1. Frank Sinatra, Come Fly With Me (1958)
One of the first artists to see the possibilities of the album form beyond just throwing a bunch of songs together, Frank Sinatra released thematically united albums throughout his career, starting with his ’50s tenure at Capitol. Albums like the ballad collection In The Wee Small Hours and the self-describing Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! struck a mood and sustained them for 40 minutes or so. Released in 1958, the Billy May-arranged Come Fly With Me explores the romance of travel, starting with the famous title track—written specifically for the album—then winding through songs about Paris, London, Hawaii, and other desirable locales before winding down with the it’s-no-place-like-home capper “It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling.” Sinatra’s enthusiasm for each destination gives off such a contact high that the album feels like taking a vacation without having to leave your living room.
2. Cursive, Domestica (2000)
Chronic hiatus-taker Tim Kasher first disbanded Cursive in the mid-’90s when he married and moved to Oregon. Luckily for the band, Kasher’s marriage proved short-lived, inspiring Cursive's scathing 2000 album Domestica. Opening with “The Casualty” and closing with “The Night I Lost The Will To Fight,” Domestica chronicles a tumultuous relationship (between the characters “Sweetie” and “Pretty Baby”) with the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer. “Sweetie don’t cry,” goes “The Martyr.” “Your tears are only alibis to prove you still feel / you only feel sorry for yourself / well, get on that cross, that’s all you're good for.” The storyline doesn’t exactly match Kasher’s experience—he said in an interview that Sweetie and Pretty Baby stay together—but it’s safe to say that art imitated life.
3. Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade (1984)
Hüsker Dü’s landmark, drug-fueled double album is a dizzying blur of punk, noisy experimentation, and some of the most potent emotional bloodletting ever recorded. Underneath the maelstrom lies a semi-comprehensible story about a runaway escaping a bad family life (“Broken Home, Broken Heart”), turning to drugs, losing a friend in the process, then returning home—but it was all a dream. Or something. Luckily, Zen Arcade’s 23 tracks don’t need a shaky storyline to work: The album contains some of Hüsker Dü's finest moments (“Something I Learned Today,” “Never Talking To You Again,” “Chartered Trips,” “Newest Industry”).
4. Pink Floyd, The Wall (1979)
After a series of fractured but spottily brilliant concept albums (The Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals) Pink Floyd hit the peak of its ambition and creativity with the double album The Wall, a prog-rock opera based in part on the none-too-pleasant life of then-frontman Roger Waters. While the 80-minute storyline can seem a little overcrowded, with its exhausting series of rise-and-fall waves, a series of repeated themes—particularly a slinky, insinuating guitar line and a recurrent melody—hold the music together into one massive piece. So does the storyline, which is unusually coherent for a concept album: It follows the emotional withdrawal and eventual disintegration of a man who starts building an internal wall in childhood to deal with his dead father, overprotective mother, abusive teachers, and all the little disappointments of life. Alan Parker’s 1982 film version, essentially an extended music video for a slightly altered version of the album, just makes the story clearer—and makes it even harder to think of The Wall as anything but a single long, coherent, agonizing story-song.
5. King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)
A motherfucker of a prog-rock document, 1969’s In The Court Of The Crimson King is an album that can only be listened to as God (and Robert Fripp) intended it: split down the middle and nestled within the pink, screaming face of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the opening salvo’s titular character. While the subsequent songs don’t directly deal with that terrified freak from the then-future, it’s best to follow the loosely defined Tolkien-meets-Orwell narrative as it weaves through wild jags of proto-metal, freeform funk-jazz, and placid pieces for Mellotron and flute. Eventually, the story lands face-to-face with King Beelzebub (a.k.a. Mr. Crimson), who turns out to be the instigator behind Vietnam and iPhone dependence. (It’s all there in the lyrics, dude.) Classic.
