From the flood of superstar releases hitting stores in late November and early December, you'd almost imagine there's still a viable industry devoted to the making and selling of audio recordings geared toward young people. Yes, Virginia, there is a music business!
The two weeks leading up to Black Friday have, as always, been the busiest of the year for new albums. Among the stars who joined the competitive fray with releases just in the Nov. 13-20 time frame: One Direction, Phillip Phillips, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Kid Rock, Pitbull, Christina Aguilera, Susan Boyle, Kelly Clarkson, Keyshia Cole, Coldplay, AC/DC, Green Day, Soundgarden, Lana Del Rey, and, just for true old time's sake, Led Zeppelin. But the makeup of the new release bins won't sit unaltered in the weeks that follow Black Friday. Although things won't be quite as busy in early December, music fans can still look forward to post-Thanksgiving product from Alicia Keys, Ke$ha, Bruno Mars, T.I., The-Dream, Wiz Khalifa, Big Boi, and hot country newcomers Florida Georgia Line.
Here's our breakdown of some of the season's freshest releases, along with some initial critical and sales reactions to those albums that are already out:
ONE DIRECTION, Take Me Home
The group's sophomore release just debuted with 540,000 copies, the third-best opening of 2012, trailing only Taylor Swift (who, coincidentally, is said to be dating Harry Styles… again) and Mumford & Sons. They are, as Yahoo! Music charts columnist Paul Grein noted, "the first boy band in chart history to land two #1 albums in a calendar year." How is it? Rolling Stone's three-star review sees the One Direction glass as half-full: "Their second album rivals the best of Backstreet and 'N Sync when the material pumps…But when it doesn't (i.e., most of the ballads), a certain amount of douchiness creeps in." Entertainment Weekly's C-grade review thought the eight-month wait between releases could have been a bit longer: "Catchy new tracks 'Kiss You' and 'Heart Attack' would've fit right in on March's Up All Night. But the rush shows: Most of Take Me Home is filler with barely enough zip to keep the kids up past dinner."
The dirty sales secret is that Rihanna has always been able to move a lot more singles than album units. But that may change this time, with her seventh album (and fourth November album release in a row). After the first day of sales, Hits estimates that this one will debut with around 250,000 copies, far, far more than she's ever managed in an opening frame to date. So all the seemingly bad publicity generated by her seven-city 777 plane tour obviously had no dampening effect on sales, even if it does cause a few journalists to boycott the album in sympathy with their suffering compatriots on the jet from hell. How is it? Naturally, her defensive duet with Chris Brown has been as effective at drawing critical barbs as it has been as garnering massive amounts of publicity. Said the A.V. Club, "Rihanna's much-discussed duet with Brown, 'Nobody's Business,' forms the rotten core of Unapologetic, a fiery pop album that's unfortunately coated in the icky residue of unearned defiance that has marked Brown's recent output." The Los Angeles Times' two-star review said, "It's a little sickening, because for the first time since the incident, her addressing the complicated issue feels not like a defense of love but a marketing maneuver, a way of turning a negative into a positive." But the same review approvingly notes the album's move further into dubstep territory and contends that "musically, Rihanna has evolved into one of the more forward-thinking pop divas."
BRUNO MARS, Unorthodox Jukebox (out Dec. 11)
This late entry in the Christmas sweepstakes could be a real December surprise, blockbuster-wise. Mars' highly lauded host/musical guest stint on Saturday Night Live only sweetened the anticipation for a sophomore album that was heralded by the Police-evoking single "Locked Out of Heaven." With genre-spanning star producers like Mark Ronson and Jeff Bhasker on board, it's any fan's guess as to how Mars might be stretching his stylistic boundaries.
PHILLIP PHILLIPS, The World From the Side of the Moon
The doubly monikered American Idol winner may sell about 150,000 copies of his album during Black Friday week, per Hits' estimates. If so, that would put him behind the 197,000 that previous winner Scotty McCreery bowed with, but well ahead of a lot of other recent champions from the show. He co-wrote most of the songs, though the single "Home" is an exception. How is it? In a B-grade review, Hitfix cites as commercial advantages "his natural, warm growl and the mixed blessing of always sounding like somebody else. Namely, Phillips splits time on The World between Dave Matthews Band rockers and Mumford & Sons roots numbers." EW also cites both Mumford and Matthews—and also gives the album a middling B—but calls it "still the most relevant debut album the Idol machine has cranked out in years."
KID ROCK, Rebel Soul
If you can't beat 'em, very belatedly join 'em—and Kid Rock has finally signed up with iTunes after being a nearly lone dissenter. That won't hurt sales, which Hits estimates will be in the 160-180K range when first-week results are announced. Kid Rock self-produced this time after having Rick Rubin helm Born Free two years ago, and he also brought more of the missing rowdiness back into the proudly redneck mix, as titles like "Cocaine and Gin" may indicate. He hasn't abandoned his serioso side, though: "Let's Ride" is a war anthem ("Keep your heads up for roadside bombs"), and "3 Catt Boogie" finds the Mitt Romney supporter doing a vaguely libertarian protest song. How is it? A New York Daily News review says Rock seems "seems pale, cranky and small" and bemoans dropping the "looser country-rock direction" of the previous album for "mainline rock" this time. Rolling Stone gave a more enthusiastic three and a half stars to this "sprawling disc of storytelling, pop history and partying."
ALICIA KEYS, Girl on Fire (out Nov. 27)
Billboard got a preview of the album—as did thousands of fans, when she played excerpts in a Google + hangout two days before Thanksgiving—and said "the album ranges from balladry and bedroom talk to more upbeat, inspirational music, including the Nicki Minaj-featuring title track." Maxwell duets with her on "The Fire We Make," which also includes contributions from neo-bluesman Gary Clark Jr. Frank Ocean co-wrote a track, and other collaborators
Emeli Sandé, Bruno Mars, and Babyface. Her last album bowed with a whopping 417,000 copies in 2009. Will as many fans be whipping out their Citi cards this time?
