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Five for Friday: Surprise Releases

Today, how an album gets released sometimes overshadows its contents. Ten years ago, Radiohead forever changed the music business when the group surprise-released In Rainbows with a pay-what-you-want model. Now, it's practically commonplace to issue an album without advance notice, a practice that prevents music from leaking and can energize a fan base. Some of 2016's most acclaimed works came without warning: Beyoncé, Solange, Frank Ocean, Rihanna, and David Bowie issued records without much foreshadowing. But the shock release only truly works if the songs are solid. Here, we revisit five of our favorite albums we didn't know were coming.

Run the Jewels, 3
Christmas Eve, 2016. Families were gathering, children were getting anxious, and one hip-hop duo was preparing for the revolution. That night, Run the Jewels, the politically volatile collaboration between emcees Killer Mike and El-P, surprise-released its third album, simply titled 3. The work wasn't due to hit retailers for another month, but it's going to take far longer than four weeks to fully unpack it. Beats, thicker than warehouse cement, explode around the rappers and a bevy of guests all while the pair recounts its sense of living on the fringes during one of the most contentious election seasons in memory. The songs, some digitally cool and some roughly abrasive, feel like a mix of activism and journalism. They unfold like tales from the frontlines. "Hello from the little shop of horrors," Killer Mike snarls on "Don't Get Captured," and it's unclear if he's talking about city streets or his own mind.

Wilco, Star Wars
Wilco, once on the vanguard of roots-meets-experimental rock, wasn't exactly getting staid in recent years, yet the band was certainly sounding more comfortable. The act's 2011 album The Whole Love, for instance, survives as a competent work, but one that, with few exceptions, echoes the band's free-wielding days. The changed with Star Wars, released without warning in summer 2015. Whether the band fussed over it or tossed it off, the music felt recorded in a day, and Wilco sounded fierier than it had in years. Guitars slice left and right throughout this collection of fuzzy, fast freak-outs. A year and a half after the record hit, one can still be charmed by its oddities – see the mystical, metallic "You Satellite," fire-alarm alertness of "The Joke Explained," or swampy garage-rock groove of "Cold Slope."

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Coloring Book is an album that made history, becoming the first streaming-only release to earn a Grammy nomination. What's more, Chicago's Chance the Rapper essentially gave the work away for free. Affable and expansive, the set presents snapshots of life on the South Side of Chicago. The mood remains redemptive and hopeful as Chance merges hip-hop with gospel and jazz flourishes. "Music is all we got," Chance and guest Kanye West declare on the opening track. Over the next 14 songs, Chance finds various ways to celebrate the community of song. "Summer Friends" unfolds like a hymn, the soulful "Blessings" features a buoyant, sing-along feel, and "Same Drugs" may as well be a ballad, built around a nostalgic piano and thoughts of old friends. There's plenty of more high-energy moments, too – "No Problem," for instance – as Coloring Book chronicles the highs and lows of everyday life.

Beyoncé, Lemonade
No discussion of surprise releases is complete without mention of Beyoncé, a master of the unexpected. In late 2013, she dropped a self-titled effort online without warning. It functions as a dark, somewhat disturbing work that largely focuses on the erotic. Last year, she unleashed Lemonade after an HBO special. It instantly became one of 2016's defining albums. Alternately personal and political, the aggressive Lemonade veers from matters of infidelity to social protest. No genre is left untouched – "Don't Hurt Yourself," for instance, shows Beyoncé can be a rock n' roll rager while "Daddy Lessons" has a country swing. It all feels bold and unforgiving, a statement of power and independence from the world's most recognizable pop star.

David Bowie, The Next Day
Before Bowie released The Next Day in 2013, some fans wondered if the then-66-year-old had retired. Nearly a decade had passed since his last full-length album. Recorded in secrecy with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, The Next Day proves an arresting, spirited comeback. A little bluesy and a little funky, the album brims with life, with tense guitars and a terse saxophone creating a moody sense of urgency. If last year's Blackstar is jazzy and introspective, The Next Day emerges as wry and energetic – swerving from the slight cynicism of the propulsive "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" to the haunted keyboards and abrasive guitars of "Love is Lost," to the downright spooky and twisted "Valentine's Day," a jangly guitar strummer with a sinister edge. Most important, the work serves as evidence that Bowie never stopped challenging.

January 13, 2017

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