In popular music, a concept album is an album that is "unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical".That works for me. A concept album, then, has a 'unified theme' running through all the songs on the album. Not half the album. Not a song-cycle of three or four songs. The whole album. Therefore, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, long lauded as the first and greatest rock concept album, does not fit the criteria; in fact, most musicologists do not consider Sgt. Pepper's as a concept album because, save for the album cover, two songs and the intro to a third, the balance of the album has no 'conceptual continuity' (if I may borrow a term used by Frank Zappa), and no central and unifying theme. Let's see, they've got sitars, psychedelia, music hall/burlesque, classical and 'granny music' (a term John Lennon used for annoyingly cloying McCartney songs like When I'm Sixty-four), but Sgt. Pepper and his brass band literally disappear for most of the recording. The Beatles may lay claim to many musical innovations, but the concept album aint one of them.
Likewise, Jethro Tull's Aqualung, long branded as a concept album, is nothing of the sort. In fact, Ian Anderson, Tull's front man, proclaimed, "I always said at the time that this is not a concept album; this is just an album of varied songs of varied instrumentation and intensity in which three or four are the kind of keynote pieces for the album but it doesn't make it a concept album." In fact, Anderson was was so incensed at the critics erroneous labeling of Aqualung that he added, "Well, if they thought Aqualung was a concept album, O-O-K, we'll show you a concept album." And thus, the mother of all concept albums Thick as a Brick was born. The same goes for a great album like Radiohead's OK Computer. Hey, if the band members themselves flatly deny it is a concept album, who am I to argue?
Then, we have aborted concepts: there are the halflings like Brain Salad Surgery from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who only manage a concept through one side of their album (Karn Evil 9: 1st, 2nd and 3rd Impressions); concepts running in fits and starts, such as on Alice Cooper's Love It To Death, Killer and School's Out, which included a few songs from each album that fit into a tightly crafted gang drama a la Westside Story played out at their concerts in the early 70's; and albums that the composer claims is a concept album but just isn't, like Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Just because Bernie Taupin claims that the songs are autobiographical and glimpse the struggles of Captain Fantastic (John) and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (Taupin), doesn't mean the album is a concept. Bernie, exactly how many albums in the last 50 years have been autobiographical? Oh! Oh! I know: nearly all of them! And who wants to be known as a 'Brown Dirt Cowboy'? *shudders*
In conclusion, it seems many of the selfsame critics who mislabel albums also deride the whole...ummm...concept of concept albums. I suppose such efforts are too literary or grandiose for their tastes, all part and parcel of the anti-intellectualism that pervades today's worldview. After all, any society that would elect a good ol' boy like George W. Bush (and then dumbly reelect him to a second term), and who willingly pay thousands of dollars to hear Sarah Palin drag geography and science back to the era of Galileo's house arrest, certainly lacks the wherewithal to stay focused long enough to listen to a concept album, preferring the blessed simplicity of downloading mp3 versions of three-chord songs that run 2:30 and have A-A-B-B rhyme schemes (totally oblivious of Clerihews, of course).
In the brilliant movie Amadeus, the Emperor Joseph expressed his frustration at being mentally overtaxed by Mozart's music by opining, "There it is, there are simply too many notes." One wonders if the complex concepts composed by Mozart, Bach and Beethoven would be jeered at as pretentious by modern flat-earthers if they were newly released in today's market. No need to answer that, I was merely speaking rhetorically.
The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
-- An essential album. Sonically perfect,
"Dark Side" is a masterpiece of studio recording. People have literally worn out their vinyl, eight-tracks, cassettes and CD's and continued to repurchase this album in the newest format available. The working title for this album was Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics, mirroring Roger Waters idea that the songs should deal with things that "make people mad": war, anger, isolation, greed, regret, aging, death and mental illness. And madness pervades the songs, played as continuous pieces of music on both sides of the album. Of particular note is the clever interplay between the songs and the accompanying background dialogue that runs throughout -- sometimes mumbled, sometimes drunken, and other times forthright -- culminating in the final ironic statement: "There is no dark side of the moon, really; as a matter of fact, It's all dark."
