Fall is here and life is good. Switch on the TV: No more reruns. Visit the local multiplex: No more "Catwoman." Soon enough, record shops will start stocking stuff that's actually worth paying for. To guide you through the racks, NEWSWEEK takes a sneak-peek at this season's most-anticipated CDs. Don't panic--there's still time to free up space on your iPod.
R.E.M., 'Around the Sun' (Warner Brothers)
Popular music rarely benefits from a pinch of politics. Bob Dylan got better in 1965 when he dumped his Woody Guthrie act; three decades later, Bruce Springsteen revived the role for "The Ghost of Tom Joad"--for the worse. Undeterred by these lessons from Rock History 101, R.E.M. has spiced the songs on "Around the Sun" (Oct. 5) with a heavy dose of liberal outrage. "It will shock some people," lead singer and lyricist Michael Stipe has said. Since founding drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997, R.E.M.'s output has been patchy at best: "Up" (1998) tried too hard for artiness; "Reveal" (2001) spoiled passable tracks with glossy studio varnish. Let's hope the alt-rock pioneers deliver songs as strong as 1991's "Losing My Religion." Sun's first single, "Leaving New York," is cut from the same exquisite cloth.
Joss Stone, 'Mind, Body & Soul' (S-Curve)
Precocity is all the rage nowadays, but if the rule says that being scarcely competent and barely legal--(cough) Hilary Duff (cough)--gets you as much attention as being good and of age, 17-year-old soulstress Joss Stone proves the exception. She may be young, but her throaty, Stax-style vocals would raise eyebrows even if she weren't. On 2003's "Soul Sessions," the pre-collegiate Brit went old-school, tackling obscure Aretha Franklin and Carla Thomas tracks under the tutelage of Miami soul mainstay Betty Wright. But it was her saucy remake of The White Stripes' "Fell in Love with a Girl"--and not her purebred R&B--that ate up MTV airtime. Expect her sophomore effort "Mind, Body & Soul" (Sept. 28) to keep breaking the mold: The opening track "Right to be Wrong" simmers like Al Green on estrogen, while first single "You Had Me" blends Booker T. and Beyonce to booty-shaking effect.
U2, 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb' (Interscope)
The Who once sang, "I hope I die before I get old," and for most of us, the feeling is mutual. We'd rather our favorite groups give up the ghost than age ungracefully. U2 refuses to do either. When the Dublin quartet released "All That You Can't Leave Behind" in 2000, critics said they'd gone "back to basics," resuscitating six-string uplift after a decade of cheeky Euro pop. But the record was no nostalgia trip; U2 had moved on. All melody and muscle, tracks like "Beautiful Day" were, for better or worse, more grown-up than the earnest '80s-era hits they'd supposedly revived. Expect "Atomic Bomb," due out Nov. 23, to add some much-needed edge (and Edge) to the new equation. "[The album is] driven by a guitar player who is sick of the sight of me shaking hands with dodgy politicians," Bono recently told a British paper. "The anger is unbelievable." Believe it: His better-with-age vocals snap and crackle on the anthemic first single "Vertigo," and the band sounds leaner--and louder--than ever.
Mos Def , 'The New Danger' (Geffen)
It's hard being a Renaissance Man in the 21st century. Just ask Mos Def. In the half-decade since this Brooklyn-bred rapper's acclaimed solo debut "Black on Both Sides" hit the streets, he's appeared in "Monster's Ball" and "The Italian Job;" starred in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play "Topdog/Underdog;" hosted the HBO series "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry;" scored a lead actor Emmy nod for his work in the TV movie "Something the Lord Made;" and led the "Mos Def Big Band" through a set of jazz standards at New York's Delacorte Theatre. All of which left little time for hip-hop. Until now: His sophomore effort "The New Danger" arrives in stores Oct. 12. Word is, its 18 tracks--including "Boogie Man," "Ghetto Rock," "Close Edge," "Y.E.A.," and "Bed Stuy Parade and Funeral March"--will interweave the wiry rhythms and taut rhymes of Mos Def's early work (think De La Soul) with the brawny rap-rock his outfit Black Jack Johnson (Living Colour meets Run-DMC) has perfected in recent live performances.
Elliott Smith, 'From a Basement on the Hill' (Anti-Records)
After this whispery, Oscar-nominated troubadour died last October from two self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest, producer Rob Schnapf and engineer/former girlfriend Joanna Bolme spent months mixing and massaging the unfinished tapes he left behind. Now we can hear the results. Set to hit stores on Oct. 19, "Basement" reportedly blends the skeletal strumming of 1994's "Roman Candle" (think Paul Simon) with the lush baroque 'n' roll of 2000's "Figure 8" (think Paul McCartney). "The combination of the two makes both stronger," Schnapf has said. But "Basement's" chills and thrills promise to be lyrical as well as musical: Expect harrowing frontline dispatches ("Strung Out Again," "Shooting Star," "Fond Farewell") from a man about to lose his long battle against depression and drugs. "Give me one reason not to do it," Smith sings on "King's Crossing." Making music, sadly, wasn't reason enough.