6. Neutral Milk Hotel, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)
Just what Jeff Mangum was driving at with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea may never be truly understood, but this much is known: Sometime before the seminal album’s 1998 release, the night-terrors-plagued troubadour became a living conduit for the ghost of Anne Frank. He molded her misery and joy into a series of extremely vivid, cryptic images, then set them alight on the back of gorgeous raw-spun art-folk. The record has its highlights (“Holland, 1945,” is both the album’s lone single and its lyrical Rosetta Stone), but listening straight through is the only way to unravel Aeroplane’s fantastic riddles while getting delightfully lost in its emotional vales.
7. Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030 (2000)
A bevy of concept albums (perhaps the majority) were surely conceived under the influence of weed, but none are as clearly chronic-fueled as 2000’s alterna-rap opera Deltron 3030. Reportedly written in two obviously well-considered weeks, the album’s story revolves around protagonist Deltron Zero (Del Tha Funkee Homosapien) as he wages technological war against universe-ruling mega-corps while simultaneously battling to become Galactic Rhyme Federation Champion. He’s helped by in-character cameos from a cast that ranges from MC Paul Barman to Damon Albarn. Most importantly, beyond the numerous nerdy lyrical gems (“I wanna devise a virus / better by far than that old Y2K”) and stoned sketches, this album offers rich production from the team of Dan The Automator and Kid Koala, as well as Del’s most fluid and stylish rhymes to date.
8. Wyclef Jean, Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival Featuring The Refugee Allstars (1997)
Released one year after The Score proclaimed the creative heft of The Fugees, and one year before Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill wrapped that whole thing up, Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival captures the Refugee Camp primed and ready for… an obscenity trial? As a spirited opening skit reveals, ’Clef is accused of being a bad influence on society (keep in mind this is before he enlisted The Rock for a single), and the songs that follow are supposedly evidence that he is indeed “a goddamned revolutionary.” Jean has never been one for modesty, but here he shows the chops to back it up. Emboldened by the success of his group but unencumbered by its stardom, he enlists Hill, Pras, John Forté, Celia Cruz, the Neville brothers, and Bob Marley’s I Threes to concoct an ambitious art-rap opus.
9. The Flaming Lips, Zaireeka (1997)
If only due to the difficulty of properly executing a Zaireeka listening, this “album” comprising four discs to be played simultaneously is truly a “start-to-finish” experience. But The Flaming Lips had a bit more in mind when they released the polarizing project in 1997. Zaireeka is by nature a communal occurrence, and it’s just as anarchic and eye-opening as its name, a portmanteau of “Zaire” and “eureka,” implies. The phasing layers of Lipsian psychedelia emit strange visceral waves capable of inspiring joyful cry sessions and, occasionally, spatial disorientation accompanied by nausea. Add to that a series of existentially ruminative narratives, and you’ve got a surprisingly compact time machine capable of transporting listeners back to the blank slate of youth.
10. Parenthetical Girls, Entanglements (2008)
Parenthetical Girls’ Entanglements possesses all the best qualities of a superb concept album. Lavish music? Check. Theatrical vocals? Check. Linear storyline written in an obsolete vernacular? Check. Misunderstood in its time? Double check. Its ornately wrought chapters, which unravel a lifetime of lust and love shared between two genderless characters with a sizeable age gap—need to be digested in sequential order, with lyric book in hand. It may seem like a lot of effort, but it’s highly rewarding work taking in the Todd Solondz-like narrative over orchestral art-pop that undulates between Van Dyke Parks highs and Scott Walker lows.
11. Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)
Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon persona made for one of the most fragmented, confusing character studies in the concept-album realm. As if using the character as an excuse to get somewhere else entirely, Keith embraces the potential for near-nonsense verse wizardry on 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. Even the most expository lines of this tale of some kind of sociopathic, horny alien gynecologist (hell, if even that much is clear) teeter on the edge of pure, percussive wordplay. Dan The Automator’s production also walks that line between classic form and deliciously surreal concept, teetering between old-fashioned rhythmic thump and the bleak, queasy feeling of preparing to get sucked out of an airlock. Keith reveals the character like a sculptor taking seemingly random jabs at a piece of marble, yet the seeming randomness lends itself to confoundingly catchy flows.
12. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)
Not satisfied with just one or two concept albums, Sufjan Stevens set out to record a concept collection, with 50 albums, each dedicated to one of the 50 states. We’re still waiting on 48 of them, but his most recent contribution, 2005’s Illinois, was enough of a success that he could rest on his laurels a bit before moving on to a (potentially smaller or less complicated) state. With 22 songs each focusing on Illinois history, from the criminal to the bizarre, there’s enough minutiae in the lyrics to keep over-analyzers happy for weeks, matching up the references to towns, people, and historical events from the Land Of Lincoln, both well-known and less-so. Stevens’ Illinois is a bustling yet melancholy, beautiful, sometimes-surprising and mysterious place, which seems to be exactly what Stevens took away from his research, and decided to share with listeners. He may end up feeling that way that about all the states, but as long as the stories are there and the music is surprising and beautiful, who cares?
13. Catherine Wheel, Adam And Eve (1997)
Catherine Wheel’s swooping Adam And Eve was up against some stiff competition when it came to 1997 sorta-concept albums by British bands with a couple of hits under their belts. (In case the reference isn’t clear enough: OK Computer.) Adam And Eve was apparently too ambitious or ill-timed to hit the big time, in spite of the huge singles “Delicious” and “Ma Solituda.” Maybe that’s because it’s best to listen in one big chunk, with the spare, bluesy “Intro” and “Outro” bookending the band’s strongest set of recorded material. There’s no real theme per se, but at least a few running ideas about the future. But it all means something, maaaaan.
14. Randy Newman, Good Old Boys (1974)
Originally conceived as a song cycle about a prototypical Southern everyman called Johnny Cutler’s Birthday (in which raw form it can be found on a 2002 double-disc re-release from Rhino), Randy Newman’s greatest triumph doesn’t have any particular narrative, but its tone is as consistent as any rock opera ever recorded. Playing out as a cross-generational gallery of voices from the American South, it features songs that are as striking now as they were 35 years ago, like the moving “Louisiana 1927” (powerfully re-recorded by Newman after Katrina) and “Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man),” originally written as a plea to Nixon, but newly relevant in these days of economic collapse. And for Northerners who smugly judge the goons and grotesques portrayed in Good Old Boys, there’s “Rednecks,” one of the composer’s most notorious—and misunderstood—songs, which begins as a blunt satire of the racist South, and ends with a crushing condemnation of Yankee hypocrisy.
15. Queensrÿche, Operation: Mindcrime (1988)
Concept albums in the world of heavy metal are a dime a dozen, and narrowing it down to prog-metal devalues the concept even further. When a guy thinks he’s an intellectual because he figured out how to play Bach on his Ibanez Destroyer, flatulent, pretentious narratives are the first item on his agenda. But Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime succeeds not only because its musicianship is exceptional—every song on the album is worth listening to, from the powerful opening “I Remember Now” to the harrowing minor-key masterpiece “Eyes Of A Stranger” that closes it out—but also because the story is well-written enough to not be an embarrassment. Years later, an ill-thought-out sequel tarnished the original’s purity (not to mention robbing it of the appealing ambiguity over who killed Sister Mary), but taken alone, it still stands a monument to the blistering power of Geoff Tate and Chris DeGarmo in their heyday.
16. Tom Waits, Franks Wild Years (1987)
The song “Frank’s Wild Years” is one of the best numbers off Tom Waits’ groundbreaking Swordfishtrombones, a jazzy, gin-soaked little narrative about a furniture salesman in a dead-end marriage who burns down his house and drives off into the night. Waits liked it so much that he expanded into a rock opera (excuse, please: an “operachi romantico in two parts”) a few years later. Hopping from one musical style to another to suit its loose narrative of a “guy who’s a success at being a failure and a failure at being a success,” the album is an epic without consequence, a grand opera about a big-talking loser. It’s also one of Waits’ greatest records, featuring an all-star cast and some amazing songs, including the opening number “Hang On St. Christopher,” “Temptation,” “Way Down In The Hole,” and not one but two fantastic renditions of “Innocent When You Dream.”
