Top 6 Unsurprising Surprise Albums of 2016

By Nathaniel Nelson

In 2016, a surprise album is like a surprise birthday party—as much as I loved the gesture, it wasn’t so much of a surprise once I found the cake you left in the fridge as if you wanted me to see it but didn’t want me to know you wanted me to see it. Surprising or not, each time an unannounced or otherwise secretive album drops from one of the world’s premiere artists, we all freak out. And 2016 has been chock-full of such morning-after “Did-you-see-that-so-and-so-dropped-a-surprise-album!?” moments. Below, some of our favorites.

1. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West

Kanye’s one of the most unpredictable artists in the world, which occasionally gets him into trouble. We all knew an album was coming (Good Ass Job/Waves/etc…), but The Life of Pablo is something slightly unlike a conventional album in the end. It’s one of the greatest albums released this decade (as all of his albums are, no matter the decade), but it’s hard to say whether Kanye even knows if he’s finished with it (#contemporaryart).

2. Lemonade – Beyoncé

Beyoncé’s eponymous 2013 album was a surprise album in the truest sense. To call Lemonade a surprise album, on the other hand, is a little like throwing multiple interventions for your drug addict cousin—at some point, the element of surprise has been played out. What was unexpected about Lemonade was the style of the music, with collaborations from heavy hitters new to the Beyonce gravitational field, including Ezra Koenig, Swae Lee, Diplo, and Jack White.

3. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

Nothing revolutionary but universally well-liked, A Moon Shaped Pool proved the band could still kick it, even after a five-year absence. The social media blackout was classic Radiohead, but before then there were always concerns about the group growing old, or even breaking up. The new release felt like a welcome blast from the past.

4. Wildflower – The Avalanches

This one was genuinely surprising, not because there weren’t signs, but because the album seemed to be in some sort of personnel nightmare for a while. That, and to release an album after a 15-year drought is quite anomalous. These guys made one of the best albums of this millennia when they were 20-somethings, and somehow followed it up with a pretty great sequel as full-on adults.

5. Everybody Looking – Gucci Mane

Guwop has never released a surprise project—the guy releases a new mixtape every day before brushing his teeth in the morning; he’s probably releasing a new mixtape as I write this article, and then again during your reading it—but the content of this one was surprising. With Drake and Kanye features, hi-fi production quality, and easy-listening choruses, it makes you realize that “everybody looking” probably just means “white people too, this time.”

6. Blonde – Frank Ocean

Perhaps one of the most pervasive meta-narratives of millennial culture finally relieved itself earlier in August, with the multimedia project of Blonde + Endless + Boys Don’t Cry. With a running gag on the level of “Imma let you finish…,”  at times it seemed likely that the album would never actually came out.

Nathaniel NelsonNathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.