The first half of 2016 saw music filling a heightened space in the cultural conversation. It was sometimes triumphant, at times heartbreaking, and a lot of it felt unprecedented.
There was a momentous succession of albums from industry A-listers, each one seemingly trying to outshine the other with non-traditional rollouts. Three years after Beyoncé pulled the first Beyoncé, she one-upped her own surprise visual album with another surprise visual album on HBO — this one revealing relationship struggles, all resolved by album’s end. Kanye West turned the “event album” into a literal happening held in an arena. Like Bey and Kanye, Drake and Rihanna surprise-dropped their albums on their respective streaming services of choice, stoking an arms race that’s likely just getting started. And while Radiohead may not operate on quite the same wavelength as this crowd, they stealth-dropped their album in much the same manner.
The first half of the year was also marked by collective sadness; we lost David Bowie, Prince and many others, and expressed our feelings through covers, testimonials and tributes, while grappling with how the bulk of Prince’s discography was only available on Tidal.
Thinking ahead to the next Grammy Awards (scheduled for Feb. 2017), the album of the year field is already looking crowded. Toss in Chance the Rapper (and some new eligibility rules) and Adele’s 25 — a late 2015 holdover for this year’s field — and you’ve got heavy competition when those nominations drop in December. But what else? In what remains of 2016, who could release a new studio album with the same impact of those above?
As the long-awaited Drake, Rihanna and Kanye albums landed, one name that remained unaccounted for is Frank Ocean. The hotly-anticipated sophomore album was first teased as a July 2015 release but never arrived. Now, a year later, Ocean is again hinting Boys Don’t Cry (its still tentative title) could arrive this month. Expectations are high, and rightfully so. Ocean’s 2012 album Channel Orange affirmed what the previous year’s mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra only hinted at: Ocean was a unique talent, capable of changing the face of R&B, or whatever genre he chose to evoke. On Channel Orange, Ocean explored sexuality, religion, race and class through his own personal lens, while revealing his unrequited love for another man along the way. With headlines so dominated by violence and intolerance, the return of Ocean’s soothing voice feels necessary, whether he chooses to respond directly to these ills or not.
In the world of A-list pop veterans, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Katy Perry are all several years removed from studio solo albums. Billboard doesn’t expect Perry’s next album to drop this year, though we have reason to be more hopeful for the other two.
Britney Spears is on a bounce-back mission. Her last album, 2013’s Britney Jean, featured the top 20 single “Work Bitch,” though its sales (272,000 to date) are the lowest of any title in her catalog. If all goes well, Spears will be able to devote more time to promoting her next project, which we expect to get a taste of soon enough. Sources tell Billboard to expect a new Britney single this summer, leading toward her eventual ninth studio album.
Then there’s Gaga. The sales of 2013’s Artpop didn’t match the commercial momentum she built over her previous projects, but she’s made some savvy decisions to revitalize herself. Collaborating with Tony Bennett on Cheek to Cheek endeared her to new fans; the Grammy and Academy Award-nominated “Till It Happens to You” raised awareness against sexual violence; she performed at the Oscars two years in a row; and at the Grammys, she tore through a medley of Bowie standards in tribute to her muse. If you’re feeling ready for Gaga’s proper follow-up to Artpop, you’re in luck: sources indicate that we can expect her new pop album during the fourth quarter of 2016 (reps for Gaga did not return Billboard‘s request for comment). Gaga and RedOne (who produced hits like “Just Dance” and “Poker Face”) are back in the studio together. Gaga’s also been photographed working with Mark Ronson and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and has shared photos of herself with Ronson and Father John Misty and producer Emile Haynie.
Gaga has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and Perry has already performed at one of her rallies. With her status as the Democratic nominee secure, expect more musicians — big and small — to rally behind her as November gets closer and the threat of a Trump presidency approaches. The music industry traditionally skews Democrat, but 2016 feels even more dire. Social issues like gun violence and police brutality are being pushed to the forefront of the national conversation, and resistance to the Trump platform figures to drive musicians toward advocacy alongside their support of Clinton.
Most of the major award shows are out of the way, but the VMAs loom on Aug. 28; we doubt you’ve forgotten how much conversation last year’s show sparked, considering Miley Cyrus dropping a surprise album was only the third most newsworthy event that night. Not yet knowing who will attend, it’s tough to call which feuds could be broadcasted live, à la Miley and Nicki. But we can point out that one specific 2016 music video has already taken the Kanye-Taylor Swift standoff to a new level and wonder what would happen if they were both in attendance (Swift has one music video, “Out of the Woods,” presumably eligible for this VMA voting period). And in case Swift or any other celebrities depicted decide to sue, we’ve already projected how that might play out.
So much is at stake throughout the rest of 2016, and not just within the music industry. The first half of the year has seen a succession of high profile event album releases, and there simply may not be enough superstars around to keep musicians foremost in the public eye, especially with a presidential election unfolding. But it’s clear that an artist doesn’t need a release date — or even a release at all — to drive cultural conversation.