2003: The Recap
Well, so here we are. Another year gone by, another excuse to roll out a column.
And once again, another year where you'd hear it again and again and again - "THIS YEAR SUCKS FOR MUSIC!"
Such stupid, stupid people.
2003 was one of the best years for music that I can possibly remember. While no one album swept the world away (except, maybe, for 50 Cent or Outkast), tons of small records and scenes sprung up across the globe that shot out some of the best tunes of the past decade. You just had to look for 'em.
Hell, speaking of small records... the REAL biggest news story of 2003 was how one small little record label, Future Appletree, could arrive out of nowhere and have ALL FIVE of their debut 2003 releases make my list. That's just unheard of. But it's talent the likes of the FAT artists that have made this year VERY worthwhile for music. Sure, the good music of the year didn't just stroll up to you at Best Buy and hand you a business card... but it was there if you dug hard enough. The following represents MY look back at the 25 records that defined 2003.
#25 - AL GREEN - I Can't Stop
Al Green? Who'da thunk it? Not me, that's for damn sure. See, whenever the big magazines put out their year-end lists (and by big magazines, what I really mean to say is "Rolling Stone and Rolling Stone only), it's peppered with at least 5 titles belonging to old fogies who really don't deserve the accolade. It's almost as if they give Van Morrison kudos just for being alive and continuing to make music. Name ONE Van Morrison album of the past decade that DIDN'T make Rolling Stone's list of The Best Records Of The Year. I can't, because NO ONE ON EARTH knows the name of any album Van Morrison's released in the past decade... yet it doesn't stop the Stone from calling it a masterpiece. In a way, I suppose, that's fine -- there are some artists who at least seem to have a sense of, err, "artistry" about them, and Van Morrison's one of 'em. The Good Rev. Al Green is another. Al was The Man when it came to early 70's soul, but at the height of his fame, he chucked it all in to devote his life to his spiritual side - you can still find Al to this day on most weekends preaching at his church - The Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis. But a few years ago, the right reverend decided to re-enter the world of secular music... and this year, he got it right. Reuniting with Willie Mitchell, the producer who made him a legend, the two set about to recreate the magic. "I Can't Stop" was recorded in the same vintage studio where Green crafted his greatest albums of the 70's, on refurbished vintage analog equipment, and bringing in as many of Green's original session musicians as they could. And it frikkin' WORKED. Not only does "I Can't Stop" aesthetically sound like it stepped outta 1974, the hooks are JUST as blazing, the vocals JUST as breathtaking. It's not like a nostalgia trip, it's the SAME DAMN TRIP. Give it a chance, you'll be amazed...
#24 - SETH KNAPPEN - Leaving Sound
One little label, so much talent. I suppose part of this year-end review is going to read like my personal little salute to Future Appletree Records... and I suppose you'd be right. Not often -- hell, not EVER in my history -- has one record label had EVERY ONE OF THEIR RELEASES make an impact like this. There's lots to say about this wee label, and it starts right here with the debut solo recording from former Darling frontman Seth Knappen. Darling was sort of the emo godfathers of the midwest, catching the eyes and ears of everybody from Mark Kozelek to Alan Sparhawk of Low. When Darling split, the rest of the band signed to Sparhawk's label and became The Winter Blanket... Seth, meanwhile, recorded his solo debut in Minneapolis with Sparhawk at the helm, and the resulting record is nothing shy of a triumph. Loose harmonics yielding tight, stick-in-yer-head tearjerker anthems for the indie sect. Impressive still are the vocal tricks on "Leaving Sound" - Knappen's already ethereal warble is upped a few notches by layering and multi-tracking, leaving you with this unreferential beast of an album that's part aching, part joyous, and all rapture. And the best part is that the album's only the launching pad, it seems - a pair of new Knappen tracks turned up on Future Appletree's December-released compilation, "Songs for Trips, Fits, and Kisses" that show him shedding the ambient veil and heading into a more electro-glam direction (he's gonna WINCE if he ever reads that, but it's true, swear.)
#23 - FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE - Welcome Interstate Managers
I'm not a huge fan of power pop. In a pinch, it'll always do for good driving music. A little Squeeze here, some Crowded House there, Einstein's Sister in the corner, and maybe even the occasional droplet of Cheap Trick. But, in terms of "best album of all time ever," the power pop genre usually falls by the wayside in favor of something a little more... well... artsy. Maybe it's just 'cause the pretentious voice in my brain wants to dismiss power pop as being fluff. Maybe I only tend to respect "important" music and let the sugary-hook stuff take a backseat. Well, this ain't no fluff album, folks. Fountains of Wayne have finally lived up to their potential, and the album's even wielded the most unlikely of Top 40 hits in "Stacy's Mom." Good on them. It's a hook-filled record with scores of little character studies. Again, this is something I have a hard time dealing with, to a small degree. I like albums I can connect with... songwriters I can connect with. I like listening to an album and hearing the songwriter's inner voice and conscience in their lyrics - it's the ONLY reason why I absolutely adore Martin Carr and the Boo Radleys/Brave Captain world - because Martin writes straight out of his own brain and emotions. When songwriters escape into a world of fiction - where the songs tell tales of far-off worlds and situations - I have a substantially harder time validating it. It's the only reason why I DON'T consider "Sgt. Pepper" to be the greatest Beatles album. But every once in a while, one of these character albums shines out, dismissing my entire argument above as complete and utter nonsense. "Parklife"... "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society"... "The Gay Parade"... and now, "Welcome Interstate Managers." Does this album move me in a way like the Boo Radleys could? Hardly. Is it the most inescapably catchy album of the year? Yup.
#22 - DRIVER OF THE YEAR - Some Girls Might Say...
