Today’s article is written by Daniel Faris. Daniel Faris is a freelance writer and a graduate of Susquehanna University’s Writers Institute. When he’s not blogging here, you can join him over at New Music Friday for conversations about progressive music.

As far as I’m concerned, the concept album represents a pinnacle of human creativity. It’s one thing to write an album’s worth of captivating music, but it’s another thing entirely to then tie each song together with a common story or lyrical theme.

Concept albums don’t necessarily have to tell a story – like Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime or The Who’s Tommy (we call these rock operas) – but they do need some unifying thread that ties the whole thing together. The closest comparison I can think of is a book of short stories, such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

But even among the musical elite, some stand taller than others. Below (in no particular order) are five of the very best concept albums I’ve ever listened to. These are the albums that have a lot to offer even to people who have never experienced progressive rock.

Pink Floyd ­– Animals

You expected me to say The Wall, didn’t you? That would be too easy. Animals is something of an unsung hero in Pink Floyd’s discography, nestled in between the rather better known Wish You Were Here and The Wall.

Animals is an album of allegories and symbols; each track explores a different aspect of human nature using animals as the lens. Dogs are the predators, striking “without thinking” when the moment is right; Pigs keep their heads down in the feed trough, oblivious to the suffering around them; and Sheep are the “meek and obedient,” “pretending the danger’s not real.”

The music is among the band’s most adventurous, offering long track lengths and a great deal of experimentation. And, of course, the whole album is dripping with Roger Waters’ patented brand of dark cynicism, which he’d explore even further on Floyd’s next studio effort, the acerbic The Wall.

Dream Theater – Scenes from a Memory

Many Dream Theater fans consistently name Scenes as their all-time favorite Dream Theater album, including yours truly. It’s jam-packed with some of the band’s most inventive and varied songwriting, not to mention one of the more ambitious stories I’ve come across in an album.

This is a rock opera through and through, with a cast of about half-a-dozen characters and liner notes that look like a playbill. The story involves a man who’s plagued by haunting memories from a life he doesn’t remember living – the memories of a young woman who was murdered.

With help from a kindly – or is he? – hypnotherapist, the protagonist, Nicholas, eventually puts together the pieces of a shattered past life, making startling discoveries about predestination and reincarnation along the way.

Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)

Steven Wilson is more-or-less the patron saint of progressive rock right now. He fronted Porcupine Tree for something like 20 years before deciding to shelve the band indefinitely. When I heard the news I was terribly disappointed, but since embarking on his solo career, Wilson has grown infinitely as a musician.

I had thought that Wilson’s 2011 album Grace for Drowning represented the height of his accomplishments, but not only does he reinvent himself with every album, but he also tops himself each time. Simply put, Raven may end up being the one that people remember him for.

Consisting of just six tracks, the album still clocks in at a respectable 54 minutes. Each track tells a haunting and evocative story of the supernatural. From a ghostly busker on a busy street in England to a lonely old man pining for his dead sister, this is some of the most heartbreaking material you’ll ever hear.

As for the music, it couldn’t be weirder. It’s Porcupine Tree-era Wilson shining through, but it’s filtered through his love of jazz and Opeth-style heavy metal. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to call this album unique.

Jethro Tull – Thick As a Brick

Jethro Tull’s 1972 opus is frequently named the group’s most important record, and continues to influence progressive bands to this day. The concept is this: the lyrics were supposed to have been written by a precocious child poet named Gerald Bostock, who went on to work with a fictional version of Jethro Tull to set his epic poem to music.

The album consists of a single 40-minute track, split in half for no other reason than to account for the limitations of vinyl records back in the day. Lyrically, the album is rather bewildering, though obviously clever; it’s full of witticisms and turns of phrase that skewer everything from the music industry to the military industrial complex, and even the band itself.

Tool – Lateralus

2001’s Lateralus is easily Tool’s most contemplative and cerebral album, and in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the most important statements ever made in modern rock. The album is an ode to humanity’s cluelessness; it explores questions of life and existence, and wonders what it would be like to peel back the fabric of reality to see its inner workings – that is, to “swing on the spiral of divinity and still be a human.”

In short, it’s an album that takes a deep look into human nature and mankind’s place in the universe. This is sometimes done through the language of faith and spirituality, and other times, as with “Ticks & Leeches,” it takes the form of a tirade against the band’s record label. Tool’s edge and sense of humor is fully intact here, but it’s joined by intense candor and a newfound humility.

Concept Albums: Here to Stay

Being a committed devotee to progressive rock, I make no attempt to hide my love of concept albums. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I look at “regular albums” about the same way that stick shift fans probably look at self-driving cars. I’m not saying that an album without a story or theme is an album without merit, but there are few things better than sitting down with a new album and being taken on a journey from beginning to end.

Furthermore, that so many classic rock albums also happen to be concept albums is proof enough that this particular method of artistic expression is here to stay.

Daniel Faris

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