Legends only: Why surprise album drops hold so much weight

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The release of a highly anticipated album that everyone has known about for weeks, if not months, on a set date only gratifies listeners so much. But what brings more joy to avid fans and casual music listeners alike is the surprise release of an album. There’s just something about the element of surprise that makes music by beloved artists sound that much sweeter.

Surprise album drops, apart from being excellent public relations stunts, are a reflection of the time and state of the world in which they are executed. They can uplift a forlorn society or simply add more happiness to an already idyllic time. The beauty of surprise album releases is that they bring about a “too good to be true” sentiment while still being completely true.

Radiohead pioneered the surprise album drop trend with its release of In Rainbows in 2007. The album’s release was entirely online and featured a pay-what-you-want component, both of which were received positively by many fans and critics. But a key takeaway is that this record was released during a tumultuous time for the music industry. Artists and record labels were often under fire for excessively capitalizing on album releases and making music inaccessible to fans who did not have the financial means to buy music or the proper devices to listen with. Devoted fans were robbed of the one thing they could look forward to from their favorite bands. In an era when music releases were considered disjointed and alienated from the community, Radiohead’s surprise release united people under a positive cause — appreciating the band’s sonic goodness without the restraints of physically and financially procuring the music.

Fast forward to 2012, when Frank Ocean released his Grammy Award-winning record Channel Orange a week before it was originally set to be released. While this was intended to prevent the songs from being leaked online, Ocean’s surprise early release of his debut studio album also helped cement him as a solo R&B and hip-hop virtuoso. For a relatively new artist making his own music, the early release of Channel Orange rallied Ocean’s fans around him tighter than ever, allowing them to bask in the hype of a sought-after album placed in their hands an entire week early. If Channel Orange was released when it was expected, the buzz would undoubtedly still have been huge, but Ocean’s surreal, love-packed album just hit differently because it was delivered with an air of unknown mystery.

An often-glossed-over but equally impactful surprise release was MBV by shoegaze behemoth My Bloody Valentine in 2013. After a painfully long 22-year hiatus, My Bloody Valentine, with absolutely no foreshadowing whatsoever, dropped one of its best albums to date online. It was just what fans needed after the band released and toured the quintessential shoegaze album, Loveless, in 1991 and then essentially disappeared from the public eye because of internal conflicts. A release like this, in the midst of a dry spell for shoegaze fans, flooded the community with tears of joy. It was completely unexpected, and there’s a reason why the band’s website crashed soon after the record was released for paid streaming — MBV not only delivered in terms of quality, but it also appeased fans after two decades of longing.

But possibly one of the most legendary surprise drops ever is none other than Childish Gambino’s release of 3.15.20 on Sunday. While most fans anticipated that he was working on new music because of his long hiatus from media attention, Gambino gave no clear indication of when he would be releasing new music. His original release of the record on March 15 was a short-lived but much-appreciated surprise drop amid weeks of general chaos and uncertainty, even if it disappeared just two days later. The album’s official release is now a beacon of positivity in the midst of a bleak news cycle. Gambino’s album could not have appeared at a better time.

With more and more artists having their every move scrutinized by dedicated fanbases, surprise album releases are more needed than ever. They give fans hope, happiness and an event to constantly be on the lookout for, the last of which is arguably the most important facet. Surprise album releases feed directly into the playful dynamic between artists and fans, piquing new interests and fueling the all-too-real cliche of music being someone’s only livelihood. There’s no better feeling for a fan than to anxiously await a rumored album, only for it to become a palpable, indulgent surprise.

Pooja Bale covers music. Contact her at [email protected].