Fifty Years of the Concept Album in Popular Music

Nailing Down the Varying Concept of Concept Albums

All 25 of the wide-ranging albums in Fifty Years of the Concept Album in Popular Music are placed under the microscope with equal, respectful scrutiny.

Fifty Years of the Concept Album in Popular Music
Eric Wolfson
08 Feb 2024

Fifty Years of the Concept Album in Popular Music, Eric Wolfson’s deep dive into albums with specific themes running through them, is subtitled “From the Beatles to Beyonce”, and while that describes the book with uncanny accuracy – the first album dissected is the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the last one is Beyonce’s Lemonade – it also speaks to what I feel is one of the book’s many strengths: the wide-ranging and eclectic nature of the styles represented.

The idea of the concept album often brings to mind the fantasy-tinged, often pretentious world of progressive rock. While a handful of prog rock classics are written about here – Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Radiohead’s OK Computer (the prog status of that last one up for eternal debate) – these are albums that bear little to no resemblance to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, all of which Wolfson examines. The concept album is something of a great equalizer here, and all 25 of these albums are placed under Wolfson’s microscope with equal, respectful scrutiny.

Thoroughly researched and examined, the albums Wolfson has chosen cut across a large swath of pop music culture, although they are limited to the “more accessible” and contemporary genres of pop, rock, soul, and hip-hop. Expanding these parameters would’ve allowed for such exciting entries as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, or Frank Sinatra’s groundbreaking 1955 masterpiece, The Wee Small Hours, referred to by some at the time as an “idea album”. At the same time, Wolfson points out albums that were strongly considered but eventually dropped: The Kinks’ The Kinks are the Village Preservation Society, Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. These are worthy entries in the concept album canon, and one hopes that a sequel to this book is in the works.

What constitutes a concept album? It can be a direct “story” like The Who’s Tommy or Green Day’s American Idiot – both represented here and tell such obvious front-to-back tales that they were both made into Broadway musicals. The concept album can also be something that conveys a thematic “mood”. Wolfson explains that it “generally requires some degree of intention on the part of the artist.” In the case of The  Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It For the Money, bandleader and composer Frank Zappa skewered both authority figures and trend-obsessed hippies, creating one of rock music’s first (and most enduring) unifying works of social satire. “Zappa would spend the rest of his career testing the limits of musical and political freedom,” Wolfson writes, “but never again would the two merge in such a way that made his music both so relevant and accessible to a mass audience.”

Wolfson divides Fifty Years of the Concept Album in Popular Music into five distinct sections: The Founding Era (1967-9), The Golden Era (1970-4), The Modern Era (1975-89), The Postmodern Era (1990-9) and The New Millennium (2000-16), and it’s impossible to stress the range that these 25 albums cover. There are certainly obvious choices, like David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, where Bowie, in Wolfson’s words, “pushed the limits of the concept album by breaking out from the album’s narrative and trying to live it out in real life, as an actor might walk out in to the audience in the middle of a play but still expect to be treated in character.” Or Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s breakthrough multimillion seller, described by guitarist David Gilmour here as detailing “the pressures of modern living, and all the elements that one goes through that conspire to send some people insane.”

There are also a few curveball chapters here. Donna Summer’s Once Upon a Time, a proto-disco, modern-day Cinderella story, is an album this self-professed music obsessive had never heard of prior to picking up this book. Wolfson makes a case for its inclusion here. Husker Du’s Zen Arcade is a sprawling, thrash rock Rosetta Stone of a double album, as seemingly far removed from Thick as a Brick as you can imagine. “With Zen Arcade,” Wolfson posits, “a hundred different people could have a hundred different interpretations, but that doesn’t make it unsuccessful – in fact, its versatility proves its success as a concept album.”

As time moves on and music technology evolves, the concept album gaines from this progress. De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising was released in 1989, around the time that compact discs began outselling vinyl, and the band took advantage of the format’s longer run time to stretch out not only with smart earworms like “Me, Myself and I” and “The Magic Number”, but also interstitial “skits” that became so common with hip-hop and provided the album that unifying concept.

 Fifty Years of the Concept Album in Popular Music is a rich, valuable piece of modern music education, a deep dive into the might and worth of the album versus the single, and a chance for music fans unfamiliar with certain genres to gain a new level of open-mindedness, as this work provides an opportunity to explore what may be outside one’s comfort zones. Wolfson levels the playing field – it’s all music.

The most glaring omission? XTC’s Skylarking. But you have to stop somewhere. There’s certainly enough material in the pop and rock annals for a sequel to Fifty Years of the Concept Album in Popular Music.

RATING 8 / 10