Three Dreaded Words?
PHOTO CREDIT: @elijahsad/Unsplash
The Concept Album: Ten Fine Examples
WHEN artists release concept albums…
PHOTO CREDIT: @sunnystate/Unsplash
there is that sharp intake of breath and people cower for shelter! Look back at some of the bloated Prog-Rock efforts and it is all wild solos and pretentious songs. The concept album has not died and, in fact, it is providing modern artists the chance to tell a complete story. Musicians like Janelle Monáe are embracing the concept album with aplomb and finding they can write about affecting and challenging subjects and tie it to a narrative/story. A lot of modern concept albums do not have to involve a straight run of songs that are blend into one another and do not give artists the chance to explore and expand. Maybe that view of the concept album being pretentious and boring stems from older days when artists would talk about something rather weird, random and daft. I don’t know…
PHOTO CREDIT: @verstuyftj/Unsplash
Maybe there is that narrow-minded approach to the concept album but, with BBC Radio 6 Music dedicating a show to the modern-day concept album; it seems like we are more willing to embrace it - contemporary artists are able to remain true to themselves and write an album that has a unifying theme. There have been some great modern concept albums but I was interested looking back at the all-time finest and showing, when artists got it right, the concept album could be a glorious and memorable thing! Have a look of the rundown of wonderful examples and I am sure you will agree with me when I say rank alongside any other album you can name! What I love about concept albums is there is that arc and narrative that keeps you hooked; a theme/suggestion that sucks you in and takes you along with the ride. The concept album is far from dead and is being evolved and updated for new audience and proves that, what was once a rather dirty and embarrassing thing, is actually…
PHOTO CREDIT: @almosbech/Unsplash
PRETTY damn beautiful.
ALL ALBUM COVERS: Getty Images
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
Release Date: 1st March, 1973
“The Dark Side of the Moon built upon experiments Pink Floyd had attempted in their previous live shows and recordings, but lacks the extended instrumental excursions which, according to critic David Fricke, had become characteristic of the band after founding member Syd Barrett left in 1968. Gilmour, Barrett's replacement, later referred to those instrumentals as "that psychedelic noodling stuff", and with Waters cited 1971's Meddle as a turning-point towards what would be realised on the album. The Dark Side of the Moon's lyrical themes include conflict, greed, the passage of time, death, and insanity, the latter inspired in part by Barrett's deteriorating mental state. The album contains musique concrète on several tracks.
Each side of the album is a continuous piece of music. The five tracks on each side reflect various stages of human life, beginning and ending with a heartbeat, exploring the nature of the human experience, and (according to Waters) "empathy". "Speak to Me" and "Breathe" together stress the mundane and futile elements of life that accompany the ever-present threat of madness, and the importance of living one's own life – "Don't be afraid to care". By shifting the scene to an airport, the synthesizer-driven instrumental "On the Run" evokes the stress and anxiety of modern travel, in particular Wright's fear of flying. "Time" examines the manner in which its passage can control one's life and offers a stark warning to those who remain focused on mundane aspects; it is followed by a retreat into solitude and withdrawal in "Breathe (Reprise)". The first side of the album ends with Wright and vocalist Clare Torry's soulful metaphor for death, "The Great Gig in the Sky". Opening with the sound of cash registers and loose change, the first track on side two, "Money", mocks greed and consumerism using tongue-in-cheek lyrics and cash-related sound effects (ironically, "Money" has been the most commercially successful track from the album, with several cover versions produced by other bands). "Us and Them" addresses the isolation of the depressed with the symbolism of conflict and the use of simple dichotomies to describe personal relationships. "Any Colour You Like" concerns the lack of choice one has in a human society. "Brain Damage" looks at a mental illness resulting from the elevation of fame and success above the needs of the self; in particular, the line "and if the band you're in starts playing different tunes" reflects the mental breakdown of former bandmate Syd Barrett. The album ends with "Eclipse", which espouses the concepts of alterity and unity, while forcing the listener to recognise the common traits shared by humanity” - Wikipedia
