There are few traditions in music as openly derided as the concept album.
They have a reputation for being too long, too verbose, grandstanding too much and sacrificing song quality to serve an album’s theme. These perceptions are considered doubly true when the concept album in question is a double album or rock opera.
Even legendary efforts such as The Who’s “Tommy”and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” are usually used as shorthand for overstuffed bombast or to exemplify empty calories music.
However, there are exceptions to the rule. This is a short list of some good, great and all-time classic concept albums.
These are concept albums for people who normally hate concept albums.
1. The Beatles- “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
A psychedelic, classic rock album is typically not the direction one should look when searching for a lean listen, but “Sgt. Pepper’s” clocks in at just under 40 minutes. The album is filled with classic songs, poppy hooks and is one of the most exalted albums in the oeuvre of the greatest band ever. Only the Beatles could close an album with a song featuring an orchestra and dog whistle without feeling even slightly excessive.
Cloud Nothings started as a catchy, lofi solo project by Dylan Baldi, but on “Attack on Memory” they had matured into a full-fledged band. As the title suggests this album set out to attach previous conceptions of what the Cloud Nothings were. Also, songs tend to be thematically focused on battling with the past. This theme encapsulates everything from overcoming lingering memories of failed relationships to accepting failure to realize past goals. Sludgy guitars and Albini-produced dry drums let the sound quality match the quality of the song writing. “Attack on Memory” is a hook-laden, angry, wonderful concept album,
With blaring guitars, multiple characters and female guest vocals there is no mistaking this for anything than a Rock Opera.
However, “David Comes to Life” is to Rock Operas what Thomas Pynchon is to novelists. There are multiple unreliable narrators, the fourth wall is shattered and substantial stylistic shifts. Without a guide it is almost impossible to actually follow the plot.
Also, the topics of death, love, loss pessimism and faith are dealt with in a mature measured way. This is particularly surprising for a band called Fucked Up.
4. Candy Claws- “Ceres and Calypso in Deep Time”
This albums is the chronicle the adventures of an adolescent girl and her prehistoric seal-like companion through time. It is entirely impossible to deduce this from listening to the album. This dream-pop album is so reverb intensive the vocals are barely present over the shimmering buzz. Just kick back and enjoy the pretty grooves.
This is a gruff, thoughtful punk album with a novel premise. “The Monitor” takes its name from a Civil War era submarine, and it is a breakup album that parallels a relationship’s end with the war between the states. The album is funny, painful and honest. Its references range from Shakespreare to the Gettysburg Address to “The Dark Knight” to Bruce Springsteen. Plenty of the songs have a running time in excess of five minutes, but they never wear out their welcome.
According to Jack White this album is dedicated to the death of the sweetheart. This theme is far from heavy handed, but it does provide a thread through all of its songs. I’ve extolled this album’s virtues many times, but I can never recommend it enough.
This is definitely Jay Z’s best post-“Black Album” work. It loosely mirrors the Denzel Washington movie of the same name, but instead of real-life gangster Frank Lucas it focuses primarily on Jay Z’s own meteoric rise. It features some of latter day Jay Z’s hungriest rapping and slick production. The songs even hold up when performed live.