Concept albums are most often associated with prog rock and the 70s, since epic LPs really did flourish in that era. But prog rockers didn’t completely own the concept of concepts. As this list shows, funkateers, country artists, and even punks got into the act, often with grand results. Here are just a few of best concept albums from over the decades.
43: Dream Theater: Metropolis, Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory
A prog-metal concept album requires a meaty storyline, and Dream Theater provides one here: Over a long and complex piece, the hero relives his past life, communes with a murdered woman, untangles a tragic love affair, and solves the underlying mystery, only to have it (probably) replay itself at the end. Like all Dream Theater albums, it requires quite a few listens to fully take in.
42: Peter Hammill: Nadir’s Big Chance (1975)
On his fifth solo album, prog philosopher Peter Hammill discovers his inner teenage brat. The full line-up of Van Der Graaf Generator wails on every track; for a band that’s usually prone to complexity, they practically invent British punk here. John Lydon of Sex Pistols famously loved it, but Lydon never emoted the way Hammill does on the album’s two soul ballads.
41: Transatlantic: The Whirlwind
Kings of modern prog, Transatlantic do Jethro Tull one better by creating a single, continuous piece that runs for 77 minutes instead of a mere 40. Just pick any segment and you’ll get rich melodies, tricky time shifts, and interlocking themes. It’s all keyed to the theme of spiritual search and fulfillment, a favorite of singer/keyboardist Neal Morse.
40: Jay-Z: American Gangster
You wouldn’t think that Jay-Z would need to reach outside his own life for song material, but something clicked when he saw the Ridley Scott film of the same name. So he and the film’s antihero Frank Lucas wind up sharing space in the songs, which show them both as complex characters. He also draws heavily on 70s blaxploitation R&B to suit the movie’s timeframe.
39: The Pretty Things: S.F. Sorrow
Contrary to popular belief, The Who’s Tommy wasn’t the first rock opera. Five months earlier, The Pretty Things made an album whose songs were all sung by characters and told a coherent, if less ambitious story. It also caught this perpetually underrated band at a peak, trading in their early R&B sound for something more sweeping and melodic, with enough Mellotron to make the Moody Blues take cover.
38: Sufjan Stevens: Illinois
After saluting his home state on 2003’s Michigan, Sufjan Stevens promised 49 more concept albums. This turned out to be the only other one, but it’s a grandly thematic work that touches on the state’s poetic history (Carl Sandburg and Saul Bellow both turn up), the state’s creepier episodes, and the writer’s own twisted sense of humor (Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize”) gets referenced more than once). It sounds too bizarre on paper to be as catchy as it is.
37: Green Day: American Idiot (2004)
Inspired by many of the below (especially The Jam and Who), Green Day reached for a political relevance and musical depth they’d barely approached in the past. They even took American Idiot to Broadway, adapting their concept album into a stage show.
36: Beyoncé: I Am…Sasha Fierce
Adopting a persona is a time-honored way to make a concept album, from Sgt. Pepper and Ziggy Stardust to Garth Brooks’ controversial Chris Gaines but Beyoncé does them all one better by adopting two characters here – her true self and her stage persona – with the former doing more traditional pop and R&B and the latter doing EDM. Both parts produced big hits, and both sound rather organic compared to some of her later productions.
35: Todd Rundgren: Liars
A relatively recent album that stands as one of the Wizard’s best, Liars puts Todd Rundgren’s melodic pop and blue-eyed soul instincts to the forefront. Lyrically he waxes philosophical about the lies that social and religious institutions convince us to tell ourselves. It’s also a profoundly uplifting album, with his central point being that the truth is more beautiful than the deceptions.
34: Frank Zappa: Joe’s Garage
The first half of this epic, released as a single LP in 1979, tells a linear and very funny story of a garage band’s misadventures. The double-LP Joe’s Garage takes some wild Zappa-esque turns to deal with repressive societies, religious cults, various sexual practices – and plenty of amazing guitar solos.
33: Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow
It took Kate Bush until 2011 to create a fully conceptual album, though two of her most celebrated sets, Hounds of Love and Aerial, had conceptual second halves (and those formed the centerpiece of her 2014 live shows). This underrated album also soars with some wintry meditations, a surprise Elton John duet, and a fantasy about physical love with a snowman – that’s our Kate.
32: Michael Nesmith: The Prison: A Book With A Soundtrack (1974)
Just when nobody was looking, the former Monkee Michael Nesmith was perfecting cosmic Americana. The rootsy-spacey music is fascinating on its own, but when played as intended – as the “soundtrack” to a short book you read along with – this concept album becomes something profound and life-affirming.
31: Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
The concept here is a loose one, namely the Butler brothers’ own childhoods in the Texas suburbs and how those surroundings, along with their favorite music, shaped their internal lives. The Suburbs is an album full of visual imagery, maintaining a dreamlike feel even when it rocks out. And it struck a chord with scores of modern kids, suburban and otherwise.
