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So Far, the Year Sounds Pretty Interesting

On paper, at least, the assortment of superstars and reliable artists readying new releases promises a busy and boisterous first half of 1998.

January 18, 1998|Marc Weingarten | Marc Weingarten writes about pop music for Calendar

Now that the critics' polls have been tabulated and the Grammy nominations parceled out for the best records of 1997, it's time to look ahead.

The outlook for the first half of this year: lots of superstar acts eager to test their sales punch during a time of unusual unpredictability in pop music. Who, for instance, would have figured that two of the biggest sellers of 1997 would be such pop confections as England's Spice Girls and Oklahoma's Hanson?

Given the capricious nature of the pop landscape, there'll certainly be some left-field collections on the 1998 year-end Top 10 sales chart. But there will also be some top names that do deliver commercially--just as there were last year when Garth Brooks, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, among others, fulfilled their labels' expectations.

The contenders this year are headed by Madonna, who returns after a three-year hiatus from the dance-pop world (call them her "Evita" years) with a new record that stresses heavy techno influences; Pearl Jam, which the record industry is watching closely to see if the Seattle band can reestablish its position as America's top-selling rock group of the '90s; and Hole, whose album will tell us whether leader Courtney Love can really balance careers in film and music.

Rock's '60s contingent will also be competing for boomer dollars. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have made their first studio album together since the Led Zeppelin days, while Eric Clapton--who has not released an album of original material since 1989--will deliver what a spokeswoman for the guitarist describes as a "very personal" record.

And there will be a flood of '90s acts trying to demonstrate that they have the depth and appeal to be long-term artists. Among them: Tori Amos, Brandy, Garbage, R. Kelly and Liz Phair.

Place your bets.

Here are the 20 albums that the industry will be watching most closely over the next six months.

Pearl Jam: Feb. 3 (Epic Records). Now that the alternative music firestorm has died down to just a few embers, is the world ready to embrace another Pearl Jam album?

In an interview in November, singer Eddie Vedder described the work, titled "Yield," as "a natural progression" from "No Code," the 1996 album that was critically hailed for its reflective tone. The songs the band previewed in recent concert appearances with the Rolling Stones combined the grace of "No Code" with the quintet's raucous, guitar-driven roots.

"Given to Fly," an album track that has already been released to radio, is picking up impressive airplay. After just two weeks, it was already No. 2 on the mainstream rock chart in Billboard and No. 5 in the modern rock chart.

The question with retailers is whether the band will regain its original sales muscle. The group's first two albums, 1992's "Ten" and 1993's "Vs.," sold collectively more than 15 million copies in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. "No Code" has only sold about 1.3 million copies, according to SoundScan. One thing that should help: The group is planning its most extensive U.S. tour in years.

Ani DiFranco: Feb. 17 (Righteous Babe). The maverick folk-rocker with her own record label made significant inroads into the mainstream last year with her double live CD, "Living in Clip." The question here is whether her ninth studio album, "Little Plastic Castle," will be a breakthrough collection that will move her beyond the cult level. Despite glowing reviews and an impressive number of sold-out concerts around the country, her biggest seller to date ("Dilate") has only sold about 200,000 copies. Said to be slightly less sexually frank than "Dilate," her high-profile 1996 studio album, "Little Plastic Castle" may well get the big radio boost that this independent-minded singer-songwriter deserves.

Madonna: March 3 (Maverick/Warner Bros.). Madonna has apparently been listening to a lot of electronic music since her last formal pop release, 1994's 2-million-seller "Bedtime Stories." Her new release, tentatively titled "Ray of Light," will prominently feature techno-driven dance music. Co-produced by British ambient techno artist William Orbit, the collection also reunites Madonna with her longtime songwriting partner, Patrick Leonard, for the first time since 1992. And it looks as if she's serious about reclaiming a bit of her old pop glory. She has signed on with Q Prime, the management firm that is best known for its success with such hard-rockers as Metallica, and there's talk about a tour.

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