Monday, 5 April 2010

My Top 10 Fav Concept Albums

Originlly Written: 29/10/07

For the life of me I can't remember when I was first introduced into the intense world of concept albums. I have a feeling it may have been Marilyn Manson's typtch that turned me on to this crazy way to enhance your product and in doing so, present an album in such a unified way as a solid story. But regardless when or what it was, it changed everything for me. Suddenly, every album I recorded at home had to have an elaborate underlying theme even when I really didn't want to. It stuck with me, and my obsession for them has grown and grown as time has gone on, now seeking out and collecting as many as possible, as well as researching to find the best of the best. And that is why I am writing this note, to pass on some of the knowledge I have accumulated thus far.

But for those who are unsure what I am on about, here is a quick definition of what a concept album really is. Basically, it's exactly what it sounds like. An album with a concept, "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical", yes thanks wikipedia. The difference here is that the majority of standard album's consist of a group of unrelated songs, while concept albums take on the ambitious task of (instead of using songs as separate pieces of work) using the entire album as a single massive entity.

It is just another example of value for money and bringing art into music over and above the necessary. And it gets me wet. So without further adieu, here are the top 10 best concept albums I own (and by own I mean, I actually own them, not downloaded, this is important because with concept albums the cover artwork generally plays an important role). Note that the order is based on the concepts themselves and not the overall album:

Frank Zappa - Freak Out
10. Frank Zappa - Freak Out! (1966)
Concept: It was Zappa's "satirical attitude based on his unique perception of American pop culture". It's a very loose concept, some songs steering off the topic a bit to go off about love and what-not (actually a very good break-up album) but it is important because it was also Zappa's debut. His body of work grew to an apoloclyptic size, and it has been argued that his entire catalogue could be viewed as one unifying concept, filled with characters and hilarious situations (this album introducing Suzy Creamcheese who became a staple part of his collection on the albums Absolutely Free, Mothermania, We're Only in It for the Money and Uncle Meat).
While Beatle scholars bare teeth and clench fists arguing that Sgt Pepper was the "first ever rock concept album", Paul McCartney himself blushed and admitted that Pepper was his attempt at "Freak Out!" (and ofcourse The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds", another possible concept album that came first). Zappa then parodied Sgt Pepper with his somewhat better album "We're Only in it for the Money".

The Who Sell Out
09. The Who - The Who Sell Out (1967)
Concept: While the songs themselves are unrelated, the idea was for the record to sound like a radio station that played nothing but Who songs. It came complete with jingles and adverts written by Radio London Jingles. After this album, The Who were sued left right and center from not only the company who's jingles they used, but all the products they mentioned without permission (like Heinz Baked Beans, Odorono, Medac, Coke-a-Cola etc). The title and the artwork go together nicely with the band using oversized versions of products as if they were using their name to sell them (aka, Selling Out). The whole album is quite hilarious actually.
It is with much shame that I admit that The Who have a much better concept album which I do not own, and if I did would no doubt be a much higher entry. The album "Tommy" is a staple of any concept collector which I haven't come into contact yet, and as a result, I felt compelled to at least have something from The Who here. With interesting characters and a great storyline which was turned into a film starring Pete Townshend and Elton John, the only thing I can say is: doesn't someone want to buy this for me??
(Please note: I now own Tommy)

The Beatles - Sgt Pepper
08. The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Concept: a fake band of new characters each represented by a Beatle, supposed to be their way of "touring without touring". It's an album which was meant to show a band holding a concert with an audience of people they admired, all of which are featured on the groundbreaking artwork, definitely my favorite cover (and album) of all time.
No other album has been argued over as much by concept collectors. While some fight viciously that this is the first real rock concept album ever, other people say it is not even applicable for the term. Originally the idea was one of uniting all the songs, each member becoming a new persona, but they only got as far as Ringo becoming Billy Shears (as he was introduced on the second song "With a Little Help from My Friends"). From there, the idea dies off and the songs do not connect to eachother, except for the second to last song which was a reprise of the first track, which became a huge center point of argument for those fighting for the inclusion of this as a concept album. I am on that side, the focus being that they did become a fake band for this release, completely shedding their mop-top pop days and growing mustaches, wearing funky clothing and venturing deep into the psychedelic artsy sound-orgy side of their personalities. This is their magnum opus and, if nothing else, brought the term "concept album" to attention of other artists as well as the media, and definitely changed people's thinking into what an album could be.

