by Nick Papanicholas
What is a concept album?
A concept album is an album that’s like a story. It has a clear and concise beginning, middle, and end. Tracks usually flow into each other with no break in between, but there are, of course, exceptions to this and variations in the music so the listener is invested. Essentially, the songs have a larger meaning or purpose collectively than they do on their own.
How do you listen to a concept album?
Typically, you would listen from the first track to the last. If you wish, you could follow along with the lyrics to get a clear idea on the overall theme and message that is being established in the music!
What is the best concept album to start with?
I think I would recommend Tommy by The Who. It’s one of the better concept albums out there, it has many different highs and lows while telling the story of a boy named Tommy. It was first released in 1969 as a double album, which means it contains enough songs for two records. It has some big hits, like “Pinball Wizard,” as well as some deep cuts that most people don’t know about or overlook.
However, I don’t consider Tommy to be the defining concept album of all concept albums. To be honest, I didn’t know what a concept album was until about 6 years ago when I heard The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. It’s a very heavy record that tells the tale of a man’s descent into self-destruction. It’ll hit you like a ton of bricks on the first listen, and it can get pretty emotional if you haven’t heard it before. I don’t think I would be writing about concept albums if it weren’t for The Downward Spiral. Today, I consider it to be a quintessential concept album, but I urge you to listen at your own discretion.
Why should I care about concept albums? Are they still making them today?
Concept albums offer the listener somewhat of a narrative in musical form. It’s technically an expansion of an already established form of art and provides an experience that may rival traditional albums. It’s also true that an album can tell a story or have a common theme and not be a concept album. Soundtracks would be a great example of records that have a common theme but aren’t considered concept albums. More people should definitely care about concept albums because they’re unique and everyone has a story to be told that is worth telling and listening to.
As far as I know, the concept album has never really gone away or diminished in any way. Although, there aren’t many being released in the current music environment. I definitely hope they never go away completely because to me, they represent a creative way to keep people invested in listening to full albums. With the rise of the MP3 and streaming, people have the option to pick and choose songs they listen to or create playlists from scratch. More artists today cater to that by choosing to release singles and Eps, rather than delving into a collective theme in 10 or so songs. Our attention spans are already so limited, as well. My hope is that someday, more people will realize there’s a lot of satisfaction in listening to a full album.