For the next four months, many of pop's juiciest plot lines will feature female singers struggling back from the brink. They include Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera and TLC, all of whom have spent far more time of late on the gossip pages than on the charts.
New CD releases
Which new CD are you going to rush out to buy?
Aguilera, who has gone missing for a long time, must overcome the waning of the teen movement by releasing her first album of all-new pop music since that trend began.
TLC has to face the public for the first time as a twosome, after losing the group's beloved Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes, who died in a car accident in June but whose final work appears on the coming album.
And those aren't the only cliff-hangers set for the fall. An unusually large number of stars who broke through with their debut albums have to try to beat the common sophomore jinx with their follow-ups.
These include India.Arie, Disturbed, Sum 41, Three Doors Down, Lifehouse, Coldplay, David Gray, O-Town, Nine Days, Blu Cantrell, Crazytown, Uncle Kracker and Craig David.
This fall also will feature some big names coming back with likely hits, including Faith Hill, Monica, Jay-Z, Eve, DMX, Santana, Matchbox 20, LL Cool J, Nas and Bon Jovi.
Then there are those prestige artists who will float down from their ivory towers with fresh manna for the discriminating -- Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Rhett Miller, Beck and the Roots among them.
For a complete rundown of the fall's twists and turns, read on -- but with one caveat: Record labels are notorious for changing release dates.
Many of the albums listed don't even have set titles yet. So expect lots of fiddling before these sounds hit stores.
Disturbed Believe: The second major-label album from the most convincing group in the recent metal wave.
Various artists Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions: Ireland's Chieftains meet the cream of country bluegrass players.
Kenny G Paradise: New music from the suburbs' favorite sax man.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: The latest from this fast-flowing rap outfit.
Xzibit Man vs. Machine: A concept album from the respected L.A. rapper.
India.Arie Voyage to India: The follow-up to her platinum Acoustic Soul debut.
Alison Moyet Hometime: A more mature album from England's contemporary answer to Dusty Springfield.
Josh Joplin Group The Future What Was: One of the most promising new singer-songwriters releases his second major-label work.
Ryan Adams Demolition: A collection of castoffs and B sides from alt-rock's hottest star.
Rhett Miller The Instigator: An excellent solo debut from the leader of the alt-country act Old 97's.
Gerald Levert G Spot: More make-out anthems for R&B swanksters.
Steve Earle Jerusalem: The father of alt-country returns with an album featuring his controversial ode to John Walker Lindh.
Elvis Presley 30 1 Hits: All the King's top tracks, plus the propulsive remix of his "A Little Less Conversation" (a deserved No. 1 U.K. smash).
Beck Sea Change: The intellectual changeling returns with a serious new sound.
Peter Gabriel Up: The star's first album of all-new material in a decade.
Weezer The Lion and the Witch: The prolific popsters' second album in a single year.
Lifehouse Stanley Climbfall: The follow-up to the trio's breakthrough hit.
Isyss The Way We Do: The debut from R&B's new hit-making hotties.
Burning Brides Fall of the Plastic Empire: The major-label first from the pride of Philly punk. Is this band the next Hives?
Uncle Kracker No Stranger to Shame: More neo-'70s pop-soul from Kid Rock's DJ.
Nas The Lost Tapes: Unreleased cuts from the star wordsmith.
Various artists Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash: Features Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Rosanne Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Little Richard, Emmylou Harris and other stars covering songs by the man in black.
Mark Knopfler The Ragpicker's Dream: Another soundtrack from the thoughtful guitarist.
Jackson Browne Naked Ride Home: Will this long-careening folk-rocker finally wrestle back his muse?
The Rolling Stones 40 Licks: The Stones' first hits album to combine classics from the '60s with the group's best-known songs since. Also features four new tracks to help flog the Stones' 40th-anniversary tour.
Soundtrack Brown Sugar: Features cuts from progressive hip-hop and soul stars Erykah Badu and Common.
GZA Legend of the Liquid Sword: A new solo work from the Wu-Tang master.
Chris Rock Bring the Pain: Comedy from one of the form's last honest men.
John Michael Montgomery Pictures: A country hunk returns.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers The Last DJ: His latest work attacks greed, the record industry and other sitting ducks.
Jurassic 5 Power in Numbers: The second major-label work from one of alt hip-hop's most promising outfits.
Heather Headley This Is Who I Am: The first solo album from the star of Broadway's Aida.
Westlife World of Our Own: A newie from Ireland's answer to 'N Sync.
Sinead O'Connor Sean-Nos Nua: A collection of Irish traditional songs from one of music's most, shall we say, mercurial stars.
Jeff Buckley Songs to No One 1991-92: Early, primitive tapes of the legend when he recorded with ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas.
Faith Hill Cry: Will she keep up the crossover attack or shrink back to her country base?
Bon Jovi Bounce: Yet more pop rock from a hit-maker.
LL Cool J X: The longest-running hip-hop star tries to be the first to "keep it real" in middle age.
Tracy Chapman Let It Rain: More from the charisma-free folkie.
Various artists American Idol: A collection of the TV show's most popular hams.
Taproot Welcome: Promising new rock from Detroit.
Various artists Red Hot & Riot: An HIV-benefit tribute to the music of Afro-pop legend Fela Kuti, who died of AIDS.