Mars Volta - DeLoused in the Comatorium
07. The Mars Volta - De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003)
Concept: A character named Cerpin Taxt tries to kill himself by overdosing on Morphine and ends up on a surrealistic journey through his comatose mind, eventually coming to the end where he has the option of dying or living, and he chooses to die. It is based on Julio Venegas, a poet and musician who knew the band and tried to kill himself by shooting up rat poison. He went into the said coma, did awake and then jumped off a building. Funny enough (or not funny at all) this album featured a sound-manipulator named Jeremy Michael Ward who died one month before this was released from a Heroin overdose, at age 27, becoming a lesser famous member of the 27 club.
This was The Mars Volta's massive and critically acclaimed debut, a band who rose from the already majorly influential band At the Drive-In. Although I don't agree or disagree, this is still hailed as their best work to date. A small book has been released explaining the lyrics.

Marilyn Manson - Holy Woods
06. Marilyn Manson - Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) (2000)
Concept: The final installation and prequel to the extremely intelligent and researched Tryptch, which also consisted of Mechanical Animals and Antichrist Superstar. Any given of these 3 could be included here for their own unique contribution to the story, but I chose this one because it does seem to be the most thought out.
It goes like this: Antichrist Superstar (IIV) focuses on a boy who is born and grows up in a world he doesn't understand. He starts to reject the Christian morals and the celebrities on TV. He stands against it so hard that he eventually becomes somewhat of a prophet and then ultimately another product, worshipped by the very people he despised and becoming exactly what it was he was rejecting. He shoots himself in the end. Mechanical Animals (15) took the perspective of the two sides of this person's rise to fame, Alpha as the introspective alien who is confused and scared at the level of his success, while Omega was the typical Rockstar. But Holy Wood put an interesting twist on everything, pointing out the martyrdom of JFK and John Lennon, and how Jesus was the first celebrity, all of who's violent deaths made them icons of American Culture, placing his character (called ADAM on this release) among those. Full of references to the columbine massacre (which Manson was almost solely blamed for despite absolutely no connection), the number 6, guns, God and the government, it is a very tight and aggressive concept despite not being my favorite of Manson's. Parallels to The Wall, Downward Spiral and Ziggy Stardust are all evident, and when you are familiar with Manson's techniques, you can see that he was greatly inspired by those records and definitely took parts of them to form this. A book and movie were set to be released but he ran into obvious problems by using non-fictious characters in the storyline.

Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero
05. Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero (2007)
Concept: The story is still unfolding and tells of the year 0BA, the beginning of the end of the world in an alternate universe, which still references the Iraq War and 9/11. It's strongly political and talks about Natural Disasters and Global Warming, the government releasing mind control drugs into the market, and basically everything going to shit. It's kind of difficult to truly explain what is going on, but a movie is coming out and I suggest you keep an eye on this page:
Although Downward Spiral is hailed as NiN's best work and is a story itself, this is the most important concept album of our time and has redefined the very nature of concept albums. The promotion was no less than astonishing, kids were finding USB drives in the bathrooms of NiN's concerts, with tracks or some static which, when put through a spectrogram, revealed information. Similarly, binary code on t-shirts were being cracked by computer nerds and even the disk itself (which was black) turned white when heated up, and revealed further binary code. These codes led to websites and phone numbers, and when used, the concept started to reveal itself, and continues to do so, people still frantically searching for another key to the story. It was really above the line of duty for Trent Reznor to pull out a product like this (especially after the disappointing With Teeth) and the music stands up for itself. It is almost guaranteed to spawn thousands of replica's and similar promotional techniques, and I don't mind. Trent, you innovative genius.

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust
04. David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars1972)
Concept: The world is ending in 5 years and the world is distraught. Only an alien rock-god can save us with music, and he comes down from Mars to do just that. However, he gets so wrapped up in the rock 'n roll lifestyle of drugs and promiscuity, he looses his head and dies. Damnit.
Bowie is the king of changing persona's and more so, has released such elaborate concept albums that he admitted that he nearly lost his mind at times, forgetting who he was supposed to really be. However, none are praised as highly as this album and it is a definite contender as one of the greatest most influence albums of all time, particularly in the concept field. Bob Marley named his son after this character, and he has been referenced in works from Def Leppard and The Smashing Pumpkins. And much like most these entries, it doesn't rely on it's concept alone, it's a damn good collection of songs, never steering too far away from the storyline, except for covering Ron Davies' "It Ain't Easy". Notice the similarities between this album and Manson's Mechanical Animals, an almost direct rip-off.

