Concept Albums Are Once Again in Vogue in the Digital Age

Ben Wener
Green Day

At a time when we're led to believe iTunes and file swapping will eventually bring about the death of the album, why is it that more and more artists seem to be bucking that system by releasing lengthy works that demand prolonged attention?

This story originally appeared in the The Orange County Register.

Thing is, most albums worth hearing are conceptual to some degree.

That's really the whole point of putting songs together as albums -- to give the illusion of cohesion, enhance a batch of tunes with artifice and sequencing. By that measure, even greatest-hits discs have concept.

But then there are those bold stabs at metaphor or operatic story lines or at the very least a change of persona that arrive oozing meticulous detail, thematic unity -- and usually some level of pretension.

These are no mere singles-spawning sets. Tommy, The Wall, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, What's Going On, most recently American Idiot -- these are true concept albums. Grandiose bursts of imagination filled with sketchy narratives or compelling antiheroes or puzzles to decipher, they are works designed to be heard in their entirety.

Once they held sway over FM radio like titans, totems of a generation whose mention alone still gives off the stench of bong hits and musty record sleeves. Then the notion fell from popularity for many years, overtaken by image-brokering videos that, in many cases, were simply variations of the same play-acting concept that albums put into motion.

"It's not like the concept album ever totally disappeared at any point," says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for record-biz bible Billboard. "From time to time, someone throws that ball up in the air again."

But suddenly the idea has returned in a big way, earning both critical acclaim and impressive sales. After a long dry spell, there are as many concept albums hovering in the pop culture ether as beach balls at an outdoor festival.

Credit Green Day for launching the revival.

The band's 2004 opus, American Idiot, wasn't the first conceptual effort this decade; the 2001 debut from animated outfit Gorillaz, Jay-Z's past few albums and even Beck's heartbroken Sea Change from 2003 qualify as concept albums in some sense.

But Idiot, with its lengthy suites of songs and hard-to-follow (perhaps nonexistent) narrative, was certainly the first in years to follow the blueprint established in the late `60s via seminal works from the Who and the Kinks.

More crucially, the album's multiplatinum success and Grammy wins have reopened the door for others to follow suit -- notably the Killers and My Chemical Romance.

Neither the former's Sam's Town (which hyperstylizes the `80s look and sound of Springsteen, U2 and Bowie) or the latter's The Black Parade (also in thrall to Bowie, and more so Queen) reaches for the relative complexity of Green Day's masterstroke. And neither really attempts to tell a story.

Yet both works share a sense of continuity -- of songs segueing one to the next, carrying forth mounting emotions. And both shroud their creators in radically altered personas: My Chem, like the Beatles posing as "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" before it, has gone so far as to refer to itself as the Black Parade on its Web site.

A very "Ziggy Stardust" thing to do.

"Or maybe a very Garth Brooks thing to do," says "Uncle Joe" Benson, veteran disc jockey at Los Angeles radio station KLOS-FM, referring to the country star's 1999 alter-ego flop, In the Life of Chris Gaines.

"But it is a chance for these bands to reinvent themselves, come up with a persona where perhaps they didn't have one before. At the very least, they're paying tribute to their heroes and learning a different form of artistic expression. Instead of saying, `Here's the next hit,' this is a way of saying, `We've established this conceit, this conceptual drive. Please pay attention to the whole thing.'"

Those three modern-rock attractions are far from the only ones venturing into this lofty territory, however. The current list seems to swell monthly.

New works from acts like the Decemberists (The Crane Wife) and Nevada singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom (Ys) utilize centuries-old texts as launching pads into prog-folk flights of fancy -- not unlike (though sounding nothing like) Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans three decades ago.

Coping with psychological trauma in song cycle (somewhat the basis for Pink Floyd's The Wall and the Who's Quadrophenia) has come back into vogue as well.

This year the Texas group Blue October issued Foiled, in which singer Justin Furstenfeld overcomes a rough romance through a protracted tale of substance abuse and insanity. And Everything in Transit, Andrew McMahon's scarred song cycle under the pseudonym Jack's Mannequin, can be heard as strangely prescient about the O.C.-spawned songwriter's bout with leukemia, diagnosed just after he completed the record.

