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10 of the most surprising album releases ever

Not every album is a cookie-cutter release, in more ways than one...

10 of the most surprising album releases ever
31 January 2024

These days only a few acts can make a real fanfare with an album release. Viral success means some kids making a tune into a dance routine on TikTok, and almost no-one seems to have the attention span to listen to a full album anymore.

Still, some of our favorite stories around music are to do with album releases.

Back when the album was king, the hype was often not that different to the release of a video game or movie.

And when acts break the usual protocol, interesting things would start to happen. Here are 10 of the best examples of this in action.

10 of the most surprising album releases

10 of the most surprising album releases

1. David Bowie - The Next Day

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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 before The Next Day: 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. Sadly he would only go on to record one more album, Black Star, before his death in 2016.

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10 of the most surprising album releases

2. Radiohead - In Rainbows

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Freshly out of their deal with EMI, Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world, announced their new album would be released in 10 days back in 2007. There would be 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.

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10 of the most surprising album releases

3. Kate Bush - Aerial

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Much like David Bowie, Kate Bush fans had resigned themselves to their idol never making music again. She had become something of a recluse by showbiz standards, 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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10 of the most surprising album releases

4. Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy

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Such was the enormous wait and painful recording process for Chinese Democracy, it was a huge surprise it ever came out at all. The album took 15 years and, allegedly, at least $13m to make. The financial outlay was so big 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 re-recordings 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.

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10 of the most surprising album releases

5. Prince - Planet Earth

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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 UK paper The Mail on Sunday was the first example of a major artist giving away a full new album (in the UK at least). 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.

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10 of the most surprising album releases

6. Taylor Swift - Folklore

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There's no bigger person in music right now and for good reason: Taylor Swift produces pop perfection but also manages the process of releasing an album beautifully. While she is, rightly, reaping the benefits of re-imagining her back catalog with releasing Taylor's Versions of he previous albums, it's Folklore that was the most surprising release for us. Taylor announced it on the day of release - something that's still a rarity - in a Twitter and Instagram post that said the following: "Surprise, Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my 8th studio album, folklore; an entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into."

The resulting album was a treasure trove of love songs, rich in storytelling and steeped in melancholy, thanks to the National’s Aaron Dessner having a hand in the production.

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10 of the most surprising album releases

7. Jay Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail

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More than 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.

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10 of the most surprising album releases

8. Beyoncé - Beyoncé

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12 days before Christmas 2013, pop fans everywhere got an early present in their stocking in the form of a brand new Beyoncé album. It 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."

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10 of the most surprising album releases

9. My Bloody Valentine - MBV

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Another legendary perfectionist, it seemed for a long time Kevin Shields's 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 the album was finished. Shortly afterwards it went 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 critically acclaimed by just about everyone.

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10 of the most surprising album releases

10. U2 - Songs of Innocence

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There had been rumours of U2's long-awaited follow-up to No Line On The Horizon by the time Songs of Innocence was finished five years later. 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 were 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 of a hit 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.

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