Concept albums should not be evaluated solely on how flashy the concept is, but rather, how well it’s executed as a narrative. Sometimes, the musician might have gone into painstaking detail to lay out the concept, but the overabundance of details and references to other works is overwhelming or inaccessible to the listener. Sometimes the story’s just right, but it’s the way the album is received and discussed in the marketplace that obscures the concept. Whatever the reason, concept albums can start to feel a bit like Goldilocks’ porridge in the Story of the Three Bears: it takes a very specific touch to not only tell the story, but to make sure that it’s accessible and communicated properly to the listener.
With this in mind, we examined ten concept albums that don’t quite hit that sweet spot, either on the band’s part or on the fan’s part. In the post-Sgt. Pepper’s rock world, the 1970s saw a boom of concept albums and rock operas, some of which — from Tommy to Ziggy Stardust to nearly every post-Dark Side Pink Floyd album — have gone down as some of the most mythologized albums in history, inspiring seemingly endless discussion. So in that sense, it’s easier to say that newer concept albums are less understood, because as a music culture we’ve had less time and investment in poring over them. Keep that in mind when you see a plethora of post-2000s concept albums included here.
The Decemberists — The Hazards of Love (2009)
Not content with merely being dubbed a “literary” rock band, The Decemberists committed to the title with a work of literature all their own. They followed up their mainstream breakthrough, 2006’s The Crane Wife, with an album that proved even more challenging to follow in its intertwined narrative. The Hazards of Love centers around four characters. There’s a shape-shifter named William, who impregnates, and subsequently tries to marry, Margaret. William’s mother, the Forest Queen, does not approve, ultimately hiring Rake, a widower with no remorse for his own horrible actions (murdering his own family), to abduct Margaret. That’s the set-up in very broad terms, but there are about five more major twists that lead to Margaret and William’s ultimate drownings. The album’s multiple vocalists (including guest appearances from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden) made the character breakdown significantly easier to follow than some of the other albums on this list. Still, I suspect even the most dedicated Decemberists fans would not be able to relay the specific details of the tragic ending, played out in across a taiga over the course of three acts. With this level of specificity, it’s amazing there were any relatable messages regarding the power of love within the album.
Janelle Monáe — The ArchAndroid (2010)
Since the start, Janelle Monáe has claimed that her albums serve as entries in a multi-part concept loosely related to the classic sci-fi film Metropolis. The 1927 film, with which Monae’s debut EP shares a name, is a dystopian tale in which class warfare efforts are thwarted by a robot union leader created by the rich (somehow it has a happy ending). Monae’s own tale revolves around Cindi Mayweather, an android who uses her time-traveling abilities to save residents of Metropolis from a love-squashing secret society of the rich called The Great Divide. This vision was set up more explicitly in Monae’s Metropolis EP, and here in the second and third installations of the story (which comprise The ArchAndroid), it’s easy to lose the plot amidst the less obvious songs (like single “Tightrope”).
David Bowie — Diamond Dogs (1974)
When Bowie couldn’t get the rights to turn George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four into a theatrical glam-rock opera, he didn’t scrap his dystopian themes altogether. Rather, he merged them with Stones-esque mega-hits like “Rebel Rebel” — although it does read loosely like a commentary on cultural outliers, the lyrics feel beside the point with such a good-time riff. The album’s second half explores Orwellian ideas through William Burroughs narratives more explicitly, specifically the obviously named “1984” and “Big Brother.” Still, it’s difficult to feel like the album is saying much overall because its songs aren’t consistent with the themes laid out in “Future Legend,” the album’s ominous intro that speaks of a “glitter apocalypse” and humanoids running wild like packs of dogs. Or perhaps Diamond Dogs feels half-baked compared to Ziggy Stardust, one of the most perfectly laid-out concept albums ever.
Coldplay — Mylo Xyloto (2011)
It’s Coldplay’s thing to write universal anthems, the sort of lovey-dovey schmaltz that inspires thousands of people to sway along at Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo. That tends to go against the idea of an isolated world, which is what most successful concept albums create for themselves. 2008’s Viva la Vida was already chock-full of nods to war, life amidst a revolution, and Les Misérables, but Coldplay took it to a new level with Mylo Xyloto. This album doesn’t just comment on preexisting storylines; it creates its own. Again we see an Orwellian society — “Silencia” — that wages a war against color and sound. The rest is sort of unbelievable, so I will allow Wikipedia to point out the absurdity because I can’t type this with a straight face:
Silencia has been taken over by a supremist government, led by Major Minus, who controls the population through media and propaganda. His aim is to take sound and colour off the streets in hope to draw away “feeders,” creatures that use such energy to hunt its prey. The album follows two lead characters: Mylo, a “silencer,” who is one of an army tasked to hunt and track down “sparkers,” people who harness light and energy and use it to create sparks, comparable to graffiti in real life. He comes across Xyloto, a sparker who is the most wanted by Major Minus. Through Xyloto, Mylo discovers his sparker abilities and his affiliation with the “Car Kids,” a major sparker faction founded by Mylo’s parents Aiko and Lela.
While this plotline popped up in the press surrounding the album, the story was not terribly clear to those who heard the record without this context. Rather, it appeared to be an album marked by its inclusion of some of Coldplay’s most uplifting pop hits ever — like “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Paradise” — and a new fascination with graffiti art.
