From the old pioneering classics to the modern masterpieces
Alexandra Pollard

14:48 8th September 2015

Sometimes, a song tells a story. Other times - and this, in all honesty, is a trickier feat to pull off - a whole album tells a story. The humble, oft attempted but rarely well executed, concept album. 

Whether it holds a consistent theme, character or narrative throughout the entire tracklisting, the concept album can be one of the most exciting and rewarding albums to listen to. From The Who's classic Tommy to Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, we've picked out the ones with the most facinating story behind them.

These are 10 of the most interesting concept albums of all time. 

  • Sufjan Stevens - Illinois: The second part of Stevens' supposed Fifty States Project, every song on Illinois references places, events and people related to the US state - from a UFO sighting by police officers to the World's Columbian Exposition. Its darkest, most disturbing offering, 'John Wayne Gacy Jr', tells the story of the Chicago-based serial killer of the same name. Stevens had announced his intent to do the same for every state, but told The Guardian in 2009, "I have no qualms about admitting it was a promotional gimmick."

  • Muse - Black Holes And Revelations: Given that it was recorded in the same French studio as Pink Floyd's iconic concept album The Wall, it's no surprise that this LP went the same way. While it doesn't have an easily followed narrative as such, it alludes to apocalyptic themes, with references to alien invasion, revolution, New World Order conspiracies and finding refuge on Mars.

  • David Bowie - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: In an attempt to shed a light on the artificiality of rock music, Ziggy Stardust... is about a bisexual, alien rock superstar. The character was inspired by British rock 'n' roll singer Vince Taylor, and the name is an amalgamation of many, many things - including Legendary Stardust Cowboy, a tailor's shop called Ziggy's, and Iggy Pop.

  • Green Day - American Idiot: A punk rock opera, American Idiot follows the story of the Jesus Of Suburbia, who they describe as "an adolescent anti-hero" - a member of the generation that came of age during the Iraq War.

  • The Antlers - Hospice: Definitely one of the bleakest album on this list (it would take the crown if it wasn't for Sufjan), Hospice tells the story of a relationship between a woman, a hospice worker and a patient dying of bone cancer. "Some people can't be saved," it concedes in one of its final lines.

  • The Who - Tommy: It would be pure sacrilege to write anything on concept albums without acknowledging Tommy. The album, which has inspired a huge plethora of concept albums (some more successful than others) in the 46 years since its release, tells the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy whose senses are shut down after witnessing his father murdering his mother's lover. It only gets more brilliantly bizarre from there.

  • Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Although the band have never confirmed it, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is thought to be a record about famous World War II diarist Anne Frank - it is littered with references to significant events and dates around her life. Prior to its release, as he told Puncture magazine, Jeff Mangum would have dreams about going back in time and saving Frank.

  • Marina & The Diamonds - Electra Heart: Diamandis went one step further than most, and decided to embody the concept of her second album, acting out the role of its titular character - an archetypal all-American woman named Electra. Diamandis described Electra Heart as "a cold, ruthless character who wasn't vulnerable" and who was inspired by her worst fear: "losing myself and becoming a vacuous person."

  • Nick Cave - Murder Ballads: It might comes as a surprise to learn that Cave's most commercially successful album was composed entirely of songs about murder - but let's not forget that Kylie Minogue is on one of the tracks. "I was aware that people would buy the album and wonder, 'What the fuck have I bought this for?'" admitted Cave, "because the Kylie song wasn't any true indication of what the record was actually like."

  • Plan B - The Defamation Of Strickland Banks: The album tells the story of the fictitious Strickland Banks, a soul singer who soars to fame before being sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. Listen to the ubiquitous singalong hit 'She Said' properly, and you'll realise that it's actually documenting a rape trial.

Photo: Artwork