“By condensing the sonic explorations of Meddle to actual songs and adding a lush, immaculate production to their trippiest instrumental sections, Pink Floyd inadvertently designed their commercial breakthrough with Dark Side of the Moon. The primary revelation of Dark Side of the Moon is what a little focus does for the band. Roger Waters wrote a series of songs about mundane, everyday details which aren't that impressive by themselves, but when given the sonic backdrop of Floyd's slow, atmospheric soundscapes and carefully placed sound effects, they achieve an emotional resonance. But what gives the album true power is the subtly textured music, which evolves from ponderous, neo-psychedelic art rock to jazz fusion and blues-rock before turning back to psychedelia. It's dense with detail, but leisurely paced, creating its own dark, haunting world. Pink Floyd may have better albums than Dark Side of the Moon, but no other record defines them quite as well as this one” – AllMusic
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Release Date: 8th July, 2007
“There may be no more mythic origin story in all of indie rock than the tale of Justin Vernon decamping to his father’s hunting cabin in the dead of winter and emerging with For Emma, Forever Ago. You probably know it by heart, but for posterity’s sake: Aching from the end of a romantic relationship and a band breakup that he believed to mark the death of his music career, Vernon holed up in remote northwestern Wisconsin for three months and spent his days hunting game and strumming an acoustic guitar. As inspiration struck, he traded the straightforward alt-country sounds of his previous project, DeYarmond Edison, for a more elemental yet sophisticated take on folk music — spare, trembling, otherworldly — ultimately coming away with a set of songs that crackled and glowed like a wood stove in the midst of a snowstorm” - Stereogum
“As the second half of its title implies, the album is a ruminative collection of songs full of natural imagery and acoustic strums-- the sound of a man left alone with his memories and a guitar. Bon Iver will likely bear comparisons to Iron & Wine for its quiet folk and hushed intimacy, but in fact, Vernon, adopting a falsetto that is worlds away from his work with DeYarmond Edison, sounds more like TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, not just in his vocal timbre, but in the way his voice grows grainier as it gets louder.
Vernon gives a soulful performance full of intuitive swells and fades, his phrasing and pronunciation making his voice as much a purely sonic instrument as his guitar. In the discursive coda of "Creature Fear" he whittles the song down to a single repeated syllable-- "fa." Rarely does folk-- indie or otherwise-- give so much over to ambience: Quivering guitar strings, mic'ed closely, lend opener "Flume" its eerily interiorized sound, which matches his unsettling similes” – Pitchfork
Green Day – American Idiot
Release Date: 20th September, 2004
“A concept album dubbed a "punk rock opera" by the band members, American Idiot follows the story of Jesus of Suburbia, a lower-middle-class American adolescent anti-hero. Through its plot, the album expresses the disillusionment and dissent of a generation that came of age in a period shaped by many tumultuous events like the Iraq War. The album was inspired by several musicals and the work of The Who. Recording of American Idiot was split between two California studios between 2003 and 2004. Its album art depicts a heart-shaped hand grenade” – Wikipedia
“…But Green Day — namely, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong — make the journey entertaining enough. At various times, American Idiot evokes football-game chants, ’50s greaser rock, military marches, classic rock (hints of ”Strawberry Fields Forever” and ”All the Young Dudes”), and the band’s own past (”Wake Me Up When September Ends,” an elegiac bookend to their own ”Good Riddance [Time of Your Life]”). As often happens with concept albums, the disc tends to rely on lyrics over music, so some of the songs are forgettable. But Green Day are now slinging mud not at their audience but at America’s pumped-up military-industrial complex — where ”a flag [is] wrapped around a score of men” and war rages ”from Anaheim to the Middle East” — without losing their bratty humor or power chords” – Entertainment Weekly
The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come for Free
Release Date: 17th May, 2004
“In the story, the protagonist loses £1,000, or a "grand" in slang terms, and strives to recoup the money.
