31 Concept Albums You May Have Missed
As long as there have been records, there have been concept albums. As early as Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, with its songs about lost love, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ themed albums (Going Places, Whipped Cream and Other Delights), and Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook albums, each dedicated to a specific songwriter or songwriting team, music lovers have always been drawn to an album with a unifying concept.
What exactly is a concept album? In its most obvious definition, it is an album with some unifying theme. It could be a story told from the first song to the last. It could be a collection of songs with a common idea in the lyrics. It could even be a set of songs with similar instrumentation or musical style.
Concept albums span all genres — from classic rock (The Who’s Tommy, The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), punk (Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Green Day’s American Idiot), progressive rock (numerous albums by Yes, Rush, Genesis, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), country (Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, Johnny Cash’s The Rambler, ), indie rock (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs) or hip-hop (Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Jay Z’s American Gangster).
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Kink’s Face to Face (1966), and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! (1966) have all been credited with being the first concept album of the rock and roll era. Although the songs on these albums are sometimes related thematically and musically, it wasn’t until 1968’s S.F. Sorrow that a clear storyline threaded through an entire album.
In this day of iTunes singles and Spotify playlists, it is still nice to call up a concept album and play it from beginning to end. With that in mind, I present this list of 31 Concept Albums You May Have Missed. In preparing this list, I focused on albums released in the last fifty years, covering a range of styles. The only unifying “concept” behind these 31 albums is that they are all interesting and great listens.
Here they are in chronological order:
1. S.F. Sorrow — The Pretty Things (1968)
S.F. Sorrow, the fourth album by the the Pretty Things, is considered by many critics to be the first true concept album of the rock and roll era. It was produced in 1968 by the Beatles’ former engineer, Norman “Hurricane” Smith. Sorrow is one of the forgotten treasures of the psychedelic age.
The songs are based on a short story by the Pretty Things’ singer, Phil May. It traces the life of Sebastian F. Sorrow from birth (“S.F. Sorrow Is Born”) through love (“She Says Good Morning”), war (“Private Sorrow”), tragedy (“Balloon Burning”), madness (“I See You”), and old age (“Old Man Going”). It ends with Sorrow as “the loneliest person in the world” (“Loneliest Person”).
Much of the plot behind S.F. Sorrow had to be filled in by the liner notes. Still, it’s the first time a rock album told a story like an opera or a Broadway soundtrack — a year before The Who’s Tommy.
2. Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) — The Kinks (1969)
The Kinks’ Face to Face, released in 1966, is another candidate for the first rock and roll concept album. There’s no doubt that its collection of songs about society set the stage for a long run of Kinks’ concept albums, beginning with 1968’s The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society through 1975’s Schoolboys In Disgrace. The driving force behind these concept albums was the Kinks’ primary songwriter, Ray Davies.
1969’s Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) was one of the best and most coherent of these albums. Originally written for a television play, Arthur revolves around the story a carpet-layer living a typical workingman’s life as portrayed in songs like “Some Mother’s Son,” “She Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina,” and the single “Victoria.” Like the Kinks’ other concept albums, Arthur centers around Davies’ favorite themes, nostalgia and the return to simpler times, all delivered with the Kinks’ mix of modern rock and British music hall.
Boston’s Fusion magazine said that “If Tommy was the greatest rock opera, then Arthur most surely is the greatest rock musical.”
3. Thick As A Brick — Jethro Tull (1972)
When music critics called Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung a concept album, Tull’s leader Ian Anderson strongly disagreed. (It is unclear why he was so upset about this!) As a response, he decided to make Tull’s next album “the mother of all concept albums.”
Thick As A Brick consists of a single track spanning two sides of the original vinyl. The story is about a man beaten down by society. Along the way, Anderson comments on religion, politics, and free will. The music is intricately constructed with reoccurring themes that are repeated and manipulated throughout. Tull’s folk-rock stylings (and his trademark flute) are complemented with additional brass, strings, and percussion.
The packaging of Thick As A Brick pushed Anderson’s concept even further, wrapping the album in a fake newspaper, containing articles related to the lyrics and even a fake review of the album. Prog magazine rated Brick #5 on their list of “The 100 Greatest Prog Albums of All Time.”