So if nothing else, 2003 was the Year of Cheeky Rock Revivalism. Everywhere you turned, some random critic was standing atop some random soapbox preaching about how the only band to really "get" rock music in 2003 was ______________. And invariably, they would all SUCK. Whether it's the neo-disco rock and roll nightmare of Electric Six (I liked them better the first time when they were called My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult... and those guys sucked, too)... or the rock pastiche of Jet (who assembled their pastiche meticulously from a surplus of bands who, yep, sucked)... or the absolute bottom-feeders of the bunch, The Darkness, who were like Sweet without the knowing wink, AC/DC without the attitude, and Guns 'n' Roses without Slash OR Buckethead... all wrapped up in the incredibly unexciting Saran Wrap of Indefinite Suckitude. All in all, it was a pretty disenchanting year for the Rock, let alone the roll. With one exception. I am, after all, a random critic. This is, after all, my random soapbox. Ladies and gents, the only band to really "get" rock music in 2003 was Driver of the Year. Throw shit at me if you want, I only speak the truth. This unassuming Iowa band has figured out the Formula of Rock -- beer, babes, a couple curse words, one hand throwing up the devil sign while the other's pounding a shrill chord on a less-than-respectful Moog. When I was in high school, I convinced myself that I hated rock and roll, for the sole reason that Rock And Roll Types Could Easily Kick My Ass. After all, what the hell did I have in common with Kip Winger or Don Dokken or Paul Stanley? Absolutely nothing. I was a short-haired drama geek with a penchant for computer games and Sting's "Dream of the Blue Turtles." So why couldn't I rock out? Why couldn't I join this club? Driver of the Year have latched onto the ultimate essence of rock and roll: that it's for EVERYONE. DOTY are geeky kids making geeky music that rocks the shit out of anything else that's come out this year. Fronted by the Parris brothers -- bespectacled Jason on keys and vocals and Justin on drums -- DOTY provide the much-needed soundtrack for the nerdy sect to finally step up to the kegger they were always denied entry to in college. Imagine if Kiss (a) had no make-up, (b) Ace decided that a Rhodes was far cooler than a Les Paul, and (c) Gene and Paul listened to Wire, Roxy, and a lot of Krautrock. You might be close. Rock and roll is about rebellion, pure and simple... cutting loose, putting a few beers back, finally getting up the nerve to ask the cute girl for a few minutes in the backseat. It shouldn't matter if you're a mulleted auto mechanic or a clean cut computer programmer. Driver's an equal opportunity rockfest. Just turn em up to 11.
#21 - MARTINA TOPLEY-BIRD - Quixotic
This album makes me smile. Which it probably shouldn't, seeing as how it's kind of dark, creepy, and depressing. But it makes me smile. Because I missed this music soooooo much. When Tricky put out "Maxinquaye," I was absolutely fucking floored. Go back and read my review, I think it was the first year I wrote a year-end write-up on this site that I declared "Maxinquaye" to be the album of the year. While it was true that Tricky was simply expanding on the Bristol sound already laid out by Soul II Soul and Massive Attack, it still sounded to me like something wholly different and not of human origin. Sadly, "Maxinquaye" also represented the jumpoff point for Tricky. No Tricky record since has been as coherent or as majestic (or, for the most part, SANE.) Let's face it -- Tricky's lost the plot. His most recent album was a bit of a return to form, but for the most part, he's now just a freaky stoner guy who babbles somewhat incoherently behind weird noises. Martina Topley-Bird was the female half of "Maxinquaye," with her enchanting, rolling voice -- and after far too long of an absence from the fray, she returns with her first proper solo album, "Quixotic." Yep, it's over-produced and a tad formulaic at times. But I'll take formulaic over insane any day of the week. I havent figured out if I like this album because it's authetically start-to-finish good... or if it just reminds me of the heyday of what I so dearly loved about "Maxinquaye"... but I'll take what I can get. And what you get with "Quixotic" is a cleanly produced album of varying styles - Martina does trip-hop, Martina does soul, Martina does rock, etc., etc. - but it's all wrapped up in her smoky, slinky, motherfucking SEXY voice. And I love that she's back.
#20 - BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE - You Forgot It In People
Wherein the Canadians show us how to be artsy AND carry a tune at the same time. Broken Social Scene are, as one of our list members so perfectly put it, The Doves as performed by an indie rock band from THIS side of the pond. And that's about spot-on, too. Take the Doves... add a sprinkling of Godspeed guitar fetishes... then layer in a bit of the old shoegaze vibe... and *poof* you're the new critic's darling band. Broken Social Scene hail from Canada, and occasionally tour with/steal-members-from Metric and Stars for their layered sound. Sometimes aggressive in tone, sometimes dark, sometimes floaty... but ALL brilliant. And their edge-pushing sonics are backed up with some fantastic songwriting. Shoegazing with HOOKS - when was the last time you heard THAT? (I'll give you a hint, it was 1992 and the band was called Ride.) But while many of Broken Social Scene's new-gazing cohorts simply re-checked out their library copy of "The Idiot's Guide to Kevin Shields," BSS take things in a slightly different direction, drawing from both the emo scene as well as the experimental weliketobequiet-NOWEREALLYDONT-yesisupposewedo sonic lashings of bands like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Maserati. The result is a sort of catchy, dischordant haze that unwraps itself to be one the most provocative albums of the year. And something tells me this band has just begun to discover their full potential.
