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.
25: 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.
24: 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 realised at the time.
23: 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.
22: 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.
21: 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.
20: 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’.
19: 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.
18: 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.
17: Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger (1975)
Interesting that the creative peak of Willie Nelson’s career mostly wasn’t written by him, but his contextualising 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.
16: 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’.
15: 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.
14: 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.
13: 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.
12: 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 humour often evinced here would not.
11: 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.
10: 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 realise what great singers Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding could be.
9: Frank Sinatra: Watertown (1970)
Unlike the earlier Frank Sinatra “concept” albums, 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.
8: 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.
7: 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.
6: 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.
5: 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.
4: 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.
3: 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.
2: 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.
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 utilising 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.