The Internet awoke last Friday to find that Beyoncé had airdropped an entire new album onto iTunes. For most fans, the “visual album” was a total surprise and an instant success (it sold some 828,773 copies in the first three days — an iTunes record), despite a complete lack of advanced marketing, television appearances, or even a lead-up radio single. Granted, a pop artist of Beyoncé’s stature is clearly able to generate massive interest just by being, well, Beyoncé.
Still, Beyoncé’s model almost seems like an outlier, especially at a time where long, drawn-out hype cycles are now commonly expected — not just with artists of this magnitude much smaller indie bands as well.
All year, albums from pop music’s biggest names — and many mid-level and indie artists — were released after calculated, creative, and even mysterious marketing plans to help inspire fan interest, re-instill some fun in new music, and hopefully boost sales. Here’s a rundown of some of the year’s most notable.
For those who went to bed at a sensible hour last night — with your “Best of 2013” listicles locked and loaded — you likely awoke this Friday the 13th morning to a discover a strange, unfamiliar new world where a new Beyoncé album exists.
Simply titled Beyoncé, the so-called “visual album (her fifth LP as a solo artist, dropped overnight exclusively on iTunes to the surprise of practically everyone, and consists of 14 new songs coupled with 17 new music videos directed by a wide variety of directors, among them Hype Williams, Terry Richardson and LILINTERNET.
As these megapop albums tend to go, Beyoncé includes a bunch of big-name guest spots from her husband Jay Z (“Drunk In Love”), Frank Ocean (“Superpower”), Drake (“Mine”), and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (“***Flawless”). And despite Beyoncé’s sleek, almost-restrained electronic template to these songs, the record actually showcases a small battery producers: Pharrell, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Noah “40” Shebib, The-Dream, Hit Boy, Terius Nash, Boots, and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek on “No Angel.” Even Blue Ivy — Beyoncé and Jay Z’s now two-year-old daughter — makes a “featured artist” appearance on the song “Blue.”
Needless to say, people are pretty geeked-out by the sudden pre-Christmas gift: new jams from Beyoncé.
But the most surprising part of Beyoncé, is not how it was so suddenly unleashed, but its cohesion. Typically these towering monolithic albums from enormous megastars tend to feel a little all over the place from song to song — if not within the same song (looking at you, “Countdown”) — often as a result of patching together a bunch of tracks with the fingerprints of a billion different producers and guest verses. So, considering how many producers are attached to Beyoncé, the album shows admirable restraint.
So singular is the musical vision — focusing mostly on Bey’s voice over relatively minimal production built around icy keyboards and chopped-up sequencers, serrated electronic dance beats, and a deep, gut-rumbling sub-bass. The record explores one dark, alluring mood and remarkably sticks with it throughout all 14 songs. This is not another collection of songs but a true album, a full statement, a masterpiece. Which is why I love it so much.
In fact, every song is so strong it’s actually difficult to locate the true “hit single” — although you could certainly make your case for the big time Jay Z-starring “Drunk In Love.”
Or the synth pop anthem “Pretty Hurts,” or the sexy electronic gospel ballad “Haunted,” or the slinky 90’s R&B jam “Blow” or the feminist anthem “***Flawless.”
But if you’re still searching for that next feel-good song, look no further than the arena-full-of-fans shout-along track, “XO.”
It all adds up to what is sure to be one of the biggest records to be released in 2013, and one sure to dominate in 2014.
I spend a lot of time listening to music throughout the year, making my lists of favorite records, the best songs and so on and on. But in the process I cannot help but look at and think about the album artwork and how that accompanies this music. Increasingly, in this digital age, album art is relegated often to postage stamp-sized icons on our screens and iPhones, already downsizing from the pretty small size of CDs. Maybe people do not think about album covers as much, yet I still love to stare over them like I did as a kid. And I still tend to buy albums in LP format because I like seeing that cover nice and big.
In lieu of a best albums of the year list, I decided to curate this list of my favorite album covers of the year. Below is but a sampling of some of the excellent artwork from 2011, some of which point to a few of the thematic trends in imagery, typography, illustration and intricacy.