#19 - THE THRILLS - So Much for the City
So there's been a definite "love-em-or-hate-em" vibe going with the Thrills in these parts this year. I'm a card-carrying member of the "love em" side, but it didn't come without some serious reservations. The simple fact is this: The Thrills are con artists. Here we have a band... as pasty-faced and ragamuffin looking as any proper Irish band should look... trying their damnedest to rip off a distinctly American sound. Their singer is from Dublin... yet miraculously sings with an undeniably Californian accent. They live in an environment that's more grey than blue, yet nearly every song on the album is a paeon to surf, sun, and fun. And yeah, that's hard to get over, it really is. If there's one thing I want out of a band, it's honesty... and that's something The Thrills simply don't offer. That said... it's one hell of a good con. Because this is an album that's as musically solid and cohesive as any of the 12 bands they perpetually rip off. When I sat down to think of my favorite songs of 2003... the ones that get stuck in your head and simply don't leave, the two that IMMEDIATELY come to mind are "Santa Cruz" and "Big Sur," the two lead singles from "So Much for the City." The hooks are inescapable. You can't shake 'em even when you want to. So as far as I'm concerned, let 'em rip off whoever they want. Maybe there truly IS an outside chance that The Thrills are just a group of guys who know no other way to sound... it just sounds too natural to be THAT much of a pre-conceived style grab. All I can say to the people out there whose brains scream, "SHENANIGANS!" when thinking of The Thrills -- Have you actually listened to the record? Because it's completely genius.
#18 - MY MORNING JACKET - It Still Moves
My Morning Jacket made the leap in 2003 from acclaimed indie band on Darla that noone ever got a chance to hear... to Official Major Label Recording Artists. And they do it with grace, style, and maybe the most well-rounded album of their fledgling career. Lots of critics make a big fuss about how MMJ are this "country revivalist" band. Well, kids, you're not gonna put this disc on and hear Dwight Yoakam or songs about honkytonks. What you ARE going to hear is an indie rock band towing a unique fine line between being outright twee and outright Americana. Imagine if the Magnetic Fields had a serious fetish for Tim Buckley, The Band, and the Beach Boys, and you'll be somewhat close. It's decidedly more indie rock than "country revivalist," and the merge of the two genres plays out not unlike their shoegazing predecessors, Moose. The happily lo-fi production lends a strange sense of honesty to the record, and the band's simple down-home melodies create a kind of distorted whirling dervish of a record that tries to be the Byrds and Galaxie 500 at the same time. Strangely, it WORKS. Yes, it's a retro sort of Americana sound, but not in the way that, say, The Ladybug Transistor or Essex Green are. It's more of a modernized, gorgeous, dark layering of distorted pop -- dare I even dub the phrase "country garage rock"? Sure, what the hell. It's country garage rock. And it's great. And it's low priced at most of yer major corporate conglomerate record stores, so you can't really go wrong. I'm really hoping that the band simply uses this album as a jump-off point to a really interesting career.
#17 - THE RAVEONETTES - Chain Gang of Love
So as you may have weaned from reading my Thrills review a couple records ago, I tend to hate rip-off artists. Or at least if I don't outright HATE em, I sure have reservations about the record going into it. I'm a firm believer that a band needs to define their OWN sound -- USE your influences, don't just wear 'em on your sleeve. But every once in a great while, just like The Thrills, a band comes along that, while they may be a tad bit pre-conceived in their style, still manage to put out a stellar fucking record. The Raveonettes get the award for Best Rip-Off Band of the year. Their influences come from ONLY two sources as far as I can hear: The Velvet Underground... and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Listening to the album, it's all but unquestionable. Walls of feedbacked guitars, breathy far-away vocals... and I'm hopelessly in adoration of the entire scandalous affair. This Danish band has managed to take everything ever good about the Jesus and Mary Chain (feedback, attitude, and a penchant for great fucking songs), take out everything BAD (the nasty habit for devolving into surf rock, the irritating in-fighting), and mesh it all with a Velvets-inspired lo-fi production. I dunno. I guess there's not much for me to say about The Raveonettes, because they spell everything out so black-and-white for you. Loud, loud, loud... and catchy as hell. Oh, and without doubt the best single of the year in "That Great Love Sound."
#16 - CHRASH - The Party
So what do you guys think of when you think of seminal Midwestern alternative rock music? Do you think of the Minneapolis sound of Husker Du or the Replacements? Or do you think of the Chicago-bred sonics of the Smashing Pumpkins? Cheap Trick? Slipknot? When I think of seminal Midwestern alterna-music, I think of the bands that were at the height of their game when I was in college. There was the irritating sonic dirge of House of Large Sizes out of Cedar Falls, IA -- they were signed to Columbia for a couple albums... then there was the ultimate irritation of Iowa City's Head Candy, who were always the last-minute fill-in opener at Metro in Chicago whenever a band phoned in sick... But for me, there was really only ONE Midwest band that mattered: Tripmaster Monkey. Some of you guys might be shaking your head because you've never heard of 'em; hopefully more of you are nodding your heads in agreement because you remember. For the uninitiated, Tripmaster Monkey hailed from Iowa, put out a few killer singles (one of which was tabbed as a Single of the Week in Melody Maker and an arguable "hit" in the UK,) released 2 albums on Sire/Warner Bros. in the mid-90's, and then promptly disappeared off the Earth. Some of you guys might have forgotten all about Tripmaster, but not me. Their earthy sound stole more from Athens, GA than Chicago, IL... but took that kind of natural Athens vibe and muscled some Replacements-esque tight melodies into the mix. The result was impressive to say the least... the first album was loaded with power hooks, while their second, "Practice Changes," was lo-fi before lo-fi was cool (and, if there's a God, will someday be heralded as one of the greatest records of our time.) Apart from a couple of one-off reunion gigs, us Midwesterners have been stuck without a successor to Tripmaster's brand of lo-fi wonderment... which is why it was SUCH a surprising treat to hear Chrash's "The Party" this year. Chrash is, at its core, Chris Bernat - the former lead vocalist of Tripmaster, and the album's players reads like a who's who of Tripmaster's former scene, including other former members of the band and their original producers. Good things take time, and it took almost a freakin' decade for Bernat to lay down the album -- the result showcases a mixture of tongue-in-cheek experimentation heartily steeped in a traditional Midwest vibe... tunes that on the surface might need an accompanying essay or two to fully appreciate the meaning, yet you still end up singing them in the shower regardless. From the album's opener, "I'll Turn Off All the Lights," with back-and-forth vocals from Bernat and former Tripmaster bassist Wes Haas, I knew this record was a welcome return to the sound and spirit that used to make me routinely smile almost a decade ago. That's not to say that "The Party" is mere Tripmaster re-hash, because it's definitely not. Bernat's developing sense of style and subtle humor brings to mind everything from Ray Davies to Zappa, yet it's all done in a sort of familiar, carefree roll-along that makes the whole thing intensely listenable. The Midwest rides again...
