The 50 Greatest Concept Albums of All Time
Thematic albums, tied together by very specific moods or interconnected songs, aren’t new to pop; the kingpin of the form, Frank Sinatra, started making them 70 years ago. And thanks to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Who’s Tommy, and so many more, rock took the concept of a concept album and ran with it—with narrators, characters, and lots of lyrics and liner notes to explain it all to enrapt listeners.
In the streaming era, you’d think concept albums, which require listening to a record all the way through, would have about as much appeal as ripping the plastic packaging off a new CD. But right along with vinyl, the theme record is having a new moment. Taylor Swift’s upcoming Midnights is, she says, “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life.” That kind of thematic follow-through is impressive even for a detail-oriented genius like Taylor. Other story-song albums released over the last year or so include Sturgill Simpson’s cowboy revenge saga The Ballad of Dood and Juanita and the Tedeschi-Trucks Band’s I Am the Moon, a four-EP response to Layla. Smashing Pumpkins’ ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts begins a three-part rollout next month.
In honor of Midnights and its concept siblings, we present the 50 Greatest Concept Albums of All Time. These are the mindblowers that define music at its most ambitious. They map out epic narratives (from raging coming-of-age dramas to dystopian sci-fi fantasies); they strive to embody vast historical and political moments; they’re “cinematic,” “operatic,” “novelistic.” Our list touches on everything from classic rock to R&B to punk to hip hop. Some of those longform listens have been rattling bongs since back when your hippie uncle bought them on 8-track; some are more recent pop masterpieces that sneak deep meanings inside slick packages. Many are long, several are very very long. One is by Styx.
To make it high on the list an album had to be both conceptually tight and musically awesome, which is why a few classic albums with relatively loose thematic conceits didn’t end up higher. Sit back, press “play” and envelope yourself in a whole bunch of music you’ve really got to pay attention to.
The Concept: Midwestern progressive-rock band responds to the rightward shift in U.S. politics and paranoia about rock lyrics, with a record about a future society where rock & roll is outlawed.
The Execution: The 11th album from these Illinois prog/hard/soft rockers is a 40-minute, platinum-selling rock opera concerning one Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (R.O.C.K.), a rocker jailed by anti-rockers the Majority for Musical Morality, who disguises himself as robot to break out of the clink. And that’s just in the smash hit opener, synth-pop “Mr. Roboto.” “Heavy Metal Poisoning” mocks the backmasking panic by backmasking some Latin, while “Don’t Let It End” launches the power ballad into the anti-rock future. —J.G.
The Concept: The life story of a drug dealer, told from death to birth.
The Execution: Anyone could concoct a thematic album about a fictional character, but leave it to the Roots, who’ve never been afraid to take chances, to mess with that formula. Undun opens with the death of hustler-gangsta Redford Stevens and chronologically works its way backward through his life, looking at missed opportunities (bailing out on school) and never glamorizing his job. As always, the Roots blend hands-on instrumentation with the rhymes of Black Thought and guest rappers, but the results are doubly cinematic here: a Blaxploitation soundtrack for the modern era, with some of the Roots’ most killer blends of hip-hop, R&B, and live beats (“The Other Side,” “Kool On”). Not meant for late-night TV, and all the better for it. —D.B.
The Concept: A life cycle of an album, taking the listener through the seasons, sex, love, domesticity, death, and ending with a sacrificial bonfire.
The Execution: XTC leader Andy Partridge once said of Skylarking: “The smell of that album is rotting rat mixed with lavender floor polish.” He was alluding to a rat that was rotting under a studio floorboard during the album’s recording, but that sweet and sour feeling was probably more attributable to how he often clashed with producer Todd Rundgren (whom he dubbed Herr Rundgren) over the direction of the record, which became XTC’s best-known work. But that tension isn’t evident when you listen to the record, which takes us “from death to life” (per “Season Cycle”) as the band offers a sweetly acerbic spin on Sixties pop whimsy. —B.E.
The Concept: A young man tries to follow a girl around the world, only to be left with memories of her and the sounds he encounters on his journey.
The Execution: The Avalanches reportedly abandoned the concept early in production, but traces of it still guide them, particularly with the first few cuts and the classic title track. “Two Hearts in 3/4 Time” circles around Marlena Shaw’s cover of “Go Away Little Boy”; there are songs like “Stay Another Season” and “Flight Tonight”; and a voice on “Frontier Psychiatrist” exclaims, “That boy needs therapy!” The Australian group eventually settles into a playful mélange of sampled delights, disco-funk grooves, and ambient pop melodies. But the melancholic lovesickness that initially inspired Since I Left You lingers throughout. —M.R.
Marina and the Diamonds
The Concept: Pastel fictional portraits of hyper-feminine American archetypes.
