NEW YORK (Billboard) - What's the biz to do when the top-selling album of 2007 was a Christmas project released in November, Josh Groban's "Noel," and the second-best was a soundtrack to Disney's "High School Musical" movie sequel?
Superstars underperformed, and not enough up-and-comers took their commercial fortunes to the proverbial next level. Still, there's a wealth of highly anticipated albums heading into stores later in 2008, including new sets from the likes of Madonna, U2, Metallica, Mariah Carey and Shania Twain.
In the meantime, Billboard presents a peek at the music you'll be hearing about in the first quarter.
Willie Nelson, "Moment of Forever" (Lost Highway, January 29)
The latest salvo from the legendary Nelson was produced by country superstar Kenny Chesney and Buddy Cannon. While Nelson contributed three songs, the 74-year-old also tapped the songwriting talents of Randy Newman (on the poignant "Louisiana 1927"), Kris Kristofferson, Big Kenny of Big & Rich and Dave Loggins, among others. Nelson also covers Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" and Dave Matthews' "Gravedigger," while the bluesy "Worry B Gone" is a duet between Nelson and Chesney.
Sarah Brightman, "Symphony" (Angel/EMI Manhattan, January 29)
Mega-selling soprano Brightman furthers her crossover ambitions here with songs featuring Kiss' Paul Stanley ("I Will Be With You"), Andrea Bocelli ("Canto Della Terra") and Fernando Lima ("Pasion"), in addition to a cover of Faith Hill's "There You'll Be" sung in Italian. "Symphony" will be supported with a PBS special during spring pledge-drive season and also sets up "Repo! The Genetic Opera," Brightman's film debut, due later in '08.
Motel, "17" (Warner Music Latina, January 29)
Motel rode a pop/punk wave in Mexico with the success of its 2006 self-titled album, but its U.S. exposure was mainly limited to Texas and Puerto Rico. Warner Music Latina has bigger plans for "17," which debuted at No. 23 on the Mexican sales charts in November, according to trade group Amprofon. Out digitally since November 20, to coincide with an early pitch for the single "Y Te Vas," the album will arrive January 29 stateside on CD. The label is courting pop network Super Estrella with a more commercial single.
Lil Wayne, "Tha Carter III" (Cash Money)
Widespread leaks forced the rapper to move this project from last fall to February. Wayne has collaborated with everyone from Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado to Kanye West and the Game, but it's unclear what exactly will wind up on the finished project. "I did ask for a list of the songs that were leaked, so I can throw some new joints on there," he says. "I switched the beat up to a lot of them, because the rap is already out there and everybody loves the song, whatever the song shall be."
Nas, "Nigger" (The Jones Experience/Def Jam)
Never one to back down from a challenge, Nas is moving forward with the controversial title of this album, originally expected in December. With production from DJ Toomp, Jermaine Dupri and Sean "Diddy" Combs' Hitmen crew, the rapper pulls no punches on tracks like "You're a Nigger Too" and "The Fear." "There's a fun level to the album," he told MTV. "There's an attractive, sexy, aspect to it; a stylish aspect, a flashy aspect. It takes negatives and makes them good."
Ja Rule, "The Mirror" (The Inc.)
On the heels of a public feud with 50 Cent and a 2005 FBI case against Inc. principals Irv and Chris Gotti, Ja Rule calls "The Mirror" a growth process that covers a lot of substantive ground. "This is a very grown-up album, expressing a lot of true feelings," says the artist, who worked with such producers as Channel 7 and Erick Sermon. "But it's a fun album as well--a dramedy." Tracks include the "Eleanor Rigby"-sampling "Judas" and "Damn," a song Ja Rule says he wrote with Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez and Christina Milian in mind.
Nicole Scherzinger, "Her Name Is Nicole" (Interscope)
She's dominated the charts and the airwaves with the Pussycat Dolls, but vocalist Nicole Scherzinger is finding solo success a bit harder to come by. Her debut album was bumped last fall from October 16 to November 20 and then to February, after initial singles "Whatever U Like" featuring T.I. and "Baby Love" failed to dent the Billboard Hot 100. Collaborations have been put to tape with Sting, Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody, Akon and Kanye West, but word is Scherzinger may cut some new tracks as well.
Sheryl Crow, "Detours" (A&M/Interscope, February 5)
"The songs are very inspired by the last three years of events in my life," Crow says of a time that found her battling breast cancer and splitting with partner Lance Armstrong. First single "Shine Over Babylon" is "is very environmentally conscious, in the tradition of Bob Dylan," while Crow's infant son can be heard on the tune "Lullaby for Wyatt."
Lenny Kravitz, "It Is Time for a Love Revolution" (Virgin, February 5)
Kravitz played nearly all the instruments on his first effort in three years, which was recorded at his studio in the Bahamas as well as Miami, Paris and New York. "The last record was still very natural, but it had a cleaner sound," he says. "On this one, I was really into using more of the room mics and getting a lot of spill. I wanted to hear the walls and the room." The result is a more-stripped down feel on rockers like "Bring It On," "Love Love Love" and the fast boogie "Will You Marry Me."
