I have always been partial to concept albums, not just because the songs themselves are good, but because I marvel at the effort that must have gone into their composition. But good concept albums are growing increasingly few, and the album itself as a musical format seems to be in decline. But what is it exactly that makes an album great as an album, rather than just a bunch of songs all on one CD or LP?
Dark Side of the Moon
Arguably Pink Floyd's greatest work, Dark Side of the Moon is a shining example of an album where the music, lyrics, concept, and sound samples all integrate into a cohesive whole. It does have its throwaway track (On the Run). But overall, each song is able to stand on its own, while at the same time contributing to the theme.
There are many interpretations of Dark Side of the Moon, which can easily be found through google, but all generally cite similar concepts: insanity, money and division. These themes are explored both in sound clips (some supposedly taken from random beggars the band recorded, others taken from cash registers) and in the lyrics (see songs like: Money, Us and Them, Brain Damage).
Musically the whole album re-uses themes, and flows from one song to the next through an arrangement of songs such that the key of one song naturally resolves to the key of the next. The first half of the intro track, Speak to Me, is a aggregation of many of the sound clips and vocal elements throughout the whole album, creating a chaotic and concentrated climax to start off the album. A literary parallel can be seen with Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which he includes a nonsense poem at the very beginning of book that includes all the major themes that would later be explored throughout the rest of the story.
The third track, Time, is a great song in its own right, rated by some as containing of the top five greatest guitar solos of all time. It begins with a lengthy intro, moves into the song, and ends with a reprise of the second half of the first track, Breathe. The reprise of Breathe flows into Great Gig in the Sky, both songs having complimentary keys. The vocals of Great Gig in the Sky were part of the samples at the beginning in Speak to Me. Money, the song that follows Great Gig, also uses samples that were foreshadowed in Speak to Me.
Us and Them is a long song, developing the themes of the album further, and ends by going into Any Colour You Like, which can be seen as a coda to Us and Them, or perhaps an instrumental bridge between Us and Them and Brain Damage. Brain Damage and Eclipse are the final two tracks, but really function as a two-part song, kind of like a heroic couplet finishing off the album. The Beatles did the same thing twice on Abbey Road, creating three short songs that really functioned as one song: Mean Mr. Mustard > Polythene Pam > She Came in Through the Bathroom Window and Golden Slumbers > Carry That Weight > The End. The reverse is often done, fusing several songs into one—again the Beatles did this with Happiness is a Warm Gun and I Want You (She's So Heavy), and more recently Radiohead has done this with Paranoid Android.
Back to Dark Side, not only do the lyrics, concept and music cohere throughout the album, it also (according to some accounts) synchronizes with The Wizard of Oz when the two are played together. I've done it, and it definitely works at least once through the album. People say that Waters was very politically concerned, and thus the connection between the themes of Dark Side and the political allegory of Wizard of Oz was the motivation behind the synchronization of the album with the action in the movie.
Dark Side of the Moon illustrates the fundamental advantage of albums over singles (or singles collections that are passed off as albums for that matter). With a lot of work (and probably a lot of drugs) it's possible to create many layers of meaning, to tell a story not only with lyrics, but with music and overall themes and references to other works. Joyce, the most eminent modern writer, was a master at extended allegory and symbolism. Pink Floyd may be no Joyce, and Dark Side no Ulysses, but how can it be said that a collection of singles can be greater than one truly coherent and layed album, where the songs belong with one another?
Marilyn Manson's flagship work, one could say it's a great album merely because of the coherent, extended, layered and complex distaste people have for both him and this album. But if one is able suppress his or her frustration with Manson's image and the not-so-dulcet sounds of industrial rock, it is plain to see that Antichrist Superstar is a great modern day album.
The entire album is a story, divided into three parts, chronicling the ascension of the Antichrist. The first part, "The Heirophant", sees the narrator as a young man frustrated by the world around him. The second part, "The Inauguration of the Worm", sees the boy grown into the Rock Star, the celebrity, the public figure. And the final part, "Disintegratory Rising", finds the narrator transformed into the Antichrist. The songs in each section pertain to the particular time in the narrator's journey. The lyrics of each change over the three sections: from personal thoughts and relationships, to public relationships and sentiments, to epic events and prophecy.
