When we convened our Pop Eye panel of radio programmers and retail executives last fall to predict the biggest sellers of the Christmas season, their crystal ball showed the sure thing was a new collection from the biggest male group of the era.
Right idea, wrong era.
They thought it meant the Backstreet Boys. Instead it was the Beatles, whose "1" is still riding strong.
So for the top slot of the intensely competitive spring season, the panelists are picking a new album by the best-known female member of a top-selling musical family.
Should we be on the lookout for Marie Osmond?
Of course not. Janet Jackson's first album since 1997's "The Velvet Rope" is the consensus choice in the spring derby, and if she has any threats to supremacy, it's from current hit acts.
Jackson's new album, still untitled and due April 24, is generating considerable buzz at several radio formats and among retailers. The first single, "All for You," which will hit radio in March, reunites her with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for a sound that echoes her "Rhythm Nation" style with a strong contemporary club feel. Some tracks are produced by the hot Neptune team, and Jackson's key role on screen and on the soundtrack of "The Nutty Professor II" was a winning return from a slow period.
"I've heard three cuts from the album and it's spectacular stuff," says Michael Steele, music director of L.A. pop giant KIIS-FM (102.7). "That's the big winner in the coming months."
The Backstreet Boys' failure to live up to expectations was obviously noted by the experts, whose other picks reflect a wariness of teen pop. Of course, none of the big stars ('N Sync, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera) have new albums coming at this time. But rather than looking for a likely new breakthroughs in that market, the people who make such predictions for a living are taking a "prove it" stance regarding any teen-pop wannabes.
"There's a lot of backlash now," says Steele. "You're seeing a saturation point of what the audience will accept. Will [teens] really plunk down $15.99 on one more Britney Spears knockoff?"
Still, people seem plenty willing to plunk down the dough for a collection of current pop hits these days, which means that "Now That's What I Call Music 6," the latest in the series of blockbuster compilations, is a likely challenger for the top sales honors--even though the lineup hasn't been set yet. The series has been rotating among the major labels, and this time it's Epic Records' turn, with the album due April 3.
The other big candidate will be the first released--the Dave Matthews Band's "Everyday," due Tuesday (see review, Page 70). Long a big seller with a rabid following, the DMB is looked to by rock, pop and adult radio programmers to rise to an even higher level of demand with this one.
The dark horse--if it's fair to call the follow-up to a multimillion-selling debut a dark horse--is Destiny's Child's "Survivor," due May 1, with Rodney Jerkins leading the production and writing.
That's the handicapping for the overall race, but only part of the story. We've broken the field down into specific radio formats to get the bigger picture of the most-anticipated albums of the season.
Place--Eric Clapton, "Reptile" (March 13). "You can argue if it's pop or not, but it's amazing," says KIIS' Steele.
Show--Dave Matthews Band. "There's a ballad, 'Angels,' which will be a huge Top 40 record," Steele says.
Dark horse--Amanda, "Everybody Doesn't" (May). The 15-year-old Swede could be an exception to the teen-pop slump, with Steele picking the title song as a potential No. 1 single.
Win--Tool, title to be announced (April 17). Strong sales for singer Maynard James Keenan's other project, A Perfect Circle, and for recent Tool CD and video compilations, support expectations of huge demand for the Los Angeles band's first real album since 1996.
Place--Blink-182, title to be announced (June 12). Lisa Worden, music director of KROQ-FM (106.7), hears that the San Diego trio is emphasizing its rocking roots with its new material. "They always come up with the hits," she says.
Show--Dave Matthews Band. Though Matthews doesn't really fit in the Korn/Limp Bizkit world, Worden says this album will be hard for her station not to play.
Dark horse--Staind, "Break the Cycle" (date to be announced). Singer Aaron Lewis' current hit, a track from the "Family Values Tour 1999" album that features Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, is paving the way for a big breakthrough.
Win--Dave Matthews Band.
Place--Aerosmith, "Just Push Play" (March 6). Even teaming with 'N Sync and Britney Spears at the Super Bowl can't kill its career.