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Contemporary concept albums that redefine the medium

By Sheroog Kubur, August 29 2023—

Greater than the sum of its parts, the concept album is a style of storytelling that will never go out of style, despite its coming in and out of popularity over the years. It is about as long as a conventional album, but each track follows a central theme or narrative, often telling stories involving different characters or unpacking one theme completely. In the last couple of decades, there haven’t been many concept albums to shake the tables like some of the earlier greats, but there are still albums that use music to its full potential. Here are a couple of those albums, just make sure you listen to them in order on the first run-through. 

The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monae

Earlier on in Janelle Monae’s career, they spend their first few records developing a rich story based on the 1927 German film Metropolis — the story of an android named Cindi Mayweather who’s been sent back in time to save humanity from an oppressive regime that suppresses freedom and love. Monae uses this story to explore identity and love from an outsider’s perspective, blending Afro-futurist and funk sounds to create a looking glass into what makes us human. While Monae has since abandoned the completion of the series, The ArchAndroid is a brilliant outlet for exploring ideas that may have been otherwise frightening. 

The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance 

The most clean concept album to come out of the early 2000s, The Black Parade follows the story of the Patient, a man on his deathbed reflecting on his life and what comes after death. This is the most clear concept album because each song goes into different aspects of his life, his failed relationships, his crippling addictions and all other failed endeavours. It’s coupled with a range of styles, borrowing from swing and jazz influences on one track and glam rock on another. The Black Parade tells a story and doesn’t waste a single second, beat or lyric. 

To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

Arguably one of the best albums of this century, To Pimp A Butterfly combines Kendrick Lamar’s expert lyricism with his musical eccentricity. As a concept album, it doesn’t touch on a single character but one theme — Blackness. The lyrics include themes of issues affecting Black communities while making recognizable cultural references, the instrumentation borrows from different historically Black music genres like jazz and funk and the presentation is political, shining a light on the politicization of Blackness. To Pimp A Butterfly is the final boss of concept albums, hitting all the right notes when needed. 

Preacher’s Daughter by Ethel Cain
The newest addition to the concept albums on this list, Preacher’s Daughter is the debut record of Ethel Cain. It follows the fictional Ethel Cain as she runs away from home and unfortunately runs into a cannibalistic psychopath. The album is the most surreal listening experience a singer could give their listener — it hits all the notes of a typical pop record but there’s something slightly off-putting about it. The lyrics feel relatable but upon closer listening they’re more unsettling, the instrumentals build into something horrific and the pièce de résistance brings it all together. This record is a darker rendition of the themes presented in Electra Heart by Marina, taking the horror route instead of the tragedy.

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