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Album of the Artist

November 11, 2016

Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye, Drake, Radiohead, Chance, Kendrick, Local Natives, Twin Peaks, Glass Animals, Travis Scott, Bon Iver, Francis and the Lights, The Weeknd, Wilco, The Growlers, and the fervently anticipated Frank Ocean to name a few. It seems that the biggest names in music have all conspired to dump their new releases all over 2016, and we the fans are expected to keep up. Thus, in order to comprehend all the tunes being thrown at us, we begin comparing.

In the interest of deciding the “Album of the Year,” comparison is understandable and highly necessary. I am all for heated debates about “Life of Pablo” versus “Blonde” or “Lemonade” versus “ANTI.” The issue I have is when people start asking the daring question, “Is ______’s new album better than their last album?”

The problem with answering this question primarily shows itself through albums like Bon Iver’s “22, A Million” or Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” or even Kid Cudi’s singles from his upcoming album “Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’.” Of course, with artists as highly esteemed as these, fans are bound to wonder how they will follow up their past masterpieces. The curiosity is natural. Yet, it’s hardly fair to the artist nor to their new music to compare their releases so definitively.

The beauty of artistic freedom is an artist has the liberty to express his/her emotions and experiences through his/her music. That being said, no person feels or acts one certain way throughout a lifetime. Humans are dynamic. Our experiences shape who we are and how we react to our lives. These adored artists of ours are in far different places emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially than when they composed their last hits.

Take “Channel Orange” for example. Frank had been battling with the publicity of his sexuality by coming out within the same week of his first album release. Now, he explores his loves and losses through music with new freedom. Kid Cudi, alternatively, hinted at the skeletons in his closet through the occasionally dark lyrics of his old music, but has now publicly identified himself as depressed. He recently admitted himself into rehab to treat his mental illness. Fans have become critical of his expressive last album “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven,” and his upcoming “Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’” could follow the same pattern of fan reaction if we’re not careful. Clearly, his music is going to change as he comes to terms with his depression and attempts to stay honest with his fans.

The failures, successes, and overall life experiences that artists undergo shape them as much as they would any human. Their new music, therefore, shouldn’t be compared in as black and white of terms as being “better” or “worse” than their older music. At that point, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Bon Iver’s “22, A Million” is a perfect example of this. Justin Vernon’s sophomore album with the band has taken a vastly different turn from “For Emma, Forever Ago.” The soft vocals are mostly lost as Justin Vernon ditches the falsetto that had been so characteristic of Bon Iver, returning to deeper inflections such as what accompanied his older projects Volcano Choir and DeYarmond Edison. As a result, “22, A Million” gains a bolder, heartier feel. But it’s a mistake to assume too much of the same from Justin Vernon. His past projects show his progressiveness as an artist. “22, A Million” is just his next evolution, and it can’t be arbitrated as “better” or “worse” than those of his past. They are entirely separate entities.

2016 has been one of the best years for music in the last decade, and it should be viewed semi-impartially as such. The “Album of the Year” award will be an interesting battle between these favorite artists of ours. But don’t let the battle extend to “Album of the Artist.” Context is essential to the works of a musician, and in the interest of nonpartisan artistic freedom, it must never be disregarded.

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