Let’s all admit it: 2016 kind of sucked. It was full of surprises, both good and bad, and a lot of the time, it seemed the bad was outweighing the good (no, I am NOT about to get political). However, there is always a silver lining, though I’m personally not one that is used to looking for those things: music. In 2016, a lot of stuff went down when it came to the music industry and a lot more of it seemed positive rather than negative. So, let’s take a look back at some of these moments and hope that 2017 can learn by example and not suck.

THE HIGHS

New Music

When you look back at this year, it seemed like everyone was dropping a new album. Beyoncé, Adele, Drake, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, Bruno Mars… there were so many! And whether or not these albums were well received or critically acclaimed, the massive influx of material from these artists was a positive turn of events, especially from artists who had been silent for years, like pretty much all of the people I just mentioned.

Also, it needs to be said that the inventive ways in which these records were rolled out played a huge part in their releases. Beyoncé, of course, took the world by storm with her stunning visual accompaniment to her album Lemonade. Adele’s whopper 25 broke records by the second from the moment it dropped (and yes, I know, it was technically 2015 when it dropped, but it was still one of the highest selling albums of 2016). And Frank Ocean slapped big labels in the face with Endless and Blonde, simultaneously making a huge statement about the need for major label influence for artists nowadays, as well cementing his place in the industry as one of it’s most inventive and unpredictable players. Whether these albums were released in big ways or through more traditional methods, they all showed that there is no one right way to release a record nowadays in 2016.

Artists Taking Stands

Oftentimes, the people with the most power and influence that could do a great deal to help a cause are the ones that remain quiet so as to keep the peace. But this year, that was completely thrown out the window. Whether it was social issues that were daily news headlines, or rebellion against the ways of streaming, artists took their stand this year regardless of how divisive their words and actions seemed to the people watching.

Beyoncé dove right in, starting in February at the Super Bowl with Coldplay, when she drew criticism for her costume and her dancers resembling those of the Black Panther Party. From there, her album Lemonade also took on the conversation on racial equality, with incredibly moving songs like “Freedom” with Kendrick Lamar and of course, “Formation” and it’s accompanying video. She also took a big step in making an album about infidelity in a marriage that still showed the strength from the female side of the relationship, as she continues to represent a strong female role model. Even Lady Gaga got into the conversation about race and police brutality with her song “Angel Down” on her new album, Joanne, as a tribute to Trayvon Martin. And no one could forget Kendrick Lamar’s powerful performance at the Grammy’s this past February as well, appearing in prison uniforms and chains, leaving everyone speechless.

Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, and Adele also all took on the current moves of the music industry by way of streaming and how little focus has been placed on the artist in recent years. Ocean dropped Endless for the sole purpose of getting out of his contract with Universal Music. Then, on his own, he released Blonde, a superior work to Endless, with a statement that he didn’t need a huge label behind him to unveil one of the biggest records of the year. This is because, as not many people outside of the industry know, money from the sale of an artist’s record is divided up between so many people with how restrictive these big label contracts are, that the person who’s album it is hardly gets compensated for it. And with 360 deals becoming more and more of a common occurrence, artists are getting robbed at every turn from getting the full extent of their dues. Ocean was bold, and while he made enemies, he made a lot of supporters as well.

Beyoncé made the bold move to release her album exclusively to Tidal, a streaming platform she has a huge share in, before releasing it anywhere else. Though not really making a statement about anything besides “you should get Tidal so you can get my album”, she did make it clear that instead of going against the wave of digitalization, she’s moving ahead with it and using it to her advantage.

Adele, not unlike Taylor Swift, decided to withhold 25 from streaming services for months before allowing Spotify and Apple Music to offer it to listeners. While it may have hurt the streaming giants to lose out on one of the biggest albums of the year, Adele wasn’t hurting at all, as the album quickly went Platinum, and then Diamond certified (selling over 10 million copies) in less than a year. That is a feat in this day and age that is unheard of. But the big statement in all of that was that most of those sales were from physical copies of the record. 25 sold over a million physical copies in it’s first week, something that doesn’t happen in this digital era of music, and that was her point in the way it was released.

