This is music-critic Oscar season. Every December, music publications compile their 50 favorite albums into lists, and music fans either cheer on or eviscerate the outlets’ choices. The rankings are subjective and often appear arbitrary—what really distinguishes a 44 from a 45?—but they mean something to readers looking to put the year in context. Lists are a good way to figure out what you missed in the past 12 months; they let you see which albums everyone’s been talking about. And then there are the records that everyone talks about and no one ranks because they were strategically released in the midst of awards season, right when everyone thought the heavy hitters had simmered down till January.
Last December, Beyonce set a new precedent for the ritual of the album release by dropping her self-titled magnum opus out of nowhere: there were no press releases or advanced copies, and the album and its accompanying music videos were released on iTunes suddenly and without warning. Beyonce emerged like a thief in the night from a two-year recording hiatus just to remind everyone that no one in pop does it better. And because she released Beyonce smack in the middle of December, Queen Bey rendered her album ineligible for most year-end wrap-ups. There was no time for major publications to rank it among 2013’s best releases, and many pubs shied from breaking the rules and slipping a late-2013 contender into their 2014 retrospectives.
This year, D’Angelo broke a nearly 15-year silence in a similar manner, giving only a few days’ notice before the release of his album Black Messiah. That album’s rollout was apparently more spontaneous than Beyonce’s: Black Messiah was originally planned for a 2015 release, but got bumped up as a response to nationwide protests against police brutality. The cover is a black-and-white photograph of people holding their hands in the air, an echo of the “hands up don’t shoot” gesture that came to symbolize resistance against the lethal police force who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Though several critics wrote hurried reviews of Black Messiah, the album is largely absent from Best of 2014 lists, which, at bigger publications, tend to crystallize in November. That hasn’t stopped it from being December’s unified musical moment: look at Twitter for the sort of D’Angelo encomia that all the best-ofs missed. Lists follow a strict publication schedule, but popular opinion is fluid and responsive in real time.
It wouldn’t surprise me if D’Angelo’s team looked to Beyonce’s album as an example of how music can sell with no buildup. The shock of a sudden release is its own PR. Beyonce was the first album I bought from its eponymous singer—I’d relied on streaming to hear her music before, but the 80-minute event of her video album wasn’t streaming anywhere, and I wanted to watch it right then and there while everyone was still talking about it. I wanted to be part of the moment.
By eschewing the traditional release cycle, Beyonce and D’Angelo render themselves ineligible for carefully curated retrospectives, but they also make their albums more than just albums. Beyonce’s release was one of the defining moments of 2013, just like Black Messiah will likely be remembered as the final, hopeful word on a rough year. They stick in the mind like concerts do, though shows are rarely listed this time of year. They aren’t objects to be stacked, but experiences to be lived.
I can think of one album in particular that would probably top a year-end list if I knew where to put it. Sam Ray sent me Julia Brown’s An Abundance of Strawberries twice this year, before and after it was mastered. It only exists as a .zip file: Ray and his band shrugged off offers from labels by repeatedly “leaking” the record—first to friends, then to anyone who asked for it, and finally to all of Twitter. It was never officially released, but it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in years, raw and sad and celebratory all at once. It lives as an open secret, far outside the hubbub of press releases and reviews and rankings.
I don’t know where Strawberries would go on my list of favorite albums from 2014 because it still feels like it’s hiding just beneath the album cycle, waiting for the right time to emerge. I don’t know if Ray will ever release it in the usual way. He might not—it might remain an album that slipped between the cracks of the ways we usually think and talk about albums—and that’s fine. I’m happy to keep these records as memories and moments, not contestants in a race that really has no finish line.