The term ‘concept album’ is a very broad one, so broad in fact that if you went to extremes you could probably argue any album as being one. Woody Guthrie’s ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ from 1940 is probably the oldest example of a group of tracks linked by concept, in this case, the Dust Bowl. Surprisingly, the album is available on Spotify, and is surprisingly listenable, with Guthrie’s charm shining through the slightly hazy audio, providing sharp social commentary on ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.”
Since his commercial album debut, every one of Kendrick Lamar’s releases have been critically-acclaimed concept albums, even if his recent release: ‘DAMN.’ was considered somewhat of a sellout moment. Kendrick’s albums are intensely personal, showcasing some of his darkest moments: ‘u’ from ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is an alcohol-fuelled spiral into a suicidal depression, whilst ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’ is a 12-minute epic acting as ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’s’ climax.
The contrast between Guthrie’s and Kendrick’s style is clear, yet there are undeniable similarities. Both artists are great storytellers and musicians – it takes a special kind of talent to be able to tell a story in an interesting fashion, let alone setting it to music. They also both explore political themes, with Guthrie’s snappy proverbs being quite different from Kendrick’s more subtly interwoven commentary throughout ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ lacks the narrative connection between tracks that Kendrick’s works have, however, but this does not invalidate its status as a concept album. It simply illustrates how concept albums have changed over time.