The Concept Album. Defined as “an album that has a unifying theme or that tells a single story” derives from the idea of creating a narrative through a piece of music or series of songs. It’s origins date back to mid 20th century jazz era, with artists exploring rhythms and chord progressions which became the theme of the records they were producing. This transitioned into the Rock and Roll era with bands such as The Beatles, Pet Shop Boys and The Who all trying their hand at musical storytelling.
With a plethora of groups and artists joining in the movement throughout the 60s and 70s, in 1979 came what is named as one of the most iconic and successful examples of the concept album; The Wall by Pink Floyd. The album encompasses the idea of isolation, using the physicality of a wall as an overarching metaphor. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Roger Waters described the narrative further as “it was much more a personal narrative about a man in his twenties who couldn’t quite make sense of what was going on in his life and why he felt so isolated from other human beings and really unable to reach out.”
However, through conducting research into the topic, many of the ‘icons’ of the concept album collective just don’t reach out to me as a modern music fan. They seem almost impersonal and unrelatable, emerging from a scene so different to the one we have today. So how is the concept album evolving to suit the needs of music fans (and artists) today and tomorrow?
Example no.1 comes in the form of Lemonade, the long-awaited 2016 release from Beyoncé. The album combines themes of police brutality, marginalization, infidelity, BlackLivesMatter, and female empowerment. Modernising the concept, is an accompanying 45 minutes’ worth of visual genius, directed and released by the artist herself. How Beyoncé stands out different from the likes of Purple Rain by Prince, or Trapped in the Closet by R Kelly is through the fact they as visual concept albums very much follow narratives start to finish, Prince’s being autobiographical in fact. While both set up the framework for a visual concept, in my opinion neither push the boat out to challenge the audience or in fact the industry, something Beyoncé undoubtedly achieved through raw controversy.
Within the modern music industry, the idea of the concept album however is not elitist and can be achieved by any artist, big or small. Thus, leading on to the second example, Aurora by Bea Miller. Finally released as a 14-track album on February 23rd 2018, the tracks were gradually released in chapters from a year prior to this release date. Each chapter represents different stages and emotions in her breakup narrative, chapter 1 being sadness and vulnerability, chapter 2 being finding yourself again and 3, being confidence and moving on. The significance of this concept album is its link to the ongoing discussions within the modern music industry about the changing relationship between artists and fans. This album narrative is relatable and fans can experience the emotions and story growth on the same timeline as the artist – in my opinion a new and innovative marketing technique for smaller artists to connect with fans and create an album build-up.
While we acknowledge the modernization of the concept album, to conclude we should return to its origins and key principles. As discussed further by Marianne Tatom Letts in Sounding Out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music, concept albums aren’t rigid or strict and always open to creative interpretation. Whether it be a ‘lyrically thematic album’ (such as American Idiot by Green day with political lyrics throughout), or ‘musically thematic’ (such as The Moody Blues’, Days of Future Passed unified by its classical melody), the amalgamating feature of concept albums is originality. For me originality being one key factor that will push the music industry forward evermore and the reason why we need the concept album to continue to break the mold.
- Collins (2018). Concept Album definition and meaning. [online] Collins Dictionary. Available at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/concept-album [accessed 25.04.18]
- Johnson, R T. (2012) The Concept Album: A Brief History. [Blog] The History Rat. Available at: https://historyrat.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/the-concept-album-a-brief-history [Accessed 25.04.18]
- Greene, A. (2015). Roger Waters on ‘The Wall’, Socialism and his Next Concept Album. Article, [online] Available at: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/roger-waters-on-the-wall-socialism-and-his-next-concept-album-20151102 [Accessed 25.04.18]
- Quinn, A. (2017) Evolution of Visual Albums. Article, [online] Available at: https://beat.media/evolution-of-visual-albums [Accessed 25.04.18]
- Bea Miller . chapter one: blue (2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=TU5H2DC8oE8 :Bea Miller
- Bea Miller . chapter two: red (2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fQstb-sdFs :Bea Miller
- Shouneyia, A. (2017).Bea Miller Shines on Newly Release ‘Song Like You,’ Breaks Down ‘Chapter One: Blue’ Collection. Article, [online] Available at: https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7701945/bea-miller-song-like-you-chapter-one-blue-listen [Accessed 25.04.18]
- Spicer, M S and Covach, J. (2010) Sounding Out Pop: Analytical Essays in Popular Music (Tracking Pop) University of Michigan Press. Page 215