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Smackdown: The Concept Album

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Concept Albums. They’re the pop-music equivalent of the novel. But, sometimes … novels can be really, really boring. On today’s Soundcheck Smackdown, music critic Amanda Petrusich and Steven Wilson of the prog-rock band Porcupine Tree debate whether the concept album is ingenious…or just indulgent. Plus, journalist and biographer James Kaplan tells us about the concept album’s surprising history.

Listeners: What do you think? Are concept albums ingenious or indulgent? Leave a comment below!


James Kaplan, Amanda Petrusich and Steven Wilson

Comments [51]

David from Ridgewood nj

How about Joe Jackson's "Jumpin' Jive". Isn't music a concept anymore? :)

Oct. 25 2011 02:42 PM

Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime (the first one) is a great concept album.

Feb. 23 2011 12:59 PM
Jon from Long Island

J.S. Bach: St. Matthew's Passion

I know there weren't albums or recordings of any type at the time, but I'm surprised no one's mentioned it!

Feb. 17 2011 04:53 PM

Oh, Ayreon! =(

Feb. 17 2011 02:25 AM
Kevin Coffey from Long Island

If the concept starts at a simple [ e.g. Mozart, Duke Ellington, DeKooning], core or point and goes[out] in every direction and makes it's own universe, and that's something, but if it's points towards itself it becomes narcissistic and a drain painful to listen to.

Feb. 16 2011 08:57 PM
the_snowdog from Long Island, NY

Another "narrative" concept album that I feel worked is Snow by Spock's Beard. It tells a very straightforward linear story and does it well.

Feb. 16 2011 08:54 PM

Hospice by The Antlers is, in my opinion, an incredible concept album.

Feb. 16 2011 06:58 PM
Jim Tosone from New Jersey

I think one of the best concept albums is Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick". One continuous song, its lyrics built around a poem written by the fictitious boy Gerald Bostock. Not as well-received, but still an excellent work, was the successor album, "A Passion Play". Two long tracks, about the spiritual journey of one man in the afterlife.

Feb. 16 2011 05:58 PM
DP from JC, NJ

Deltron 3030 and Dr. Octagon

Seems to be a rock focused list but I had to recognize two great hiphop concept albums. Even if you don't like rap you should check these out, they're both pretty amazing. Oh yeah and Tommy!!!

Feb. 16 2011 11:16 AM
Greg from Michigan

I'd just add Marillion's "Marbles" to this list/discussion.

Feb. 16 2011 12:41 AM

Any time an artists hands are tied, especially because they are trying to please critics, they are no longer artists but producers of product. If a critic doesn't like concepts then that is the opinion of one person and nothing more. I say let artists do as they please.

Feb. 15 2011 10:59 PM

I was trying to think of some outside of prog so how about King Diamond? I think most of his album are basically concept albums with the best one imo being Abigail. I'm not a metal head but that was the only really true concept album that I can think of outside of prog that actually works.

Feb. 15 2011 10:31 PM
Andy from New York City

It's good to see bands are still pursuing the concept album idea, even on debut albums.

Philly band The Revere just did it with their album "The Great City" and then gave it out for free on amazon.

Feb. 15 2011 04:37 PM
Justin from Beach Haven

How about Tom Waits' trio of albums which loosely focus on the concept of an ex-sailor - Swordfishtrombone, Rain Dogs, and Frank's Wild Years?

Also, Tori Amos' Strange Little Girls with songs typically delivered by male singers including a Slayer and Eminem cover. In my opinion, her version of Heart of Gold is the best melding of The Stooges and Neil Young that I've ever heard.

Feb. 15 2011 03:09 PM
Vic from NJ

Concept albums...
Yeah ~
"The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars" by David Bowie

"Pet Sounds" by Brian Wilson, &
"Walking Wounded" by Everything But The Girl

Feb. 15 2011 02:44 PM
jvnyc from Tribeca

'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots' from the Flaming Lips is worth a listen.

