A lot happened in 2016. Some of it was wonderful. Some of it was heartbreaking.
Our news department decided to memorialize what seemed like an especially tumultuous year by picking out the broader narratives we wrote about most: legends dying, how streaming has reshaped the industry, anti-Trump music, and safety in the DIY scene, to name just a few.
From our files, these were the big stories and music trends of 2016.
The death of legends and their powerful final acts
Death is a morbid way to start a roundup of music trends, not to mention the fact that it's hard to call it a trend — dying is the thing that literally everyone does. Still, it was hard to ignore the class of music legends we lost this year. It wasn't just your imagination. Our obit department was working overdrive this year, contextualizing the impact of David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Alan Vega and Leonard Cohen.
The talented class of rock & roll heaven inductees has inspired many a "fuck you, 2016!" and rightfully so, but it also bittersweetly granted the year with some amazing final statements. Death is one of the richest themes in music, and so, staring down their own mortality, we got top-10 career albums from Bowie and L. Cohen, who turned themselves into myth and reckoned with big existential questions.
Phife Dawg's passing, meanwhile, inspired Q-Tip to get a move on and finish the secret A Tribe Called Quest comeback album he was working on. Phife looms large on We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service, but it's far from dour. It's a celebratory, nostalgic and totally relevant record — one of their best and one of the best. It's just sad the 5 foot assassin didn't live to see it.
Gord Downie, meanwhile, had the most powerful year of his career at the same time as living with terminal cancer. The Tragically Hip's final tour was like a living funeral, a chance for Canadians to celebrate and mourn one of their quintessential bands. And while we reckoned with why all of Canada should have to accept the Hip as part of their identity, and what that meant to those who didn't share that cultural touchstone, Downie released Secret Path, an album that reckons with the falseness of rah-rah conceptions of Canadianism — that identity is based on ignorance and genocide of Indigenous history and people. - Richard Trapunski
Streaming: the medium becomes the message
There's little question streaming is becoming the primary mode people discover and listen to music. 2016 was capped off by Drake's "One Dance" billion stream Spotify record, but that was just the tip of the iceberg in a year when most of the consensus top albums - VIEWS, ANTI-, Coloring Book, Lemonade, The Life of Pablo - started off as exclusives to a specific streaming service.
For artists like Chance The Rapper and Frank Ocean, this raised questions about record labels — the former managed to get himself nominated for a Grammy without one (or even a proper "album"), while the latter used it to get out of his own albatross contract. But it raised the question: are services like Apple Music basically taking the place of traditional labels?
The labels responded in kind. Some, like Universal Music, banned streaming exclusives for their artists. Others, like Sony, found ways to exploit the new rules of success and sales by fabricating fake albums designed only to chart. Artists like Drake and The Weeknd figured out they could take advantage, too, and so bloated their albums with as many tracks as they could fit, giving them a better chance to drive up streaming numbers.
Let's not forget that the "album" format developed based on its physical medium in the first place, and changed as the standard went from LP to cassette to CD to MP3. 2016 was the year that the album adapted to its life on streaming services. Just look at Kanye West's The Life of Pablo. It changed and evolved as the artist's mind did, calling into question the album's life as a fixed format at all. Keep track in 2017. One of the first marquee releases will be Drake's More Life, something he defines as neither a mixtape or an album but a "playlist." - Richard Trapunski
A new era of Indigenous civil rights
Read our 25 Best Canadian Songs of 2016 and you'll notice a theme: many of the most vibrant and vital tracks this year were by Indigenous artists, speaking out against the country's racist history and their experiences of systemic violence. There's nothing new about that per se, but this latest wave of activist artists has helped foster an awareness just beginning to bud in the broader culture.
Anishinaabe writer and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson delivered a vision of Indigenous futures that's intimate, gentle and wildly powerful. Colombian-Canadian performer Lido Pimienta drew our attention to global water crises and, then, in a team-up with Above Top Secret, to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (an issue even American songwriter Cass McCombs amplified). Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red continually used their stages — getting bigger every year — to spotlight contemporary Indigenous identities and to share their hopes and concerns as such.
If we want that bud to blossom, we need to keep listening. We need more voices. - Chris Hampton
The beginning of a breakthrough for mental health
Touring is not a healthy lifestyle. It involves long hours, isolation, disorientation, overexertion, sleeping on floors or in vans or not at all. It's physically and emotionally taxing, and for artists with addiction issues it's all too easy to slip into alcohol or drug abuse. At a time when live performance has become most artists' primary source of income and people wake up to the myth of the rock star lifestyle, the music industry needs to wake up to its responsibility to performers' mental health.
It doesn't help that there's still a stigma, especially in genres like hip-hop. Look at the snide remarks that followed Kanye West's pre-Trump trip to the hospital and the armchair diagnoses from people who never met him. Or the way the media treated B.o.B. when he got deep in conspiracy theories. Or the diss from Drake to Kid Cudi, who spoke openly and honestly about his struggles with depression, started a conversation about race and masculinity and mental health, and was rewarded with a classless subliminal about being "xanned and perc’d up, so when reality set in, you don’t gotta face it."
