A number of musicians have done the surprise album drop this year, releasing material at little or no notice.
Beyonce did it with Lemonade (After the phenomenal success of her self-titled drop in 2014) while across the Atlantic Radiohead executed their own variation with A Moon Shaped Place coming out at five days notice.
Other artists who have done variations on the standardised three month album roll out and released material suddenly (say, over a period of simultaneous announcement to a couple of weeks) include Chance the Rapper, My Bloody Valentine, Frank Ocean, Death Grips and U2.
Some of these roll outs have been very successful, with My Bloody Valentine’s announced (23 year in the works) follow up to Loveless crashing their website, while Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper’s new albums and mixtape have both been extremely popular despite being predominantly accessed on streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify.
At other times, as with U2’s surprise “gift” Songs of Innocence being uploaded by stealth alongside an Apple IOS update, surprise drops have backfired on bands with not insignificant negative press. There were several Twitter and Instagram broadsides at the band and it has created a baggage that has lingered since.
However, whilst the effect of this surprise drop can generate significant positive and negative market/conversation, what does it actually do to the ability to critique the album in real time across social media? As in, substantial critique which contextualises the album.
Whilst the artist temporarily alters and has control of the conversation around the album, it becomes increasingly difficult to cut through and respond to an album with due process if the conversation is taking place at the same time as the assessment of said album.
Press organisations like The Guardian have frequently published “first reviews” or hot takes before following up with a more substantive summary a week later whilst Pitchfork commonly has reviews out within three to four business days of release.
What does this do to our ability to meaningfully connect with pop culture if the writers are no further ahead of us then we are? Does it democratise the critical process and does it simply mean that writers are no longer the experts?
Whilst as a listener there is some joy to be had in sharing the communality of a moment, there is also the bug bear of time, and I often I find myself drifting towards reviews such as those written at The Talkhouse (Where musicians guest write articles on recent albums) or towards a critic like Anwen Crawford, who writes at The Monthly and uses her monthly deadline to clearly consider an album like, say, Frank Ocean’s Restless/Blonde double release this year. She thinks of it as part of a lineage of other releases, generating a stronger, more substantive piece of writing.
Both emphasise the possibility of unique perspectives and time being a factor in generating meaningful critical distance.
There will always be time and room for press coverage of music that is little more than the verbatim re-printing of press releases as it allows for the dissemination of information quickly.
However, as long as the recent trend in music releasing continues to remove room for genuine press criticism of the music and democratises opinion, more measured, incisive takes are impossible.