The Execution: At the peak of Tumblr, Marina Diamandis created an electro-pop cult classic. On it, she portrays cynical archetypes of American womanhood: a suburban housewife, a heartbroken teen, a homewrecker, and a celebrity-seeking beauty queen. Diamandis breathes air into each of Electra Heart’s characters with her raw lyricism and expert production: “Wish I’d been a prom queen, fighting for the title/Instead of being sixteen and burning up a bible” on “Teen Idle.” She breaks hearts, gets her own heart broken, sets unreachable ambitions, and feels trapped, creating a beautifully messy LP in the process. Marina killed off Electra Heart, the album’s central character, before releasing her next album 2015’s Froot. But 10 years later, Diamandis has started to embrace the LP, while TikTok is finally giving it the flowers it deserved. —T.M.
The Concept: A heroin addict named Nikki takes on the wicked demagogue Dr. X, falls in love with a prostitute, and loses his memory ability to love.
The Execution: Seattle metal band Queensrÿche knew that a good concept album still needs good songs, and “Revolution Calling,” “Eyes of a Stranger,” and “Operation: Mindcrime” all worked as singles as much as plot points thanks to their anthemic choruses. But in the context of Operation: Mindcrime, the songs’ catchiness only adds drama to frontman Geoff Tate’s sort of convoluted, occasionally cringey storyline (just skip the prostitute song “Spreading the Disease.”) But what’s impressive now is how the music matches the story’s dystopia. When Tate sings “I don’t believe in love/It’s never worth the pain that you feel” on “I Don’t Believe in Love,” it both fits the tension of the plot and feels like an honest moment. —K.G.
The Concept: Three-guitar rock band from Athens, Georgia, meditates on “the duality of the Southern thang” and how to square loving the region’s culture with its violent racial history and regressive politics.
The Execution: Over 94 minutes, much of the double CD focuses on the rise and literal fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Ronnie and Neil” unpacks the relationship between Van Zant and Young, “Let There Be Rock” is about main songwriter Patterson Hood’s classic-rock teenage years in Alabama). It pairs that story with the less mythic struggles of an indie rock band not unlike Drive-By Truckers (“Shut Up and Get on the Plane” could be either group). Other songs (“Birmingham,” “Wallace,” which excoriates Alabama’s segregationist governor and presidential candidate) confront the South’s brutal political history. Though the song “The Southern Thing” has not aged well, songwriters Hood and Mike Cooley hold it all together with rambling songcraft and guitar thunder. —J.G.
The Concept: A sonic representation of Balvin’s moods and emotions through primary colors.
The Execution: After a trio of albums filled with hits, including 2019’s Oasis with Bad Bunny, Balvin found his sound on Colores. On it, he named each of the LP’s songs after a different color — from its opener “Amarillo” or “Yellow,” a color he describes as evoking “happiness” to “Verde” or “Green,” which, to him represents “life and prosperity.” With its different color-coded themes, the LP explored Balvin’s inner workings all while sticking to his pop-perreo signature sound. He also tapped Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami for the song’s videos and the album’s cover art, which overlaid lush flowers to provide a perfect complement to Balvin’s music. —T.M.
The Concept: A cinematic meditation on childbirth, motherhood, and the Madonna-whore complex, written during Halsey’s first pregnancy.
The Execution: Though Halsey promised body horror on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, her brief references to the grief of pregnancy and the thrill of orgasm are supplemental to where she feels violence the most: in her gaping heart and spiraling mind. Across her industrial and emo-rock-inflected fourth album, produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, she wrestles between dichotomies of fierce desire and uncertainty, insanity and godliness. Even as she tends toward the self-destructive, she is also her most self-assured yet, blowing up all internal contradictions into dramatically biblical proportions. —M.H.K.
The Concept: Elton and his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, look back on their early years, before the nonstop hit parade arrived.
The Execution: Rather than give their fans a thematic album about money and groupies, John and Taupin opted for this largely meditative collection of songs about life pre-stardom. Captain Fantastic hardly rocked and only contained one hit (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”). But it made up for its dearth of easy hooks and behind-the-music dish with chronicles of playing bars for a living, struggling to pay the rent, and agonizing over “the structure of another line or two” during the songwriting process. Few albums gave fans such an intimate look at the desperate lows and occasional highs of wanting to make it in the music business. “Will the things we wrote today/Sound as good tomorrow?” John sings at one point. Spoiler alert: Yes. —D.B.
The Hold Steady
The Concept: Young punk kids in the Midwest get messed up on drugs, sex, booze, and enough Catholic guilt to fill a cathedral.
The Execution: The Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis bar band the Hold Steady blew everyone away with Separation Sunday, with Springsteen-style drama and Killebrew-size guitar riffs. Craig Finn splutters a wildly funny, compassionate tale of lost kids looking for something to believe in, whether it’s a party or a bloody cross. The hero: a hoodrat girl named Holly, short for “Hallelujah.” She goes searching for her shot at salvation, crashing into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass. The moral: Holly might get lost sometimes, but damn right she’ll rise again. Best line: “Tramps like us, and we like tramps.” —R.S.
