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Styx Isn’t the Only Band Capable of a Concept Album

Just as future generations will confuse Nickelback with the likes of Staind, Candlebox, and Breaking Benjamin, today's coming-of-age music fan cannot be expected to reliably distinguish among Styx, REO Speedwagon, Journey, and other still-touring remnants of the early-'80s arena-rock scene. Especially since they all seem to perform at the same casinos.

Well, kids, here's your cheat sheet: Journey is the "Don't Stop Believin'" band with the ex-lead singer who looks like a prize-winning Afghan hound. REO Speedwagon is the "I Can't Fight This Feeling" band that, um . . . nothing noteworthy, actually. Styx are the repentant prog-rockers who gave us "Mr. Roboto," later immortalized in a hilarious Volkswagen commercial starring the nerdy brother from Arrested Development.

To be fair, Styx (in town to play the Gila River Casino) has a slightly more complex legacy than the one described above. Back in the day, the band was also one of the great practitioners of the "concept" album — that largely out-of-fashion pop-music gizmo born of the presumption that making great individual songs is not simply enough; they've gotta tell a story, too. Preferably about repressed artists rising up against their fascist robot masters.

Of course, the concept album has its own story, one populated by actors both legendary (The Who's Tommy) and legendarily pretentious (Styx's Kilroy Was Here). And here it is:

Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) — Woody Guthrie. Although the concept album is a wholly British invention, Guthrie's confessional folk songs (inspired by his experience as a refugee of Oklahoman blight) serve a common narrative and social message — one of the earliest commercial albums to do so.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) — The Beatles. Like Pet Sounds, the classic Beach Boys album that preceded it, this game-changing baroque masterpiece qualifies as a quasi-concept album. Initially envisioned as a cycle-of-life meditation on aging, the album ultimately plays its own rules: sonic innovation, circus mind-trips, transcendence. McCartney and Lennon would later pooh-pooh the "concept" label.

Tommy (1969) — The Who. A rock opera presented over two LPs, Pete Townshend's saga of a "deaf, dumb, and blind" pinball prodigy is remembered as the first concept album of the rock era. It was also wildly popular, emboldening The Who to continue their exploration of concept-oriented albumcraft with Quadrophenia (1973).

Dark Side of the Moon (1973) — Pink Floyd. Vigorously embraced by the progressive rock movement, the concept album achieved its artistic and commercial zenith in the '70s, manifested in this multi-platinum paean to conflict, greed, and madness. Pink Floyd would later out-concept themselves with the autobiographical The Wall (1979).

Kilroy Was Here (1983) — Styx. Though it spawned two hit singles — "Mr. Roboto" and "Don't Let It End" — the album's larger thematic depiction of a dystopian future ruled by rock-music-despising, neoconservative overlords failed to connect with audiences or critics. It also triggered a fatal split between lead singer Dennis DeYoung and prog-hating guitarist-singer Tommy Shaw (who leads the band in its current incarnation).

American Idiot (2004) — Green Day. Although exhumed by XTC with their sublime, Beatles-esque Skylarking (1986) and slavishly recycled by neo-prog acts like Mars Volta, the concept album essentially went into mainstream hibernation until Green Day released this chart-topping concept-opera about a wayward teen dubbed "Jesus of Suburbia." A Rolling Stone readers poll later named it the best album of the decade.