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.
The mission: Ne-Yo knows he can sell records. But he's out to change the look and sound of R&B. The Las Vegas native is greatly influenced by the style and grace of the Rat Pack, and Year of the Gentleman's cutting-edge club beats reflect his travels in Europe. He's aiming to evoke the smooth sophistication of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., in a genre given more to street aesthetics — and has a good shot of pulling it off, thanks to a well-focused concept that accentuates the image he's already cultivated.
The ammunition: First single "Closer" is in the top 10 and rising on both the top 40 and rhythmic charts, while the new Miss Independent is climbing the urban charts. With production help from Stargate, Polow Da Don, J.R. Rotem and his own talented Compound Entertainment crew, Gentleman seems poised to churn out hits for the rest of the year.
Metallica /Death Magnetic (Friday)
The transition: The hard-rock prototype lost some of its metallic sheen after showing a soft side in 2004's touchy-feely documentary "Some Kind of Monster" and 2003's navel-gazing "St. Anger." The 2001 departure of bassist Jason Newsted troubled some fans, as did Metallica's crusade against Napster, which many file-swapping junkies perceived as motivated more by greed than artistic control.
The mission: With its first studio album in five years, the foursome is aiming to regain dominance as the undisputed kings of metal — no simple task, considering the 27-year-old band of well-heeled family men operates in a genre driven by disaffected youth.The ammunition: The heavily promoted "Death Magnetic," produced by Rick Rubin, is the first Metallica disc to feature bassist Robert Trujillo and the creative input of all four players. With fan favorite Master of Puppets as a touchstone, it returns to the aggressive thunder, precision and complexities that hooked headbangers and alarmed city fathers in the '80s. Available in four configurations (digital, vinyl, CD and an elaborate deluxe edition in a coffin case with a T-shirt, flag, poster, guitar picks and other extras), "Magnetic" is expected to enjoy a high chart launch, with sales sustained by a North American tour starting Oct. 21 and immediate playability in Guitar Hero III.
Jessica Simpson / Do You Know (Released Sept. 9)
The transition: The former Gracie Allen-styled Newlywed is slipping on her Daisy Dukes. Now that the sparkle has dimmed from her dance-pop days, the Texas native is eyeing country's greener pastures.
The mission: This Cowboy's sweetheart has to convince skeptical country fans — and, perhaps more important, radio programmers — that she sees country as more than an easy way back into the spotlight. "Come On Over," the first single, peaked at a respectable but hardly impressive No. 17 on USA TODAY's country airplay chart.
The ammunition: Simpson has enlisted high-powered help to make her case. Producer Brett James co-wrote Carrie Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel." John Shanks, the album's other producer, has a client list that includes Keith Urban, Bon Jovi and Kelly Clarkson. Dolly Parton wrote the title track for Simpson, then sang it with her.
AC/DC /Black Ice (Oct. 20)
The transition: In seeking 21st-century rock relevancy, the Australian band faces a formidable challenge. It hasn't released a studio disc since 2000's Stiff Upper Lip and, for many, remains frozen in time by vintage hits "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and "Highway to Hell." Can AC/DC plug into the digital age with brick-and-mortar distribution? The hard-rock outfit will sell the 15-track Black Ice exclusively at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, but not at iTunes.
The mission: AC/DC aims to reactivate its fan base and lure newcomers with a fresh and authentic blast of high-voltage guitar mayhem that recaptures the band's raw energy without recycling its riffs.
The ammunition: AC/DC's gamble, sweetened by the sticker price of $11.88, might pay off. Response to first single "Rock 'N Roll Train" has been strong. The rest of Black Ice, produced by Brendan O'Brien, brims with the kind of explosive, pounding anthems that recall Back in Black. A world tour kicks off in late October. See the 'making of' video.
Ciara / Fantasy Ride (Dec. 9)
The transition: She isn't there yet, but Ciara seems to be heading toward Beyoncé/Rihanna territory with consistent hit singles, two multiplatinum albums and endorsement deals. A good commercial ride for Fantasy could give her superstar credentials.
The mission: Ciara is co-executive-producing the album with hitmaker Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, and as the primary songwriter, she's keeping a firm hand on her music's direction.
