A few weeks ago, one of the most powerful men in the music industry, Columbia Records boss Rob Stringer, was interviewed about his label's plans for 2014.
He mentioned the forthcoming January release from Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes, a collection of covers, outtakes and "reimagined" versions of songs from previous albums – and, more speculatively, a forthcoming album by Pharrell Williams, set to include his current single Happy, from the soundtrack to Despicable Me 2. Then he added, vaguely, "at some point, Beyoncé will put a record out and when she does it'll be phenomenal". The headlines duly suggested a Beyoncé album would arrive in 2014.
As it turned out, Beyonce's album arrived without warning three days after Stringer – also the label boss behind 2013's other surprise release, David Bowie's The Next Day – gave his interview. If anyone thought releasing an album without prior publicity was a trick that could only be successfully pulled off once, they were mistaken. The impact of what industry magazines have taken to calling a "sneak attack" wasn't in any way dulled by the fact that an artist on the same label had done exactly the same thing earlier in the year: Beyoncé's eponymous fifth album went on to sell more than 800,000 copies in three days.
Given its success, it seems inconceivable that more artists won't try to repeat the feat over the next 12 months, not least because the sneak attack manages to diffuse the weight of expectation placed on a hotly anticipated album and circumvents the chance of bad reviews: you'll still get the coverage, but you'll already have sold a lot of albums before anyone gets round to reading it. You can understand why someone like Adele, whose third album is supposed to come out next year, might seriously consider that approach, given that she's charged with the thankless task of following up the biggest-selling album of the last decade. You might consider it if you were U2, also slated to reappear next year, as a means of injecting a degree of unpredictability into a career that hasn't exactly flagged in recent years – most bands would kill for a career slump involving a world tour that grossed $736m (£450m), as U2's 2009-2011 360 Degree tour did – but that has suffered from a sense of diminishing returns when it comes to new albums: 2009's No Line on the Horizon was their lowest-selling in a decade.
That said, there are a handful of major albums with fixed release dates: not just Springsteen but the second albums by acclaimed US alt-rockers Warpaint and UK dance star Katy B, whose 2011 debut On a Mission brilliantly rendered a variety of underground club genres – drum 'n' bass, dubstep, garage, UK funky – into sparkling pop music. Scheduled for March is Lily Allen's comeback album, which apparently features songs inspired by both "the experience of motherhood" and her Twitter feud with rapper Azaelia Banks, whose own album, Broke With Expensive Taste – originally scheduled for release in 2012 – is also supposed to be coming out next year. The latter certainly sounds like an intriguing record, at least if you believe Banks's description of its contents: an "anti-pop" album influenced by abstract US alt-rock band Ariel Pink's Haunted Grafitti, featuring collaborations with Pharrell Williams and chart-topping British duo Disclosure.
Equally intriguing is the prospect of Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence – an album on which you hope the singer-songwriter is going to attempt a Bowie-esque reinvention of her persona, rather yet another set of songs in which she pines for her bad boy lover in a seedy motel while either putting her red dress on or taking her dress off – and R&B producer Frank Ocean following up 2012's acclaimed Channel Orange with an album he's suggested is inspired by the Beach Boys, whose influence you could certainly hear in Superpower, his contribution to the Beyoncé album.
Elsewhere, 2014's first two guaranteed critical hits look like being Canadian singer-songwriter St Vincent's eponymous album – released in February and already trailed by a wildly acclaimed single Birth in Reverse, complete with the attention-grabbing opening line "oh what an ordinary day/ take out the garbage/ masturbate" – and the debut album by Sky Ferreira, which is already available to hear on YouTube (having been released in the autumn in the US), and sees the singer, model and actress takes an appealingly leftfield approach to the business of making a pop album. The year's big archival release, meanwhile, looks like being a follow-up to Michael Jackson's posthumous 2010 album, Michael, a record that received what you might tactfully describe as a mixed reception, with members of the Jackson family claiming that several tracks actually featured a Michael Jackson impersonator. It's to repeat the formula of getting old Jackson tracks remixed by a contemporary producer (Timbaland is involved) while fans are apparently excited that it may include Jackson's thought-provokingly titled 1989 outtake Do You Know Where Your Children Are?
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