Along with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver, The Dark Side of the Moon is perhaps the greatest studio recording of all time, with more technical innovations than occurred during the NASA lunar program. Okay, I am exaggerating about NASA, but there is a direct tie to the studio work of The Beatles and Pink Floyd: Alan Parsons, the studio engineer for The Dark Side of the Moon, was also responsible for engineering work on The Beatles Abbey Road and Let It Be albums (it is Parsons who was completely responsible for the multitude of clocks ticking and chiming at the beginning of the song "Time" -- he had gone to an antique shop and laboriously recorded the distinctive sounds of several old timepieces).
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie
-- So, let me get this straight, Ziggy Stardust is the story of "the human manifestation of an alien being who is attempting to present humanity with a message of hope in the last five years of its existence", but unfortunately becomes overly enamored of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and the rabid fans who egg him on, and he eventually burns out and destroys himself? My friends, only the rock chameleon David Bowie could invent a story so ludicrous but have it succeed so wildly. Perhaps because Bowie was so outlandishly alien in his appearance and proclivities that a suspension of disbelief was not required to imagine him in the role. After all, he was later cast as a melancholy alien in the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth.
But aside from stretching the limits of science-fiction to Rocky Horrorific proportions, from the first tentative chords of 'Five Years' to the violin and cello outro of "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" this album packs a galactic wallop. Of special note is the rasping, razor-sharp guitar licks of Mick Ronson. Not one bad song in the whole damn lot, but my particular favorites are the one-two-three punch of "Ziggy Stardust", "Suffragette City" and "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide". Just remember 'you don't eat if you've lived too long'. Bowie's masterpiece.
Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues
-- A musical treasure for anyone who does not live in a cave and scratch his/her private parts in public. This is an album that bridges generations and spans genres; for example, the longtime (and decidedly conservative) classical music critic of the Detroit Free Press, the late John Guinn, said simply that Days of Future Passed was an album he "cherished", and that speaks volumes for the reach of this recording. This is simply a great album, the best of all orchestra/rock band collaborations (the only comparable brilliant collaboration would be Procol Harum and orchestra playing "Conquistador"), and DoFP is breathtakingly beautiful in spots.
In regards to The Moody Blues, they could certainly compose an elegant love song, and nowhere is this more evident than on Days of Future Passed. I would suggest that "Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)" and "Nights in White Satin" are two of the greatest love songs ever written. Also of note is the exquisite "Dawn is a Feeling" (great with coffee on the patio on a summer morning), and "Twilight Time" ("an aerial display by the firefly brigade, dancing to tunes no one knew" -- great line). And the use of the London Festival Orchestra is an integral part of the album as a whole, rather than an afterthought to give an album a classical flair. The orchestra and band have separate parts throughout the album, each thematically reflecting the other, and only during "Night in White Satin" do the two mesh together for a magnificent crescendo as the song reaches its climax. The poem "Late Lament" is also a memorable moment in rock history, and an appropriate ending for a day in the life as written by the Moody Blues.
Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull
-- Thick as a Brick should rate highly simply on the strength of having one of the best album covers ever designed: a fold-out newspaper complete with articles, comics, ads, crossword puzzle and a rather bawdy connect-the-dots children's game! A CD jewel case does not do justice to the album design (which is the case for many of the albums from the 60's and 70's). Furthermore, one cannot underestimate the effect Thick as a Brick had on folks growing up in the 70's. It was irreverent! It was rebellious! It mentioned both blackheads and peeing oneself in the night in one line! Only in the early 70's could this album (and Tull's follow-up A Passion Play) be released. It had no single! It was 42 minutes of continuous music! How can we market the goddamned thing? We won't get royalties from iTunes every time someone downloads a song! Hell, there is no song to download!