17. Mike Watt, Contemplating The Engine Room (1997)
The idea of a “punk opera” justifiably makes a lot of people’s skins crawl. But if anything is worthy of the name—and worthy of the highest praise that such a project can receive—it’s this unforgettable album by the former bass player for the Minutemen. The stirring lyrics skillfully mix the story of Watt’s dad, a Navy veteran, with that of Watt’s own adventures in the early days of American punk rock, with a memorable cast of characters drawn from the L.A. scene of the early ’80s. And musically, it’s probably Watt’s greatest accomplishment, truly operatic in scope and form, with nautical thematic elements that disappear and reappear from the powerful opening bass hook of the main theme to the heartbreaking memorial to D. Boon, “Shore Duty,” that ends the album. Watt was so determined to present it in its purest form that he twice toured the country performing it from beginning to end, and as anyone who caught those shows can testify, his passion for the material showed through at every stop.
18. XTC, Skylarking (1986)
Skylarking is proof that a concept album doesn’t have to start out that way to be great. When Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding starting writing the songs that would end up on Skylarking, they didn’t have much idea that it would be a song cycle; by the time they were finished, it very nearly wasn’t even an album. They chose pop-music impresario Todd Rundgren off a short list of producers suggested by their record label, and it was loathing at first sight. But Rundgren sussed that there was a strong thematic element to the terrific set of songs the band turned in, and, years later—after endless complications, messy resequencing, and contradictory stories from all involved—Moulding still considers it XTC’s greatest record. Even if the concept is a little vague (youth, adolescence, work, marriage, childbirth, death, the whole Ben Casey megillah), there’s no doubt the album is best experienced from beginning to end.
19. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982)
Springsteen’s sixth album represented a distinct departure from his earlier work; after the sprawling, populist rock of Born To Run and The River, Nebraska is more intimate, sparser, and waaaay more depressing. Some songs can be as good as short stories, and Nebraska is a collection of the Boss’ best stories, an anthology best appreciated from start to finish. Taken on their own, “Used Cars,” “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99,” and the rest are haunting, beautifully sketched character studies, but when heard in combination, they create a world full of stunted lives, missed opportunities, and endless, aching regret. Some of them, like “Highway Patrolman” and “State Trooper,” seem to comment directly on each other, and the album’s closer, “Reason To Believe,” gains power from the accumulation of lost souls that precedes it. It’s a world worth visiting, even if no one would ever want to live there.
20. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads (1996)
Nick Cave is no stranger to dark music, but Murder Ballads is something else entirely: a collection of songs so grim and threatening that it’s hard to imagine the black getting any more pitch. Tunes like “Song Of Joy” and “The Kindness Of Strangers” send a shiver down the spine so deep that the vibrations can last for days; why, then, would anyone want to listen to all 10 tracks in one sitting? Well, some people like their uncomfortable feelings permanent, but for the sane folks, going all the way through Ballads points to the mordant wit at the heart of Cave’s work. The black, rollicking humor of “Curse Of Millhaven” is a breath of fresh air after the visions of death and betrayal preceding it, but the real treat is “O’Malley’s Bar,” a 14-minute epic about a bratty sociopath’s killing spree. On its own, “Bar” is a snotty treat, but in the context of the despair that surrounds it, the song becomes a grinning, nihilistic howl, a raspberry at all the dread and gloom. The cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not The End” that follows is a fitting coda for an album that doesn’t so much chart human degradation as revel in it, finding a freedom in realizing no matter what happens, sooner or later, it all ends up in the ground.