The ammunition: She's building buzz with two singles —"Go Girl," featuring/produced by T-Pain, and High Price, featuring Ludacris. She's also spent studio time with Lil Jon, Rodney Jerkins and Danja.
David Cook / Untitled (Nov. 18)
The transition: The 2008 "American Idol" champ hopes to pull off the delicate trick of translating his TV-fueled popularity into record sales (achieved by several Idols, notably Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry) while maintaining artistic credibility in the finicky rock realm (a feat not even Daughtry quite achieved).
The mission: Release a debut album that consolidates the base provided by Idol and the primarily pop-radio success of coronation single "The Time of My Life" while adding gritty rock-flavored originals and working with credible rock artists and producers.
The ammunition: His alliance with producer Rob Cavallo — who has worked with Green Day as well as Kid Rock, My Chemical Romance and Eric Clapton — makes for a promising start, but the proof will be in the songs, which are still taking shape in collaboration with several veteran songwriters.
T-Pain / Thr33 Ringz(Nov. 11)
The transition: T-Pain can put to rest doubts about his staying power with an artistic statement that matches his popularity as a featured performer. He introduced himself three years ago as a rapper-turned-singer. Now we'll see if he's a singular star.
The mission: His first two albums, "Rappa Ternt Sanga" and "Epiphany," have sold respectably, but not nearly as much as you might expect, considering his steady presence on various singles charts and explosive ringtone sales. Thr33 Ringz offers an opportunity to prove that the Tallahassee singer/producer is a genuine slugger and not just a talented pinch hitter.
The ammunition: The first single, "I Can't Believe," teams him with Lil Wayne and finds him up to his usual tricks, trying to get a girl to roll with him. He has plenty of other friends on hand, too, including Chris Brown, Ludacris, DJ Khaled and Kanye West. He helped them have big hits; here's hoping they return the favor.
Keane / Perfect Symmetry (Oct. 14)
and Snow Patrol /A Hundred Million Suns (Oct. 28)
The transition: Beloved across the Atlantic, English band Keane and Irish band Snow Patrol have seen their profile rise here in recent years. But neither yet enjoys as high an international profile as fellow U.K. outfit Coldplay, to whom their atmospheric rock has been compared.
The mission: Keane's last album, 2006's dark, dense "Under the Iron Sea," won critical praise but didn't capture the public imagination as keenly. Snow Patrol had success with 2006 single Chasing Cars, but both bands now face the perennial challenge confronted by rising alt-rock acts: how to further capitalize on commercial potential while maintaining credibility.
The ammunition: Self-produced, with assistance from smart-pop savants Jon Brion and Stuart Price, "Symmetry" is an affirmation of Keane's potential and a marked departure, full of big, buoyant, unapologetically exuberant tunes. For Keane, the third time may be the charm. The moody intensity of Snow Patrol's "Suns," recorded with longtime producer Jacknife Lee, is suggested by titles such as "The Planets Bend Between Us" and "If There's a Rocket Tie Me to It." First single "Take Back the City" confirms that frontman Gary Lightbody's angst-ridden introspection can get heavy, but the tunes have graceful, lyrical touches that may appeal to pop fans and enhance the group's artistic cachet.
T.I. / Paper Trail (Sept. 30)
The transition: On his last album, "T.I. vs T.I.P.," the now-successful rapper confronted his criminally minded alter ego. In real life, the alter ego got the better of it: The Atlanta performer is facing a year in prison on weapons charges after he puts in 1,000 hours of community service. In hip-hop, a rap sheet isn't necessarily a bad thing, but T.I. already had all the street cred he needed.
The mission: Both of his last albums arrived atop Billboard's chart. He needs this one to be big enough to weather the time that he'll be out of the public eye. Defiant single No Matter What signals that he's not sweating his impending ordeal.
The ammunition: Current hit Whatever You Like just leaped from No. 71 to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, thanks to first-week sales of 205,000 downloads. He has an A-list of guests and producers backing him: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rihanna, Lil Wayne and Usher appear, while West, Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz, Mannie Fresh and DJ Toomp provide the beats.