Musically at least, 2022 wasn’t an easy year to button: there was no huge mainstream breakthrough artist along the lines of Olivia Rodrigo or Lewis Capaldi; there was no glaringly obvious musical trend along the lines of the pandemic glut of escapist glitterball disco. Nevertheless, some of the years’s biggest and most-acclaimed albums did indicate a shift. In a streaming age driven by individual tracks, they were albums that were clearly intended to be consumed as albums; moreover their sound suggested a break from the pop brand of minimalism introduced by Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak and exemplified by the stark electronics of Billie Eilish’s multiplatinum, multi-Grammy winning When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and the sparseness of Drake’s record breaking Scorpion.
The first major release of 2022 was the Weeknd’s Dawn FM, a surprisingly old-fashioned concept album complete with apocalyptic theme and narration courtesy of Jim Carrey. It had a lot of beautifully written songs but no screamingly obvious hit single – a marked contrast to its predecessor, 2020’s After Hours, which featured Blinding Lights, a single that spent a year in the US Top 10 and was crowned The Greatest Hot 100 Song In History by Billboard magazine. Dawn FM’s stew of synth-pop, 80s boogie, disco, psychedelia and funk was incredibly well-crafted, its guest appearances – by Quincy Jones and the Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnson – were ostentatious.
It was clearly intended as a grand statement, as was Kendrick Lamar’s Mr Morale & the Big Steppers. At 18 tracks and nearly 80 minutes long, it was another conceptual work, this time centred on Lamar’s visits to a therapist. Despite its length, it felt crammed with ideas, cutting frantically from one style and emotional tone to another. Again, the listener was evidently meant to consume it in one sitting, even if consuming it in one sitting was pretty demanding: it wasn’t the kind of record designed to waft unobtrusively in the background. Nor was the Spanish superstar Rosalía’s acclaimed Motomami, a sprawling, endlessly surprising piece of work that was teeming with sounds: from dembow to industrial, bubblegum pop to bachata and dubstep. It made far more demands on the listener than pop music is reputed to make, not least the ability to keep up with its author’s restless, kaleidoscopic vision.
And then there was Beyoncé’s Renaissance, by some distance the most critically acclaimed album of the year. The one-line pitch for Renaissance – an unexpected diversion into house music and disco that celebrated those genres’ Black roots, with each track flowing into the next as if mixed by a DJ – makes it sound a much more straightforward album than it actually was. Despite its preponderance of four-to-the-floor beats, the fact that the album’s tracks segue into one another seemed to have less to do with replicating the ambience of a DJ set than creating an immersive environment, underlining that Renaissance was an album to be listened to in toto. The fact that, unlike Beyoncé’s last solo album, Lemonade – which came accompanied by a 65-minute film – Renaissance arrived with no videos further suggested she wanted her audience to submerge themselves in the music without distraction.
You can argue about whether Renaissance is a concept album per se – and there was plenty there to suggest an overarching narrative about race, gender and sexuality – but there’s little debate to be had about the intent of its sound. Beyoncé’s vision of dance music, which involves gqom, Miami bass, trap and Afrobeats, seldom cleaves to a minimalist take. The sense of space you find in classic house and techno – where even vocal tracks tend to come interspersed with lengthy instrumental passages, either flowing or hypnotically repetitious – is noticeable by its absence. It’s not an album to zone out to: something is always happening and Beyoncé only cedes centre stage when there’s a guest in the wings ready to take over – it is opulent with sonic ideas.
By Beyoncé’s account, Renaissance was inspired by the Covid pandemic – she described its recording as “a place to dream and to find escape”. And perhaps there’s something escapist about the year’s slew of immersive albums. Completely submitting to an album from start to finish requires you to forget everything else that’s going on, and there’s been plenty of things over the past 12 months you might be happy to forget, or to enjoy temporary respite from. Perhaps they say something about the level of success the artists behind them have enjoyed: running contrary to so much accepted wisdom about current pop – its disposability, its willingness to pander to short attention spans, its diminished role as mere background music – they suggest their authors no longer feel the need to compete on the same terms as everyone else.
Whatever the reason behind them, the idea of making a grand, maximalist statement felt pervasive. You could witness similar thinking in Charli XCX’s Crash, which presented its DayGlo choruses and knowingly obvious interpolations of big hits as a kind of cynical conceptual work about, as the singer put it, “everything the life of a pop figurehead has to offer in today’s world”: a pop album about pop albums. Arctic Monkeys’ The Car was another wilful step away from the music that made them famous: light on festival-rousing anthems, it invited listeners to either fully embrace its slow rhythms, oblique lyrics and lavish orchestration or go home. FKA twigs sold Caprisongs’ abundance of inventive sonics as “a club pre-game” designed to evoke the early stages of an evening out: “bronzer in the sink, alcopop on the side”.
Indeed, it became so pervasive that albums which didn’t appear to have an overarching theme were marketed as such: Taylor Swift’s Midnights was a fantastic collection of songs, the work of a pop artist at the top of her game, but only one track really seemed to fit Swift’s suggestion that it was an album about the kind of bleak thoughts that keep you awake in the small hours. And so pervasive that you wouldn’t bet against more of the same – more of more, if you like – in 2023.