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The 50 Greatest Concept Albums of All Time

From prog epics to R&B masterpieces, these are the records that define music at its most ambitious

Kendrick Lamar

THEMATIC ALBUMS, TIED together by very specific moods or interconnected songs, aren’t new to pop; the kingpin of the form, Frank Sinatra, started making them 70 years ago. And thanks to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Who’s Tommy, and so many more, rock took the concept of a concept album and ran with it—with narrators, characters, and lots of lyrics and liner notes to explain it all to enrapt listeners.

In the streaming era, you’d think concept albums, which require listening to a record all the way through, would have about as much appeal as ripping the plastic packaging off a new CD. But right along with vinyl, the theme record is having a new moment. Taylor Swift’s upcoming Midnights is, she says, “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life.” That kind of thematic follow-through is impressive even for a detail-oriented genius like Taylor. Other story-song albums released over the last year or so include Sturgill Simpson’s cowboy revenge saga The Ballad of Dood and Juanita and the Tedeschi-Trucks Band’s I Am the Moon, a four-EP response to Layla. Smashing Pumpkins’ ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts begins a three-part rollout next month.

In honor of Midnights and its concept siblings, we present the 50 Greatest Concept Albums of All Time. These are the mindblowers that define music at its most ambitious. They map out epic narratives (from raging coming-of-age dramas to dystopian sci-fi fantasies); they strive to embody vast historical and political moments; they’re “cinematic,” “operatic,” “novelistic.” Our list touches on everything from classic rock to R&B to punk to hip hop. Some of those longform listens have been rattling bongs since back when your hippie uncle bought them on 8-track; some are more recent pop masterpieces that sneak deep meanings inside slick packages. Many are long, several are very very long. One is by Styx.

To make it high on the list an album had to be both conceptually tight and musically awesome, which is why a few classic albums with relatively loose thematic conceits didn’t end up higher. Sit back, press “play” and envelope yourself in a whole bunch of music you’ve really got to pay attention to.

From Rolling Stone US



The Concept: A teenage Puerto Rican graffiti writer tumbles into an alternative dimension full of Slippermen and Lamia.The Execution: In the original gatefold vinyl packaging for The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, lead singer Peter Gabriel wrote a cryptic synopsis of Rael’s hero journey after he encounters a lamb in the middle of Broadway in Manhattan. Still, it’s an incredibly difficult storyline to follow. (You can find a helpful, easy-to-read “plot” on the album’s Wikipedia page.) Gabriel’s lyrics shift from the first-person perspective of his young protagonist to third-person narration, while the band responds with a whirligig of abrupt tonal shifts that range from spacey electronic experiments to groovy, bottom-heavy rock. Still, The Lamb contains some of Genesis’ greatest tunes, made just before Gabriel left the group and they subsequently transitioned to radio-friendly pop rock. “The Carpet Crawlers” is an unforgettable singalong anthem, and the finale, “It,” finds Rael achieving spiritual transcendence as Gabriel exhorts, “It is here! It is now!” —M.R.


Donna Summer

The Concept: A fantastical disco fairy tale where a young woman is saved by the beat — and goes on to live “Happily Ever After.”The Execution: The disco queen’s third high-concept disco album (after 1976’s climate-inspired Four Seasons of Love and 1977’s retro-minded I Remember Yesterday) is a dance-floor-ready retelling of the Cinderella story, with Summer portraying the longing-for-escape heroine. The rubbery “Fairy Tale High” and the splendidly funky “Queen for a Day” push Summer’s journey toward liberation along, while the final tracks — the triumphant, string-laden “I Love You” and the joyous “Happily Ever After” — wrap up the story in delightful fashion. —M.J.


Brian Wilson

The Concept: A kaleidoscopic tour of American pop, tinged with whimsical humor, that was nearly 40 years in the making.The Execution: Originally planned as the Beach Boys’ follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smile was shelved for decades while writer-producer Brian Wilson battled mental illness. The dormant album was resurrected and finished for Wilson’s mid-2000s concert tour with his live bandleader, Darian Sahanaja. When they took it to the studio and rebuilt it from scratch, the result was a shocking delight. Though many of its parts had already emerged on Beach Boys albums, Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks’ mingling and merging of old folk songs and Fifties doo-wop with Sixties whimsy and symphonic grandeur sounded like the best psychedelic flashback imaginable.–M.M.


