Our Favorite “Concept” Albums – From Rock Operas to Musical “Novels” – Don’t Be Afraid

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I recently realized it’s been a full two weeks since I’ve posted anything here at B&V, an unusually long absence for me. Have no fear, the rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated. My last post on the Stones Live At El Mocambo was right before Memorial Day and that holiday took up a lot of time… switching out bourbon for the summer vodka season can be time consuming. Plus, I vowed to get a tan this year… I look like a translucent cadaver most of the time. Then sadly I came off the long holiday weekend with a bad head cold – no it was not COVID – but it was severe enough that I couldn’t even listen to music, which is rare for me. In the midst of the cold I perhaps exacerbated it by drinking a lot of Keeper’s Heart whiskey – a new delightful discovery for us here at the B&V labs – with my old roomie and dear friend Drew. I don’t blame anybody for thinking I’d given up hope in rock n roll this year. After two disastrous and terribly disappointing albums from Jack White (Fear Of the Dawn) and Liam Gallagher (C’mon You Know), two artists I had pegged to contribute to our annual “best of” list, you can understand why I’d be down. Two great rock n rollers reduced to releasing what amount to “sound experiments,” sigh. But no, that wasn’t it, I was just sick. As Ozzy once told us, “You can’t kill rock n roll.”

Having a little time away did give my mind time to wander. For reasons yet unclear I found myself thinking about that most misunderstood of rock n roll art forms, the “concept” album. While there is really no true agreement on what constitutes a concept album, Wikipedia defines it as “an album whose tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually.” I must agree that a lot of concept albums are better when you listen to the whole thing straight through vs just a song, like Dark Side Of the Moon. Most concept albums do tell a story – whether it’s a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who becomes a Messianic preacher or mentally unstable rock star named Pink who builds a metaphorical wall around himself. Although, admittedly the concept album doesn’t have to tell a story. Perhaps its thematic like Hotel California about the greed, disillusionment and loss of innocence the hippy generation found themselves in by the mid 70s or Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection which was about the old west. Often concept albums contain small bits of music that act more like narrative connective tissue than actual songs. Song titles can repeat themselves on concept albums, numbered to distinguish the different versions, i.e. “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 1).”

I don’t know what it is about telling a story across an album – or more likely across a double-album – that scares people. I remember reading an interview of John Mellencamp (and this was years and years ago) and he was making fun of some of his crew for wanting to head into Indianapolis to see Pink Floyd on The Division Bell tour. He said something scathing about being too “arty.” What people tend to forget when they show their disdain for concept albums is that some of the biggest albums of all time were concept albums. Sgt Pepper, Ziggy Stardust and Tommy were all concept albums. The concept album transcends genres. Country music legend Willie Nelson did Red Headed Stranger, an amazing album. Sadly, Garth Brooks also did that Chris Gaines thing, best forgotten. Heavy metal has their concept albums like Queensryche’s Operation Mind Crime. I think the first person to do a true concept album was none other than “the Chairman of the Board,” Frank Sinatra. If you don’t think In The Wee Small Hours was a song cycle strung around a central concept then you haven’t been paying attention.

I know when I mention the idea of the concept album to the Rock Chick she recoils in horror. Sadly for her she was forever scarred by Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, perhaps the worst concept LP of all time. She saw them in concert on that tour. She said its the only time she’d ever been to a concert and no music was played for the first half hour they were on stage. I saw Styx in 1980 or 1981 and they were great… then Dennis DeYoung took over and… well… “Domo arigato Mr. Roboto.” In the Rock Chick’s defense in her disdain of concept LPs, my friends and I always used to say, “Never trust a woman who likes Pink Floyd.” Concept albums do seem to be more a “dude” thing. All men are nerds deep down and suckers for a “far out” story. Women are likely smarter. Still, while some concepts are just bad or perhaps confusing, we shouldn’t dismiss them outright. The bigger the artistic risk, in some cases, the bigger the failure. It’s difficult to juggle writing a set of great songs and making them fit into a cohesive narrative. More often than not we get great songs and a less-than-cohesive narrative. I’m ok with that.