Monica: The singer who duked it out with Brandy on "The Boy Is Mine" returns.
Rod Stewart: A collection of standards, recorded a while back, winds up as Stewart's debut on Clive Davis' J Records.
Tori Amos Scarlet's Walk: The singer's first on Epic.
Ben Folds Live: A concert document of the piano man's solo tour.
3LW A Girl Can Mack: The return of the teen pop trio, which recently become a twosome with the departure of Naturi Naughton.
Charli Baltimore: The first solo album from one of the most prominent guest R&B singers in the world of hip-hop -- courtesy of rap impresario Irv Gotti.
Nate Dogg: More low moans from another one of rap artists' favorite backup singers.
Richard Ashcroft Human Conditions: The second solo stint from the ambitious ex-Verve leader.
Foo Fighters: The long-awaited new one from Dave Grohl's crew.
SR-71 Tomorrow: More jokey punk from another group with numbers in its name.
The Donnas Spend the Night: It's the major-label debut of the Runaways of this generation.
O-Town: Can the TV teen-boy act keep 'em screaming?
Kenny G Wishes: Yes, the second album this fall from Mr. G. This, a Christmas salute.
Carlos Santana: The follow-up to his phenomenal Grammy-grabbing Supernatural.
Solange Knowles: A solo work from Beyonce's little sister.
Chris Botti: A holiday album from the jazz trumpeter.
Sixpence None the Richer Divine Discontent: More clean-cut Christian pop rock.
Eric Clapton One More Car, One More Driver: A live double set.
Memphis Bleek: The well-connected rapper returns.
Fabolous: One of hip-hop's most promising young emcees presents his second work.
Phish Phish Live 13-18: A live album, for a change.
Christina Aguilera: Can she make the transition from teen queen to mature maverick? Stay tuned.
The Roots Phrenology: The hotly anticipated latest from hip-hop's best musicians.
Shaggy: The cute reggae pop star follows up his monster album from two years ago.
Sigur Ros: More glacial art-rock from Iceland.
Toni Braxton: Maryland's own diva releases another one.
Blu Cantrell: The follow-up to her jazzy, snazzy hit "Hit 'Em Up Style."
Trick Pony On a Mission: Country poised for a pop invasion.
Jay-Z: Another year, another hit from this maddeningly catchy rap megastar.
Dave Matthews Band Live: Keyed to a simultaneous DVD release.
David Gray: One of the best singer-songwriters of his generation tries to follow up his wonderful last work, White Ladder.
Wallflowers Red Letter Days: Dylan's kid, Jakob, needs a comeback on his fourth work.
Ours Precious: Will Jeff Buckley's ex-guitar technician still sound like he's doing a karaoke of his old mentor?
Deborah Cox: Her third album may make Cox the frontline diva of supporter Clive Davis' dreams.
Whitney Houston: Her first work on Arista without the aforementioned Davis. Word is, she's behind recording schedule. Problems or perfectionism?
Bjork Family Tree: A six-CD retrospective, chosen by fans over the Internet. Also, there's an accompanying single CD version called, cannily enough, "Greatest Hits."
Saliva Back Into Your System: The melodic rockers with a follow-up to a semi-hit.
Dru Hill: Following the flop of Sisqo's last solo album, he's falling back on his successful group of old.
Phil Collins Testify: The first in many a year from housewives' crooner of choice.
Lil' Kim: Dirty rap from the female side.
Soundtrack Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: An orchestral work.
Mary J. Blige Unplugged: A chaser to her remix record of the summer.
Talib Kweli: More from the progressive hip-hopper.
Blackstreet Level II: R&B meister Teddy Riley tries to recapture his singing group's peak of "No Diggity."
TLC: Their first since the death of Lisa Lopes, though the album features her final recorded work.
Pearl Jam: The seventh studio album from the last grunge band standing.
Three Doors Down Away From the Sun: This faceless act sold 5 million records two years ago. Will anyone care this time?
Soundtrack The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: A grand symphonic accompaniment to the latest epic.
Joni Mitchell: A double disc featuring orchestral versions of her classics.
Foxy Brown: Lil' Kim's nemesis returns in the same season for a hip-hop diva catfight. Meow!
Matchbox 20: The third collection of leader Rob Thomas' reliable pop tunes.
Kenny Lattimore/Chante Moore: Idealized R&B duets.
Crazytown: The second major-label work from the hit rock-rappers.
Nas God's Son: Hip-hop's best wordsmith has an aforementioned outtakes album plus this one, a wholly new work following up one of last year's best releases.
Missy Elliott: Distaff rap's most formidable producer/writer returns to try to top her peak effort from last year.
Sum 41: Canada's most popular punk band returns.
Snoop Dogg Paid the Cost to Be Da Boss: More from the man with rap's smoothest flow.
K-Ci and Jojo: The ex-Jodeci crooners return.
The Isley Brothers: Another release from the only 40-year-old R&B band still racking up hits.
Keith Murray: The fourth solo album from the ex-EPMD rapper.
Swizz Beats Beats Presents G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories: The long-delayed release from the Ruff Ryders' production wiz.
DMX: As reliable as mistletoe and fruitcake, this barking rapper will release his annual winter set, hoping to make those cash registers jingle.