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Best of 2003

Critic: Kirsten Ferguson

1. Cobra Verde
Easy Listening

Who needs jaded affection from New York City rockers like the Strokes, when these hip-shaking and honest rock anthems from the heartland are so much more fun? On their third full album, Cleveland’s Cobra Verde combine the brawn of ’70s arena rock—all monolithic guitar riffs and shout-along choruses—with the brains of art-rock, courtesy of the smart-as-hell front man John Petkovic and his self-negating, pop-culture-referencing lyrics.

2. Belle and Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress

I’m all for challenging music, but sometimes you want to listen to something that goes down easy and just plain sounds good—as in tuneful and richly orchestrated (hence the appeal of early Steely Dan). Pop albums don’t get much catchier than this. Given that Waitress is B&S mastermind Stuart Murdoch’s first album since his split with ex-bandmate and love interest Isobel Campbell, it’s also surprisingly sunny and upbeat.

3. Crooked Fingers
Red Devil Dawn

After breaking up his well-loved indie rock band Archers of Loaf at the close of the ’90s, North Carolina songwriter Eric Bachmann veered away from his former band’s jagged noise-pop to craft sparser, darker ballads with his solo outfit, Crooked Fingers. On his third post-Archers album—part Springsteen’s Nebraska and part Songs of Leonard Cohen—the promise of Bachmann’s prodigious songwriting ability finally materializes.

4. The Exploding Hearts
Guitar Romantic

Their rising rock & roll career was cut short when three out of four band members—all in their early 20s—died in a van accident in July. But Portland, Ore.’s the Exploding Hearts left behind a debut album that crackles with wit and energy. Under the influence of Brit pop-punk bands like the Undertones and the Buzzcocks, a few of the tracks on Guitar Romantic—namely “Modern Kicks,” “I’m a Pretender” and “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades”—are instant bubblegum punk classics.

5. Fountains of Wayne
Welcome Interstate Managers

The MTV hit on Fountains of Wayne’s acclaimed third album—the sophomoric, slick “Stacy’s Mom”—may be the least appealing track here. The good stuff comes four songs in, when the uptempo guitar-pop gives way to countrified indie—all lovely melodies and mature lamentations that capture the quiet desperation of 30-something-year-olds with dead-end office jobs and crappy relationships.

6. The Deadly Snakes
Ode to Joy

A boisterous Toronto garage punk collective with a loose take on ’60s rock and soul, the Deadly Snakes escape the predictability that their musical indebtedness might entail, by virtue of quality songwriting and the band’s markedly macabre twist. Think Nick Cave gallows humor and creepiness set to foot-stomping organ and horn-fueled rave-ups.

7. The Dirtbombs
Dangerous Magical Noise

In a just universe, the Dirtbombs would be the biggest rock band in the world. In reality, this Detroit garage group are the biggest band in underground rock, whether people actually know it or not. Featuring soulful front man Mick Collins, formerly of the Gories, and bassist Jim Diamond—whose Ghetto Recorders studio in Detroit produced the White Stripes—the Dirtbombs’ latest is a pure party album, all breathless rush and exhilarating soul.

8. The Chesterfield Kings
The Mindbending Sounds Of . . .

On their new release courtesy of Coxsackie’s Sundazed label, Rochester’s the Chesterfield Kings (who, believe it or not, first formed back in 1979) craft up an amazing batch of original psychedelic garage-rock songs, replete with lysergic lyrics, freaked out guitar and a snotty dose of fuck-all attitude.

9. Dizzee Rascal
Boy in da Corner

On this British import soon to be released by Matador in the United States, 19-year old East London rapper Dizzee Rascal wraps his near-indecipherable slang in a truly innovative mélange of sounds, from distorted drums and electronic blips to the sheer incongruity of a Billy Squier sample.

10. Cat Power
You Are Free

Though the album loses steam at the end, the first half of You Are Free—Chan Marshall’s first record in five years—is gorgeous, albeit intense, listening: a tightrope walk between Marshall’s notoriously fragile psyche and the album’s theme of emotional liberation.

