This was supposed to be the year we declared the album dead. All the industry predictions were that we would now only listen to music in playlists, and the new tastemakers would be Spotify employees making mood-defined collections of songs called things like “Rainy Monday” or “Pre-Menstrual Synthpop”. In fact, 2016 was notable for a string of spectacular, blockbuster full-length records from the biggest artists in the world: Beyoncé, Kanye, Rihanna and Drake. These artists found ways to make their records feel like more than just music, controlling hype and excitement with innovative release strategies, most of which took place offline. Beyoncé’s feature-length visual album was debuted on good ol’ fashioned HBO; Kanye West’s Madison Square Garden album playback was streamed to cinemas worldwide; and fans hoping to peek at Frank Ocean’s high-concept album/coffee-table magazine had to queue up outside a newsagent at midnight. By shunning lazy social media promotion, artists found more meaningful connections with their fans; 2016 felt like a forgotten time where music was a shared experience, rather than a solo pursuit.
The supposed rules of the biz were also broken as artists who released music without record labels had genuine success. Skepta who self-released his Konichiwa – was rewarded with the Mercury prize and a headline show at Alexandra Palace. But while it’s been a billboard year for established acts, breaking acts found it harder. Singers who were hotly tipped at the start of the year – Jack Garratt, Frances – had pitiful commercial performances; we are still waiting for a 2016 debut album by a British artist to go gold.
The politicisation of music, meanwhile, continued apace. From moving scenes in Chicago, where Chance The Rapper led thousands of voters to the polls, to Ta-Nehisi Coates talking race and judgment on Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, it’s no longer taboo for artists to wear their political stripes on their sleeves. Unless, of course, you are Taylor Swift, who refused to endorse a candidate in the US election or encourage her fans to vote (until polling day where she posted a single pic of her outside a polling station).
If anything, 2016 signalled a return to a 1970s attitude to music: big stars have taken the role of public intellectuals, we no longer malign middle-aged artists on their seventh or eighth albums, and new artists are treated with suspicion. Perhaps, also like the 70s, something new and nihilistic will shake that up in 2017.