As Stuart Berman notes for SOCAN, however, artists are working to remove the stigma about mental health in music, and the industry is starting to step up through organizations like the Unison Fund and CALM's Torch Songs project. Let's hope more initiatives pop up in 2017. Awareness is important, but so are real actions and changes. Next goal: benefits for working musicians. - Richard Trapunski
The crackdown on "scalper bots" and the secondary ticket market
For years, artists have tried various strategies to "scalper-proof" concert tickets, ensuring passes are sold directly to fans, instead of cycling through the resale market — websites like StubHub — where prices get inflated, often prohibitively.
This past fall, for example, Louis C.K. told fans not to go in search of tickets for his sold-out Vancouver shows; he'd be invalidating all passes sold on secondary broker sites. Metallica required the credit card holder themselves pick up their tickets at showtime for their rare club appearance in Toronto (and still some scammers tried). But with the rise of so-called "scalper bots," software capable of beating human customers to the front of the line and buying up hundreds of tickets at once, something more needed to be done.
The saga came to a boil when pre-sales for the Tragically Hip's farewell tour sold out instantly, and ticketless fans bellyached about being cheated from some national right. The Prime Minister said he'd look into it. Across Canada, Police forces chased down exploitative resellers and frauds. Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said the whole Hip thing "bugged" him; it was time for the government to intervene. Next spring, the Province will introduce legislation to outlaw "scalper bots." South of the border, New York has already gone a step further: resellers caught using bots could face jail time. Perhaps next year, some sanity will return to the ticket marketplace. 2017: the Year of the Fan? - Chris Hampton
Fuck Donald Trump music
The phenomenon began in late 2015 when the Republican primary campaigns were heating up, and a long list of musicians barred Donald Trump from sullying their music with his discrimination, pomposity and general trashiness. When the presidential race began in earnest, the music world overwhelmingly turned up to stump for Hillary, opposing the idea that a hate-mongering reality TV conman was anything close to a real option.
Le Tigre reunited to say "I'm With Her." Dave Eggers organized a protest playlist called 30 Days, 30 Songs including original contributions from Aimee Mann, Bob Mould, and clipping (it actually grew to 50 songs because of all the interest). Tim Heidecker satirized the alt-right with "I Am A Cuck." Chance The Rapper led a parade to the polls.
But it was Compton rapper YG who cornered the market on the "Fuck Donald Trump" sentiment with two versions of the song "FDT" (which, incidentally, charted after Trump was elected) and a full-blown 50-stop anti-Trump North American tour.
Is it a surprise no one will play his inauguration? Apparently, talent's lining up instead for a massive protest concert planned for the same day. - Chris Hampton
Robots gain consciousness, turn to songwriting
Obviously, there's a bunch of sci-fi sensationalism built into these stories (impending robot uprising and so forth), but each project represents a significant stepping stone in the field of artificial intelligence as well as our understanding of the human brain, consciousness, and creativity. I'm not sure I've written the words "songwriting robot" before 2016, and suddenly, I've written it a bunch.
These were dreams begun a long time ago. Alan Turing's lab produced the first computer music in 1948, which this year, we were able to hear for the very first time. Now, a Sony AI has written a convincing pop song that knocks off The Beatles. Watson, IBM's Jeopardy-playing machine, co-wrote a song for Wiz Khalifa and Elle King. And, perhaps the catchiest and most bizarre, researchers at the University of Toronto Computer Science Lab have programmed a neural network to write Christmas songs. It sounds a bit alien until you hear it brought to life in this quirky cover by The Killjoys' singer. This time next year, it'll already be a classic. - Chris Hampton
Safety in the DIY scene
In 2016, we've had two different conversations on safety as it relates to the DIY scene and broader music communities. There've been tremendous grass-roots initiatives in scenes across Canada to create and maintain safe spaces, like this coalition in Toronto addressing sexual harassment and assault in the local music community. Anti-Kesha statements posted by a Toronto festival organizer initiated questions about safety, causing performers and venues to drop out. The festival was cancelled. Bands like Speedy Ortiz and Modern Baseball set up hotlines for fans who feel unsafe at their shows. There's been a push, as demonstrated by Guelph's Kazoo! Fest, for greater accessibility — in every sense of the word.
Then, at the beginning of December, a fire at the Oakland arts space Ghost Ship killed 36 people. Quickly, the conversation turned to illegal venues and building code violations and a series of DIY spaces were shuttered. Bigots and internet trolls tried to capitalize on the moment, raiding DIY resource directories and reporting locations to fire departments for inspection. The sad realization was that, too often, one sense of safety was traded for another; marginalized peoples were left to gather in marginal spaces.
In the end, there is only one safety: a holistic sense that encompasses both. In true DIY fashion, many scenes are already at work on some version of a best practices guideline for harm reduction. If 2017 bears any good, municipal and other governmental bodies will realize it's far more productive to help with financial aid to artist and artist spaces than to shut them down and push those populations further underground. - Chris Hampton