4. Desperado — Eagles (1973)It was a bold move for the Eagles to make their second album a concept album. Desperado takes the country-rock blend that the Eagles had already perfected on their self-titled debut and applies it to a selection of songs about the Old West. Many of the songs are filled with sadness about lost romance and bygone times (“Saturday Night”, “Tequila Sunrise”). The outlaws of the West are addressed in “Outlaw Man” and the title song.
5. Queen II — Queen (1974)
Although Queen’s second album does not have a clear story line, the songs on the album are unified by their subject matter — fairies, ogres, and magical lands. It was divided into a Side White (featuring the “White Queen”) and a Side Black (containing the “March of the Black Queen”).
Queen II refined the stacked vocals and guitars that would become a Queen trademark, and it was Queen’s first album to chart in the U.K. Their next album, Sheer Heart Attack, would make them international superstars with the hit “Killer Queen.”
6. Eldorado — Electric Light Orchestra (1974)
The driving force behind the Electric Light Orchestra, Jeff Lynne, conceived the plot of Eldorado before writing the music for the album. It traces a dream journey to other worlds to escape a drab reality. The album includes an overture and a finale, and it gave E.L.O. their first top 10 single, “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head.”
Eldorado was the album that synthesized the E.L.O. sound, perfecting the mix of rock and strings that formed the basis for their previous three albums. This time around, E.L.O. was accompanied by a large string orchestra.
7. Good Old Boys — Randy Newman (1974)
Singer-songwriter Randy Newman began his fifth album as a character study about a Southern “good old boy” named Johnny Cutler. By the time Good Old Boys was completed, Newman had shifted the concept to portray multiple viewpoints about the South rather than a single character’s. Newman maintains a send of humor about his Southern rednecks without criticizing them (“Rednecks,” “Kingfish,” “Birmingham”). He can also make the listener sympathize with his characters in moving songs, such as “Marie,” “Guilty,” and “Louisiana 1927.” Newman’s lovely arrangements conjure up the feel of sitting on an Alabama porch drinking a beer.
8. Welcome To My Nightmare — Alice Cooper (1975)
Alice Cooper was the name of a band until lead singer Vincent Furnier adopted the character’s name and used it to release his first solo album, Welcome To My Nightmare. The concept album centered around the nightmares of a child. All the songs were co-written by Cooper.
Nightmare contains the hard-edged rock that Cooper is known for, as well as his macabre humor on songs like “Cold Ethyl” (about necrophilia) and “Department of Youth” (about juvenile delinquents). Producer Bob Ezrin, who also produced most of Cooper’s earlier albums, adds orchestral colors to several songs. For the first time, Cooper reveals a softer side on the hit single “Only Women Bleed,” a #1 single in Canada and a #12 in the U.S. The album also features a guest appearance by Vincent Price (who else?!?).
Cooper would release a sequel, Welcome to My Nightmare 2, in 2011.
9. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy — Elton John (1975)
In 1975, Elton John was coming off a string of hit albums and a bestselling Greatest Hits. Working with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, John revisited his early history, creating Captain Fantastic, the story of John and Taupin’s years as struggling songwriters.
The piano-driven songs roughly cover the years between 1967 and 1969 when John (the Captain) and Taupin (the Brown Dirt Cowboy) were starving songwriters for hire. “Bitter Fingers,” “Writing,” “(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket,” and other songs portray the duo’s trials and tribulations on their road to success. The album’s only single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” tells the true story of John’s attempted suicide to avoid marrying his then-girlfriend.
John and Taupin would continue their story on the excellent 2006 album, The Captain & The Kid.
10. Animals — Pink Floyd (1977)
Pink Floyd became rock legends largely based on their concept albums, including 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon and 1979s The Wall. In between, they released Animals, a concept album loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It features some of Floyd’s most complex compositions and some of their darkest lyrics.
Animals contained three extended songs — “Sheep,” “Dogs,” and “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” — bookended by the acoustic “Pigs On The Wing.” Floyd’s Roger Waters paints a gloomy portrait of the evil forces in society, including the power-hungry dogs and the capitalist pigs that prey on the mindless sheep. Waters returned again and again to these themes even after he left Pink Floyd (see 15. Amused to Death).
