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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: 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.