In Part 1 of this series (see hyperlink), I provided the "narrative" concept albums. So now let's take a look at some of the best and most fun thematic concept albums. Even at its current length, this is not an exhaustive list, so please forgive me if I left something out. (I am happy to addend this list, if suggested.) This list is alphabetical by artist, and is broken into three parts.
Pet Sounds (Beach Boys).
This album may or may not have been the very first concept album in either category. As noted above, even as a "thematic" concept album, it uses that term a little loosely. Composer Brian Wilson admits that Pet Sounds was inspired by the Beatles' Rubber Soul, and in particular by John Lennon's song "In My Life." (Wilson was quoted as saying he would like to be able to write one song as good as that before he died) "In My Life" was the first Beatles song that expressed "introspection" and self-assessment; these would end up being the themes of Pet Sounds. The lyrics on the album are sometimes a tad immature, but successfully serve to get the theme across. The songs run the gamut from very good to masterpiece, with elements such as sudden changes in tempo, unusual chord progressions (especially for what became known as California rock), and complex orchestrations. However, there are three things that make Pet Sounds particularly important and influential. First, although George Harrison beat him to it by using a sitar on "Norwegian Wood," Pet Sounds was the first album to feature multiple non-standard rock instruments, beyond saxes. For example, it was Wilson's -- and rock's -- first use of the Theremin (predating "Good Vibrations" by several months). It also included such disparate things as French horn, accordion, ukulele, bass harmonica, banjo, glockenspiel, and bicycle horn. [N.D. Maybe Pet Sounds was an influence on P.D.Q. Bach?] It also used lots of percussion other than a simple trap set. Second, the production values on the album broke ground in several ways. For example, Wilson said that he was attempting to mimic Phil Spector's famous "wall of sound" technique; yet Wilson pulled it off much more successfully than Spector himself, by avoiding the "bombast" that became associated with Spector's work. Wilson also used what was then state-of-the-art recording equipment in ways that had never been attempted, something that would directly and heavily influence Sgt. Pepper. Third, in this last regard, Paul McCartney notes that Pet Sounds "inspired" Sgt. Pepper. (McCartney also cited "God Only Knows" as one of the greatest songs ever written.) And although the Beatles had already begun playing with sonics and studio techniques on Revolver (which was released just three months after Pet Sounds, and was thus contemporaneous with it), the band saw Pet Sounds as a "musical and production challenge." Little did anyone realize just how much further the Beatles would push the envelope.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles).
Seriously, what can be said about this album that has not already been said? As noted above, it was "inspired" by Pet Sounds, both musically and sonically. Yet who could have imagined the degree to which it would outpace its own inspiration? The story is well-known. Having given up touring a year earlier, and wanting to put the madness of Beatlemania completely behind them, Paul McCartney came up with the idea of writing an album as if the Beatles were an entirely different band, using a pseudonym. And contrary to much of what has been written, there was no pushback from John or the others; they all supported the idea. The reason I know this is that I had a wonderful conversation about Sgt. Pepper with George Martin at an Audio Engineering Society convention in the mid-00s. All of what I am about to relate here comes from that conversation. Sgt. Pepper had three primary influences. The first was Pet Sounds. The lads began by realizing that the songs on Sgt. Pepper had to be something even well beyond some of those on Revolver, and the production had to be beyond state-of-the-art. With regard to the writing, the second major influence was (and I hope you're sitting down) some of the "wilder" music being produced at the time, including Frank Zappa, and the avant-garde music that was inspiring Zappa and others. Both McCartney and Lennon were apparently familiar with, and listening to, such composers as Edgard Varese, Arnold Schoenberg, and even Karlheinz Stockhausen. (McCartney apparently really likes Stockhausen.) The third major influence on Sgt. Pepper was (hold on to your hats) Les Paul. His influence was large enough that Martin said to me, quite straight-forwardly, that "without Les Paul, Sgt. Pepper would not have been made." (As an aside, Martin told me that the boys absolutely revered Les. When John and Paul began playing skiffle, three of the first songs they learned were "How High the Moon," "World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," and "Vaya Con Dios.") When it came to Sgt. Pepper, Martin said that he actually spoke with Les occasionally (not necessarily specifically about the album) and once in a while Les would make suggestions for recording ideas (since Les had developed the eight-track system by then; it was also used on Pet Sounds). Some of the ideas that were taken from Les' records or from Les himself included backward looping, playing with variable speed (e.g., recording a part at 33 rpm, and playing it back at 45 rpm, or vice versa), and, most importantly, "slaving" two eight-track decks together to create the first quasi-16-track recording, allowing them to "bounce" more tracks without loss of signal: on certain songs (particularly "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," "Good Morning," and "A Day in the Life"), there are actually 24 tracks bounced down to 8-cum-16. But, of course, as much as Sgt. Pepper advanced music and production, its greatest impact would be socio-cultural. A good argument can be (and has been) made that here is no album that has had nearly as broad and extensive an impact on the world as Sgt. Pepper.
School's Out (Alice Cooper).