In his book The Story of the Streets Skinner explained his decision to create a story that ran through the album:
"The reason I decided to write A Grand Don't Come for Free as episodes from a single unfolding narrative was because I'd got so into my songwriting manuals and books by Hollywood screen-writing gurus – not just Robert McKee but Syd Fieldand John Truby as well – and I wanted to try and put what I'd learnt from them into practice. Every song needs a drama at the centre of it, and once you have the drama, the song writes itself – that's what I firmly believed, and still do believe. I'm not alone in this convicition, either. It's something pretty much all rappers seem to be sure about."
In the first track on the album, "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy", Skinner attempts several tasks during a day but they do not go according to plan. When he comes home he cannot find the thousand pounds he has saved and his television is broken. In the process of trying to recover the money he:
· Starts seeing a girl called Simone who works in JD Sports with his friend Dan. ("Could Well Be In")
· Tries to recover the thousand pounds by gambling on football. After a series of wins he frustratingly cannot get to the bookmaker's in time to make a big gamble. Fortuitously, the prediction is wrong — it is his lucky day. ("Not Addicted")
· Is stood up at a nightclub by Simone, but passes the time drinking alcohol and taking ecstasy. He thinks he sees Simone kissing Dan but the drug induced high distracts him before he can think about it properly. ("Blinded By the Lights")
· Moves into Simone's house and finds himself comfortable smoking marijuana there, rather than drinking with his friends at the pub. ("Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way")
· Argues with Simone and she kicks him out of her house. ("Get Out of My House")
· Flies back from the holiday and remorsefully reviews the events of the previous night during a phone call to a friend, realising he still wants to be with Simone. ("Such a Twat")
· Suspects his mate Scott of stealing his coat, money, and girlfriend but discovers that Simone is actually having an affair with Dan. ("What is He Thinking?")
· Tries to cope with his girlfriend breaking up with him. ("Dry Your Eyes")
· Deals with the events of his life in one of two ways; the final track, "Empty Cans", features two endings to the plot, a bitter ending and a happy ending (the former where he and a TV repairman get into a fight over the repairman's fee, and the latter in which he reconciles with his mates and finds the thousand pounds had fallen down the back of the TV, making it malfunction)” – Wikipedia
Label: 679 Artists
“The whole album is so lyrically skilful and emotionally endearing that it allows Skinner to get away with murder at the finale. The much-vaunted plot "twist" stretches your credulity to the limit: suffice to say that in order to believe it, you would also have to believe that Skinner is woefully unobservant. Given that he has just spent the best part of an hour demonstrating that he is the most observant man in pop music, that's a preposterously tall order” – The Guardian
Pink Floyd – The Wall
Release Date: 30th November, 1979
“The Wall is a rock opera that explores abandonment and isolation, symbolised by a wall. The songs create an approximate storyline of events in the life of the protagonist, Pink (who is introduced in the songs "In the Flesh?" and "The Thin Ice"), a character based on Syd Barrett as well as Roger Waters, whose father was killed during the Second World War. Pink's father also dies in a war ("Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)"), which is where Pink starts to build a metaphorical "wall" around him. Pink is oppressed by his overprotective mother ("Mother") and tormented at school by tyrannical, abusive teachers ("The Happiest Days of Our Lives"). All of these traumas become metaphorical "bricks in the wall" ("Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)"). The protagonist eventually becomes a rock star, his relationships marred by infidelity, drug use, and outbursts of violence. He finally becomes married and is about to complete his "wall" ("Empty Spaces"). While touring in America, he brings a groupie home after learning of his wife's infidelity. Ruminating on his failed marriage, he trashes his room and scares the groupie away in a violent fit of rage. ("One of My Turns"). As his marriage crumbles ("Don't Leave Me Now"), he dismisses everyone he's known as "just bricks in the wall" ("Another Brick in the Wall (Part 3)") and finishes building his wall ("Goodbye Cruel World"), completing his isolation from human contact.
