The Top 10 Concept Albums of All Time
Rock music went to college in the Sixties. First it started pilfering from classical music and theater. Then someone had the psychedelic-induced idea to carry a single story over an entire album, just like in opera.
And thus the genie was unleashed: the concept record, simultaneously emblematic of rock at its most ambitious and its most pompous.
Some damn musicologist determined these to be the best examples of this form.
06. Tom Waits, Franks Wild Years Yeah, Waits is a theatrical weird-ass, but in the best possible way. Here he pens a rags-to-rags opera in which a reprobate thinks if he can make it in New York, he can make it anywhere. In the end, dude makes it nowhere. Marc Ribot kicks in a few angular guitar leads.
07. Frank Zappa, Joe’s Garage Another far-out rock conceptualist lays the satire on thick. A mock morality play in the style of Reefer Madness, Joe’s Garage outlines all the bad things that happen to humans if they, gasp, LISTEN TO ROCK MUSIC, including sexual degradation, venereal diseases, and madness. To drive home his anti-censorship views, Zappa includes plenty of profanity.
05. Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade Concept record? Hardcore punk? Incongruous! Yet it happened. A suburban youth with a miserable home life hits the road, all Kerouac-like, and encounters a slew of nuts and flakes. Bob Mould established himself as one of the best guitarists in punk rock and planted the roots for indie, noise rock, emocore and more.
04. Queensrÿche, Operation: Mindcrime A preacher, a hooker, and a junkie walk into a bar... No, that’s a different story. A preacher, an ex-hooker, and a junkie get caught in a web of intrigue involving an underground political movement bent on assassination. Queensrÿche differentiated themselves here from the better-selling ’80s poodle metal bands by not being butt-stupid.
03. Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway This short story by Peter Gabriel follows a kid named Rael on a surrealist journey from the streets of New York to the afterlife. Along the way he encounters the Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging, Death disguised as the Supernatural Anaesthetist, and sexy snake women. It’s kind of like Homer’s Odyssey on psychedelics purchased in the subway.
02. Pink Floyd, The Wall Roger Waters is second only to Townshend as king of the concept album. By using the most devastating war in history as the basis for a rock star’s communication hangups, he created Floyd’s biggest record. Subsequently it inspired a movie and, ironically, a concert in a reunified Germany.
01. The Who, Tommy Come on. A deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball, takes the world by storm after a lifetime of trauma, and garners a cult following. Uh-huh. Totally plausible. Yeah, yeah, I know, symbolism, but still—the Helen Keller of the arcade? Nevertheless, this is one of the Who’s crowning glories, which also spawned a movie and a Broadway show.
08. Jethro Tull, Aqualung Dun dah-dah, dah DUN DUN. Remember vinyl? It allowed Ian Anderson and company to make an album that was two concepts in one. Side A is about some perv street person and Side B is a rumination on organized religion. This split is also reflective of the accompanying music: one part hard rock and one part British folk. Dun dah-dah, dah DUN DUN.
09. Green Day, American Idiot It has characters with names like St. Jimmy, Jesus of Suburbia and Whatsername, but that’s not the important part. This streetwise 1984 rails against all that’s wrong with the current American social and political climate. Funny that such angry content should return the concept album to the hit parade.
10. The Pretty Things S.F. Sorrow The title comes from the sad-sack protagonist who wanders through life unhappy before going nuts from regret. It’s a landmark because it ranks as the first rock opera. Rumor has it Pete Townshend started wringing his hands and concocting “Pinball Wizard” after hearing this.