Friday, June 3, 2011

Defining the Concept Album

Last week a friend of mine over at Cinewise blogged about concept albums he would like to see made into films. It's a good list, but the discussion on Facebook got me thinking: just what exactly is a concept album anyway? A lot of the time the term gets thrown around carelessly and applied to albums that aren't actually concept albums. Rock stars tend to call their works concept albums when they're trying to sound more serious, and fans tend to think that if it's prog rock, it's automatically a concept album. Time to set a few parameters.
  • A concept album is not a change in style. Well, not just, anyway. If Joe Rockstar decides to put out a bluegrass album, it's not a concept album. If Joe Rockstar becomes Billy Bob McCountryman to do so, now we're getting somewhere. So, Dylan's Nashville Skyline is out, but Garth Brooks's Chris Gaines project is a contender. And that's something I thought I'd never, ever, say on my blog.
  • It is an album based on a concept, not a theme. I know, that sounds like I'm splitting hairs, but hear me out. All albums--all good ones, anyway--have themes, but not all albums can be concept albums, so allow me to illustrate the difference. Joe Rockstar gets drunk, crashes his Rolls into the water trap at the ninth hole, and nearly drowns. All the songs on his next album are about dying. Not a concept album. If however, his next album is about dying and is structured around The Five Stages of Grief, that very well could be a concept album. So every album that claims to be about rock stardom because the songs are about how lonely it is on the road or how sweet groupies are don't count. But The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars does count because, well, it does what it says on the tin: chronicles the rise and fall of a fictional rock star.
  • And that leads me to the next, and most important point. The concept album must have a narrative. A fabula (plot) and syuzhet (telling) for all you Russian formalists out there. For the rest of you, all I mean is that the concept album tells a story.
    Obvious examples are Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and, as mentioned above, Ziggy Stardust.
  • But doesn't that exclude a lot of really important concept albums, like Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Only if you consider narratives that follow a protagonist. The basic elements for a story are a beginning, middle, and an end. These are concept albums in a more abstract sense. Take Days of Future Passed, for example. It has a beginning ("The Day Begins"), middle ("Tuesday Afternoon"), and an end ("Nights in White Satin"), and therefore tells the story of a day.
  • A few points to further clarify: First, the concept album must be an album. As in both sides of the record or tape, or the entire CD or download. Even if they fit the above concerns, "Side 2" or "Tracks 7-13" are not an album.
  • Second, the story must be told through the music. And only through the music. Although music videos, concerts, websites, etc. may be used by the artist to support the fiction of the concept album, the story itself must be told entirely through the album. So if, like 1. Outside, you need the liner notes or album artwork to understand the story, it doesn't count.
  • Third, soundtracks and musical scores don't count because the story is told as much through the visual element of the film or play as it is the music. Having a movie or play made based on a concept album doesn't change their status as a concept album, but the subsequent soundtracks or cast recordings are not concept albums.
  • Finally, does it have to be rock and roll? Not necessarily, though it seems like it usually is. Most classical music would not be included because, generally speaking, it is not written to be recorded. In classical music, the written score is the definitive version. All performances--recorded or otherwise--are derivatives. Whereas in rock music, generally the recording itself is definitive. So if the Object itself--the physical recording--is meant to be the work of art, then it could be considered a concept album no matter what the genre.

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