Toni Braxton & Babyface
The Concept: A chronicle of a relationship, from first kiss to final settlement.
The Execution: Originally, Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds had discussed making a covers album, but something else was bubbling under. “Kenny said, ‘OK, Toni. Something’s going on. You’re not in a good space. Talk to me,’” Braxton told Billboard. “When I started talking to him about my life, where I was personally with my divorce, he said I needed to talk about it, to make this therapeutic. Then he came up with this concept.” The result was a mature, no-nonsense song cycle, all co-written by the pair — if any album embodies the idea of grown-folks’ R&B, it’s this one. —M.M.
The Mountain Goats
The Concept: A modern Southern gothic about a married couple drinking themselves to death.
The Execution: The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has published three acclaimed novels and written several great concept albums, like 2017’s Goths and 2015’s Beat the Champ. But his finest literary achievement is Tallahassee, about a marriage drowning in the swamps of Florida and rivers of booze. With just his acoustic guitar and some spare accompaniment, he tells the story with gut-wrenching emotional detail in songs including “The House Dripped Blood,” “No Children,” and “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” which beautifully sums up the LP’s mood of violent co-dependency in lines like, “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania/Trucks loaded down with weapons/Crossing over every night/Moon yellow and bright.” —J.D.
The Concept: A teenager named Steven finds himself trapped in his nightmares, encountering hungry black widow spiders, necrophiliacs, and Vincent Price before a rude awakening and a happy ending.
The Execution: Alice Cooper was staging ornate, macabre vaudeville revues before Welcome to My Nightmare, but it was only after he ditched the original bandmates and went all-in on his nightmare concept that he became Alice Cooper, the rare ghoul able to upset parents but also gab with Dinah Shore. Thanks to songwriting contributions from guitarist Dick Wagner (Lou Reed, Kiss) and producer Bob Ezrin, the album deftly spans goth fantasies (“Steven”), Fred Astaire dance numbers (“Some Folks”), feminist ballads (“Only Women Bleed”), and Shaft-esque funkathons (the title cut) — sometimes at the same time. The story was strong enough for Cooper to act out protagonist Steven’s plight on an ABC-TV special, Alice Cooper: The Nightmare — and for once, he didn’t have to sing “I’m Eighteen.” —K.G.
The Concept: The R&B auteur looks at addiction, mass incarceration, racism, and mental illness through the prism of his lived experience.
The Execution: Saadiq’s fifth solo album — and first since he nabbed an Oscar nomination and helped oversee Solange’s A Seat at the Table — is a collection of searing funk and soul cuts that portray the effects of addiction from multiple perspectives. “Something Keeps Calling” is a slow jam with a sinister edge, its verses touching on the scorched-earth results of addiction; the gospel-tinged “Rikers Island” and the knotty spoken-word piece “Rikers Island (Redux)” are a two-part broadside against the criminal-justice system. Kendrick Lamar shows up for the final track, the pensive “Rearview,” asking the question that hangs over this wrenching, incisive album: “How can I change the world, but can’t change myself?” —M.J.
The Magnetic Fields
The Concept: What exactly is a “love song”? The Stephen Sondheim of indie pop goes in search of the elusive answer to that question in his three-CD magnum opus.
The Execution: Stephin Merritt may have only one singing voice — a guttural croon that sounds as if he were resigned to a life of letdowns — but he’s perceptive enough to know that relationships can leave anyone happy, sad, angry, bitter, disillusioned, renewed, or any combination of the above. All those emotions (and sexual preferences) emerge in what amounts to an indie cabaret show — a record about love songs, as he’s said — over the course of nearly 70 tunes. Merritt and his band set those songs to country swing, jazz, post-grunge rock, Irish folk songs, and show-tune theatrics, making each track almost a miniature concept of its own. —D.B.
The Concept: The headbangers imagine a child who possesses strange powers thanks to numerology and a big family that refuses condoms.
The Execution: Frontman Bruce Dickinson goes full Dante, introducing Seventh Son on lead track “Moonchild” — “Seven deadly sins/Seven ways to win/Seven holy paths to hell … and your trip begins.” He and his bandmates don’t take a break for 44 minutes. Between finger-breaking guitar solos, Dickinson ponders mortality (“Infinite Dreams”), magic (“The Clairvoyant”), and Julius Caesar (“The Evil That Men Do”). For all their heavy thoughts, though, Iron Maiden also managed a pop song with “Can I Play With Madness?” which combines lyrics about prophets and crystal balls with their strongest chorus since “Run to the Hills.” —K.G.
The Concept: Funky aliens do battle with non-dancing earthlings; dancing wins.
The Execution: Parliament was already an old hand at concept albums by the late Seventies: “We had investigated politics on Chocolate City, communication and social justice on Mothership Connection, and invidualism and groupthink on The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein,” ringleader George Clinton wrote in his memoir. For their follow-up, the band funked up the term “entelechy” — an Aristotle coinage for “the process by which a species becomes itself,” Clinton wrote — by devising a battle between funky alien Star Child (Clinton) and Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk: The former makes the latter dance by shooting him with a “Bop Gun,” among other things. “If I had to pick one P-Funk record to take to the moon, I’d take Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome,” Clinton wrote. “It did certain high-concept things with a nice, light touch, and the music was tight as a motherfucking drum.” —M.M.
