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Artists At The Cross Roads hide

The fall music schedule, typically loaded with chart rockets, could fizzle if assorted stars backfire in comeback bids. The roster poses some dramatic questions:

Can Mariah still sparkle after Glitter? Is Justin Timberlake in sync with youth's shifting tastes?

Will Santana sustain a Supernatural comeback?

Numerous brand-name acts face an uncertain future as they return this season lugging fresh albums and dicey baggage. With no sure bets on the horizon, the music industry is nervously watching this crucial home stretch in a year that has seen album sales decline by nearly 10%. The unusual number of test cases finds artists in a crisis, at a crossroads or on the cusp of a daring departure.

In the tabloid category, a sex scandal clouds R. Kelly's prospects. Drug rumors continue to dog Whitney Houston.

For some, the challenge is reversing sales drops. Pearl Jam needs to reverse a gradual erosion over the past decade.

Santana, Shania Twain and Christina Aguilera confront the towering shadows of their previous blockbusters.

A handful of heavyweights risk alienating fans with reinventions. Pop-crossover gambits could tarnish the tiaras of country queens LeAnn Rimes and Faith Hill. 'N Sync spinoff Timberlake is gambling on a solo career just as the boy-band boom is going bust.

And nobody's certain whether American Idol title-holder Kelly Clarkson will win by a landslide at the cash register.

These potential dramas are analyzed on this page and the next. But they're not the only questions awaiting answers this fall season. Others include:

Can TLC thrive after rapper Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes' death?

Are Beck and Tom Petty still relevant?

Can Sisqo return to the hit track with his Dru Hill bandmates?

Can former Genesis singers Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins return to the solo spotlight?

Will Kelly Rowland find success outside Destiny's Child?

Is Shaggy's superstardom a passing cultural aberration or a lasting phenomenon?

Viewed against similar bids of the recent past, these contenders have cause to worry. Michael Jackson's Invincible, the most anticipated album of fall 2001, quickly turned invisible. If fall's procession of icons fails to trigger a sales stampede, retailers will be praying for a dark horse to emerge as the season's cash cow. Oh, brother, who could that be?

Fall music list

Mariah Carey
Untitled, Dec. 10
The numbers: Fantasy (1991), 3.6 million
Daydream (1995), 7.5 million
Butterfly (1997), 3.6 million
Glitter (2001), 547,000
The challenge: Salvaging a multi-platinum career derailed by last year's psychological meltdown and the spectacular tanking of the Glitter soundtrack. The stakes: Glitter's tarnish and Carey's subsequent ouster from Virgin Records stained a golden track record paved with huge hit singles. If the new album doesn't thrill fans and ignite radio, pop's reigning diva may find herself reduced to lady-in-waiting, along with dozens of her imitators.
The goods: After signing a new deal with Def Jam in May, Carey enlisted top R&B and hip-hop producers to help craft a new album, recorded in Capri, Italy. Hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had a hand in five songs. She also brought Jermaine Dupri and Irv Gotti on board.
The outlook: Still regarded as a vocal powerhouse with commercial appeal, Carey won't be ignored, particularly since curious fans and critics wonder how she'll handle the rebound. If the first single stiffs, she could follow Michael Jackson into the wilderness of passé superstars.
- By Edna Gundersen

Christina Aguilera
Stripped, Oct. 29
The numbers: Christina Aguilera (1999), 7.9 million
The challenge: Proving to fans and critics that she's more than a bubblegum blonde, similar to her less technically gifted rival Britney Spears.
The stakes: A second hit album could go a long way toward establishing Aguilera as a diva with staying power, similar to obvious role model Mariah Carey. The goods: Aguilera co-wrote most of her new songs, which seem to reach for a grittier, more urban feel. Redman raps on the driving single Dirrty, and Alicia Keys wrote and plays on Impossible, a tortured love ballad recalling Keys' own hit Fallin'. Other contributors include Linda Perry, who recently helped Pink embrace her inner rocker, and Alanis Morissette collaborator Glen Ballard.
The outlook: If Aguilera places more emphasis on her vocal skills and less on her sometimes curious taste in clothes and makeup, we'll all benefit.
- By Elysa Gardner