#15 - KELIS - Tasty
I can't believe this record made my Top 25. When we in the States last heard Kelis, she was screaming through our TV's and radios, "I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!" Which, in turn, caused ME to hate that song so much I never wanted to see her big 'fro ever again. Sadly, I almost got my wish. Kelis' debut album, while critically revered, played MUCH better overseas than in the States, turning her into such an overseas hottie that when it came time to release her sophomore album, her US label turned it down and it only came out in Europe. One thing's for sure - Kelis would no nowhere today were it not for the Neptunes, who handled the boards for Kelis' first records... almost to the point where you felt you were listening to a Neptunes record that just happened to have some chick singing on it. Ergo it was a bit of a shock to find out that "Tasty" would not be a Neptunes-only affair. Yes, they're on it. And yes, the album's out on their new label, Star Trak. But Pharrell and Chad are only on a handful of tracks; the rest have been divvied up by Timbaland, Dallas Austin, Rockwilder, and a slew of other acclaimed producers. This usually equals an incohesive record (different styles, different sonics, etc.), but somehow on "Tasty" it all gels. It's almost as if all of these different producers saved up their most difficult, artsy, and heck, just plain weird-ass beats that they'd ever come up with and threw 'em at Kelis to use at her discretion. Her versatile voice lends itself fabulously to the different cuts, uniting them all together under the umbrella of her flawless delivery. And there's only one or two times a year when a song goes Top 40 that damn well SHOULD HAVE gone Top 40... and Kelis' "Milkshake" is probably the most well-deserved hit of the year. With a beat so weird it'll be remembered for years to come and a vocal line that's simple, sexy, and fun as hell, it's THE best tune of 2003 to actually make it on the charts.
#14 - THE JAYHAWKS - Rainy Day Music
So it is just because I'm getting older that I've decided that the Jayhawks (even the late day model Jayhawks sans founding songwriter Mark Olson) are one of the world's best bands? I distinctly remember the first time I heard the Jayhawks... and I HATED 'em. I was fresh out of college and working in a record store... and the guy who I often worked with was one of the those middle-aged fellas who was hopelessly addicted to what I used to refer to as "adult alternative syndrome" -- you know the type - the folks who are semi-cool because they know more about XTC and Elvis Costello than you ever will, but their coolness factor is tempered directly by the amount of their time spent drooling over John Hiatt, Bruce Cockburn, etc., etc. So anyways, this guy (who, I must say, remains a wonderful human and a good friend to this day) tries to sell me on "Hollywood Town Hall" and I freakin' HATED that record... which of course meant it was played in-store incessantly in our horrid game of Record Store Chess - he plays The Jayhawks in a fruitless attempt to get me to like it; I counter with My Bloody Valentine; and on and on. I was perfectly fine hating The Jayhawks with no problem whatsoever... until I happened to be wandering about the local Borders a couple years ago and heard them playing what struck me at the time as The Greatest Song Ever Recorded On Earth Ever (and those who know me can attest that I make this declaration roughly every 17 minutes I'm alive)... but this time, the tune ended up being "Smile" by the Jayhawks. "Dammit!" my inside voice cried, as I knew that I was about to buy that album. "Dammit!" I again cried upon realizing that the album was really strong. So "Super Double Dammit!" was my official response this year upon hearing "Rainy Day Music," as I now officially had to swallow my pride and tell my friend that, upon careful consideration, The Jayhawks do NOT, in fact, suck donkey balls. Truth be told, they're one of the best bands recording, and "Rainy Day Music" is a solid one hour explanation as to why. A far moodier and organic work than their last over-produced nightmare (which was, in fact, nightmarishly GOOD,) "Rainy Day Music" is just that - an album of really, really impressive melancholia. Pop songs don't get written this well -- it's like the band summoned up the ghosts of Buffalo Springfield Past to oversee the recording. There simply isn't a better written song this year than "All the Right Reasons," which is a tune that ALL OF YOU should be ear-marking for future mixtapes for the internet girl/boyfriends of your choice. A couple years ago, I used to begrudgingly tell people through clenched teeth that the Jayhawks were fantastic... now I'll write random essays about how great they are and post 'em on the internet.