The Concept: The soul story of a love triangle, narrated by two fiery women mixed up with the same double-timing man.
The Execution: Seventies R&B queen Millie Jackson could step to any artist of the era when it came to full-blast concept albums. Caught Up is Jackson at her most audacious: There’s a cheating husband, a wife, and the “other woman,” but each woman gets to tell her own side of the story. Side One is the girlfriend; Side Two is the wife. Jackson kicks it off with her 11-minute “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to Be Right,” getting down and dirty about infidelity with the Muscle Shoals house band. Meanwhile, the wife rages on “It’s All Over but the Shouting.” —R.S.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
The Concept: A parent loses a child and then loses himself in grief. Then, the child calls back to him from heaven.
The Execution: For years, Nick Cave was goth rock’s poet laureate, crooning macabre vignettes on albums like Your Funeral … My Trial and the cheeky concept LP, Murder Ballads. Then his 15-year-old son Arthur died, and he viewed death differently. On Ghosteen, he processes his loss, singing “I am beside you/Look for me” on “Ghosteen Speaks,” in the section from the child’s perspective, and “There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand” on “Ghosteen,” from the parents’, over gauzy, New Age-y synths. It’s simultaneously beautiful, heartbreaking, and life altering for anyone who listens. —K.G.
The Concept: Gaye gets married, gets divorced, gets hits with a big legal bill — and chronicles it all in a 14-track song cycle.
The Execution: As part of his divorce settlement with his first wife, Anna, Gaye agreed to give her the advance from his next album as well as the first large chunk of its royalties. Hence the title Here, My Dear and songs about the good times (milk baths, satin sheets), his craziness (cocaine and hookers), and what he had to fork over to her (“If you ever loved me with all your heart/You’d never take a million dollars to part”). Who else would rhyme “tell me please” with “attorney’s fees”? The grooves are largely relaxed, fluid, and bereft of the glistening melodies Gaye could conjure. But knowing that his ex would benefit the most financially, maybe he didn’t want to generate a hit? Now there’s a concept. —D.B.
The Concept: Numerous women, including Sullivan, discuss the joys and pains of love and sex.
The Execution: Heaux Tales is structured around interludes where different women share their “tales,” and the title winks at how society often demeans sexually confident women. “Heaux” is a label Sullivan gleefully embraces, especially with “On It,” a duet with Ari Lennox that’s one of Sullivan’s freakiest R&B tracks to date. But she also explores co-dependency, the despair that can come after a breakup, and the search for someone who can help her build a better life, all with sharp lyrics that detail her emotions with precision. The album soars with hope and emotional clarity. “I know that he’s out there,” she sings on “The Other Side.” But it sounds like Sullivan will be fine if she never finds him. —M.R.
The Concept: England used to be awesome, now it sucks.
The Execution: After the Kinks tussled with the wrong musicians’ union rep and got themselves banned from the U.S., they decided to make the best of home life and recorded the most proudly English album ever. Most Americans don’t even know what a “village green” is. “Preserving the old ways from being abused,” Ray Davies sings on the title cut. “Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do?” Other slices of Anglophilia include a couple of songs for Davies’ mates (“Do You Remember Walter,” “Johnny Thunder”), a farewell to England’s steam trains (“Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”), and one fun beer-swinging pub nightmare, “All of My Friend Were There.” It was all so terribly British that it bombed, but became a classic over time. —K.G.
The Concept: A punk-rock Tommy for the Eighties.
The Execution: Their peers on the hardcore scene were cranking out one-minute screeds, but the Minnesota trio wanted to say more with their insanely ambitious psychedelic double album. Zen Arcade tells the story of a kid who flees a broken home, tries religion, joins the Army, falls in love, and confronts heartbreaking tragedy, as the music swells and seethes and explodes around him. When he wakes up to find it was all a dream, he has to confront the even darker real-world nightmare of the raging anthem “Turn On the News” and the 14-minute guitar apocalypse of “Dreams Recurring.” Relentlessly bleak and deeply empathetic, punishing and thrilling, the Huskers’ grand gesture changed the indie-rock landscape overnight. —J.D.
The Concept: A man kills his wife and her lover and takes it on the lam.
The Execution: Willie Nelson had made a concept album already — Phases and Stages, from 1974 — by the time he turned in the sparsely arranged Red Headed Stranger, but this was even more finely tuned, conceptually: The songs told a specific story, and even more cleverly, most of them weren’t Nelson’s. The title track, for instance, was a Fifties country hit for Arthur Smith, while “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose, had been recorded numerous times before. But Nelson turned them all into a singular work that has been a country-music benchmark ever since. —M.M.