Janet Jackson

The Concept: The youngest member of the Jackson clan takes ownership of her career, image, music, sexuality, and life. The Execution: No longer willing to simply do what she was told, Janet Jackson fired her manager (her notoriously controlling father) and annulled her marriage in the mid-Eighties. Her new manager introduced her to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, members of Minneapolis funk legends the Time, and that meeting led to Control, an emancipatory statement of purpose that would go on to influence the development of New Jack Swing. Control is a high-octane pop-soul record — seven of its nine tracks were singles — that features Jackson’s airborne soprano and rebellious spirit not just in the pumping kiss-offs “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” but on the joyous “When I Think of You” and the stretched-out slow jam “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun).” —M.J.    


Marvin Gaye

The Concept: A state-of-the-nation address from a genius ready to break the Motown mold.The Execution: When Marvin Gaye told Motown founder Berry Gordy that he wanted to make a protest album, the boss responded, “Marvin, don’t be ridiculous. That’s taking things too far.” But after “What’s Going On” — inspired by Berkeley’s People’s Park uprising of 1969 — hit Number One on the R&B charts in early 1971, Gordy gave the go-ahead. Gaye flouted every rule in the Motown book — extended sessions, fueled by Scotch and weed, and songs that boldly took stock of drug addiction (“Flyin’ High [In the Friendly Sky]”), pollution (“Mercy Mercy Me”), and, most powerfully, the devastations of Black urban life (“Inner City Blues”). The album hit Billboard’s Top 10 and effectively ended Motown’s iron rule over its artists’ output. —M.M.


The Who

The Concept: A British teenager in 1965 struggles — operatically — with an existential identity crisis.The Execution: Thanks to the chaos, grandeur, and classical scale of Pete Townshend’s compositions and the band that brought them to life, the Who’s second rock opera captures the roiling emotional essence of life in a teenage wasteland better than practically any other work of art, in any medium, you could name. The premise that the protagonist is “quadrophrenic” — caught between four different personalities that just happened to mirror those of the Who’s members — doesn’t really hold up, but everything else does, from the vicious bass-guitar kick of “The Real Me” to the prayer-like “Love Reign O’er Me.” —B.H.


Jackson Browne

The Concept: Life on the (classic-rock) road in the Seventies, actually recorded on tour for added authenticity and mood.The Execution: Running on Empty isn’t so much an album as an audio movie. Browne didn’t just record new material (the title track, “You Love the Thunder”) and aptly chosen covers (Danny O’Keefe’s “The Road”) during his summer ’77 tour. He taped them on buses and in hotel rooms as well as onstage — bringing to life tunes about on-the-road tedium, drugs, his hardworking crew, and the drummer who stole the backstage fan away from the roadie. The only things missing are cruddy dressing-room sandwiches and rolling paper. But this enduring album is also about hitting that that point in aging (Browne was on the verge of 30) when one begins to look back at life choices and wonder what’s ahead. —D.B.


Sly and the Family Stone

The Concept: A deeply funky guided tour of the death of the Sixties dream. The Execution: Sly and the Family Stone’s Sixties recordings captured the Age of Aquarius in all its color and variety. Largely recorded in a Bel-Air mansion over sessions so long their particulars are lost to time, There’s a Riot Goin’ On was its predecessors’ reverse negative. Muddy, dense, lyrically allusive, Riot held a mirror up to the state of the country in the wake of Kent State and the Vietnam War, as well as into Sly’s own psyche — he’d gotten heavily into cocaine and PCP at the time of recording. It was discomfiting, but the grooves were so immediate that they made all that darkness inviting. —M.M.



