Change is the buzzword for fall, and not just in politics. Amid the bumper crop of upcoming albums, ears are trained on artists facing crucial career transitions. USA TODAY's music team looks at a dozen candidates whose new albums offer platforms for surges in critical and popular acceptance.
Taylor Swift / Fearless (Nov. 11)
The transition: Swift wants to move from her current position as a teen-star phenom to being a core country artist for the next decade or so. If she picks up a few crossover hits along the way, she won't complain about that, either.
The mission: To build upon the 3.5 million fans who bought her 2006 self-titled debut. To do that, she'll need to hold the attention of an extremely young audience while adding adult country fans. Additionally, smart alliances with other acts can ease her introduction into the music mainstream.
The ammunition: Already, she's among country's most popular acts; Carrie Underwood is the only woman country radio has played more often this year. Swift is one of the few country acts who intrinsically understands the value of Internet audience development. Some songs from "Fearless" already have online lives: Nearly 100 girls have recorded videos of themselves performing the title track. "Breathe" is a collaboration with Colbie Caillat; Swift also contributed a song to Kellie Pickler's new album and sang with the Jonas Brothers for their upcoming concert movie.
Guns N' Roses / Chinese Democracy (Nov. 25, tentatively)
The transition: Axl Rose, the only founding GNR member still in the band, has been toiling 13 years on this opus, which evolved into an industry punch line (democracy will come to China before "Chinese Democracy" comes to the marketplace). Repeated delays, the singer's reclusiveness and a revolving roster of bandmates have raised doubts for a successful comeback by one of rock's former giants.
The mission: To prove that the wait was worthwhile and to restore Rose to critical and commercial prominence, a tall order considering Chinese is unlikely to meet impossibly high expectations or recoup recording costs. It may be the most expensive album ever recorded, with some estimates placing the tab at $13 million.
The ammunition: No music or complete track listing has been officially unveiled. While such early hints as "Oh My God" on the "End of Days" soundtrack suggested an industrial bent, Rose has promised a complex, stylistically diverse collection. Songs have surfaced live and online over the past few years, including nine recently leaked at antiquiet.com, where frenzied fan feedback ranged from "outstanding" to "horrible" before blogger Kevin "Skwerl" Cogill agreed to remove the tracks. One Chinese-destined song, Shackler's Revenge, will appear on the Rock Band 2 video game this month.
Ne-Yo / Year of the Gentleman (Tuesday)
The transition: In just two years, Grammy winner Ne-Yo has scored with a pair of platinum No. 1 albums. Top 10 hits seem to just drip from his pen, whether he's writing for himself or for the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson. A third straight successful album could elevate him to superstar status.