Sometimes being a music nerd means you've got to go the extra mile to get the music that's worth it. Sometimes being a music nerd means you've got to go, in fact, 6,302 miles... all the way to the island of Japan, to find a small lo-fi indie outfit capable of out-popping anyone else on this list. Elekibass are one of the world's best-kept secrets... discovered on accident by Of Montreal during their Asian tour some years ago, which is a pretty interesting coincidence, since Elekibass pretty much ARE the Japanese Of Montreal. Our favorite Athenians brought the 'Bass over to America a few years back for a series of shows, whereupon the shell-shocked Eleki won over the Of Montreal crowds with their mix of Kinks-inspired sugar-pop and wide-eyed grins of amusement. A couple years later and Elekibass have finally released their first full length album... shame of it is, it's only available in Japan for the time being. (We're hoping Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, who put out the band's debut EP in America, will eventually follow suit with this one, too.) And for those of you too scared to navigate the treacherous seas of amazon.jp, you're missing one of the most hook-laden funfests of the year. Yes, Elekibass often sound like they're still learning their instruments (but in a fun, They Might Be Giants kinda way.) Yes, they sing in horribly brutalized English... but it's part of their charm. Check out some of the lyrics: "Hello how are you? Well just come here/Do you have any idea, what it takes to rock!!/This is the show begin we are the band/You don't have to leave town cause we'll go your town/And we all live happily together do get together/We've been living in the city long time/Maybe we should live there/Peoplepack!! into the rock/hope you enjoyed the show". That's the whole song. THAT'S what Elekibass is all about. Once you hear the music, you'll quickly not care that they sing in badly broken English, and frankly, it makes 'em all the cuter that they do. The back of the album cover even says, "You are our partner for playing the record." Awww. And the best part was that in 2003, I didn't have to leave town cause they come my town. I actually got 'em booked at MY hometown club this year, as part of their 2 week long whirlwind US tour, and the show was completely brilliant. As is "Mystic Brothers," which steps away from the band's earlier releases by (a) being substantially better produced, and (b) having side two be a concept record based on Yuko Chigira's story, "Baby Woo and Little Zaraf." All the while, the music comes across like Blur trying to soundtrack a Pokemon movie. Listen, I'm just as much a fan of the art-obsessed, angst-ridden Radioheads and Bloody Valentines of the world as you are, but sometimes music just comes down to sheer fun, and Elekibass are the kings of sheer fun. Their music is like a carnival in your speakers, and you can't catch a moment that they're not smiling through life and music. And you've just gotta respect that. Be brave. Take the step and order this CD. You will NOT be disappointed. I'll even do the dirty work for ya and find it online. Just go to amazon.jp and buy the damn thing already.
#12 - ATHLETE - Vehicles and Animals
Well what a pleasant little jaunt of an album THIS turned out to be. I really hate that I can safely say that I approach new British bands with a bit of trepidation these days. A decade ago, I would have smote myself for saying such things, as I was a card-carrying member of the Anglophile sect. But hey, that was when British music didn't overall SUCK as a rule. I'm sorry... I said it. You can blame the Oasis backlash, you can blame NME, you can blame me for being wrong if it's still your thang... but British music of late has been really, really less than good. Sure, there are a few bands that are decent -- The Doves, South, and the others on this list... and a few old friends that never altogether disappoint -- Blur, The Charlatans, The Beautiful South... but many, many, MANY of the hottest tipped bands by the NME and such this year have been no-nonsense crap. The Darkness? Please. Cooper Temple Clause? I don't think so. Ergo, any time the NME warms up to a new UK band, my new stance is "Yep, probably sucks." That's why this Athlete record reeeally surprised me. There's a universal style of music that never seems to sound dated or redundant -- and it's that kind of music that Athlete prevails in: gentle, cleanly-produced rock and roll. And not the kind of "gentle" rock that bands like Travis and Coldplay revel in; I'm talking the kind of gentle rock that brings to mind bands like the Trash Can Sinatras, Moose, Stone Roses, Smiths, etc., etc. And for no good reason, this album turns around and becomes one of the best produced records I've heard all year -- the clean production makes it literally sound like the band is popping amiably along in your backseat when you're driving around listening to it. The perfect soundtrack to a lazy Sunday afternoon. Not too loud, not too soft, not too hooky, not too bland. It DOES beg the question, though: Are Athlete really this good? Or are they simply good when compared to the other schlock pumping out of the UK right now? I guess time will tell, but for now, this album's shining out of my 2003 collection like a beacon of hope.
#11 - JUNIOR SENIOR - D-d-don't Don't Stop the Beat
Hmm. So here's where I'm supposed to tell you that this album sucks. Let's take a look at the evidence. Junior Senior are trashy and shallow. They make lo-fi guitar driven disco tunes... badly. They sound as though they've been practicing for approximately 3.5 days since forming. They're about as musically evolved as a B-52's record. They're kitsch, they're novelty, and they rode to fame on the coattails of a poorly animated video. There ya go, your Honor, guilty as charged. Junior Senior are reprehensible, and their mere existence brings down the state of modern music. I know this first-hand, as the state of modern music has spent the past year in a Case Logic bag in the backseat of my car, sentenced to a life of solitary automotive confinement, because for some damn reason, I can't seem to get this CD out of the player to make room for anything else. Because it's addictive as hell. It's such a catchy album it should be a crime. 2003 has definitely been a year of surprises, and perhaps the biggest surprise of them all is that I've been finding great pleasure in listening to a chubby gay man tell me to shake my coconuts. If there ever was such a thing as a "party band," Junior Senior have re-defined the term in 2003. Loud clunky guitars meet even louder and clunkier drum machines, and they hit it off fairly well together on this record. I dare ya to find a more fun album this year.
#10 - JAY-Z - The Black Album
So in the comment section of my picks for 2002, some nimrod decided it would be prudent to point out that there's an unwritten rule when it comes to uppity music critic year end polls that you have to include at least one hip hop album, as though I need to maintain my street cred or something. The truth is that I listen to a LOT of hip hop... probably more than any of the other records on this list, due to my DJ gig on the weekends. But it DOES merit a bit of thinking, because realistically, it IS a little hard to judge hip hop against indie rock, just as its hard to compare a techno album with a folk album. Year-end list controversy aside, though, the one fact that remains is that "The Black Album" deserves to be on this list. Unless you've been living in some kind of twee cocoon, you probably know that "The Black Album" is Jay-Z's much touted final album - that he's hanging up the mic after this one to a sort of self-imposed semi-retirement (if you can count co-running a record label, a night club, a clothing line, a Vodka brand, a shoe line, and making a bid to buy the New Jersey Nets retirement.) But as opposed to the 2 or 3 other times that Jigga's hinted at the close of his rap career, this one seems a bit permanent. From the opening line of the record, "They say they never really miss you til you dead or you gone/So on that note I'm leavin' after this song," it becomes painfully clear that this really IS the farewell of Young Hov. And that really is kind of a sad thing. Jay-Z has NEVER put out a crap album. And that's something that most rappers can't say about themselves. More impressive yet is that "The Black Album" is arguably Jigga's best yet. Without a single guest vocalist or rapper, but featuring damn near every top name producer in the game (hell, when you have both the Neptunes AND Timbaland on one record, you don't need anybody else), Hov is going out his own way on this record. Take your usual Jay-Z braggadocio and add a sense of finality to it... and it actually sounds pretty legit. It's one thing to say that you're the world's best rapper time and time again. It's another value altogether to say it for the last time, as in "What More Can I Say" where the song ends cold with, "The real shit you get when you bust down my lines/Add that to the fact I went plat a buncha times/Times that by my influence on pop culture/I'm supposed to be Number One on everybody's list/Let's see what happens when I no longer exist." Despite a few loose hints on the album that we might not have seen the last of Shawn Carter, it still rings with a sense of finality that really DOES take you back a bit. You can't listen to "The Black Album" without thinking back on Jigga's entire body of work... and maybe that's the greatest gift of "The Black Album" -- to remind us that a serious talent is stepping out of the limelight. I'm raising an Armadale to you this New Year, Hov. You'll be missed on the dance floors of the world.