It was clear that artists were sick and tired of being silent on this issues solely because they thought it would cause trouble or lose them money or fans over the course of this year, and that’s quite a promising sight to see. These big name artists, being as prominent as they are, have the ability to cause some change, and it’s about time they took the responsibility and did something about it.

Diversity of Sound

2016 brought about a new wave of sounds and influences in the music we listen to as well, and a seemingly new fearlessness about exploration and experimentation. Artists felt like they cared so much less about critical input about their sounds, and just went for what they felt like doing.

Take Lady Gaga for example, pop’s bonafide musical chameleon. If you’ve read my past review, you’ll know that I thoroughly enjoyed her album Joanne. It was a big risk for her to take to release an album so unlike her past discography that it would really divide her fanbase as well as the critics listening to it. Instead of her usual pulse pounding, synth heavy dance music, Gaga went for a more basic go of things, focusing more on rock, country, folk, and blues influences, and getting more personal than ever before as far as its lyrical content. And though it wasn’t an across-the-board crowd pleaser with all fans or critics, Gaga has shown what all of her idols before her have shown: versatility. She can do pop, rock, folk, country, jazz, anything, and she can do it with class and raw talent.

One of my favorite records of this year was undeniably Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. Talk about a lane all his own. Bon Iver has never been an artist you can trap in a box, whether it be which genre you’d like to describe him as or the type of storyteller he is with his lyrics. So with each record, listeners are always wondering like a child on Christmas morning what will be on it’s way. In 22, A Million, it’s a unique blend of his signature singer/songwriter-like lyrics and his haunting falsetto with disarming levels of production that translate into something no one has ever heard before. It’s genius in many ways, and unmatched by any other record out there in it’s diversity in sound from one track to another. It’s ethereal, atmospheric, uplifting, emotional, and incredibly unique.

Twenty One Pilots are another act that can’t be nailed down when it comes to genre, and their growth in popularity shows the change in tastes of the music consuming public. They blend rock style music with hip hop, reggae, ska and pop influences to craft an eclectic style all their own, and with Blurryface being as successful as a record as it was, spawning singles “Tear In My Heart”, “Ride”, and “Stressed Out”, plus “Heathens” becoming a massive track from the Suicide Squad soundtrack, they too have made themselves a place in the industry that is all their own.

Appreciation of New Artists

Like a new freshman class in high school or college, the new wave of fresh faces in the music industry is always exciting, and in 2016, there was quite a new class of kids. The great thing about this is how well they were received.

Let’s start with Chance the Rapper. He’s appeared on SNL twice now and both times, given stunning performances. Due to the genius of his album Coloring Book, the Grammy’s had to alter their submission rules so an album like Chance’s, released solely on streaming services, could be nominated and recognized for it’s effect on the industry. And he’s doing all of this without major label representation, something hardly anyone else has been able to do at the level in which he has. And about Coloring Book? One of the most inventive albums I’ve heard in a long time. Chance masterfully jumps from brazen confidence on “No Problem” to tear jerking nostalgia on “Same Drugs”, all with a refreshing sense of sincerity.

Going back to Twenty One Pilots, “Stressed Out” became their breakout hit with Top 40 radio listeners, and because of that, their aforementioned album Blurryface became that much more prominent to listeners, making them the first rock act since the 80s to have three Top 10 hits at the same time. And before 2016, only devoted members of their fanbase really knew who they were.

Tori Kelly, one of my personal favorites, was up for a Grammy this past February, and although she didn’t win it, her performances before and after that have continued to wow audiences with her raw natural talent, and her performance that night with James Bay, another amazing new act who was nominated in the same category, was agreed upon by everyone as one of the best of the night.

Alessia Cara came in this year with her hit song “Here”, and proved with her fantastic debut album Know-It-All and it’s two other hits “Wild Things” and “Scars To Your Beautiful” that not only is she wickedly talented with a unique voice all her own, but she’s no one hit wonder. She’s here to stay. And though she got snubbed when it came to Grammy nominations this year, I have a feeling based on what I’ve heard from her this year that she’ll be looking at some trophies soon.