There are fringe characters who have been dabbling in this format for some time, like Sufjan Stevens (whose intention of doing an album devoted to each of the 50 states has so far yielded Michigan and Illinois) and neo-prog-rock outfit Coheed and Cambria, which for three albums has dwelled in a dark fantasy realm few have entered since Peter Gabriel left Genesis.

To top it off, some dinosaurs are back at it: Meat Loaf just put out his third Bat Out of Hell installment, and Pete Townshend, the unparalleled maestro of concept albums, concluded Endless Wire, the first proper Who album in nearly a quarter-century, the same way he ended proto-concept albums like A Quick One and The Who Sell Out 40 years ago: with a mini-opera, "Wire & Glass."

All of which prompts the question: Why now?

At a time when we're led to believe iTunes and file swapping will eventually bring about the death of the album, why is it that more and more artists seem to be bucking that system by releasing lengthy works that demand prolonged attention?

"Clearly a lot of listeners now, particularly younger ones, are consuming music in bite-size pieces as opposed to a whole meal," Billboard's Mayfield reminds. "We've never had so many a la carte choices before. But the reason that has worked is because people demand variety, and you don't get variety by offering only singles. When they're done right, with creativity and authenticity, full-length albums like these still have an audience."

Besides, acts like Green Day and the Killers and My Chem are having it both ways, issuing sit-with-`em-awhile thinkers that also spawn omnipresent radio smashes, something achieved in the past only by more commercially geared concept albums (like What's Going On and Purple Rain).

Yet Mayfield rejects the notion that the success of American Idiot spurred other major labels to concoct their own monster concept albums.

"It isn't a marketing ploy," he insists, "like when every label wanted to have a grunge band in the `90s. These albums wouldn't stand up if it was like that. The motivation to even execute something like this has to be sincere, or it just won't work. It becomes a gimmick, and everyone can see through that."

Drawing inspiration from a conceit might also have been beneficial for young bands like the Killers and My Chemical Romance, groups that spent the better part of this year brewing up audacious follow-ups to mammoth breakthroughs.

"For most bands, that first record is the album of your lifetime," Mayfield says. "Every great song you've ever written turns up there. But when it comes time for your second album, it often becomes a case of `Well, what do we have to say now?' With the Killers, perhaps `concept' became the impetus toward creating something progressive that would avoid any sophomore slump."

Benson, the DJ, sees it a little differently: "I think it's simply a case of everyone always looking for something different to do. And it was just kind of time for this idea to roll around again.

"Yeah, maybe some artists saw how well Green Day did and thought, `Hey, that's an idea!' But you might remember back when rock bands started playing with orchestras -- that seemed like such a great idea, but maybe one or two of `em pulled it off, and the rest stunk. Same thing tends to happen with concept albums."

Yet the fact that any popular band is creating something grander -- music that isn't meant to be cherry-picked, but savored in full -- is "one of the greatest things to happen to music in the past five or six years," Benson adds.

"It's so heartening that artists and fans are bringing back that emphasis. God knows the record companies won't do that. Their attitude is `one song sells, or it's over.' But here is a whole new breed of bands, emulating their heroes and saying, `No, we want to challenge that. It doesn't have to be like that. We want to do something more.'"


50 years of concept albums

There's really no way to pinpoint the exact origin of the concept album. Does the focus of Woody Guthrie's 1940 debut, Dust Bowl Ballads, give it the nod as first-ever? What about thematic sets of 78s before that? Consider this merely a half-century of signposts.

THE `50s

Whatever might be argued as an earlier precedent, most agree that the first successful attempt at concept albums came from Frank Sinatra, beginning with 1954's In the Wee Small Hours. The remarkable run of Capitol Records releases that followed -- from the buoyant (Songs for Swingin' Lovers!, the travel-themed Come Fly With Me) to the despairing (1958's wrenching Only the Lonely) -- established him as a conceptual master.