#9 - ROBIN GUTHRIE - Imperial
Man, can Robin Guthrie do ANYTHING wrong? Like I said last year when I put his Violet Indiana record into my Top 20 of 2002, it bummed me out because this guy -- who's one of my all-time HEROES in life -- was a complete jackass to me during an unpublishable interview we did for this very website a couple years ago. Do I hold a grudge? Hell YES I do. Call it childish if you want, I don't give a shit. So I'll be honest with you - I'd love for the man to screw up. I'd love to tell you this album is a disgrace and that Guthrie is now a washed-up old has-been who needs to piss promptly off. Sadly, I instead get to tell you that Guthrie remains the musical genius that he's always been, and that this, his first ever solo instrumental full-length, is the real deal. Atmospherics that even Eno would be impressed by. But here's the truly insane part. Guthrie's not really, err, DOING anything much on this record, yet it's still PURE BEAUTY. Take a guitar, plug it into about a million effect pedals, then just sort of strum it absent-mindedly. THAT'S what this album is. And somehow it's still GORGEOUS. It's the sound of sex... the sound of sleep... and the sound of life, all swirling together in a minimalist symphony. It's like a new age album for people who hate all the life-affirming spirituality crap that comes with the label of "new age."
#8 - SPRITES - Starling, Spiders, Tiger, & Sprites
When Barcelona called it quits last year, I was super bummed. It wasn't as if Barcelona really broke any kinds of new ground - they were just a bunch of kids who wrote what sounded like love odes to video games using the sort of keyboard sounds that even Gary Numan might find antiquated these days. But Barcelona were damn charming. One of those bands that you couldn't listen to without a smile on your face, a band that reveled in writing simple songs for simple people. So yeah, when they broke up, I was subtly devastated... a band like that should NEVER break up, I tell myself, they just seem so damn happy in their music that you can't even wrap your head around knowing that they had ANY kind of internal strife in their camp. But what I wasn't expecting was for Jason Korzen to turn around and bounce back with a new outfit that might even be BETTER than Barcelona. Hallo, Sprites. The retro keyboards may be gone, but the cheery disposition and the knack for writing the world's greatest pop songs this side of Of Montreal remains. "I Wish I Sang a Little Better" might be THE most charming song of the year... and gets double bonus points for name-dropping both Bernard Sumner AND Feargal Sharkey within seconds of one another. My only complaint is that the tonality of the record is a bit one-dimensional - every song doesn't necessarily sound the same (the songwriting is still poptastic), but the production on the record DOES get pretty old pretty quick, and a more diverse sound platter would do this band great improvement. Regardless, ya still can't discount Korzen's ability to write one hell of a hook, and in limited doses, this album is pure pop magic.
#7 - PAULA KELLEY - The Trouble With Success (or How You Fit Into the World)
You have to love Paula Kelley. That's not a whimsical observation; it's an order. I will forcibly make you love Paula Kelley, even if my typing fingers turn to stubs in the process. For years I've been touting my love for the former Drop Nineteens vocalist, and now more than ever, I've got concrete proof to back it up. "The Trouble With Success" is plain and simply the most breathtaking pop album of the year. Since turning the solo leaf a few years ago, Kelley has been practicing her Boston-baked pop euphoria in the traditional indiepop format - guitar, bass, drums, with only the occasional flourish. "The Trouble With Success", on the other hand, is all about the flourish, coming complete with the "Paula Kelley Orchestra." Yep, that's right, the tunes on this album are augmented with heavenly orchestration -- the kind of stuff that your Bacharachs and Wilsons of the world would give approving nods to. And all of this ornate orchestration centers and swirls around the kewpie doll vocals of Kelley herself, a woman whose voice redefines "cute." When we interviewed Kelley a few years back, she told us basically that she hates being pigeonholed as the one with the "cute voice," but I'll tell you what, there's a lot worse pigeonholes to be stuck in. But the thing that makes Paula special isn't her innocent voice; it's the message behind that voice... make no mistake about it, this girl is one hell of a songwriter. Lyrics that waver between self-doubt and self-confidence, music that's uniquely empowering. The real Trouble With Success is that Paula Kelley doesn't have it by the truckloads by now. This album proves that Paula's got what it takes to play with the big boys... she might even bite their heads off. Don't believe me? Check out her website and listen to the multitudes of sound bytes for yourself.
