The 25 Best Concept Albums Of All-Time

25. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son – Iron Maiden (1988)

Fueled by hits “Can I Play with Madness,” “The Evil That Men Do” and “The Clairvoyant,” Maiden delves into the world of conceptual music. The folkloric theme of the album also offers a somewhat more progressive sound praised by most critics, but also panned by hardcore fans of the band. Still, the album debuted at No. 1 in the United Kingdom.

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24. Illinois – Sufjan Stevens (2005)

Widely considered one of the best albums to come out in 2005, it was Stevens’ second state-themed release (Michigan came out two years earlier). The release was lauded for its overall orchestration and Stevens’ progression as a songwriter. Songs like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr. and “The Seer’s Tower” shine as Stevens takes listens on a tour of the Land of Lincoln. Simultaneously, he touches on subjects like religion and morality.

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23. The Black Parade – My Chemical Romance (2006)

Not many bands of the pop-Emo persuasion had the chops to pull off something conceptual. However, the New Jersey quintet managed to do just that on one of 2006’s finest efforts. The story of a terminally ill cancer patient looks at everything from death, reflection and even the afterlife. Front man Gerard Way’s dramatic (and at times haunting) voice plays well with the theme — especially on the powerful “Welcome to the Black Parade” and semi-political but catchy “Teenagers.”

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22. Operation: Mindcrime – Queensrÿche (1988)

Perhaps the most recognizable metal concept record out there, Mindcrime set the Seattle progressive-rock/metal outfit apart from its peers. An intelligent and fascinating piece of work, the story centers around a recovering addict, Nikki, and his involvement with a revolutionary organization. The incredible range of Geoff Tate’s voice only adds to the overall excellence of the album. It produced hits “Eyes of a Stranger” and “I Don’t Believe in Love.”

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21. Welcome to My Nightmare – Alice Cooper (1975)

Technically Cooper’s first solo project, the effort follows a young boy named Steven through his series of nightmares. In Cooper fashion, the musical imagery was macabre at its best while the supporting tour was even more grand. The title track is perhaps the most well-known cut off the album, but the ballad “Only Women Bleed,” takes Cooper vocally (though successfully) out of his element.

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20. Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory – Dream Theater (1999)

It just seems everything about this pro-metal band is conceptual. With that said, Dream Theater made it official with their fifth studio release — the sequel to its 1992 song “Metropolis Part I: The Miracle and the Sleeper.” In a 2012 Rolling Stone poll, it was voted the No. 1 prog rock album ever. It’s an often hypnotic and twisted journey set to Dream Theater’s grandiose sound. It comes courtesy of John Petrucci’s exemplary guitar work, and Mike Portnoy’s technical genius behind the drum kit.

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19. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks (1968)

Though not one of the legendary band’s most commercially successful works, it’s regarded by many critics as perhaps The Kinks’ best overall effort. It is leader Ray Davies’ ode to old England, its traditions, and way of life. Gems include the blues-inspired “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” and the uneasy “Animal Farm.”

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18. Songs for the Deaf – Queens of the Stone Age (2002)

With Dave Grohl on drums, the Josh Homme-led QOTSA take listeners on a unique and creative driving trip through a California desert while listening to the radio — complete with interspersed DJ chatter. The high-octane “No One Knows” remains one of the band’s most popular tracks. The album also features several guest appearances such as Dean Ween and Billy Corgan disciple Paz Lenchantin.

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17. 2112 – Rush (1976)

Devoted Rush fans debate whether this truly is a concept album. Maybe it’s more like a futuristic journey for the mind – and definitely the ears. It features the seven-part title track opus that on vinyl takes up the entire first side. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson provide the music while drummer Neil Peart is responsible for most of the lyrics.

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16. Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull (1972)

A concept album that pokes fun at the idea of the concept album. It works on both fronts. The record is one long piece of music, split into two parts. The band’s frontman and famed flutist Ian Anderson wrote the lyrics under the guise of the young Gerald Bostock. A commercial smash, radio stations edited the album to fit their formats. It’s widely considered Anderson and Tull’s most progressive work.

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15. Dust Bowl Ballads – Woody Guthrie (1940)

When discussing conceptual works of music, why not start at the beginning. Or at least, what many critics believe is the first concept album. It remains Guthrie’s most popular release and an inspiration to current music giants like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The legendary Guthrie takes moments from his own life during the time of the Dust Bowl and puts them into songs like “Dusty Old Dust” and “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues” in a way only he could.

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14. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire (2010)

Another release that blurs the line of conception, but certainly is telling a story. In this case, the album is about the lives of the Butler brothers growing up in suburban Houston. The album speaks of vulnerability, aggression, heartbreak and at times indifference that encompasses anybody who has ever lived on a tree-lined street within a stone’s throw of another needless strip mall. From the brooding “Rococo” to the brilliant, but subtly angst-filled “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), it’s easy to understand why it won the Grammy for Album of the Year.

