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Fall Music Preview 2013: The 26 Albums You Need to Hear

Paul McCartney, Arcade Fire, Lady Gaga, Pearl Jam and 22 more of the season’s biggest albums

Every year, the music industry kicks into overdrive right around Labor Day. This fall is no exception: Get ready to hear brand-new music from some of your favorite stars – from Arcade Fire's epic return to Lady Gaga's freaked-out pop experiments to Paul McCartney's magical mystery album. Keep reading for the inside scoop on these and 23 more of the biggest, coolest and wildest records of the season.

Album information and dates confirmed as of press time. Reporting by David Browne, Matt Diehl, Jon Dolan, Patrick Doyle, Gavin Edwards, Adam Gold, Andy Greene, Steve Knopper and Simon Vozick-Levinson.

drake

Courtesy OVO Sound

Drake, ‘Nothing Was the Same’ (9/24)

"This album is about growth," says the Toronto MC. "When I play it for people, they ask, 'Who's that rapping?' I'm like, 'That's me.'" The LP also features all-star guests from Jay Z to Lil Wayne, plus superhot producers like Scottish DJ Hudson Mohawke. One highlight? The emotional "Connect." "That one hits you in the heart," says Drake. "It's painful and beautiful at the same time."

Kings of Leon

Dan Winters

Kings of Leon, ‘Mechanical Bull’ (9/24)

"We needed to take a little time off," says Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill of the band's yearlong hiatus. "But we knew it wasn't over." The Kings' new LP ranges from pile-driving rockers like "Don't Matter" to loose, funky cuts like "Rock City" to the U2-ish ballad "Beautiful War." "When we got that down," adds Followill, "we thought, 'Shit, we've got our pop song – now let's go have fun.'"

Joseph Guay

Elton John, ‘The Diving Board’ (9/24)

"Just one more time, for old times' sake, I'd like to go back home again," Elton John sings on "Home Again" – a standout cut from his first solo LP in seven years. The disc, produced by T Bone Burnett (who also helmed his 2010 collaboration with Leon Russell), spotlights John's vocals and piano over little more than bass and drums, the same way he used to record in the earliest days of his career. Another way the album is a throwback: "It was written in five days," says a proud Sir Elton, "and recorded in five days."

Courtesy Interscope

Sting, ‘The Last Ship’ (9/24)

Sting's first disc of original material since 2003 – which he's been working on for three years – is a concept album inspired by his British youth. Much of the music, which takes its cues from theater greats like Rodgers and Hammerstein, will be featured in an upcoming Broadway musical. So why a concept LP in the age of single-track downloads? "It certainly goes against the grain," Sting admits. "But I still feel there is a constituency that wants music to be more than just something consumed and discarded like a coffee or an ice cream."

Fredrik Etoall

Icona Pop, ‘This Is…Icona Pop’ (9/24)

The Swedish duo behind the inescapable pop earworm "I Love It" recorded their new LP between tour dates around the globe. "It's the sluttiest album in the whole world," says Caroline Hjelt. "It's been sleeping in every city and making love to all the different countries." Adds Aino Jawo, "It's influenced by punk, bittersweet melodies and a lot of chaos."

Tom Munro / RCA Records

Justin Timberlake, ‘The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2’ (9/30)

Justin Timberlake cut so many songs for his smash comeback, The 20/20 Experience, that he's releasing a whole other album just six months later. (He once again co-produced it with Timbaland and Texas-based talent Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon.) "The two albums are like seasons," says manager Johnny Wright. He says to expect a "darker" feel from tunes like "You Got It On" and "Not a Bad Thing" – but adds, "Even the midtempo songs have a groove to them."

haim

Bella Lieberberg

HAIM, ‘Days Are Gone’ (9/30)

"Of course we were nervous," says bassist Este Haim of recording the L.A. sister act's debut album. Between opening gigs for Mumford & Sons and Rihanna, the trio hit the studio with producer Ariel Rechtshaid (who has worked with Vampire Weekend and Usher). The resulting LP is packed with rich harmonies – check the Fleetwood Mac-ish single "The Wire," which the band recorded 10 times before finding the right groove. "We love organic and electronic instruments," says Haim. "The amalgamation of the two is what excites us."

pearl jam

Danny Clinch

Pearl Jam, ‘Lightning Bolt’ (10/15)

Pearl Jam were in no rush when they began recording their 10th LP, Lightning Bolt, nearly two years ago. "We cut six or seven songs," says the band's longtime producer Brendan O'Brien. "But they weren't quite ready to finish a record." This year, they finally got down to business, completing a set of supercharged rockers like lead single "Mind Your Manners." "They've really learned over the years," adds O'Brien, who first worked with Pearl Jam on 1993's Vs. "I take each record very personally. I feel like it's my job to help them put out a record where people say, 'Oh, them. I love Pearl Jam! I'd forgotten how much I liked them.' "

The Head and the Heart

Curtis Waye Millard

The Head and the Heart, ‘Let’s Be Still’ (10/15)

Singer-guitarist Jonathan Russell credits the Seattle indie-folk crew's experience on the road with bigger bands for inspiring them to aim high on their second LP. "When you open for My Morning Jacket, it blows your head wide open," says Russell. "Their sonic palette is way more interesting. You're like, 'Oh, right! I'm sick of just strumming my acoustic guitar.'"

Cass Bird

Katy Perry, ‘Prism’ (10/22)

"It's a real carving-out process," Katy Perry says of sessions for her third LP. "I'm always fighting for 'best.'" The pop star is cagey on further details, but lets slip that she's calling from Sweden – which, not so coincidentally, is home to producer Max Martin, who helped make 2010's Teenage Dream a multiplatinum hit. Martin returned to co-write the singer's new single, "Roar," along with Perry, Dr. Luke and Bonnie McKee. "It's a more grown-up Katy," McKee recently said of the disc. "It doesn't sound like the 'California Gurls' of yesterday."