Hidden behind his wall, Pink becomes severely depressed ("Hey You") and starts to lose all faith ("Vera"). In order to get him to perform, a doctor medicates him ("Comfortably Numb"). This results in a hallucinatory on-stage performance where he believes that he is a fascist dictator performing at concerts similar to Neo-Nazi rallies ("The Show Must Go On"), at which he sets brownshirts-like men on fans he considers unworthy ("In the Flesh" and "Run Like Hell"). Upon realizing the horror of what he has done ("Waiting for the Worms"), Pink becomes overwhelmed and wishes for everything around him to cease ("Stop"). Showing human emotion, he is tormented with guilt and places himself on trial ("The Trial"), his inner judge ordering him to "tear down the wall", opening Pink to the outside world ("Outside the Wall"). The album turns full circle with its closing words "Isn't this where ...", the first words of the phrase that begins the album, "... we came in?", with a continuation of the melody of the last song hinting at the cyclical nature of Waters' theme.
The album includes several references to former band member Syd Barrett, including "Nobody Home", which hints at his condition during Pink Floyd's abortive US tour of 1967, with lyrics such as "wild, staring eyes", "the obligatory Hendrix perm" and "elastic bands keeping my shoes on". "Comfortably Numb" was inspired by Waters' injection with a muscle relaxant to combat the effects of hepatitis during the In the Flesh Tour, while in Philadelphia” – Wikipedia
“This was the last great album by Pink Floyd, and any fan of the band should own a copy , as it displays the band's most remarkable album, and one that contains all the hallmarks that made them great; ethereal, haunting at times, uplifting at others music, lyrical genius, and instrumental work, particularly from Dave Gilmour, that makes the ideas reality. The band's best album" Probably not. However, there's a definite case for saying that it may be the one that people are most interested in, and with very good reason. Although some people will disagree, this gets 5/5 from me” – Sputnikmusic
The Who – Tommy
Release Date: 23rd May, 1969
“British Army Captain Walker goes missing during an expedition and is believed dead ("Overture"). His widow, Mrs. Walker, gives birth to their son, Tommy ("It's a Boy"). Years later, Captain Walker returns home and discovers that his wife has found a new lover. They murder the Captain in an altercation as Tommy watches. Tommy's mother convinces him that he did not see or hear the incident and must never tell anyone about it; as a result, he becomes deaf, dumb, and blind to the outside world ("1921"). Tommy now relies on his sense of touch and imagination, developing a fascinating inner psyche ("Amazing Journey/Sparks").
A quack claims his wife can cure Tommy ("The Hawker"), while Tommy's parents are increasingly frustrated that he will never find religion in the midst of his isolation ("Christmas"). They begin to neglect him, leaving him to be tortured by his sadistic "Cousin Kevin" and molested by his uncle Ernie ("Fiddle About"). The Hawker's drug addicted wife, "The Acid Queen", gives Tommy a dose of LSD, causing a hallucinogenic experience that is expressed musically ("Underture").
As Tommy grows older, he discovers that he can feel vibrations sufficiently well to become an expert pinball player ("Pinball Wizard"). His parents take him to a respected doctor ("There's a Doctor"), who determines that the boy's disabilities are psychosomatic rather than physical. Tommy is told by the Doctor to "Go to the Mirror!", and his parents notice he can stare at his reflection. After seeing Tommy spend extended periods staring at a mirror in the house, his mother smashes it out of frustration ("Smash the Mirror"). This removes Tommy's mental block, and he recovers his senses, realising he can become a powerful leader ("Sensation"). He starts a religious movement ("I'm Free"), which generates fervor among its adherents ("Sally Simpson") and expands into a holiday camp ("Welcome" / "Tommy's Holiday Camp"). However, Tommy's followers ultimately reject his teachings and leave the camp ("We're Not Gonna Take It"). Tommy retreats inward again ("See Me, Feel Me") with his "continuing statement of wonder at that which encompasses him” - Wikipedia
“The full-blown rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy that launched the band to international superstardom, written almost entirely by Pete Townshend. Hailed as a breakthrough upon its release, its critical standing has diminished somewhat in the ensuing decades because of the occasional pretensions of the concept and because of the insubstantial nature of some of the songs that functioned as little more than devices to advance the rather sketchy plot. Nonetheless, the double album has many excellent songs, including "I'm Free," "Pinball Wizard," "Sensation," "Christmas," "We're Not Gonna Take It," and the dramatic ten-minute instrumental "Underture." Though the album was slightly flawed, Townshend's ability to construct a lengthy conceptual narrative brought new possibilities to rock music. Despite the complexity of the project, he and the Who never lost sight of solid pop melodies, harmonies, and forceful instrumentation, imbuing the material with a suitably powerful grace” – AllMusic
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
Release Date: 16th May, 1966
“Commentators and historians frequently cite Pet Sounds as a concept album, and sometimes as the first concept album in the history of rock music. Academic Carys Wyn Jones attribute this to the album's "uniform excellence" rather than a lyrical theme or musical motif. Even though Pet Sounds has a somewhat unified theme in its emotional content, there was not a predetermined narrative. Asher said that there were no conversations between him and Wilson that pertained to any specific album "concept", however, "that's not to say that he didn't have the capacity to steer it in that direction, even unconsciously". Wilson stated: "If you take the Pet Sounds album as a collection of art pieces, each designed to stand alone, yet which belong together, you'll see what I was aiming at. ... It wasn't really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album; it was really a production concept album." He added that the album may be considered an "interpretation" of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound recording methods.
