Contact CU Independent Music Writer Thomas Roller at firstname.lastname@example.org
Concept albums are my favorite type of album by far. I still enjoy listening to albums all the way through, and to me an album always feels a little bit more deliberate and thought-out if it’s arranged around a particular idea. So this week, I’d like to talk about concept albums, what exactly defines them and why they’re significant to me as a form of expression.
Just to make sure we’re on the same page, a concept album is any body of music that communicates a specific idea and expresses that idea through its lyrics and/or its music. Concept albums can tell a long-form, cohesive story, like The Who’s Tommy or Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, or they can be based around ideas and emotions, like Behemoth’s The Satanist.
Much like how a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t always a square, an album containing certain themes is not automatically a concept album.
For example, although the album Every Hero Needs a Villain by Czarface contains multiple references to superheroes and comics, as well as myriad samples from superhero cartoons, I would not call it a concept album because it has no real message that it wants the audience to walk away with. This is not a criticism of such albums. I don’t always need that conceptual through-line in my music.
Concept albums can communicate their ideas in their overall composition as well as the lyrics.
In the album 12 Ways to Die II by Ghostface Killah and composer Adrian Younge, Younge’s production on the album provides an important sense of setting and tone to underscore Ghostface and company’s story of a mobster’s bloody, brutal revenge. The beats on this record provide a sense of exaggerated classic aesthetic, of a Tarantino-esque fetishization of campy revenge B-movies and the soundtracks that accompany them. In such cases, this is an important contribution to the story because it provides a sense of context or a certain feel.
I mentioned that concept albums are my favorite kind of music to listen to. You see, as cliche as it sounds, I’ve always been a sucker for a good story. This makes concept albums like chocolate and peanut butter to me.
There’s something about telling a story with music, especially when an artist weaves the story into the music itself, that strikes me as profound. It feels to me like an extension of oral history, a cultural continuation of telling tales around campfires, passing stories — and by extension, culture — down from generation to generation, from person to person.
It also allows for some incredibly strange ideas to be successfully executed and told to the world.
For example, the story behind Rush’s 2112 sounds pretty bad on paper: In a dystopian future where rock and roll is outlawed by a technocratic oligarchy, a young boy discovers a guitar and revives the rock sound, but before he’s discovered, his guitar is destroyed and he kills himself. See? Half of you checked out at “technocratic oligarchy” and the other half are still on “he kills himself” trying to figure out why the ending is so needlessly depressing. But when you hear the album and listen to the execution of this story, it makes sense and sounds great.
Concept albums are a little cultural curio that I think are wildly underrated and underused by a lot of more mainstream artists. Yes, there are a few exceptions, but even they pale in comparison to some of the things that came out in the dawn of the album-oriented rock era.
So let’s make more concept albums. Let’s make more stories. Let’s make more culture.