To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we continue with 2016, a year where an increasingly creative and spontaneous approach among major artists towards their new albums resulted in the format once again landing at the center of popular music.
With physical media sales declining to dangerous lows as the ’00s turned into the ’10s, and individual digital song sales seeming to be the only rising market in the music industry, it was fair to ask earlier in the decade if the days of the album format were numbered. A Business Insider article from 2011 entitled The Death of the Music Industry took a deep, graphic-based look at some of the trends in sales and found few of them encouraging, particularly for those related to LP sales, with no reversals of fortune in sight. “Looks like the smaller and shrinking recorded music industry is here to stay,” it concluded. “Digital really does appear to have brought about the era of the single.”
But with the fall of the physical album came brand new possibilities for the format to generate attention — and indeed, sales — though the full magnitude of those opportunities was not really grasped by a major artist until December 2013.
THE 2010S WERE THE DECADE THAT…
2010: Turbo-Pop Ruled the Radio | 2011: Adele Revived the Music Industry | 2012: EDM Infiltrated Everything | 2013: Streaming Became Unignorable | 2014: Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Music Discussion | 2015: Canadians Ran Popular Music | 2017: Latin Pop Took Over the U.S. | 2018: Hip-Hop Took Its Victory Lap 2019: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Put a Bow on the Decade
That was when Beyoncé, coming off 2011’s acclaimed-but-low-selling 4, upended the entire industry with the release of her self-titled set — dropping online overnight on a Thursday with no advance warning whatsoever. While alt-rock innovators Radiohead had laid the groundwork the previous decade with their pay-what-you-want release of 2007 album In Rainbows, and returning shoegaze vets My Bloody Valentine and enduring rock legend David Bowie had dropped projects of varying degrees of surprise earlier in 2013, there was nothing like Beyoncé before on this scale. Actually, it had been notable as a year of endless album rollouts from its biggest artists, often exhausting fans before the record was even delivered. Instead, Beyoncé took the opposite approach, building instant hype through surprise and incredulity at its sheer existence — it wasn’t there, and then it was.
And it was more than just any old LP, too. Beyoncé arrived as a visual album, with videos filmed to accompany each of its 14 original tracks, all of which were screened at a one-time theatrical event in New York City later that month. It was as big as anyone had bothered to imagine popular music in decades — and the music was scaled to match the ambition of the project, as by far the most fully realized solo album the megastar had released in her career. The response was rapturous: Beyoncé sold over 600,000 digital copies in its first week of release, and drew easily her strongest reviews to date, with the combined commercial and critical reception reconfirming her status as the Queen of 21st century pop.
Over the next few years, the surprise album became an increasingly regular part of the music industry — a model for generating buzz and excitement used by artists ranging from Rock and Roll Hall of Famers U2 to superstar producer duo Jack Ü. By 2016, the model of advance singles, late-night appearances and press tours for weeks (if not months) leading up to an album release was far from dead and buried, but it was starting to look distinctly old-world when compared to those artists who would unleash a new album with little-to-no notice, often no advance singles, and with other convention-bucking strategies that centered the full album as the event release.
In fact, despite the Business Insider claim about the digital age bringing about the era of the single, in the mid-’10s, the biggest artists were less reliant on conventional “hits” than ever. This was particularly true in hip-hop, rapidly emerging as the biggest genre in popular music, and increasingly defined at its vanguard by artists who relied on full albums and mixtapes, rather than radio-ruling singles. “The last two years, no important artist has had a ‘single,’” rapper Vince Staples proclaimed to FADER in 2015. “Drake doesn’t have a single. J. Cole doesn’t have a single. Jay Z doesn’t have singles. They just put out music… the fact that labels are still trying to market singles is weird to me.” Artists took that to heart in 2016, and while the radio was largely ruled by The Chainsmokers, Sia and Justin Timberlake, the most impactful music on the culture was being dropped one headline-grabbing full-length at a time.
The year of the event album started early, with the release of Rihanna’s ANTI. For eight years, Rihanna had been a pop A-lister whose release schedule you could set your calendar to: With the lone exception of 2008, from 2005 to 2012, she had put out one album per year, with consistent success. But for three years following 2012’s Unapologetic, the release of her 8th album had failed to surface. Then finally, in January 2016, ANTI dropped — with only an accidental leak via the TIDAL streaming service as warning — along with a Samsung promotion that made the first million copies of it available free to subscribers, though such “sales” were not initially counted in Billboard calculations.
As messy as the rollout was, the LP connected with fans instantly, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and spawning a year’s worth of hits, including the Hot 100-topping advance single “Work.” More importantly, ANTI recalibrated the perception of Rihanna as an albums artist, similarly to Beyoncé’s self-titled set, as it was hailed as Rihanna’s most sophisticated, forward-thinking set to date.
