A Brief History of the Concept Album: From Woody Guthrie, to the Beatles and Pink Floyd, to Taylor Swift

Though Sgt. Pep­per’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band holds some­thing of an hon­orary cul­tur­al posi­tion as “the first con­cept album,” the Bea­t­les them­selves did­n’t hear it that way. The term “con­cept album,” as defined by Poly­phon­ic host Noah Lefevre in his new video above, denotes “a set of tracks which hold a larg­er mean­ing when togeth­er than apart, usu­al­ly achieved through adher­ence to a cen­tral theme.” Despite being one of the finest col­lec­tions of songs com­mit­ted to a sin­gle vinyl disc in the nine­teen-six­ties, Sgt. Pep­per’s does — apart from its open­ing and clos­ing tracks — reflect few pains tak­en to assure a the­mat­ic uni­ty.

Oth­er con­tenders for the first con­cept album, in Lefevre’s telling, include Woody Guthrie’s 1940 Dust Bowl Bal­lads, Frank Sina­tra’s 1955 In the Wee Small Hours, John­ny Cash’s 1959 Songs of Our Soil, and The Ven­tures’ 1964 The Ven­tures in Space. Part of the ques­tion of des­ig­na­tion has to do with tech­nol­o­gy: we asso­ciate the album with the twelve-inch long-play­ing record, which did­n’t come on the mar­ket until 1948. (Dust Bowl Bal­lads had to sprawl across two 78 rpm three-disc sets.)

And even then, it was almost two decades before the LP “caught on as the default for­mat for musi­cal releas­es, allow­ing musi­cians to have more scope and vision for their albums” — that, thanks to expan­sive gate­fold sleeves, could lit­er­al­ly be made vis­i­ble. There began what I’ve come to think of as the hero­ic era of the album as an art form.

This era was marked by releas­es like The Moth­ers of Inven­tion’s Freak Out!, The Who’s Tom­my, Mar­vin Gaye’s What’s Going On, David Bowie’s Zig­gy Star­dust and the Spi­ders from Mars, Pink Floy­d’s The Dark Side of the Moon and lat­er The Wall. “The sev­en­ties were a gold­en age for the con­cept album,” Lefevre adds. “It was a time when musi­cians had the space and bud­get to exper­i­ment, and when new tech­nolo­gies were push­ing music into entire­ly unex­pect­ed places.” Par­tial­ly demol­ished by punk and majes­ti­cal­ly revived by hip-hop, the con­cept album remains a viable form today, essayed by major twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry pop artists from The Week­nd and Kendrick Lamar to Tay­lor Swift and BTS — none of whom have quite man­aged to cap­ture the entire zeit­geist in the man­ner of Sgt. Pep­per’s, grant­ed, but cer­tain­ly not for lack of try­ing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Pink Floyd Built The Wall: The Album, Tour & Film

How Pat­ti Smith “Saved” Rock and Roll: A New Video Makes the Case

When David Bowie & Bri­an Eno Made a Twin Peaks-Inspired Album, Out­side (1995)

Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 50: Hear It Get Psy­cho­an­a­lyzed by Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniel Lev­itin

What Makes a Cov­er Song Great?: Our Favorites & Yours

The True Mean­ing of Queen’s Rock Epic “Bohemi­an Rhap­sody”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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