30: Rush: Clockwork Angels (2012)
Ever since the half-conceptual 2112, many Rush fans spent two decades hoping they’d get back to grand concepts and sci-fi. They finally went there on their very last album, arguably the most musically adventurous thing they ever did.
29: Alice Cooper: School’s Out (1972)
What could be more 70s than juvenile delinquency played for laughs? Alice Cooper was the man for the job, and this concept album gave him the hoped-for inroad to middle America. Meanwhile, the sentimental and only partly tongue-in-cheek ‘Alma Mater’ was closer to the true Alice than anyone realized at the time. A few years later, he’d go on to make yet another notable concept album: Welcome To My Nightmare.
28: Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (2018)
Among other things, this maverick’s latest release proves it’s still possible to get daringly futuristic, and that the potentials for rock and R&B fusion in the post-Prince era are by no means exhausted. And as of this moment, it’s the most recent great record that Brian Wilson has appeared on.
27: Rick Wakeman: The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (1973)
In his later years, Rick Wakeman couldn’t make a concept album without costumes, narration and an honest-to-God ice skating rink. But The Six Wives Of Henry VIII tells a story quite effectively with no words, just a great band (half from Yes, the other half from Strawbs) and his own flying fingers. It’s dramatic and very British – as the theme demands.
26: Jethro Tull: Thick As A Brick (1972)
Nothing Jethro Tull did before or after matched the audacity of Thick As A Brick, both for its format (one fully considered song over two album sides) and for its central idea (Ian Anderson setting an epic poem by a disgruntled eight-year-old to music). Even the 2012 sequel, Thick As A Brick 2, was the best thing Anderson had done in decades.
25: Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera (2001)
On the surface, Southern Rock Opera is a double-album about Lynyrd Skynyrd and an excuse for some riff-slinging rebel rock. But once you go deeper, there’s a lot of serious thought about how the music relates to “the duality of the Southern thing.” The deep thoughts would remain a Truckers’ trademark; the punkish humor often evinced here would not.
24: The Moody Blues: In Search Of The Lost Chord
Following up The Moody Blues’ more obviously conceptual Days Of Future Passed, In Search Of The Lost Chord is more profound and definitely more 60s. It’s a concept about the different paths to enlightenment, giving meditation, acid, and love equal attention.
23: The Jam: Setting Sons (1979)
Paul Weller got a little embarrassed about writing a classic concept album in punk’s heyday, so he threw in a cover of ‘Heat Wave’ at the last minute. Nothing to be at all ashamed of here, though, as these decaying-England character sketches marked him as a first-class writer. Setting Sons also features The Jam’s most powerful single, “Eton Rifles.”
22: Grace Jones: Slave to the Rhythm
Grace Jones’ concept album is all about a unique topic: Grace Jones. It’s actually one of Trevor Horn’s great production epics, as he extends the two main songs (plus a lot of sound clips) to create an autobiography of/love letter to the artist.
21: The Alan Parsons Project: I Robot (1977)
Much of Alan Parsons’ later work was prog-lite, but that’s not the case here. The soundscapes are grand, but the real heart of this album is the songs (mainly by Parsons’ late collaborator, Eric Woolfson), which are less about the rise of robots than they are about one man’s struggle to make sense of it all. ‘Breakdown’ features one of the best vocals ever cut by a great singer, Allan Clarke of The Hollies.
20: Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
This isn’t the first landmark rap album to come straight outta Compton, but Kendrick Lamar brought a new perspective on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. These songs and skits trace a young man’s coming of age as he feels the pull of street life but tries to rise above, even having a drunken conversation with his conscience. He gets his victory when Dr. Dre joins him for an album-closing duet.
19: Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral
Darkness, despair, creepy sexuality…to some extent, that’s the concept of Nine Inch Nails’ entire career, but Trent Reznor’s “Mr. Self Destruct” persona was really perfected on The Downward Spiral, with “Closer” and “Hurt” representing the hard and soft extremes of his personality. As always with NIN, the flashes of hope aren’t immediately apparent, but they’re there.
18: Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger (1975)
Interesting that the creative peak of Willie Nelson’s career mostly wasn’t written by him, but his contextualizing of others’ songs (notably Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”) made something grander out of them. The narrative flow and stripped-down sound were radical at the time, and defined outlaw country for decades to come. It’s over in a scant 33 minutes and the plot feels a little unresolved, but maybe that’s the point.
17: The Turtles: Present The Battle Of The Bands (1968)
On this concept album, The Turtles masquerade as 12 fictional bands, doing gonzoid takes on country, surf, Broadway, and even Hawaiian music (“I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re The Royal Macadamia Nuts)”). In the middle of all this madness come two perfect pop singles: “You Showed Me” and “Elenore.”