A lamentation on lost youth (after high school graduation), most people missed that this was, in fact, a wonderfully conceived thematic concept album. Almost certainly his best, with every song a little gem.
Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (Dream Theater).
Following up on their amazing and very well-received narrative concept album (see Part 1), Dream Theater wrote a thematic concept album. The five "shorter" songs each relate a different type of personal struggle, including alcoholism, loss of faith, self-isolation, and the sanctity of life and death. The sixth song, separated into six parts, deals with mental illness, including bipolar disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia, autism, post-partum depression, and dissociative personality disorder. The first song -- "The Glass Prison" -- begins a suite of five songs spread over five albums ("The Twelve-Step Suite") which relate drummer Mike Portnoy's personal struggle with alcohol; the songs encapsulate the 12 steps of the A.A. program. Needless to say, given its themes, this can be a very difficult album to listen to, though it is lyrically and musically quite excellent.
Octavarium (Dream Theater).
Probably the most clever thematic concept album of them all. This was the band's eighth studio album, coming after its fifth live album. There are eight white keys and five black keys in a keyboard "octave" (in the key of C), which is the musical distance between one key and the same key above or below it. The album is comprised of eight songs, each in a different key, and each segueing seamlessly into the next using sound effects or other studio tricks. The first seven songs are in the keys representing the seven "white" keys; the title song, which ends the album, is in the same key as the opening song, except that it has five parts, each of which is in one of the "accidental" keys (the "black" keys); these, too, segue into each other seamlessly. This album also contains the third in drummer Mike Portnoy's "Twelve-Step Suite."
Obsolete (Fear Factory).
Like Radiohead's OK Computer (See Part 3, coming soon), this industrial rock theme album is a fearsome warning about the rapid advance of technology and the de-humanization of society.
There is a great deal of debate among Genesis fans whether this was actually a thematic concept album. I'm on the fence, but leaning toward the affirmative. Written mostly by Phil Collins during his very ugly and painful divorce, the songs all seem to speak to aspects of his psyche as he lost his wife. This album has always been the most difficult for me to listen to, given that I broke up with my live-in girlfriend of 2+ years just a few months prior to the album's release.
Three Friends (Gentle Giant).
Gentle Giant came out of the starting gate as a full-blown uber-progressive rock band. Initially comprised of six multi-instrumentalist/vocalists (three of whom were brothers) whose lyrics and music expressed a very deliberate and wicked sense of humor, the band went through a couple of personnel changes early on. The first of their three thematic concept albums is the simple story of three friends whose lives take them in very different directions. However, in the end, none of them is satisfied with their lives. Do they meet up in the future? The album is left ambiguous on that score.
The Power and the Glory (Gentle Giant).
The tale of a man who proves the adage that "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Wanting to do good in a political position, our anti-hero allows the power to go to his head, and becomes the very person he loathes, becoming a ruthless despot.
Interview (Gentle Giant).
Taking the (loose) form of a (inane) radio interview by a potential manager, this album is an anti-paean to the music industry in general. The title song stands alongside Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar," Queen's "Death on Two Legs" and XTC's "Funk Pop a Roll" as among the most vicious indictments of music management ever put to music.
American Idiot (Green Day).
There is some argument over whether this is a narrative or thematic concept album. My understanding is that it did not become a true "narrative" concept until it was re-written for the band's brilliant and successful Broadway show. I am certainly willing to hear otherwise, and place it in the "narrative" category, if that's where it belongs. In any case, this "punk 'rock opera'" tells the story of "Jesus of Suburbia," a lower-middle-class suburban American teen who is unsatisfied with his life and moves to the city. His "coming of age" story is heavily influenced by his concern about the times he is living in (the GWB era), and his fear of the future. Based loosely on both Tommy and Quadrophenia, as well as West Side Story and Jesus Christ Superstar, the album was critically well-received, and went to #1 in ten countries.
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (Iron Maiden).
One of rock's most beloved heavy metal bands gives us a meditation on good and evil, heaven and hell, and the balance of the universe.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (Elton John).
Many people didn't catch the thematic nature of this album. Using a Sgt. Pepper-ish idea -- i.e., that Elton John and Bernie Taupin are "different artists" than the ones we know (the psychedelic Pepper-like cover art -- years after that era was gone -- is an obvious give-away) -- the real theme here is a brilliant autobiographical sketch of their career together. Some of the songs (e.g., the title song, "Bitter Fingers," "Meal Ticket," "Writing") are specifically about them as a writing duo. In my opinion, this really is Elton's "Sgt. Pepper"; unlike Don't Shoot Me, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and other previous albums, Capt. Fantastic is not focused on hit-writing (although it is ironically difficult for Elton to write songs that don't become hits; even "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" was an "accidental" hit), but on something more serious and mature. Songs like "Tower of Babel," "We All Fall in Love Sometimes," and especially "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" are in a different class of songwriting than most of what he and Bernie were writing previously. And because the songs were not hits (with the exception of "Someone…"), it is Elton's most continually listenable album, since the songs remain "fresh." As a former semi-professional EJ song stylist, I have a huge sentimental attachment to this album.