Critic: Bill Ketzer

1. Rancid

Every song a classic. A rare, flawless piece of work from the Bay Area’s finest.

2. The Supersuckers
Motherfuckers Be Trippin’

What can I say? I remove my hat and look for a national landmark to salute whenever I hear them.

3. The Haunted
One Kill Wonder

Scary Swedish warfare from these At the Gates understudies. You can hear the boots marching.

4. The Wildhearts
Riff After Riff After Motherfucking Riff

The most underrated band in the freakin’ world. Seriously.

5. The Erotics
All That Glitters Is Dead

I love these guys. I can’t help it. Reckless, awesome, slutty drunken rock.

6. Skinless
From Sacrifice to Survival

No-bullshit death metal from these hard-working locals.

7. Burning Brides
Fall of the Plastic Empire

They don’t care what you think and it shows.

8. Hungry Jack
Sumo Prostitute

At once hilarious and appalling, like the WWE.

9. Crawdad
The Rock Album

Great driving music, especially on Sudafed.

10. The White Stripes

It’s all about the ax. Probably the only artists in the V2 stable who record to eight-track.

Critic: David Greenberger

1. Robert Wyatt

Ethereal magic.

2. Yo La Tengo
Summer Sun

Dreamy romance.

3. Joe Strummer & the Muscaleros

The triumph of sad final recordings.

4. High Llamas
Beet, Maize & Corn

The sound of a place that has “Pet Sounds” as its national anthem.

5. Tord Gustafson Trio
Changing Places

Elegance and mystery from a Norwegian pianist with a rhythm section.

6. Randy Newman
The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1

A wisecracking, thinking giant walks among us. Revisiting four decades of songs, he accompanies himself on piano, with an orchestra playing in his head.

7. Paul Westerberg
Come Feel Me Tremble

Everything that made him great is still there, from tear-it-up grooves to heartbreak ballads.

8. Handsome Family
Singing Bones

Nightmares and fractured circumstances that step across the centuries.

9. Paolo Conte

Without speaking Italian, his songs mesmerize. Reading the translations amaze and transport.

10. Wreckless Eric
Almost a Jubilee
Wreckless Eric Presents the Len Bright Combo

The former is subtitled 25 Years at the BBC (with Gaps) and the latter puts onto CD Eric Goulden’s two LPs with his lo-fi ’80s band, including the essential “You’re Gonna Screw My Head Off” and “Someone Must’ve Nailed Us Together.”

Critic: Ann Morrow

1. Moonspell

How can something so brutal be at the same time so moodily beautiful? Possibly because singer-songwriter Fernando Ribeiro writes actual lyrics, and therefore knows when to restrain his exploding basso profundo into a powerful croon. Or maybe it’s on account of drummer Mike Gaspar’s entrancing, Mediterranean-influenced rhythms. Or maybe the reason is the savagely windswept guitars . . . and maybe it doesn’t matter; three songs in and you’ll be spellbound.

2. Dimmu Borgir
Death Cult Armageddon

Imagine Die Walkure put through a goth-industrial meat grinder, with a croaking, rasping devilkin taking over Brunnhilde’s arias. This black-metal tour de force from Norway goes where no rock band has dared go before: deep into the brimstone pit of chromatic hellfire, with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra as their willing accomplices while they invoke the powers of darkness through sheer creative hubris (and sensational keyboarding).

3. The Gathering

Former purveyors of Swedish death metal, the Gathering changed course in the mid-’90s with the addition of eerie siren Annecke van Giersbergen. In a slight departure from their landmark Mandylion, the band have slithered into the twilight zone of diva-driven electronica, effortlessly blowing away both Evanescence and Lacuna Coil with their sultry menace and Giersbergen’s icily pure phrasing.

4. Acumen Nation
Lord of the Cynics

Industrial is not dead, at least not in Chicago, and here’s the seething, shuddering proof. In the top five for the second year in a row, the Nation have followed the sarcastic blast furnace of The Fifth Column with a shift in gears toward a more mournful, introspective, and yes, danceable, variant of jackhammered angst. While Static-X and their ilk stall, the Nation evolve: the convulsive “Metard” alone has more to say than a week’s worth of the industrialized pop that’s played on the radio.

