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What is a concept album?

The 2022 album "Preacher's Daughter" tells the story of a woman, Ethel Cain, who endures a difficult life in a small town. Cain's magnum opus captures audiences with its visceral storytelling and dark themes of religious corruption, sexual abuse and sexism. 

The album also proves to be a beautiful example of a concept album.

Each track on a concept album holds a larger meaning collectively than individually. Typically, each track contributes to a chronological story. Alternatively, it might also carry a specific theme or message. 

Many point to Frank Sinatra's 1955 album "In The Wee Small Hours" as the first concept album, though this is up for debate. Sinatra took inspiration from his life to create an album about relationship troubles and losing relevance as an aging pop star. Due to its theme and story, many consider it a primitive form of a concept album. 

Similarly, many look to The Beach Boys' 1966 album "Pet Sounds." The album told a story of love, loss and life and pushed the group into a more mature space, both lyrically and musically. 

However, others will point to, you guessed it, The Beatles. Their 1967 piece "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is often thought of as one of the first concept albums, and for good reason. The band's bassist, Paul McCartney, suggested that they create alter egos for themselves. The idea was a hit, and as a result, the album was born. 

These early ideas were taken to new heights in the late 1960s and 1970s. British rock band The Who was one of the first to do this, with their 1969 album "Tommy." This was one of the first albums to tell a story and use the "rock opera" style to do so. It follows the story of the titular character, who is severely traumatized at a young age and subsequently becomes psychosomatically deaf, blind, and mute, followed by facing further abuse at the hands of his family. He then discovers pinball as an outlet, becoming a world champion and healing from his physical limitations. He becomes a messiah for others, only to fall when his followers turn on him. 

The album was a major success for the group and was followed up in 1973 with their second similar effort, "Quadrophenia." The album told the story of a teenage mod coming of age in London while struggling with four distinct personalities.

David Bowie was also a major figure in pushing the envelope for concept albums, releasing "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" in 1972. The album told the story of an androgynous queer alien coming to a doomed earth and becoming a rock star, only to fall from grace and die on stage after bringing rock and roll back to the planet. It became one of Bowie's most important works, marking a major milestone in concept albums as well. 

But perhaps one of the most well-known concept album creators of the time was Pink Floyd, with "The Dark Side of the Moon" being one of their earliest. The album acts as a timepiece, with themes surrounding post-war anxieties, the end of the hippie era, the rapidly changing world and their feelings towards Syd Barrett, the band's former lyricist who left due to his deteriorating mental state. 

The album was a major success and was followed in 1979 with "The Wall." This one followed the story of a rock star named Pink, who, through a series of traumas, put up a "wall" around himself. He also locked himself in a hotel room and continued to spiral, only to be found unconscious and brought back to life. 

Yet, there would be a steady decline in the release of concept albums in the following decades. The music industry started to focus more on individual singles that would be both radio-friendly hits and easily translated to TV, rather than complex and overly artsy albums. 

But there has been a slight resurgence in the 21st century, with concept albums of the modern era typically finding a home in rock. 

Namely, Green Day released "American Idiot" in 2004, following the character described in their song "Jesus of Suburbia" through his life, all while intertwining the band's strong and angry feelings towards America with the teenage angst of the main storyline. My Chemical Romance also did this in their 2006 album "The Black Parade," detailing the final days of a man diagnosed with late-stage cancer and his passage through life. 

Concept albums have also become popular in hip-hop and R&B, with many artists in the genres using the media in the past few years. Namely, Beyoncé's 2016 album "Lemonade" used themes centered around her husband's infidelity and her values, with Rolling Stone calling it "a meditation on Blackness, feminism and power."

Kendrick Lamar also established himself as a driving force behind modern concept albums, particularly with his 2012 album "good kid, m.A.A.d. city." The album was autobiographical, detailing Lamar's upbringing in Compton. It has since been heralded by many as one of the greatest hip-hop albums and greatest concept albums of all time.

Concept albums began with a few simple ideas and have seen an arc of popularity from their inception to their rise, peak, fall and resurgence. Now, the artistic style has cemented itself as a seminal part of music history. 


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