Shawn Mendes was another surprise this year, proving he’s not just another young face in the crowd aiming to get your teenage daughter to buy his record just because they think he has a nice face. His album Illuminate showed serious singing and writing chops, and a true sense of maturity from his first record, sounding more like John Mayer then Justin Bieber. With songs like “Treat You Better” and “Ruin”, it feels like Ed Sheeran might have a run for his money.

And of course, who couldn’t forget the makers of your summer playlist, The Chainsmokers. If you couldn’t escape “Closer” or “Don’t Let Me Down”, that’s because the radio instantly fell in love with pretty much every song this duo put out this year. And let’s face it, when you can make serious hit songs after “SELFIE” was your breakout, then power to you.

Every new artist that was able to charm their way onto the radio this year was able to do so with a staying power that I haven’t seen in a while. They didn’t come in with one hit song and then disappear. They proved they could have a lasting career, and it was really encouraging to see how quickly they were embraced by new fans and listeners.

Writers Getting Their Share of the Spotlight

It has only gotten more common as time has gone on that your favorite songs on the radio were actually written by the person singing them. For years, other people would write some of the biggest hits in the world for them to be sung by other artists to really get the songs out there. But increasingly so, writers are taking the reigns and singing more of their own material, and this year more than ever have we seen that advocated for.

Sia, practically singlehandedly, has been running pop music from behind the scenes. She’s written so many hit songs for so many artists that it’s a surprise she hasn’t won a Grammy yet for her own music, since we all know she’s got the pipes. With her latest release, This Is Acting, that fact is brought to the forefront. The album consists of all songs she wrote with artists or at least with them in mind, but weren’t continued with, so Sia brought them to life herself. That has obviously paid off, with her hits “Alive”, written with and meant for Adele, and “Cheap Thrills”, most likely meant for Rihanna, becoming some of this year’s biggest radio hits. Even with “Chandelier” and “Titanium” from a couple of years ago bringing Sia more and more back into the mainstream for her own voice, 2016 has been her year.

Also, another artist people are discovering now for his own voice rather than the songs he wrote for others is Jon Bellion. If you’ve heard “All Time Low”, then you know Jon Bellion. In fact, if you’ve heard “The Monster” by Eminem and Rihanna, then you know Jon Bellion, because he wrote the hook! Bellion has been releasing music on Spotify for a couple of years now, but this year, he made his full length debut with his incredible record The Human Condition. “Low” has been climbing the charts, and people are really starting to dig more into his sound. This album, it should be noted, is definitely worth listening to. It takes a lot for an artist to write an entire album, but to wrap it all up with a mashup of every single one of those songs, all sung with the same choir from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” is a feat all it’s own.

Albums Over Singles

Singles are the current currency in the music industry. Everyone is looking to get their next hit song… or are they? In 2016, it seemed a lot more of the established artists we look towards were focused more on what their albums said as a whole than what their singles would say. For example, Beyoncé’s Lemonade didn’t really churn out any radio hits this year, though it’s overarching narrative was the main focus of it’s release anyway. The same could be said for Blonde, as well as Joanne, though “Million Reasons” has been gaining traction with airplay. When songs from these records were getting big, it didn’t feel like they were created for the sole purpose of pandering an audience into listening to their record when it came out. It felt more like they crafted an entire record of music, picked the best fit for a first single, and if it stuck, then yay! If not, the album is going out anyway, and what will happen, will happen.

THE LOWS

A Loss in Individuality

As I said before, a new group of artists coming to prominence is always exciting because it’s always a test to see who can make it past a ‘one hit wonder’ set of circumstances. What makes each one of the artists I mentioned above worthy of getting past that dreaded title is that they all have individuality and some unique quality about them that sets them apart. That being said, there was a serious lack of that from some established artists this year, specifically, and I know it seems like I’m harping on this, but Meghan Trainor.

