Music in the year ahead

From Coldplay to Outkast, the music industry is anticipating a year of major releases.

Single-song downloads and three-minute singles may be gaining ascendancy over full-length albums in the iPod era, but that news has yet to reach the ears of some of today's most popular recording artists.

Tori Amos's next record, "The Beekeeper," brims with no fewer than 20 songs. The Mars Volta, meanwhile, is releasing "Frances the Mute," a 70-minute album with just five tracks. (One song clocks in at over 32 minutes - that's about the length of an entire Strokes album).

And, following a trend begun recently by the likes of Nelly, R. Kelly, Nas, and even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, many musicians are releasing double albums at a rate not seen since the heyday of blockbuster records by Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Peter Frampton. In 2005, several double albums will squeeze their way into record racks including new releases by the Foo Fighters and Bright Eyes. Sheryl Crow and System of a Down are each releasing, in effect, double albums but their strategy is to divide the albums into two and release each disc separately a few months apart. Crow would like to release a less-commercial CD in the first part of the year followed by a set of pop songs later in the year.

"It just takes so long for a promotion cycle behind a single disc that I think a lot of people feel like they have these 25 songs ready - why should they wait three years to release 13 of them if they're ready to go now," says Jonathan Cohen, the news and reviews editor at Billboard.com.

But there is a downside. For every double album that justifies its length - think Outkast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" - there are two-disc albums padded with filler, like Jay-Z's "The Blueprint 2: The Gift and Curse."

"I think a very small percentage of people can legitimately say they have enough good material," says Mr. Cohen.

Artists who fail to produce consistently good albums may find that more consumers prefer to pick and mix their own buffet selection of tracks by purchasing individual songs online.

A clear trend for 2005 is the momentous shift toward digital music. This week's Billboard magazine states that between 8 to 13.5 million Americans will purchase a portable MP3 player in 2005. The music-trade publication also reports that there were a record 5 million transactions of digital tracks for the week of Christmas last year.

Still, it would be premature to write off the compact disc format just yet. Brick-and-mortar music stores experienced strong Christmas sales. So, for the foreseeable future at least, the album format will continue to matter.

In the rock world, one of the most anticipated albums in the first part of the year is a still untitled third album by Coldplay. Since their 2002 breakthrough with the ubiquitous song "Clocks," the British band has scrapped a whole recording and started over with a fresh producer.

Listeners who prefer a harder edge to their music will lap up "Lullabies To Paralyze," by Queens of the Stone Age. Gene Sculatti, managing editor of Ice Magazine, predicts big things for the disc, which includes appearances by ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and Garbage singer Shirley Manson.

In April, Garbage releases a new CD produced by John King of The Dust Brothers. The producers recently completed work on a new record by Beck. The album, due March, is a return to trampoline pop of earlier albums like "Odelay" and boasts a guest appearance by Jack White, who is readying a new White Stripes disc for the summer. Midyear records are also expected from two of 2004's breakthrough bands: Franz Ferdinand and Scissor Sisters. Looking further out, this year's Christmas stocking stuffers may include releases by the Strokes, Evanescence, and Radiohead.

In the classic rock department, expect new CDs this year from Santana, Bruce Springsteen, and Robert Plant (the former Led Zeppelin singer describes his new album as Zep's "Physical Graffiti goes to Cairo"). The reclusive Kate Bush, a formative influence on everyone from Outkast to Sarah McLachlan, releases her first record in 12 years. After a decade away, Stevie Wonder will also make a comeback with "A Time 2 Love." Even more remarkable, The Who (now consisting of just Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend) are recording their first album since 1982.

One of the most popular recording artists in America, Kenny Chesney, will give Nashville a strong start to the year with "Be As You Are." He starts a US tour on March 11 in Green Bay, Wisc.

R&B and hip-hop dominated radio and record sales last year and several big players are putting finishing touches to new discs. This year's leading Grammy nominee, Kanye West, is already working on a followup record to "The College Dropout" that will feature John Mayer on a track. Outkast will release a soundtrack to the HBO movie "My Life in Idlewild" as well as a studio album titled "10 the Hard Way." 50 Cent made a dollar or two from his multimillion-selling debut, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," and stands to make a few more from "St. Valentine's Day Massacre." The album's executive producer, Dr. Dre, will release his own long-awaited "Detox" this year.

Finally, we'll always have Paris - Paris Hilton that is. The blond celebrity is releasing a hip-hop album in February. We can hardly wait.

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