What exactly is a concept album? One definition is, “Where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story.” For many years people have cited Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning, a work of sustained and concentrated sorrow about the end of a love affair as the first ever concept album. It maybe a concept album, then again it may not, which is why we’ve picked Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me as the first of 25 albums spanning 50 years that are all true to the definition.
Johnny Cash made a number of concept albums and the first was Ride This Train. He along with a number of other country artists over the years explored the idea of thematic albums, Marty Robbins’s Gunfighter Ballads from a year earlier could have qualified, as could Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger from 1975, but we decided to go with the Man in Black as he did more than any other country artists to make the genre his own.
Including Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music may seem like a case of stretching the envelope somewhat, but it was conceptual in that he took traditional country music and gave them an R&B and Blues twist, it’s a concept to us! Jimmy Smith did the same in a jazz vein for Sergei Prokofiev’s classical work, Peter and the Wolf.
There is little argument that when Prog Rock came along towards the end of the 1960s then its purveyors took the concept album to new heights. The Moody Blues, Rick Wakeman, Genesis, Camel, Alan Parsons, Pink Floyd and Vangelis, all made more than one concept album so picking which one to include proved a challenge – no doubt some off you will disagree.
The Who’s Tommy is often said to be the first rock Opera, but the Pretty Things and their SF Sorrow was earlier. We decided to stick with The Who, because it is just so brilliant, and frankly ground-breaking. Folk music is the polar opposite of Prog and The Who, but on Fairport Convention’s 7th album they got stuck into a concept to produce a fabulous record. John “Babbacombe” Lee was a Victorian murderer who was condemned to death but reprieved after the gallows failed on three occasions to work properly – now that’s a story!
Both David Bowie and Elton John have had careers that have lasted longer than almost any other solo performer from the late 1960s and early 1970s, it’s perhaps no surprise that having reinvented themselves on more than one occasion that they have embraced the art of the concept album. Both of them chose subjects that explored their own alter-egos – and both did it brilliantly.
Motown as a label is not known for embracing the concept album but when two of their finest artists did, they did so in separate but a totally unique fashion. Marvin Gaye’s album concerned his break up with his wife, and as she got all the royalties from the record, which is why he called it, Here, My Dear. Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants is based on the book of the same name by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. It is a fascinating concept and includes one of Stevie’s less well known, but no less beautiful ballads, ‘Send One Your Love’.
Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is outstanding, a sustained work based on H.G. Well’s futuristic book, which has had a life in many different ways, but it has only been able to achieve this through the strength of the music. One of its best-known songs is ‘Forever Autumn’, written by Jeff Wayne, Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass. The original melody, written by Wayne in 1969, was a jingle for a Lego commercial that Vigrass and Osborne, who sang the original jingle, then added the “forever autumn’ lyrics to and included on their 1972 album Queues; Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues sings it on War of The Worlds.
If the 1970s was the hey-day for the concept album it has continued to attract artists to the idea when they are looking to make a bigger statement than perhaps they feel is possible through individual songs. Originally intended as a follow-up for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’, Slave to the Rhythm was instead given to Grace Jones by its producer and co-writer, Trevor Horn – it’s pop music as high art.
For Thrash Metal’s Metallica their Master of Puppets was their first album for a major label and it is outstanding, as is Radiohead’s OK Computer, which their label at the time thought un-commercial, but their prescient view of consumerism proved hugely popular. It’s not hugely dissimilar territory to that explored on U2’s Zooropa in 1993 that topped the charts in countries around the world.
Queens of the Stone Age’s, Songs for the Deaf has as its concept a drive from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree while tuning into radio stations along the way, a clever idea, brilliantly executed. Green Day decided to produce a rock opera, inspired by the work of The Who among others and their American Idiot follows the life of Jesus of Suburbia – now that’s a concept!
And so is Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block, recorded as the 1980s were coming to an end. It is an audacious concept that traces the lineage of jazz to rap. To achieve this it includes guest appearances by some of the biggest names in Black Music. Chances are this may have passed you by…don’t let that happen, it is a masterpiece.
We’ve selected a track from each of the 25 to introduce you ton those albums that you’re unfamiliar with. These are in order of release, not from best to worst!
We would love to hear your suggestions as to what you think we should have included.…
1. Frank Sinatra Come Fly With Me (1958)
2. Johnny Cash Ride This Train (1960)
3. Ray Charles Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962)
4. Jimmy Smith Peter and The Wolf (1965)
5. Moody Blues Days of Future Passed (1967)
6. The Who Tommy (1969)
7. Fairport Convention Babbacombe Lee (1971)
8. David Bowie The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
9, Rick Wakeman Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973)
10. Genesis The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
11. Camel The Snow Goose (1975)
12. Elton John Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
13. Alan Parsons Project Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976)
14. Marvin Gaye Here My Dear (1978)
15. Jeff Wayne War of the Worlds (1978)
16. Stevie Wonder Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants (1979)
17. Pink Floyd The Wall (1979)
18. Vangelis Soil Festivities (1984)
19. Grace Jones – Slave to the Rhythm (1985)
20. Metallica Masters of Puppets (1986)
21. Quincy Jones Back on the Block (1989)
22. U2 Zooropa (1993)
23. Radiohead OK Computer (1997)
24. Queens of the Stone Age Songs for the Deaf (2002)
25. Green Day American Idiot (2004)