The epic poem around which the music is composed was purportedly supplied by a precociously Miltonic adolescent named Gerald Bostock (an alter ego of Ian Anderson), and the lyrics, concerning the trials and travails of growing up, are slyly superb throughout. And they are very sly: according to Ian Anderson, Thick as a Brick was a send-up of some of the more bloated progressive rock of the time. It is a purposely pretentious mockery, holding a jaded mirror up to Tull's pompous rock counterparts (and the band itself). Even the album cover parodies the small minds of small town journalism (including the front page which trumpets the scandal and subsequent disqualification of Gerald Bostock's poem from a literary prize). As an added layer of satire, the newspaper contains many references to the album and the album refers back to the news (Tull members were avid fans of Monty Python). The entire package succeeds magnificently. Many reviewers don't get it and take it at face value, which is even more ironic. Or moronic as the case may be.
Quadrophenia by The Who
-- The Rock Opera was long a province reigned o'er by The Who and their leviathan scion Tommy. Yet the somewhat exaggerated reverence and undeniable genius of The Who's Tommy has overshadowed a better album: Quadrophenia. Heresy, I know, but I believe that Quadrophenia presents Peter Townshend and The Who as mature composers, and the music itself is far more complex and emotionally intense. The album deals with Jimmy Cooper, a 'mod' with schizophrenia (in this case, four different personalities, Sibyl -- and each is represented in song) living in 1964 London. The album tells the story of Jimmy's disillusionment with his parents, society and eventually his mod lifestyle. After a particularly destructive binge, Jimmy takes a train to the Brighton, a Brit sea resort, to relive happier times. But depression, drugs and alcohol overwhelm him and we see him rowing a boat out to sea, ostensibly to drown himself. No further spoilers ensue.
The outstanding songs on this double album are "I Am the Sea/The Real Me", "Quadrophenia", "The Punk and The Godfather", "5:15", "Bellboy" (featuring Keith Moon's manic and marvelous Cockney vocals), and the grande finale "Love, Reign 'Oer Me", a monumental song and the great pinnacle of the Who's career. The Who's next two albums, The Who By Numbers and Who Are You? did not live up to the mammoth expectations set by Quadrophenia and its predecessor Who's Next (The Who's best album), and three weeks after the release of Who Are You, Keith Moon died of a prescription drug overdose. Great drummer but a lunatic. Why is it every drummer I know personally or have heard of are lunatics? Must be all that banging on tom-toms eventually causes misfiring synapses. It's a theory.
I Robot by The Alan Parson Project
-- I Robot is perhaps the most commercially accessible concept album ever created. Nearly every song seems tailor-made for late 70's MOR rock stations. Nearly every song has catchy hooks certain to snag the average listener. The lyrics are not offensive. The music is neither too heavy nor so pop that it would drive away hard rock fans. It has elements of prog-rock, funk, jazz, disco and early techno -- a bit of everything to pique the interest of a very wide, almost disparate, demographic. It doesn't sound like I'm being very complimentary, does it? Au contraire, mon frere! I Robot is a brilliant conception by Alan Parsons (sound engineer for both the Beatles and Pink Floyd) and Eric Woolfson. It even received an enthusiastic blessing from Isaac Asimov, who wrote the sci-fi classic I, Robot (Alan Parson's had to remove the comma and entitle the album I Robot because the rights to the story had been granted to a movie company).
The album's song list reads like a greatest hits package: "I wouldn't Want to Be Like You", "Some Other Time" (a favorite), "Breakdown", "Don't Let It Show", "The Voice" and the instrumental "I Robot" (another favorite). Nearly every song has a different vocalist (including Allan Clarke of The Hollies), but the music is strong enough for the album to remain cohesive and memorable. The Alan Parsons Project has often been derisively labeled 'Pink Floyd Lite', but I can live with that. It's better than Journey Lite.
