Ten Years! Ten… YEARS!
A Look Back, A Look Forward and An Announcement

Welcome back, everyone.

This column marks the start of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., Year Ten. I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute, because I can hardly believe it myself. That doesn’t even count the two years I wrote this thing for Face Magazine, either. I started this column’s current incarnation in November of 2000 – my tenure with Face had come to an ignoble end, I’d moved to Tennessee, and after taking all of October off from writing (what I called my October Project, and I hope someone out there gets that), I tentatively strung a few sentences together about the then-new Everclear album and e-mailed them to my friends.

Then, the next week, I did it again, this time reviewing Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood. And then I was in the habit – every week for the past 10 years (with a couple of vacation weeks), I’ve strung those sentences together. The musical selection has gotten a lot better since the early days. I’d like to think the writing has, too, but that’s your call, not mine. I still e-mail this column out to two dozen or so of my friends each week, but hundreds more of you check it out online.

And I’m so very grateful to all of you for that.

So! Let’s keep going, what do you say? I’ll keep writing them, if you keep reading them. I initially said I only wanted to do this thing for 10 years or so, but I have so much fun putting this together each week that I don’t expect I’ll want to stop come December. Plus, there’s always more music to talk about, and I doubt I’ll stop wanting to hear it all. That seems like a hard-wired part of my brain, at this point. Bad for the checkbook, good for fans of this column.

Quite a bit has changed in 10 years. I’m living outside Chicago now, writing for a living, and much more stable and secure than I was when I started this thing. But through all of that, music has remained an important – nay, essential – part of my life. I’m rarely happier than when I find music that moves me so much I want to share it with everyone I know. TM3AM is my ongoing attempt to do that, and to capture the strange excitement that goes with being an obsessive music fan. I may feel differently in December, but right now, I want to keep doing it as long as I can.

So, Year Ten. Strap in, here we go.

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Ordinarily, the first few columns of the year are dead boring. I do my best to spice them up, but there usually isn’t much happening on the music front in January. Or February, for that matter. But 2010 is already shaping up to be a mold-breaker, on a few fronts.

As a side note, I’m saying “Twenty-Ten.” It just rolls off the tongue better, and fits with the pattern set by the last few centuries: Seventeen-Ten, Eighteen-Ten, Nineteen-Ten, Twenty-Ten. My inner grammar snob approves. As do the more openly snobby folks at NAGG, the National Association for Good Grammar, for whatever that’s worth.

Anyway, I’m usually scrambling for something to write about in the second week of January, but this year, we have an embarrassment of riches. Already out are new albums from OK Go, Freedy Johnston, Elvis Costello, Final Fantasy, and the one I’ll be reviewing next, Vampire Weekend’s Contra. Coming Tuesday are new things from Spoon, the Eels, and the Editors. One week later, we have the new Magnetic Fields album, Realism, and one week after that, an explosion of goodness from Midlake, BT, and the Album Leaf. (BT’s album has me the most excited – two hours, two discs, with Rob Dickinson of Catherine Wheel providing vocals on two tracks.)

But it’s not stopping there. February and March are bank-breakingly amazing this year. Take a gander:

February 9 will see the new one from Massive Attack, called Heligoland. That’s a good start, but February 16 brings the new Peter Gabriel (a covers album called Scratch My Back), a double album from Field Music, the zillionth solo album from Robert Pollard, a new Silver Mt. Zion concoction, and the stateside release of Jason Falkner’s 2007 elpee I’m OK You’re OK. (He’s made another, All Quiet on the Noise Floor, since then, and that one hasn’t hit these shores yet either. Grumble grumble.)

February 23. Oh, my, February 23. Here’s what’s coming: the new Shearwater, called The Golden Archipelago; a two-CD excursion by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim entitled Here Lies Love; Joanna Newsom’s third album, the just-announced Have One on Me; a new thing from The Rocket Summer; another glorious soundscape from Balmorhea; another kickass slab of stoner fuck-all from High on Fire; and most importantly, Johnny Cash’s final Rick Rubin session, American VI: Ain’t No Grave.

But wait! There’s March! Highlights of what we know so far include Liars’ fifth album, Frightened Rabbit’s third, the debut from Broken Bells (a nifty collaboration between Danger Mouse and James Mercer of the Shins), the new Ted Leo, a covers disc from Nada Surf, a live record and DVD from the White Stripes, and finally (FINALLY) the remastered, spiffed-up, super-awesome re-release of one of my favorite albums of all time, The Cure’s Disintegration. There’s more, of course, and there’s more on the way we don’t know about yet, but even if there weren’t, I’d be out-of-my-skin excited for 2010 already.

What else might we see? Well, there’s a new Arcade Fire rumored for May, and a new Shins on the boards for about the same time. The Beastie Boys came within weeks of releasing Hot Sauce Committee Part One last year, so we should see that, and maybe Part Two. Quiet Company will have a new EP sometime very soon. Radiohead’s in the studio, and both Soundgarden and Faith No More have reunited. Plus, on the spiritual pop front, we’re definitely getting a new Choir album in 2010, as well as the Lost Dogs’ album and movie project, Route 66.

And I will be broke. But I will be happy.

