It used to be that the pop-music business ran in predictable, seasonal cycles.
In the first few months of the year, the emphasis was on "baby bands," the new groups that needed exposure and word-of-mouth to build an audience. Then, as winter rolled into spring, the road bands - mainly hard rockers and veteran acts - flooded the stores with albums they would promote through lengthy summer tours.
Once the weather warmed up, the stress would shift to singles, as every act with a potential summer hit fought for time on the radio. And once the kids were back in school, the record companies began beating the drums for the year's blockbuster hits - albums that would sell 4 million copies in two or three months, because everybody wanted a copy for Christmas.
But it doesn't work that way in the year 2000. For one thing, spring and summer releases by 'N Sync (8 million sold to date), Britney Spears (6 million) and Eminem (5 million) proved that blockbuster hits aren't just for Christmas anymore. Then there's the issue of Napster and on-line piracy, which has some major artists waiting to see how the lawsuit against the music-trading service plays out instead of rushing a new album into the stores.
So even though this fall will definitely deliver a lot of high-profile product, it's not an especially star-studded season. Yes, there are new albums on the way from Madonna, Ricky Martin, the Backstreet Boys, Limp Bizkit, U2, the Wallflowers, the Dave Matthews Band and Jennifer Lopez. But even though Janet Jackson has a single at the top of the charts, she doesn't have an album coming soon. Nor are long-promised releases from Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band or Michael Jackson scheduled for this year.
It will be a great fall for those in the autumn of their career. Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler returns to active pop duty this month, followed in October by Paul Simon and Journey. And there will also be new albums from such old dependables as Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, Patti LaBelle and Randy Travis.
There are also a significant number of make-or-break albums on tap, including U2's relevancy-proving "All That You Can't Leave Behind," Radiohead's cult-defying "Kid A," and Marilyn Manson's does-he-still-matter "Holy Wood."
What follows is a look at what should be the coming season's hottest discs. Keep in mind that release dates are subject to change.