The Concept: Troubled by the discovery that her husband has been unfaithful, Beyoncé crafts a meditation on Blackness, feminism, and power.The Execution: Although Beyoncé’s marriage to Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is undoubtedly at its center, Lemonade ultimately sounds like an assertion of her values as a Black woman, mother, and daughter than a self-pitying exercise. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” her fiery rock collab with Jack White, bristles with righteous anger, and she takes aim at critics and bigots with joyous Southern bass on “Formation.” Meanwhile, “All Night” finds her achieving resolution and forgiveness via a sumptuous love ballad. While Lemonade makes Beyoncé’s intentions explicit, it’s nearly impossible to discuss it without mentioning the brilliant accompanying short film she co-directed, and its allusions to feminist cinema like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. —M.R.



The Concept: Some say it’s about the first human clone. Others say it’s about 9/11, which would not occur for 11 months. But the real concept of Kid A is “being an acclaimed British rock band kinda sucks.”The Execution: After fearing technology on OK Computer, the band put themselves through exposure therapy and embraced glitchy synths and Pro Tools — with a sprinkling of the ondes Martenot, an obscure French electronic instrument that sounds like an elf crying. Gone were the guitars and any affiliation with a rock band, likening the process to “getting a massive eraser out” and starting over (case in point: the stunning opener, “Everything in Its Right Place,” or the ambient “Treefingers”). “We were trying to chase ourselves away and run as fast as we could in another direction,” Yorke told us last year. “Trying to get away from wherever the fuck we had found ourselves to somewhere new.” —A.M.


David Bowie

The Concept: Androgynous alien arrives on a doomed planet and becomes a rock star — an idea that could also have doubled as Bowie’s memoir.The Execution: Given that the songs on Ziggy Stardust were written before its premise was conceived, this suite about a so-called space invader may be one of pop’s happiest accidents. Earth is set to die in five years, thanks to a falloff in natural resources, and Ziggy arrives from another world to entertain the apocalypse. As Mick Ronson and the other Spiders make a joyful glitter-rock racket behind him, Bowie sings from the POV of the shell-shocked populace, kids who feel elevated by Ziggy’s arrival, and Ziggy himself, who grapples with his interplanetary fame. The album is also about the way rock stars can be elevated and torn down by their followers and the industry — a theme that, sadly, was even more prescient than one about a perishing planet. —D.B.


Janelle Monáe

The Concept: The third installment of a futurist-soul sci-fi epic inspired by German expressionist cinema.The Execution: The ArchAndroid includes the second and third chapters in a story inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian classic, Metropolis. However, Monáe seems less encumbered with explaining what happens to the story’s hero Cindi Mayweather than she did on the first installment, 2007’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite. Instead, the Atlanta artist positions her protagonist as a loving soothsayer who decries humanity’s cruelty (“Cold War”) and its genocidal urges (“Locked Inside”). The music, produced by Monáe and her Wondaland team, incorporates disco, Outkast-esque funk rap, New Wave, rockabilly, and even Elephant 6-style psych-pop with Athens, Georgia, band Of Montreal. “May the song reach your heart,” she sings on “Neon Valley Street.” —M.R.


The Beatles

The Concept: Biggest band in the world responds to career frustration by coming up with silly alter egos for their next record.The Execution: As Paul McCartney later recalled telling the rest of the band at the time, “Hey, how about disguising ourselves and getting an alter ego, because we’re the Beatles and we’re fed up?” Sure, the album itself doesn’t have much in the way of a thematic through thread beyond the title track and its reprise later on, but the sense of reinvention, play, and experimentation they brought to rock music here makes Sgt. Pepper’s a kind of patron saint of almost everything on this list. The Beatles gave you a wink and made you think — and from “With a Little Help From My Friends” to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” to the narrative coup de grace “A Day in the Life,” album conceptualization would never be the same again. —J.D. 