21. Masta Ace, Disposable Arts (2001)
For some artists, concept albums are like Frito Lay potato chips: You can’t have just one. Juice Crew legend Masta Ace has established himself as something of a concept-album master since resurrecting his career in the early part of this decade as a veteran storyteller looking back on his life and career with self-deprecating humor and refreshing candor on 2001’s Disposable Arts. The album opens with Ace being released from prison and enrolling in the Institute Of Disposable Arts, where his roommate is an excessively chipper MC Paul Barman. The album closes on an appropriately elegiac mood: On the moving “No Regrets,” the aging MC explores the realities of being a veteran struggling just to hang on in the Darwinian ecosystem of the music business, and he plays his own worst critic on “Dear Diary.” Ace followed it up with a better-received but weaker prequel two years later in A Long Hot Summer.
22. Willie Nelson, Phases And Stages (1974)
Undeterred by the failure of his spacey 1971’s concept album Yesterday’s Wine, Willie Nelson returned to the trough three years later with Phases And Stages, an exquisitely sad but ultimately hopeful roman à clef album about the dissolution of a marriage. Phases And Stages introduced a classic single in “Bloody Mary Morning,” a song that’s great as a standalone track, but gains in resonance and meaning from being part of a cohesive, ambitious song cycle. The third time proved a charm for Nelson, concept-album-wise. While Wine and Stages failed commercially, his third concept album, Red Headed Stranger, made him an iconic star in 1975.
23. Prince Paul, Psychoanalysis: What Is It? (1996)
Prince Paul is the undisputed king of hip-hop concept albums. He helped usher in the era of hip-hop skits as the innovative producer of De La Soul’s first albums, but as a solo artist, his conceptual genius really took flight. 1999’s A Prince Among Thieves was a full-fledged narrative tour de force about an aspiring rapper who falls prey to the allure of street life; Paul’s longtime friend/fan/collaborator Chris Rock promptly scooped up the film rights. That release was preceded by the much more abstract, satisfying semi-instrumental Psychoanalysis: What Is It?, a darkly funny album that put hip-hop on the couch for a trippy album-length exploration of its dark soul, various mutations, and creepy compulsions.
24. Drive-By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera (2001)
Neo-Southern-rock act Drive-By Truckers had only two obscure indie records and one incendiary live album under their belts when they decided to swing for the fences. Raising money from a group of colleagues and fans, the band recorded the double-disc Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling meditation on redneck identity politics and how the looming specter of mortality makes life—and rock ’n’ roll—more meaningful. Though less song-oriented than the DBT albums before and after it, Southern Rock Opera is no less fiery, and it contains some of Patterson Hood’s most personal reflections on how he’s come to embrace his Southern heritage while rejecting some of its more negative connotations. In the spoken-word piece “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” Hood weaves together his personal histories with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bear Bryant, and George Wallace into a complex statement on prejudice that’s like a rock ’n’ roll version of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis. Like the album as a whole, it’s storytelling on a much higher plane than most shit-kicker rock bands ever aspire to.
25. The Who, Quadrophenia (1973)
Given Pete Townshend’s art-school inclinations, it’s no surprise that throughout his career—solo and with The Who—he’s tried to apply his facility with memorable guitar licks and catchy tunes to projects that aim to tell long, complex stories. Often those projects are more than a little esoteric (like Tommy), or so complicated that Townshend can’t bring them to fruition (like Lifehouse), but with 1973’s Quadrophenia, Townshend and The Who finally recorded a rock opera that made sense both as one long story and as a powerful, emotional piece of music. Using his bandmates’ personalities as metaphors for mixed-up adolescence, Townshend took listeners back to London and Brighton circa 1964 and ’65, when the rise of “mod” (as exemplified by bands like The Who) gave teens with fashion sense and a love of American R&B their own tribe to run with. It’s a set of songs about belonging and eventual disillusionment, and for all its cultural specificity, Quadrophenia is about as universal in its concept as concept albums get.