Concept albums are a rock phenomenon. When done right, they're a moving musical journey that threads a story together through song. When done wrong they're just... bad.
A lot of the risk lies in the concepts themselves. Some lyrical and thematic concepts make a real statement and can have a lasting cultural impact, but sometimes even the most ambitious ones don't work out.
Regardless of their level of success, there have been some truly bizarre concept albums throughout history. Created by legendary artists like Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Sufjan Stevens, the Flaming Lips, and Genesis, some of the weirdest, most memorable concept albums of all time have crazy themes.
Here are concept albums that aimed high... and occasionally hit their mark.
It's one of the most instantly recognizable and beloved albums of all time, but The Dark Side of the Moon is often overlooked for its contribution to the world of concept albums. Released in 1973, Pink Floyd's eighth album is an ambitious and philosophical record dealing with the idea of people being driven crazy by modern life.
Whether or not the band conceived a storyline to tie the album together lyrically, fans believe there is an underlying theme and message. Dark Side... is known for the mystery and mythology that surrounds it, and the conceptual aspects are no different.
According to a former Redditor:
Its a concept album just like your life is a concept: The tracks follow you as you move through your own life. First, you "Breathe" (you're born, and you maneuver [through] the early stages of life). Then, you mature and run into crazy, larger than life problems like "Time," "Money," religion ("GGIS"), and war ("Us and Them") and... struggle to find answers.
David Bowie's brilliant Ziggy Stardust character is the stuff of rock legend nowadays and was utterly groundbreaking when he first introduced the alter ego in the early 1970s. Telling the story of an alien rock star sent to save Earth, Ziggy Stardust... ends with the titular character being killed by the excesses of a rock and roll lifestyle.
Bowie spoke with William S. Burroughs about his Ziggy persona for Rolling Stone:
Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman... this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the Earth.
Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starmen. He takes himself up to the incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real, because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist [in] our world.
The album was a huge hit for Bowie. He performed as Ziggy Stardust before retiring the character in 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.
"Most rock characters that one creates usually have a short life span," he later admitted. "I don’t think they’re durable album after album. Don’t want them to get too cartoony."
Touted as Alice Cooper's first solo album, Welcome to My Nightmare was a commercially successful venture into the world of concept albums. The songs center around a boy named Steven and the nightmares he suffers, and were born out of Cooper's love of the horror genre. He later said:
I loved horror movies. Still do. And I also love theatre and musicals. And I always had the grand idea that we could take the basic album and create a stage show from it, which is what we ultimately did. I saw it as like a cross between a nasty fairy tale and something like West Side Story.
The album was a proud moment for Cooper, who said he thought he "got it right."
He related, "It had all the elements that I wanted on the record. And for a first solo album, it’s not a bad start!"
Genesis' final album with Peter Gabriel was also their most ambitious. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tells the story of Rael, a half-Puerto Rican former gang member who travels throughout New York City in search of a lost sibling.
It's a strange concept, but it proved successful and became a prog rock classic.
Following the album, Gabriel decided to leave the band, having decided he'd done all he wanted to do with them. He went on to a successful solo career.
"There was no enormous schism; there was no affair with another band member’s wife; he was not out of it on drink or drugs," author Daryl Easlea later said of Gabriel's departure. "He’d just had enough and knew that if he wanted to get on, it had to be outside of the group."