The Concept: In their seventh year as a team, the seven members of BTS borrow terms from Jungian philosophy — persona, shadow, and ego — to paint a complete portrait of their “real selves.”
The Execution: Before BTS, few pop idols had attempted to express the anxiety that comes with maintaining such a visible public persona that’s usually not faithful to the “true self.” But with Map of the Soul: 7’s heart-rending tracks like “Black Swan,” the Bangtan boys cracked open their stage facades, exposing their fame-fueled fears with piercing introspection. The multifaceted project provides a glimpse of each of the members’ matured inner worlds through solo songs: Jin’s devotional acoustic tune “Moon” and J-hope’s cheery Afrobeat-inspired “Outro: Ego” stand in stark contrast to RM’s soul-searching rap “Intro: Persona” and V’s sentimental rock ballad “Inner Child.” Even in uncertainty, the members double down on their commitment to one another, as on the determined hip-hop anthem “ON,” when they promise to face oncoming challenges by “throwing themselves whole into both worlds.” —M.H.K.
The Concept: Long before the term MAGA existed, the master troubadour-storyteller gets inside the heads and hearts of “rednecks” in the modern South.
The Execution: Few songwriters relish in making fans squirm as much as Newman, and this collection of songs based around a fictional Alabama steel-mill worker — Newman’s first concept record — went out of its way to see all points of view. Had any of his peers written a group of songs about “Johnny Cutler” and his family and friends, the project would have reeked of glib putdowns. Instead, Newman fleshes out the character, exploring his desires (the exquisite “Marie,” about his wife) and flaws (lots of drinking). Even the arrangements, which encompass parlor-song simplicity and elegant orchestrations, feel empathetic. Good Old Boys is a testament to finding the beauty and tragedy in just about anything. —D.B.
The Concept: A teenage Puerto Rican graffiti writer tumbles into an alternative dimension full of Slippermen and Lamia.
The Execution: In the original gatefold vinyl packaging for The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, lead singer Peter Gabriel wrote a cryptic synopsis of Rael’s hero journey after he encounters a lamb in the middle of Broadway in Manhattan. Still, it’s an incredibly difficult storyline to follow. (You can find a helpful, easy-to-read “plot” on the album’s Wikipedia page.) Gabriel’s lyrics shift from the first-person perspective of his young protagonist to third-person narration, while the band responds with a whirligig of abrupt tonal shifts that range from spacey electronic experiments to groovy, bottom-heavy rock. Still, The Lamb contains some of Genesis’ greatest tunes, made just before Gabriel left the group and they subsequently transitioned to radio-friendly pop rock. “The Carpet Crawlers” is an unforgettable singalong anthem, and the finale, “It,” finds Rael achieving spiritual transcendence as Gabriel exhorts, “It is here! It is now!” —M.R.
The Concept: A fantastical disco fairy tale where a young woman is saved by the beat — and goes on to live “Happily Ever After.”
The Execution: The disco queen’s third high-concept disco album (after 1976’s climate-inspired Four Seasons of Love and 1977’s retro-minded I Remember Yesterday) is a dance-floor-ready retelling of the Cinderella story, with Summer portraying the longing-for-escape heroine. The rubbery “Fairy Tale High” and the splendidly funky “Queen for a Day” push Summer’s journey toward liberation along, while the final tracks — the triumphant, string-laden “I Love You” and the joyous “Happily Ever After” — wrap up the story in delightful fashion. —M.J.
The Concept: A kaleidoscopic tour of American pop, tinged with whimsical humor, that was nearly 40 years in the making.
The Execution: Originally planned as the Beach Boys’ follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smile was shelved for decades while writer-producer Brian Wilson battled mental illness. The dormant album was resurrected and finished for Wilson’s mid-2000s concert tour with his live bandleader, Darian Sahanaja. When they took it to the studio and rebuilt it from scratch, the result was a shocking delight. Though many of its parts had already emerged on Beach Boys albums, Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks’ mingling and merging of old folk songs and Fifties doo-wop with Sixties whimsy and symphonic grandeur sounded like the best psychedelic flashback imaginable.–M.M.
The Concept: The youngest member of the Jackson clan takes ownership of her career, image, music, sexuality, and life.
The Execution: No longer willing to simply do what she was told, Janet Jackson fired her manager (her notoriously controlling father) and annulled her marriage in the mid-Eighties. Her new manager introduced her to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, members of Minneapolis funk legends the Time, and that meeting led to Control, an emancipatory statement of purpose that would go on to influence the development of New Jack Swing. Control is a high-octane pop-soul record — seven of its nine tracks were singles — that features Jackson’s airborne soprano and rebellious spirit not just in the pumping kiss-offs “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” but on the joyous “When I Think of You” and the stretched-out slow jam “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun).” —M.J.
The Concept: A state-of-the-nation address from a genius ready to break the Motown mold.