5. Afi
Song the Sorrow

The major-label debut of these gothy postpunks from California often recalls Husker Du, only girlier. Davey Havak’s impish yowl is a guilty pleasure, and Butch Vig’s theatrical production gilds his lyrical lilies with 24 carats. Big loud fun with a flair for drama.

Critic: Erik Hage

1. The Pernice Brothers
Yours, Mine & Ours

The most splashily gorgeous, highly poetical pop-rock since Morrissey met Marr or the Left Banke watched Renee walk away: “I’m as lonely as the Irish Sea and as willing as the sand/Won’t you come unbury me?”

2. Centro-matic
Love You Just the Same

A raw shot of primal, gorgeous indie-rock from Denton, Texas: All the grumbly beauty of peak Pavement, all the whinily gorgeous despair of peak Neil Young.

3. Graham Lindsey
Famous Anonymous Wilderness

As a child, Lindsey was in semi-famous kiddie punk-rock group Old Skull. (“I was a little asshole,” he told me recently in an interview.) Now, he’s a fearless songwriter in his mid-20s, drumming up visions of Gillian Welch, Richard Buckner, early Dylan and ancient folk: “I am useless to the wild earth, So sings the bowels of every place/And anywhere that I may go, my judgment roars its restless bells/I never knew and shall never know a worse place than myself.”

4. Guided By Voices
Earthquake Glue

I still don’t know what Bob Pollard is talking about or why his liver still functions, but I’m still silly for those dead-perfect rock hooks and Who bluster.

5. Drive-By Truckers
Decoration Day

The Truckers have found success in hip music circles by being wildly unphotogenic and singing passionately about Skynyrd. But beyond that, they sear up the fiercest, most heart-cutting American skronk since Crazy Horse saw the damage done: “Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit/Don’t act like your family’s a joke/Have fun, but stay clear of the needle/Call home on your sister’s birthday.”

6. Ryan Adams
Llor n’ Kcor

I hate him. I love him. I hate him. I love him, this brazen, druggy, Hollywood-slutty, bedheaded little shit. Equal parts trash and transcendence, crapola and beauty: “Note to self: Don’t change for anyone/Note to self: Don’t die” (delivered atop the most brutal guitar muscle since Nirvana’s In Utero).

7. Tom House
Long Time Home From Here

The 60-ish House is a Nashville underground poet and songwriter who’s equal parts Dock Boggs mineshaft caterwaul, Skip Spence weirdness, Charles Bukowski fleabag beauty and warbly, primal scat singer.

8. Hamell on Trial
Tough Love

Ed Hamell is blessed/cursed with a form of Tourette’s that allows him to speak only in profanities and harsh truths. Righteously brutal folk-punk from a lyrical Mapplethorpe: “So you pucker your mouth, you show lots of thigh/Coy celebrity sexy, ass in the air, selling your product . . ./Take the movie’s name, tattoo it on your labia/Spread your legs for the camera, what difference would it make?/I mean, fuck it, why go halfway?”

9. Caroline Herring

With 1992’s Sweet Old World Lucinda Williams set the high watermark and prototype for the literate, brilliant, tragic, honey-voiced Americana songstress. She’s fallen short with recent albums, and the only artists to fully match her onetime spark have been Kelly Willis, with 1999’s What I Deserve, and Caroline Herring, with this amazing sophomore effort.

10. Zwan
Mary Star of the Sea

2003 saw ex-Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan’s new band debut and disappear. But the group left behind a glorious album. Faith is a recurring theme here—it’s about the simple faith in, joy for and love of rock (not, as the pathological distorters of culture at Rolling Stone would have you believe, religion for religion’s sake). That faith translates to Corgan’s best melodies ever and three glorious guitars that duel, spiral, growl and snarl.

Critic: John Brodeur

1. Nada Surf
Let Go

Nada Surf hinted at greatness with their previous effort, The Proximity Effect, but nobody could have seen this coming. Balancing equal doses of spunky power pop with introspective tales of longing, Matthew Caws and company put their best foot way forward and keep it out there for 54 entrancing minutes. Hell, they even get away with singing a song in French. Brilliant.

