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Concept albums are hip again

The format, long maligned, starts a comeback as several bands write rock operas to tell thematic stories.

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 2004

A surprising mix of bands is attempting a fresh revival of the concept album. The idea of creating records in which each song formed part of an overarching, themed narrative was fashionable among artists such as David Bowie, Jethro Tull, and the Alan Parsons Project in the 1970s. But the arrival of punk consigned the likes of Yes's 1973 opus, "Tales of Topographic Oceans," to the bargain bins of history.

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Oddly enough, it's a punk band that's among the raft of new concept albums. Green Day, the punk outfit renowned for cramming its sneering adolescent viewpoint into three-minute pop anthems, has just released "American Idiot," a rock opera about two central characters, St. Jimmy and Jesus of Suburbia.

Other new concept albums include Camper Van Beethoven's "New Roman Times," Elvis Costello's "The Delivery Man," and Brian Wilson's "Smile," a rejiggered version of an album Wilson conceived 37 years ago as a member of The Beach Boys but later scrapped. Beyond those works, Aimee Mann is at work on a themed album of her own, while Neil Young, British hip-hop import The Streets, the Drive-By Truckers, and Lou Reed have all released concept albums since 2001.

The albums represent, perhaps, a mini rebellion against a musical era dominated by iPods and single-song computer downloads. In a time when many believe that listening to an entire album is passé, these artists are rediscovering the novelty of telling a long story over the course of a record.

"This might be a case of artists starting to ask themselves what makes an album an interesting thing," says Alan Light, editor in chief at Tracks magazine. "We're in a time when people are pulling down a song here and a song there, and this might be a way for some artists to explore the album as more than a collection of individual songs."

The concept album, like so many other pop trends, was popularized by the Beatles. Other groups, including the Beach Boys, may have toyed with the notion of unified albums earlier, but it wasn't until the Fab Four's 1967 release of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" that others began to take notice.

Plenty of music fans engage in spirited, grandiloquent discussions about whether "Sgt. Pepper" is, in fact, a concept album at all. Whether it is may be up for debate, but it would soon inspire works such as The Who's "Tommy" (1969) and "Quadrophenia" (1973). Pink Floyd, too, embraced epic musical journeys, cranking out critical and commercial hits with meditations on madness ("Dark Side of the Moon"), the government ("Animals"), and a rock star suffocating from his own fame ("The Wall").

By the end of the 1970s, though, many failed attempts - along with plenty of bloated and pretentious discs - had turned the concept album into an industry joke, and the trend seemed to vanish at about the same time as black-light posters and pet rocks.

"Concept albums carry the risk of being pompous," says Mr. Light. "You need to be careful. Are you just doing something that takes itself far more seriously than it should?"