The Execution: When Marvin Gaye told Motown founder Berry Gordy that he wanted to make a protest album, the boss responded, “Marvin, don’t be ridiculous. That’s taking things too far.” But after “What’s Going On” — inspired by Berkeley’s People’s Park uprising of 1969 — hit Number One on the R&B charts in early 1971, Gordy gave the go-ahead. Gaye flouted every rule in the Motown book — extended sessions, fueled by Scotch and weed, and songs that boldly took stock of drug addiction (“Flyin’ High [In the Friendly Sky]”), pollution (“Mercy Mercy Me”), and, most powerfully, the devastations of Black urban life (“Inner City Blues”). The album hit Billboard’s Top 10 and effectively ended Motown’s iron rule over its artists’ output. —M.M.
The Concept: A British teenager in 1965 struggles — operatically — with an existential identity crisis.
The Execution: Thanks to the chaos, grandeur, and classical scale of Pete Townshend’s compositions and the band that brought them to life, the Who’s second rock opera captures the roiling emotional essence of life in a teenage wasteland better than practically any other work of art, in any medium, you could name. The premise that the protagonist is “quadrophrenic” — caught between four different personalities that just happened to mirror those of the Who’s members — doesn’t really hold up, but everything else does, from the vicious bass-guitar kick of “The Real Me” to the prayer-like “Love Reign O’er Me.” —B.H.
The Concept: Life on the (classic-rock) road in the Seventies, actually recorded on tour for added authenticity and mood.
The Execution: Running on Empty isn’t so much an album as an audio movie. Browne didn’t just record new material (the title track, “You Love the Thunder”) and aptly chosen covers (Danny O’Keefe’s “The Road”) during his summer ’77 tour. He taped them on buses and in hotel rooms as well as onstage — bringing to life tunes about on-the-road tedium, drugs, his hardworking crew, and the drummer who stole the backstage fan away from the roadie. The only things missing are cruddy dressing-room sandwiches and rolling paper. But this enduring album is also about hitting that that point in aging (Browne was on the verge of 30) when one begins to look back at life choices and wonder what’s ahead. —D.B.
Sly and the Family Stone
The Concept: A deeply funky guided tour of the death of the Sixties dream.
The Execution: Sly and the Family Stone’s Sixties recordings captured the Age of Aquarius in all its color and variety. Largely recorded in a Bel-Air mansion over sessions so long their particulars are lost to time, There’s a Riot Goin’ On was its predecessors’ reverse negative. Muddy, dense, lyrically allusive, Riot held a mirror up to the state of the country in the wake of Kent State and the Vietnam War, as well as into Sly’s own psyche — he’d gotten heavily into cocaine and PCP at the time of recording. It was discomfiting, but the grooves were so immediate that they made all that darkness inviting. —M.M.
The Concept: Troubled by the discovery that her husband has been unfaithful, Beyoncé crafts a meditation on Blackness, feminism, and power.
The Execution: Although Beyoncé’s marriage to Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is undoubtedly at its center, Lemonade ultimately sounds like an assertion of her values as a Black woman, mother, and daughter than a self-pitying exercise. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” her fiery rock collab with Jack White, bristles with righteous anger, and she takes aim at critics and bigots with joyous Southern bass on “Formation.” Meanwhile, “All Night” finds her achieving resolution and forgiveness via a sumptuous love ballad. While Lemonade makes Beyoncé’s intentions explicit, it’s nearly impossible to discuss it without mentioning the brilliant accompanying short film she co-directed, and its allusions to feminist cinema like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. —M.R.
The Concept: Some say it’s about the first human clone. Others say it’s about 9/11, which would not occur for 11 months. But the real concept of Kid A is “being an acclaimed British rock band kinda sucks.”
The Execution: After fearing technology on OK Computer, the band put themselves through exposure therapy and embraced glitchy synths and Pro Tools — with a sprinkling of the ondes Martenot, an obscure French electronic instrument that sounds like an elf crying. Gone were the guitars and any affiliation with a rock band, likening the process to “getting a massive eraser out” and starting over (case in point: the stunning opener, “Everything in Its Right Place,” or the ambient “Treefingers”). “We were trying to chase ourselves away and run as fast as we could in another direction,” Yorke told us last year. “Trying to get away from wherever the fuck we had found ourselves to somewhere new.” —A.M.
The Concept: Androgynous alien arrives on a doomed planet and becomes a rock star — an idea that could also have doubled as Bowie’s memoir.
The Execution: Given that the songs on Ziggy Stardust were written before its premise was conceived, this suite about a so-called space invader may be one of pop’s happiest accidents. Earth is set to die in five years, thanks to a falloff in natural resources, and Ziggy arrives from another world to entertain the apocalypse. As Mick Ronson and the other Spiders make a joyful glitter-rock racket behind him, Bowie sings from the POV of the shell-shocked populace, kids who feel elevated by Ziggy’s arrival, and Ziggy himself, who grapples with his interplanetary fame. The album is also about the way rock stars can be elevated and torn down by their followers and the industry — a theme that, sadly, was even more prescient than one about a perishing planet. —D.B.
