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Is the surprise album losing its impact? Or is simply becoming the new norm in a world full of new norms? As Taylor Swift drops her second surprise album of the year, ‘evermore’ — a hefty 15-track affair, and an accompaniment to her album ‘folklore’ — it’s clear that the purpose of the surprise album has changed over the years.
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Traditionally, it’s been any record dropped without previous promotion. It creates a splash without the hoopla of a pre-release press cycle. Expectations are not as heightened and artists don’t have to worry about pesky leaks or premature think pieces. Not to mention, everyone usually flocks to see what all the noise is about, and these albums tend to go to No 1 as a result. The phenomena, which is less than 15 years old, began in the early 2000s, mostly to combat online album leaks.
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Radiohead - ‘In Rainbows’: Often credited as the first act ever to release a surprise album, Radiohead dropped ‘In Rainbows’ in 2007, 10 days after announcing it on their blog. The band was enjoying the freedom of not being signed to a record label and tired of doing things the old fashioned way. They also sold the album for a pay-what-you-want fee, the first time a major act adopts such a model. The album was a huge hit, winning a Grammy Award and going to No 1. Ironically, the band wanted to do something unique by releasing new music out of nowhere — little did they know how popular their strategy would become years later.
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Nine Inch Nails - ‘Ghost I-IV’ and ‘The Slip’: It wasn’t long before Nine Inch Nails took a page out of Radiohead’s book. In 2008 — a year after ‘In Rainbow’ — NIN had split with their longtime label Interscope and were enjoying a newfound freedom. They independently released a mammoth 36-song instrumental album titled ‘Ghost I-IV’ online, out of nowhere. It took the band only 10 weeks to record it. Two months later, NIN dropped another surprise album, ’The Slip’, only 10 tracks long. The back-to-back albums underscored the power that a surprise album had to afford its artist the freedom of experimentation with both sound and format.
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Frank Ocean’s (pictured) ‘Channel Orange’ and Beyonce’s ‘Beyonce’: Soon the surprise album was becoming less of a rock ’n roll tradition and more of a industry-wide standard. Artists in other genres were opening their eyes to the possibilities. In 2012, Frank Ocean dropped his sophomore album ‘Channel Orange’ a week before its publicised release date; the album was noted for its hugely experimental vibes. Critics raved about it, listing it in their top album lists, and it won a Grammy Award.
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And while Radiohead has been credited for creating the surprise album concept, Beyonce has been credited with revolutionising it. In 2013, she dropped her self-titled ‘visual album’, spanning concepts of intimacy and feminism. Each track was accompanied by a non-linear short film revolving around the same themes. The album shot to No 1, and despite an absence of promo, ‘Beyonce’ continues to be touted as one of the most seminal albums of the 21st century.
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U2, Drake and Eminem: Over the next couple of years, artists continued to drop surprise music — but they weren’t always successful. The biggest failure was when U2 released ‘Songs of Innocence’ in 2014. It appeared in every iTunes user’s account for free, without their consent. This irked a lot of people. Other musicians — including Buckcherry and Pink Floyd — were meanwhile ticked off by the fact that U2 were giving out music for free.
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In 2015, Drake surprise dropped ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’ while Miley Cyrus released ‘Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz’. In 2016, Beyonce released her second surprise album ‘Lemonade’. Two years later, J Cole released ‘KOD’. That same year, Eminem dropped ‘Kamikaze’ as a shock album, a method he tried again in 2020 with ‘Music to be Murdered By’. This year also saw Childish Gambino surprise his listeners with "Donald Glover Presents "3.15.20).
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Which brings us to Taylor Swift. On the heels of a very public legal battle with Scooter Braun, where Swift was battling to regain ownership of her earlier albums, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter extracted herself from the claws of previous record labels and their restrictions. She did things her own way under Republic Records, releasing two understated, introspective and experimental albums, ‘folklore’ and ‘evermore’. And in a way, the surprise album has become synonymous with freedom and breaking rules — a statement to the world that you move at your own pace. Whether it can continue to hold that impact 10 years from now, or become totally obsolete in the fast-moving world of digital uploads, remains to be seen. But for now, we have some unexpected new music to enjoy.
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