Best Music of 2003 Again, just like last year, I'm no critic. I don't pretend to be an expert on music. I just like what I like and enjoy giving credit to the stuff that did me right over the course of the year. If anyone checks out some of this stuff because of this list, then I feel like I've done my part. I mean, it's the least I can do, since I downloaded nearly all of it for nothing.
1. Sufjan Stevens Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State (Sounds Family) The little secret that roared in 2003, Sufjan Stevens' song cycle about Michigan (his first in a series of 50 state odes!) is a sprawling, beautiful mix, evoking Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, Springsteen, and, at times, the playful arrangements of a Frank Zappa. Greetings is a major accomplishment.
2. The Books The Lemon of Pink (Tomlab) It's easy for many to discount records that appear to have been made on a laptop. But even for those that are anti-electronica, every once and a while a record comes out that transcends the genre. This record not only transcends the genre, it challenges our concepts of time and history as well as our concept of music genres altogether. The Lemon of Pink is a collage of organic sounds ranging from bluegrass to spirituals, to spoken word to sound effects, violins and pianos, banjos and bells. One can't rightly discern what is lifted off of old records from what is performed strictly for the recording. The very foundations of these songs are looped and reversed and jerked and manipulated to the point that you almost fear that it will all collapse, but amazingly the songs, and the record for that matter, remains tightly wound and beautifully layered, as if it all was mapped out by a mad architect. You could hang this one in a museum.
3. Radiohead Hail To The Thief (Capitol) Further proof that Radiohead is one of the greatest rock bands on the planet. Not quite a return to the guitar rock of OK Computer, but not as chilly as Kid A, Hail To The Thief's timing, urgency, and paranoia made it the perfect soundtrack to the War in Iraq.
4. Joe Henry Tiny Voices (Epitaph) The latest from Joe Henry finally solidifies his status as a true, one-of-a-kind visionary comparable to a Tom Waits or a Bjork. There is nobody out there doing exactly what he is doing, and what he is doing is not so easy to explain to the uninitiated. A seductive, smoky blend of jazz, folk, lounge, and great storytelling.
5. Pernice Brothers Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont) Pop is the new punk rock. Maybe we need the sugary stuff to take the edge off these days. Where Fountains of Wayne may have embarrassed some of us with their juvenile song premises and cringe-worthy lyrics, The Pernice Brothers' latest is a near-flawless work of serious pop music, with nods to everyone from the Zombies and the Byrds to the Smiths and The Jayhawks. The obvious care and craftsmanship that goes into a record like Yours, Mine & Ours makes it nearly impossible to dislike.
6. Kathleen Edwards Failer (Rounder) Upon first listen, it's easy to peg Kathleen Edwards as a Lucinda Williams knockoff, what with her stories of drunken love, failed romances, frustration and loss. The tight, twangy, punch of her backing band and crisp Car Wheels-esque production doesn't help to deter the comparisons. But after you spend some time with Failer, you realize that Kathleen Edwards is the real deal. A knockoff couldn't write songs as infectious, or evoke scenes so vividly as she does here. More than anything, Edwards may have been the victim of marketing and packaging, and time should show that her debut was no fluke, and that she may even have the ability to eclipse the one she is so often compared to.
7. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros Streetcore (Epitaph) Not nearly as good as, say, London Calling, but then again, what is? This posthumous, somewhat ramshackle collection is a testament to Joe Strummer's influence on rock music, and his ability to create relevant, compelling, and moving works up until his untimely death. Several tracks here rank up there with some of his best songwriting. His death, and the realization that this might be all we get from him, only adds weight to each moment of the record.
8. New Pornographers Electric Version (Matador) Simply a great band with another great record, New Pornographers up the ante from their debut with a set of insanely infectious hooks and quirky songwriting. The power of this mini-supergroup's punch is the combined effort, and the perfect chemistry of the contributors, notably Newman, Case, and Bejar kind of a 2003 version of Buckingham, Nicks, and McVie.
9. Webb Brothers Webb Brothers (679) One of the best-kept secrets in rock music today. Why the hell is this band not popular? The sons of Jimmy Webb (who wrote "Up Up and Away" and "Witchita Lineman") serve up another solid album of rock music that nobody will hear. The brothers have a knack for crackerjack songwriting and stellar execution, with nods to everyone from The Who to Cheap Trick to They Might Be Giants.
10. Broken Social Scene You Forgot It In People (Arts & Crafts) This Canadian collective made an astonishing record this year with You Forgot It In People, a melancholy, but powerful, guitar record that seemed to conjure up many of the great bands of the last few decades (U2, Sonic Youth, The Cure, to name a few), while still sounding fresh (unlike The Rapture or The Strokes).
11. Delgados Hate (Beggars Banquet) The Mercury Prize-winning Scots are back with another powerful, sprawling piece of work, perhaps with a bit more edge than their stellar The Great Eastern. Emotional, cynical, and mournful at times, it is still a thing of beauty. The arrangements and the production are huge, but are never distracting from the simple elegance of the songs.
