Just What Is An Album? In 2016, That Was An Open Question This year, major pop artists changed the definition of an album with unconventional releases. NPR Music's Daoud Tyler-Ameen joined host Audie Cornish to discuss this phenomenon.
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Just What Is An Album? In 2016, That Was An Open Question

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Just What Is An Album? In 2016, That Was An Open Question

Just What Is An Album? In 2016, That Was An Open Question

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Music fans and music makers are used to a certain order, a certain way of doing things. First, pop artists work hard to put out finished albums, every song polished to a high shine. Second, music critics get those albums ahead of the release date so they can listen and review them. And the last step for music fans - albums come out on Fridays - something to look forward to and spend your money on at the week's end.

Now, that's the old world order. None of it seems to apply anymore, and 2016 really drove that point home. NPR music Daoud Tyler-Ameen is here to talk about album releases that upended all of this. Welcome to the studio.

DAOUD TYLER-AMEEN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: All right. So one trend you've pointed out is the unfinished album. And obviously the biggest example of this would be Kanye West - "The Life Of Pablo", which was released. And then over the course of several months, he was still fixing, changing songs, and people kind of had a different work in their hands.

TYLER-AMEEN: That's right. Kanye's whole thing is that he's kind of obsessed with the vanguard. Every time he makes a record, it's something totally new, and it changes the sound of pop music. This time, it kind of seemed like what he wanted to push us to do was to reconsider the way that we consume music. So you have a year of him teasing the album, saying what the name is, and then the name is suddenly something different. And the whole thing is that when you listen to it, it does sound unfinished.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ULTRALIGHT BEAM")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) I'm trying to keep my faith. We on a ultralight beam. This is a god dream. This is a god dream. This is everything.

TYLER-AMEEN: So "The Life Of Pablo" is premiered at a listening party at Madison Square Garden. And then it makes its way to Tidal, but by the time it gets to Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, it sounds a little bit different. Even the Tidal version has changed. So it seems like the thing that he's trying to say is this is the way that we consume music now. Nothing is permanent, so I'm going to use the platform in every way that I can.

CORNISH: And then the rapper Kendrick Lamar goes ahead and releases something that's called "Untitled, Unmastered."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTITLED 03")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) What did the Asian say?

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Singing) A peace of mind - that's what the Asian said. I need a divine intervention - was his religion. And I was surprised.

TYLER-AMEEN: That's right. And he made a gigantically orchestrated, calculated record last year with "To Pimp A Butterfly." That's kind of hip hop's "Dark Side Of The Moon." And so the fun surprise this year is that he leaves this record on the internet's doorstep in the middle of the night. These are unfinished demos from the "To Pimp A Butterfly" sessions, and they kind of go all over the place. It seems like what Kendrick was trying to say is, like, well, there's actually a process behind this, and I'm going to let you in on a little bit of what that's like.

CORNISH: You mentioned a bunch of streaming services, and this reminds me of another trend this year, which is the streaming exclusive. You had artists saying, I'm only going to give my album to Spotify or to Apple or to Tidal. And we were all left trying to sign up for various different services to hear it. It made me miss, like, the record store, frankly.

(LAUGHTER)

TYLER-AMEEN: I mean, people are experiencing the same thing with TV, right? If you don't have a Netflix account and a Hulu account and an Amazon account, then you actually can't watch all of the prestige TV that's happening right now. You know, Rihanna's "Anti" is a good example of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Work, work, work, work, work, work. He said me have to work, work, work, work, work, work. He see me doing...

TYLER-AMEEN: To hear that record when it first came out, you had to go and get yourself a Tidal account. You could still hear it without paying any money. But this is a thing that people experienced with the Kanye record and actually got a little bit angry about because a lot of people signed up for a Tidal account for a record that they thought was going to be exclusive, and it turned out not to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMATION")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Y'all haters corny with that Illuminati mess. Paparazzi, catch my fly and my cocky fresh. I'm so reckless...

CORNISH: And, of course, one of the biggest albums of the year was a visual album, and that came from Beyonce.

TYLER-AMEEN: That's right, and Beyonce's done this before, right? Beyonce is kind of ground zero for this whole conversation because her self-titled record from 2013 - it wasn't the first necessarily to do everything that it did, but it was definitely the biggest. You know, dropping an album in the middle of the night with a video for every song - that's kind of a shot across the bow for pop music. And what you see with all of the rest of these records that we're talking about is all of her peers kind of trying to figure out how to catch up.

CORNISH: What I'm getting from you here is that artists finally feel freed from the album, right? They're stretching their legs and trying to use all these different formats in different ways. What other trends did you see people warming up to - things we might see more of going forward?

TYLER-AMEEN: Speaking of liberation from the album format, there are a lot of long, long albums being released by major artists this year. Drake's "Views" was something like 80 minutes. The 1975 rock band from England - their album "I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It" - that's a mouthful in itself.

CORNISH: Yeah, that's the - that's the title.

TYLER-AMEEN: You might need two discs just to fit the title, and that was, you know, something like 70 minutes. Miranda Lambert released a kind of career-defining album and did it in 90 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICE")

MIRANDA LAMBERT: (Singing) All dressed up in a pretty black label, sweet salvation on a dining room table, waiting on me...

TYLER-AMEEN: What we've got now is major artists - not people at the fringes, but people directly at the center of the conversation - starting to say, you know what? An album doesn't necessarily need to be a complete statement. An album doesn't necessarily need to be under 80 minutes. An album doesn't need to have singles. You know, there are all these ways that major pop artists - the people who are supposed to be - have the most traditional ways of approaching, you know, the release of music - they're taking the biggest swings they can because - well, 'cause they can.

CORNISH: Daoud Tyler-Ameen, thank you so much for sharing all this music with us.

TYLER-AMEEN: You bet. Thanks, Audie.

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