The traditional method of releasing an album is to announce some months-off release date, maybe some snippets of information and a single from the upcoming record. This can create a small buzz, but by the time the album actually comes around that excitement might have died down, and the release of the album might come to pass without many fans even realising that it’s out there.
The surprise announcement and imminent release of a new album has become a fairly common method for artists wanting to unleash their new music to the world without having to wait. This is especially thrilling for the fans, as we get the full package without waiting for it – the excitement is still at its peak. When done well, these albums can come to define a short moment in time, as it seems everyone is listening to and talking about the same album at the same time.
Here are some of the best and most memorable surprise albums of the last five years.
My Bloody Valentine – m b v
After over two decades of waiting for a follow-up to the epochal shoegaze classic Loveless, it seemed like most people had given up on My Bloody Valentine ever releasing another album. Even though in the rare interviews Kevin Shields would still insist that he was working on a new My Bloody Valentine album, people thought that his perfectionism would keep it perennially in progress. Even on 2nd February 2013 when My Bloody Valentine updated their website to say that the new album was coming later that day, 22 years on from Loveless, it still didn’t seem believable. Somehow, it turned out that not only was the new album, m b v, released, but it actually lived up to the humongous pressure of following up a beloved and unassailable classic. m b v was recognisably My Bloody Valentine – distortion, feedback, drowned-out vocals all still intact – but more impressive than that was the amount of innovation and new dimensions Shields had brought to the My Bloody Valentine sound. Even after 22 years away, songs like ‘She Found Now’ and ‘Only Tomorrow’ had the same mind-swallowing effect as their best work, while ‘Nothing Is’ and ‘Wonder 2’ showed Shields’ dedication to pushing boundaries and pioneering new sounds. It might be another two decades before we get another My Bloody Valentine album, or it could be out next week – whichever the case, m b v proved that any My Bloody Valentine album is something worth getting excited for, no matter how long it takes.
Beyoncé – BEYONCÉ
For the biggest pop star in the world, whose image is one of the most recognisable and adored around the world, you’d think that a long, drawn-out press campaign with regularly released singles leading to a far-off album release date would be a must. But Beyoncé threw that model under the bus at the end of 2013 when her fifth album just landed on the internet with no forewarning. Being self-titled, and with a cover just stating the artist’s name in white capitals on a black background, it was evident that Queen Bey was making a statement: I am an artist and my music is what’s important, not my image or my celebrity. The songs that comprise the album backed this up, largely eschewing the radio-friendly jams of her earlier years for much more drawn-out, contemplative and honest songs. That she still managed to have worldwide hits with songs like ‘Drunk In Love’, ‘Pretty Hurts’ and ‘XO’, proved both her star power and her artistry, pleasing both old fans and attracting a whole host of new, more discerning listeners. And let’s not forget that this is also the album that spawned the unforgettable “surfbort” and “I woke up like this” memes, which were more defining moments for Bey.
Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Following the year in which he released his neo-soul/jazz/rap opus To Pimp A Butterfly, you’d have expected Kendrick Lamar to have been busy still touring and promoting that album. But the world’s most exciting rapper proved exactly why he deserves that mantle when he surprise dropped untitled unmastered.. From its cover art, title, lack of track names, and description as a collection of offcuts from the previous album, it purported to be a throwaway release, but as any Kendrick Lamar fan knows, anything the man puts out is worth getting your ears on (except maybe that Maroon 5 feature). untitled unmastered. proved to be a more than worthy addition to Lamar’s canon, comprising 8 brand new songs that mostly sound just as lush, vibrant and important as anything else released in 2016. With more of his collaboration with bassist Thundercat on display, the songs on untitled unmastered. unspool in beguiling unpredictability, held together by Kendrick’s vicious flow and tasteful curation of sounds. It also gave us the opportunity to hear Kendrick trading verses with the likes of Jay Rock and intertwining voices with up-and-comer SZA. For an album that advertised itself as offcuts, it is wholly impressive that there is absolutely nothing on untitled unmastered. that you would want to lose.