Shania Twain
Up!, Nov. 12
The numbers: Come on Over (1997), 14 million
The challenge: Following the best-selling album ever by a female artist.
The stakes: That spot right above Thriller looks mighty appealing, if Twain can expand her country and pop-crossover audiences.
The goods: For someone who releases albums only every five years, Twain certainly doesn't skimp on material. Early reports give Up! 19 tracks, and at least one mix for country fans and one for pop might be available on the initial release date. More important - what did having a baby do to that famous midriff?
The outlook: One of the flat-out smartest women in showbiz, Twain is developing a history of making critics and naysayers eat their words - nicely, of course. Don't bet against her.
- By Brian Mansfield

Whitney Houston
Just Whitney..., Nov. 26
The numbers: The Bodyguard (1992 soundtrack), 12 million
My Love Is Your Love (1998), 2.7 million
The Greatest Hits (2000), 1.3 million
The challenge: Redirect the focus to her music instead of tabloid stories about erratic behavior and accusations of drug abuse.
The stakes: This will be Houston's first album since signing a $100 million deal with Arista in 2001. It also will be her first album without the guidance of former Arista chief Clive Davis.
The goods: She's working with such top-flight producers as Babyface, Gordon Chambers, Missy Elliott, Kevin "Shek'spere" Briggs and Teddy Bishop.
The outlook: First single Whatchulookinat took critics to task and was in turn taken to task by critics. Radio's response was lukewarm at best, and the video shoot was canceled. She'll need a better single to generate the needed buzz.
- By Steve Jones

Shaman, Oct. 22
The numbers: Supernatural (1999), 11 million
The challenge: Maintaining the career momentum spurred by Supernatural, the Grammy-winning comeback that rescued Santana from hippie-relic status. The stakes: A '60s survivor and guitar god could recede from the limelight if his Supernatural sequel doesn't measure up.
The goods: Santana hasn't abandoned Supernatural's winning formula of savvy collaborations. First single Game of Love pairs him with rising star Michelle Branch. Santana also hooks up with Dido, Musiq, Placido Domingo and Macy Gray.
The outlook: Lightning could strike twice. Industry support for one of its favorite sons ensures a strong launch. Arista chief L.A. Reid seems as committed as predecessor Clive Davis, who helped steer Supernatural to glory.
- By Edna Gundersen

Pearl Jam
Riot Act, Nov. 12
The numbers: Ten (1991), 8.9 million
Vs. (1993), 5.8 million
Vitalogy (1994), 4.6 million
No Code (1996), 1.4 million
Yield (1998), 1.5 million
Binaural (2000), 714,000
The challenge: Returning to a leadership role in rock.
The stakes: The band, which helped banish '80s hair bands and reinvigorate rock 'n' roll, is one of few surviving grunge-era acts struggling to preserve the ideals and integrity of rock's pre-MTV forefathers. Its relevance will be tested in today's market of seething rap-rockers.
The goods: Pearl Jam's seventh studio album was produced by the band and Adam Kasper (Foo Fighters, Soundgarden) and mixed by longtime colleague Brendan O'Brien. Songs include Love Boat Captain, Bushleaguer, Thumbing My Way and first single I Am Mine, due Tuesday. Boom, a pal of singer Eddie Vedder, plays keyboards.
The outlook: Pearl Jam's live strengths are legendary, so the record should get a strong boost during a 2003 world tour. But the band will need radio and media support to reconnect with lapsed fans and seduce new ones.
- By Edna Gundersen

Faith Hill
Cry, Oct. 15
The numbers: Breathe (1999), 6 million.
The challenge: Having her cake and eating it, too: sustaining country success while solidifying Breathe's pop crossover.
The stakes: A good showing with Cry will prove that Hill didn't peak with Breathe. The goods: Hill adds Aerosmith producer Marti Frederiksen for an album with strong early buzz and a single that's sailing up the country chart. A network TV special during November sweeps can't hurt either.
The outlook: Continued dual success in pop and country formats keeps Hill rolling in platinum.
- By Brian Mansfield

