Conceptalbums

Let’s talk about a type of album which is not particularly common in the current age of music: concept albums. We have endless streaming possibilities readily available at our fingertips, without the restrictions of albums or radio, and typically more focus on individual songs. Does this mean the concept album is no longer something that is relevant to us?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Concept albums

So what are concept albums? This is a work of music which has an overarching theme, connections between the tracks, and is typically intended to be listened to in one sitting for maximum impact.

It is argued that The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, although it may not have been technically the first, is considered as the birth of the concept album. John Lennon made it clear that his songs were not written with a theme in mind, but it is still presented as a concept album.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

There are transitions between the first two tracks, and a reprise of the title track towards the end of the album. The artwork’s striking visuals and colourful personas of the members drive the theme, pushing the creative concept with a bigger scope than the music. This combined impact would have a significant influence on popular culture, inspiring an art rock movement for many bands coming through in the 1960’s and 70’s. It paved the way for grander artistic vision and expression in popular music.

Concept albums in particular have strong associations with progressive rock. This subgenre often incorporates complex music and arrangements, with overarching themes and seamless transitions between tracks. These characteristics align ideally with the premise of a concept album.

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The Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most timeless, well known examples of the format. Critically acclaimed and certified 14 x Platinum in the United Kingdom, it still stands out as a remarkable piece of work, revered as a classic album. 

The Wall is also one of the most popular concept albums ever made, another hugely commercial and critically successful release from the same band in 1979. 

These albums have an ebb and flow to the tracks which means listening consecutively is critical – this doesn’t just accommodate seamless transitions, it also threads the narrative of the album concept together. Both of these albums had a significant cultural impact too, similar to Sgt. Pepper’s.

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Concept albums today

Concept albums have continuously been a popular method of album composition in progressive rock, through to the present day, but this is now a much smaller commercial genre in the music industry. 

In recent years though, concept albums have become more common across different genres and artists, some with considerable popularity. To name a few examples, in hip-hop, there is Kendrick Lamar, who has consistently used concepts for his albums, such as Section.80, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly. In ambient/electronic music, Nick Cave released Ghosteen, in indie Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, and in alternative pop, Taylor Swift released Folklore

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Playlists vs albums

While these artists have used concepts and overarching album themes, it seems that the idea of listening to the record from start to finish is not necessarily the intention. There are many more examples in recent music too, and of course the interpretation of an album is up for debate. 

Multiple singles are often released to build up promotion for an album release, trying to instantly engage new and existing listeners, particularly via streaming services. Compiling playlists has become prevalent in the age of streaming, and with huge catalogues, this tends to mean picking individual songs from multiple albums. 

It’s an ideal format to jump into without a lot of consideration in our busy lives, because of their curated makeup. The core of this listening model is undoubtedly convenience.

To contrast this, in the pace of today’s world, there’s a lot to be said for shutting everything out, getting comfortable and immersing yourself in an album. Transitions between tracks gain significance, lyrical themes have more impact, and it can essentially provide the listener with a greater connection to the album. 

Future of concept albums

Presumably there will always be a portion of music releases conceived and made as concept albums. Maybe with streaming being hyper-prevalent, this could inspire more artists to try new creative formats and embrace the concept? Maybe the reverence for artists like Pink Floyd could spark a revival in the future as they inevitably turn to the past for inspiration?

Will concept albums have significant relevance in mainstream music again though, as they did in the 1970’s? This seems less likely. However, it’s of course hard to predict musical trends and which direction artists, listeners and the industry may take in the future.

Final thoughts

While playlists and streaming individual songs are usually the convenient option for our music consumption, let’s not forget that music lovers can also appreciate an album from a different perspective.

So here’s your reminder (or Chordify PSA, if you will) that you can have a totally different, immersive musical experience when listening to a complete concept album. You might be surprised at the impact it has!

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Henry Churchill
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