Beyoncé – Lemonade
Having already proven that she could still dominate the world by releasing an album with no prior warning in 2013, Beyonce did exactly the same again in 2016 when she pushed out Lemonade. Beyond just being another album full of great songs, Lemonade also came as a visual album, which saw Bey creating a hugely impressive political and feminist work, culling from poets, fashion designers and artists to create something titanic. That she used her status to beam this important and inspiring work into the lives of millions of people around the world is laudable. The surprises didn’t stop there, as, delving into the music itself, Beyonce went on to expound on the pain and suffering caused by her famously unfaithful husband Jay-Z. Exposing his actions so thoroughly, and in turn the discussing the damage done to her own life, family and self-confidence was a shell-shocking experience for listeners. That it came through as a message of female empowerment and personal resolve is further proof that Beyoncé is much more than just a pretty face and voice. There is clearly a savvy and serious mind at work there, and this is probably what attracted collaborators like The Weeknd, Jack White, James Blake and Kendrick Lamar, who all jumped on board to contribute to Lemonade.
James Blake – The Colour In Anything
With his star already shining brightly after his self-titled debut, James Blake doubled down by winning the Mercury with his second album Overgrown. To say that the pressure was on for his third full-length is an understatement, but Blake did not seem to break a sweat as he decided to unleash it to the world on a whim, telling Annie Mac in an interview on Radio 1 on 5th May 2016 that the album would be available at midnight that night. The Colour In Anything arrived as his biggest and best album to date, with 18 brand new tracks, and was immediately obvious as the most equally balanced between his producing prowess and that pristine and siren-like falsetto. With the help of collaborators like Frank Ocean and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, he managed to encompass a whole range of feelings across the album’s 77 minutes. From the frustration of ‘Put That Away and Talk To Me’, to the desperation of ‘Love Me In Whatever Way’, to the amazement of ‘Noise Above Our Heads’, and much more beyond, Blake truly took listeners on a “journey” as he himself described it.
Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
Chilean experimental producer Nicolas Jaar has always been a law unto himself, unpredictable to the end in both his music and his activities. After having released the adored debut album Space Is Only Noise in 2011, Jaar went off on several different tangents, releasing a series of standalone singles under the title Nymphs, and releasing a re-imagined soundtrack for the 1969 film The Color Of Pomegranates, never once promising that there would be a proper album follow up to Space Is Only Noise. Turns out he did have something in the works though, as his second proper album Sirens was suddenly announced and released shortly after in September 2016. Sirens turned out not to just be another collection of spaced-out, hallucinogenic songs, but a searing political album of driving electronics. His midas touch for fascinating and kaleidoscopic experimental productions was still firmly intact, but there was more beyond that. Singing in both Spanish and English, using clips of his childhood self talking to his father, and attacking the corruption in his home country, Sirens took us much deeper into the mind of this fascinating psyche of this idiosyncratic talent.
Solange – A Seat At The Table
Having seen her sister Beyoncé release two world-conquering surprise albums in the previous few years, Solange followed in her footsteps by releasing her third album A Seat At The Table a mere couple of days after its existence was confirmed. While she might not have had the same profile as Beyoncé and therefore did not immediately cause the same kind of ripples as her sister’s surprise releases, the music and the messages in A Seat At The Table radiated out at a slower pace, but still had the same seismic impact, proving that Solange was just as important and talented. A Seat At The Table takes a long hard look at what it means to be black in modern day America, bluntly tackling political issues, but doing it with a soulfulness and an understated virtuosity that sent the songs straight into hearts and minds. Bringing on the likes of Sampha, Kelela, Q-Tip and more to help her flesh out her album was smart, but A Seat At The Table was truly the advent of Solange as an artist worthy of the same level of respect and adoration as her sister.