While 2003 might not have
been a year with one hands-down standout album, it
was a year filled with promising newcomers and
a few returning veterans. While many on staff
felt it was a weak year, this top 25 reveals
a healthy number of albums by artists willing
to experiment and break new ground.
Mad mathematician Brent Sallay created and executed
the point tabulation system for the list. The
following non-RED staffers also contributed
lists to the tally: hip-hop expert Tyler Bloomquist,
local celebrity Will Sartain of Redd Tape fame
and former RED writer Sarah Smiley.
1. Chutes too Narrow
The musical equivalent of a fine champagne, The Shins’ Chutes too Narrow
bubbles with fine songwriting, clever arrangements and impassioned playing.
The melodic hooks and clever lyrics burrow into your head while the instrumental
sequences reach glorious heights.
Produced by the band and Phil Ek, the album delivers
feelings of happiness, loss, confusion and frustration,
and that’s just on the opening track, “Kissing
the Lipless,” which builds marvelously from a guitar and vocal part.
The spooky epic centerpiece “Saint Simon,” the rocking “So
Says I” and pretty much all the other songs are carefully arranged
for strong effect.
Like the band’s first album, this one improves with age. The band’s
show at Kilby Court a month before the new CD’s release generated an
over-capacity crowd that more than doubled that of the Kilby show supporting
Oh, Inverted World more than a year earlier (a crowd one Jeremy Mathews disdainfully
referred to as Johnny-come-latelies). The breakthrough debut had percolated
in the year following its release, and James Mercer and company could have
simply ridden the hype machine to move the next CD, but instead went for
a new but still difficult-to-pull-off sound.
Stripping down the textured effects of Oh, Inverted
World, the band relied even more heavily on their
performance. It may sound merely rawer, but a
change like this was key to avoid creating a carbon copy of the first album,
and soon the music calls to you to give it another listen and another as
you try to unravel its elaborate majesty. You may become tipsy after too
many listens, but you won’t care.
2. Hail to the Thief
I know for a fact that many Radiohead "fans" weren't
too thrilled with the band's most recent effort, Hail to the Thief ,
but let me tell you all something—you're dumb. I know that calling all of you dumb because
you don't agree with me is a bit juvenile, but my New Year's resolution was
to cut down on the cussing, so dumb is as nasty as I can get. I'm sick to
damn (oops) death of people that spout out this constant drivel about how
everything of Radiohead’s would be good if it were more like OK
you can relate to this description, Hail to the Thief isn't for you.
True fans understand that the reason the members
of Radiohead is so great is that they’re always doing something a bit different. These
guys don’t write music, they compose it, push it around and kick it
in the teeth until they get a nice tempo.
Hail to the Thief is just their
latest example of where they are kicking things. Sure, it’s not as nihilistic as Kid A or Amnesiac. In
fact, it’s not nihilistic at all. Instead, it verbalizes
the anger and the objection felt living in a world of terrorist attacks and stolen
This album is certainly for advanced listeners. It takes effort, but
it will not be wasted. Every single time I listen to this CD, I find
that it reveals something different, which is why it’s been in my car
stereo since it came out.
3. Apple O’
Deerhoof—now there’s a band. The four members perform live as
if entirely unaware of each other—the drummer forever locked in 20-minute
encore mode, the two guitarists playing stop-start with themselves as if
still only learning how to play, and vocalist/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki delivering
nursery rhymes to preschoolers in a Tim Burton film. And yet there is a certain
mad genius to it all, culminating in Apple O' (as in "apple o' my eye"),
the band's most cohesive album yet. Who knew the perfect allegories for love
lie in card games, tea parties, the creation story and portabello mushrooms?
I'll tell you who. It was the children. The children knew all along.
4. You are Free
Cat Power has always been a great production, but Chan Marshall has become
more coherent in You Are Free. The pieces of herself scattered throughout
the album are accessible and are of pure lyrical goodness. With more structure
than many of her albums, Marshall shows precise rocking skill. Still, the
diversity throughout the album is brilliant and all of her songs are in
the perfect didactic position.
“True romance when you dance,” she sings, untouched by the parade
of pop musical massacres. The music she makes is for herself and for the art.
And through it all, her sultry voice solicits innocent intrigue.
5. Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Belle & Sebastian
From the completely inappropriate office hijinks of “Step Into my Office,
Baby” (“I took down all she said/I even took down her little
red dress”) to the resigned complacence of “Stay Loose” (“I
was choking on a corn flake/ you said have some toast instead”), Stuart
Murdoch and his Belle and Sebastian bandmates have composed 12 quintessential
anthems for the aging hipster trapped in a white collar and dreaming of a
life more like one in the movies.
