My Top 5 Concept Albums
After doing a review of Muse’s Drones album, it got me thinking about the concept albums I have in my record collection and which feature on to my Spotify playlists. It turns out I have quite an interest in them. For those of you not in the know, a concept album is a record in which all the songs are bound together in a common theme. They are as nearly old as pop music itself (see Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours) and even mainstream figures such as Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar still make concept albums.
So, just to do something a little bit different from an average review, I have decided to explain my top five favourite concept albums, which are in no particular ranking.
The Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967
Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones once called the greatest album ever according to many polls, “a mishmash of rubbish”. I like Keith, but I totally disagree with him on this. This album was the culmination of Lennon and McCartney’s musical experimentation which had been taking place since The Beatles’ 1964 album, Rubber Soul. What probably irks some people about this album is the sheer weirdness of some of the songs such as ‘Being of the Benefit of Mr Kite’ and the fact that The Beatles don’t sound like The Beatles as their audience would know them. Well that’s because The Beatles aren’t trying to be The Beatles. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were becoming trapped by the musical confines of the band, so they invited the concept of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to push the limits of their musical creativity.
And what tunes! From the sweet earnestness of ‘A Little Help From My Friends’ to amusing Edwardian music-hall ditties like ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ and ‘Being of the Benefit of Mr Kite’, to the grand and ambitious scale of “A Day in the Life”, the album is a testament to not just The Beatles musical talents, but also George Martin’s producing techniques, such as reverse tape looping. Quite rightly, this is Martin’s greatest album as much as it is the Fab Four’s.
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
If Sgt Pepper’s was the album which defined the optimism of the sixties, then Pink Floyd’s masterpiece nails the nervousness and dissolution of the 1970s. It is certainly epic in terms of its scope, taking in the passage of time (‘Time’), greed (‘Money’) and conflict (‘Us and Them’). Like The Beatles before them, Floyd make use of pioneering producing techniques to create the often unnerving sound of the record. The multitude of voices fading in and out, the eerie laughing featured on ‘Brain Damage’ and the screeching voice of the female singer on ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ are directly influenced by the mental breakdown experienced by the first Pink Floyd frontman, Syd Barrett. Such is the ‘out there’ feel of the album, it’s no wonder that a mythology has grown up around it. However, setting the baggage of Wizard of Oz soundtrack theories aside, it is just an enjoyable album to listen to from start to finish.
Pink Floyd, The Wall, 1979
Ok, so this is a bit of a cheat, but any music critic cannot deny that Pink Floyd are the masters of the concept album and like the metaphorical wall which gives the album its name, you cannot get round it. The creation of the album came out of bassist Roger Water’s dissolution of performing live, however rather than runaway and create a new identity like The Beatles did, Waters created an album and live show which built a wall between the band and the audience. The result was a direct, hard-hitting album. Water’s draws on his own childhood experiences of losing his father and attending school for the song series which includes ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1’, ‘The Happiest Days of our Lives’ and ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’. There is a very dark tone to the album which communicates a sense of isolation and paralysis, which is captured perfectly on the most memorable song on the album, ‘Comfortably Numb’. At other times, it goes to places where no other albums go with Water’s taking it out on the audience with the fascist rally chanting on ‘Waiting For The Worms’. The album is a kick against all the previous conceptions of Pink Floyd as long-haired, prog rockers. To anyone who doesn’t like Pink Floyd, I would say listen to this album and see what you think afterwards.
The Good, The Bad and The Queen, self-titled, 2007
Back in 2007, Damon Albarn assembled a supergroup which featured Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Tong and Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen. With all these different musical styles, Albarn bound them together in a collection of songs about London. Ever since his early Blur days, Albarn has been fascinated by The Big Smoke and The Good, The Bad and The Queen’s self-titled album is his own warped love-letter to the city. There are songs about events which happened in London, such as the whale which got trapped upstream along the Thames (‘Northern Whale’), pictures of night’s out in the city (‘Kingdom of Doom’) and songs about the state of the nation (‘Green Fields’). I am surprised that this doesn’t feature higher in Albarn’s pantheon of work as this is an underrated classic which manages to capture the spirit of a city, its musical past, and its future.
Gruff Rhys, American Interior, 2015
A great concept album needs, well, a great concept, and I think Gruff Rhys’ album has the best one I have ever heard. American Interior is a collection of songs which pay tribute to John Evans, a 18th Century Welsh explorer who went in search of a Native American tribe who supposedly spoke Welsh. Rhys is a talent singer-songwriter, who like Albarn, took something close to his heart, which in Rhys’ case was his home country of Wales, and used it to fulfil his maximum musical creativity. He makes wonderful use of piano and violins to create a sense of wilderness on the title track ‘American Interior’, and uses American folk-styles throughout the album. Indeed, the passion for the project and the wondrous songs which come from it make American Interior perhaps one of the best music albums this year.
So there you have it! That’s my top five concept albums. If you have others you wish to suggest, just let us know!