Tommy by The Who
-- Tommy may have been preceded chronologically by The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed, The Mothers of Invention's We're Only In It For The Money and The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow, but The Who's rock opera about the deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard, although it may not lay claim to the first concept album of the 1960's, is certainly the most popular. Of course, Pete Townshend had prepared us all for greater things on the mini-opera A Quick One, While He's Away, but what was a lark has turned into more serious business here. Whether Tommy is an actual opera or more appropriately an 'oratorio' along the lines of Handel's Messiah, is neither here nor there, as anything that has Tommy's structure might as well be called opera because most rock fans do not give a damn about opera, oratori or classical music. Tommy has a French horn, which is foreign enough for rock & roll.
The album has many Who standards, such as "The Acid Queen", "Pinball Wizard", "I'm Free" and "We're Not Gonna Take It!", but it some of the incidental music that is most striking and memorable: Peter Townshend's inspired acoustic guitar on "It's a Boy", the slightly skewed background vocals on "Christmas Story" and carnies-gone-mad turn by Keith Moon on "Tommy's Holday Camp". Tommy has been often derided in the press (and on the internet) as "overblown", "pretentious" and "overrated". Of course, these are the same folks who, in an abortive attempt to stay hip and au currant, exalted such 80's bands of simpering blandities as Television or the Smiths for their "artistic vision". Taken in context of the era, Tommy was relevatory, and still amazes new generations who have just discovered it. The Who's innovative rock opera is certainly better than later, leaden attempts at concepts like Queensryche's big-haired bluster on Operation: Mindcrime, which is reminiscent of a very long and tedious Poison retrospective. That's all I have to say about that.
Lateralus by Tool
-- Prior to listening to Lateralus, I was not even aware of a 'Fibonnaci number' and ultimately cool sounding terms like 'Fibonacci heap data structure', but the spiralling, enthralling album by the band Tool kept getting deeper the more I researched it. To put it as simply as possible, the album Lateralus is literally a mathematical puzzle -- the lyrics, the polyrhythmic drumming, the compositional time signatures -- everything is placed precisely to...to what? Ah, there's the rub -- and the puzzle. Beneath the syncopation, medieval minor pentatonic scales and anisotropic acoustics lies geometric patterns that repeat and spiral...like a Fibonnaci sequence.
O, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89...
Basically (and I am speaking as an English major who views all mathematics suspiciously), Fibonnaci numbers start with 0,1 (or 1,1) and each number following is the sum of the previous two (continuing onward to infinity). Listen to the words in the song "Lateralus". The syllables follow a precise Fibonnaci sequence starting at 1 and progress up to 8 and then the lyrics reverse back in sequence to 1 again, and then to 13 in sequence back down to 1. Even the time signature of the rhythm runs 9-8-7 which is the 16th step of the Fibonnaci sequence. It is amazing. Okay, before my brain explodes, onto the song "Schism". In this one song, Tool changes meter 47 times: 5/4 to 6/4 to 13/8, then 11/8 to 10/8 and 7/4, etc. all propelled by the brilliant bass line of Justin Chancellor. Far more complex and satisfying than Tool's previous major label releases, Undertow and Aenima, Lateralus is a geometric puzzle wherein "I know the pieces fit" -- I just haven't solved it all, even after listening to it since 2001. If you hear echoes of King Crimson in Adam Jones jangling and biting guitar bits, it is because Tool are ardent followers of Fripp and Co.
We're Only In It For The Money by The Mothers of Invention
-- When Frank Zappa heard The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, he was not amused. Or perhaps he was amused. Most likely he was bemused. In any case, he felt it necessary to respond. And respond he did, with a sprawling and savage indictment of The Beatles, flower power and the whole warped hippie scene in 'The Summer of Love'. I must warn you, the album is a bit...bizarre. That it was released in 1968 during the height of Beatle adulation makes it even more striking. Believe me, no one had tried anything like this previously (unless you count The Mothers' previous albums).
