After what seems like years, the dreadful month of August is finally crawling to an end, and taking with it the abominably dull music lineup which has bogged us down since late July.  And now that we can turn our attention toward fall and its transformative glory, we can begin to anticipate with breathless, open-mouthed vigor the terrific tuneage laying in wait for us.

The item I was most looking forward to this season was The Annie Lennox Collection, a first-ever solo best-of set from one of the most fiercely divine artists we have.  But after word broke last week that Lennox required emergency spinal surgery, Collection was pushed back to spring 2009 so that its creator could have ample recovery time.

Fear not, however:  Ms. Lennox, as monumentally necessary as she may be in our lives, wasn’t slated to be the only game in town this fall.  New works from Pink, James Taylor, Rachael Yamagata, Whitney Houston, Sarah McLachlan, and many others are in the pipeline, as are the following five records, which — now that Lennox has been taken off the table — I’ll confess I am most excited about.

In order of release date:

EVA CASSIDY, Somewhere

(due this Tuesday)

Marked by both tragedy and triumph, Cassidy’s heartbreaking story is one for the time capsule:  an impossibly talented singer toiling away in relative obscurity in the Washington, D.C. nightclub circuit dies of cancer at age 33 and leaves behind nothing but a handful of live recordings which will eventually come to be revered by the entire world. And much like Buddy Holly, Jeff Buckley, and countless others who died way before their time, the tragic death (and not the rich, glorious talent, which is no doubt magnified by the former) becomes the headline.

Cassidy’s entrancing cover of Sting’s classic “Fields of Gold” — as compelling a vocal performance as has been captured in a century — is widely regarded as that track’s definitive version (even Sting himself has conceded defeat on that count), and her take on “Over the Rainbow” was what, thanks to exposure on Britain’s Top of the Pops, directly led to a global stampede for Cassidy’s entire canon.

Twelve years after Cassidy’s death comes Somewhere, a twelve-track collection — Cassidy’s tenth — of never-released demos and live performances, including covers of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” and Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”  And while the shattering, gross unfairness of her death never falls far below the surface of your cognition, it is at least tempered by the notion that she was able to leave in her wake a lasting legacy that can and will be enjoyed for the remainder of time.

Godspeed, dear Eva.

OASIS, Dig Out Your Soul

(due October 7)

After conquering the world in 1995 with their breakthrough megasmash (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and hitting their creative zenith two years later with the triumphant Be Here Now (and its second single “Don’t Go Away,” their finest hour as songwriters), the Gallagher brothers stumbled badly with a series of depressingly awful records (OK, fine, 2002’s Heathen Chemistry wasn’t so bad — and I’ll put its lead single “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” up against any of their hits — but its predecessor, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, was straight-up atrocious) which zapped them of any and all momentum that they had so carefully crafted.

But Oasis roared back three summers ago with Don’t Believe the Truth, a delirious hot mess of crackling chords and driving drums that both reaffirmed their enormous talent and bolstered their waning faith in themselves as serious, capable musicians, and the boys are looking to build on that triumph now with the more intimate Soul.  These fools have been high and low more times than you and I both have fingers to count, but only an idiot would proclaim this band down for the count.

RAY LaMONTAGNE, Gossip in the Grain

(due October 14)

I reckon if you crossed Tom Waits’ gruff masculinity with James Taylor’s sweet sensitivity, you’d come up with somethin’ pretty damned close to Ray LaMontagne, a reclusive singer-songwriter from Maine whose gorgeously husky voice could croon the nutrition facts off a can of Alpo and set me and Sherry Ann (and, no doubt, countless other rabid fans) atwitter.  His first two records — 2005’s Trouble and 2006’s ‘Til the Sun Turns Black — were both earthy, forcible masterpieces, a streak he looks to extend with Gossip.  All I know is, if LaMontagne is what serene brilliance looks like in this new century, sign me up.

MICHELLE BRANCH, Everything Comes and Goes

(due October 28)

Even though her career is still in its relative youth (she broke through in 2001 at the tender age of nineteen), Branch has pretty much had the Midas touch throughout the riveting entirety of it.  Her intoxicating debut album, The Spirit Room, is likely to stand as the decade’s finest pop record (I’d put only Hanson’s This Time Around and Wilson Phillips’ California ahead of it, and I’d have to be held at gunpoint to do that), and its 2003 follow-up Hotel Paper was damn near as brilliant.  She won a Grammy for “The Game of Love,” her smash duet with Santana, and as one half of upstart country duo The Wreckers, she managed — just for the ever-lovin’ hell of it — to conquer a whole other genre of music.

The Wreckers are currently on hiatus while its other half, Jessica Harp, finishes a solo record, so Branch has returned to the well herself to steal another sip of stardom.  Goes features (as of now) a duet with that wayfaring vagabond Dwight Yoakam and more sure-to-be-spectacular country-leaning harmonies from a young woman who, in an impossibly short time, has established herself as one of contemporary music’s premier singer-songwriters.  Color me on pins and needles.

DIDO, Safe Trip Home

(due November 4)

Five excruciating years after a knockout sophomore effort called Life for Rent (and its enchanting flagship single “White Flag”) proved definitively that she was more than just a flash in the pan, the lovely British chanteuse Dido returns to reclaim her throne as pop music’s most chilled-out chick.

Despite glowing critical notices, her terrific 1999 debut disc No Angel floundered in cultish uncertainty for the better part of two years, until then-white-hot rapper Eminem constructed his eerie masterpiece “Stan” around the opening lines of one of Angel‘s highlights, “Thank You.”  Audience enthusiasm for “Stan” led radio programmers to take a second look at Dido, and “Thank You” went on to become an unstoppable top forty steamroller.  Two years later came the just-west-of-creepy supersmash “White Flag,” which more than assured the world that this woman was no fluke.

And then… crickets.

She seemingly fell off the planet after Rent faded from view, which made Arista’s announcement last week of the new album’s release all the more thrilling.  If, like me, you can’t wait to see what she sounds (and looks) like these days, you’re mere weeks from the chance to rediscover one of popular music’s slyest dynamos.  I, for one, couldn’t be more ready.

1 response to “the year’s last, loveliest smile
(or: autumn 2008 — a thumbnail sketch)”

  1. the buzz from Mike T:

    Oh, quick, take those words back! 😉 While I LOVE your phrase “voice could croon the nutrition facts off a can of Alpo”, the idea that this August could be dreadful seems nearly sacrilegious! After a hot, humid, rainy July, these August days have been balm to our collective soul, at least here in Beantown. While I too look forward to the music in the season ahead, i’d gladly sacrifice it all for a few more weeks of days as divinely perfect as today!! Give me a groundhog day’s worth of todays and I can die happy. 🙂