If you’ve read my past pieces on this, you’ll already know where I’m going with this, so feel free to skip through it. Meghan was on my list of new and exciting faces from last year with a sound all her own. Her debut album Title was fresh, with a throwback sound so interestingly mixed with modern pop influences that had listeners enthralled. I too was apart of that group, and absolutely loved her album. When she released her second album, I felt completely lost with why I had gotten into her music in the first place. From the release of her first single off of Thank You, titled, “NO”, I was thrown. All hints of individuality were gone, masked by generic pop that anyone could be singing to me and I’d still be bored. Even if Adele had been singing me that song, I would have been bored, and I’m convinced I’d be crying my eyes out if Adele ever sang me the freaking phone book, she’s that good. Her album followed and further proved this point to me that she had lost all sense of what got her here in the first place. Her debut album put her in a good place with the music consuming public, but this swing-and-a-miss risky curveball turned a lot of people off, including myself.

Rihanna also had me feeling slightly this way this year. As much as it sounds somewhat hypocritical for me to say I didn’t like the fact that Rihanna almost abandoned all hints of the her ‘dancehall bangers’ days when I praised Lady Gaga for doing it, I have to say that at least Gaga did it with a sense of believability. Anti had it’s moments, with “Love On The Brain” being my personal favorite that was so not Rihanna’s typical sound and the voice cracks of “Higher” so closely pushing the border of ‘sounding unbelievably good’ and ‘please don’t hurt your voice!’, but a lot of the other moments that were not her usual speed felt forgettable and flat to me, and it had me missing moments like “Where Have You Been?” and “We Found Love”. Even her follow up with Calvin Harris with “This Is What You Came For” was not as upbeat as I would have liked. I’m all for changing of sounds when it’s done right (for example, “FourFive Seconds”? Genius. Loved it. Oddest combination of people in the world, but I loved it). The thing with Rihanna though, is that she still had her individuality in songs like “Needed Me”. It’s a slow burner, but it’s still got lines like “didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?” that reminds you that it’s Rih in charge.

Also, sadly, even The Chainsmokers, along with a lot of mainstream EDM/pop artists started to just seem formulaic, with “Closer” being accused of stealing it’s ever so popular melody from Fetty Wap’s “679”. Only Zedd’s recent remix of “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber reminded me why I started to listen to him, and Martin Garrix and Bebe Rexha’s “In The Name of Love” has yet to grab onto my attention enough to buy it. There seemed to be a good number of examples of artists following a formula to get success rather than finding what sets them apart and building off of it. That to me was disappointing to see, especially when it was those songs that were gaining popularity over others that deserved more attention.

Discouragement/Lack of Appreciation for Sonic Exploration

Though this year brought us a bunch of different sounds from a variety of artists who were either establishing themselves with a new sound as a standout from the rest, or artists that were switching up their typical sound as bit of a change to their usual avenue of operation. However, as amazing as it was that artists body explored into uncharted territory, and as much as that is one of the highlights of this year that more and more musicians are trying to not follow a formula, reception of these works have been incredibly disappointing.

Once again, Lady Gaga’s Joanne was one of these cases. Despite Joanne being more organic and instrumental than The Fame Monster or Born This Way, the album was still quite good in a completely different way than in the way she had established herself in this industry. We were used to dance jams, like “Bad Romance”, and techno masterpieces like “Applause”, but instead got country tinged “Sinner’s Prayer” and the broken down piano ballad of “Million Reasons”. It threw many for a loop, which showed in the critical and some public reception. However, there was a very apparent theme in each review I read: people said they didn’t like it simply because “it wasn’t what they were expecting to hear from her at this point in her career”. To tell an artist of her caliber, who could record an album completely different from her others that is still a quality work is pretty impressive, and to, for lack of a better term, crap on it just because it wasn’t what you thought she would come out with is like telling someone to think out of the box, but not too far.

Another great example of this was Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! which saw him craft a record without any rapping at all, similar to the reinvention of Gaga. Instead of spitting any verses, he sings, and with some serious soul that even I wasn’t expecting. The album has it’s drawbacks, no one can deny that, and everyone can pick and choose where they think he could have done something a bit different, but is there an album you can’t say that about? Personally, the autotune on his voice in “California” irks me, for example. However, as a creative departure, it’s actually quite genius, and with banging tracks like “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone”, it felt like such a crime to see people ripping into this record when it’s quite a feat of an album. And Glover didn’t change up his sound to lean more towards the popular side of things. He did this because he was genuinely influenced by past music of the same retro feel (unlike, say, Meghan Trainor, who, like I said, felt like she sold out with her dive into generic pop).

