The Year of the Concept Album

Perhaps to make a case against a singles-driven market, many artists in 2011 embraced the long-form concept album. Groups like M83 and the Roots provided atmospheric and narrative albums that are meant to be listened to in their entirety, with each song working to tell a story or build on a unifying theme. The two most interesting concept albums this year were released by art pop queens, Tori Amos and Kate Bush. Both albums are piano-driven mood-pieces that find the singers in excellent voice and recording some of the best music in their heralded careers.

My favorite concept album this year is Amos's brilliant Night of Hunters, a narrative song-cycle with compositions inspired by classical music. The record presents a woman in crisis after her lover leaves her, and she goes through an evening of self-reflection and mystical experiences. Spirits and shape-shifters visit her to provide guidance--these creatures performed beautifully by Amos's daughter and niece.

Yes, this sounds like pretty twee stuff, but the album is surprisingly accessible and warm. Amos is no stranger to concept projects, and such projects have yielded her most engaging material; 2002's Scarlet's Walk is the best example of a concept grounding her and inviting a compassionate performance. On the other hand, her other concept albums, like 2007's American Doll Posse, come off as strident, abrasive, and inscrutable. Fortunately, Night of Hunters finds the singer in fine voice, her piano playing crisp, and her songwriting at its most inviting. This is certainly her best album in nine years.

Similarly, Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow also finds her experimenting with mysticism and at the top of her game. Bush's album is thematic rather than narrative, the entire project set in winter. However, like Amos, Bush brings in her child to duet with her. Her piano is also the central feature of her album, helping to create what may be her most stripped-down and spacious productions thus far. The cavernous feeling of these songs--most of which are eight minutes or longer--feel like hiking through the Himalayas; each tune rambles and takes surprising turns. Not to mention, the first single, "Wild Man," may be Bush's strangest (which is saying something!) yet best single in the new millennium. 50 Words is a quirky but remarkable achievement.

Critics have worried that the album may be dead. However, this year has proven quite the opposite. In fact, artists seem to be making longer and more intricate projects than ever before. Both Amos and Bush have released records that clock in at more than an hour, and really are best listened to straight through. And they are not the only ones interested in creating discrete musical worlds. Even mainstream pop artists like Drake released grand projects in 2011; his almost 80 minute opus, Take Care, took critics by surprise not only for its length, but also for its masterful creation of a concrete musical persona. The album is alive and well, and that should be celebrated.

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