For much of the Sixties and Seventies, concept albums were largely the province of progressive rock, heavy metal, and art rock bands. That is not to say that popular artists did not release concept albums in the Sixties and Seventies (obviously The Beatles and The Who are popular), but that this would become more common place in the Eighties.
Indeed, no less than AOR band Styx released a concept album in January of 1981. Paradise Theatre is the story of the fictional Paradise Theatre in Chicago. Through the Theatre, Styx chronicled the changes in America in the late Twentieth Century. The album hit the #1 spot on Billboard's Albums Chart, and produced six hit singles. Styx would release another concept album in 1983. Kilroy was Here portrays a future United States where rock music is outlawed by the Majority for Musical Morality (keep in mind this was before the advent of the PMRC). The album centred on Kilroy, a former rock star who helps young Jonathan Chance bring rock music back. The album was conceived as a stage show, although its tour would fare badly in ticket sales. That having been said, the album did do well. It hit number 3 on the Billboard albums chart and produced four hit singles.
Unfortunately, not every band was nearly as successful with their concept album as Styx was. Music from the Elder by KISS could best be described as the soundtrack to a movie that was never made. It centres on a young boy who is recruited by the Council of Elders for their Order of the Rose, a group meant to combat evil. The course of the album follows him from his recruitment to finally becoming a hero. Despite a good concept and some good songs, Music from the Elder would do the worst of any KISS album before or since. It was the first KISS album to fail to go gold since Dressed to Kill.
Electric Light Orchestra, who had released the concept album El Dorado in the Seventies, fared much better with Time. Released in August 1981, the album concerned a man from the 1980s who is kidnapped and taken to the year 2095 by scientists. The album would go to #1 in the United Kingdom and to #16 in the United States.
That is not to say that popular artists were the only ones releasing concept albums in the Eighties. Progressive rock and heavy metal bands continued to do so. Blue Oyster Cult released its first concept album in 1988. Imaginos centres upon a secret history and child modified by alien gods. If the concept sounds strange, then it is a strange album, even for Blue Oyster Cult.
Iron Maiden would also release a concept album in 1988. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son centres on a man with psychic abilities who tries to warn a hamlet of the impending Apocalypse. The album did very well. It went to #1 in the United Kingdom and #12 in the United States.
Perhaps the most notable concept album of the Eighties was Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche. The album centred on a young man named Nikki who falls under the spell of the insidious Dr. X, who brainwashes him into performing assassinations. The plot shows some influence from the classic movie The Manchurian Candidate and to a lesser extent George Orwell's book 1984. While the album only went to #50 on the Billboard album charts and produced only one hit single, its songs (particularly "I Don't Believe in Love") received a good deal of FM radio airplay. Queensryche would create a live show based on the album, which was released on video as Operation: LIVEcrime. In terms of its influence, it may well have been more successful than its chart position would lead one to think. Other progressive metal bands, such as Dream Theatre, obviously felt is impact. At any rate, I remember discussing the various questions raised by the album with friends for hours. Queensryche would release a sequel last year, Operation: Mindcrime II, in which Nikki plots his revenge against Dr. X.
The Nineties and Naughts saw fewer concept albums than the previous two decades. I find it difficult to say why, although it must be pointed out that the popularity of both progressive rock and heavy metal was at its lowest in the Nineties. And the artists of the dominant rock subgenre of the early Nineties, grunge, seemed ill disposed to release concept albums. Still a few concept albums have been released since the Eighties.
One was The Crimson Idol by heavy metal band W.A.S.P. It centred on a fictional rock star named Jonathan whose fame leads to his ruin. It was released in 1992. In the Naughts W.A.S.P. would release a two part concept album, The Neon God Part 1: the Rise and The Neon God Part 2: the Demise. It centres on a boy who learns he has the power to read and manipulate people.
In 1996 shock rocker Marilyn Manson would release Antichrist Superstar. It centred on a young man (The Worm) who goes from childhood insecurity to rock stardom. the album itself would go to #3 on the Billboard charts and three of its singles would hit Billboard's Rock Tracks chart. Marilyn Manson would release other concept albums, including Mechanical Animals and Holy Wood.
The Naughts would be sparse with regards to concept albums much as the Nineties had been. In 2002 Tori Amos released Scarlet's Walk. The album centred on the journeys made cross country by the title character. As might be expected of Amos, Scarlet's Walk is complex. Lou Reed would release a concept album the following year called The Raven. The songs on the album were all based on the stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe.
In 2006 My Chemical Romance would release a concept album called The Black Parade. The album centres on a character only known as "The Patient," who is dying of cancer. The album went to #2 on both the United Kingdom album charts and the United States' Billboard album charts.
It would be just this year that would see the release of Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor described it as a "concept album" that could be about the end of the world. Reznor has said that he is in talks about a movie based on the album. There is also an alternate reality game (a game with an interactive storyline that uses the real world as a platform) of the same name, based on the album. The album has done very well, hitting #2 on Billboard's album charts and #6 on the United Kingdom's albums charts. It seems it could be the most influential concept album to come out in a long time.
It is difficult to tell if the success of Year Zero will lead to more concept albums. The Nineties did not produce too many concept albums. And it seems that the Naughts haven't done so either. In some ways this is sad, as concept albums give artists the chance to express themselves in an extended format that can use more complex ideas than a three minute song would allow. I suppose that only the coming years will tell if we will see the return of the concept album or not.