The first single from a new album is like a trial balloon. It can blow up and announce to the world an artist's shiny new sound in a shower of confetti, or it can slowly deflate, draining any sense of anticipation for what might come next. Of the many big names releasing new music this year, five have sent up zeppelins in hopes of building buzz. We take a look at which musicians have lift and which ones are dealing in pure lead.
Erykah Badu "Honey," from "New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)" (out today). This is one slinky slice of Southern soul as rubbery bass lines and blooping keyboards pulsate under Badu's sweet vocal grit. As she sings of her love for a bumblebee whose sting is sweet, you can picture the late-night summer barbecue that this song will serve as the perfect soundtrack for. A playful emissary for what is reportedly, as the title suggests, a much more serious album. Hear it at myspace.com/erykahbadu.
Panic at the Disco "Nine in the Afternoon," from "Pretty.Odd" (out March 25). The Nevada quartet ditched the exclamation point and switched allegiances from General Emo to "Sgt. Pepper," but the band hasn't lost its hollering, verbose spirit. "We're feeling so good!" shouts lead singer Brendon Urie as he high-steps his way through the kind of jaunty Brit-rock piano bounce that owes major debts to everyone from Paul McCartney to Freddie Mercury. But even though this number has a borrowed feel - and Urie's whine remains an acquired taste - the can-do sunniness is infectious. Hear it at panicatthedisco.com.
Mariah Carey "Touch My Body," from "E=MC2" (out April 1). Carey is apparently ready to get it on, as the daffy diva offers up the myriad ways she plans to please her man in this jittery, standard-issue midtempo jam, a kissing cousin to "We Belong Together." The only odd twist is Mimi's caveat to potential touchers: "If you run your mouth and brag about our secret rendezvous/ I will hunt you down." Yikes! Hear it atmariahcarey.com.
R.E.M. "Supernatural Superserious," from "Accelerate" (out April 1). By the time Michael Stipe wriggles into the Tweeter Center for the band's June 13 concert, this feel-good song about feeling bad as a teenager will probably be the veteran Georgia rockers' first real hit in some time. It took awhile for Peter Buck's stiff riffs and Mike Mills's dreamy backing vocals to help this one sink in, but once it has got you, it holds on. And with the exception of Morrissey, Stipe may be the only singer alive who can make lyrics about crying and humiliation sound so peppy. Check out remhq.com for an even better acoustic version and several videos.
Usher "Love in This Club," album title and release date TBD, expected in spring. How do you follow up a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning album that gracefully cements the transition from teen heartthrob to mature R&B superstar? If you're Usher, you release this limp, quavery synth ballad with a dull Young Jeezy rhyme that covers well-trod ground about meeting and falling in lust with a "shawty" in da club. Why Usher didn't release the crisper Timbaland collaboration "Moving Mountains," easily found on the Web thanks to recent leaks, is a mystery. Hear it atmyspace.com/usher.