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The 10 Most Surprising Album Releases


Canadian superstar Drake surprised the music world last night by unveiling his new album, If You're Reading This, It's Too Late with no warning, putting the 17-track collection straight on iTunes, as well as his blog.

The unexpectedness of the release was its own story, before any talk about the actual music, and he follows in an increasing trend of artists using the art of the unexpected as a marketing tactic in itself.

We take a look at the 10 most surprising album releases ever: no one saw (or heard) these coming.

Radiohead - In Rainbows

Freshly out of their deal with EMI, Oxford's Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world announced, in September 2007, that their new album would be released in 10 days, under a 'pay what you want' download scheme - including the option to pay nothing. It's still unclear how successful the tactic was - seemingly most people chose to pay nothing for the download, but an expensive deluxe box set, released concurrently, did well. Regardless, its 'normal' release, three months later, saw it go to number 1 in the UK and the US, and it went on to sell three million worldwide. Singer Thom Yorke repeated the trick in September 2014, releasing his second solo album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, with no warning, via paid-for BitTorrent at first, and then via Bandcamp.

Beyoncé - Beyoncé

12 days before Christmas 2013, pop fans everywhere got an early present in their stocking in the form of a brand new Beyoncé album which arrived exclusively on iTunes with no warning and no promotion. Not only that, it was a sprawling, 66-minute long album, with music videos to accompany every single track on the record. Predictably the music press and her fans went bananas, with The Guardian's Peter Robinson describing it as, "Beyoncégeddon... a masterclass in both exerting and relinquishing control."

Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy

Such was the enormous wait and painful recording process for Chinese Democracy, that it was a huge surprise that it ever came out at all. The album took 15 years and, allegedly, at least $13m to make; the financial outlay was so big that the band's label Geffen released a Greatest Hits without any permission from Axl and the rest, in order to try and wrestle back some of their investment. There were delays, lawsuits, countless rerecordings and aborted mix sessions while band members - already, of course, replacements for the original G N' R lineup - came and went. Finally, on November 23, 2008, the album actually, finally, came out. Of course, it was never going to live up to expectations - and it didn't - but it wasn't bad either, which was about the best that anyone could hope for by that point.

My Bloody Valentine - MBV

Another legendary perfectionist, it seemed for a long time that Kevin Shields' My Bloody Valentine would never follow up their 1991 shoegaze classic Loveless. Fans waited 21 years, the band spent seven of those recording and rerecording - with a ten year gap in the middle after they split, then reformed. They recorded 60 hours of material, then dumped it all. Nonetheless, out of nowhere on the morning of 2 February 2013, they announced that the album was finished, then shortly afterward put it on sale through their website, which promptly crashed. Well, if you've waited 21 years, what does a few more hours matter? Fortunately, the record was criticially acclaimed by just about everyone.

U2 - Songs of Innocence

Similarly to Beyoncé's effort, there had been rumours that U2's long-awaited new album (five years after No Line On The Horizon - the longest gap in the band's recording career) was finished, but no details whatsoever on when it would emerge. Meanwhile, everyone was getting excited about a new Apple event where a new iPhone and Apple Watch was expected to be announced. These duly were, but no one was expecting the final announcement - a new U2 album available free on iTunes. While it seems it was a success for the band - they reportedly got paid $100m by Apple, while 33 million people accessed the album (No Line On The Horizon sold 5m) - it was less so for Apple, with many complaining that the album was put onto their devices without permission and that U2 were old and uncool. You can't win 'em all.

The Verve - Forth

After the Verve split for the second time in 1999, frontman Richard Ashcroft stated that "You're more likely to get all four Beatles on stage". Their internal strife was legendary and, so, it was a huge surprise when they announced their reunion in 2007. But a band reforming to make a few quid from a few live dates is a very different thing to that same band actually choosing to get back in the studio together, but that's exactly what happened. And, despite the general assumption that the whole thing would blow up before any music emerged, it actually came out, and it was actually really good. And then they split up again. Ah well.

David Bowie - The Next Day

While Beyoncé and U2's album releases came out of nowhere, at least everyone knew that they were still musically active. The common perception was that Bowie had retired: his last album had come out ten years previously, while his last live performance had been in 2006. However, The Next Day was announced without fanfare on Bowie's 66th birthday with the video for the lead single, Where Are We Now? appearing on his website and immediately available to buy. The critically-acclaimed album - which had been recorded in total secrecy over the course of the previous two years - duly followed, and Bowie was back in the game. No live performances yet though - we can but hope.

Jay Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail

Over a year before U2's iTunes stunt, Jay Z pulled a similar move, with Samsung paying for one million free downloads of Magna Carta Holy Grail to be given to their customers via a special app. It was then given a standard release three days later; despite the huge giveaway, it still went to number 1 in the US and the UK - his first chart-topping album on the other side of the Atlantic. And Jay Z won all round - he got $20m from Samsung, equivalent to $5 an album; a far higher royalty rate than he would otherwise have expected.

Prince Planet Earth

Prince - Planet Earth

Artists had begun to experiment with giving away their music via covermounts for a while, but Prince's decision to give away 2007's Planet Earth free with The Mail on Sunday was the first example of a major artist giving away a full new album in the UK. It had reached number 3 in the US, so it was a surprise move, but the 2.8m copies that got out there, and the ensuing publicity, meant that he subsequently sold out a 21 date run at the O2, which grossed £14.5m. Stores were unhappy, as it bypassed them and cut out their middleman fee, but the Purple one certainly won in the end.

Kate Bush - Aerial

Much like David Bowie, Kate Bush fans had resigned themselves to their idol never making music again, having become something of a recluse, perfectly happy to live out of the limelight and be a mother to her son Bertie. Nonetheless, out of nowhere, a full 12 years after the release of 1993's The Red Shoes, she announced a double album, Aerial. Naturally, it was excellent and, naturally, it was fairly strange: the second disc was one continuous song, one track called π was, of course, Bush reciting the mathematical constant to its 78th decimal place, then from its 101st to its 137th decimal place and, fittingly, Bertie had a song named after him. She would later stage an altogether more surprising return, when she performed for her first live gigs for 35 years, in 2014.



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