6. One Word Extinguisher
Scott Herren, Atlanta's other “experimental hip-hop” artist—and
only two and a half albums to his credit—has already established himself
as nothing short of a genius (if he hadn’t done so before).
One Word Extinguisher is as much a soul-filled
heartbreak record as it is a relentless exercise
in manipulated hip-hop beats. Diverse and Mr.
Lif rap on two tracks, but the real show here
is Herren’s production, which
is for the most part allowed to roam freely, unencumbered by lyrics. Plus,
it should say something that Extinguished, the 40-minute disc of outtakes
released a few months later, is every bit as engaging as the album proper.
7. Room on Fire
Although Guitar World recently voted The Strokes as third-worst band of 2003,
the New York City hipsters’ album Room on Fire offers proof to the
contrary. Sure, these tight-jeaned pretty boys are often overrated, but
their music is not nearly as atrocious as that of Creed (who placed second
on the list). In fact, the group’s sophomore effort is a catchy album
sure to please, save for elitists too proud to retract initial knee-jerk
criticisms (i.e., that the band is a product of trust-fund love and thus
Room on Fire kicks off with a fluttering Stevie-Nicks-one-winged-dove
guitar while Julian Casablancas does his best
impression of a passionate Beatle. The opening
track, along with all that follow, is laced with
both apathy and neuroticism, as if the ultra-cool
musicians have finally had it up to here with
negative feedback. “You don’t miss me, I know,” Casablancas
self-deprecates, then fights back, stating, “I don’t want to
do it your way/I don’t want to give it to you, your way.” There’s
no question that this band is self-involved, but these indulgent brats still
know how to rock.
8. Her Majesty the Decemberists
The literary songwriting of Colin Meloy came into full force in Her Majesty
the Decemberists, The Decemberists’ second album following the fine
Castaways and Cutouts, which received wide release this year.
With emotional songwriting and powerful production,
the band delivers some of the finest storytelling
of the year in songs like “Los Angeles,
I’m Yours” and “Billy Liar,” which captures the hesitant
dreams of youth from John Schlesinger’s 1963 British film. Combining
humor and storytelling, the songs are poignant and irresistible, and the
ambitious album does them justice.
Familiar as your face and at the same time independent, autonomous and new,
the paradoxical album Rounds, generously created by Four Tet, is my favorite
for the year. It juxtaposes noisy, course friction with sweet lullaby melody.
The purposeful post-modern imperfections treat
the album like a classical landscape built on
tempting every emotion and any scenario. A music
box tune carries through the mechanical breathing
and lifts up. Rounds offers songs that will bring
you to tears—or to climax. It feels true. It sounds
like memory, body and the living dream.
10. Transfiguration of Vincent
As we were standing close together in the crowd beneath the air conditioner
at Kilby Court, a young man entered the stage and began playing an acoustic
guitar—a catchy but wordless song. When he started to sing I was
surprised by the raspy tenor that emerged. As I listened, I became aware
of the sounds and segments of words, individual phonemes and precise consonants,
as if I’d never heard English before. I felt myself rapidly becoming
a fan of this hitherto unknown, M. Ward. That night I bought his new album:
Transfiguration of Vincent. The album recalls the great folk songwriting
of the past with Ward’s unique style and outlook.
11. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
It's no wonder that the members of the appropriately named Outkast have topped
many a list for their albums Speakerboxxx and The Love Below. Without all
the bling or bullet-proof vests of their contemporaries, Outkast has challenged
the mainstream ideas of what hip hop is and made something all their own.
This two-album set is creative, fun, naughty and above all, it made me
want to dance—and folks, if you know me, I'm not really into dancing.
If an album can make me “shake it like a Polaroid picture,” it
full well deserves to be on the top somewhere.
12. Bazooka Tooth
Damn lyrics, damn! This boy is always talking. Aesop Rock is intensely on
time and there is a promise that something pertinent is being said. There’s
none of the bullshit rime riche (rhyming the same word). The music is more
than just beats and the voice fills the rhythms.
Aesop Rock is more push-shove in Bazooka Tooth than in earlier albums. I
don't want to see the band calmed or quieted. I wish I had a car that could
do justice to these deep beats.
13. Master and Everyone
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
A friend of mine refers to Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham,
aka Palace Brothers, aka Palace Songs or aka just simply Palace) as “the
guy whose voice is very gentle.” Another friend nods to his latest
album, Master and Everyone, and comments, “Yeah, I remember lying down
a lot whenever I would listen to that.”
Suffice it to say, if it’s not best album of 2003, Master and Everyone
is certainly the most lackadaisical, the most relaxing and possibly the prettiest.
