Word started getting around earlier this year that the 2007 fall/holiday season would be the last hurrah for the music business as it's currently configured, with a rash of new releases igniting one final blaze of glory before sales plunge into the abyss for good and the CD is finally declared dead. If that's the case, the major labels are certainly going out in style, rolling out monster releases from artists like Kanye West, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood and Bruce Springsteen.
If the recording industry is in fact in the last throes, music itself -- the reason for the industry's faltering existence -- is as lively, healthy and vibrant as ever. Here's all the proof you need:
Kanye West - "Graduation": The supremely confident rapper looks set to continue his winning streak with this third collection. First single "Stronger" is already a smash, and according to sources, "Graduation" may be West's most progressive venture yet, flavored with guest appearances by the likes of John Mayer and Coldplay's Chris Martin. A powerful follow-up to last year's "Late Registration" seems assured. His only obstacle? A man named Curtis…
50 Cent - "Curtis": Can Fiddy make a strong comeback and even overtake Kanye in their same-release-date clash of the rap titans? Frankly, it's not looking good. The first couple of singles from "Curtis" have stalled in the charts, meaning that Mr. Johnson may not be bulletproof when it comes to hit records. He's vowed to retire if he doesn't outsell Kanye in the first week. Let's see if he keeps his promise.
James Blunt - "All The Lost Souls": This British singer-songwriter's smash surprise hit, "You're Beautiful," was pervasive and annoying, while its creator quickly became downright irritating with his constant presence in the press, usually photographed with a gorgeous model on his arm. And the cover of this album, made up of hundreds of tiny photographs of the artist…do we sense a little ego here? Some of these songs have apparently gone over well in concert, so maybe all is not lost.
KT Tunstall - "Drastic Fantastic": She came out of nowhere (actually Scotland) with her 2006 debut "Eye To The Telescope," introducing a fairly fresh mix of pop, blues, folk and rock. Songs like "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" (woo-hoo) and "Suddenly I See" were not just all over the radio but seemingly on every commercial and movie trailer you saw. Can she live up to her first impression? We'll see.
Foo Fighters - "Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace": Former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl leads his punchy, high-powered alternative rock quartet into a graceful middle age with this sixth studio set, a more compact effort than 2005's ambitious double-decker, "In Your Honor." Early word is that this plays like a streamlined version of that sprawling project, combining the best of its electric and acoustic halves.
Joni Mitchell - "Shine": Mitchell's first all-new album in nearly a decade is also her first through the Starbucks music venture Hear Music. Paul McCartney's debut for the coffee consortium has sold modestly -- half a million copies -- so it's not clear what kind of business Mitchell will do. But just the thought of something new from one of the best singer-songwriters of the last 40 years makes the day a little brighter.
2Bruce Springsteen - "Magic": He did the solo balladeer thing two years ago. He went back to the folk roots with his terrific "Seeger Sessions" album and tour in 2006. Now, Bruce has reassembled the E Street Band and is simply ready to rock. Lead single "Radio Nowhere" crackles with energy and spirit, and we hear that the rest is just as up-tempo. New Jerseyites everywhere rejoice -- The Boss is back.
Jennifer Lopez - "Brave": Lopez has failed to impress as a pop diva almost as much as she has failed to fulfill her potential as an actress. Perhaps she's tried to be too many things to too many people, while her lack of live performances has punched holes in her credibility. "Brave" marks a return to English-language pop, and may just put her back on top of the charts -- at least before Mariah Carey's new one arrives.
3Carrie Underwood - TBA: "American Idol's" biggest success story just keeps rolling along. Her "So Small" single is an out-of-the-box monster, she's got an armful of Number One hits and awards behind her, and she seems all but certain to become the inarguable queen of what passes for country music these days with her upcoming new effort. As long as she doesn't get into any arguments with Clive Davis -- we're looking at you, Kelly Clarkson -- the crown is hers.
Mariah Carey - TBA: Carey staged one of the most stunning comebacks in pop music history with 2005's "The Emancipation of Mimi," so the pressure is on for her to follow up with another solid collection of the R&B-inflected, vocally acrobatic pop that first earned her superstar status. Producer Jermaine Dupri is back, so the odds are that Mimi's not going back in her cage anytime soon.
Madonna - TBA: Could the Material Girl go head to head with Mimi and come out unscathed? Madonna's new album is tentatively out in November, and she's enlisting heavyweights Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams to collaborate on writing, producing and perhaps some performing. Timbaland told MTV that the material was "hot," but is Madonna merely grabbing the names of the moment to make her seem relevant? She's defied expectations before, so never count her out.
The rest: Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am steps out on his own with "Songs About Girls" (Sept. 25), while singer Serj Tankian of hard rockers System Of A Down does the same with "Elect The Dead" (Oct. 23). He'll go up that same day against the third offering from Alicia Keys, called "As I Am." That leaves the "male rock singer" field clear on Oct. 9 for the return -- ready or not -- of Kid Rock with "Rock And Roll Jesus." Lupe Fiasco tries to rap his way past the specter of the sophomore slump with "The Cool" (Oct. 30) while last year's top sellers, Rascal Flatts, will tell us that it "Still Feels Good" on Sept. 25 -- and no doubt they'll mean it.
By Don Kaye for TheShowBuzz.com