Feb. 15 2011 02:38 PM
kevin guinn from east texas

does anyone remember Lou Reed's Berlin? did anybody ever hear it? a complete story

Feb. 15 2011 02:37 PM
dave from brooklyn

The new record from the metal band the sword "Warp Riders" is an excellent concept record. It tells a great story without drawing it out too much or making it too "hokey".

Feb. 15 2011 02:37 PM
Mike from Tribeca

jeff from minneapolis -- indeed, what about the Kinks? And how's about the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and Frank Zappa's "Joe's Garage"?

Feb. 15 2011 02:37 PM
Kevin from Belmar, NJ

Concept "albums" had their place in history. It is hard to argue against PF's Dark Side, Starship's Blows Against the Empire, Gaye's What's Going On. But those days also had something called free form radio where listeners could hear the music the way the artist intended. Cds like Joanna Newsome's YS and Porcupine Tree don't have the vehicle to be played as needed to grasp the contemporary concept album. Any artist creative enough to handle 16 songs about a common theme ought to be encouraged to write and perform them but it would be advantageous if they could also be heard in their entirety on a media rather than in 2 minute sound bites that are the state of the art thses days

Feb. 15 2011 02:36 PM
Chavisa from Brooklyn

Can't talk about concept albums without mentioning the Flaming Lips or Todd Rundgren

Feb. 15 2011 02:36 PM
Nat from Nyc

Joe's garage. Awesome

Feb. 15 2011 02:36 PM
Joshua David Stein from NYC

It seems to me that you are confusing narrative and concept, right? Most good albums have at least some concepts behind them but not all have one overarching narrative.

Feb. 15 2011 02:35 PM
Phineas from Manhattan

Other rare concept albums: Sufjan Stevens Illinois and Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs.

Related to the annoying excesses of the concept album is the "genre-shift" album whereby a band tries to stay "fresh" or keep with the times by doing a country album, or as the Stones did on Satanic Majesty, a psychedelic album. Ugh. Bad idea.

Feb. 15 2011 02:34 PM

Days of Future Past. Moody Blues. Easy one.

Feb. 15 2011 02:33 PM
suoitnop from tribeca

What about jazz? A Love Supreme, Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew to name some obvious ones. Or would others argue that they don't count?

Feb. 15 2011 02:33 PM
Daniel Rosas from Mexico City

A concept album branches out a concept from different perspectives, one of them all may be telling a story

Feb. 15 2011 02:32 PM
Chris from Amityville

Carmina Burana by Carl Orff by is my favorite concept album. Particularly the record by Angel or Mercury [I forget which] with a great translation enclosed.

Feb. 15 2011 02:32 PM
Jonathan from NJ

I am surprised at the impression that there are not a lot of successful concept albums. Maybe the metal genre is unfamiliar to the listeners, but take a look at the popular metal band Iced Earth and you'll find concept albums about everything from the Battle of Gettysburg to the Spawn comic book series.

Feb. 15 2011 02:32 PM
Bee from Weehawken, NJ

Pink Floyd's Animals & the Final Cut I think are more cohesive as whole items than Dark Side, along with most of Rodger Water's solo work.

Don't forget that The Wall was made into a movie and a live stage show.

Feb. 15 2011 02:32 PM
Phillip from Hartsdale, NY

What about the album "Duke" by Genesis? Wasn't that successful?

Feb. 15 2011 02:31 PM
C. from midtown

As an opera as well as rock opera fan I'm all for the concept of the concept album. Execution varies, sure, but so does output at any scale. More ambition, why not? I like, for instance, Elvis Costello's "The Juliet Letters." (Btw. by 'leiden' Nicholas above surely means Lieder.)

Feb. 15 2011 02:31 PM
Mark from Upper West Side

Haven't you guys forgotten Green Day's "American Idiot" which was a successful narrative concept album. Even turned into a Broadway musical.

Feb. 15 2011 02:30 PM
Mike from Tribeca

I've always considered Bob Dyan's "John Wesley Harding" to be a kind of concept album. Or maybe it's an atmospheric mood piece, a series of tone poems.

Feb. 15 2011 02:30 PM

"In the Court of the Crimson King" -- King Crimson. My personal favorite.