#6 - DELGADOS - Hate
The one where our Scottish folk-pop heroes expand their horizons from their breaththrough album, "The Great Northern," and appear to lend themselves over entirely to their highly touted American producer in hopes for greatness, which IS indeed achieved, but at what cost? Make sense? The Delgados are one of the most important bands of our time, if not for their music then for their record label, Chemikal Underground, which spawned the likes of Bis and Arab Strap. The Delgados, meanwhile, had put out a couple of critically acclaimed yet universally ignored records. Until the third album, where legend tells that the band spent a year in the studio to produce some pretty uneven, incohesive tapes -- which were then sent to American uber-producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, etc.) -- resulting in the highly touted "Great Eastern" album of a couple years back. "Hate" is the band's official follow-up, and once again, they've chosen to work with Fridmann. Or, as the album's sound may indicate, let Fridmann work through them. It's impossible to miss a Dave Fridmann-recorded record. Unique acoustics, massive orchestration, raw vocals. It's the sonic formula that the Flaming Lips have been using to their advantage for the better part of the past decade. And now the Delgados appear to be ape-ing that sound full throttle on "Hate," almost to the point that you don't really know quite where the band stops and the production starts. But at the end of the day, is that so wrong? Not from where I'm standing... I don't care who was responsible for the crux of the album, the band or Fridmann... all I know is that it's a STELLAR fucking record, every song a mini-epic unto itself. The kind of album that's impossible to listen to as background noise -- it pulls you in, until, just as it did me, I found myself sitting up in bed, closing my eyes, and letting this beast of a record pull me into its dark, baroque world.
#5 - NEW PORNOGRAPHERS - Electric Version
So, every year when I do one of these lists, there's one review I put off later and later and later to do, because I invariably have no idea what I want to say about the album. "Electric Version" is admittedly this year's fiasco. Don't you guys have albums that you absolutely LOVE, but can't really pinpoint a reason as to why, other than you just know that it's Good. Well, this album's more than Good... it's Great -- but in a no-frills, nothing really interesting or specific to point out about it kind of way. It's just a simple powerpop album done RIGHT, as I suppose a Canadian indie rock supergroup SHOULD be done. Take the smarts behind Destroyer -- add the frontman of Zumpano (the best damn band ever on the post-grunge Sub Pop), then throw Neko Case in for fun... viola. There's no way it could suck. And it doesn't. Confident melodies hidden behind a lo-fi powerpop production. Every track's a hum-along. Just a damn good album -- no more, no less. I'd be more prolific, but fuck it - this is the kind of record you just need to go out and buy. So do so. Now.
#4 - THE MARLBORO CHORUS - Good Luck
So what is this album that's sending a smattering of music critics across the country apeshit? You sure don't glean much information from the packaging - let's face it, the album cover's pretty awful... and the liner notes just tell you it's the brainchild of a certain "B. Patric," and immediately you think of some turtleneck wearing enigma, writing songs by himself in the back corner of a coffeeshop, listening to "Meat is Murder" on his headphones and chain smoking clove cigarettes. Well, throw that image right out the damn window, because "B. Patric" is more than what he's cracked up to be. None of the press packets with this album let people in on the secret, but right here in this Top 10, I'll let the Cat out of the bag. In fact, I'll let Multiple Cats out of the bag... because the mysterious B. Patric sounds a little TOO much like Pat Stolley from The Multiple Cat. Remember The Multiple Cat? They had a few albums out in the mid-90's on Zero Hour, Restless, and Plow City... not to mention their collaborative remix album with Mark Robinson of Unrest/Air Miami fame. The Marlboro Chorus is Stolley's attempt to shed the skin of the 'Cat (where the Cat was a revolving door of session musicians and friends around Stolley as the only static member, the Chorus is a set 4-piece, including former Tripmaster Monkey and Einstein's Sister drummer Marty Reyhons)... but the end result is still the same -- pop gems that outshine their lo-fi production by miles and miles. It's like... hell, I'll be honest, I have NO idea what's it's like, because the Chorus is impossible to pigeonhole. One song may sound a little like Home, the next may sound a little like Stereolab, the next may sound a little like My Morning Jacket... And that's the greatest part about the Marlboro Chorus -- they soak up their influences like a sponge, but then spit them back out on record in wholly different ways than what you'd expect. The album's best cut, "Clock Puncher's Carousel," is a pristine example. The song, arguably the best damn disgruntled worker tune since "Take This Job and Shove It," uses a Phil Spector-esque chord progression that would be more at home on a Ronettes track than anything else, throws in some country guitar flourishes, then a solo that echoes early Beatles -- all bound via Stolley's grit-tooth vocals. It's an unholy musical mish-mash, and it WORKS in indescribable ways. In a normal release year, this would have been my album of the year hands down.
#3 - TENKI - View of an Orbiting Man
Wow. In a year when my favorite unheralded Chicago band [Turnerjoy] sadly decides to call it a day, another rising Chicago band takes their place in my heart. The two bands, while sounding entirely different, do share a similar sense of artistic ignorance... an ignorance to all other influential music that's roaming around, corrupting the minds of earnest musicians worldwide. Tenki ride their own wave, and it's a wave of intense emotion, theatrical arrangements, epic scope, dark lyrics, and a couple of horn players thrown in for good measure. The damn thing's even a bit of a concept album to boot -- the album's loose theme of despair and resolution is written through frontman J. Toal's eyes as an "orbiting man" -- a look at his life and recent divorce as though he were a satellite -- miles away, all-seeing, a calm vessel in the dark to broadcast his deepest emotions. The arrangements are breathtaking - keyboardist/trumpet player Dexter Gold is a pro koto player by day, for which he spent much time in Japan to learn -- and perhaps it's these classically trained sensibilities that help translate Tenki's music from the normal to the otherworldly. Yes, it's a heavy-handed record, but still more affecting and ultimately more redeeming than your average Radiohead record, mostly because Tenki's music is grounded by fantastic hooks and memorable choruses, as opposed to the dreary on-and-on's of your Cures and Radioheads. The album packs a punch, but the fun part is figuring out where the punch is gonna come from - sometimes it's a guitar, sometimes it's a keyboard, sometimes a trumpet... and sometimes from the acrid lyrics of Toal himself. But just as the orbiting man finds a sort of hazy, Polyphonic Spree-esque redemption towards the end of the record, so do we as listeners, and we realize that Toal isn't living these demons as much as he is excising them on this record. When you're done with a listen, you feel like you've run a mile - you're emotionally and sonically exhausted. And that's how I've always liked my music. This is the best of the 5 albums from the Future Appletree camp, and it's easily one of the grandest albums of our day. Long live Future Appletree, and long live Tenki.