But as the decade came to a close, greats in other genres began adding conceptual twists -- chiefly country star Marty Robbins, via 1959's Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and Ray Charles, whose The Genius Hits the Road consisted entirely of geographical songs (like "Georgia on My Mind").

THE `60s

The earliest rock example? Not Sgt. Pepper. Not Tommy or anything else by the Who. Some might argue that the distinction belongs to the Beach Boys' 1963 release Little Deuce Coupe, whose tunes all centered on cars.

The first albums to elevate such a conceit, however, are Face to Face, a 1966 collection of character studies from the Kinks; the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, which has musical if not conceptual continuity; the Mothers of Invention's aptly titled "Freak Out!"; and The Who Sell Out, the band's 1967 piece that plays like a transmission from an underground radio station. (The band also unveiled the first rock opera the previous year with the nine-minute dramedy "A Quick One While He's Away.")

The summer of `67 brought Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, more an assortment with a persona attached than a genuine concept album. (The Rolling Stones clumsily responded with Their Satanic Majesties Request.) In `68, the Pretty Things' little-known (in the U.S.) S.F. Sorrow emerged as the first full-length album with an overriding story line.

Pete Townshend's first magnum opus, Tommy, to this day one of few concept albums with a distinct narrative, came to life a year later, leading the Who to perform it live for more than a year.

Ray Davies also continued to explore thematic terrain during this time with The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). And still more dabbled with the format: Simon & Garfunkel on Side 2 of Bookends, the Small Faces with Ogden's Nut Gone Flake.

THE `70s

The concept album's heyday, capped by the flowering of Pink Floyd with Dark Side of the Moon and the Syd Barrett homage "Wish You Were Here." David Bowie and his band arrived in `72 in the guise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and carried the conceit through Diamond Dogs two years later.

The Who kept at it, with Who's Next rising from the rubble of Townshend's Lifehouse project and Quadrophenia nearly trumping Tommy. But the Kinks became a veritable cottage industry of concept, issuing Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, Preservation Act I and II, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace.

Country stars got in on the act: Willie Nelson with Yesterday's Wine, The Red-Headed Stranger and Phases & Stages; Kenny Rogers with The Ballad of Calico and, in the next decade, The Gambler.

Marvin Gaye assembled his fluid song cycle What's Going On, while, as the decade closed, Stevie Wonder took a Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. George Clinton also started exploring conceptual space on his records with Parliament and Funkadelic.

Prog-rock reached its zenith -- and then its nadir -- as Yes told Tales From Topographic Oceans, Genesis sacrificed The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Rush zoomed into 2112 and Jethro Tull got Thick as a Brick and so on.

Other conceptual pieces: Randy Newman's Good Old Boys, Lou Reed's The Bells, Queen's A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

THE `80s

Pink Floyd closed the previous decade with The Wall, then three years later revealed The Final Cut. Styx got in on the act, first with Paradise Theater, then the more futuristic bomb Kilroy Was Here.

Queensryche committed the first of its two Operation: Mindcrime works to vinyl, while Iron Maiden flirted with concept on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

On the punk and proto-indie side, the Dead Kennedys dissected modern society with Plastic Surgery Disasters, while Husker Du related the saga of an impressionable young lad being hurled through its Zen Arcade.

Prince struck platinum via persona in Purple Rain and Parade. Tom Waits recounted Frank's Wild Years. XTC went Skylarking. And, though no one was really listening, Townshend offered two more epics, White City and The Iron Man.

THE `90s

Hip-hop finally joined the fray, with the Fugees' The Score setting a new standard for conceptualizing, and Prince Paul, who earlier had worked wonders with De La Soul, penning his "ghetto opera" A Prince Among Thieves. Kool Keith rose as a master of conceit, adopting poses on records as Dr. Octagon and on the out-there classic Deltron 3030.

Dream Theater picked up where Queensryche left off. Radiohead seemed to be mining Pink Floyd's veins, but protested any concept-album tag for OK Computer. Industrial rock giants Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson got aggressively ugly with, respectively, The Downward Spiral and Antichrist Superstar.

And Townshend persisted at presenting big ideas, baffling people with the little-heard Psychoderelict.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.