Welcome to the first big release week of 2011. It’s kinda like the lights all of a sudden got turned on in the room, and there will be multiple albums vying for the #1 spot next week-of course, the sensible part of me wonders why these albums couldn’t have been spread out (especially since they’ve obviously all been done for quite some time), but this is the music industry…there’s no room for sense. Anyhow, here’s a look at this week’s major releases.

R.E.M. Collapse Into Now: Michael, Mike and Peter have been spinning their wheels for quite some time. Their last studio album, Accelerate, was viewed by some as a return to form, however (I can’t give you an accurate reading on that as I think I only listened to it…twice?). Collapse Into Now has been receiving mixed reviews from folks I know who’ve heard it-some are congratulating the guys for “coming back from the edge”, as it were, while some are criticizing the band for playing it safe. Hey, I’m sure Warner Brothers wants some of that $80 million they spend on R.E.M. back in ’96 back, and “safe” R.E.M., (at least these days) seems to be a lot better than experimental R.E.M. I’m not expecting a Document or an Automatic for the People (and you’re a fool if you are), but I guess a reasonable facsimile wouldn’t be so bad…

Lupe Fiasco Lasers: Record-company beefing has been going on for as long as there have been record companies, and quite frankly, I’m sick of it. Haven’t we been through this enough times that artists should know what they’re getting into when they sign on the dotted line? I generally don’t have time for artists that bitch about things like that, which is why I’m glad Lupe Fiasco’s third album is out-now we can judge based on the merits of the music, and I’m hoping that this album will be good enough to wipe the Lupe-is-a-bitch taste out of my mouth. First single “The Show Goes On” was OK (and a quite logical follow-up to “Superstar”, the pop hit that pushed Lupe’s last album, The Cool, to Gold status), and I just read an excellent review of the album in Entertainment Weekly, so I’m excited. Besides, is having pop-friendly collaborations with Skylar Grey (who, let’s face it, is still more or less an unknown) and Trey Songz on your album really so much different from having the likes of Jill Scott and Jay-Z on your debut? Of course, the cynical side of me says that Lupe’s ‘plainin’ is all designed to maximize publicity for the new album anyway.

Avril Lavigne Goodbye Lullabye: Show of hands-who thought Avril Lavigne was gonna be around a full decade after her hit debut, Let Go? Well, if you legitimately thought that the other angry Canadian chick with the unpronounceable name was gonna be a keeper-then there’s some Lotto numbers I want you to pick for me. While I can’t say that there’s much in her catalog that I deem as essential (total number of Avril songs in my iTunes library: two), someone out there likes her stuff. Album #4 has been preceded by the single “What the Hell”, a song that’s been well-received, so all indications point towards Avril enjoying a successful start to her second decade on the music scene.

Raekwon Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang: To me, Rae’s the least essential of the Wu-Tang “A”-teamers. Well…least essential is probably the wrong term. He’s certainly the least flashy. He’s like the guy who gives you 10 and 7 on the basketball court every night without fail-consistent. Also? Kinda boring. However, Only Built for Cuban Linx 2 raised his profile in the eyes of the young’uns, so Shaolin finds Rae not being the underdog for once. Guests here include the usual suspects, of course, and sadly…no Justin Bieber (who Rae caught some serious flack…OK, serious bemusement…for collaborating with).

All four of those albums have a shot at snagging the #1 spot on next week’s chart, as does the fifth soundtrack from the TV series “Glee” (which, because I hate it so much, will probably prevail over the other four albums). In addition to those big names, there are new albums being released by the likes of country superstar Sara Evans (who, if I’m not mistaken, was on “Dancing with the Stars”?), hardcore favorites Rival Schools, and (coming straight at you from 2003) TRUSTcompany.

On the reissue tip-there’s a slightly late 40th anniversary deluxe edition of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water hitting stores, as well as a deluxe package of another seminal 1970 album, Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die.

I’m a Billy Joel fan (“Tell Her About It” was the first 12″ single I ever bought), but I must admit to being somewhat befuddled by the endless hits packages/live albums that have been trotted out since Billy announced his retirement from pop songwriting in the mid-Nineties. His recent Shea Stadium shows are being released on CD and DVD this week, but this experience will not be complete until you read Popdose’s scathing review of the package. When the folks who put together The Capo review the best music writing of 2011, they need to strongly consider that piece.

Oh yeah…make sure you check out Pause and Play for a complete list of this week’s new releases.

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