numerous other groups.

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010)

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The third studio album by the Canadian indie rock group Arcade Fire, The Suburbs is a description of life living in the suburbs. Described by Win Butler, the frontman of Arcade Fire, “[The Suburbs] is neither a love letter to nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.”

The album topped the charts in numerous countries, winning Album of the Year at numerous award ceremonies, including the 2011 Grammys. In turn, it was also revered by several publications with many claiming it was an extremely refreshing piece of music.

Foxygen:…And Star Power (2014)

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…And Star Power is the fourth album by duo Jonathan Rado and Sam France, otherwise known as Foxygen. It is a concept album played by Foxygen’s alter-ego Star Power. Completely out of control, the double album follows four different acts, all different from the next, with no real structure.

It’s an all-around wacky album, allowing for Foxygrn to show what they are truly capable of, while simultaneously turning their audience’s brains to mush. While some songs could pass as tracks on a regular album, others might be a little too conceptual to the average listener.

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

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For Emma, Forever Ago is the debut studio album by indie folk band Bon Iver. The album was written and recorded by Justin Vernon, who drove to his father’s hunting cabin to be alone. There, he spent his time in isolation hunting for his own food, and unexpectedly writing his album.

The album is considered a concept piece because it strictly focuses on the themes of loneliness, heartbreak, and mediocrity. After some encouragement from friends, he self-released the album which gained a lot of attention. Since its release, the album has been certified platinum and established Vernon as a respected musician in the indie community.

Queens of The Stone Age: Songs For The Deaf (2002)

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Released in 2002 on Interscope records, Queens of the Stoneage’s Songs for the Deaf is considered to be a loose concept album. Although not all of the songs flow into each other, the album takes the listener on a drive through the California desert beginning in Los Angeles and ending in Joshua Tree.

At the end of numerous songs, different radio stations can be heard in various towns along the way as a form of transition. The song was a commercial success, gaining the band international recognition and receiving two Grammy nominations for their songs “No One Knows,” and “Go With the Flow.”

Frank Zappa: Joe’s Garage (1979)

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Recorded as a three-part rock opera, which Zappa described as being “a stupid little story about how the government is going to do away with music.” Essentially, its about an unruly teenage boy named Joe who is in a garage rock band and eventually is arrested for his wild behavior.

Upon his release, he finds himself in a dystopian society where music has been criminalized. Some people found the album to be innovative while others thought it was perverted and offensive due to some of its content. In recent years, it has been re-evaluated by numerous critics.

Small Faces: Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (1968)

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Released in 1968, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is Small Faces’ third album and first concept album. Side one of the album is normal, for the most part, with rock songs such as “Lazy Sunday,” and “Afterglow,” that most listeners would think twice about.

However, side two of the record is a fairy tale about a boy named Happiness Stan on a quest to find the missing half of the moon. However, due to the second side’s complexity, it was never performed live. Upon its release, the album peaked at No.1 on the UK album chart and remained there for six weeks.

The Decembrists: The Hazards Of Love (2009)

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Initially, Hazards of Love was inspired by the Anne Briggs EP of the same name, with the band’s goal to write a song about the title of her EP. Yet, it turned into a whole album. The Decembrists’ album is described as a rock opera with the songs creating a unified narrative.

The album describes a story about a woman falling in love with a shape-shifting forest dweller, although their love has some complications. The album received mixed reviews with many critics at least admiring the group’s ambition. James Christopher Monger of AllMusic described it as “ambitious, pretentious, obtuse, often impenetrable, and altogether pretty great”.

Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (2005)

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Following two years behind Stevens’ Michigan, Illinois is a concept album that has an overall theme about the state of Illinois. Many of the songs reference the culture, cities, jokes, and people related to the state, which he learned after studying it extensively.

Initially, Stevens claimed that he planned to make an album for every state which he later acknowledged as a joke. The album made many of the best of the decade’s lists and was even named the best album of 2005 by Metacritic. It is praised for its lyricism, orchestration, and is widely considered his best work to date.

Jethro Tull: Thick As A Brick (1972)

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Although the group’s intention was to create a parody of a concept album, they still managed to make one themselves. The two-sided album is one continuous piece of music, the band claimed it was supposed to be an adaptation of the epic poem written by the fictional eight-year-old genius Gerald Bostock.

Yet, in reality, it was written by Ian Anderson, the band’s frontman. Although it received mixed reviews by critics, the public loved it, topping numerous charts the year of its release. They followed up with another album in 2012 about the adult life of the made-up Gerald Bostock.

Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012)

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Regarded as the album that put Kendrick Lamar on the map, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City details Lamar’s rough adolescence growing up on the hard streets of Compton. On the album cover, it even states “A short film by Kendrick Lamar,” making it clear that it’s a concept album.

The album debuted at No.2 on the Billboard 200, also becoming Lamar’s first album to land on the UK charts. At the 2014 Grammys, it earned four nominations including album of the year. It has since been certified triple platinum and has sold over 1.7 million copies.