Has 2016 been a landmark year for the album? Adam Lawler thinks so.
THERE comes a moment when every artist hungers for their Pet Sounds.
They want to change the game forever, with cohesive and boundary-shattering albums that act as self-contained works of art. Something more fulfilling than the traditional collection of tunes; four singles padded out with forgettable ditties. Imagine, if you will, that hunger took hold of every major artist at the same time; this is 2016. Album-making was becoming as commonplace and quaint as stamp-collecting; 2016 has changed that forever. The album is now fluid and versatile, a bomb waiting to be dropped.
Albums have become less a collection of tunes, and more a stream-of-consciousness expression of creativity, with many releases this year hitting 70 minutes. The influence of hip-hop is tangible, and in a year in which the Grammys deigned to finally recognise streaming-only releases, the lines between label release albums and independent mixtapes have been distinctly blurred.
Meanwhile, black artists are using this new cultural dominance to eschew tradition. Albums by Kanye West and Frank Ocean don’t credit any of the features, forcing listeners to do the work of the internet researcher, recalling a time when we would have to look in record sleeves to find out who played ‘that’ guitar part. Collaboration is implicit; controversy surrounding the credits on Beyoncé’s Lemonade illustrates a desire to tear down the romantic notion of the single genius doing everything themselves.
The single is still essential, but only as a gateway from the public swimming pool to the private waterpark that is the album, an artistic free-for-all. Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar are releasing albums of offcuts that would have diluted the album’s vision — so much for bonus tracks. How has this happened? The album is no longer viewed as ephemeral; it’s permanent, a painting that will be looked upon for years to come. So no pressure then.
The album is no longer viewed as ephemeral; it’s permanent, a painting that will be looked upon for years to come.
Do artists even need albums, though? In a world where every aspiring rapper and quirky indie kid has a Soundcloud, artists have to decide whether the effort is worth their while in an age of over-saturation. Albums may work for artists like Adele, but many dance artists like Calvin Harris have already denounced the format, which makes sense considering the need to stay relevant with a slew of constant singles.
Pop auteurs like Robyn are diverging into projects like ambitious “mini-albums”, so perhaps the form should be confined only to those who are truly invested. This has led to a sort of choose-your-own-adventure mentality, where every detail of an album is tailored to fit the artists’ vision like a bejewelled glove; the still image from Beyonce’s Lemonade that adorns the cover emphasising the inseparable visual aspect; the haphazard artwork and constantly shifting track list of Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo reflecting its creator’s eccentric process. Even the difference in spelling of Frank Ocean’s Blond(e) suggesting ideas of gender identity. The form is being melted down and moulded to suit whoever wields it, and the vision is more sharply forward-looking than ever.
Even when pried away from the artists who made them, each of these albums acts as a self-contained statement in its own right — feminism, police brutality, gender and sexuality, bloated navel-gazing (not looking at anyone, Drake). Every album is a concept album for better or for worse, and in a year of social and political talking points, that sense of grand importance, of somehow making a difference, is what is energising the format.
The focus has been shifted from creating sales to creating an impact. The controversial elements and creative roll-outs help develop that image of the guerrilla-artist pushing ‘detonate’ and telling the record labels to just deal with it, even if the creative spontaneity is A&R’d to within an inch of its life. What matters is that the album feels vital again, it feels like a living, breathing and evolving entity.
What matters is that the album feels vital again, it feels like a living, breathing and evolving entity.
In largely forsaking hooks and shaking up release strategy, this year’s releases have taken risks, some of which did not completely pay off. Rihanna’s attempt to blend avant-garde music and a sponsorship campaign with Samsung failed spectacularly. These failures are the necessary growing pains of a form that’s growing too large for the media it’s presented on. One is reminded of Brian Eno’s assertion that “modern art is the sound … of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart.”
The album is the new grainy black and white film — the new distorted guitar. In the future we could well need headphones, a screen, a sheet of braille and two friends to listen to an album, but that’s the exciting thing; the myriad possibilities. The albums of 2016 are a stepping-stone, and one day we’ll look back from an enlightened future and remember these eager and well-meaning attempts at innovation with fondness.