Will Elton Be Spring's King? : His success with 'The Lion King' score and tour with Billy Joel bodes well for the release of 'Made in England' album.

Record retailers don't know whether to bet on an old favorite or a virtual unknown when it comes to predicting the spring's major seller.

The old favorite is Elton John, whose momentum from his music for "The Lion King" could make his new "Made in England" his biggest album in years.

The collection, which will be released March 21, should also benefit from John's high-profile stadium tour with Billy Joel and a subsequent solo tour. His last regular album, 1992's "The One," cracked the Top 10, but the new one could be his first solo No. 1 since "Rock of the Westies" in 1975.

The timing could hardly be better for the album.

"It comes out right between the Grammy show and the Oscars show," says Wherehouse Records new-release buyer Bob Bell, noting that "The Lion King" is expected to be honored in both the music and film awards ceremonies. "It should be Elton-mania for that whole month, and with 'The Lion King' he's as hot now as he's been in a long time."

And what unknown act might duplicate the astonishing successes in recent years by such out-of-nowhere sensations as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Counting Crows and Offspring?

One name offered by some retailers and radio programmers is Rancid, like Green Day a Bay Area punk-rock act.

Rancid made headlines late last year when it passed up a lucrative deal with Epic Records to stay with independent Epitaph, the home of Offspring.

"It's a tough call whether they'll be as big as Offspring," says Kevin Weatherly, program director of trend-setting L.A. rock radio station KROQ-FM. "But they could certainly sell a million with their next record."

Meanwhile, the retailers and programmers are eager for the start of the selling season--which kicks off Tuesday with the release of Bruce Springsteen's "Greatest Hits." That collection of the Boss' most popular songs and four new tracks ( see Record Rack, Page 65 ) is expected to be a huge seller for several months--getting a boost from Springsteen's performing "Streets of Philadelphia" on the Grammy telecast Wednesday.

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