Jeffro runs down his list of favorite concept albums, which is a pretty good excuse for me to go through some of mine. The order, of course, is chronological. I think.
Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours (1955)
There is, they say, a dark part of the soul where it’s always 4 AM. Frank knew this terrain as well as anyone, and his travel guide is at once informative and frightening. The cover art shows the man clearly not basking in his Chairman of the Board status: he’s alone on the streets of a city bigger and colder than he’d expected. “You lie awake and think about the girl / And never even think of counting sheep.” Been there, done entirely too much of that.
The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (1966)
It’s not exactly clear whether this is intended purely as narrative, from beginning of love affair to the final breakup, or if it’s a metaphor for Brian Wilson’s undoing. Then again, Tony Asher did the lyrics, and he’s not saying. In the meantime, this is fearlessly beautiful stuff, though Capitol insisted that an actual hit single (this would be “Sloop John B”) be dropped in somewhere to insure some sales. They’ve sold me four copies so far.
The Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed (1967)
Just another day in the life of J. Random Everyman, provided Mr. Everyman has the London Festival Orchestra at his disposal. This sounded nothing like the original Moodies big-beat stuff like “Go Now,” leaving both fans and their record label perplexed, and the Graeme Edge spoken-word bits have that patented “oh, it’s so true” synthetic pathos, but the music is so gorgeous that I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. Besides, anything that closes with “Nights in White Satin” can’t be all bad.
The Who, The Who Sell Out (1967)
It’s a pirate radio broadcast and a mockery of middle-class England, all in one. More to the point, it’s a fabulous collection of songs, and its failure to sell in vast quantities pushed Pete Townshend toward the notion that maybe he’d be better off writing more thematically-connected stuff instead of mere hit singles. In other words, were it not for Sell Out, you’d never have had Tommy or Quadrophenia.
Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick (1972)
The LP version of this opens out into a full-size broadsheet newspaper, which is concept enough. But Ian Anderson has two more axes to grind: in his guise as Boy Poet Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock, he gets to rail about man’s inhumanity to man and all that good stuff, while on the musical level, Anderson is sending up all those prog albums with three or four songs by issuing an album with one song. Benefit was better from the purely-musical standpoint, and Aqualung did a better job of denouncing things, but TAAB is sui generis.
David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Not even Major Tom dreamed this big: “There’s a starman waiting in the sky / He’s told us not to blow it / Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.” One of the oldest stories ever to be told, and yet evergreen. How Bowie got from here to “Fame” is anybody’s guess.
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Lyricist Roger Waters points to “the sun and the moon, the light and the dark, the good and the bad, the life force as opposed to the death force” as motivating themes, and any similarity to the scary downward spiral of original Floyd frontman Syd Barrett may or may not be coincidental. Besides, there is no dark side of the moon: as a matter of fact, it’s all dark. Says so right on the record.
Rick Wakeman, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973)
As concepts go, this is one of the most obvious: one track, one interpretation, for each of six women. I’ve always wondered if Wakeman had originally intended the pieces to be in chronological order; he does start with Catherine of Aragon, and he ends with Catherine Parr, but things are shuffled in between, and musically, it seems to flow better that way. “Jane Seymour” (third wife, fourth track) may be the best actual representation, its subdued grace very much like Jane herself.
The Alan Parsons Project, Eve (1979)
This earns its place, not because it’s one of the stronger Project albums it isn’t but because the line between frustration and misogyny is revealed herein to be rather more difficult to establish than you’d think, a premise you’re not likely to find explored elsewhere. Besides, Clare Torry, who sings lead on “Don’t Look Back” here, is the wondrous wordless voice on “The Great Gig in the Sky” on DSOTM, insuring Eve’s inclusion here.
Nine Inch Nails, Year Zero (2007)
“Zero,” in this case, equals 2022, at which time the former United States of America, having been repeatedly attacked by terrorists, is replaced with a theocracy with more or less absolute control over the populace. If this sounds even more abrasive than your standard Trent Reznor rants, well, wait ’til you see it on HBO.
In a pinch I could probably come up with ten or twenty more, but I figure sooner or later someone else will post a list for your dining and dancing pleasure.
Addendum: And by “someone else,” I mean Michele, the one person I really hoped would post a list. (And I would defend the inclusion of The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance, which has been getting some listening-post time around here.)