Anthony Hamilton, "Me" (So So Def/Zomba Label Group, February 5)
On his third album, R&B crooner Hamilton says fans will find songs that are "full of life and situations we all go through, the changes of men and women and relationships with God and family and children -- and the political side of Anthony Hamilton." Look for the album to include Diane Warren's soul-oozing ballad "Do You Feel Me," which also appeared on the "American Gangster" soundtrack. Collaborators include Mark Batson, Kelvin Wooten, James Poyser and the Avila Brothers.
Jack Johnson, "Sleep Through the Static" (Brushfire/Universal, February 5)
Johnson's latest album was recorded on tape machines that ran on 100% solar-powered energy. First single "If I Had" is a lighthearted love song with swirling electric guitar arrangements. Much like prior efforts, Johnson rarely meanders into the minor keys, though songs like "They Do, They Don't" tread into deeper and sometimes darker subject matter. Johnson says, "Some of the songs are about raising (kids). Some of the songs are about the world that these children will grow up in; a world of war and love, and hate, and time and space."
Dolly Parton, "Backwoods Barbie" (Dolly, February 5)
The country legend veers between new material and interpretations of Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears" and the Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy" on her new effort, which is being released on her own Dolly Records imprint. Look for the title cut to appear in the forthcoming Parton-spearheaded musical "9 to 5," based on her classic '80s film. A world tour kicks off in Februray, preceded by club shows in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
Simple Plan, "Simple Plan" (Atlantic, February 12)
After two sets of energetic pop/punk, Simple Plan collaborated with Timbaland associate Nate "Danjahandz" Hills, '90s pop svengali Max Martin and rock producer Dave Fortman for an album that brings the noise but also incorporates dance grooves, hip-hop beats, power balladry and, on first single "When I'm Gone," synthesizer loops. "There was sort of a realization that we needed to really take chances and just go for it and . . . challenge ourselves," drummer/co-writer Chuck Comeau says. He and frontman Pierre Bouvier actually wrote an initial set of songs they abandoned because they weren't quite moving Simple Plan forward. "We don't want to become the band that just stays where they are," Comeau says.
Rick Ross, "Trilla" (Slip-N-Slide/Def Jam, February 19)
The Miami rapper's sophomore album was supposed to be out in time for Christmas, but a few clearance snafus forced the project into early '08. One of the affected tracks was the DJ Toomp-produced "This Me," which Ross calls "a real personal record I wanted to make sure got on the album." R. Kelly guests on current single "Speedin'," while Jay-Z, Pharrell, T-Pain, Nelly and Freeway make their presence felt on other tunes. "It's going to be the biggest street album of the year," Ross promises.
Janet Jackson, "Discipline" (Island, February 26)
After a nearly 10-year stint at Virgin, Janet Jackson is starting fresh with boyfriend/Island Urban Music president Jermaine Dupri by her side. Island Def Jam chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid is personally steering her project, with assistance from Rodney Jerkins (on the single "Feedback"), Ne-Yo, Stargate, Tricky Stewart and the-Dream. "Janet's (new) music is exciting," Reid says. "My guess is that Janet, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis will do something together because they have such magic. But we've experimented with things for no other reason than to find some freshness and give her some different challenges musically."
Erykah Badu, "Nu Amerykah" (Universal Motown, February 26)
Breaking a five-year hiatus, Badu is set to return with "Nu AmErykah," which she says was inspired by her two children and the direction of contemporary American culture. "The first half of the album speaks to my creative interpretation of Francis Ford Coppola's 'Koyaanisqatsi,' and the second half is more traditional," she says. Working with producers Sa-Ra, Kareem Riggins, Mike Chavarria, Madlib, Bilal and the late J Dilla, Badu crafted 18 tracks of funky, 808 bassline-driven R&B music, which will be spread across two separately sold discs. The 9th Wonder-produced "Honey" is the first single and is climbing Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and "Soldier 7" may be the second.
Goldfrapp, "Seventh Tree" (Mute, February 26)
Goldfrapp fans are in for a noticeably different sound from the British duo on their fourth album. Although it doesn't completely eschew the synth-fueled dance grooves of prior efforts, there's a greater emphasis on ethereal, psychedelic pop in the vein of early Air. "We did talk quite a lot about what kind of instruments would get that kind of warmth and that kind of sound we wanted," Alison Goldfrapp says. "We'd never used acoustic guitars before. We wanted the sound to be delicate, but not weak."