11. Joe’s Garage — Frank Zappa (1979)
Since his debut with 1967’s Freak Out, Frank Zappa often focused on tying an album’s songs together lyrically and musically. He even carried musical themes and lyrical references from album to album, treating his entire oeuvre as an extended musical composition.
In 1979, Zappa created a three-act story and spread it across two albums — Joe’s Garage. In Joe’s Garage, music is outlawed or controlled by the government and its “Central Scrutinizer.” The garage band singer that rehearses in the album’s title track is soon exposed to scheming groupies (“Crew Slut”), a religious cult (“A Token of My Extreme”), and incompetent rock critics (“Packard Goose”).
Like all Zappa albums, Joe’s Garage features its share of crude and offensive lyrics alongside virtuoso guitar work and elaborate arrangements crossing many musical styles. The performance of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta on Garage was ranked as one of the top 25 greatest drumming performances of all time by Modern Drummer. Zappa’s son Dweezil lists the instrumental “Watermelon in Easter Hay” as his father’s best guitar solo.
(Six years after the release of Joe’s Garage, the central premise of the album took one step towards reality with the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center which sought increased parental control over children’s access to music by labeling albums with “inappropriate” content. That year, Zappa went to Capitol Hill to fight the “central scrutinizers” of the P.M.R.C.)
12. Deface the Music — Utopia (1980)
And now for something completely different! Todd Rundgren has always acknowledged The Beatles’ influence on his music. He even released note-for-note covers of “Rain” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” on his solo album Faithful. With Deface the Music, Rundgren joined the other three members of Utopia in paying homage to the Beatles’ canon through songs that mimicked The Beatles’ style — from their earliest hits through their studio years.
“I Just Want to Touch You” sounds like a slightly more risqué version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” “Take It Home” is based around an inverted “Day Tripper” riff. “Life Goes On” references the string arrangement for “Eleanor Rigby.” And “Everybody Else Is Wrong” conjures up the production of “I Am The Walrus.”
On each of Deface the Music’s 13 songs, Utopia gets as close as they can to The Beatles without succumbing to plagiarism. Whereas it’s fun to try and determine what songs Utopia is referencing, the songs and performances on Deface the Music are an enjoyable listen even if you’ve never heard of The Beatles.
13. Computer World — Kraftwerk (1981)
Leave it to Kraftwerk to create a concept album that addresses the role of computers within society. The band which helped pioneer electronic “Krautrock” employs its sterile synths, electronic drums, and vocoded vocals to songs like “Computer World,” “Pocket Calculator,” and “Computer Love.” The lyrics aren’t earth-shaking (“I’m the operator/With my pocket calculator”), but one can’t help but see the humor in the band’s emotionless take on these humorless machines.
14. Skylarking — XTC (1986)
Speaking of Todd Rundgren, it was Rundgren acting as a producer who chose from a selection of thirty-five songs to create XTC’s song cycle for a summer’s day, Skylarking. XTC’s Andy Partridge described Skylarking as a “cycle of something: a day or a year, with the seasons, or a life. It’s a cycle of starting, aging, dying, and starting again.”Listening to Skylarking, one can picture a hot summer’s day lying in the grass (“Summer’s Cauldron”, “Grass”) with a brief interruption of rain (“Ballet for a Rainy Day,” “1000 Umbrellas”). The band ruminates on lost loves (“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”) and the struggles of the working man (“Earn Enough for Us”). Ultimately, the cycle comes to a conclusion with death (“Dying”) and rebirth (“Sacrificial Bonfire”). Each of the album’s fourteen tracks is a perfect pop song, expertly performed and arranged by Rundgren and XTC.
By the accounts of the participants, the recording sessions were contentious, especially between Partridge and Rundgren. Despite and maybe because of this, the resulting album is one of XTC’s best and one of the greatest albums of the 1980s.
15. Amused to Death — Roger Waters (1992)
Amused to Death was Roger Waters’ third concept album after leaving Pink Floyd and becoming a solo artist. This time around, the concept is the mind controlling affect of television, specifically television news as entertainment. The song cycle is loosely based on Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death.
On Amused, Waters references recent events, including the 1986 US bombing of Libya (“Late Home Tonight, Part 1”) and the 1989 Democracy protests in Tiananmen Square (“Watching TV”). Most disturbing is “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard” which tells the true story of a World War I soldier forced to abandon his dying comrade on the battlefield.
