The 10 best surprise release albums, from Radiohead to Frank Ocean

We’re counting down the surprise albums that shocked the world upon their spontaneous arrival, from In Rainbows to Channel Orange. 

There’s an art to surprise release albums. Usually, fans eagerly await new music through the drip-feed method of three or so singles, cover art announcements and tracklist reveals, many months before an album is officially released. While there’s certainly merit to this process — the pre-album period has spawned some truly iconic music videos, for instance — the generic album rollout can often feel like a corporate machination.

Album covers of Radiohead, Beyonce, Frank Ocean, MBV, Kendrick, U2
Credit: Press

Listeners are beholden to labels whose interests clearly lie in streaming numbers and industry promotion, to the point where sitting through multiple singles and other filler content can feel like something of a case of blue balls. That’s where surprise albums come in. Representing a middle finger to label bureaucracy, these releases shocked the world upon their spontaneous arrival and made for some of their creators’ best albums yet.   

Radiohead — In Rainbows

Often credited as the first surprise release album, Radiohead‘s 2007 project In Rainbows was only previewed in a blog post on the band’s website ten days prior to its release. At the time, Radiohead’s bassist Colin Greenwood cited frustrations with traditional album rollouts, and the freedom of being without a label, as reasons for the spontaneous drop. In Rainbows features Radiohead career highlights like Nude, Reckoner and Bodysnatchers

Not only was the release method novel, with fans emailed downloadable versions of In Rainbows for a price of their own choosing, but it was also critically acclaimed, marking an end to the band’s four-year hiatus at the time and quelling rumours of disbandment. The album was later released along a traditional rollout timeline by TBD Records in 2008, where it debuted atop the charts across the globe.       

Beyoncé — Lemonade

Beyoncé’s album Lemonade set the world alight upon its spontaneous release in 2016. The pop star’s sixth and best — depending on who you ask — record arrived without warning and was accompanied by a visual album which premiered on HBO. It joined its predecessor, 2013’s surprise album BEYONCÉ, in cementing the singer’s title as the empress of spontaneous rollouts. 

Perhaps equally surprising was Lemonade’s lyrical and conceptual content. The album’s tracklist revolved around the stages of grief Beyoncé encountered following her husband’s infidelity, with the visual accompaniment tracing the mistreatment of Black women across history. It remains the pop star’s most acclaimed album to date, with standouts including Formation and Hold Up. 

U2 — Songs of Innocence

U2’s 13th album Songs of Innocence was released almost immediately upon its announcement in 2014 and was shared with fans for free. The 11-track record arrived in conjunction with a product launch at Apple, leading to its automatic appearance on the iTunes store without cost to listeners. The album featured collaborations with producers like Ryan Tedder and Danger Mouse

It was dubbed by the then-CEO of Apple as “the largest album release of all time”, given that it came preloaded in the music libraries of the just-launched iPhone 6. Some music experts and fellow artists took umbrage with the release strategy, likening the forced download to rock and roll spam or junk mail. Despite this, the release method for Songs of Innocence was considered a defining music moment of the decade.    

Frank Ocean — Channel Orange

If Beyoncé is the empress of the spontaneous album, then Frank Ocean is its emperor. In what would become a pattern for the notoriously elusive singer, 2012’s Channel Orange bucked a traditional rollout, arriving on iTunes a week earlier than was previously advertised. It’s a method Ocean would go on to follow for 2016’s fellow surprise album Blonde, which doubled as the singer’s outmanoeuvring of his label with the dual release of Endless. 

Adding to what was already a revelatory release method, Channel Orange became defined by non-music surprises. Prior to its release, Ocean shared a Tumblr letter in which he came out as queer, challenging what was considered normal for a hip-hop artist at the time. Moreover, it’s widely considered one of the best debuts in history, and a seminal R&B album. Head here for everything we know about Ocean’s Blonde follow-up.     

My Bloody Valentine — m b v

Equally as surprising as m b v’s spontaneous arrival in 2013 was the fact that it bookended My Bloody Valentine’s 22-year hiatus. The rock band’s third studio album was self-released with minimal promotion coming as a shock to fans who hadn’t heard full-length, original material from the group since 1991’s Loveless. Album highlights include opener She Found Now and In Another Way. 

The only precursor to m b v was a social media announcement on the My Bloody Valentine’s Facebook page, which was published the very same day as the album’s release. So fervent was the fanfare upon m b v’s arrival that it promptly crashed the band’s website. The record remains My Bloody Valentine’s most recent studio effort, though they did tease a follow-up in 2017.

Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.

Previewed only by a surprise single and tracklist and cover art reveal a mere weeks before its arrival, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. served as an exemplar of the brevity with which an album can be released. Though it technically didn’t come as a surprise, Lamar kept the promotion of DAMN. characteristically lowkey, announcing it without any flashy gimmicks as a tweet link to pre-order. 

It’s perhaps this laid back promotion that made DAMN.’s meteoric success equally surprising, earning the rapper a Pulitzer Prize for Music. This low key approach to an album release was followed on 2022’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, whose existence was only made known with the surprise release of lead single five days before the record arrived.    

Taylor Swift — folklore

A mere hours before it appeared on streaming services, Taylor Swift announced the release of her 2020 album folklore on Twitter, promptly sending Swifties into a tizzy. The album, Swift’s eighth overall, was created entirely in secrecy over the course of eight months and marked the pop star’s first-ever record released without a traditional rollout

Before folklore, Swift had long prescribed the album cycles befitting of an artist of her calibre, with her previous albums each preceded by at least three singles. Since folklore, however, Swift has somewhat let go of the promotional reigns, having surprise released the follow up evermore without warning just five months after folklore.   

Allday — Excuse Me

With only a spontaneous single as a precursor, Allday’s 2022 surprise EP Excuse Me arrived amid a flurry of unpredictability. The four-track project saw the Australian artist dip back into his rap game, which itself marked a surprise following its pop-infused predecessor Drinking with My Smoking Friends. 

Speaking of his sonic influences in an interview with Happy Mag, Allday — real name Tomas Henry Gaynor — said: I guess I like a lot of RnB and soul music, and when I was young I listened to rock music. It’s really hard to explain, I guess musically I try to write about feelings and stuff influenced by Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul [and] Little Brother.”    

Ariana Grande — thank u, next

Though it was previewed by two singles and a short-term announcement (she is a product of industry mogul Scooter Braun, after all), the release of Ariana Grande’s 2019 album thank u, next was nonetheless revolutionary for a pop star of her magnitude. For one, it arrived only five months after its predecessor Sweetener, and was created within the span of just two weeks; two feats largely unheard of for pop musicians. 

Grande’s ability to swiftly produce a chart-topping pop album shaped the trajectory of her future releases, with follow-up Positions arriving just a year later. Speaking of her quick turnaround, Grande lamented the bureaucracy of traditional pop releases and red tape which is not required of male hip-hop artists. “I just want to sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do,” she said. “Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?” 

Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

The only warning fans got for Drake’s surprise release If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was when the Canadian rapper accidentally let slip during a 2015 interview that he was “working on something.” While it was enough to whet listeners’ appetites, even the most diehard of fans weren’t expecting a complete, 17-track project to arrive without any form of promotion. 

If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late enlisted collaborators like Lil Wayne and Travis Scott, with the public completely unaware the duo had joined Drake’s studio. What’s more, the only notification of the project was in the form of a Facebook link to iTunes, and the singles lifted from the album — Preach and Energy — were only pushed once all tracks had dropped.