For Pet Sounds, Wilson desired to make "a complete statement", similar to what he believed the Beatles had done with their newest album Rubber Soul, released in December 1965.[nb 8] Wilson was immediately enamored with the album, given the impression that it had no filler tracks, a feature that was mostly unheard of at a time when 45 rpm singles were considered more noteworthy than full-length LPs.Many albums up until the mid-1960s lacked a cohesive artistic goal and were largely used to sell singles at a higher price point.[nb 9]Wilson found that Rubber Soul subverted this by having a wholly consistent thread of music.[nb 10] Inspired, he rushed to his wife and proclaimed, "Marilyn, I'm gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!" He would say of his reaction to Rubber Soul: "I liked the way it all went together, the way it was all one thing. It was a challenge to me ... It didn't make me want to copy them but to be as good as them. I didn't want to do the same kind of music, but on the same level"[nb 11]” - Wikipedia
“Forty years after release, then, while the album's initially disappointing (at least to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys) chart showing has been vindicated by a perpetual reservoir of new fans and adoring critics - not to mention still being commercially viable enough to support recent live productions and similarly perpetual ways of reissuing the music-- talking about the music, or how the music makes you feel isn't much easier than it was in 1966. Very famous people waste no time in offering testimonials to Pet Sounds' greatness, but (probably wisely) stick to short statements about how important the record was to them as artists and musicians, or just how beautiful its music is” – Pitchfork
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Release Date: 16th June, 1972
“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars is about a bisexual alien rock superstar, called Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy Stardust was not conceived as a concept album and much of the story was written after the album was recorded. The characters were androgynous. Mick "Woody" Woodmansey, drummer for the Spiders from Mars, said the clothes they had worn had "femininity and sheer outrageousness", and that the characters' looks "definitely appealed to our rebellious artistic instincts". Nenad Georgievski of All About Jazz said the record was presented with "high-heeled boots, multicolored dresses, extravagant makeup and outrageous sexuality". Bowie had already developed an androgynous appearance, which was approved by critics, but received mixed reactions from audiences. His love of acting led his total immersion in the characters he created for his music. After acting the same role over an extended period, it became impossible for him to separate Ziggy Stardust from his own offstage character. Bowie said that Ziggy "wouldn't leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour ... My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity." Fearing that Ziggy would define his career, Bowie quickly developed the persona of Aladdin Sane in his subsequent album. Unlike Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane was far less optimistic, instead engaging in aggressive sexual activities and heavy drugs” - Wikpedia
“It was mostly recorded before Hunky Dory was released; it purports to be a concept album, but doesn't actually have a coherent concept. ("Starman", "Suffragette City" and "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" were all late additions to its running order.) It is, nonetheless, a fantastic set of songs, overflowing with huge riffs and huger personae. "Five Years" opens the album with Bowie's grandest sci-fi apocalypse yet, Mick Ronson shreds his way to the guitar pantheon, and the band's flamboyant performance of "Starman" on Top of the Pops famously gave the next generation of British pop musicians a bunch of funny tingling sensations. The whole album, in fact, is as erotically charged as an orgone accumulator: Bowie was probably the only person who could have remained sexually ambiguous after declaring "I'm gay, and always have been” – Pitchfork
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Release Date: 26th May, 1967