Tori Amos — American Doll Posse (2007)
It’s not uncommon for Tori Amos to make bold statements in her music, but usually her message is fairly singular. Such was not the case on American Doll Posse, an album in which Amos took on five distinct personas (“dolls”) based on Greek mythological figures and the aspects of her own personality. It’s not that the themes Amos discussed — the war in Iraq, misogyny within the music biz, the fluidity of sexuality, self as warrior — were hard to follow or irrelevant at the time, but perhaps she gave her audience too much credit in assuming they’d know enough about Greek mythology to understand the references without the dolls’ names relating to their goddesses influence in any way (for example, Pip: Athena and Santa: Aphrodite). It’s a little sad to see someone with so many valid things to say communicate them in a way that’s not as clear as it could be.
Kendrick Lamar — good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
Like many albums on this list, good kid, m.A.A.d city was incredibly popular despite being a little misunderstood. Listeners gravitated towards “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and heard a drinking song, even a party anthem. But what makes Lamar’s masterpiece just that is the fluidity with which he lays out a typical Compton day straight from his formative years. He ties it to specific places he encounters — from the Church’s Chicken on Rosecrans Avenue to the Louis Burger where Kendrick’s uncle faced tragedy — and his loved ones, who pop up in phone messages. The title itself is a reference that works on two levels: Kendrick (aka, the self-dubbed ‘good kid’) making his way through and ultimately out of the ‘mad city’ of Compton, California. But notice the punctuation and you see m.A.A.d., which takes on two meanings via Kendrick himself: “My Angry Adolescence Divided” and “My Angels on Angel Dust” (Lamar admits, both on and off the album, that he was addicted to PCP, a symptom of his upbringing). In its specificity, good kid, m.A.A.d city is far more than another broad rap sketch of growing up surrounded by drugs and gang activity.
Genesis — The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
Genesis went to the edge with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was Peter Gabriel’s last album with the group, which would morph from a smart prog outfit into The Phil Collins Parade of Pop. So at least they went out with a bang, with one of the most involved and all-encompassing concept albums of all time. The double album tells the story of Rael, a Puerto Rican juvenile delinquent trying to survive in New York, where he’s faced with the impossible task of rescuing his brother, John. It sounds simple enough, but the obstacles Rael faces — the supernatural and the phallic-covered — created chaos that was only made more confusing by the band’s elaborate stage show for the album. Gabriel dressed as Rael, at one point appearing on stage with an identical mannequin, so as to comment on split personality syndrome. It led people to believe that John was not merely Rael’s brother, but another side of himself. The aforementioned penis monsters didn’t help clarify this, frankly, and the band was fraught with resentment towards Gabriel, whose singular vision seemed to take over the tale.
Pink Floyd — The Final Cut (1983)
Are there aspects of every Pink Floyd concept album that remain unclear, even after years of discourse over The Wall and Dark Side? Of course. But few remain as head-scratching as The Final Cut: A Requiem For The Post-War Dream. Originally, the album was intended to serve as a soundtrack for the 1982 musical film adaptation of 1979’s The Wall album, but as the Falklands War escalated between the U.K. and Argentina, Pink Floyd’s incessantly political later leader Roger Waters turned his attention towards the conflict. He felt Prime Minister Thatcher’s handling of the situation was overly aggressive and mixed this commentary with a dedication to his own father, who died fighting in World War II. While the ten-week Falklands conflict made major international headlines at the time, its place in history is largely lost on subsequent generations — especially American fans, of which Pink Floyd had millions. There’s worthwhile general anti-war commentary to be found on The Final Cut, but Waters’ reference points go over many listeners’ heads ultimately.
The Flaming Lips — Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
For a band that had been signed to a major label (Warner Bros.) for ten years at this point, the Flaming Lips saw a significant commercial bump with Yoshimi. So while they’ve long made deeply conceptual music (1997’s Zaireeka was layered across four separate CDs), their new fans maybe didn’t quite see the music in this context. In including Yoshimi in this list, it’s sort of to say: the new fans thought this was a concept-driven album, but if you know anything about the Flaming Lips, four songs about a robot-vanquishing force is a drop in the bucket for them, conceptually speaking. Sure, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots speaks, overall, to larger ideas about personal isolation and technology’s role in our society, so much so that it’s frightening to see the things Wayne Coyne predicted. But “Do You Realize??” is more nebulous than “She Don’t Use Jelly,” for crying outloud. (Also, Do You Realize… Yoshimi is a real person?)
Yoshimi Battles the Robots did not become a fully realized concept until Coyne and Aaron Sorkin (who would later depart the project) were going to make it into a musical, so now when people hear the album, they project this vision onto an album that isn’t technically a concept album. “There’s the real world and then there’s this fantastical world,” Coyne explained of the Yoshimi musical’s concept. “This girl, the Yoshimi character, is dying of cancer. And these two guys are battling to come visit her in the hospital. And as one of the boyfriends envisions trying to save the girl, he enters this other dimension where Yoshimi is this Japanese warrior and the pink robots are an incarnation of her disease. It’s almost like the disease has to win in order for her soul to survive. Or something like that.”
Yes — Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974)
Yes frontman Jon Anderson based this wildly successful double album on footnotes from Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi manifesto. In these footnotes, the Indian guru — an introductory spiritual guide for Westerners pursuing meditation — quickly makes reference to the four classes of Hindu scriptures, otherwise known as the shastras. Anderson translated the concept of these scriptures into connective works of music strewn across the double LP’s four sides. Each side is a continuous jam, a format that clearly worked for the sort of prog-rock scene of which Yes was at the center. But despite how nimbly each “shastra”/side flows, most listeners were not considering this work through Hindu and Yogi planes of meditation.