The Concept: The third installment of a futurist-soul sci-fi epic inspired by German expressionist cinema.
The Execution: The ArchAndroid includes the second and third chapters in a story inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian classic, Metropolis. However, Monáe seems less encumbered with explaining what happens to the story’s hero Cindi Mayweather than she did on the first installment, 2007’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite. Instead, the Atlanta artist positions her protagonist as a loving soothsayer who decries humanity’s cruelty (“Cold War”) and its genocidal urges (“Locked Inside”). The music, produced by Monáe and her Wondaland team, incorporates disco, Outkast-esque funk rap, New Wave, rockabilly, and even Elephant 6-style psych-pop with Athens, Georgia, band Of Montreal. “May the song reach your heart,” she sings on “Neon Valley Street.” —M.R.
The Concept: Biggest band in the world responds to career frustration by coming up with silly alter egos for their next record.
The Execution: As Paul McCartney later recalled telling the rest of the band at the time, “Hey, how about disguising ourselves and getting an alter ego, because we’re the Beatles and we’re fed up?” Sure, the album itself doesn’t have much in the way of a thematic through thread beyond the title track and its reprise later on, but the sense of reinvention, play, and experimentation they brought to rock music here makes Sgt. Pepper’s a kind of patron saint of almost everything on this list. The Beatles gave you a wink and made you think — and from “With a Little Help From My Friends” to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” to the narrative coup de grace “A Day in the Life,” album conceptualization would never be the same again. —J.D.
The Concept: Originally conceived as her graduate thesis at Barcelona’s Catalunya College of Music, Rosalía’s sophomore album is a hypnotic retelling of Flamenca, a 13th-century, 8,095-line novel written in Occitan.
The Execution: Rosalía captures the intensity and high drama of the toxic relationship at the center of the story with a brilliant palette of sounds, seamlessly mixing ominous strains of R&B and hip-hop with classic Spanish traditions, rooted in her many years of grueling flamenco training. Each song represents a different chapter that turns the plot: The spare, foreboding opener, “Malamente,” built on vocal loops and marked as “Chapter 1: Omen,” hints at the darkness of the romance at the center of the album. The fury of “De Aquí No Sales,” punctuated by revving engines and motorcycle sound effects, and the sorrow of “Bagdad,” a Justin Timberlake interpolation, plunge the listener deeper into the narrative’s rage and tension. It all ends with the beatific closer, “A Ningún Hombre,” an ode to female independence and liberation. —J.L.
The Concept: Former teen idol hits 40, watches his relationship with a fellow celeb crumble, and cuts one of the first (and most depressed) concept albums.
The Execution: Even though the LP arrived in the late Forties, artists and labels didn’t initially see the format as an outlet for cohesive statements: A few singles and filler would do. Sinatra, then in the midst of a tumultuous relationship with Ava Gardner, had other ideas. Working with producer Voyle Gilmore, he selected some of the gloomiest and most romantically despondent songs from Great American Songbook writers like Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. The result was a song cycle that basically invented the term “mope pop.” The mood is sustained by Nelson Riddle’s arrangements — which conjure empty, late-night saloons — and the restrained heartbreak in Sinatra’s voice. From beginning to end, you can practically see Sinatra all alone in the bar, nursing a drink and a cig, and wondering where it all went wrong. —D.B.
My Chemical Romance
The Concept: A cancer-stricken man reflects on his life, transforming it into a stomping, thrashing piece of emo-glam musical theater.
The Execution: An appearance by Liza Minnelli is only one of the high-drama moments on My Chemical Romance’s 2006 portrayal of a man on his deathbed, which tells you something about its grand scale. Indeed, the New Jersey outfit’s third full-length is a dazzling statement, exploding the emo-pop box they’d been put in with killer tunes that have managed to become generational touchstones. The quasi-title track, “Welcome to the Black Parade,” turns the march toward death into a raucous, defiant party; “Teenagers” takes on generational divides with pitch-dark humor and glam-stomp swagger; the piano ballad “Cancer” is stark both in its arrangement and its depiction of the titular disease. And Minnelli’s cameo on “Mama” marries punk’s fever pitch with Broadway’s splashy melodrama — a pairing that sums up the ethos of this feverishly ambitious band. —M.J.
The Concept: In a dystopian, collectivist future, a guy finds a guitar and begins to dream of a better world — but when he brings it to his society’s rulers, they reject it.
The Execution: Technically, 2112 is only half a concept album — the first side is a seamless song suite, but the six songs on the second side are unrelated. But it wins its spot on this list for the sheer power and influence of that first side, where Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart perfect their band’s initial innovation — fusing the prog of Yes and Genesis with heavy metal. The furious instrumental interplay of the song’s overture alone expresses the concept better than words ever could — as the bass, guitar, and drums alternately interlock and gallop past one another, Rush embodies everyone yearning for freedom, from the suburban kids listening at home to the band’s own futuristic protagonist. It’s all so undeniably powerful that everyone — including, eventually, Peart himself — can agree to ignore the story’s Ayn Randian roots. —B.H.
