Music in 2018 is largely based on the success of singles via streaming platforms, but a return to albums as full concepts may be changing that in myriad ways.
A concept album is a collection of songs that all share some central theme or unified sound.
Once a major musical vessel in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the concept album fell off through the following decades as the emergence of disco and punk found artists making fewer statements through traditional narrative devices.
The first artist to make a true concept album is often debated in music theory. Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads,” released in 1940, is noted as the first album to share a singular theme—that of life in the Depression-era Midwest. Frank Sinatra also receives occasional credit for thematic congruity throughout his early albums.
“There can be a unifying mood, or unifying ideas,” Vincent Benitez, associate professor of music at Penn State, said. “Songs can develop unifying ideas and then come back to them.”
Others see the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as the progenitor—as it was one of the first and most popular rock albums in which the artist occupied a fictional narrative throughout the record.
That narrative came due to a creative stalemate. Paul McCartney convinced the band to record the album as the eponymous “Lonely Hearts Club Band” in an effort to avoid the pressure of the Beatles then-titanic fame.
“They didn’t want to be straightjacketed into this ‘merry-moptop’ image in music,” Benitez said.
“They wanted to explore all sorts of new avenues.”
This experimental voyeurism paid off as critics came to adore the record.
Rolling Stone, the culture-defining magazine of the ‘60s and ‘70s, ranks it as No. 1 on their top 500 greatest albums of all-time list.
Part of the appeal relied on the Beatles undeniable influence, and John Lennon even later admitted that “’Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere…it worked because we said it worked.”
The intense popularity of storytelling albums brought with it the exhaustion of the medium. Scores of bands throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s released pompous and gaudy records, and the concept album fell out of favor with the American public.
Decades passed, with the occasional artist trying their hand at the concept album, but it was Green Day’s anti-war opus “American Idiot” that revived the idea.
“You definitely can see the resurgence of the concept album in Green Day’s ‘American Idiot,” Benitez said.
Though many willed it to be, “American Idiot” did little to inspire artists in the way that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was able to—as the musical landscape was vastly different.
“I was a kid in the mid-to-late ‘90s and early 2000s and I can't think of a singular popular artist that released what could be considered a concept album,” Michael Divino, who holds a masters in music from Penn State, said. “I remember individual songs from artists like N’SYNC, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but couldn't tell you much about the songs on their albums that weren't released as singles.”
The rise of MTV, and the shift toward MP3 listening, rewarded singles and music videos more than albums. Artists have always broken on to the scene due to the success of their singles, but it became commonplace to live and die by radio charts.
The rise of streaming platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify put the Recording Industry Association of America’s classic chart metrics to the test. Where albums were previously ranked based on physical sales, they now compete through a complicated streaming equation—as new rules equate 1,500 streams to one album unit.
Artists used to battle over selling entire records, but now singles can make or break an album’s trajectory.
“What [Spotify] is doing with singles is messing up your perception about it. A very important thing for an album is that first listen where you sit down and decide to listen to it end to end,” Dylan Crosson, a masters student in music at Penn State, said. “But what happens when you already know the middle chapter, you know?”
Drake’s latest album, “Scorpion” is a great example of this. Since major singles “Nice For What” and “God’s Plan” garnered millions of streams in the weeks leading up to the album’s release,
“Scorpion” earned platinum certification within 24 hours of hitting the market.
But “Scorpion” as a whole is frenetic and varied. Songs hold few sonic similarities, and hardly any idea pondered upon by the rapper lasts over multiple tracks.
This tactic of loading up a track-list is now used by most mainstream acts such as Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter V” at 23 songs, Travis Scott’s “ASTROWORLD” at 17, Playboi Carti’s “Die Lit” at 19.
However, not all modern artists shirk their ability to tell an album-length tale. Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN” and Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer” both deal with a grander narrative.
Divino appreciates this modern conception.
“Tracks on each record flow seamlessly from one to the next and listening to them out of order really destroys the aesthetic experience that I think both artists were aiming to achieve,” Divino said. “Many of the songs [on ‘Dirty Computer] deal with Monaé unapologetically coming out to the world as pansexual, and what that means to her and her place in society as a queer black woman.”
It is hard to tell if the album as a narrative medium is even necessary in 2018, as playlists now dominate the listening habits of most streaming users. Nevertheless, musicians will always hold power as long as they choose to convey ideas in their music.
“I think many artists today are aware of the implications of their music and any messages that they may or may not be trying to send,” Divino said.
Many will argue over whether those messages should be mandatory, but the strength of the music itself will always be salient.
“I think it’s the job of musicians to be out there for the world, and to give people that need it an escape,” Nicholas Nutter, a master’s student studying music at Penn State, said.