The Most Exciting Albums of the Next Two Weeks

This fall promises to be an exciting time in the popular music world. Here’s a preview of some of the most exciting releases due out over the next few weeks.

This week

Ben Folds: The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective

This release is a three-disc treasure trove of material by the snarky piano-pop genius that should appease longtime fans and Folds newcomers alike. Some of the choices and omissions on the single “greatest hits”-style disc are questionable; we get “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You,” but not “Army?” Seriously? I’m more psyched about the second and third discs, which are chock full of previously unreleased and rare home demos, studio outtakes, alternate mixes, live tracks and three brand new tracks by an apparently reunited Ben Folds Five. Check out a hilarious video on the album’s Amazon page for some funny and revealing anecdotes about several songs spanning Folds’ career.

Various Artists: The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

Yes, that would be new music from Hank Williams the original, not his certifiable, knuckle-headed son, and what a pleasure it is. Williams, of course, died in 1953, making his release of new material in 2011 seem a tad peculiar. But the situation here is not unlike the one surrounding the collection of unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Wilco and Billy Bragg in the late ‘90s; this time, Bob Dylan was entrusted with the Williams archive, and he recorded one song – “The Love That Faded” – while parceling 11 more tracks to industry friends like Alan Jackson, Lucinda Williams and Jake White. The result is a musically chameleonic tribute that rests in a delicate balance between covers album and homage.

Next week

Bjork and Dirty Projectors: Mount Wittenberg Orca

When you have Bjork and Dirty Projectors in the same room, you pretty much have enough weirdness to destroy the universe. Less a pop album than a

collaborative art project, their album “Mount Wittenberg Orca” was originally performed live at a special benefit concert for a bookstore in New York in the summer of 2010. A staggeringly beautiful, bouncy and bizarre seven-song suite, “Mount Wittenberg Orca” is centered on a narrative concerning endangered whales, with Bjork portraying mama whale and the Dirty Projectors folks acting as her babies. The music sat on the shelf for almost a year before the principal players were able to get together and record it in a studio. If you spend your hard-earned dollars on only one record this year, this one would make a worthy choice: All of the proceeds go the National Geographic Society Oceans Initiatives, and on the album’s website, buyers can choose to donate $7, $25, $50 or $100 for the mp3s.

Tom Waits: Bad as Me

Compared to previous decades, Tom Waits has been a prolific tourer the past few years – but he hasn’t released an album of new music since 2004’s “Real Gone.” Judging by the advance singles from his new album “Bad as Me,” it’s been well worth the wait. The title track recalls Screamin’ Jay Hawkins at his most unhinged, a psychotic three-minute slab of horror-noir urgency. The shuffling, Southwestern ballad “Back in the Crowd” is  shorter and lovelier, with Waits in full boozy balladeer mode. This is sure to be one of the year’s most-discussed albums in the music press; it appears Waits has channeled all of the varied genres and stylistic personae he’s cultivated over the years and coalesced them into a manifesto-like album. Before you listen, check out this brilliant, deadpan video Waits recorded to promote the record: