Ranking 2016's Surprise Releases So Far

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Ranking 2016's Surprise Releases So Far

By the time this gets published, this list might already be out of date. That’s because the big ticket artists of the world have figured out that the way to truly break through all the storms of hype and speculation that seems to accompany every album that gets released these days is by simply dropping their new music into the world with little pre-release fanfare.

It’s a brilliant gambit, but one that only pays dividends for the Beyoncés, Kanyes, and Radioheads of the world—the ones who don’t necessarily need to attract a lot of advance attention to their new music. Fans are already salivating over their every move. All the surprise album move does is fan the flames to near bonfire heights and gets ahead of all the critics (who are, in turn, forced to rush out a review based on a few cursory listens) and anyone who would dare leak these new tunes to the Internet and cut into their bottom line. For good and for ill, it’s a strategy that won’t be going away anytime soon and, as the length of this list should prove, it’s one that more artists are taking advantage of in 2016.

8. James Blake, The Colour In Anything
Pity poor James Blake for deciding to release his third album just two days before it was quickly drowned in Radiohead’s Moon Shaped Pool. Not that having a lot of extra time for people to listen and absorb this new record would have done it any favors. Like Views, it is an excessive batch of material (just more than 76 minutes-long) that often doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Several of the songs just spin in place as one decent melodic or rhythmic idea rolls over and over and over again. And as with Drake, Colour only seems to gain momentum towards its conclusion with the closing trio of songs finally revealing the brilliant fusing of sad boy pop and modern club music that

7. Drake, Views
It’s crazy to think that the roots for Drake’s most recent effort were laid nearly two years ago when Billboard announced its existence in a July 2014 report. And it’s crazy that when it eventually slipped out, it was through a surprise release in late April. Now that it’s here, it has engendered the kind of mixed reactions that have greeted everything Drake has done since Nothing Was The Same. You can’t fault him for his ambition on Views, as it packs more than 80 minutes of music into one collection. Yet, listening to it, it feels like the Canadian rapper could’ve used someone to help pare this down in some small or large way. It often feels aimless and features some of his most groaningly cheesy bars (“You toying it with it like a Happy Meal,” “You platinum like wrappers on Hershey’s, boy, that shit is worthless”). Something about the latter part of this album, though, captures the right late night, woozy vibe that you feel after a long night of revelry, elevating even the most stumbling ideas to something close to poetry.

6. Kanye West, The Life Of Pablo
By the time you read this paragraph, Kanye West might have made some more changes to his seventh studio album. Though it is available for one and all to stream since February 17 and to download since the first of April, Yeezy has promised to keep making tweaks to it in the months leading up to its physical release this month. It might need it too, as this is certainly one of the shaggiest releases in Kanye’s discography with some less than fleshed out ideas finding their way into the mix. But when it hits, as with the bold proclamations on “Famous,” his ruminations on trust in “Real Friends,” and the shimmering “Waves,” it hits hard.

5. Rihanna, ANTI
Here’s a case of an album that would probably have been hyped to death in the months leading up to its release were it not for an accidental switch flip on Tidal that revealed it to the world on January 27. To stave off further illegal leaks of ANTI, it was officially released soon thereafter. All the other accompanying bullshit surrounding this album, such as Samsung buying up a million copies in advance to give away with their phones, only clouded the discussion of what is a fine collection by this R&B superstar. She and her oodles of collaborators paint a swirling multi-colored picture that finds Rihanna straining under the weight of heartache and heartbreak, succumbing to sexual temptation, and standing strong as she bears the blows of haters and lovers alike.

4. Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book
The “Chance 3” posters were popping up all over the place in the weeks leading up to the release of this hip-hop artist’s latest missive, thanks to his website offering up copies of the promotional picture at a bulk rate. Not that Chancelor Bennett needed much help getting people hyped for his third album considering the love that accompanied his previous work and his high profile appearances on SNL and albums by Kanye West and Macklemore. But having his face on buildings and highway signs around America obviously fed into the moment that Coloring Book dropped and the whole world seemed to pause and pay attention. And what we were treated to was an unapologetically spiritual album that dared to find enlightenment in getting ripped on reefer, getting lit in a club, and praying to a higher power. In a show of respect for this young talent, high profile names like ‘Ye, Bieber, and Future all clamored to be featured alongside Chance on this, the best hip-hop album of 2016.

3. Autechre, elseq
The avant-electronic duo Autechre had somewhat prepared us for a release like this. Last year, Rob Brown and Sean Booth offered up live recordings from their 2014 and 2015 European tours for download with little fanfare. But earlier this month, the pair started sneaking new music into the world via BBC Radio and, strangely, a student radio station in Alaska. This all led up to the May 19 unleashing of elseq, a massive new five volume collection of new material that, in total, runs for more than four hours. The music within furthers Autechre’s explorations into an unhinged brand of electronic music that uses the duo’s love of electro, techno, and hip-hop as a foundation upon which they build strange edifices that jut out in alluring but slightly dangerous angles. In and among their foreboding visions are some of surprisingly easy to digest work like slow, steely grind of “TBM2” and the minimalist pulse of “spTh.”

2. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
The music blogs of the world went on high alert in the days leading up to the unveiling of Radiohead’s ninth studio album when the band decided to slowly scrub their social media accounts and let their website slowly fade away. Once that process was done, the startling videos for “Burn The Witch” and “Daydreaming” were pushed into the limelight, followed by the proper digital release of A Moon Shaped Pool. This long-gestating album is as musically rich and instantly engaging as anything Radiohead has done to date, wending their embittered political commentary in with more personal narratives that speak to frontman Thom Yorke’s deep seated emotional turmoil. And with its reliance on sweeping orchestral gestures and electronic intrusions, it further proves the importance of Jonny Greenwood on the band’s overall aesthetic.

1. Beyoncé, Lemonade
This is a pretty no-brainer of a choice for the top spot on this list. Is there any record in recent memory that has been pored over and picked apart more than Lemonade? The effort by fans and critics is a justifiable one considering that the majority of the album is, by all reckoning, an unblinking glimpse into the anguish, anger, and resolve that Mrs. Carter went through in the wake of her husband stepping out on her. And it came almost out of nowhere. Just a few days before its release came an announcement of a special airing on HBO on Sunday, April 23. Then, immediately after that artful and devastating film hit the airwaves, the album proper dropped. The whole package was Beyoncé’s most powerful statement to date, with the eye-popping visuals meshing perfectly with music that ranged from outraged rock, country stomp, and club-ready bounce. Knowing how closely Lemonade was going to be examined, Queen Bey made sure not one strand of good hair was out of place, resulting in not only album of the year, but a frontrunner for album of the decade as well.

Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. Follow him on Twitter.

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