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Changing Creative Expression: What The Hell Even Is An Album In 2016?

This year has been a loud one. We’ve seen the deaths of titanic icons like David Bowie and Prince, the kinds of artists who touched countless artists in multiple genres across several decades. That would be enough to dominate any given year of conversation about music, but amidst these losses we’ve also had many of our current icons releasing long-awaited, highly-anticipated, and sometimes unexpected albums. Kendrick, Chance, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Drake, Radiohead, Kanye — and that’s just the first half of this year so far, and that’s not even considering the overabundance of strong albums from lesser-known artists. When we approached making our list of the 50 Best Albums Of 2016 So Far, it was a daunting task; 2016 already feels like a difficult year to sum up succinctly. And it’s been daunting along the way, too, with many of these albums dropping out of the sky before we’d barely wrapped our heads around the last one. The surprise album is, of course, no longer a novelty. So many artists are doing it that it’s tempting to feel like the most daring thing a famous artist could do is release an album on the traditional schedule, confident that the work will speak for itself and that its promotional cycle will weather whatever surprise releases occur in the interim. Surprise releases have been one of the big topics of 2016 thus far, as many of our superstars opted for this route, and it raises questions about how, when, and why these releases work, and for whom; it raises questions about who has the power to surprise-release an album, and who can benefit from that approach. But it’s also the status quo.

These kinds of releases can distract from all the other albums released traditionally, remaking the landscape in their form for a week or two (or however long Kanye damn well pleases). It can distract from the works themselves, too. Consider how Lemonade’s narrative has sometimes eclipsed conversation of the music itself, or how The Life Of Pablo has been just as much about Kanye’s supposed indecision and Tidal schemes as anything else. And the deluge of surprise releases has also distracted from another question that 2016 has continually put forth, oftentimes with these same releases: What even is an album in the first place?

This conversation has been going on, to various degrees, ever since the digital era began imploding the old structures of the music industry. People no longer had to buy physical media, and they could cherry-pick their purchases song-by-song. Now, they don’t have to buy anything at all, but can stream (mostly) whatever, whenever. Just like when CDs came out, it’s a new era for packaging sets of songs, and for how those rules are drawn, and whether there any rules whatsoever. There is this notion that an artist can release an album in any form, or could dispense with the notion altogether, which leads to a kind of lawlessness. Future is going to put out as many albums as he can, and Chance The Rapper is going to call Coloring Book a mixtape even when it’s more of a cohesive and fully-formed statement than many official albums. After over a decade of people suggesting the album was going to shift dramatically or cease being relevant at all, it’s only in recent years that we’re really starting to see artists play with the format. This year already has plenty examples of this, big and small. And one of the questions that lingers after that is: Where could we go from here?

Our notion of what an album is has always been tied to the technologies at hand, but much of the traditional concept is rooted in the LP. That’s the format that gave us the A- and B-side structure, in which an album could rise and fall in two separate but connected acts. It’s a format that allowed for the album-as-artwork approach, rather than a random smattering of songs anchored by singles. The latter has never gone away, really, but the albums we tend to prize are the ones that hang together as a complete work over a prescribed amount of time, often roughly in the 40-50 minute range, as records allowed. Cassettes altered the rituals. You no longer had to sit and turn over an LP, but could travel with the album, play it in your car. They also made mixtapes possible, the analog precursor to the highly personalized, curatorial way we consume art today.

In the ’90s, CDs took over, and albums could stretch well beyond the confines of vinyl records; a double album on CD could be a much different beast than a double album on LP. With all that extra space, you also had bonus tracks, and that wacky trend of hidden tracks buried on the disc after 20 minutes of silence or a bunch of blank tracks. With the dawn of MP3 files, it seemed as if the album as a notion could cease to exist entirely. While there’s a certain weight and logic to the traditional 40-50 minute listening experience, there seems to be little point to an album when the music is delivered in a batch of files that listeners can rearrange and sample at will. What’s the point of asking a listener to devote the attention and time needed for a traditional album in that landscape?

Back in 2007, Radiohead released In Rainbows with the famous pay-what-you-want approach, having announced the album only 10 days prior. If not a complete surprise drop, it was certainly something of a sneak-attack release (which is how The King Of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool more or less went, too), and an artist of their stature opting for a self-release with no set price became a major part of that album’s narrative. Radiohead are one of the great album-as-artwork bands working today, and In Rainbows ranks amongst their finest. But in the wake of it, they talked of abandoning the album form, of releasing stray songs or EPs. The King Of Limbs wound up feeling like two EPs stitched together, so much so that conspiracy theories proliferated where fans saw nonexistent patterns through which they concluded that Radiohead were about to release four mini-albums, one each season. It was an intriguing, if unrealistic, prospect, and, of course, it didn’t happen. Five years later, Radiohead finally released A Moon Shaped Pool, their followup to TKOL. As it turns out, it’s one of the most traditional album-as-artwork-type records amidst this year’s blockbuster releases.