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13. American Gangster – Jay Z (2007)

This is the album that many felt gave a boost to Jay-Z’s career. Inspired by the movie of the same name, the release debuted at No. 1. With rap giants Lil Wayne and Nas chiming in, American Gangster is raw, yet in true Jay-Z form, polished for commercial success. In addition to Jay-Z’s back-to-business performance, the tale of making it big on the wrong side of the law is perfectly depicted in the nostalgic “Blue Magic” and big-band feel of “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)….”

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12. Joe’s Garage – Frank Zappa (1979)

At the time, Zappa was both lauded and criticized for this ambitious three-act effort. Today, it’s likely nobody would be turning their heads at Zappa’s occasionally controversial story about a society in which music is banned. Considered one of his best works, what sometimes gets lost among eye catching titles like “Crew Slut” and “Keep it Greasey” is what an amazing musician Zappa was. That all comes out on Joe’s Garage.

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11. Good kid, m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar (2012)

Lamar’s major-label debut featured plenty of big-name support, as the likes of Dr. Dre and Pharrell Williams lent their talent to the production. Lamar’s honest and uncensored story of life in Compton earned the rapper four Grammy nominations. The Dre-aided single “The Recipe” and “Backseat Freestyle” showcase Lamar’s genius as a storyteller.

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10. American Idiot – Green Day (2004)

The career of the East Bay area pop-punkers was pretty much revived with their seventh studio album. Inspired by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s disenchantment with the U.S. government and his overall feeling of dysfunction throughout the country, the work showed a mature side of the band that some critics never felt possible. Thanks to the title track, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” Holiday” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” American Idiot sold 16 million copies. The band ultimately won the Grammy for Best Rock Album. It was later adapted into a Broadway musical.

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9. The Wall – Pink Floyd (1979)

The brainchild of bassist Roger Waters, the over-the-top project follows the fictitious Pink — a burned-out rock star based partially on Waters’ own self and that of late leader Syd Barrett. The album is one of the most popular concept projects ever. Despite its overall pretentiousness, it spawned some of the Floyd’s most well-known hits: “Comfortably Numb,” “Run Like Hell,” and the famed anthem “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II).” It sat atop the Billboard 200 for 15 weeks, and led to a film version starring Bob Geldof.

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8. The Downward Spiral – Nine Inch Nails (1994)

It’s the album that made NIN mainstream stars thanks to hits “Closer” and “Hurt.” Trent Reznor’s tale of personal destruction relates to some issues in the band leader’s own life. With that said, it’s still superbly produced for commercial success and critical acclaim. Considered one of the best releases of the 1990s, The Downward Spiral has been an inspiration to bands like Stabbing Westward and Filter.

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7. Quadrophenia – The Who (1973)

The Who’s second conceptual endeavor produced radio favorites “The Real Me” and “Love, Reign o’er Me.” This is the baby of Pete Townsend, who composed the entire story of a young mod trying to find his place in 1960s London. While Tommy had more of a pop feel, Quadrophenia makes the listener dig deeper to appreciate the band’s overall maturity as musicians.

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6. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (1971)

Casual pop fans know Gaye’s nine-song masterpiece for classics “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me” (The Ecology). But the one-into-the-next flow of the record truly allows Gaye’s talent as a storyteller to come out. He touches on everything from war to poverty to injustice. While it’s considered Gaye’s best work musically, it might also be one of the most important records of all-time from a social standpoint.

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5. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – Genesis (1974)

Peter Gabriel’s final album as the band’s frontman is by far Genesis’ most insightful work. Telling the story of a young boy experiencing life in New York City, Gabriel helped take Genesis to new heights in its popularity. With that said, the overall process for the band was a chore. Gabriel was estranged from the rest of the group during the writing of the record, and tensions ran deep. Still, the end result is one of conceptual brilliance.

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4. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie (1972)

Though not entirely a concept album in the traditional sense of the term, Ziggy Stardust brilliantly describes Bowie’s androgynous, space-aged alter-ego. Fueled by the glam-rock, the album was the defining moment in Bowie’s career. It was inducted into the National Recording Registry for works deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

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3. Tommy – The Who (1969)

The rock opera about a “deaf, dumb and blind boy” was a breakthrough for the band. The album still resonates in popular culture almost 50 years later though radio play, stage productions and the cult-classic film version. It spawned two of The Who’s biggest hits in “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me.” Its central theme has remained rather inclusive over the years, thus maintaining its appeal.

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2. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles (1967)

A four-time Grammy winner, this is a perfect example of the Beatles’ maturity as writers, composers and overall musicians. The classic finale “A Day in the Life,” is an example of how a song longer than usual in duration can still be keep the listener involved. In the role of alter-egos Sgt. Peppers Band, the Beatles combine their pop styles with conceptual ideas in art and culture. From memorable gems “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the Ringo-fronted “With a Little Help from My Friends” to the design and album artwork, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is as conceptual a ride as they come.

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1. Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys (1966)

What often has been attributed as a solo project of leader Brian Wilson, Pet Sounds is praised as an innovator for the way concept albums would be interpreted going forward. Wilson took the Beach Boys’ signature pop sound and made it more progressive — and even psychedelic at times. The group experimented with unique sounds and musical accompaniment. Tracks like “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows,” are timeless Beach Boys gems. These songs remain as examples of how one can simply listen, enjoy and appreciate pop music without having to cut a rug.

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