Feb. 15 2011 02:30 PM
maarten from brooklyn

Smile- the conceptalbum of Brian Wilson
was the downfall of the man, trying to craft an opera on youth - and what about his partner in crime- Van Dyke Park's Song Cycle or America?
Those work!

Feb. 15 2011 02:29 PM
Phil from Brooklyn

Gorillaz: Concept band making concept albums, proves what the form can achieve at its best, imo.

Feb. 15 2011 02:29 PM
jeff from minneapolis


Feb. 15 2011 02:29 PM

The notion of a concept album tests musicians' ability to create a larger literary form, and most lyrics cannot stand on their own even in the short form.


Feb. 15 2011 02:29 PM
ted in atlanta from there

if you are talking about grouping songs together that "go together", what's the difference in degrees from having all rockabilly songs on an album of rockabilly, to having a set of songs that relate even more closely. does that make sense?

it does seem to make a good strategy for marketing nowadays. "download the WHOLE ALBUM to find out the entire vision" or something like that; a bigger message and overarching storyline could help sell or create interest for all the songs...

Feb. 15 2011 02:28 PM
Antonio Becerril from Mexico City.

Great concept albums have been created, but we can also establish that too much concept is also WAY too much EGO sometimes.

The Wall and Dark Side, Tommy, may get off on that.

But hey, without In The Aeroplane Over The Sea's weird Anne Frank psychedelia, we would be left without one AMAZING ALBUM.

Feb. 15 2011 02:24 PM

Iron Maiden - Seventh Son of a Seventh Son

Up the irons!

Feb. 15 2011 02:24 PM
John from Montclair

I second Steven's point of Quadrophenia as a narrative that works.

Personally I think of Decemberist's Hazards of Love as another one.

Feb. 15 2011 02:23 PM

Even though I am a avid Yes fan... "Tales of Topographic Oceans" was a concept gone too far & too long...

Feb. 15 2011 02:23 PM
Brett Warwick from Williamsburg

Harry Nilsson - The Point!

Feb. 15 2011 02:22 PM
Cynthia from long island

As long as the music is good, it's a great idea. Aimee Mann has made an art out of it for sure and even inspired other writers.

Feb. 15 2011 02:22 PM

Joe Meek -- "I Hear a New World"

Not everyone's cup of tea but is considered one of the first albums to use a lot of electronic sounds.

Feb. 15 2011 02:16 PM
Tuf Pak from Crown Heights

I think it's important to occasionally set aside the clarity of the concept, or how well it comes across to the listner, and focus on how some bands really are able to personally blossom when they set "concept album" constraints on themselves.

I think about Husker Du's _Zen Arcade_ which allowed them to obliterate the constraints of hardcore, and become America's greatest punk songwriters.

Feb. 15 2011 02:08 PM
Nicholas Messitte from Brooklyn

Concept albums are viable forms of art--if you discount the concept album, you must, by then, logically discount song cycles, leiden, and operas. Sorry.

On another note,

I have been a huge fan of PT from on the sunday of life to the incident. I just want to say to Steven Wilson: you are an inspiration to me. The songwriting and the mixing prowess (i salute you for sitting behind the console for all you albums) is a combination rarely seen. Keep up the good work!!!!

Feb. 15 2011 02:06 PM

No matter how fascinsating the concept may be, the collection is only as good as the music. The song quality should never suffer for the sake of maintaining conceptual continuity.

Feb. 15 2011 01:51 PM
Andrew McKenna Lee from Brooklyn, NY

How fortuitous! As a recent Porcupine Tree convert, I am looking forward to today’s show.

In my humble experience, I find that people who claim prog rock to be self-indulgent are too often trying to justify their own rather narrow ideas of what rock music “should” and “should not” be. Are Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” self-indulgent? Maybe, but if so, then by the same measure, aren’t Beethoven and Wagner? Who really cares - in the end it’s still great music.

Give Amanda hell, Steve, and thanks for the great tunes.

Andrew McKenna Lee

Feb. 15 2011 01:25 PM

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