The strange and off kilter critical reception to albums that broke the mold from their artist’s usual M.O’s was disappointing to me this year. It was like artists being told to stifle their creativity if it meant the music they would end up making would sound “too new”. If the artists can be open minded enough to switch things up so we as an audience don’t get bored with the same pop formula reworked over and over again, and they can freely express their artistic creativity without being slapped on the wrists for wanting to stray from the beaten path. Hopefully, we can open ourselves up to the possibility that new can be good as 2017 is rolling around.

Label Issues

As my friend Jackie reminded me, this year reminded us all that just because you sign a record contract, doesn’t mean you are set for life. In fact, it can cause many issues for artists, and in Kesha’s case for example, it can really mess with your life.

Let’s start with Kesha. We’ve been hearing about her court case for pretty much the entire year, and deservedly so. She accused her long time collaborator Dr. Luke, who also owns Kemosabe Records where she is signed (under parent company Sony Records), of sexually assaulting her, berating her about her appearance and weight, and many other unfriendly things that have caused her to want a split from him. With past testimonies Kesha made and a lack of solid proof, she’s been fighting an uphill battle, but valiantly so. Sony, who has been protested against and has had major artists come after them because of their decision to stay out of the matter, has done absolutely nothing to help the situation, most likely because they are one of the big three labels out there. Why would they get involved in a problem for one artist they have on their roster that hasn’t put out music in a while when they have so many others that are out making money now?

What happened to the human element of it all? If these accusations are true (and Luke’s/Kemosabe’s quite defensive actions haven’t necessarily proved they are completely unfounded AKA picking and choosing when she is and isn’t allowed to perform places, agreeing and then rescinding those agreements), then why not intervene in some way so a person (let’s take out gender here for a minute) who may have been sexually assaulted doesn’t LITERALLY have to work with the person who assaulted them? And that’s the real snag of the whole thing: Kesha is still signed to the label and won’t be allowed out of the contract she signed until she fulfills the number of records she agreed to make under their name, meaning if she wants to put out new music, she has to work with Luke’s Kemosabe Records to get it out there. It’s sick, twisted and very concerning, especially for an artist like Kesha, who’s entire platform has always been a wild sense of freedom.

JoJo and Lil Wayne have also been experiencing serious issues with their record contracts, though in JoJo’s case, she was able to get a new label. Unfortunately for her, it took 10 years for her to get that all sorted out, and in that time, many careers fizzle out. Now, JoJo is talented beyond a singer’s wildest dreams, but the fact of the matter is that when an artist is out of the spotlight for that long, it’s going to take a lot for them to resurface in the mainstream, and though she deserves to be back there, it hasn’t happened just yet. Let’s be thankful she’s been able to make it to another label that’s letting her make new music though. As far as Lil Wayne is concerned? It doesn’t look like an end is insight in the incredibly near future, but we can only hope this kind of situation doesn’t become a recurring theme.

Those We’ve Lost

The amount of musical talent we lost this year was incredible and devastatingly sad. Starting with David Bowie and Prince, two of the most creative individuals to ever grace the planet, the industry lost a lot of it’s riskiest players. Prince, throughout his whole career, brazenly and boldly pushed every boundary and stereotype for a male artist imaginable. He was provocative, not overly masculine all the time, wasn’t afraid to show his funny side, intelligent with his business acumen, and one of hell of a performer. David Bowie was the exact same way. With bright colors, crazy costumes and a unique sonically mesmerizing sound, he too set so many different standards in the industry for upcoming artists to test their limits of what they thought their artistry and music could do. And with names like George Michael, Maurice White and Leonard Cohen rounding out this list, it hard to hear of their passing. It was an overwhelming shame to see them, along with so many others, leave us this year.

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