It is simple without being simplistic, sad sans sentimentality. Listening
to this album feels like floating on a raft down a slow, lazy river.
You should listen to this album (1) When you are staring at the ceiling
in your room, (2) when you are driving down a long country road, (3)
when you are kissing someone on the lips for the very first time, (4)
when you are floating down a slow, lazy river, (5) when you wake up
at 11 a.m. on a Sunday and it is too late for church and too early
to really get up.
Master and Everyone was engineered by Mark Nevers, the guitarist from
Lambchop. It features a country singer from the film “O Brother Where Art Thou?” named
Marty Slayton, who acts as Billy’s back-up vocals on some of the best
tracks. Her voice is. Just. Incredible. She is the best part of the best
song, which is called “Wolf Among Wolves.”
14. Thought for Food
The Books’ Thought for Food is a good, fun album for your mixed CD.
Not to mention, I love the whimsical cover on this album. The most impressive
qualities for the album are not the tight clever samples—though really
stunning and funny at times—but the mesh of many musical styles. Ragtime
settles next to folk snuggling into electronica holding Africa in a French
New Wave film. Small details are placed in every beat. The balance of the
album nears a dreamlike perfection.
15. You Forgot it in People
Broken Social Scene
Forgot what, you ask? If this album is meant to make up for whatever was “forgotten” in
us, then there must have been plenty missing in the first place. You Forgot
it in People has a little bit of something for everyone—gorgeous instrumental
soundscapes, hard-rocking numbers, minimalist indie lo-fi tracks, folk songs
and stadium ballads.
All of this is backing some of the most curious and surreally vulgar
lyrics this year. That an album from a 10-member collective (whose
notable side projects include Do Make Say Think, KC Accidental, Metric
and Stars) would be all over the place was to be expected. That it
would all somehow congeal into one definitive document of the current
human condition was as unexpected as it was sorely needed.
Though not as daring as its predecessor, 2000’s sublimely crafted The
Sophtware Slump, Grandaddy’s Sumday gradually reveals itself as the
more sincere of the two albums. Head daddy Jason Lytle says he wanted to
call the album Sumday (sic) so it could be named a word that had never been
used before (besides by second graders who didn’t know any better).
But this is an album grounded in tradition—from the OK Computer-esque
robot laments to the ELO keyboard flourishes, you have all heard this album
before, and yet you have not (unless you actually have). The future has never
sounded so sad and yet so beautiful. And oh, that cover art. What I wouldn’t
give for a view like that. Here’s hoping, someday.
17. Ether Teeth
Hailing from the new hotbed of musical genius, Minneapolis, Minn., Andrew
Broder (aka Fog) puts a new twist on turntable music. Broder knows hip
hop—as is apparent from his amazing remixes of said music’s
classics on this year’s Modern Hits EP—but here takes his influences
in a different direction, fusing piano, horns, guitar, organs and drumming
by Martin Dosh with the turntable being a simple beatbox or simply a sampler.
Ether Teeth sounds like the bastard child of folk, four-track rock and
a dash of cut-and-paste sampling. I’m not sure what that means, but
I know that I mean it. The songs range from up-tempo to melancholy, but
nothing on the album sounds out of place. Purchase on sight, that is all.
18. Shades of Blue
The Madlib invasion continues. This time, he can be seen remixing the catalogue
of legendary jazz label Blue Note on Shades of Blue. Sounding more like
an homage than a simple remix album, Madlib digs deep, creating beats that
both hip hoppers and jazz fans alike can appreciate. Shying away from the
usual horn sample over a beat, Madlib seamlessly mixes elements from all
eras in jazz to create something sounding more like live musicians than
one man armed with a sampler. My only qualm is that it was too short—no
worries though, I'll just pop in artists he collaborated with like Yesterday’s
New Quintet, Dudley Perkins, Jaylib, Madvillian or The Beat Conductor…2003,
year of the Mad!
19. Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?
Though they're occasionally tone deaf and
lacking in stereo clarity, when you chance
upon a unicorn, you should consider yourself
lucky. If, however, you should happen upon
a whole group of them, you'd best put on
your wranglin’ boots.
Being trumped by Vice Magazine as "the greatest band ever," The
Unicorns can get away with using a killer riff or phrasing for only a few
measures, because another one is always right on its heels, resulting in
approximately 3.28 great songs per listed track. Plus, Who Will Cut Our
Hair When We’re Gone? is about coming to terms with death and loss
of infamy, complete with one of the most hilarious and apropos dropout
endings you'll ever hear.
