Concept Albums Have Packed Up Their Interludes and Fled Rock City

Rock bands don’t make concept albums anymore. I don’t know if it’s too hard to write eleven rock songs that follow a plot, or if concept albums don’t sell as well as normal records (or as well as records sell at all these days.) Regardless, I’ve recently noticed that rock music; the former home of concept albums big and small, has now been abandoned by the format. Try and name the last good rock concept album, The Wall? That’s all I could think of off the top of my head. A quick Google search told me that Coldplay released a concept album, but fuck Coldplay; all of their albums follow a theme and story called, “Our band fucking sucks.” So they don’t count.

I digress.

Concept albums used to rule rock music. Us literary types who dig loud guitars could celebrate a cohesive written work that we didn’t have actually have to read. We could instead enjoy a story cranked up and exploding out of our headphones. The songs on these records attempted to work together, and if they succeeded they played on a level that elevated simple rock music into art, or whatever clichéd bullshit phrasing you want to use to describe that whole phenomenon that is, “this music that was once just sound, is now better and more sound.”

Even if you weren’t a literary type, concept albums allowed you to just get baked out of your fucking tree and try and connect loose plot threads that had been poorly weaved by bass guitar notes and fucked-up mellotron solos.

The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon, American Idiot, Antichrist Superstar, The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Tommy, Quadrophenia, and 2112; these are albums that sit monolithic over the rock and roll landscape. But these hot wax places of worship have no new children to tend to them these days, and they’re slowly falling into ruin. You could attribute this to the fact that the rock music that’s popular in this day and age is dominated by the four-chord, testosterone chugging bastard children of AC/DC, and that the place for concept records is with those basement dwelling nerds of the prog-rock scene. Or, you could just chalk it up to the fact that concept albums are hard work; they require stronger writing, bullshit orchestras, and lead singers who get lost in the concept and ruin their band’s day with their pretentious bullshit. Building on that last idea, are concept albums just too fucking pretentious to rock?

Who knows? Not me, that’s for sure. All I know is where all of those potential modern concept albums ended up when they packed up their ten-minute songs, their weirdly named characters, and burned rubber out of rock city; Hip Hop.

Like every other switched-on human being on the planet right now, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a concept album about fame and the times we live in, and it is a complete fucking masterpiece. After listening to it a few times, I told myself I should make an effort to listen to Lamar’s previous album, good kid, m.a.a.d city, a concept album that revealed itself to be as unassailably bomb proof as it’s follow-up. Both albums have a strong theme running through them, and phenomenal songs to keep the flow of the narrative at the forefront. There are zero missteps, and when the albums end, the listener feels as if they’ve experienced something as a whole, complete work.

Now, that’s two concept records in a row, by someone who could currently be considered the biggest voice in rap music. Some more digging revealed though, that Lamar was not alone in being the only rap star making great concept records.

Channel Orange, by Frank Ocean, does not possess the same scale as Lamar’s albums, yet it is also a concept album; one depicting the deep thoughts of a young man as he channel surfs late at night. His thoughts about sex, relationships, and even Forrest Gump, are the various subjects of songs spaced between the sounds of channels being changed. It’s a concept album with a smaller scope, yet a cohesiveness equal to that of To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.a.a.d city.

Kanye West is an artist who’s made multiple concept albums over the course of his career, and when one looks into his personality, his passions, and his influences, it’s easy to see why. A known fashion connoisseur, each album in his discography stands alone as a cohesive work, different from the rest, yet still contributing to his overall mythology as an artist, an attribute and release style very similar to fashion designers and their collections. In addition, West’s concept albums are as close to the rock records of old as I’ve heard, as they have all of the bombast and character of a Beatles album combined with the breakneck volume of Rush blowing through twenty plus minutes of 2112. With any luck, Kendrick Lamar will continue to release the kind of albums that he has already dropped, and a similarly large body of concept work will be available to be enjoyed.

The concept album torch has been passed to a different genre, and the artists of that genre have taken the ideas of old and made some goddamn beautiful music. I for one, and beyond excited in the change.

Will rock artists ever return to making concept albums? I doubt it. It’s hard to imagine the popular rock artists of today doing anything besides what they already do, and if they did ever try and branch out, I imagine that the results would be so beyond pretentious, that nobody would want to fucking listen to them anyway. That’s another thing worth mentioning about why Hip Hop/Rap artists now have numerous superior concept albums; usually the focus of the record is how the individual making it experiences a certain overall situation, such as fame, drug addiction, violence, solitude, love, nostalgia, or maturity. If a rock band, comprised of multiple members, tried to do the same thing, the results would be a fucking mess. They might defer to the lead singer, or whoever writes the songs, but then the egos are going to get all involved and soon enough you’ll have a shit album comprised of a few linked songs written by whoever, and a bunch of radio hits that don’t fit.

That’s probably why good rock bands don’t release concept albums anymore.

Either that, or nobody in rock music wants to fuck with Rush.

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