Top 20 Concept Albums

It’s not just about the riffs but the plot twists too... Johnny Sharp on sets that make every chorus a cliffhanger as he brings you chapter and verse on the Top 20 concept albums

Any ambitious artist needs to challenge themselves sometimes, and there’s nothing like a concept album to set the bar high. Why release a collection of a dozen or so unrelated ditties when you could link them all together into a grand statement, an epic tale or a shaggy dog story in song?

It’s a high risk, high reward move though. Even previous high achievers have been known to fall embarrassingly at this self-imposed hurdle (R Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet anyone?), but others have found that imposing a thematic framework around their songwriting helps stoke the fires of inspiration more urgently.

proof of concept

We’ve picked 20 albums often regarded as concept works, and while some of these sets of songs are considerably more tightly thematically knitted together than others, they all succeed in threading an identifiable pre-conceived theme through a long-player. Once closely associated with progressive rock, after the grand schemes of the psychedelic era began to grow into grand, triple-gatefold follies, examples of the format have been found across the genres and through the ages.

As for our own thematic guidelines, as ever it’s somewhat arbitrary, but for example, we’ve included records self-identifying as rock operas (a concept album with one eye on the stage) but steered clear of soundtracks if the theatrical creation came first. Shame – we so wanted to write about Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants…

The Beatles
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Parlophone, 1967

We begin with what surely has to be the most influential concept album of them all, as the world’s biggest pop group present themselves as a veteran local military band reconvening to delight the local faithful, albeit seen through the refracted light of an acid-warped lens. While the title track and its reprise bookend the album, songs such as ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ bear little relation to the same theme but they still inhabit the same dizzy universe. Such has been this album’s legacy that it’s now de rigueur to downplay its seismic impact.

Scheherazade And Other Stories
BTM, 1975

This British act evolved from folk revivalists to jazz and classical-influenced fellow travellers of the prog scene, and this sixth album is arguably their finest hour, even if subsequent hits such as ‘Northern Lights’ landed them on Top Of The Pops. The 24-minute ‘Song Of Scheherezade’, nodding to Rimsky-Korsakov and taking Arabian Nights as its source material, is a wondrous thing, but just as enchanting are 'A Trip To The Fair' and ‘Ocean Gypsy’, with Annie Haslam’s voice in irresistibly evocative shape. Reissued recently, it’s worth a listen for any fan of baroque ’70s rock.

Johnny Cash
Ride This Train
Columbia, 1960

The Man In Black saw this as a ‘travelogue’ in the form of eight songs linked by the singer’s spoken-word introductions. Each is backed by the chug and whistle of a locomotive, inviting the listener to travel with Cash to a new stop down the track, where he introduces another tale on which he expands in song. Barely half an hour of music is included, but it’s the perfect way to frame these vignettes from the time-honoured country music storytelling tradition, and it set a fascinating precedent for theme-based albums to come. His darker, more swaggering output gets more attention, but this still stands up proudly.

Jethro Tull
Thick As A Brick
Chrysalis, 1972

Ian Anderson claims this wasn’t a concept album but a parody of the concept album trend, but considering the format was barely a thing back then, this seems questionable. Regardless, this single song straddling both sides of an LP is a fine example of the art form, geared around the faintly farcical but original premise of putting music to an epic poem penned by a fictional eight-year-old schoolboy, Gerald Bostock. Top marks.

Trans-Europe Express
Kling Klang, 1976

Several thematically cohesive LPs by these electronic pioneers could be nominated as their best concept album, but this gets our vote by dint of the sweet spot they hit between the cold elegance and cool austerity of their electronic soundscapes and the romantic allure of the pictures they paint. While Autobahn celebrated the adventures promised by the motor car, here they make high-speed train travel sound even more enticing, and impossibly modern.