#2 - POSTAL SERVICE - Give Up
And now we get to the story of how two guys from two different bands do a side project through the post for fun and come up with an album MILES above anything either of their day jobs have produced. And the whole affair STILL leaves me open-jawed at how good it came out. I mean, really, if all you heard was, "Yeah, the guy from Dntel and the singer from Death Cab are getting together and doing an electronic album," wouldn't you just SHUDDER? I imagine some ambient atrocity with an assortment of plinks and plonks that are somehow supposed to symbolize the pain of the binds of love or something like that. Man, was I surprised. "Give Up" might just be the most HUMAN record I've heard in years. Death Cab's never been quite my niche -- Ben Gibbard's lyrics seem perfect for a starry-eyed, discontent 16-year-old emo-girl and not so much for an aging, cynical music nerd of a guy as myself... but with this record, I gotta give props where props are due. It's genuine emotion is staggering -- it's full of the kind of perfection that I've wanted/needed to say to every girl I've ever dated in the history of time. Two guys, one with no experience in electronic music whatsoever, have made a glorified dance album that packs the sort of emotional wallop that one Martin L. Gore dreams of achieving... which harkens to another interesting development of 2003: When did indie rock go and decide that synthesizers were cool again? From Electric Six to The Rapture to these guys, suddenly drum machines and keyboards are allowed back into the indie rock schizm WITHOUT trying to be kitschy? Amen to that, it's about damn time.
#1 - BELLE & SEBASTIAN - Dear Catastrophe Waitress
So I know there are a few of you out there who're gonna read this and go, "But wait, doesn't he HATE Belle and Sebastian?" I guess I never really HATED them, but it's certainly true that no band has suffered more my wrath of endless jokes and anti-twee rants. But it was as if... how to put this... the OLD Belle and Sebastian was almost a caricature of what the band tried so desperately hard to be -- a precious collective of precious people who make precious music. I guess the conundrum I had with Belle and Sebastian was this: you had Murdoch's fantastic -- and yeah, it's fair to use the word FANTASTIC here -- lyrics. Even at the height of his tweeness, Murdoch's muse was no less than that of Morrissey or even Dylan -- I used to take sooo much more pleasure from READING Belle and Sebastian than LISTENING to them. And that's because the music of early Belle and Sebastian was insufferably awful, and I'll fight anyone to the teeth who disagrees with me on this one. It was schticky, one-dimensional acoustic art-wank. But yet you had these life-affirming lyrics attached to this musical drivel... and the whole thing incensed me somewhat. How could Stuart Murdoch PURPOSELY put his lyrics to this banal, soulless music? And the fact that he DID over and over again led me to believe that maybe he's NOT that good of a writer as I'd thought... that since the MUSIC was sooo contrived to be this sort of faux Nick Drake tweefest, shouldn't that mean that the lyrics were EQUALLY contrived? And THAT'S when all communication between me and Camp Jeepster shut down - there reached a point where I simply couldn't listen to a Belle and Sebastian song without laughing. And that's about when Belle and Sebastian rounded a corner and put out the "Fold Your Hands" album. Ooh, I suddenly just heard a collective gasp from the Twee Nation when I mentioned that record - as most of you freakin' HATE it. Was it a mistake for Murdoch to hand over the songwriting reigns on that record and let multiple band members write the songs? Yes and no. Yes, it was occasionally painful to hear the band working within the confines of someone else's lyrics... but at the same time, there was musical redemption going on with that record. Suddenly the band was capable of melodies... harmonies... ANYTHING other than falsetto vocals and mildly orchestrated acoustic guitar drapings. "Fold Your Hands" was, at the end of the day, a bit of a mis-step (though I still liked the album enough to put it in my Top 10 of that year.) BUT... if a mis-step is what is took for the band to reach the heights of "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," so be it. And yeah, I know there are a lot of you out there who "just don't get" this record. And you're probably the same people who barricade yourself in your room and listen to "Tigermilk" while clutching your Nick Drake box set for comfort. Just as the fans of OLD Belle and Sebastian think that "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" is the sound of a band becoming mockeries of their former selves, fans of NEW Belle and Sebastian think that "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" is the sound of a band FINALLY coming to terms with their greatness. Producer Trevor Horn -- who is, admittedly, a master at helping bands become mockeries of themselves (see: Frankie Goes to Hollywood, TATU, etc.) -- balances light production with the occasional over-the-top flair, which is something that Murdoch's lyrics have so desperately needed. And lyrically, he's just as on-point as ever with this record. From theorizing about Mike Piazza's sexuality to glamorizing the office romance of the common man, Murdoch's voice has seldom been so enchanting. Add to that the year's best lyric: "If I could do just one near perfect thing I'd be happy/They'd write it on my grave or when they scatter my ashes/On second thoughts I'd rather hang around and be there for my best friend if she wants me." Even the obligatory Belle & Sebastian "Yes-we're-artsy-strange-because-we-love-Jesus-which-you-don't-get-from-your-average-indie-band" song turns into one of the most poignant anti-war lyrics of the year. Hell, the lyrical impact of this album is so great that the guy can get away with a rhyme like, "I'd rather be in Tokyo/I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy-oh" and STILL make it sound like art. Belle and Sebastian now have the magical ability to take a pastiche of 60's revivalist music and somehow make it sound VITAL... make it sound alive. "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" isn't just the best Belle and Sebastian album ever made, it's THE best album of 2003, and the *perfect* way to remember this year.