The album starts out with "Are You Hung Up", featuring Eric Clapton in a speaking role and the famous line by the Mothers' drummer: "Hi, boys and girls, I'm Jimmy Carl Black, I'm the Indian of the group!" The album degenerates from there. The Mothers lampoon just about every aspect of 60's U.S. culture (or lack thereof), but beyond that it is one of the best psychedelic albums ever created. Zappa's pastiche 'n' montage-orama doesn't require acid to trip with (although that would certainly be optional), and many of The Mothers' lampoon songs are almost 'filks' in how closely they mock tunes meant for mass consumption. The best songs are "Harry You're a Beast", "Flower Punk", "Who Needs the Peace Corps", "Mother People", topped off with the Twilight Zone-ish "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny" which would give Phillip Glass a run for his money on the minimalist front. If "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny" is not your cup of tea, then try "Nasal Retentive Calliope Music", which is very similar but has a different title (a crucial point!) and has some surf music thrown in.
The Wall by Pink Floyd
-- You either love or hate The Wall. Bloated excess? Too much whining by Roger Waters? Bizarre and oddly fascist in some instances? Yes, it is all that, but for all the critical attacks on this album, one must look at the album in its entirety, and not just the strange foibles of Waters, who went on to destroy Pink Floyd with the subpar and listless Final Cut (or as I call it The Wall II: My Daddy Is Still Dead). Yet there are so many great songs and stunning moments on The Wall that it is an essential and the final exclamation point and nail in the coffin for hard rock in the 70's, before it was overtaken by punk, new wave, power-pop, hair bands, rap, grunge, hip-hop and all the other miserable muck of the 80's and beyond. It was a defining moment in rock 'n' roll and the climax of an era that had most of the greatest albums ever recorded.
The Wall is a splendid album both lyrically and musically, and to reiterate, so many great songs: "Another Brick in the Wall" (take your pick, Pt. 1, 2 or 3 -- I prefer Pt. 3), "Mother" (a personal favorite), "Goodbye Blue Sky", "Young Lust", "Hey You", "Nobody Home" (complete 'with the "obligatory Hendrix perm" and "the inevitable pinhole burns") and "Run Like Hell" (another favorite). And then there is "Comfortably Numb". Is there any other song besides Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", Derek and the Domino's "Layla" and Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" that offer both a powerful and memorable hard rock chord structure and an equally stunning reflective and quiescent section -- the sum total a masterpiece of rock composition? David Gilmour's epic guitar solo at the end of "Comfortably Numb" ranks as one of the greatest solos in rock history, and the song itself is the best single live performance I have ever seen in the 300 some concerts I have attended in my life.
Forever Changes by Love
-- How does one explain this eccentric album to someone who's never heard it? Well, after a long pause, followed by a heavy sigh, on the heels of a bewildered shrug, you mumble something about the Moody Blues led by Syd Barrett singing Herb Alpert and Burt Bacharach songs while on acid. A lot of acid. I mean fistfuls of acid.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, Forever Changes by Love. This is a better psychedelic album than Pink Floyd's overrated The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, particularly since the lyrics are intelligible (although Albert Lee would do justice to Floyd's "Arnold Layne"). But enough of comparisons. Forever Changes is really different than any other album from 1967. The acoustic guitar flourishes are timeless and the strings are achingly beautiful. Albert Lee's lyrics are familiar but off-kilter, like the mind's ability to recgnze wrds wth mssng lttrs. The boy aint all there, but he sings so nicely you overlook his obvious dementia. And the titles exemplify the songs themselves: "A House is not a Motel" (a favorite), "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale" and "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This" (another favorite). Make sure to listen to the 2001 expanded CD version by Rhino, which includes "Laughing Stock" wherein Albert Lee harmonizes with none other than Jim Morrison.
