What a concept: The best concept albums on The Big List

Ahhh, the concept album. I love joking about them, but I sure love listening to them, too.

Look, it takes skill to write and record 10 random songs and get them to my ears so they can become a huge part of my life. But if you’re going to have a concept behind all of those songs as well, man, good on you. I’m going to love it a little more, probably.

But what does it take for something to be a “concept” album? Does the artist define it, or does the listener? Isn’t every Pink Floyd album and almost every Zappa album, in fact, a “concept” album? Is Rick Wakeman’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” a concept album, or is it a gathering of six great instrumental pieces that hang together because Wakeman put that title on them? Is Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies” a concept album (I hear it as one), or just a soundtrack for the band’s stage show at the time?

Does “Who’s Next” count because it came out of a failed Pete Townshend piece (“Lifehouse”)? Is there really a concept behind “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”? I don’t think so, but I put it on this list, along with Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend,” which I hear as way more of a concept than much of what passes for concepts, but others think is just a nice collection of songs.

I guess the bottom line is: If you hear a concept, there is one. If you don’t hear one, maybe someone else can convince you it’s there.

Here are the concept albums that are part of The Big List. I expect I’ve inadvertently left a few off. I may have to update this list later this year.

348. “Sunshine on Leith,” Proclaimers (1988)
This was even turned into a play and a film. It feels so much like an early 1970s concept piece.

309. “Double Fantasy,” John Lennon/Yoko Ono (1980)
It’s songs as conversation.

283. “Broadway the Hard Way,” Frank Zappa (1988)
All the new songs (and a couple more) that Zappa created for his final tour.

258. “Dottie’s Charms,” Jill Sobule (2014)
257. “Sgt. Pepper’s,” Big Daddy (1992)

256. “Something/Anything?” Todd Rundgren (1972)
There’s even a section he turns into a little concept piece within the album, at once taking advantage of and mocking the concept of concepts.

255. “Live Rust,” Neil Young (1979)
The whole live show for the “Rust Never Sleeps” tour was a fantastic bit of arena theater.

245. “The River & the Thread,” Rosanne Cash (2014)
I laughed when, interviewing her as she started writing this, she told me the concept was “about the South.” Then she pulled it off.

244. “Songs for Drella,” Lou Reed and John Cale (1990)
About Andy Warhol. An amazing tribute.

229. “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1970)
193. “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust,” David Bowie (1972)
191. “New York,” Lou Reed (1989)

186. “Greendale,” Neil Young (2003)
Sometimes I feel like the only person who likes this. Even the online Neil Young fans who give me shit about EVERY SINGLE THING I write that they feel even hints at criticism of Young, even those people shut up when I talk about liking this album.

180. “Quadrophenia,” The Who (1973)
161. “The Gold Experience,” Prince (1995)
160. “The Third Reich ‘n Roll,” The Residents (1976)

156. “Brain Salad Surgery,” Emerson Lake and Palmer (1973)
Sometimes pretention has powerful payoff. I will forever treasure and appreciate the amount and quality of sophisticated music they put in my teenage head.

155. “Skylarking,” XTC (1986)
But the inclusion of “Dear God” is vital.

152. “Black Ribbons,” Shooter Jennings & Hierophant (2010)
Listen to this on a dark, stormy night with the lights out, and Stephen King’s DJ will freak you out. The ending is a disappointing shortcut, but it’s almost the way the album has to end.

151. “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” Derek and the Dominos (1970)

148. “The Who Sell Out,” The Who (1967)
The extra cuts on the re-issue show how far ahead of their time, and how prolific, they could be.

147. “Close to the Edge,” Yes (1972)

145. “Good Old Boys,” Randy Newman (1974)
140. “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” Rick Wakeman (1973)

131. “Girlfriend,” Matthew Sweet (1990)
If that picture of Tuesday Weld on the cover doesn’t make it clear what the album is about, it should. And even if every song isn’t about that girl in the picture on the cover, it ought to be.

130. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” The Beatles (1967)
125. “Southern Rock Opera,” Drive-By Truckers (2002)
103. “Arizona Bay,” Bill Hicks (1993)

102. “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Janet Jackson (1989)
Rhythm Nation is a world I want to live in. You could become a citizen of John Lennon’s Nutopia by acknowledging its existence. I’ve considered myself of dual citizenship since I first heard of Nutopia. Let me add Rhythm Nation as the third.

We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs
We are like-minded individuals sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of color lines

96. “Rumours,” Fleetwood Mac (1977)
90. “Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd (1975)
89. “Plastic Ono Band,” John Lennon (1970)

87. “Sheik Yerbouti,” Frank Zappa (1979)
Concept: Hatred of over-consuming rich Yuppies. Can’t say as I disagree with him.

85. “Tommy,” The Who (1969)
84. “Randy Newman’s ‘Faust’ ” (1995)

83. “Dog Problems,” The Format (2006)
There aren’t many albums about breakups that end up as intense as this one.

81. “Big World,” Joe Jackson (1986)
79. “Hotel California,” Eagles (1976)
78. “Graceland,” Paul Simon (1986)
74. “The List,” Rosanne Cash (2009)

68. “Peggy Suicide,” Julian Cope (1991)
Every time I get into this again, I realize there’s far more depth than I realized the previous time I listened.

58. “I Often Dream of Trains,” Robyn Hitchcock (1984)
I have intense envy of my friend Tom Weber, who’s actually been on the trams of old London.

53. “Hooverphonic Presents Jackie Cane,” Hooverphonic (2002)
I know the band says there’s a concept. I don’t get it, but I don’t care. Solid songs.

52. “Aqualung,” Jethro Tull (1971)
Similarly, I know Ian Anderson says these are only loosely tied together. To me, it’s a song about an English town with any number of ne’er-do-wells and people polite society doesn’t talk about. And “My God” disposes of all hyprocrisy with a death blow.

51. “After the Gold Rush,” Neil Young (1970)

48. “The Pilgrim,” Marty Stuart (1999)
This could have been releases in 1964, 1974, 1989 or 2007, and it would have had the same overwhelming effect on me. I knew he had this in him, I didn’t figure he’d ever deliver on that promise. Getting to talk to him about it for an hour (including telling him how disgusted I was by his ass-wiggling in concert, and having him agree with me) is a time I treasure more than you can imagine.

42. “Pet Sounds,” Beach Boys (1966)
38. “We’re Only in it for the Money,” Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention (1968)

33. “Billion Dollar Babies,” Alice Cooper (1973)
For me, it was an indictment of commercialism and marketing and all the nasty things they produce. I wasn’t expecting that from Alice Cooper. But that’s a big reason I kept coming back. Done with a sense of humor. And, it has “Elected,” which my cynical 13-year-old needed desperately.

30. “Psonic Psunspot,” XTC/Dukes of Stratosphear (1987)
28. “You Are What You Is,” Frank Zappa (1981)
21. “Who’s Next,” The Who (1971)

19. “Animals,” Pink Floyd (1977)
It’s too late now, of course. But if Roger Waters had launched an “Animals” tour in the aftermath of his “Wall” revision, I’d have been first in line.

13. “The Dark Side of the Moon,” Pink Floyd (1973)

12. “The Wall,” Pink Floyd (1979)
I mean, seriously, if we’re going to rank them, this is the one that pretty much chases all the competition home, right?

9. “Joe’s Garage (Acts I, II and III),” Frank Zappa (1979)

4. “Tonight’s the Night,” Neil Young (1975)

3. “Blood on the Tracks,” Bob Dylan (1975)
Not all concept albums are joyous. Dylan writes about his divorce, Young writes about his friends dying of drug overdoses.


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