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    The year in arts | Pop music

    Surprise releases grab the music spotlight

    U2’s “Songs of Innocence” created a stir.
    Jeff Haynes/reuters
    U2’s “Songs of Innocence” created a stir.


    If I had just one word to sum up this year in pop music, that would be it. 2014 was all about the sneak attack, the carefully guarded decision to skip anticipation in favor of a sudden boom.

    We have Beyoncé to thank for that. She was by no means the first pop star to do it, but when she released her self-titled opus at the tail end of last December with no warning, but to great fanfare, she cast a long shadow over this year. She knew it, too. “Changed the game with that digital drop,” Queen Bey bragged on “Feeling Myself,” her new song with Nicki Minaj.


    If you think about it, the unannounced approach is the most contemporary reflection of how we consume music. In an age where we’re glued to our screens — scrolling, “liking,” refreshing — breaking news, and being the first to know about it, is practically a sport.

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    This was the year that big albums weren’t merely that; they were events. The critical thinking was that music doesn’t sell simply on its own merit anymore. You need a gimmick, something to infiltrate a Twitter feed.

    A surprise release, though, is the ultimate PR stunt, generating buzz that ripples far and wide over social media through fans and headlines. I don’t want to overstate this, but I still remember where I was when I heard about Beyoncé’s surprise album. (To be fair, I think I rolled my eyes and thought, “Well, there goes my Friday vacation day — time to start writing!”)

    But that’s exactly the point. You’re supposed to drop everything and be a part of what everyone else is discussing and debating. What’s especially fascinating is how these albums are kept a secret until the moment they’re out. You’d think that someone involved — a collaborator, an engineer, the studio receptionist, somebody — would have loose lips. And yet miraculously everything goes as planned.

    D’Angelo, the long-dormant neo-soul star who has been easing into a comeback the past few years, pulled a Beyoncé earlier this month. He’s been a broken record in promising a follow-up to his 2000 classic, “Voodoo.” Intended release dates came and went. Then, POOF! There was “Black Messiah” on iTunes and Spotify late in the evening on Dec. 14, which promptly sent the music sphere into spasms. “Critics, warning you now: Redo all your BEST OF 2014 lists,” tweeted the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.


    The cherry on top? “Black Messiah” is great. Really great. Enough so that it likely dimmed the spotlight on Nicki Minaj’s latest, “The Pinkprint,” which had been heavily hyped for months and had the misfortune of coming out the same day.

    On a more modest scale, hip-hop chameleon Azealia Banks staged a secret release last month. After two years of buzz built on her song “212,” and then waning interest, she finally put out her full-length debut, “Broke With Expensive Taste.” The press release might as well have been a Post-It note: “ ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ out now,” it read with nary an exclamation point. It’s too early to tell if the delayed release was too late; I, for one, thought it was an exhilarating album and worth the wait.

    Sometimes the surprise approach backfires, as U2 learned when the band rolled out its latest, “Songs of Innocence,” in an ambitious partnership with Apple in September. As part of the launch for the new iPhone and Apple Watch, the album was magically available in iTunes users’ libraries free of charge. Cut to the cameras capturing Bono and his bandmates grinning ear to ear with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

    Those smiles likely turned to frowns in the ensuing days when it became apparent that not everyone agreed with that tactic. The backlash was swift and snowballed on social media, our modern equivalent of a peanut gallery. (Hip-hop provocateur Tyler, the Creator’s NSFW tweets on the subject are worth revisiting.)

    So where did U2 go wrong? For starters, the Irish rockers bypassed the traditional channels by presuming — no, dictating — that you wanted its new music. Wrong. I’m still not sure Bono and gang were expecting so much ire for what they probably considered a charitable gesture. Apple soon released instructions for how to get rid of the album, which no doubt many people did.


    The other, unspoken travesty was that “Songs of Innocence” was a pretty solid effort by U2’s standards, even an admirable stretch at times, a fact completely eclipsed by its marketing campaign.

    As we head into 2015, it’s clear the sneak attack is how we’ll discover new music from more artists with enough clout to pull it off. My bets are on Rihanna, Radiohead, Adele, maybe Janelle Monáe. And, of course, I have my wish list (are you listening, Lauryn Hill?). Then again, it wouldn’t be a surprise party if you knew who was jumping out of the cake.

    Beyoncé aside, the year in pop had plenty of other buzzworthy moments, including these three:


    I know, I know. Wasn’t Taylor Swift always a pop star dressed up in country duds? Either way, she declared her independence from her roots with “1989,” which abandoned even the faintest hints of banjo and fiddle for a collision of slick electro-pop and sunny choruses. “Shake It Off” was the ultimate earworm, followed by another one, “Blank Space.” The album was too scattershot and impersonal for my taste, which wasn’t a popular opinion among my fellow critics and certainly not her fans. The album debuted at No. 1 with first-week sales of close to 1.3 million units.


    Sir Mix-A-Lot was right all along: We really do like big butts and we cannot lie. How else to explain the rash of odes to the derriere this year? Minaj led the charge with “Anaconda,” her hit single that sampled Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” For the single’s cover image, Minaj posed in a pink thong she just as easily could have used to floss her teeth. Then there was Massachusetts-bred Meghan Trainor, whose fizzy “All About That Bass” became an unstoppable anthem that will take her to the Grammys in February (she’s up for song and record of the year). Most recently, Iggy Azalea teamed up with Jennifer Lopez to salute their notable, um, assets for a performance of “Booty” at the American Music Awards.


    Speaking of Azalea, is there room for her in hip-hop? “The New Classic,” her debut album that made her a star this year bolstered by hits such as “Fancy,” implied there is. But the Australian-born white musician, who raps in a thick Southern drawl, was also a lightning rod for critics who accused her of cultural appropriation. Some of her peers weren’t having any of it, either. Azealia Banks has questioned Azalea’s intentions and thinks she belongs in the pop category. A full-blown Twitter flame war between the two escalated earlier this week. But as Azalea told this critic back in April, “I’m looking for an adverse reaction: I love it if you hate it; I love it if you love it. Just as long as you feel something.”

    Related coverage:

    - The best albums of 2014

    - The best tracks of 2014

    - Best merch of 2014: What a music critic wants

    - D’Angelo breaks his long silence with ‘Black Messiah’

    - Album review: U2, ‘Songs of Innocence’

    - Taylor Swift goes pop, but at what expense?

    - Nicki Minaj returns to rap with personal, probing ‘Pinkprint’

    - Iggy Azalea storms onto the hip-hop scene

    James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.