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For 2007’s In Rainbows, Radiohead staged an economic coup that saw the first major instance of a name-your-price major release. Pay what you want, we trust you’ll find merit in the medium and be moved to contribute what you reasonably can. The move made news, and history has proven the model to be viable—as a publicity stunt if nothing else.
Acts from hip-hop pioneers De La Soul to optimistic garage rockers White Denim have released free albums. It’s a good-will gesture that pays for itself in the form of exposure, but the window on those links to the releases often closes quickly. (For De La Soul’s classic back catalog earlier this month, it lasted only a day.)
But thankfully, there are free albums still floating around on the Internet. Here are 10 classic albums you can download right now—guilt-free.
1) Drake, So Far Gone
I wrote five years ago that this was basically Nirvana’s Bleached. I’ve never been more right: Drake is hip-hop’s leading superstar and also its most reliable purveyor of anthems and choruses. But what you won’t find streaming on Spotify is his breakthrough mixtape, early 2009’s So Far Gone. It crashed servers, featured the single of the year, and did it all with unauthorized samples, covers, and favors. The thing was so rampantly downloaded that the label eventually released a condensed physical version, but the original’s meandering heart is still a freely available whole.
2) David Byrne and St. Vincent, Brass Tactics
It wasn’t too long ago that outtakes and live recordings were considered rarities, appealing to super fans that scoured stores for limited pressings. I remember being excited about Weezer’s Lion and The Witch EP and it was just five throwaway versions of Pinkerton songs recorded on stage in Japan. No more. In the age of the deluxe editions, such tracks extend the shelf-life of new albums. Here, David Byrne and St. Vincent offer a bonus track, two live recordings, and remixes for their terrific collaborative record, Love This Giant.
3) Kanye West & DJ LRM, Ego
It’s astonishing how laissez-faire major rappers can be about unauthorized compilations and mixes that permeate rap mixtape websites like Livemixtapes.com and DatPiff.com. Maybe it’s because they’ve routinely benefitted from the creative side hustle. Case in point: Kanye West, bored with writing songs for Mission: Impossible III in early ’06, collaborated with DJ LRM on a breathtakingly vital batch of unearthed material, remixes, and rants. At just over 20 tracks, it’s a cumbersome project full of loud drops and interludes (the intro is his circa Late Registration Grammy rant). But very quickly it turns into a classic, College Dropout-era rap stroke of genius: John Legend cooks soul food, Consequence raps with a chip on his shoulder, Little Brother (the defunct rap clique) drops by during its 9th Wonder-fueled sonic apex, and T.I. drops a great verse on “Drive Slow.” But it’s Kanye rapping like a slam poet heavyweight about yellow diamonds, cheating on his fiancée, and clashing with gatekeepers over marketability.
4) Sound Team, Marathon
Austin’s Sound Team was a trendy stock that crashed quickly—buried in major label woes and rude reviews upon the release of 2006’s quietly stellar Movie Monster. It caught flack for excelling at making crowd-pleasing, big heart rock music in sheep’s clothing. It didn’t help that Capitol Records sold Monster for almost $20. To subconsciously cleanse the mid-aughts mayhem, former member Bill Baird dropped the band’s 2005 lost-to-vinyl-only-pressings gem on his Bandcamp page. This is the band at its peak, taking all of the right cues from Spoon’s A Series of Sneaks.
5) El-P & Killer Mike, Run the Jewels
This collaboration between career backpack rapper El-P (“8 Steps to Perfection”) and armchair philosopher Killer Mike (Outkast’s “The Whole World”) is more of a parody than a project, with old-school tracks about banana clippers, heroin dealers, and Christmas miracles. But their debut, released as a free mixtape, actually goes as hard as some of the ‘80s classics it nods to.
6) Lil B, Six Kiss
There are artists that take chances on free dissemination of specific collections, and there are those that live on the Internet. Lil B is a meme machine of funny ideas, a Keystone Pipeline flow of unparalleled output. He’s the most positive and funny (humor is so underrated in hip-hop) rap artist of the 21st Century. In April 2009, rap critic Andrew Noz shed light like an explorer that just returned from a cave inhabited by elves. At the time, Lil B had 114 Myspace pages of music. “The pages are numbered chronologically,” he wrote, “listening to them in order is like reading an abandoned space journal, a slow descent into madness.” He later wrote the definitive origin feature that’s worth checking for scope. Six Kiss is the starter jetpack to a world of irreverent anthems and stark, Imogen Heap-sampling rap beats by Clams Casino. If nothing else, listen to “I’m God.”
7) $hy Glizzy, Young Jefe
Washington, D.C.-raised rapper $hy Glizzy has a tangible subculture under his belt. He’s got the feds watching his YouTube videos, shaking their heads as his fans indict themselves in “Glizzy Gang” T-shirts. His mysticism: Glizzy’s father was shot dead at 19, the same age Glizzy was when he was emerging on the circuit. His bundle of free mixtapes (2011’s Law, 2012’s Fxck Rap, 2013’s Law II) are learning-on-the-job epics about what it’s like to put a target on your back when you’re from a small, violent place. The fourth Book of Glizz dropped this month, and like the rest, is delicious, vital, and free.
8) Various Artists, Free Music: A Carpark Record
This holiday compilation from bands like Cloud Nothings, Memory Tapes, and Toro y Moi, was an in-store freebie that had seasonal covers. Check Dan Deacon turning out “Silver Bells.” It’s just an example of the brand loyalty that this sort of marketing—holiday cheer from the clubhouse!—can bring an indie label. As Carpark writes on its site: “Feel free to look this gift horse in the mouth as long as you want.”
9) Demilich, Nespithe
From Finland with love comes an extreme metal masterpiece that has crept its way back into the metal consciousness in January upon turning 20. It’s one of those benchmark works that’s worth hearing. Demilich doesn’t have a label, so they nonchalantly harbored their album online for anyone to drag and drop its files like it was a 401k distribution form.
10) Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra
Before he was a Grammy award-winning, American modernist genius, Frank Ocean was a caged bird. His job was to write songs for figures like Justin Bieber and hope that something netted him a lucrative credit. On the low, Ocean was using Def Jam’s private property to flesh out his vision. Frustrated at the indefinite label shelving, Ocean blasted Def Jam on his Tumblr in early 2011 and dropped his low budget masterpiece. Nostalgia, Ultra is still floating around for free—and still a bulletproof rundown of instantly signature melodies (“We All Try,” “Swim Good”), Marvin Gaye-level politicizing (“I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman but between love and love”), and making flatly bad ideas into bold adventures that work (covering Coldplay while singing about aliens). But it’s also an important footnote to the decorated follow up, Channel Orange.
When you have a vinyl-based record label that appeals to a small, punk niche it only makes sense to put the bulk of the catalog up for streaming on your Soundcloud page. Windian is one of my favorite labels. Tragically, its founder Travis Jackson was killed suddenly this year in a work accident. People liked the guy so much that friends collectively raised $38,000 for Jackson’s family. The guy was an ambassador for great music. His Soundcloud page neatly lays out his legacy into a matrix of playlists.
Illustration via Run the Jewels/Tumblr