Late one Wednesday night, while working on the RED Magazine Web site, I was
listening as usual to “Local Imposters” on KRCL. A mellow,
dreamy song soothed my frantic mind as I feverishly formatted every article
for the Internet. I listened for the song title but didn’t hear it
in the set list so I called the station. Renee (or was it Dawn?) willingly
told me that it was by Fruit Bats and that I should buy their albums. I
took her advice and ordered Mouthfuls right away.
This is an album of heartbreakingly beautiful poppy folk songs that carry
the listener from one to the next. Fruit Bats, whose earlier work has been
compared to Velvet Underground, recalls such influences as Phil Spector
and Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac. This is good background music, good lying-on-the-bed-doing-nothing
music, good jumping-around-the-house-and-singing-along music. This is an
album that deserves to be set on ‘repeat all’ whenever it is
21. De-loused in the Comatorium
The Mars Volta
The Thom Yorke Award for Sonic Innovation does not actually exist. However,
The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez would be very likely
to obtain such high honors. The two former members of post-punk outfit
At The Drive-In left their original band to pursue more experimental venues.
The resulting sound is an intelligent, convoluted blend of hardcore and
De-Loused in the Comatorium is the group’s first official album, one
that only hints at the sheer brilliance burgeoning within its lithe, bespectacled
and afroed inventors. Each song is thematically inspired by a close friend
whose life ended too soon, but the stories are thickly veiled by intricate
instrumentation and Bixler’s screaming injured-animal incoherencies.
The album is first jarring, then intriguing, then completely, hypnotically
22. Take Me to Your Leader
In my book, Daniel Dumile (aka MF Doom) gets artist of the year. Because
unlike Coldplay (thanks, Spin Magazine)—a fine band, mind you—he
actually released some original material this year—five full-length
albums and counting, actually. There was his work as MF Doom for Special
Herbs, Vol. 3-4 and MM Food, his collaboration with Madlib as Madvillain,
his foray as ironic gangsta doppelganger Viktor Vaughn, and easily one
of the most accessible, fun and best hip-hop releases of the year: the
B-horror-movie-sample-happy Take Me to Your Leader.
Like all of Dumile’s aliases, King Geedorah has designs to destroy
hip hop from the inside, this time as a 30-story, lego-constructed dragon
with the body of Godzilla and the emceeing powers of Flavor Flav. Plus there's
remarkably little to no swearing, something of a rarity these days in a hip-hop
release. If you didn't have this album blaring from your car speakers this
summer, then, well, there's always next year to make up for it.
23. I Am the Fun Blame Monster
Wow. How can I possibly sum up all that Menomena is in just one paragraph?
One of the band’s members designed a computer program to aid in the
construction of loop-based rock songs. I Am the Fun Blame Monster is an
anagram for “The First Menomena Album.” The cover art to the
album is an 80-page flipbook that reveals this fact. One of the band's
members personally e-mailed me to thank me for purchasing the album. The
band's Web site, www.menomena.com, has given me (unequivocally) the best
seizures of my life.
But none of this would matter if the music itself didn’t meet the same
standard of excellence and innovation. But even just a cursory listen to
I Am the Fun Blame Monster reveals that all these delicious little quirks
are less gimmicks than priceless trinkets from an extremely passionate and
creative band. (Find it at www.cdbaby.com.)
The White Stripes
Ten years ago, the concept of a musical duo was about as appealing as Sonny
and Cher. Thanks to the work of Meg and Jack White, minimalism is the name
of the game. The Detroit duo gained some widespread credibility with 2002’s
White Blood Cells, but it wasn’t until Elephant that a broader audience
began respecting the power of one drum kit and a guitar.
Both musicians display an increased confidence, with Meg pounding, rather
than thumping, her skins and Jack preaching holy rock and roll in his most
compelling voice. Elephant more obviously shows the influence of traditional
blues, a feature that endows this group with a certain amount of longevity.
Unlike other so-called next-wave garage rock bands, The White Stripes
are less concerned with being different than with staying true to their
roots. Songs such as “Ball and Biscuit” and “In the Cold, Cold
Night” (featuring Meg on vocals) are straight tributes to a sultry
heritage. Tradition aside, all of the work on Elephant carries the a vibe
that is distinctly White Stripes—and one that destroys old stereotypes
of the musical duo.
25. Up in Flames
Apparently, Canada native Dan Snaith recorded this album entirely at home
on ACID (the recording module, not the drug, though the apple don’t
fall far from the latter). A far cry from his last album, the excellent
but decidedly less groundbreaking Start Breaking My Heart, Up in Flames
came out of nowhere (or as I like to see it, from the center of the earth),
determined to make every single moment of listening the absolute awesomest
possible. Excellent song titles, loads of fireworks, and Ewok village drum