10 Must-Hear Back To School Albums
As the last of the summer festivals move the masses one more time before the weather turns and the bright, inescapable hits of the summer become nostalgia for the season passed, it's time to put on a sweater and head back to campus armed with Billboard's chronological crib sheet of the ten hottest albums of the coming semester. Think that another record out this September or October will be hotter and should have been on this list? Comment away!
"I Look To You"
Arista/RCA Music Group
Release Date: Aug. 31
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The imminent release of Whitney Houston's "I Look to You" (her first studio album in seven years) keeps prompting the elephant-in-the-room question: How does she sound? Well, Houston turns in a solid performance on this 11-track set. And it underscores her still-considerable gift for delivering the emotion in a song, which is especially showcased on the title track/lead single. While Houston may not top her iconic performance of "I Will Always Love You," she more than holds her own on this R. Kelly-penned ballad about finding strength in the face of adversity. She gets her party swerve going on the album's standout cut about appreciating a significant other, "Million Dollar Bill," produced by Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz. Another keeper is the midtempo, relationship-themed "Like I Never Left" featuring Akon. Primarily comprising up- and midtempo selections-including an amped-up cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You"-"I Look to You" finds Houston channeling the self-assured singer she exhibited on 1998's "My Love Is Your Love." The set is a nice welcome back and a new beginning for the singer. --Gail Mitchell
Release Date: Sept. 8
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"Got a blank space where my mind should be/Got a Cliff Bar and some cold green tea," Phish frontman Trey Anastasio sings on "Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan," the second track on the band's ebullient new album, "Joy." Phish masterfully marries freedom and form on its first studio release since 2004's "Undermind," combining the best elements of its jazz-inspired outings with an acute attention to song structure. The result is a collection that succeeds on multiple fronts, and one sure to please both the avid fan and casual listener. With strong production by studio titan Steve Lillywhite, the band effortlessly switches between jangle (the sentimental, Allman Brothers-esque "Backwards Down the Number Line") and jam (the nearly 14-minute, early-Pat Metheny Group-sounding "Time Turns Elastic"). And on the title track, Anastasio pays moving tribute to a sister lost too soon. "Joy" is a journey not to be missed. --Jon Regen
"The Blueprint 3"
Release Date: Sept. 11
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On the eighth anniversary of the release of the first "Blueprint" album, Jay-Z will release his 11th studio album, "Blueprint 3," on his new venture between his own Roc Nation label and Atlantic Records. Although details are scant, Jay-Z says the album was produced by Kanye West and himself, with added production from Timbaland and No I.D. It will have 15 tracks, and, unlike 2001's more soulful "The Blueprint," the new effort will have a more classic sound. "The people of my generation like the Ushers and the Kanyes and the Justin Timberlakes are becoming all those artists that we looked up to-the Marvin Gayes and the Sinatras," he says. "The music is new and fresh, but I approached it in a classic sense." While it is too early to say who will make the final cut, Jay says he has collaborated with MGMT, Kid Cudi, Drake, Rihanna and Mr. Hudson.
"Man on the Moon: The End of Day"
Release Date: Sept. 15
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Like upstart rappers Drake and Wale, Kid Cudi is facing high expectations for his debut album on Universal Motown. The Cleveland MC made waves this spring when his hazy club jam "Day N' Nite" became a hit, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May, and his current single "Make Her Say" riffs on Lady GaGa's "Poker Face" as Cudi trades verses with Common and his mentor, Kanye West. But Cudi's debut album promises to be even better -- like West's "808s & Heartbreaks," the 15-track set is heavy on concept, broken down into five acts and featuring narrative interludes by Common. There's a method to the madness, though, and also some potential hits, like the buoyant dance stomper "Enter Galactic" and hipster-friendly "Pursuit of Happiness," featuring MGMT and RATATAT. Look out for the sleeper hip-hop hit of the fall. --Monica Herrera
Release Date: Sept. 20
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"Super poppy." "Just plain fun." "Surprisingly optimistic." "Catchy as hell." These are not adjectives often used to describe Pearl Jam, the 30 million-selling purveyor of angst-ridden guitar rock now approaching its 19th year of existence. And yet these are the words being used on blogs to describe "The Fixer," the first song from the Seattle rock band's ninth album, "Backspacer." At 11 songs and less than 37 minutes, "Backspacer" is the leanest and meanest Pearl Jam album yet. "At one of our gigs, without flashpots and electricity, there's only so much room for those more difficult listening songs," frontman Eddie Vedder says with a laugh. "That was one reason why we kept the arrangements lean. The songs come off more like sparkling water than pea soup, and I think that's good for our group right now." Other musical highlights on the album include the opening one-two combo of "Gonna See My Friend," a furious Stooges-style garage blast, and the propulsive, Police-y "Got Some," which Pearl Jam premiered June 1 on the first episode of "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien." On the softer side, "Just Breathe" is a gorgeous ballad based on an instrumental from Vedder's "Into the Wild" soundtrack, while "The End" is an aching love song that closes the album on a startling lyric: "My dear/I'm here/But not much longer." "You know, I'll admit that even I felt some impact myself listening to it back the first time, and not even really knowing where it came from," Vedder says of the song, which he debuted this summer during a solo tour. "A lot of the songs on this record were ones I just tried to get out of the way of, without self-editing." --Jonathan Cohen
Monsters Of Folk
"Monsters Of Folk"
Release Date: Sept. 22
After touring together and dubbing their run the Monsters of Folk tour, Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket's Jim James and M. Ward decided to head to the studio and lay down a collection of collaborative tracks. "There's lots of harmony and lots of songs where we trade verses," James says. "It's pretty fun for us to get in that beginner's [frame of] mind again. You can feel a lot of that energy on there-trying to keep the wheels from flying off the cart." James also credits producer Mike Mogis with mixing the three diverse voices together. Standout tracks include "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)," which recalls early-'80s adult standards radio and the country-tinged "The Right Place." The harmonies on "Man Named Truth" sound straight from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" era, and "Magic Marker" is a stunning and tragic portrait of an alienated youth.
"Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel"
Island Def Jam
Release Date: Sept. 29
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The multiplatinum singer says the album's title reflects how "each song is almost an intimate conversation or entry in a private diary. A lot of the songs reflect a different time in my life than where I am right now, inspired by actual events in my life, movies or stories from my close friends." Carey calls the album a tribute to the late R&B singer Minnie Riperton, whose own multioctave range was "so influential in my singing style." "Obsessed," the first single, already set another record for the singer: Its debut at No. 52 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart marked Carey's best bow on that list in 10 years. In addition to the-Dream ("We love having fun with lyrics") and Tricky Stewart ("One of the most underrated major producers"), who wrote and produced most of the album with Carey, she worked with Jermaine Dupri and Timbaland.
"Brand New Eyes"
Fueled By Ramen
Release Date: Sept. 29
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"The new record still sounds like Paramore," says frontwoman Hayley Williams. "It feels like we've grown up a lot, but there's still the same core. And I like that, because we always want to progress and get better. At the same time we don't want to alienate our fan base." "Ignorance," which Williams says bridges the gap between "Riot!" and the new album, mixes the more gothic elements of the band's "Twilight" track with the howling that was so prevalent on "Riot!"; it's been characterized as a breakup track. Williams also says that the album was a way for her to work through Paramore's sometimes-public feuding, including one argument that led to a string of canceled tour dates. "It was tough for me to say some of the things I say in it, because I knew some of the guys were going to hear it, and it was about our band," she says. "I was kind of embarrassed and didn't know how they would take it. But once all those words were out on the table, it gave us the opportunity to hash through our problems and internal struggles that we had been facing. At one point we were hanging on by a little piece of thread. We had to rebuild things and we're still rebuilding things. This record is a log of that." --Cortney Harding
Release Date: Oct. 6
Rosanne Cash's 12th album features her take on songs from a list of essential country tunes passed along by her father, Johnny Cash. "The list was far-ranging and thorough," Cash says. "It was assembled from my father's intuitive understanding of each critical juncture in the evolution of country music." Tracks on the album include "Sea of Heartbreak," featuring Bruce Springsteen; "Heartaches by the Number," with Elvis Costello; and "Silver Wings," with Rufus Wainwright. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy also guests.
Release Date: Oct. 13
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Shakira's third English album, "She Wolf," due Oct. 13 on Epic, may be some of her most club-oriented music to date: electronic pop with strong basslines and prominent world music textures, combined with a dose of in-your-face sex appeal. "I felt very curious and intrigued about the electro-pop world and everything it has to offer," Shakira tells Billboard by phone from her home in the Bahamas. "I wanted to make sure that this album was very bassy and that the kicks hit really hard, and I wanted to concentrate on the beat. But my music, to a certain extent, is very complex-because I always try to experiment with sounds from other parts of the world." Shakira produced and wrote the album, teaming with Pharrell Williams on production; other collaborators include Jean; John Hill, who"s worked with Santigold; the Bravery's Sam Endicott; and Academy Award winner Jorge Drexler. Keyboardist Albert Menendez also co-wrote a song. As she did on the remarkable "Ojos Así," a Middle Eastern romp with electric guitars from her 1998 album "Dónde Estan Los Ladrones?," Shakira looks east once again on "She Wolf." In addition to the disco-influenced title track, there's "Good Stuff," a synthed-out snake-charmer punctuated by ululating and staccato beats; "Long Time," a percussive midtempo groove with a Roma-like clarinet bridge; and "Why Wait," a dancefloor scorcher by way of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." (Shakira worked on the arrangement with Hossam Ramzy, who had worked on "Kashmir" with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.) "It's an electronic album generally speaking, but it does have different organic instruments that, combined with the synthesizers, create a different sort of ambience," says the two-time Grammy and seven-time Latin Grammy Award winner. "You've got to put together a nice meal and make sure the spices don't take over the main ingredient. And at the end of the day, it gives a nice flavor in your mouth." --Ayala Ben-Yehuda