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So apparently I disappointed a few people with my announcement that I wouldn’t be publishing a best-of-the-decade list. My reasons were various and sundry, and I guess you’ll know what’s coming when I say I can’t really remember why they were so compelling a couple of weeks ago.

Yes, Virginia, I’ve put together a best-of-the-Aughts list. But rather than dump it on you all at once, I think I’m going to stretch it out, and make it a recurring feature of the first half of this year. The list itself is something I’ve been agonizing over, and why make it easy on myself? Why not allow myself to lose countless hours of sleep deciding whether the #4 and #5 albums should swap places? What is a list like this, if not a way for me to demonstrate just how blindingly obsessed I really am?

When I first set out to compile this thing, I thought it would be simple. Really, I did. I thought I would just have to write down the #1 and #2 albums from each of the last 10 years, and then rank them. But I forgot, of course, that what ascends to the top of the heap in one year might not even rate an honorable mention in another. Already I’ve made some decisions on this list that have surprised me, and chosen some records that, in retrospect, should have been praised more in their respective years. I’ve also taken a pass on some albums that I initially rated very highly. It’s like getting a re-do on your decade, in a way.

Speaking of decisions that have surprised me, here’s one: you won’t see Brian Wilson’s SMiLE on this list. It is, unquestionably, one of my favorite albums of the last 10 years. But I bent the rules to declare it the best record of 2004, and in retrospect, I shouldn’t have. While it is absolutely the first presentation of SMiLE in its intended form, the meat of the record – the songs themselves – are all more than 40 years old at this point. As much as I love what Wilson’s done here, and as much as I think SMiLE is one of the finest pieces of pop music I’ve ever heard, I couldn’t justify ripping up my rules again.

Plus, including SMiLE makes it too easy. Of course it would be number one. Of course it would. Now, you’ll be guessing.

So let’s start this off. Once a week, for the next 20 weeks, I’ll be giving you a little essay on a record I love. Together, they’ll form my Top 20 List of the Decade. Hope you enjoy!

#20. Bruce Cockburn, You’ve Never Seen Everything (2003).

Bruce Cockburn, one of Canada’s finest songwriters, was 57 when he recorded You’ve Never Seen Everything in 2002. It was his 21st album, marking 33 years as a recording artist. This is not a young man’s album. It’s seeped in the grim wisdom that comes from living a long life, and experiencing the best and worst humanity has to offer. And on this by-turns heartbreaking and invigorating musical document, he pours out those years, those experiences, in riveting poetry.

Cockburn has long been one of the most globally cognizant artists around, and on You’ve Never Seen Everything, he takes you on a tour of some of the darkest places he’s been. The reactionary rage of 1984’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” is gone, replaced by a simmering disgust with man’s inhumanity to man. On “Postcards From Cambodia,” he calls what he sees there “too big for anger, too big for blame.” And on the positively mesmerizing title track, Cockburn tells vignettes that burn themselves into your brain: murder-suicides by pitchfork, bakers cutting their flour with pesticide to save money, a teenage girl setting fire to her home, killing herself and her family.

“You’ve never seen everything,” Cockburn intones, turning the title into a knowing retort.

Elsewhere, he takes aim at our corporate greed, our “trickle down” economics, our policies that leave half the world starving while we wage wars for oil. You’ve Never Seen Everything is a post-9/11 album that widens the lens, giving Cockburn’s audience the benefit of his global view. And if that’s all it had been, it still would be commendable, but this album (like all of Cockburn’s work) manages to find light amidst the darkness as well. “Open,” “Everywhere Dance,” “Put It In Your Heart” – these are lovely songs of joy and wonder, proving that despite all he has seen, Cockburn is nowhere near jaded or cynical.

The mission statement of the album, couched near the end at track 11, is “Don’t Forget About Delight.” It’s simple, but deceptively difficult: “Amid the post-ironic postulating and the poets’ filtered rhymes, meaning feels like it’s evaporating, out of sight and out of mind, don’t forget…”

Musically, Everything is a triumph, a culmination of Cockburn’s criminally overlooked catalog. On the darker pieces, he speaks rather than sings, over mantra-like guitar figures, and on the lighter ones, he gently finger-picks his acoustic, dropping lovely choruses. He makes jazz-rock sound convincingly angry on “Trickle Down,” and puts extra verve into the plucked gallop of “Wait No More.” It’s a full, rich sound he conjures up, and even when the writing gets repetitive, it’s hypnotic and immersive.

Bruce Cockburn has long been one of the smartest men to ever pick up a guitar, and You’ve Never Seen Everything – one of only two studio albums he released last decade – is a career highlight. It sports a shining intelligence, but wraps that in observation and emotion. This is an album that connects, viscerally and immediately, and its lessons are ones we could still stand to learn, seven years on. It is Cockburn’s late-career masterpiece, as brilliant and as unjustifiably ignored an album as he has ever made. If you’ve never heard Cockburn, this is a great place to start.

So that’s number 20. Guesses are welcome on numbers 19 through 1. If all goes well, we’ll wrap up this little experiment on May 26.

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Next week, Vampire Weekend’s second album, and perhaps OK Go’s third. Year ten! I’m still wrapping my brain around it. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.