The Concept: Originally conceived as her graduate thesis at Barcelona’s Catalunya College of Music, Rosalía’s sophomore album is a hypnotic retelling of Flamenca, a 13th-century, 8,095-line novel written in Occitan. The Execution: Rosalía captures the intensity and high drama of the toxic relationship at the center of the story with a brilliant palette of sounds, seamlessly mixing ominous strains of R&B and hip-hop with classic Spanish traditions, rooted in her many years of grueling flamenco training. Each song represents a different chapter that turns the plot: The spare, foreboding opener, “Malamente,” built on vocal loops and marked as “Chapter 1: Omen,” hints at the darkness of the romance at the center of the album. The fury of “De Aquí No Sales,” punctuated by revving engines and motorcycle sound effects, and the sorrow of “Bagdad,” a Justin Timberlake interpolation, plunge the listener deeper into the narrative’s rage and tension. It all ends with the beatific closer, “A Ningún Hombre,” an ode to female independence and liberation. —J.L.


Frank Sinatra

The Concept: Former teen idol hits 40, watches his relationship with a fellow celeb crumble, and cuts one of the first (and most depressed) concept albums.The Execution: Even though the LP arrived in the late Forties, artists and labels didn’t initially see the format as an outlet for cohesive statements: A few singles and filler would do. Sinatra, then in the midst of a tumultuous relationship with Ava Gardner, had other ideas. Working with producer Voyle Gilmore, he selected some of the gloomiest and most romantically despondent songs from Great American Songbook writers like Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. The result was a song cycle that basically invented the term “mope pop.” The mood is sustained by Nelson Riddle’s arrangements — which conjure empty, late-night saloons — and the restrained heartbreak in Sinatra’s voice. From beginning to end, you can practically see Sinatra all alone in the bar, nursing a drink and a cig, and wondering where it all went wrong. —D.B.


My Chemical Romance

The Concept: A cancer-stricken man reflects on his life, transforming it into a stomping, thrashing piece of emo-glam musical theater.The Execution: An appearance by Liza Minnelli is only one of the high-drama moments on My Chemical Romance’s 2006 portrayal of a man on his deathbed, which tells you something about its grand scale. Indeed, the New Jersey outfit’s third full-length is a dazzling statement, exploding the emo-pop box they’d been put in with killer tunes that have managed to become generational touchstones. The quasi-title track, “Welcome to the Black Parade,” turns the march toward death into a raucous, defiant party; “Teenagers” takes on generational divides with pitch-dark humor and glam-stomp swagger; the piano ballad “Cancer” is stark both in its arrangement and its depiction of the titular disease. And Minnelli’s cameo on “Mama” marries punk’s fever pitch with Broadway’s splashy melodrama — a pairing that sums up the ethos of this feverishly ambitious band. —M.J.   



The Concept: In a dystopian, collectivist future, a guy finds a guitar and begins to dream of a better world — but when he brings it to his society’s rulers, they reject it.The Execution: Technically, 2112 is only half a concept album — the first side is a seamless song suite, but the six songs on the second side are unrelated. But it wins its spot on this list for the sheer power and influence of that first side, where Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart perfect their band’s initial innovation — fusing the prog of Yes and Genesis with heavy metal. The furious instrumental interplay of the song’s overture alone expresses the concept better than words ever could — as the bass, guitar, and drums alternately interlock and gallop past one another, Rush embodies everyone yearning for freedom, from the suburban kids listening at home to the band’s own futuristic protagonist. It’s all so undeniably powerful that everyone — including, eventually, Peart himself — can agree to ignore the story’s Ayn Randian roots. —B.H.


Liz Phair

The Concept: A song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet that conveniently doubles as a deconstruction of white, male indie-rock oppression.The Execution Liz Phair brilliantly followed through on her attack of the male-dominated music scene, creating comebacks corresponding to each song on Exile on Main Street. Compare “Rocks Off” with “6’1″,” or “Happy” with “Fuck and Run,” and you can easily hear the songs as exchanges between Phair and Mick Jagger. With lyrics like “I want to fuck you like a dog/I’ll take you home and make you like it,” she proved her music could be just as wild and raunchy as the Stones’. Heralded by critics as one of the best albums of the 1990s and ranked 56th on our 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, Exile in Guyville is an emotionally honest low-fi masterpiece that stands on its own. —A.W.