Green Day, 'American Idiot' (Warner Brothers)
Haven't heard a punk-rock opera yet? No worries--it's new to Green Day, too. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the bratty Berkeley-bred trio has spent half a career flattering and the other half being flattered: 1994's 10 million-selling "Dookie" filched its tuneful, adrenaline buzz from the Ramones; a decade later, chart-toppers like Good Charlotte peddle Green Day knockoffs on MTV's "Total Request Live." But "American Idiot," out Sept. 21, pledges to break new ground--finally. "The record has a story line throughout it," singer-songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong told MTV News. "It's [about a character] coming of age and the growing pains that are involved." Translation: It's like "Tommy" for skate rats. Two tracks--"Homecoming" and "Jesus of Suburbia"--are five-part operettas that compress the best of T. Rex, Elton John, Johnny Cash and the Buzzcocks into cohesive 10-minute parcels of punk. The rest of the record, says Armstrong, "details the alienation and disillusionment of the American citizen under Bush's post-war on terror administration."
Interpol, 'Antics' (Matador)
Between March 1963 and December 1965, The Beatles wrote and released six LPs, racing in world-record time from the naivete of "P.S. I Love You" to the knowingness of "Norwegian Wood." Now we're lucky if a band delivers a follow-up within two years of its debut, and downright blessed if it shows any signs of progress. With initial offering "Turn on the Bright Lights," NYC darlings Interpol scored the top spot on indie-rock bible Pitchforkmedia.com's Best of 2002 list, so we're hoping the moody scenesters have spent their break making like the Fab Four--that is, pinching ingredients from their initial influences (Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen) and cooking up some new sonic cuisine. Early intel on "Antics" (out Sept. 28) is promising. First single "Slow Hands" rides a buzz-saw guitar line straight into an unabashed disco chorus, ditching "Bright Lights'" lit-mag lyrics and reverb-drenched production. "It's a really big growth for the band," guitarist Daniel Kessler has said. So what if Interpol isn't selling its "Rubber Soul" yet? At least these guys aren't content to let it be.
Tom Waits, 'Real Gone' (Anti-Records)
Middle-aged white men and hip-hop: sounds like a recipe for disaster. Unless, of course, your middle-aged white man is Tom Waits. On "Real Gone" (out Oct. 5) the boozy bard subs turntables and beatboxing for his trademark ivories. Not that Waits hasn't changed gears before--in fact, he's made a career of it. After 10 years of singing barroom ballads, the Los Angeles native upped the drama (and the weirdness) on 1983's "Swordfishtrombones," growling out tall tales about arson and Australia over halting time signatures and wheezy horns. Shifting yet again, Waits has spent 2004 navigating the mainstream: so far he's lent tunes to Starbucks chanteuses Norah Jones and Diana Krall and even written a ditty ("Little Drop of Poison") for "Shrek 2." Good news for hipsters, though: "Real Gone" reportedly returns to the edge. Expect Delta vamps, funk riffage, reggae rhythms and, on "Top of the Hill," Waits' first stab at "vocal mouth percussion." Nothing like contributing to a $70 million cartoon's soundtrack to bring on that midlife crisis.
Duran Duran, 'Astronaut' (Epic)
Luckily for Duran Duran--and its record label, Epic--absence makes the heart grow fonder. With a fresh batch of pretty young things mining the '80s--The Killers and Stellastarr*, to name two--the erstwhile Tiger Beat cover boys have become prime name-drop material. What's an old pop group to do? Why, reunite the original lineup, release a comeback record and rake in the cash, of course. "You always got to serve somebody," lead singer Simon LeBon recently told The Boston Globe. "Even Picasso had someone saying to him, "Less plates, baby, more canvas.'" Accordingly, "Astronaut" (Oct. 5) promises to trade the outre power-balladry of 1993's "Ordinary World" for shimmering "Rio"-era synth-rock. Case in point: The first single, "(Reach Up for the) Sunrise." A sinewy stomper, it reheats "Hungry Like the Wolf" for those who weren't sated in '82. Duran Duran may never enjoy the lofty critical standing of the "It Bands" it spawned, but expect "Astronaut," like Ronald Reagan or leg warmers, to be so un-cool it's actually hot.
Also worth tracking down: The Thrills, "Let's Bottle Bohemia" (on sale now); Elvis Costello, "The Delivery Man" (Sept. 21); Brian Wilson, "SMiLE" (Sept. 28); Nas, "Street's Disciple" (Sept. 28); Fatboy Slim, "Palookaville" (Oct. 5); Moving Units, "Dangerous Dreams" (Oct. 12); Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, "Shake the Sheets" (Oct. 19); Leonard Cohen, "Dear Heather" (Oct. 26); and Eminem, "Encore" (Nov. 16).