By Lyndsie Kiebert
The average album runs a gamut of pre-release rituals. There are promo appearances, strategically released singles and pre-sale hype. Artists share countdowns across platforms, gaining new listeners and teasing the most loyal fans as the anticipation grows.
But what happens when an artist throws the entire process out the window and, instead, drops an album without warning? It’s been happening more and more over the past decade, each surprise album creating a statement that goes beyond the production value and lyrics.
Radiohead’s In Rainbows (2007)
Radiohead is often the first major band to come to mind when talking about surprise album releases, having announced on their website that they would be dropping In Rainbows in short order.
Not only did the band drop the album with little warning, but they offered it for whatever the listener could afford to pay. As one critic put it, this style of release and payment went a long way in “cementing Radiohead’s reputation as a band compelled to look forward, not back.”
Looking forward, In Rainbows did mark a change in the album-release tide, as more artists took the surprise approach over the following decade.
Beyoncé’s self-titled album (2013)
The music world heard not a single whisper of Beyoncé’s fifth studio release until it dropped overnight in late 2013. The hard-hitting self-titled collection showcased Beyoncé at her strongest, securing her place among the most influential female artists of the 21st century.
Not only did she release a compilation of all new songs, but also a series of short-film visuals to accompany each track. It’s a style she’s adopted for all subsequent albums, and something that takes her work to the next level.
Frankly, Beyoncé could hit the world at any moment with a new set of songs and videos and it would be the best product her listeners never knew they needed. She’s just that good.
U2’s Songs of Innocence (2014)
This U2 album came as a surprise in more than one way.
Not only did the band not promote the album ahead of time, but — in a deal with Apple — they had it automatically downloaded to every iTunes user’s device. Almost 500 million people woke up to find Songs of Innocence in their digital libraries and the unprecedented move received mixed reviews.
U2 frontman Bono ultimately issued an apology, blaming “a drop of megalomania, a twitch of generosity, a dash of self promotion — and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard” for the decision, according to the Independent.
This surprise release might get some style points for going where no band had gone before, but no artist will likely attempt the same thing again.
Taylor Swift’s folklore (2020)
Taylor Swift broke the internet on July 23 when she announced her eighth studio album, folklore, would hit streaming platforms at midnight. Before her tweet, no one had any clue. By July 24, we’d all been introduced to a woodsy, whimsical indie-folk Swift.
It’s a near 180 from her 2019 summer release Lover, which came chock full of throbbing pop beats and signature Swift sass. Ironically, Lover seemed to try so hard to sound like a Taylor Swift album that it fell short. Somehow, folklore sounds more natural — a signal that Swift has again changed her style and is set to thrive in her new milieu.
The surprise release of the new album is also a statement about where Swift is in her career. The album boasts maybe one or two radio-worthy songs, but the largely subdued collection of acoustic-and-piano ballads won’t be conducive to sold-out stadium tours. Still, tracks like “cardigan,” “the 1” and “exile” — featuring indie-folk royalty Bon Iver — had amassed more than 20 million streams each on Spotify within four days of folklore’s release.
A surprise album from Swift makes complete sense. Her loyal fanbase, combined with the curiosity of people interested in hearing what she’s up to now, means guaranteed hype — even without the pre-release song and dance.
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