Before Beyoncé, the surprise album was really just an online leak. But Queen Bey, in her words, "changed the game with the digital drop" and since then, everyone everywhere has been trying to mimic her coup. The latest two on our radar: Miley Cyrus' Dead Petz, which utilized the VMAs as publicity, and Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard's Thunderbitch, which utilized, well, nothing. Howard's Thunderbitch was the main surprise. The album drop is the ultimate power play — it's a "fuck you" to the media cycle, to the promotional tours, to the half-assed interviews and cover stories. It's Beyoncé saying she's above the press, that it's just her and her fans — as emphasized in her September Vogue cover "story." But Howard, while ultra-talented, is no Bey. How did that happen? Before B, the surprise album was a two-week announcement. Think Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail. There were also surprise part-two albums (Justin Timberlake's 20/20 Experience), and pre-leak precautions (like Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, launched a week before its original release date). After Beyoncé, however, the surprise was no longer a surprise. "Release dates [are] played out," Kanye West told Power 105.1 in February. "So the surprise is going to be a surprise... There goes the surprise." Most of these subsequent album drops were cheap — or free. Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, released on BitTorrent, was $6; U2's Songs of Innocence was gifted to all iTunes customers. Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz was completely free, available immediately online. Cyrus did, after all, start the Zayn Malik / Calvin Harris feud with her quote, "I've made my money. If no one buys my album, it's cool. It's fine. I've got a house, and I've got dogs that I love. I don't need anything else."
Still, the point of these drops was to say, "Yes, I can be Beyoncé, too. I can do all this without the hype and still be successful. My fans love me." But for these last-minute releases with a "free" price tag, it isn't really about being "above" the media — Miley did time her album drop with her VMA gig, after all. No; the surprise album, at this point, is a status symbol. That's why Howard is the anomaly in this crowd of album-dropping A-list musicians. Although she's critically beloved, her name isn't widely known — she's constantly tied to her band, Alabama Shakes. Thunderbitch was Howard's side project, and its no-frills release was the perfect complement to the album's sound: the rock-and-roll, punk aesthetic heard through Howard's howl.
Listening through Thunderbitch, you can't help but feel this is how the surprise album should be. It's like walking into a bar and stumbling across the best live show of the night. It's not free (Howard is selling vinyls and digital copies online, and streaming it online), but it proves a point: Lesser-known — but fiercely talented — artists can pull off a surprise drop, and it's more of a "fuck you" than when it's pulled by Miley or Drake or (dare we say?) Beyoncé. Howard doesn't have the household name to pull it off — but she does have the music.