Some songwriters just seem to need a global narrative on an album in order to write songs. Pete Townshend seems almost wedded to the idea of having a concept. He’s written a set of songs before, like Who By Numbers, but he seems more comfortable with a story cycle to wrap his songs around. Everybody needs an on-ramp to write something, some idea or flight of imagination, in order begin so for Pete I guess that’s rock opera. Roger Waters is another guy who seems more comfortable tying songs and characters together than just writing straight up tunes. Ray Davies of the Kinks has written a lot of great songs but he’s also done a lot of great concept albums. He can do either. Regardless, I think this kind of artistic reach should be applauded and encouraged. I like ambition in rock n roll.

Without further adieu, these are my favorite concept albums. Much like my picks of “Hybrid” albums (both live and studio stuff mixed together) or Cover albums (albums featuring all cover songs) and Live albums these are our favorites. It’s not meant to be an exhausting ranking. You may have a concept album you feel should be added to the list – please mention them in the comments. I didn’t add Rush’s 2112 and I know I’m going to hear about that but the concept here only lasted on side 1 of the album. And while I could have listed all of Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd’s records… or the Who’s for that matter… I’ve chosen only a few of each artist, my favorites. I’ve picked some of the biggest LPs of all time but also some more obscure choices that perhaps deserve reconsideration. Either way, if there’s a concept album you like or are curious about but haven’t listened to, I urge you to seek it out, put it on and turn it up. Perhaps with a tumbler of something strong to help get you along the line.

  1. The Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band – One of the greatest albums ever if not the greatest. Built around a simple premise – the Beatles were pretending to be this other band, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, in order to free themselves from expectations. The result, a masterpiece.
  2. David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars – Bowie already had a string of successful LPs but this is the one that made him a superstar. Similar premise to #1 above. Pretend to be an alien and sing about isolation and feeling different.
  3. Jackson Browne, Running On Empty – This one may surprise some folks, wondering how it’s a “concept album.” Well, it’s a live album about a live album. Recorded on the road about the road. Still one of my favs.
  4. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On? – Marvin’s masterpiece of a protest album. It’s written from the point of view of a Vietnam vet returning home and I think was based on his brother’s or cousin’s return from the war. He calls out poverty, the ecology and the war. And it swings baby.
  5. Green Day, American Idiot – A scathing indictment of one of the worst Presidents in our history. This album rejuvenated Green Day’s career. They did another rock opera but this is the one you want.
  6. Elton John, Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy – A song cycle about Elton and co-writer Bernie Taupin’s rise to fame. I like it a whole lot better when I listen to it from start to finish as one piece of music. I was tempted to list Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection as it’s an excellent album about the ol’ West written by a couple of guys from England.
  7. The Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – I hate to admit it but the Kinks don’t get enough love around here. After the Kinks were shut off from touring the U.S. because of a pot bust, they turned insular. Here they turn their attention to the English village square. They’re pining for an England that had ceased to exist.
  8. The Kinks, Arthur Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire – Still turned inward to England this time on a broader scale. “Victoria” and “Shangri La” are two of my favorite Kinks’ tracks. I need to delve deeper into these guys in these pages.
  9. Randy Newman, Good Old Boys – A scathing indictment of racism in the South. Randy grew up in L.A. but spent summers in New Orleans. This is one of his strongest albums. Sometimes you need a character or a story to hide behind while telling the truth.
  10. Pink Floyd, Animals – Like I said, I could list all of their LPs on this list. I’m not listing Dark Side of the Moon because it’s just too big. Everybody’s heard it. A friend of mine and I used to drive around Kansas City drinking beer and cranking Animals which seems slightly Orwellian to me. But man what a great album.
  11. Pink Floyd, The Wall – I can still remember riding home from high school, sitting in the back seat of my friend Brewster’s car cranking “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 1).” Roger Waters who was the principle writer here (or is it principal writer?) blended his own story with founder Syd Barrett’s story. Inspired by his own spitting on a fan on the previous tour, he realized people put up walls around themselves. I did see Waters perform this at the Berlin Wall.
  12. Lou Reed, New YorkBilled in the liner notes as a novel set to music, Lou suggested listening to the entire album, in order, in one sitting. I always listen to Lou’s instructions.
  13. Lou Reed, Berlin – A prominent entry onto our list of Grim and Sad albums too, this is a difficult listen but worth it.
  14. Pete Townshend, White City – The concept here, basically a treatise on poverty and urban decay, is a bit lost on me now. The LP was billed as “A Novel” in the subtitle. I just loved “Give Blood” and “Secondhand Love.” This is one of those albums that nobody talks about but I still enjoy.
  15. Roger Waters, Radio K.A.O.S. – This album is actually on my list of “The Dirty Dozen, Albums Only I Like.” Oh well, I still dig this album besides the bizarre story line and I feel it needs a reassessment.
  16. The Who, Quadrophenia – Sure, Tommy is recognized as the first and perhaps greatest “rock opera” but give me Quadrophenia any day. It has louder guitars.
  17. Frank Zappa, Joe’s Garage – To me this is one of Zappa’s most accessible albums. Who doesn’t enjoy a visit from the “Central Scrutinizer” once and again? From the title track to “Catholic Girls” this album makes me laugh. Although even I have to admit Joe’s Garage can’t touch Freak Out! in terms of being an exceptional concept LP.
  18. Warren Zevon, Transverse City – This LP also made my list of “essential” Warren Zevon albums. It’s a grim commentary about U.S. society in the late 80s. It may be grim but it’s a great, great album. Someone with some connections needs to get Warren into the Rock Hall.