The Concept: A song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet that conveniently doubles as a deconstruction of white, male indie-rock oppression.
The Execution Liz Phair brilliantly followed through on her attack of the male-dominated music scene, creating comebacks corresponding to each song on Exile on Main Street. Compare “Rocks Off” with “6’1″,” or “Happy” with “Fuck and Run,” and you can easily hear the songs as exchanges between Phair and Mick Jagger. With lyrics like “I want to fuck you like a dog/I’ll take you home and make you like it,” she proved her music could be just as wild and raunchy as the Stones’. Heralded by critics as one of the best albums of the 1990s and ranked 56th on our 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, Exile in Guyville is an emotionally honest low-fi masterpiece that stands on its own. —A.W.
The Concept: Murder, childhood pain, sexual abuse, and the creepy power of cults, all tackled in one of the first and most carefully plotted theme records.
The Execution: Pete Townshend didn’t invent the idea of a rock opera (credit goes to the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow the year before), but the meticulous and contemplative Tommy took it to a level few have matched, before or since. Telling the story of Tommy Walker and his journey from traumatized kid to fake messiah, the double LP remains one of pop’s most cohesive and self-immolating concept records, with Townshend using it to dissect fame and rock culture itself. After more than 50 years, the beauty of Tommy is the way the words and ideas never overtake the music. Some of Townshend’s most potent early songs — “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Pinball Wizard,” “The Acid Queen,” “I’m Free” — make sure that Tommy is both a feast for lyric readers and air-guitar addicts. —D.B.
The Concept: Two young hustlers on the streets of New York decide to give up the criminal life — right after this one, last big score.
The Execution: The Wu-Tang Clan empire’s most ambitious epic, orchestrated by the RZA at the peak of his genius. Cuban Linx goes for cinematic narrative like a hip-hop Goodfellas, starring Raekwon and Ghostface Killah as two hoods from Shaolin. As RZA explained, “The theme of the album is two guys that had enough of the negative life and was ready to move on, but had one more sting to pull off.” Raekwon was so into the Mob concept that he planned to call the album Wu-Gambinos. But that changed when the label boss got a call from certain gentlemen in the actual Gambino crime family. —R.S.
The Concept: A rock star loses himself in his ego and becomes a fascist drug addict who thinks his mortal enemies are his mom, wife, and grade schoolteacher — but it was always just himself.
The Execution: Pink Floyd spent the early part of the Seventies mastering concept songs (“Time,” “Money”) before graduating to the concept album Animals, their Orwellian takedown of Thatcherism. Their next album, The Wall, was their magnum opus, a double-LP meditation on war, humanity, and the dire consequences of asking for pudding without eating your meat. It tells the story of a rock star named Pink who walls himself off from the rest of the world as a war rages inside him. Producer Bob Ezrin’s insistence of a disco beat on “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” gave the album a Number One hit, while “Mother,” “Run Like Hell,” and “Comfortably Numb,” with its stunning David Gilmour guitar solo, became instant classics, and Alan Parker’s film Pink Floyd – The Wall became a midnight-movie staple. —K.G.
The Concept: Life in post-9/11 America, as seen through the eyes of a teen slacker and his friends.
The Execution: With songs that implicitly dissed Dubya Bush and zinged the way news media was becoming was just another form of entertainment, few albums captured the dazed-and-confused spirit of America in the early-21st century more than Green Day’s largest scale project. As with most concept albums, the storyline is a little fuzzy. But we all know someone like the main character, Jesus of Suburbia and his extroverted alter ego, St. Jimmy. And the songs prove that Green Day could burst out of the boundaries of punk and tap into Seventies glam, stadium roar, and mature-moshhead balladeering. No wonder American Idiot was turned, briefly, into a Broadway musical. —D.B.
The Concept: Lamar comes of age in Compton, encountering the city’s many pleasures as well its ever-present threat of gang conflict and police violence.
The Execution: The cover promises “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and the rapper delivers with a coming-of-age opus, the cinematic scope of which has been rightfully compared to Scorsese and Tarantino. Good kid, m.A.A.d city vividly takes us through a day in the life of K. Dot, with local color that includes hilarious “dominoes” skits featuring the rapper’s parents. The topics covered here range from the perils of binge drinking on “Swimming Pools (Drank)” to intimate lovers’ talk on “Poetic Justice.” Its centerpiece, “Sing to Me (I’m Dying of Thirst),” is a complex tale of how Lamar finally manages resist his city’s gangland traps and embrace his Christian faith. Subconsciously but importantly, the album eschews the G-funk style that defined L.A. hip-hop for decades. Lamar declares himself part of a new generation informed by the city’s vaunted past – cameos from MC Eiht and Lamar’s mentor Dr. Dre ensure that – but not limited to it.--M.R.