Concept Album: An album unified by a larger purpose or meaning to the album collectively than to its tracks individually. This may be achieved through a single central narrative or theme, or through a sense of artistic cohesiveness.
If you know me very well, or if you've looked around and read the literature on this site, this definition of concept album may seem familiar to you. It easily fits into my personal definition of art (or, at least, art that excites me), that is, it presents concept albums as musical projects that somehow mean more than the sum of their individual tracks. A unifying concept can elevate even the lamest collection of tracks from "pile of crap" to "impressive and ambitious pile of crap", but when a carefully thought out concept is paired with a collection of tracks made with love or hate or talent, the result can transcend great music to become a great Experience. This means that concept album projects are projects brimming with the artistic potential to be something curiously more than cumulative. With that said, it should come as no surprise that-
1. My Favorite Albums Are Concept Albums
A few of my favorite concept albums include- "American Idiot" by Greenday, "We Don't Have Each Other" by Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, "Colors" by House of Heroes, and "The Black Parade" by My Chemical Romance, I could go on. Each of those records, and many more, continue to inspire me every day in my creative work and have never lost their feeling-triggering potency. Obviously those albums reflect my own personal taste, but the tradition of musical projects based on big ideas has been popular for a long time all across the genre spectrum. Just look at "Gideon" by Kenny Rodgers or "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the Beatles.
I love music with big ideas. Music with stories and music with themes. If you were to ask me why I love this kind of music I could give you some long, complex answer about sensory stimulation and other concepts that I have about a %30 percent understanding of, but the short answer (and the real answer) is simply this; "I love grand music because it makes me feel grand things".
To be perfectly honest, I think I might actually be addicted to feeling things through music. So, while I can certainly enjoy a thought-tickling hook and chorus combo, or a catchy single on the radio, when I get the urge to satisfy my cravings and listen to some music, I need to feel a lot. And, in my personal experience, the best way to get my musical feelings fix is by sitting back, closing my eyes, and turning on a musical experience.
2. "Concept Albums = Patterns = Enjoyment"
Speaking of addiction, there is a reason why I'm not alone in my appreciation of concept albums. Humans are addicted to narratives. We are wired for stories. Patterns are the opiate of the masses.
Patterns are behind nearly every facet of the human experience. Our brains are the best super computers ever made, able to efficiently process outrageous amounts of information and primed to pick out patterns. Due to our sense of patterns, we are able to learn language, we are able to solve crimes, we are even able to establish a relatively universal sense of aesthetic.
Our idea of beauty comes from our sense of patterns. Snowflakes, leaves, coastlines, wagon wheels etc, all pop with delightful symmetry or titillating geometry. We are such pattern junkies that we see patterns even when they aren't there! Just try finding a petting zoo on a popcorn ceiling or dragons in the clouds.
We find music beautiful because it is brimming with patterns. Tempo, beat, rhythm, and rhyme. No matter our musical tastes, from slow-jazz to death metal and folk songs to trap-step, our brains delight in the sheer "unrandomness" that is music. It is our love of patterns that compels us to harmonize with wind chimes and rap along with our turn signals.
Similarly, narratives are types of patterns whereby events are seen through a lens of cause and effect relationships and often arranged in linear orders. Narratives are how we edit our lives so we can keep track of what we've done through memories, and communicate what we've done through stories. Just like visual patterns and musical arrangements, our brains enjoy narratives so much that we can find them in nearly anything and create them out of nearly nothing.
Check out this video of 4 shapes that'll make you cry like the first 15 minutes of a Pixar movie.
And so, if your brain's question is "How can I get the most pattern bang for my buck?" look no further than the concept album! Chock full of melodies, narratives, vitamins, and minerals! Even if it sucks, it'll suck in an interesting way!
3. Concept Albums Give Me Distance
Finally, I write concept albums so I can see myself. I've always heard writers telling other writers to "write what they know". Writers take what they feel and put it into patterns in the hopes that someone somewhere might feel the same way, or simply for the pure joy of expression in the pursuit of being known. For me, this process has always been like trying to see the tip of my nose. I know I have ideas, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and if I squint and wiggle I can almost catch a glimpse, but I've never been able to see them dead-on, I'm too close. Concept albums are my mirror.
I don't write my songs, I write characters that write my songs. Once my character has written their thoughts and feelings, I am free to disagree with them. I am free to argue or empathize. I am free to form my own thoughts on ideas and feelings that obviously came from somewhere inside of me, but are now separated from me and reflected back to me through layer upon layer of metaphor, symbolism, and good, old-fashioned imagination.
What about you? What are your "patterns of choice"? How do you figure out how you feel? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Until next time,