HONORABLE MENTIONS, ALSO-RANS AND FLAWED MASTERS
American Idiot by Green Day
-- As a concept, the entire story of an everyman protagonist with the catchy name 'Jesus of Suburbia' (he must be from California), who is fueled by "soda pop and Ritalin" (as Billie Joe Armstrong related), and has cohorts named St. Jimmy and Whatshername is, by any stretch of the imagination, banal. William Faulkner it is definitely not. Then why do I like this album? Simple: every song is great. The concept is a bloody mess, but the album works because the material is undeniably good.
I've always had a soft spot for Green Day (obviously in my head) ever since the nihilistic punk establishment (a contradiction in terms, I know) mercilessly castigated Green Day for selling out. How dare they have a multi-platinum album! Green Day is selling records to people who enjoy their music? Outrageous! I am having the 'Green Day' tattoo lasered off my forehead immediately! I'm taking out my 'Billie' and 'Joe' nipple rings forever! Anyway, American Idiot is a great collection of songs, and the best are "Holiday", "American Idiot", "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends". Let's just not mention the concept.
A Passion Play by Jethro Tull
-- Tull did whatever the hell they wanted, whenever the hell they wanted in the 1970's -- which is why critics couldn't stand them, but their fans adored them. They released Thick as a Brick, an unconventional album containing just one song (or at least one poem with music composed around it), and so what do they do for an encore? They release another 'concept album' with no discernible hit single and no real segue from one movement to the next, with the only interruption being an Aldous Huxley/Lewis Carroll/Beatrix Potter ménage à trois of a pseudo-children's story "The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles" smack dab in the middle. But Tull thumbed their collective noses at the music industry and critics, and the album went to #1 in the U.S. without any conventional wisdom (or airplay, for that matter). I would rate this album higher than Thick as a Brick based on sheer audacity alone, as there has been so little audacity in the rock music industry, where artists talk a big game but usually sell out for the cash. In that light, it gives one pause to consider the merits of this album.
The esoteric story concerns one Ronnie Pilgrim's journey from death to rebirth (in an afterlife run by bureaucrats), and the lyrics are filled with allusions, allegory and word puns that are at times profound and at other times slyly witty ("And your little sister's immaculate virginity wings away on the bony shoulders of a young horse named George, who stole surreptitiously into her geography vision."), and Ian Anderson once again proves he is one of the poet laureates of rock. The dreaded concept that this album is based on regards the polemic 'passion plays', and later, 'morality plays' -- precursors to our stage plays -- that were prevalent on the streets of English towns throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. A Passion Play's strengths and brilliant musicianship do not, however, overcome the fact that the album's theme and its overall ambiance do not reach the heights of its predecessor Thick as a Brick, which is a far more open and accessible work. Audacity does have its limits.
The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis
-- The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is the greatest concept record ever made; unfortunately, this album has two records. Sides 1 and 2 of Lamb are filled with stunning, evocative songs, bizarre images and wonderful wit. Sides 3 and 4 are filled with ambient sounds, aborted tunes, impenetrable lyrics and bizarre images as well, but unlike the first two sides, there are no redeeming songs that mitigate the grotesqueries. It is both Genesis' best album and worst. Talk about a dichotomy!
But, oh those first two sides! The heady title song (reprised on side 4 as "The Light Dies Down on Broadway"), the eerie "Fly on the Windshield", the metaphoric, hyper-namedropping "Broadway Melody of 1974", The advertising/merchandising mockery "The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging", the proto-punk "Back in NYC", the poppy "Counting out Time" and the magnificent "Carpet Crawlers" mark this as a truly important album. Oh, don't get me wrong, sides 3 and 4 have their brilliant moments, but they also have tedious half-hours. The story slips further and further into a mythological melange of irrelevance and becomes very choppy. The split is very evident between Peter Gabriel's warped vision and the rest of the band, who assembled much of the album while Gabriel was attending to his pregnant wife. The band originally considered using Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince as a vehicle for the album, but Gabriel returned in a huff, demanding the album have all his lyrics and his story. The ensuing acrimony led to Genesis' break-up after this album.