Waters’ lyrics can feel overly preachy at times as he continues the scathing critique of war that he began on the Pink Floyd albums The Wall and The Final Cut. Although the music is well arranged and produced, the songs are in need of Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s melodic influence that were so critical to those earlier albums. Nevertheless, Waters considers Amused to Death to be one of his three classic albums, the others being The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.
16. Kamakiriad — Donald Fagen (1993)
Donald Fagen’s first three solo albums were each devoted to a period of life. 1982’s The Nightfly focused on youth. 2006’s Morph the Cat concentrated on old age. In between, there was 1993’s Kamakiriad about middle age. It contained the clearest storyline among the three releases.
Kamakiriad takes places in the future as the protagonist drives his futuristic automobile (his Kamakiriad) across the “Trans-Island Skyway.” Along the way, he visits a futuristic theme park (“Springtime”), a high-tech music club (“Teahouse On the Tracks”), and a private sex club (“Tomorrow’s Girls”).
Kamakiriad features a large ensemble (more than thirty musicians perform on the album). Its blend of hooky melodies, smirking vocals, bouncy piano, precision drumming, and jazzy horns stand proudly alongside Fagen’s other solo recordings and those with his band, Steely Dan.
These two stylistically different concept albums both revolve around letters. The first, Costello’s The Julliet Letters, pairs the singer with the Brodsky string quartet. The artists had met two years prior and struck up a friendship. Eventually, they decided to create an album of chamber songs with a common theme. Costello based his lyrics around imaginary letters sent to an imaginary recipient, Juliet Capulet. The Brodskies participated in the lyric writing, as well as the music and arrangements. The resulting album, recorded live in the studio, is one of the more successful collaborations between a “rock” artist and a “classical” combo.
This wouldn’t be an Elvis Costello album without Costello’s biting lyrics (“Swine,” “Who Do You Think You Are?”) and jaded commentary on love and relationships (“Taking My Life In Your Hands,” “For Other Eyes”). The string arrangements range from jaunty (“Jacksons, Monk and Rowe”) to the beautifully moving (“The First to Leave,” “The Birds Will Still Be Singing”).
When Carly Simon discovered a box of old letters in her attic, she came up with the idea of using these “letters never sent” as the theme of her next album, Letters Never Sent. After the title song sets the scene, Simon takes us through letters written to lovers lost (“Born to Break My Heart”) and found (“Lost In Your Love”). “Touched By The Sun” addresses her friendship to fellow Martha’s Vineyard resident Jackie Onassis, who passed away from cancer as the album was being recorded. “Like A River” is for Simon’s mother. The songs, some of the best Simon has written, feature hooky arrangements performed by a cast of musicians that include members of Simon’s own family.
19. The Downward Spiral — Nine Inch Nails (1994)
The Downward Spiral is one of the most depressing and fatalistic concept albums on this list. The industrial rock of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails is used to trace the story of one man’s “downward spiral.” Dark and disturbing, the songs cover self-abuse (“Mr. Self Destruct”), disease (“Ruiner”), sex (“Closer”), drugs (“Hurt”), and suicide (“The Downward Spiral”). Reznor famously worked on the album while living in the house in which Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson.
The music on Spiral, combining heavy metal and hard rock with techno and electronica, would be an influence on many other musicians, such as David Bowie and Marilyn Manson. Spiral also contains elements of progressive rock, including unusual time signatures and complex song structures. Reznor’s vocals are like nails (nine inch nails?) on a chalkboard — a good thing in this context. Of special note are the expressive guitar parts of virtuoso guitarist Adrian Belew.
20. On Air — Alan Parsons (1996)
Producer/engineer Alan Parsons’ “Project” featured a rotating cast of singers and musicians brought together to record the songs that Parsons wrote with his collaborator Eric Woolfson. The Project debuted with 1976’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a song cycle based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Each of the group’s other nine albums was based around a specific concept from gambling (The Turn Of A Friendly Card) to the strengths of women (Eve) to the work of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi (Gaudi).
Parsons continued on as a solo artist, releasing several additional concept albums, including 1996’s On Air. The subject this time was the history of flight. The album moves from the story of Daedalus and Icarus (“Too Close to the Sun”) to outer space (“So Far Away”) which includes an excerpt from Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech declaring his goal of landing on the moon. In between is the moving song “Brother Up In Heaven” about guitarist’s Ian Bairnson’s cousin who died in a friendly fire incident in Iraq in 1994.
