Back in the Saddle
An Early Look at 2008

All right. 2008.

Hello again, everyone. Did you miss me? I managed to arrange a lengthy vacation from work this year, and to coincide with that, I decided to take last week off from this column, too. That’ll likely be the only week off I allow myself this year, although now that I’ve typed that sentence, I am sure I’ll live to regret it.

Thanks again to everyone who’s been reading this column for the past seven years. With this installment, I’m beginning my eighth year writing tm3am online, and my 10th full year overall, counting the Face Magazine incarnation.

The first CD (well, cassette, actually) I reviewed under the Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. banner was Genesis’ Calling All Stations, way back in 1997. It was an unpopular start – I liked the album then, and I like it now, despite the accepted “wisdom” that it’s among the band’s worst. I wish they’d gone on with Ray Wilson, as he had a gritty voice that added weight to Tony Banks’ sometimes inscrutable compositions.

But it’s 2008 we want to talk about. This is my annual beginning-of-the-year ramble, since the flood of new music doesn’t really start for a couple of weeks. I have high hopes for 2008, and that’s partially because the lineup so far is less than spectacular.

Wait, what? Let me explain. 2007 came out of the gate like a firecracker, firing off one terrific album after another in the first four months. But after that, it was like the year was spent. A sizable percentage of my top 10 list last year, including my entire top four, came out in the first quarter of the year. (Hell, three of the top four came out in March.) The remaining nine months paled in comparison, and I don’t want to see the same thing happen this year.

Which is why I’m happy that the first few months of ’08 seem like they’re going to be good, but not amazing. Still, I’ll be happy when the long year-end drought is over. I’ve bought three CDs so far in 2008, which might seem like a lot for anyone else, but for me, that’s like having only one meal a week. The first one I picked up, of course, was Radiohead’s In Rainbows on January 1 – it came out on December 31 everywhere else, which is why I considered it a 2007 release. The packaging is neat, and includes an element of interactivity, while the album itself sounds better than the download version. If you missed the free download, it’s worth picking up the disc – this is Radiohead’s best album in 10 years, easy.

The second one I bought was Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. I always like to check out the number one choice of the year on Pitchfork, just to see what I’m missing. Some of my friends consider me ahead of the curve when it comes to new music, but I’ve rarely heard the top choices on Pitchfork’s list – they’re at least three curves ahead of me. I also rarely agree with their choices, and this year is no exception.

Panda Bear is a member of Animal Collective, and I didn’t quite love their 2007 album, Strawberry Jam, so I avoided Panda’s solo project. Turns out, his record is better, but only just. His music sounds like electronic nightmares with Brian Wilson harmonies on top of them, but he declined to write any melodies, the defining element of Wilson’s genius. The songs are often very long without earning it, and while I like it as a sonic experiment, Person Pitch fails as an album for me. Sorry, Pitchforkers.

And finally, I picked up my first new album of 2008, Sia’s Some People Have Real Problems. The folks who picked Person Pitch as the best record of 2007 are going to hate me for this, but I liked Sia’s effort better. I first heard the former Zero 7 singer the same way a lot of people did, I imagine – I watched the series finale of Six Feet Under, the last scenes of which were scored to her “Breathe Me.” What a great little song. The album it’s from, Colour the Small One, is nice too.

The new one doesn’t stray too far from that territory. I’ve been calling it a mix of Aimee Mann and Macy Gray, but I don’t want to deter you with that description. Sia has a soulful voice, but she writes slow, lovely, traditional pop ballads with subtle instrumentation. My favorites are first single “Day Too Soon” and “Playground,” and she does a neat cover of the Kinks’ “I Go to Sleep.” 2008 has its first very good album.

And “very good” is about what I expect from virtually everything else I’ve heard about for the year. We start next week with the new Magnetic Fields, called Distortion. I love Shephin Merritt’s work, but he’s promised a shakeup of the Fields sound here – more loud electric guitar, more electronic noise – and I have a feeling this will be a transitional work. The Eels will also release a two-CD set of b-sides and rarities called Useless Trinkets, and while I don’t expect it to live down to its name, I’m not reserving the accolades, either.

January 22 sees new ones from Eric Matthews (The Imagination Stage) and Drive-By Truckers (Brighter Than Creation’s Dark), as well as the U.S. release of I’ll Be Lightning, the debut from Liam Finn, son of Neil. Let’s hope it’s better than his dad’s latest work with Crowded House. I still can’t get all the way through that one without wanting to die.

2008’s first great album may well be Joe Jackson’s Rain, out January 29. He recorded it in a piano-bass-drums trio format, and the songs I’ve heard have been excellent, especially “Invisible Man” and “Rush Across the Road.” Hear for yourself here. Also out that week: the Mars Volta’s follow-up to the ridiculous Amputechture, called The Bedlam in Goliath; Robert Pollard’s 947th album, Superman Was a Rocker; and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla’s solo debut, Field Manual.

February will see new discs from Lenny Kravitz, Bob Mould, Nada Surf (another one I’m expecting great things from – dig the single “See These Bones” here), American Music Club, the great Mike Doughty, the Kinks’ Ray Davies, and Richard Julian. Also, on February 26, the Cowboy Junkies take a second crack at their most popular album with Trinity Revisited – the same songs, the same old church, but 20 years later. Should be interesting.

March brings us Warpaint, the reunion record from the Black Crowes, as well as the new one from the Counting Crows, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings. And further out in the year, we’ll hear from R.E.M., Moby, the Black Keys, Billy Bragg, and hopefully the 77s. Sometime in the summer or fall, we’ll also get Marillion’s 15th album, a double disc set written and recorded sporadically over six years. Here’s hoping that one, at least, is brilliant.

And that’s all I know so far. See? It’s a pretty good lineup, but nothing extraordinary so far. And that’s the way I like it – 2008 leaves lots of room for surprises and unexpected flashes of excellence. Hope you’re along for the ride.

Next week, the Magnetic Fields and the Eels. And I’ll resume my Doctor Who reviews, much to the chagrin of most of my friends, with the awesome City of Death. Year eight, here we go.

See you in line Tuesday morning.