12. Spymob Sitting Around Keeping Score For whatever reason, nobody seems to be willing to put out this gem. Finally available on the Spymob Website, Sitting Around Keeping Score is perhaps the most accomplished quirky pop-rock record since Jellyfish or The Grays (and certainly belongs in the same company). Where New Pornographers are hip indie pop masters, Spymob make no effort to be embraced by the intellectual indie rock community, instead going for a full-on sugarcoated guilty pleasure ride. Like a well-made mainstream popcorn flick, you may have to suspend disbelief for a while, and maybe suppress a cringe or two (at most), but if you surrender, you'll have a good time.
13. Wrens The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher) Touted as the best thing since sliced bread, The Wrens' latest may not hail the second coming of the Pixies, but it is a very, very good record. And if they play their cards right, they could end up with a nice run that rivals Pavement. The record was recorded over several years, and it sounds as such. Although missing the cohesiveness of a great album, there are moments when listening to The Meadowlands that you know that you are witnessing something truly great.
14. Arab Strap Monday at the Hug & Pint (Matador) Scotland's answer to The Fall (with a touch of the Smiths' moodiness), Arab Strap has yet to put out a stinker. Instead they continue to toy with their sound, this time employing strings and loftier arrangements, surely enhanced by the involvement of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and members of Mogwai.
15. Grandaddy Sumday (V2) Grandaddy's Jason Lytle is one of rock's ballsiest men. First of all, he's made a name for himself by creating music that owes way too much to ELO, and he always sings in a falsetto. On top of that, he's created somewhat of a concept album here about a midlife crisis, some of it from the point of view of a computer. That's pretty geeky. But man, this is good stuff. Lytle is a shy, reclusive, computer-programming version of the Flaming Lips' flamboyant Wayne Coyne. And we can all do with more Wayne Coynes.
16. Guided By Voices Earthquake Glue (Matador) Not much to say here, except that GBV again put out a good-to-great record. The only real departure is the movement into prog-rock territory, which could prove to be amazing or disastrous if they take it any further. Somehow I think they would be able to pull it off. Earthquake Glue is no Bee Thousand, but it's no Mag Earwhig! either. And I'll take anything in between.
17. Sun Kil Moon Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jet Set) Rising from the ashes of Red House Painters, Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon is not a surprising departure (the moniker change being the most striking difference). Still dwelling in melancholy folk rock, Kozelek this time paints with broader strokes, covering more musical ground than he did with his former band. It's a truly gorgeous record. Also contains the best lyric of 2003: "Cassius Clay was hit more than Sonny Liston/ Some like KK Downing and some Glenn Tipton."
18. Emmylou Harris Stumble Into Grace (Nonesuch) When critics started gushing over Emmylou Harris's venture into songwriting (she has spent nearly her entire career interpreting others' songs), I was a little skeptical. It was easy to think that her Red Dirt Girl was mostly Emmylou imitating her songwriters, laying her lush vocals over templates that she had seen countless times before. Stumble Into Grace, however, clearly demonstrates that she's probably had it in her all along. It's another guilty pleasure record. You wouldn't throw this on at a party, but you'd be downright silly not to play it on a Sunday morning, while drinking coffee and having some eggs.
19. Clearlake Cedars (Domino) One of the stranger guitar rock records to come out of the UK this year, Cedars has one foot firmly in the past. That foot, however, dances from 80's brit-bands to Tin Pan Alley. Clearlake is perhaps what you might get if you asked Sonic Youth to score a John Hughes movie. Whatever the formula, the record surprises by getting under your skin more than you might anticipate.
20. Fountains of Wayne Welcome Interstate Managers (S Curve) OK, yeah, "Stacey's Mom" is kind of the "867-5309/Jenny" of 2003. And it's maybe the worst song on the album. And yeah, I kind of wish Fountains of Wayne would just decide to grow up and be the serious pop band that I know they can be. But that doesn't mean that Welcome Interstate Managers isn't a very good record. It's just not very cohesive, and could use some decent QA. The few gems on here, though (mostly "Valley Winter Song" and "All Kinds of Time") are some of the most well-crafted pop songs of the year (in a year of exceptionally well-crafted pop music).
Runners Up (In no particular order): Belle and Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Matador) Innocence Mission Befriended (Badman) Cursive The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek) White Stripes Elephant (V2) Lucinda Williams World Without Tears (Lost Highway) My Morning Jacket It Still Moves (RCA) Elefant Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid (Kemado) Neil Young Greendale (Warner Brothers) Ben Folds Sunny 16 / Speed Graphic EP's (Attacked By Plastic) Gillian Welch Soul Journey (Acony) Super Furry Animals Phantom Power (XL Recordings) British Sea Power Decline of British Sea Power (Sanctuary) TV on the Radio Young Liars EP (Touch and Go) Manitoba Up In Flames (Domino) Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Hearts of Oak (Lookout) OutKast Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below (La Face) Daniel Lanois Shine (Epitaph) Stars Heart (Arts & Crafts) Vic Chesnutt -- Silver Lake (New West) The Long Winters -- When I Pretend to Fall (Barsuk)
2003's Biggest Duds: Strokes -- Room On Fire (RCA) Shins -- Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop) Flaming Lips -- Fight Test EP (Warner Brothers) Metallica -- St. Anger (Elektra) Seal -- IV (Warner Brothers) Elvis Costello -- North (Warner Brothers)
Things I Wished I Listened To In 2003: Warren Zevon -- The Wind (Artemis) Johnny Cash -- American IV: The Man Comes Around (American Recordings) More Hip Hop More Jazz