From veteran divas to indie rockers, performers of all stripes are duking it out this autumn with a flood of new releases.
Songs of the season
"It's a deluge," says Paul Rees, the editor of Q magazine, about the tidal wave of releases set for this autumn. "All record companies think Christmas is the best time to sell records and they are trying to grab market share. It's been a tough year for the music business so they are trying to make some money before the end of the year," he says.
"In the last three months of the year, more music is sold than at any other time," says Paul Williams from the music industry magazine Music Week. Right now an almost ridiculous number of artists are trying to sing their way into your wallet. The list includes the The Beatles and Bob Dylan, the divas Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand and Mariah Carey, the internet phenomenon Susan Boyle, the indie rockers The Monsters of Folk, Weezer, The Raveonettes and The Flaming Lips and the musical comedians the Flight of the Conchords. But wait, there's more. Leona Lewis will release her second album; Rihanna will release another record; Robbie Williams will release his first album in three years and Cheryl Cole is to release her first solo CD.
"There is a lot," says Paul Williams. "And there is one obvious difficulty: not all can be in the top 10." In recent years, the record industry has taken a beating from the popularity of digital downloads as well as the economy. Nevertheless, he says, there is still one safe bet: The Beatles. "EMI released figures this week that revealed that in the first five days of release, sales of The Beatles' reissues of their old CDs in the UK, US and Japan had reached two and a quarter million," says Williams. "The Beatles have nine albums out of 10 in the US catalogue chart. No one has done that before. There is still a huge demand for them."
While the Fab Four's success may come as no surprise, Bob Dylan's decision to release a Christmas album in October has upset fans. On his 47th album, the proceeds of which go to charity, he covers such classics as Here Comes Santa Claus, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Winter Wonderland and Little Drummer Boy. "It makes me sob," says Rees. "He's Bob Dylan!" While it is common for US artists to release moneymaking Christmas albums, it seems an unusual decision for the uncompromising Dylan. But then again, behaving in a strange manner is what he seems to like these days, says Rees. Dylan hosts a digital radio show, was rumoured to be a prospective voice for two sat-nav systems and recently appeared in a Victoria's Secret underwear ad.
There's also a particularly brutal battle of the divas shaping up, with the serious contenders desperate to hang on to their careers in a difficult market. In the senior class, Houston, who released her delayed comeback album, I Look to You, recently amid a blaze of publicity, scored an early hit with a No 1 album on the US Billboard chart. This month, Streisand releases her 63rd album, Love Is the Answer, and Mariah Carey releases Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, her 12th effort. Carey has recently revamped her image after getting married earlier this year to Nick Cannon, an actor and singer 11 years her junior. Forget the butterflies and rainbows of yore, Carey dressed as a man in the video for her first single, Obsessed, and plans to release a cover of Foreigner's I Want to Know What Love Is. Bold moves, but are they enough to beat Boyle's debut album, I Dreamed a Dream, which will be released in November? Pre sales have been gargantuan, edging out The Beatles, but Williams is reluctant to call her album a sure-fire smash.
"In the current climate, there's no guarantees," says Williams cautiously. "U2's album had a tough time earlier this year, and you'd expect them to do well, so who knows? What is interesting about Boyle is that she is likely to bring out people who don't usually buy albums." "I think her record will do well, because she has a great story, but then public interest in her career will rapidly fizzle out," says Mark Blake, associate editor at Q. "Fifteen minutes of fame has been reduced to five, as the CD-buying public's attention span gets ever shorter."
In the junior diva class, Rihanna, who has sold 12 million albums in her four-year career, has managed to hold the public's gaze, but perhaps not in a way she had intended. According to Blake, her record sales are likely to benefit from the headlines she made after she suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, who is currently doing 180 days of community service for assaulting her.
"People will listen to that album to see if there's anything on it about her domestic abuse troubles," says Blake. "I don't wish to sound callous, but it will help sales." Like Houston, Leona Lewis, has the industry powerhouse Clive Davis pulling the strings to ensure that her second album can hit the top spot as her 2007 debut, Spirit, did. According to Blake, having Davis in your corner makes all the difference.
"Clive Davis repositioned Rod Stewart a few years ago when his career seemed to be over and Stewart has since released three very successful American Songbook albums. I wouldn't bet against anything Davis puts his name to," he says. "He makes careers." In the UK, Robbie Williams has returned to the commercial fray after three years away and many wonder whether the star has what it takes to compete with his old band, Take That, in a new environment.
"The great thing about pop is you can never predict what is going to happen," says Blake. "Who would guess that Take That would enjoy a comeback, release two hit albums, have a massive tour and that now Robbie Williams would be hoping for a piece of their audience? His album will have to be very, very special and the first single, Bodies, was weak." In the world of indie music, meanwhile, things are reassuringly strange. Next month, The Flaming Lips will release Embryonic, a double album of screeching guitar riffs that recalls their earlier psychedelic work before the commercial success of 1999's Soft Bulletin. To Q magazine's Rees, it sounds like an extended career suicide note.
"I have heard it," says Rees, "and either they are at the end of their contract or they really don't care any more. They are trying to regain credibility or they owe their record label two records and they are trying to do them in one go. Either way, there aren't any songs." While The Flaming Lips are pushing fans away, says Rees, Weezer need to win some new ones over. "They sound like they have been playing through cotton wool on the last two records, which has effectively halved their audience. It's been a long time since Weezer excited anybody, so they're running out of time," he says.
The Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo recently told Pitchfork.com that The Office's Rainn Wilson named the new album, Raditude, and the guitarist Brian Bell assured original acolytes of the band that the record is "definitely getting back to the rock element of Weezer that might have been lost a bit for a second". "Their new single (If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To, is good and I am cautiously optimistic," says Rees.
Having successfully chronicled the indie lifestyle on two seasons of US television, this autumn the New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords are releasing a 13-track album that includes favourites from season two. Meanwhile, the Danish duo The Raveonettes return with more brooding Sixties pop in the shape of In and Out Of Control, out next month. But this season's must-have indie record is by the supergroup The Monsters of Folk. The all-star group, which includes the alt-rock heroes Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, M Ward and Bright Eyes' Mike Mogis, is finally set to release its first album, after performing together other on and off since 2004. The bearded supergroup's 15-track effort is a winner, says Rees.
"I love this record," he says. "Jim James is a great undiscovered songwriter, Conor Oberst has got better as he's got older and M Ward writes great songs. The record is the best of all three of them. It is a beautiful body of songs. It's my top pick in terms of sheer quality." But will it outsell the other albums fighting for listeners in this season's crowded marketplace? "Oh no," says Rees, "it doesn't stand a chance."