A Brief History of Concept Albums
As music became much more easily accessible in the 20th century, society lost their patience when it comes to listening to music. When a new album is released, the most popular songs are collectively chosen as the best and beat to death by the radio within a matter of months--these songs are then rediscovered 20 years later as “throwbacks,” and the rest of the tracks on the album are lost to the majority. And I don’t mean to sound pompous; I do the same thing to most albums I listen to--I get obsessed over two or three songs in particular, and then I throw the album away pretty much for good. This is why concept albums stand out to me. Listening to individual singles gives me a thrill, but getting there’s nothing quite like carving out 90 minutes of your day to sit down and receive a massive and complex listening experience. Each song stands out on its own as a unique work of art, but strung together the songs play off each other brilliantly, and contain similar stylistic and thematic attributes.
It all started with Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), consisting of semi-autobiographical songs about Guthrie’s experience during the Dust Bowl era. It was a time where swarms of workers fled out to California in hopes of gold and riches, but were only met with economic hardship. Like many folk songs, they contain strong elements of social activism, discussing and calling out the mistreatment of these workers, and denouncing the fascism and authoritarianism that kept them in poverty.
Despite its origin in a folk album, the term “concept album” is mostly attributed to the popular rock albums of the 1960’s and 70’s. Popular examples are the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), the Beatles’ Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and the Who’s Tommy (1969). Each have their own distinct flavor and appeal--from the first song, the unified tone is set, and the listener is guided through a complete musical world. These and many other progressive rock musicians redefined what an album was; it was no longer an arbitrary collection used as a tool to make money easier, but instead it provides the same density and craftsmanship as the symphonies of old.
At the peak of the concept album’s popularity, MTV emerged and popularized the music video. The demand for albums was severely hurt, and many artists shifted their focus from writing complete albums to writing hit singles in attempt to make it big. Despite these tough times for concept albums, the 2010s have seen a rise in their popularity. In a time of infinite access to music, artists are now seeing the importance of writing complete albums, lest they become redundant.
Although the concept album was a popular phenomenon in rock music, artists from all genres have made steps in re-popularizing it. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City (2012) is a prime example of the direction in which hip-hop is going; its broad, underlying stories involving Kendrick’s experiences as a teenager in Compton, and all the horrors that come with it. Some songs from this album have received widespread popularity, amassing well over one hundred million listens on Spotify. Other songs are less popular, with as low as 17 million listens; but regardless of which songs are your favorite, the entire album will always be there as a fantastic and enlightening way to spend 73 minutes.
Other albums take a more creative approach to the concept album. Daft Punk’s Discovery (2003) doubles as the soundtrack of the Japanese-French animated film Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, where each song is assigned a scene. The movie is rich and thrilling, and the songs on the album make for a perfect companion to the advancement of the plot. The album remains one of my favorites, as does the movie.
The idea of the concept album will always live because there will always be a demand for music to be as fulfilling as a novel or a film. Individual songs lack the time and complexity to fill with meaning; it requires 80 minutes and 20 songs, each contributing their fair share to the whole, and a lot of time to truly make sense of the artist behind the work. It’s the best way to listen to music, and it’s what truly separates the true artists from all the other musicians out there.
Image via Paul Townsend, Flickr.