Just as the way in which Radiohead released In Rainbows was a prologue to today’s trend of surprise/unconventional release strategies, you can look elsewhere this year and see other artists playing with the format of an album the way Radiohead once suggested they would. And we’re finally starting to see the technology of the era — MP3s vs. CDs vs. streaming — alter how artists go about this. This year has seen several sprawling releases from marquee stars, whether it’s Drake’s Views, Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman, or James Blake’s The Colour In Anything. Deluxe editions loaded with extra tracks used to be the norm, something that could drum up further sales or appeal to diehard fans. (And, sometimes, varying deluxe editions exclusive to different outlets is a version of this maneuver today.) Now, everyone listens to the deluxe edition, because artists will just release these meandering, over-long albums to streaming services.

If you want to read into the business side of it, this could be a strategy for maximizing an artist’s streaming numbers, and thus bringing them closer to the new, bogus parameters for Gold and Platinum certification from the RIAA. If you want to be more charitable (or, in a way, just as uncharitable), you can look at what Drake and Ariana Grande are doing as a means of eschewing traditional pop albums. These are not tight releases stacked with as many potential hit singles as possible and a few filler tracks. These are releases with, seemingly, everything and the kitchen sink. And these artists are big enough that they don’t necessarily need to worry too much about capturing their fans’ attention with the music itself. They can throw a big mess of songs up on Spotify or Tidal, the handful of well-known songs will bring people in, and whatever other part of the mess listeners wade through, fair enough. Rather than trying to cut through the 21st century’s general overflow of content, they release albums that mirror it, relying on their prominence to expect that their noise will be louder amidst all the other noise.

On the opposite end of things, the landscape today also allows for smaller, more intimate gestures. Mini-albums, works stuck somewhere between the bonus or stop-gap promotional nature of an EP and the next full-fledged, statement from an artist, years in the making. Though neither are headline-dominating albums for 2016, Wire’s Nocturnal Koreans and Wye Oak’s Tween are both excellent entries in this category. Both are albums made up of material that didn’t make sense for each artist’s previous album, but they aren’t quite outtakes collections. The songs on Nocturnal Koreans didn’t make Wire’s self-titled album last year, but this gave them space to release this sister project, a slightly more textural and experimental one built on leftover material that still deserved a home. Tween is similar, exhuming material lost in the violent transition from 2011’s Civilian to 2014’s Shriek, thus expanding upon that stylistic left turn while also suggesting where they might go next. Both are interesting in that they are not ramshackle B-sides collections, nor “lost albums.” They’re counter-narratives and side-steps that thwart each artist’s chronology. As small as these moves are, it brings to mind possibilities: of artists once more releasing full-ish length works more frequently, but not having the burden of each one having to be a stylistic or narrative leap. They could have their main narrative of LPs, and then the series of spinoff mini-albums.

Of course, there are some artists where even small moves make big waves. That’s Kendrick Lamar, and untitled unmastered., his mini-followup to last year’s monumental To Pimp A Butterfly. untitled unmastered. is explicitly a collection of outtakes from the TPAB sessions, but it’s a testament to Kendrick as an artist that it feels like it’s own cohesive, exploratory work, an epilogue to TPAB. The idea of major artists releasing something like untitled unmastered. falls somewhere between the tangential chapters of Nocturnal Koreans and Tween and Radiohead’s erstwhile plan to just release the music they had in whatever form when they felt like it. It’s like musicians letting us into their notebooks in almost real time, a product (and, on their part, an impulse) that feels distinctly of the digital era. In the past, these mini-albums might’ve felt like releases meant to tide over fans while that next official album was on the way, a way to keep some money coming in and keep people’s attention without having to do something significant. But now there’s something different on the horizon — artists can offer constant updates, an open communication in which we see the main release, the background information, and the hint of what else they might be up to, all at once.

Naturally, those smaller gestures don’t define the year, even if Kendrick Lamar is behind one of them. Right now, they ultimately function as gifts to the devoted, rather than something that could definitively push the artist forward. These are releases that will, inevitably, be swallowed up in the maelstrom of major surprise releases. They get drowned out by the likes of Lemonade and The Life Of Pablo.

