Fall is always a hotbed of the year's biggest releases, but after a handful of long-awaited comebacks (Justin Timberlake, My Bloody Valentine), dueling records from rap's titans (Kanye West and Jay Z), and standout efforts from Vampire Weekend and Daft Punk, it'd be easy to think 2013 had peaked. Fortunately, the final months of fall aren't slowing down as they bring even more comebacks (Nine Inch Nails, The Blow), a diva showdown (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears), and debuts from an ambitious crop of new talent (HAIM, Iggy Azalea). Better start working on your year-end lists now.
Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor took Nine Inch Nails on a "retirement" tour a mere four years ago, but now the band’s back with an album whose packaging art explicitly harkens back to NIN’s 1994 masterpiece The Downward Spiral. Maybe the return was inspired by the fact that Reznor’s already-influential brand of nihilistic-yet-hummable industrial rock has recently caught on with an even wider range of artists than before, showing up on releases from the likes of Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Skrillex. But Hesitation Marks, now streaming on iTunes, isn’t an attempt to cash in on pop’s current taste for serrated, chaotic noise. Writes Spin’s Dave Marchese, “influenced by the spare, rhythmically complex feel of D'Angelo's Voodoo, the [record] is as sleek an album as Nine Inch Nails have ever made.”
Listen to: “Came Back Haunted”
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
The alt-country songstress and New Pornographers member says her sixth studio album was the most difficult to write yet. But as the Fiona Apple-length album title suggests, it only made the payoff sweeter—NPR called the record “the most unguarded and revealing” of her career. Case still sounds like her usual self, alternating between galloping full-band tracks and more vulnerable tunes, including a Nico cover and another that employs deep-sea sonar sounds.
Listen to: “Man”
The English singer was a model student at the Lady Gaga Academy of Dance Pop when she sulked onto the scene in 2010, but her relentless bad-girl noir had some fans wondering: Natalia, why so serious? Judging by the song titles on her sophomore effort (“Controversy,” “Feel My Pain,” “Marlboro Lights”) she’s still obsessed with flaunting her freakiness, but she’s loosened up enough to indulge her other musical influences, evident on the Sleigh Bells-esque “Problem."
Listen to: “Saturday Night”
Few artists are as committed to a concept album as Janelle Monáe, whose long-running sci-fi epic completes its fourth and fifth chapters on Electric Lady. Monáe joined forces with neo-soul veteran Erykah Badu for first single “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a shape-shifting funk workout that’s also the grooviest love-yourself anthem since “Born This Way,” and she rounds out her cast with guest spots from Solange, Miguel, and the Purple One himself, Prince.
Listen to: “Dance Apocalyptica”
The Diving Board
Last year, The A.V. Club’s Jason Heller described the relationship between Elton John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin thusly: “One bounces and pounds the piano while wearing giant sunglasses and/or a chicken costume; the other toils away quietly in the shadows, meticulously balancing the dictates of his own soul against the demands of his star-spangled surrogate.” After more than 40 years together, the opposites-attract duo have been to the funky outer fringes of pop music and back again; under the direction of The Diving Board’s producer, roots veteran T-Bone Burnett, they’ve returned to the piano-bass-drums sound of Elton John’s past records like 11-17-70.
Listen to: “Home Again”
September 17, maybe
“ALL EYES ON ME,” reads the lettering emblazoned across Britney Spears’s website—and it sits above a countdown clock of days, hours, and minutes that will expire on September 17. It’s unclear at this point whether the big reveal is of a new album or not, but Spears has hinted at the “sooner than you think” release of her first full-length album since 2011’s Femme Fatale (but with “a Blackout 2.0 vibe,” reportedly). It’s said to feature collaborations with producer Naughty Boy, Charli XCX, William Orbit, and Sia, plus more from Spears’s “Scream & Shout” teammate Will.i.am. As a historically Britney-attentive publication, The Atlantic will, as instructed, be watching closely.
Listen to: “Piece of Me”
This Is…Icona Pop
According to their breakthrough hit “I Love It”, the ladies of Swedish duo Icona Pop don’t care about a lot of things—crashing cars, starting fires, their ex-boyfriends. But they apparently care enough about their country’s reputation for great pop music to take their U.S. debut seriously. Instead of importing their Sweden-only album from last fall, Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo hit the studio for a brand-new set of electro heart-pumpers.
Listen to: “Girlfriend”
Nothing Was the Same
Nothing’s been the same for the former Degrassi star since he left his native Toronto for a 7,500 square-foot Los Angeles oasis, a cross-country move that Drake cited as a major influence on his upcoming record. The GQ cover boy has a reputation for being rap’s navel-gazer-in-chief, and all signs point to another introspective set. If victory lap “Started From the Bottom” didn’t give you a clue, the record’s title and baby photo-inspired album cover should have.
Listen to: “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2
That Justin Timberlake, he’s so generous. After ending his seven-year musical hiatus with The 20/20 Experience in March, he’s back with another collection of radio-friendly R&B-lite. Oh, wait—he’s actually just fulfilling contractual obligations to Live Nation, and it’s starting to show. “Take Back the Night” is even more of a snooze than some critics said the first half of The Experience was, and both installments took only 20 days to record. That said, Timberlake on a bad day is still better than many of his peers on a good day, and few collaborators have as much studio chemistry as he does with Timbaland, the collection’s sole beatsmith.
Listen to: “Take Back the Night”
Days Are Gone
The SoCal sisters of HAIM might have been labeled classic-rock revivalists and, indeed, album highlights “Forever” and “The Wire” are joyful stomps through the ‘70s and early ‘80s. But spend time with the band’s slick debut, Days Are Gone, and it’s clear the trio embraces ‘90s R&B (British singer Jessie Ware co-wrote the title track) and the cutting-edge production flourishes of hip-hop and electronica, courtesy of co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Charli XCX, Vampire Weekend, Usher).
Listen to: “The Wire”