While it doesn't have the same level of layering that Dark Side possesses, Antichrist Superstar does tells a much more coherent and structured story, has a musical consistency throughout (most likely due to the skills of Trent Reznor acting as producer), contains a subtantial amount of mythology, references to philosophy (Nietzsche mostly), numerology, and has social, religious and personal themes present in every song. While almost every song can stand on its own, each forms a part of a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its songs. Perhaps this is what makes an album truly great.
It is worth mentioning that every major release by marilyn manson is a concept album, Portrait of an American Family, Mechanical Animals, Holy Wood and the forthcoming Golden Age of the Grotesque all revolving around a personal transformation and musical theme. So too do many Nine Inch Nails albums (Manson being Trent Reznor's star prodigy) including Broken, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, have a distinct story, narrator, and musical coherency.
In the age of CDs, there are very few albums that even bother to structure their album with two sides in mind. The only two I could think of in my collection are Odelay by Beck, and Three of a Perfect Pair by King Crimson. On Odelay the second half clearly begins with Where it's At, but there is little substantive musical or thematic division between the two sides. King Crimson's Three of a Perfect pair is hardly a concept album, but each side has a distinct character. King Crimson, popularly known for its frustrating inclusion of extremely experimental pieces, and amazing interplay between its stylistically opposite guitarists (Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew), consciously separated the two sides on Three of a Perfect Pair such that the first side contained their accessible pieces, and the second side was comprised of their experimental songs that few people wanted to hear anyway. In some ways this tool available to bands has been destroyed by the CD, but double CDs can still perform this function, albeit on a larger scale. The Fragile by NIN is a two-disc album, in which each disc has its own distinct musical and thematic character, and tells a different part of the narrator's story.
Why the Album?
Essentially, why is the album important at all? Songs are the basic unit of music, and so perhaps songs should be judged upon their own merit. It is easy to argue that an individual song could be greater if unencumbered by the need to include musical bridges, transitions, reprises, lyrical themes, an entire chapter of a story, or extraneous symbolism and references.
I think the essence of examining what makes a great album is simply that the songs themselves contribute to a spectacular whole. The LP album, something that was essentially the product of technology rather than musical necessity, has become a format in which bands have the option of creating something more than simply a series of songs. Few seriously compare a book of great short stories to one long novel, and say that the greatness of the former can equal that of the latter. Look at Joyce: his collection of superb short stories, The Dubliners, doesn't carry anywhere near the same weight as Portrait of the Artist, although the two are relatively close in length.
Is the Album Dead?
Technology like the mp3, and new distribution models (Kazaa, gnutella) are making the album obsolete. People are much less willing to grab entire albums, and sift through the filler to find the singles that they already know they like. It's much easier to download a single and put it on a playlist, or a mix cd, and forget about the rest of the album. Perhaps this tendency has to do with the so-called MTV culture of limited attention-span and instant gratification that seems to be the focus of so many concerned investigative reports. Perhaps this has more to do with music company marketing schemes, propelling their manufactured stars to the top of the charts with one or two hit singles placed on an album of filler.
That being said, perhaps there's a different culture of music-making than there once was. There seem to be far fewer popular or known bands that invest the time in creating an album that tells a story, or maintains a coherent musical whole. Before the EP and LP bands only needed to produce the hit single or two. The early Beatles albums, when the LP was still not being utilized as an album, actually bear a lot of similarity to the pop records of today: quickly released, one or two hit singles, formulaic song writing, the rest of the record full of filler songs. The Beatles changed their outlook with the release of Rubber Soul, and many other bands started releasing coherent albums around this time as well. Perhaps it has something to do with the advent of the 60's storytelling culture, exemplified by Bob Dylan, where albums were there not for singles, but to really say something.
Today, the pop music formula is stronger than ever, and the bands that create albums with a cohesive musical whole are unknown or largely disliked. Groups like the Flaming Lips, who released the concept album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, or Beck, each of whose albums is made with a distinct musical style different from the previous, are not widely played or widely known in many circumstances. It goes without saying that groups like Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and Tool, all of whom release albums that are conceptual and musical wholes, are not widely liked.
One reason may be that in making an album, rather than a collection of songs, the songs themselves don't stand as well on their own, and are not as accessible for radio or MTV play. Another possibility is that their relative obscurity, or state of rejection from the mainstream, enables them to experiment a little bit more than other bands can within the current musical climate.
A Great Album...
I've given some examples of what I think constitutes a gret album, and the various elements these album have. The questions still remain: can an album be greater than the sum of its songs? Is the album still a viable format? And what makes a for a great album?