“Messy” barely even began to describe the lead-up to the year’s next major release. Kanye West had cemented his status as the most acclaimed artist of his era with his first two LPs of the decade, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s Yeezus — but his third solo full-length of the 2010s spent years stuck in development hell, changing its name several times and seemingly coming no closer to actual release.
Then, in 2016, the album finally debuted (with a couple weeks’ notice) as The Life of Pablo, in a livestreamed gathering held at Madison Square Garden, which turned the album’s release into a literal event. The gospel-tinged, star-studded set dropped to streaming services to near-unanimous acclaim days later, though in the interim — and even after its “official” release — Kanye would continue to tweak the project, showing just how far the album format had evolved from its static, narrowly defined form of decades earlier.
But once again, the biggest release of the year belonged to Beyoncé. In April, she dropped the follow-up to her game-changing self-titled set in the form of Lemonade, once again as a visual album. But this time, it came with a primetime premiere on HBO, as the set followed a near-concept-album narrative — largely inspired by Bey’s much-publicized marital struggles with fellow musical icon Jay-Z, following the latter’s reported infidelity. While less revolutionary in its release than Beyoncé, the more personal subject matter and even more seamless execution (including cross-genre collaborations with Jack White, Diplo and Mike WiLL Made-It, among many others) led to Lemonade achieving blockbuster sales (653,000 equivalent album units in its first week) and even stronger reviews than the self-titled, while several of the accompanying videos became instantly iconic images of mid-’10s pop culture.
The event albums continued well through the spring and summer of 2016. Chance the Rapper, a mixtape artist who’d grown a cult following to festival-headliner status without making any of his own music commercially available, released his first set for on-demand streaming with the ebullient Coloring Book, which earned rave reviews, a top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 (a first for a streaming-only album), and eventually a Grammy for best rap album. Enigmatic R&B innovator Frank Ocean answered months of release-date speculation for his much-anticipated sophomore album with a bizarre woodworking livestream… which turned out to be promotional for the avant-leaning visual set Endless… which then turned out to be largely a contract-fulfilling prelude to his official second LP, the rapturously received and chart-topping Blonde. Even Radiohead got back in the game with the sneak-release of the lush A Moon Shaped Pool, their mostly warmly received set since In Rainbows.
The preponderance of event albums not only demonstrated how much had changed in how albums were being released, it also reflected massive shifts in how they were being consumed. Common to many of these albums was a deemphasis on physical release — with the accompanying CDs and vinyl coming late, if they came at all — as the old midnight rush of record stores was replaced in the streaming age with unofficial communal gatherings on Twitter, where everyone showed up to discuss the massive new albums that were now available and accessible to all at the same time.
It was a vastly different landscape than even the beginning of the decade, when album leaks were still a huge industry issue that could force artists to reconsider entire album release strategies (and sometimes the albums themselves), while sapping their buzz by the time of their actual street date. In 2016, leaks still occurred, but not nearly as regularly or as far in advance — and in a world where consumers could legally listen to whatever album they wanted for free eventually anyway, there was less urgency for the average fan to actively seek advance leaks out anyway.
Before the end of 2016, Drake, The Weeknd, Lady Gaga and Bey’s sister Solange all unveiled new albums of their own — mostly with more conventional releases, but you could almost sense the pressure they felt to get something out to compete with these event drops. By comparison, the final years of the decade have had a little less of an everybody-in-the-pool feeling when it came to world-stopping releases from major artists, and the out-of-the-sky surprise drop has since lost some of its luster, largely falling out of favor with the biggest artists. Ultimately, the rise of the event album didn’t save album sales any more than iTunes or Adele did, as the numbers continued to drop precipitously in 2018 — though vinyl sales continue to show growth, even among 21st century artists like Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift, as stars discover that novelty of release can extend to an album’s physical product as well as its unveiling strategy.
But what really remains unchanged in 2019 is the benefit for such stars in keeping fans off-balance and intrigued with their new releases — whether that’s through unusual releases at unexpected times (as Ariana Grande recently did with Thank U, Next, her second LP in sixth months), or through expanded universes that make albums feel like more than albums (as Kanye again did with his Jesus Is King IMAX experience and Sunday Service events). Albums won’t likely ever drive the industry again as they did when dozens of them were selling millions of copies every year, but they’re still vital in drawing streams, downloads and overall excitement to an artist — and they’ve proven more adaptable in fighting against their demise than most early-decade prognosticators would have ever dreamed.
Next, in 2017: One of the decade’s most relevant international scenes finally bubbles over into the U.S. mainstream.