It's becoming harder and harder to make it through a week of new releases without an album being deemed a "surprise." In its purest form, a surprise release occurs when an artist takes their new music and unleashes it on the internet without so much as a warning or a single. You look up at the iTunes store and there's a bunch of new material from an artist you like, waiting to be purchased. Beyoncé is often credited with popularizing the trend with the release of her eponymous 2013 LP, the one that went on to sell almost a million copies in three days of digital sale; My Bloody Valentine pulled a similar trick almost a year earlier with their comeback effort m b v. (Kevin Shields had talked about mastering the LP a few months earlier, but let's be honest — you didn't really believe him, did you?)
Those albums were surprises in the truest sense of the word: very few members of the public (if any) knew they were on the horizon, and they were available for purchase and listening shortly after they were announced. But the lines between true "surprises" and unorthodox, sped-up promotional cycles have started to blur, and it's common to see fans and journalists stretch the meaning of the word about as far as it can go.
What do albums have to do to earn the word "surprise"?
Beach House and Grimes have both released new records deemed "surprises" in recent weeks despite week-long gaps between their announcement and their availability. Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean are all working on new music, and it's rumored they'll eschew lengthy promo campaigns in favor of speedy releases. Are those albums surprises? Will it really be a shock if Zayn Malik dumps a new album on streaming services a few months after appearing on the cover of The Fader?
In some ways this is an exciting problem to have, and it's less a problem than a minor annoyance for the people charged with writing about music for a living. Digital distribution, recording technology, and social media have facilitated huge leaps in the speed of sales and promotion. Why spend weeks and months orchestrating a huge campaign behind your album when you can toss it to fans with a click and create a memorable moment that way?
What fans and writers need in the wake of the surprise's rise is a tool that makes clear when it's okay to call an album release "surprising." I've made it available for your consideration below. It might not be foolproof, but it'll help you navigate the volatile world of album releases in 2015. Let's save the word "surprise" for the moments in which it's actually true.