Ashlee Simpson, "Bittersweet World" (Geffen)
With Timbaland, Kenna and the Neptunes' Chad Hugo providing the beats, Simpson indulges her '80s fetish on her third album. The sassy "Boys" imagines the Cardigans' "Lovefool" atop a Chic rhythm, and there's a "Beat It" vibe on the chugging "Rag Doll." "I almost wish I lived my 20s in the '80s," says Simpson, who was born in 1984. "A lot of the record is a bit cheeky. Sometimes I'm writing about something serious, but it was fun for me to kind of goof around as well." Simpson put in a fair share of 14-hour days in the studio; often she'd leave at night and return the next morning to find that Hugo had crafted a song based on conversations from the previous day. "Everybody really had their hands in this album," she says.
The Offspring, TBA (Columbia)
For its eighth record, the Offspring headed to the studio with an unexpected producer in tow -- Bob Rock, best-known for his work with Motley Crue and Metallica. He didn't change the Orange County, Calif., punk band's sound too much, though; lead singer Dexter Holland describes one fan hearing new tracks and proclaiming it to sound like "new old Offspring." Holland also sought guidance from Rick Rubin throughout the process, and describes the bearded one as an "invaluable resource."
Gavin DeGraw, TBA (J)
It will be close to five years since the release of his debut, "Chariot," when DeGraw's new set hits stores. The currently untitled album features a more seasoned, edgier version of the 30-year-old songwriter, whose tuneful voice will be heard over more guitars and more "primal" piano lines. "I played really simple piano parts in order to get out of the way of the melody and the lyrics, to enhance what's meant to be heard," the New York resident says. Produced by Howard Benson, the album features first single "In Love With a Girl," the playful "Cop Stop" and the catchy-chorused "Young Love."
Estelle, "Shine" (Homeschool/Atlantic)
The first artist inked to John Legend's label offers a fresh helping of R&B and soul on "Shine," augmented by guest turns from Kanye West, will.i.am, Cee-Lo, Wyclef Jean and Legend himself. "It's all about the songs and music," Legend says. "British soul artists haven't come with the right music. Estelle has the right music and producers; her music will speak for itself. She's undeniably a star."
Alan Jackson, "Good Time" (Arista Nashville, March 4)
With a new single, "Small Town Southern Man," already climbing Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, one of the genre's most reliable hitmakers will return in March with his 15th studio album. "Good Time" also includes the Martina McBride duet "Never Loved Before," the self-explanatory "Country Boy" and "Sissy's Song," a tribute to a deceased family friend. Jackson wrote all the tunes, which were produced by longtime colleague Keith Stegall.
Bauhaus, "Go Away White" (Bauhaus Musik, March 4)
The good news for Bauhaus fans: "Go Away White" is the group's first studio album since 1983. The bad news: There will be no further activity from the legendary goth band, which reunited in 2005 for the Coachella festival and later toured the world, but has since splintered due to internal tensions. "We have that 'gothic' tag," drummer Kevin Haskins says. "But if you actually listen to our music, there's a lot of humor and light." Pointing to cuts like "Eternal Summer of the Damned," "Adrenaline" and "Black Stone Hearts," he says, "With this album, I see all that. It all came out again."
Michael McDonald, "Soul Speak" (Universal Motown, March 11)
Though the idea of a third Motown album was broached, McDonald wanted to engage in a little "soul speak" for his next album. The Simon Climie-produced set features a variety of covers like Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life," Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," a bluesier treatment of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and three originals that McDonald says "seemed to fit on the record." The covers, he adds, "are songs I remember hearing as a kid that really changed my musical direction or turned my head around. They were more sophisticated than the average pop song."
Moby, "Last Night" (Mute, March 11)
The bald techno maven's Mute debut "is best-described as an eclectic dance record," according to the man himself. "I Love to Move in Here" features veteran rapper Grandmaster Caz, who co-wrote "Rapper's Delight," while two tracks are "big, piano-driven rave anthems." There are also "some atmospheric songs and some techno songs that sound like buildings falling down," Moby says.
Leona Lewis, "Spirit" (J/Syco, March 18)
The 2007 winner of the United Kingdom's "X Factor" talent contest shocked the industry when "Spirit" became the fastest-selling debut in U.K. history. Its first single, "Bleeding Love," also logged multiple weeks atop the U.K. singles chart. The album's U.S. rollout comes under the watchful eye of RCA Music Group chairman Clive Davis. "She has power and range and this ability to transform a song. That's what the world will see," says Davis, whose clout attracted such contributors as Dallas Austin, Ne-Yo, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Walter Afanasieff and Salaam Remi.
Panic! at the Disco, TBA (Decaydance/Fueled by Ramen, March 25)
For its second album, this Las Vegas four-piece is relying less on ProTools and more on actual instruments. "If anything, it sounds more like a band," guitarist/lyricist Ryan Ross says. "We've been tracking live and doing minimal overdubs." Many of the songs are influenced by "bands that my parents grew up on," Ross says, citing such classic rock acts as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys. "I'm getting into that early rock'n'roll stuff," he says. Lyrically, songs like "Things Have Changed" and "Nine in the Afternoon" move away from the "whole one-liner, sarcastic thing" and focus on "everyday things," Ross says.