Cradle Of Filth - Cruelty And The Beast
03. Cradle of Filth - Cruelty and the Beast (1998)
Concept: Retelling the true story of the Hungarian "blood countess" Elizabeth Báthory. When young virgins began to go missing, rumors started to surface that the countess living in the giant castle in the center of the village was a vampire, drinking the blood of these girls. The truth wasn't far off, hundred of virgins were brought to her castle where she would torture them by burning and mutilating their bodies, starving them, freezing them, biting them and sticking needles into them. She would end them off by draining their blood so that she could take a bath in it. She believed that it preserved her youth. She was found guilty and was under house arrest in the castle until her death.
Despite the shoddy production (which I actually love) this is my favorite Cradle album. With such an awesome original factual subject matter, which prompted me to research this crazy lady further, how could I resist awarding it such a high position? And CoF are never shy of conceptual work, their 2003 Damnation and a Day is another would be top contender with the story of St. Lucifer's fall from heaven. Wicked stuff.

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free
02. The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free (2004)
Concept: An ordinary Geezer looses £1000, meets a girl, takes ecstasy and thinks he saw his new girl kissing his friend, complains about his broken TV, gets in an argument with girl, learns about the affair and starts to blame his friends for his missing money. The real gem is the final track where there is a double ending. On the first half he gets drunk and loathes everyone, calls the TV repairman and thinks the guy is trying to rip him off, and they end up having a brawl in his kitchen. In the second half, it rewinds with an alternate closer. His friend that made out with his girlfriend comes over to try and help him fix his TV as a peace offering. In the back he finds the £1000. The Antagonist has a party celebration where he reflects and concludes that his friends are good people with their own problems and his life isn't as bad as he had made it out to be.
What should be obvious here is that there isn't some massive epic story trying to convince us something, with cryptic lyrics and out-of-this-world characters. It is a word for word account of a seemingly ordinary day in comparison to all the other entries, from ordering take-outs and losing his place in the line when he spots a pretty girl, to returning a DVD to the store and realizing he left the disk at home. That's the beauty of the Streets in the first place, Mike Skinner is not hiding anything and not trying to be something that he's not. It's an everyday simple story full of humorous moments and, like The Street's sound in general, a really fresh down-to-earth style.

Pink Floyd - The Wall
01. Pink Floyd - The Wall (1979)
Concept: Pink, our protagonist, is going insane. His father was killed in World War II, he was smothered by his mother and was oppressed at school. He becomes a famous rockstar and starts to loose it, building a mental wall around himself for protection and to go insane behind. He is forced to keep doing shows despite his deteriorating state, eventually spiraling to the point of believing he is a fascist dictator and his concerts are Neo-Nazi rallies. He then goes on mental trial in his own chaotic head and the judge orders him to break down the wall.
Just holding this album in your hands gives you an epic feeling, from the name to the cover to the chunky packaging, you know you are looking at something a little beyond your average project. It's a double album worth of songs which, like most of Pink Floyd's work, details insanity so finely that just by listening to it, you feel like you might be loosing it yourself. That is why I don't enjoy Pink Floyd whatsoever, it is too much for me, a bad trip, but still so incredibly talented one can't deny their genius/insanity. I recommend to anyone to watch the movie, it's so well done, arguably the best album-to-movie ever done, and really injects new life into the concept. Undoubtedly one of the biggest inspirations to many conceptual albums afterwards, like The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails and Mansons Tryptch, it's position is unchallenged.

Not Quite:
A Perfect Circle - Thirteenth Step
The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
Bjork - Medulla
Coheed and Cambria - The Second Stage Turbine Blade
Fantômas - Delìrium Còrdia
Frank Sinatra - In the Wee Small Hours
Gorrilaz - Demon Days
Greenday - American Idiot
Mastodon - Leviathan
My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade
Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Pete Johnson - Pete's House Warmin'
The Residents - Not Available
The Smashing Pumpkins - Machina/The Machines of God


  1. Kid A by Radiohead and Berlin by Lou Reed. They're my favorites.

    1. Interesting, I've never heard of Kid A being referred to as a concept album before...