21. Snow — Spock’s Beard (2002)
Spock’s Beard may be less well-known than other progressive rock bands, but their music mirrors the complexity and virtuosity of their more senior counterparts. On their 2002 album, Snow, Spock’s Beard applies their lush, melodic arrangements and multi-part vocal harmonies to the story of the messianic albino protagonist, Snow.
Snow, a “working man’s son” with healing powers, leaves home for New York City (“Stranger In A Strange Land”) where he has a series of disturbing interactions with a Harlem Knight (“Welcome to NYC”), a prostitute (“The 39th Street Blues (I’m Sick)”), and a homeless man (“Solitary Soul”). He finds love (“Carie”) and loses it (“Freak Boy”). As he declines into poverty and madness, Snow ends up homeless himself and near death before friends arrive to rescue him (“Wind At My Back”).
Snow was the sixth studio album by Spock’s Beard and the last one before their main songwriter and vocalist Neal Morse left the band.
22. The Rising — Bruce Springsteen (2002)
As a musician, how do you take the complicated emotional experience of the September 11 tragedy and put it into song? If you’re Bruce Springsteen, you create The Rising, a poignant look at the tragedy from multiple angles. The 2002 album marked the return of the E Street Band after a long hiatus, and they pull off some of their best performances accompanied by additional vocalists, horns, strings, and drum loops. “Lonesome Day,” “Empty Sky,” “You’re Missing,” and “My City of Ruins” directly address the attack and its impact. Other songs, such as the title song, show Springsteen looking towards a brighter future.
Springsteen got the idea for The Rising when a passing fan called out to Springsteen soon after 9/11 saying, “We need you now.” We did, and Springsteen delivered.
23. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — Outkast (2003)
After the release of Outkast’s 2000 album, Stankonia, the duo of Big Boi and André 3000 decided to work on solo projects. As their individual work proceeded, they ultimately decided to combine their efforts into a single concept album under the Outkast name. The result paired Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx with André 3000’s The Love Below. Both albums address the emotional complexity of love (and sex) along with other social issues with arrangements that effortlessly mix musical styles from jazz to hip hop to rock. The intricately arranged album is sprinkled with introductions and interludes, creating two musical suites — one for each “side.”
Speakerboxxx is built on Southern hip hop crossed with old school rave (“Ghetto Musick”), swing (“Bowtie”), and electro (“Flip Flop Rock”). Speakerboxxx is the more political of the two CDs with Big Boi addressing war (“War”) and single parenting (“The Rooster”). Big Boi is helped along with cameos from Jay Z, CeeLo Green, and Ludacris, among others.
The Love Below is the schmaltzier of the two CDs and features André 3000 putting on his sexy Prince imitation for songs like “Roses” and “Take Off Your Cool” (a duet with Norah Jones). There’s also plenty of room for André to get down and dirty (“She Lives In My Lap”), and he “shake[s] it like a Polaroid picture” in the top five single “Hey Ya.”
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is one of hip hop’s most creative albums, shifting styles effortlessly from song to song and even in the midst of songs. It has received numerous awards and accolades, including a Grammy for Album of the Year and a number one ranking on Newsweek’s best albums of the decade.
24. American Doll Posse — Tori Amos (2007)
Tori Amos is a unique pianist, vocalist, and songwriter with a distinct and characteristic sound. 2007’s American Doll Posse is one of her most unusual albums, and one of the strangest albums on this list.
Amos creates a song cycle exploring many of her favorite themes — sex, religion, and female empowerment. She performs these songs in the guise of five distinct personalities. There is Isabel, the photographer and observer; Pip, the warrior woman; Santa, the sensual one; Clyde, the emotionally scarred but idealistic woman; and Tori, a stylized version of the artist. Each personality is given her own songs to sing, and Amos delivers them all with her characteristically emotional vocals and her virtuoso keyboard playing. Amos even carried the concept beyond the album’s songs, dressing up as the five characters for the album cover and developing separate online blogs for each.