A new Beyoncé album is an Event now, no matter what. It doesn’t need any surprise release, or unconventional accompaniment, or a maybe-fictionalized narrative about Jay Z cheating. It doesn’t even need the political and social insight. It might be better for all those things, and an overall more significant release for all those things, but it would’ve been an Event regardless. That being said, Beyoncé is the kind of artist that has risen to her level partially through her canniness in wielding her persona, and her capability to create those Events. She already did that with her surprise-released self-titled album in 2013, in which each song was accompanied by a video. And she offered another version of that with Lemonade, where the entire thing debuted on HBO as one big visual album. Lemonade isn’t exactly a paradigm shift for Beyoncé so much as a refined progression of a concept, and it isn’t the sort of thing other artists can follow. But it’s still an intriguing release in that it makes you think about what could be possible if more artists were able to craft multi-media projects on this scale, further freeing them from the limitations of a traditional album/tour as we know it.

And then there’s Kanye, and the bizarre and protracted unveiling of The Life Of Pablo, which may or may not be some version of the album he’s been talking about and working on almost since Yeezus. As you are likely aware, The Life Of Pablo has been through a few iterations, including when it was known as So Help Me God, then SWISH, then WAVES. He premiered the actual album part of The Life Of Pablo at MSG, where it ends with “Wolves,” and then it went through a series of mutations where bonus tracks were added, other songs were slotted into the main tracklist, and minor production and lyrical changes popped up. Just this week, Kanye changed it once more, tacking “Saint Pablo” — for what it’s worth, one of the best songs from this phase of his career, and a much better closer than “Fade,” bonus track or not — onto the end of the whole shambling, fascinating, intentional-mess of the thing. As it goes with Kanye, some cry visionary and some cry charlatan. It isn’t hard to find people who have found the whole process of Kanye updating an album that’s already been “released” tedious, or worthy of eye-rolls, or symptomatic of creative disorientation due to his inflated ego. In reality, the tweaks have been mostly minor and the album is a more cohesive and fully realized work than people gave it credit for initially.

The interesting part here is that Kanye has referred to The Life Of Pablo as a “living breathing changing creative expression.” And while that may be a little overblown considering the changes have amounted to small edits and stuffing on more transitional or bonus tracks, it’s another 2016 release that confounds our notion of the album, and of publicly available creative works in general. By the time something is out there and theoretically commercially available, it’s supposed to be a completed thing, maybe deepened through post-scripts (like an expanded edition EP, or a concept-driven tour that recontextualizes the music), but the tracklist and material therein are supposed to stay static. That’s the whole magic of recorded music in the first place: taking something that in the past you could only witness in real life, with the spontaneity of a live performance, and capturing it in a moment in time for access whenever, for as many years as it survives. The idea of an album that is constantly mutating is a fascinating one, but as much as we love Kanye’s album over here, I don’t think The Life Of Pablo represents what could really be done with that approach. Imagine an album that is a “living breathing changing creative expression” where songs disappear and reappear over the course of significant gaps in time, where the music shifts and morphs and changes the meaning of the work repeatedly. It wouldn’t be quite the same as the open process Kanye has offered us, or the way in which Tween and untitled unmastered. give a glimpse into the steps behind the last big statement album. We’d have to redefine what or notion of a “finished album” is. It would be an artist working and reacting in actual real time, using this one conduit for perpetual performance and thought. It would be exhausting if everyone tried to do this for every album. But for a high-concept, art-driven situation? The Life Of Pablo barely hints at the fruits that could bear.

The restricting factor here is that you still have to be a pretty massive artist to pull off most of these kinds of approaches, whether it’s a blockbuster visual album or a constantly shifting non-album. For many, there is a new rigidity of having to release albums when they’d be best positioned to lead to lengthy tours and a bunch of festival dates, which are the real places many artists actually make money now. Kanye and Radiohead could go full-Beatles, pushing boundaries in the studio and rarely, if ever, playing live. Wye Oak can’t do that, and neither could many of the other artists who appeared on our mid-year list. But it’s exciting to imagine a world like the one we’ve been talking about ever since MP3s first seemed to be rearranging the status quo becoming more realistic as traditional album cycles and sales continue to shift within an old industry.

What if artists were able to release music far more frequently than the common two- to four-year gap now, the kind that gives each new release an immense amount of pressure to push forward their narrative and sound? What if artists were able to experiment with the form and release music constantly, in smaller or bigger projects as they see fit? Either the circumstances have to shift so that musicians are compensated better, or there needs to be little to no commercial import for most people’s actual releases; then the old systems could break down entirely, and people could really start pushing what the format of “album” even means anymore. There’s an incorrect trope today that artists don’t care about making big statements or putting together a cohesive project, that they don’t care about “albums.” Maybe they just don’t care about the more traditional notion of 10-12 songs over 50 or so minutes. With the technology at our fingertips right now and the erosion of the rules that used to govern the music industry, who knows what could happen when artists are able to go beyond scratching the surface of new album formats, delving into surprising and unforeseen new ways to present their work. Surprise releases may be status quo, but there are still countless surprises ahead of us.