While I left off some of the biggest titles, Dark Side of the Moon or Tommy but it was my goal to share the LPs that maybe you haven’t heard or heard in a while and inspire you dust off the turn table, open up that double album, hoping no old pot seeds fall out and turn up a little rock opera. There are a few here that are quirky suggestions of LPs that I really dig and hope I can turn you onto. Again, this list wasn’t supposed to be exhaustive and if you have a concept LP that I should check out I always appreciate a suggestion in the comments.

Cheers! I hope, “a splendid time is guaranteed for all…”

9 thoughts on “Our Favorite “Concept” Albums – From Rock Operas to Musical “Novels” – Don’t Be Afraid

  1. Two concept albums from Neil Young’s oeuvre that are worth mentioning, although they are not my favorites compared to his real masterpieces: 1.’Greendale’, It combines numerous themes on corruption, observation of the passing of time, environmentalism and mass media consolidation. And 2. ‘Living with War’. On the war in Iraq and president Georges W Bush. And two of Drive-by Truckers: ‘Southern Rock Opera’ and.’The Dirty South’.P.S. I love Drive-by Truckers. Greetings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought about ‘Greendale’ but alas I can’t list it among my favorites. I did see him perform that LP live. Lucinda Williams was the opener. I’ve never checked out ‘Living With War.’ I’ll have to look into the Drive By Truckers. I’ve heard of them, but never checked them out! Thanks for the tip!

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  2. If you don’t know Drive-by Truckers, you might want to start with Decoration Day with Jason Isbell. And since you love live albums, check out ‘It”s Great to be Alive’ – a three disc live performance from the band in the Fillmore, San Francisco. And the aforementioned two concept albums. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. May I suggest The Captain and the Kid, the “sequel” to Captain Fantastic. It’s not as consistently strong as the first album, but a few tunes, like Noah’s Ark, Tinderbox, and And the House Fell Down, are standouts.

    Liked by 1 person

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