It's the year in which the musical stars align. In the world of rock, releases are expected from titans U2, Coldplay, and Metallica. Top 40 radio is anticipating albums by Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, and Kelly Clarkson. And hip-hop looks to rebound from a sluggish 2006 with records by 50 Cent, Usher, and Eminem.
"This is going to be one of the most prolific release years in quite some time," says Jonathan Cohen, senior editor at Billboard magazine.
But there's one album that will probably trump them all at the sales register: The soundtrack to High School Musical 2: Sing It All or Nothing! The sequel to the musical phenomenon airs this summer. Until then, expect the Disney Channel's other phenomenon, Hannah Montana, to vacuum up every 'tween's pocket money.
But back to those also rans....
January is a good month to launch new artists such as "American Idol" runner-up Katharine McPhee. Her self-titled album has been assembled from contributions by producer Babyface and songwriter Kara DioGuardi (Hilary Duff, Kelly Clarkson). "That should be a pretty good blend to suit multiple audiences. Stuff for the people who voted for her based on [her rendition of] 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' on 'American Idol,' but also stuff that's a little bit more club friendly," says Mr. Cohen.
Another rookie to look out for in January is Lily Allen, already a phenomenon in her native Britain. On her debut, "Alright, Still," Allen's swaggering pop tunes surf atop currents of reggae and hip-hop. It's joyous enough to bring a smile to an Easter Island statue.
Also generating buzz: Scotland's The View. "They're punk pop but they write really good songs," says Jim Farber, pop critic for The New York Daily News. "The album is called 'Hats off to the Buskers.' They don't make any attempt to hide their Scottish brogue."
Given that the only Paris Hilton record the public was interested in was her police record, we don't imagine she'll release a sequel to last year's album. That should clear valuable shelf space for several highly anticipated follow-up records. The Arcade Fire, the indie group touted by David Bowie and U2, has recorded a sophomore effort titled "Neon Bible." March's slate also includes Air's "Pocket Symphony," which adds Japanese instrumentation to a slinky electro-pop mix. The same month, Good Charlotte – the punk-pop band who seemingly spend as much time in tattoo parlors as recording studios – gear up for "Good Morning Revival." "This record is going to be really big," says Cohen. "The songs are massive sounding."
Until then, all eyes are on The Shins – the soft rockers famously endorsed by Natalie Portman's character in the movie "Garden State" – who return in late January with "Wincing The Night Away." "This record is really good but it doesn't, to my ears, have anything on it that will make them explode onto the mainstream," says Cohen. "I expect this one will sell better than the previous one, because so many more people know about them now."
Norah Jones's albums are so mellow they should come packaged with eye pillows. If Jones's new single, "Thinking About You," is anything to go by, then third album "Not Too Late" will be dominated by the melodic hush she's best known for.
"This is her first album where it's all original material – I don't think she does any covers this time – and it's also her first without [producer] Arif Mardin, who died last year," says Mr. Farber.
Country star Gretchen Wilson is eager for a reappraisal. "Her second album was considered a bit of a disappointment, critically and certainly commercially," says Entertainment Weekly music writer Chris Willman. "It was perceived that she played 'the red neck card' a little too much on that album. I've heard that the third album is going to have more ballads ... and not so many party anthems."
This is a year of several bold risks. For instance, Bryan Ferry has cut an album of Bob Dylan covers called "Dylanesque."
News that Robert Plant is in Nashville making a country record may bring back bad memories of Led Zeppelin's "Hot Dog," a twangy pastiche that was one of the supergroup's rare missteps. (Well, that and the Stonehenge stage props.) Fear not. The singer is making a duets album with Alison Krauss. Moreover, the duo has hired producer T-Bone Burnett to conjure a haunting, rootsy sound.
Sheryl Crow is also making a country record. "When I talked to her at the Country Music Awards, she said she's really going to go for it," says Mr. Willman. "She was due to go in and start recording it at her home studio in Nashville last month."
Among this year's comeback kids – well, maybe not kids – are Joni Mitchell, Rush, John Mellencamp, and America, all staples of classic rock who've not released albums in many years. Neo-soul singer Maxwell, AWOL since 2001, re-appers with "Black Summer's Night." The big voice of Toni Childs is back with "Keep the Faith," her first album in 13 years. Bluegrass legend Charlie Louvin's first disc in over a decade includes guest spots from Jeff Tweedy [of Wilco], Elvis Costello, and George Jones. New material is also due from two reformed bands: The Smashing Pumpkins and The (now three) Stooges. The latter's original members Iggy Pop (vocals), Scott Asheton (drums), and Ron Asheton (guitar) are joined on bass by fIREHOSE's Mike Watt.
Finally, there's one comeback that everyone is eyeing. Guns N' Roses' much delayed "Chinese Democracy," the band's first album of original songs since 1991, is supposedly due March 6. But is the bloom off Axl Rose? No, says Billboard's Cohen.
"Just based on how evergreen their greatest hits album has been in the past year, that's gotta be multiplatinum," he says. "It'll be pretty hard to miss."
• New releases are also expected from John Anderson, Big & Rich, David Bowie, Bright Eyes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Cure, Doves, Fall Out Boy, Neil Finn, Tim Finn, PJ Harvey, Michael Jackson, The Kaiser Chiefs, Linkin Park, Massive Attack, Tim McGraw, Modest Mouse, Oasis, Radiohead, Tracey Thorne, Travis, Velvet Revolver, and Lucinda Williams.