16: Elton John: Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1974)
It takes a lot of bottle for the world’s biggest rock star to wax rhapsodic about the struggling years he’d just escaped, but these songs draw you right into Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s teenage world, catching the classic Elton John band at its peak. You can practically see the dusty living room and taste the chocolate biscuits.
15: Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (1975)
Wish You Were Here was perhaps the last time that Pink Floyd truly worked as a band, which in this case included the ghost of the still-living Syd Barrett. It also marked the last time their warmth and invention outshone the cynicism that crept in afterward.
14: XTC: Skylarking (1986)
XTC got their money’s worth (and a few in-studio squabbles) from producer Todd Rundgren, who heard in the band’s demos the seeds of a life-cycle concept album and devised some ingenious segues to match. Less remarked on is the fact that Rundgren was the first XTC producer to realize what great singers Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding could be.
13: Frank Sinatra: Watertown (1970)
Unlike the earlier Frank Sinatra “concept” albums like In The Wee Small Hours, which were really just thematically connected songs, Watertown is really a fully considered piece, catching a few days in the life of a man whose wife has left him. Sad romantics take note: it’s the darkest of all Sinatra albums.
12: Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (1984)
The experiences of a young man on his first year away from home are perfectly evoked on this post-hardcore classic. There’s careening energy, existential dread, and endless possibility from one of the most influential punk outfits of all time.
11: Stevie Wonder: Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants
This misunderstood album got plenty of pushback for being such an unexpected follow-up to Songs in the Key of Life. But it stands as one of the great concept albums, with Stevie Wonder crafting some wildly inventive instrumentals, plus his usual great melodies, to delve into the spirituality of nature. We always knew he could write a symphony, and this was the closest he got.
10: The Kinks: The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
Not as strictly thematic as many Kinks albums that followed, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society introduced the characters and scenarios that would populate Ray Davies’ songs thereafter and took The Kinks out of the beat-group world to a higher place.
9: The Who: Tommy
If not quite the first rock opera, Tommy was the most dramatic one, at least until The Who topped themselves with Quadrophenia. Tommy was partly a vehicle for Pete Townshend’s newly expanded spiritual consciousness, but it’s also about some classic rock’n’roll themes: alienation, the search for meaning, family dysfunction, and of course pinball.
8: Parliament: Mothership Connection (1975)
One of the many wonders of this album was George Clinton’s appropriation of prog-rock imagery to get the point across. Mothership Connection was less a concept album than the key moment in a concept career. The universe finds its true order… which involves tearing the roof off the sucker.
7: The Who: Quadrophenia (1973)
In 90-minutes’ worth of pure adrenaline rush, The Who capture everything rock ever wanted to say about teen alienation. You can decide if the ending is triumphant or tragic, but Quadrophenia is Pete Townshend’s high-water mark as a composer – not least because he really does get to fuse those four themes together at the end.
6: Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
It surely says something that an album about insanity is one of the best-selling of all time. Maybe that’s because Pink Floyd made it sound so warm and inviting, making the point that everyone feels the undertow at one time or another. One reason The Dark Side Of The Moon is so seamless is that they played it live for a full year before recording.
5: Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)
On The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Peter Gabriel makes his surreal netherworld ring true with the help of the most sublime melodies and ingenious arrangements ever turned in prog-rock. Then the whole journey ends with the most gloriously awful pun in rock history.
4: Brian Wilson: Brian Wilson Presents Smile (2004)
Would The Beach Boys’ 1966 version have turned out quite this beautifully? We’ll never know, but the 2004 version gains another dimension by incorporating Wilson’s own personal journey, in Van Dyke Parks’ added lyrics, and by finally putting all those enticing pieces into context. Most of all, it gives rock’s greatest “what if?” story a happy ending.
3: David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders from Mars
Taken on its own, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was a classic set of futuristic rock songs. Within the context of David Bowie’s career, it was a masterstroke. Not yet a star when it was recorded, Bowie created an otherworldly rock hero and then became one, making his own ascent a part of the concept. But while the fans destroy Ziggy on the album, the real-life Bowie had many more lives to come.
2: The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sgt. Pepper was only really a concept album in theory, but that was enough to change the world in 1967. Paul McCartney’s idea to have The Beatles make an album as a fictional band may fall by the wayside after the first two songs, but by then, the Fab Four were well into one of the most eclectic pop albums anyone at that time had ever heard.
1: Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (1971)
Among other things, What’s Going On may have been the first pop/soul album to play as one seamless piece, as opposed to utilizing the simple crossfades of The Moody Blues. Marvin Gaye never sang better – few people did – and as for the songs, their concerns and compassion grow more necessary by the year.
Looking for more? Discover the weirdest concept albums of all time.