Unlike past albums where Amos would bring the band in later in the recording process, this time Amos involved her band from the early stages of recording. The resulting album is more band-oriented that Amos’ previous efforts. Singles from the album include “Tori”’s “Big Wheel” and “Clyde”’s “Bouncing Off Clouds.”
Monáe’s music defies characterization, incorporating funk, soul, jazz, classical, psychedelia, and hard rock. The songs are hooky and danceable, and many feature guest artists. Several have become successful singles, including ArchAndroid’s “Tightrope” (featuring Big Boi) and “Cold War,” and Electric Lady’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” (featuring Erykah Badu). Prince even makes an appearance on the song “Givin’ Em What They Love” from Electric Lady.
28. 50 Words for Snow — Kate Bush (2011)
Kate Bush’s most recent album is a song cycle about snow, 50 Words for Snow. It features seven songs, including the title track (which does indeed include fifty words for snow!). “Snowflake” is written from the point of view of a falling snowflake. “Lake Tahoe” describes a Victorian ghost with a dog named “Snowflake.” The album ends with the beautiful “Among Angels” in which Bush appears to be comforting a friend by getting him to recognize the angels (snow angels?) surrounding him.
Bush’s haunting piano and lovely soprano are backed by peaceful arrangements that call to mind a snowy day. The album includes guest appearances by Elton John, actor Stephen Fry, and veteran studio drummer Steve Gadd.
29. Drones — Muse (2015)
Muse’s most recent concept album takes on the use of drones in warfare — drones as emotionless robots (“The Handler”), as well as dehumanized soldiers acting like “drones” (“Psycho”). As the album progresses, the soldier at its core defects (“Defector”) and ultimately rejects war (“Revolt”). Drones is a powerful album, musically and lyrically, and it rocks hard with Matthew Bellamy’s operatic vocals and and distorted guitars, Dominic Howard’s heart-pounding drumming, and Chris Wolstenholme’s earth-rumbling bass.
30. Vulnicura — Björk (2015)
With her complexly layered vocal stylings, unusual instrumentation, and strange lyrics, Icelandic singer/songwriter Björk is an acquired taste. Yet, even her detractors should recognize the brilliance of her latest album, Vulnicura.
Vulnicura traces the end of Bjork’s relationship with American artist Matthew Barney, as well as its aftermath. Each song is dated and tied to a specific period of the artists’ relationship. The album is filled with emotionally raw lyrics — from the beginning of the breakup in “Stonemilker” to the lovers’ last physical contact in “History of Touches.” Björk reaches her low point in “Black Lake,” and starts the healing process in the album’s closer, “Quicksand.”
Like most of Björk’s other work, Vulnicura features unusual instruments and electronics with many compositions created by blending electronic beats with the songwriter’s string arrangements.
31. Lemonade — Beyoncé (2016)
When Beyoncé premiered her new single “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl, few anticipated that it would be part of a critically-acclaimed concept album, Lemonade. Lemonade deserves all of its great reviews. Musically, it combines hip hop and rock, country and gospel. Several guest artists contribute to the album, including Jack White (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), Kendrick Lamar (“Freedom”), and James Blake (“Forward”).
Although the tabloids have tied Lemonade’s theme to the contentious relationship between Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z, Lemonade is really about the trials and tribulations of women — black women in particular. Beyoncé stands in for all women as she journeys through stages of betrayal (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) and loss (“Sandcastles”), sex (“6 Inch”) and romance (“Love Drought”), revenge (“Daddy Lessons’) and reconciliation (“All Night”). Lemonade was released with a powerful video containing the complete album along with additional narration by Queen Bey.
We’d like to give a shout out to musician and CultureSonar contributor Ken Hymes who has just released a concept album of his own, Box in the Attic. It’s a similar concept to Carly Simon’s Letters Never Sent — in this case, it’s a box of discovered objects rather than letters that are the inspiration for Hymes’ songs. However, unlike Simon’s album, Box in the Attic uses the found objects as a starting point to tell a story of a middle class man from birth to death. Along the way, it addresses falling in love (“First Sight”), child-rearing (“I Am Broken”), grief (“Lift the Stone”), and old age (“Old Dogs”).
Hymes’ relatively short songs (they rarely crack the three minute mark) are all connected, creating a single suite filled with great melodies, creative arrangements, and luscious harmonies and vocals.
Box in the Attic is an enjoyable listen and a worthy addition to this list.