Justin Timberlake
Justified, Nov. 5
The numbers: Record-setting totals with 'N Sync, nothing yet on his own.
The challenge: With his solo debut, 'N Sync's most visible and audible member will have an opportunity to show the world he's more than just a pretty face and voice. The stakes: Fulfilling the expectations of fans and industry insiders who have predicted Timberlake has the right stuff to mature into an adult pop star, much as his idol Michael Jackson and George Michael did.
The goods: Timberlake co-wrote all his new material. Three tracks, among them the Jacko-inspired single Like I Love You, find the singer going for an edgier R&B sound, with sinuous production by hip-hop savants The Neptunes and Timbaland. Timberlake's rumored flame Janet Jackson also appears, singing backup on one song.
The outlook: If the CD is a hit, Timberlake's juice as a solo artist is confirmed. If it's not, he'll probably be congratulated for taking some artistic risks. Either way, he's sitting pretty.
- By Elysa Gardner

Kelly Clarkson
Untitled, Nov. 26 (tentative)
The numbers: Huge TV ratings for American Idol.
The challenge: To overcome the prefab-pop stigma attached to Idol.
The stakes: Clarkson has shown she has the voice and the charisma. It will be up to the folks financing her grand-prize, $1 million contract to determine whether she'll have the material.
The goods: RCA Records exec Steve Ferrara, who co-produced Clarkson's single A Moment Like This - due for release Tuesday as a double A-side with Before Your Love, co-produced by Desmond Child and Cathy Dennis - is currently fielding offers from "the best A+ writer/producers in the business," among them Diane Warren, Walter Afanasieff, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. "It's going to be a contemporary pop record, but we're not being too genre-specific," Ferrara says.
The outlook: Even if her CD tanks, Clarkson ought to be fondly remembered as the woman who saved the world from that mass of hot air and bad hair known as Justin Guarini.
- By Elysa Gardner

R. Kelly
Loveland, Nov. 26 (tentative)
The numbers: TP2.COM (2000), 3.5 million
Best of Both Worlds (2002, with Jay-Z), 766,000
The challenge: A sex scandal in which he's accused of videotaping trysts with underage girls threatens to derail the past decade's most consistent and successful R&B superstar.
The stakes: With 21 felony charges pending, Kelly's legal situation will have a bigger impact on his career than this record. Even before charges were filed, accusations stalled his The Best of Both Worlds team-up with Jay-Z. He'll have a lot of baggage to overcome even if he's acquitted.
The goods: Still up in the air, with a possibility of postponement.
The outlook: It'll take a blockbuster to persuade fans to forgive and forget. Sentimental Heaven, I Need A Hug, released after he was indicted, got some airplay but hasn't burned up the charts.
- By Steve Jones

LeAnn Rimes
Twisted Angel, Oct. 1
The numbers: Blue (1996), 5.9 million
I Need You (2001), 814,000
The challenge: Successfully completing the transformation from child country star to adult pop diva, a move facilitated by soundtrack smashes How Do I Live (from 1997's Con Air) and Can't Fight the Feeling (from Coyote Ugly and a chart hit twice in the past year).
The stakes: Anything short of a return to multiplatinum form for Rimes - whose sales have fallen steadily since her 1996 debut - could render her passé in a world where new-style divas Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne are all the rage.
The goods: No longer a teenager, Rimes goes for a more adult, more sexual style, working with producer/songwriters Peter Amato, Desmond Child and Gregg Pagani. There's not a hint of country on the single Life Goes On, or on the rest of the album, and any grandmothers who have loved her since Blue will be gone forever the second she starts describing an orgasm in Tic Toc.
The outlook: Life Goes On is off to a solid start, but transitioning into a stable, grown-up career won't be easy.
- By Brian Mansfield

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