KE$HA, Warrior (out Dec. 4)
Her single may be called "Die Young," but Ke$ha has to be hoping that won't be what happens to her official sophomore album (or third release, if you count the hybrid Cannibal as an original). Mentor Dr. Luke is back as an executive producer, as are A-level co-producers like Max Martin, Shellback, and Benny Blanco. As for what departures are in stores, "Some will also be excited to know that I don't just do silly white-girl rap," she's said. Though it's not a rock record per se, Ke$ha is claiming T. Rex and Iggy Pop as influences—and though the former wasn't able to make her party, Pop does show up for a duet. She also has a new memoir out— My Crazy Beautiful Life—which, at her age, we can only guess will be the first of many.
LED ZEPPELIN, Celebration Day
It took five years, but these greats finally managed to put their one-time-only 2007 reunion show out on CD and DVD/Blu-Ray for home consumption. Industry site HitsDailyDouble.com estimates it will sell close to 100,000 when the first week of sales is up. Of course, many fans already saw the film when it premiered in theaters worldwide for a one-night-stand in October. How is it? EW went churlish with a C-grade review, saying "many of the band's crunchiest classics are pitched down to accommodate Robert Plant's aging pipes." Other notices have been more enthusiastic, like the San Francisco Chronicle's, which lauds "the late John Bonham's son Jason filling in on drums, firing on all cylinders, tapping into the vintage stomp and menace of the band's glory years with an unimpeachable set list. The passing of time has made the group sound leaner and more efficient, giving well-worn classics such as 'Black Dog' and 'Kashmir' new life."
NICKI MINAJ, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded—The Re-Up
A reissue of Minaj's seven-month old sophomore album adds eight new tracks. And she's taking shots at Mariah Carey and referencing Idol aplenty: "I'll take it, sign on the dotted line/But I'm quick to the check a b---- if she outta line/Shout out Mike Darnell and Nigel/Why these bums so mad that the queen on Idol, huh?" She also reminds everyone that she made the presidential news circuit—"I did a freestyle and got a shout out from Obama"—on the way to weighing in with not-ready-for-the-White-House fare like "I Endorse These Strippers." How is it? The Los Angeles Times offered a three-star review that likes this "re-up" better than the original, writing, "Minaj is at her best when offering acid-soaked tongue lashings." Will Idol producers and contestants feel the same way?
KELLY CLARKSON, Greatest Hits—Chapter One
That mullet she had on the American Music Awards didn't kill her, it made her stronger. Clarkson put three new tracks on her best-of, two of which are singles—"Catch My Breath" for pop radio and "Don't Rush" for country. You may have seen the former on the AMAs and the latter on the CMAs, where she was joined by duet partner Vince Gill. The just-released collection is foreseen by industry site Hits as selling in the area of 45-50K its first week.
GREEN DAY, Dos! (already out) and Tre! (out Dec. 11)
The second album in the band's rapidly sequential trilogy just bowed with 69,000 copies, considerably less than the 139,000 that Uno! debuted with in October. Will the third time be the charm when Tre! hits stores just two weeks before Christmas? And will Billie Joe Armstrong, MIA and last reported headed to rehab, make it home, if not back to the album-promoting circuit, for the holidays? How is it? No reports yet on Tre! But Dos! seemed to get about twice as many good reviews as its predecessor. Wrote the L.A. Times, "The good news is that it's a far better record than 'Uno!' In fact, it's an excellent Green Day album — one of its best — a catchy, revealing work… If 'Uno!' seemed to be a closed system, with Green Day working to flex its '90s punk muscles, on No. 2 the group has gone open-source, allowing in a much wider range of sounds and styles."
CHRISTINA AGUILERA, Lotus
She's not on the upswing. Her last album debuted with 111,000, but this follow-up bowed with a lesser 73,000… and this is her first one since she joined The Voice, proving that mass exposure doesn't always boost sales. It wasn't as if nobody saw it coming, since the lead single from the album, "Your Body," peaked at No. 34. Still, with her show in full swing, it's hard to say for sure that this one couldn't blossom into a bestseller with a hotter single. How is it? In a very mixed review, the New York Daily News criticized her for not doing more vulnerable material in the wake of her divorce. "Even when Aguilera means to shed real blood, the sheer force of her vocals cauterizes the wounds before any red can flow. She's a bully of a singer, pummeling the notes into the ground as she rails in triumph." Yet the paper found her more upbeat material "improved" and said, "Lotus contains some of the catchiest, danciest, and funniest songs of the singer's career."
T.I., Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head (out Dec. 18)
This one will barely have time to make it beneath Christmas trees, but T.I. seems to have faith that word will not trickle slowly to his audience about his first post-prison album being out. Guests on the obviously Marvin Gaye-inspired album include Cee-Lo Green (on the Pharrell Williams-produced "Hello"), Lil Wayne, Pink, Akon, Andre 3000, and ASAP Rocky. That's quite a coming-home party.
THE-DREAM, 1977 (out Dec. 18)
Experiencing some déjà vu? The-Dream released 1977 as a free mix-tape in 2011 under his given name but decided to put it out officially a week before Christmas 2012. Reviews were good enough for the project at the time of its unofficial unveiling that fans aren't too upset about being asked to dole out cash for it now, even if that means a further push-back for his next album, already announced under the hard-to-remember title Love IV MMXII... which is probably due for a 2013 name change.