“In November 1966, during a return flight to London from Kenya, where he had been on holiday with Beatles tour manager Mal Evans, McCartney had an idea for a song that eventually formed the impetus of the Sgt. Pepper concept. His idea involved an Edwardian-era military band, for which Evans invented a name in the style of contemporary San Francisco-based groups such as Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service.[nb 2] In February 1967, McCartney suggested that the Beatles should record an entire album that would represent a performance by the fictional band. This alter ego group would give them the freedom to experiment musically. He explained: "I thought, let's not be ourselves. Let's develop alter egos." Martin remembered:
"Sergeant Pepper" itself didn't appear until halfway through making the album. It was Paul's song, just an ordinary rock number ... but when we had finished it, Paul said, "Why don't we make the album as though the Pepper band really existed, as though Sergeant Pepper was making the record? We'll dub in effects and things." I loved the idea, and from that moment on it was as though Pepper had a life of its own ”- Wikipedia
Label: Parlophone (U.K.)
“It is where the Beatles really exploit the studio as the instrument, forgoing live playing for sonic adventure. It is impossible to overstate its impact: from a contemporary Sixties perspective it was utterly mind-blowing and original. Looking back from a point when its sonic innovations have been integrated into the mainstream, it remains a wonky, colourful and wildly improbable pop classic, although a little slighter and less cohesive than it may have seemed at the time.
Some songs, such as Lovely Rita, When I’m 64, Good Morning, Good Morning, Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite and Harrison’s dour, droning Within You Without You, seem undernourished excuses on which to hang florid ideas. But the title track is an improbable scorcher, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds a glittering gem, Fixing a Hole and She’s Leaving Home lovely chamber pieces, and the concluding A Day in the Life one of the strangest and most beautiful recordings ever, an inner-space odyssey juxtaposing Lennon’s ethereal surrealism with McCartney’s prosaic energy and wrapping it all up in an apocalyptic orchestral climax” – The Telegraph
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.D city
Release Date: 22nd October, 2012
“In an interview for XXL, Lamar said that the album would not sound like Section.80, but will return to his Compton roots: "I couldn't tell you what type of sound or where I [will] be in the next five years as far as music... Back to the neighbourhood and [going] back in that same space where we used to be, got [me] inspired. So this album won't sound like Section.80."
Lamar also said that the album will showcase the influence of his hometown: "The kid that's trying to escape that influence, trying his best to escape that influence, has always been pulled back in because of circumstances that be". Before the album's title was officially revealed, fans had already been calling Lamar's major label debut Good Kid, Mad City or Good Kid in a Mad City, as it was a nickname Lamar had given himself. The album's title mainly refers to Lamar's childhood innocence, and how Compton affected his life. After keeping the album title's acronym concealed, Lamar later revealed M.A.A.D is an acronym with two meanings: "My Angry Adolescence Divided" and "My Angels on Angel Dust", with Lamar stating: "That was me, [and it's] the reason why I don't smoke. It was just me getting my hands on the wrong thing at the wrong time [and] being oblivious to it ”- Wikipedia
Labels: Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg
“Lamar second-guesses himself, introduces a host of characters and rakes through internal conflicts – but it's all in the service of a neat whole, complete with cornily redemptive closing curtain. Perhaps Lamar's greatest gift is his ability to pull the listener inside the action while retaining an alienated detachment, most arrestingly evident on the album's double centrepiece, the eerie Good Kid ("Me jumping off the roof/ Is me just playing it safe") and the urgent M.A.A.D City. Still, the album isn't quite a classic: Lamar's depiction of downtrodden women is unnecessarily prurient and unconvincing. Oddly, two of the strongest moments are bonus tracks: Black Boy Fly's thoughtful examination of aspiration and jealousy, and Collect Calls, with its gut-punch of a final twist” - The Guardian