These are dark times for rock purists. Songs by their favorite artists no longer appear among the most-listened to on digital platforms, and they have lost their standing in another field that was once their undisputed domain: historical album lists. Rolling Stone magazine has just launched one such list, once received with reverence but today regarded as frivolous. Rolling Stone is no longer what it was: to save itself from the shipwreck caused by the digital boom, Jann Wenner, who founded this rock counterculture institution in 1967, was forced to sell most of the shares to a company specializing in making digital products profitable. Penske Business Media, the new owners of Rolling Stone, are trying to keep the ship afloat by retaining brand identity while adding appeal for the online generation.
The magazine’s lists are one of its most famous features and the latest one is titled The 50 Greatest Concept Albums of All Time. A concept album refers to a collection of songs with a common plot thread, as close to a novel as a pop or rock recording can get. The golden years of this genre were the late 1960s and early 1970s, the zenith of rock-and-roll. The publication has found a current hook in Midnights, Taylor Swift’s new work, which will be released on October 21 and promises to be a conceptual work: the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered over the American singer’s 32 years of life. Perhaps the most outstanding achievement of the magazine’s rankings history was the 500 best songs in history, voted on by 250 people and updated in September 2021 from the original 2004 list. All members of the musical sphere participated in the process: singers, instrumentalists, producers, composers, industry personnel and journalists. On this occasion only 16 voters voiced their opinion and the results have not resulted in universal consensus.
Sgt. Pepper’s fails to make top 10
Every connoisseur can name the three most iconic concept albums in history: The Wall (1979), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and Tommy (1969). Very briefly: Pink Floyd’s work is about a rock star driven mad by his ego; The Beatles’ composition presents a fictitious band with the aim of musically experimenting beyond the real John, Paul, George and Ringo, and The Who’s rock opera details the stages of a deaf, dumb and blind young man who lives a life marked by drugs, sexual abuse and messianism.
This trio of seminal works features in Rolling Stone’s recent ranking: The Wall at number three, Tommy, at five, and Sgt. Pepper’s at 11. Which albums are considered better than them? This is where the modern tweaks come in and the indignation of purists is piqued. El Mal Querer (2018), the second album by Catalan singer Rosalía, appears at number ten. Yes, above the Beatles. The fine print goes some way to explaining this. The introduction to the piece specifies “to make it high on the list an album had to be both conceptually tight and musically awesome, which is why a few classic albums with relatively loose thematic conceits didn’t end up higher.” The conceptual argument of El Mal Querer is, without a doubt, solid: it is based on a 13th century novel about the toxic relationship of two lovers, in which the woman finally frees herself from the man’s abuse. The theme of Sgt. Pepper’s may not be so clear. El Mal Querer also had another moment of prominence in another Rolling Stone ranking: the 500 best albums of all time. There it held a more modest position, 315, on a list headed by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which also happens to be a concept work but only just scrapes into the top 20 of Rolling Stone’s greatest concept albums.
Of course, Rosalía’s appearance is particularly significant due to the usual navel-gazing nature of Anglophile music rankings: the Catalan’s album is the only non-English language one in the top 25.
Who topped the ranking among concept albums? Attention, rockers, look away now. The podium is topped by Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, the work of American rapper Kendrick Lamar, released in 2012. The concept of the album? Lamar himself narrates his life growing up on the streets of Compton, amid drugs and crime. Of course, there is controversy: the editors step on some toes. For example, another of the sacred classic works, The Rise and The Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars (1972), by David Bowie, appears in 13th place, behind Rosalía. It is also surpassed by Janelle Monáe (her 2010 album The ArchAndroid, is at number 12), and The Black Parade, by the extravagant pop-punk rockers My Chemical Romance, which lands at number eight.
This Rolling Stone list is not the first ranking of its kind. In 2015, the British magazine NME placed Bowie and his Ziggy Stardust at number one among conceptual artists. It ranked The Wall at number two. Classic Rock Magazine opted in 2013 for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Of course, when those publications prepared their lists, El Mal Querer had not yet been released.
Rolling Stone’s top 20 best concept albums of all time
- 1. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012).
- 2. Green Day - American Idiot (2004).
- 3. Pink Floyd - The Wall (1979).
- 4. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995).
- 5. The Who - Tommy (1969).
- 6. Liz Phair - Exile In Guyville (1993).
- 7. Rush - 2112 (1976).
- 8. My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade (2006).
- 9. Frank Sinatra - In The Wee Small Hours (1955).
- 10. Rosalía - El Mal Querer (2018).
- 11. The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).
- 12. Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid (2010).
- 13. David Bowie - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972).
- 14. Radiohead - Kid A (2000).
- 15. Beyoncé - Lemonade (2016).
- 16. Sly and the Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ (1971).
- 17. Jackson Browne - Running On Empty (1977).
- 18. The Who - Quadrophenia (1973).
- 19. Marvin Gaye - What’s Going On (1971).
- 20. Janet Jackson - Control (1986).