The Who

The Concept: Murder, childhood pain, sexual abuse, and the creepy power of cults, all tackled in one of the first and most carefully plotted theme records.The Execution: Pete Townshend didn’t invent the idea of a rock opera (credit goes to the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow the year before), but the meticulous and contemplative Tommy took it to a level few have matched, before or since. Telling the story of Tommy Walker and his journey from traumatized kid to fake messiah, the double LP remains one of pop’s most cohesive and self-immolating concept records, with Townshend using it to dissect fame and rock culture itself. After more than 50 years, the beauty of Tommy is the way the words and ideas never overtake the music. Some of Townshend’s most potent early songs — “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Pinball Wizard,” “The Acid Queen,” “I’m Free” — make sure that Tommy is both a feast for lyric readers and air-guitar addicts. —D.B.



The Concept: Two young hustlers on the streets of New York decide to give up the criminal life — right after this one, last big score.The Execution: The Wu-Tang Clan empire’s most ambitious epic, orchestrated by the RZA at the peak of his genius. Cuban Linx goes for cinematic narrative like a hip-hop Goodfellas, starring Raekwon and Ghostface Killah as two hoods from Shaolin. As RZA explained, “The theme of the album is two guys that had enough of the negative life and was ready to move on, but had one more sting to pull off.” Raekwon was so into the Mob concept that he planned to call the album Wu-Gambinos. But that changed when the label boss got a call from certain gentlemen in the actual Gambino crime family. —R.S.


Pink Floyd

The Concept: A rock star loses himself in his ego and becomes a fascist drug addict who thinks his mortal enemies are his mom, wife, and grade schoolteacher — but it was always just himself.The Execution: Pink Floyd spent the early part of the Seventies mastering concept songs (“Time,” “Money”) before graduating to the concept album Animals, their Orwellian takedown of Thatcherism. Their next album, The Wall, was their magnum opus, a double-LP meditation on war, humanity, and the dire consequences of asking for pudding without eating your meat. It tells the story of a rock star named Pink who walls himself off from the rest of the world as a war rages inside him. Producer Bob Ezrin’s insistence of a disco beat on “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” gave the album a Number One hit, while “Mother,” “Run Like Hell,” and “Comfortably Numb,” with its stunning David Gilmour guitar solo, became instant classics, and Alan Parker’s film Pink Floyd – The Wall became a midnight-movie staple. —K.G.


Green Day

The Concept: Life in post-9/11 America, as seen through the eyes of a teen slacker and his friends. The Execution: With songs that implicitly dissed Dubya Bush and zinged the way news media was becoming was just another form of entertainment, few albums captured the dazed-and-confused spirit of America in the early-21st century more than Green Day’s largest scale project. As with most concept albums, the storyline is a little fuzzy. But we all know someone like the main character, Jesus of Suburbia and his extroverted alter ego, St. Jimmy. And the songs prove that Green Day could burst out of the boundaries of punk and tap into Seventies glam, stadium roar, and mature-moshhead balladeering. No wonder American Idiot was turned, briefly, into a Broadway musical. —D.B.


Kendrick Lamar

The Concept: Lamar comes of age in Compton, encountering the city’s many pleasures as well its ever-present threat of gang conflict and police violence.The Execution: The cover promises “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and the rapper delivers with a coming-of-age opus, the cinematic scope of which has been rightfully compared to Scorsese and Tarantino. Good kid, m.A.A.d city vividly takes us through a day in the life of K. Dot, with local color that includes hilarious “dominoes” skits featuring the rapper’s parents. The topics covered here range from the perils of binge drinking on “Swimming Pools (Drank)” to intimate lovers’ talk on “Poetic Justice.” Its centerpiece, “Sing to Me (I’m Dying of Thirst),” is a complex tale of how Lamar finally manages resist his city’s gangland traps and embrace his Christian faith. Subconsciously but importantly, the album eschews the G-funk style that defined L.A. hip-hop for decades. Lamar declares himself part of a new generation informed by the city’s vaunted past – cameos from MC Eiht and Lamar’s mentor Dr. Dre ensure that – but not limited to it.–M.R.