2. Outkast
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Believe the hype: This is one of the most original and challenging recordings in recent memory. Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is an exploration of Atlanta G-funk and politically charged crunk, while Andre “Ice Cold” 3000’s genre-slashing, booty-shaking Love Below may be hiphop’s first viable concept album—if you can really even call it hiphop. “Hey Ya” is the single of the year, hands down.

3. The White Stripes

Meg White’s Nico moment, the Whites’ first recorded Queen reference (“There’s No Home For You Here”), and the year’s best guitar solo that’s not on the Darkness album (“Ball and Biscuit”)—they’re all here. So are an excellent Bacharach cover and the inescapable “Seven Nation Army”—single of the year, non-“Hey Ya” division. A stone classic from a band who do nothing but improve.

4. Rufus Wainwright
Want One

’Twas the year that li’l Rufus turned 30, sobered up, slowed down and wrote two albums’ worth of amazing new songs. With the other half being released as Want Two next spring, Want One is the Kill Bill Vol. 1 of this year’s pop crop—a collection of 14 gorgeous soul-searchers that will have you diving for the Kleenex and holding your breath for round two. Look for this one at a support group near you.

5. Postal Service
Give Up

Death Cab for Cutie

Ben Gibbard started 2003 by proving that his detailed, often-confessional songs work equally well as electro-pop as they do indie rock. The first release from the Postal Service even scored him an unlikely hit with “Such Great Heights.” Gibbard wrapped the year fronting his longtime band, Death Cab for Cutie, on their strongest work to date, somehow even turning a glove compartment into a compelling topic.

6. Pernice Brothers
Yours, Mine and Ours

Joe Pernice again puts his master’s in creative writing to good use, adding to his spotless streak of gorgeous, thought- provoking pop music. Pernice’s affection for Smiths and the Cure is more palpable than on previous releases, and his every last word sounds like the theme to an endless bummer. Meanwhile, his band navigate these 10 beauties deftly, displaying nuance and muscle with equal aplomb.

7. Fountains of Wayne
Welcome Interstate Managers

Although the pace falls off a bit later on, the first two-thirds of the Fountains’ latest are practically flawless—a virtual stockpile of should-be hits that rock like the soundtrack to a lost John Hughes movie. It’s strange that so many of this album’s characters suffer from inertia because the music is so vibrant, it will make you want to jump in your car and speed off toward the coast . . . or at least the Tappan Zee Bridge.

8. Libertines
Up The Bracket

Kings of Leon
Youth & Young Manhood

While everyone else went ga-ga over Room on Fire, these two bands outstroked the Strokes by giving us a glimpse at what might have been had that band emphasized function over form on their latest effort. The Libertines sounded like the Jam having a row with the Buzzcocks, while Kings of Leon dumped a liberal dose of Tabasco sauce and Tennessee whiskey into their garage-rock gumbo.

9. Radiohead
Hail to the Thief

OK, it’s not exactly the full-on return to rock that many fans were hoping for, nor is it quite a “shagging” record, as Thom Yorke so optimistically characterized it, but it is yet another complex, bewildering entry in the Radiohead canon—a collection of singles from a universe where Pink Floyd, rather than the Beatles, recorded Sgt. Pepper’s.

10. Ryan Adams
Llor n’ Kcor

Ryan Adams had been in danger of turning into a parody of himself since releasing Gold in 2001. He bounced back admirably this year with Llor n’ Kcor, on which he stifled his Gram Parsons jones in favor of indulging his inner Iggy (Lust for Life era), quit all his California dreamin’ and made the best New York record of the year (not to mention that killer Morrissey impression).

Critic: J. Eric Smith

1. Wire

An awesome return from one of the most eclectic, eccentric and powerful bands of the past quarter century. Experimentation and weirdness never kicked ass this hard.

2. Outkast
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

The most excessive, over-the-top sprawl of too-much-of-a-good thing by popular artists since Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion, only with much, much higher quality control, and the single of the year in “Hey Ya!”

3. Steely Dan
Everything Must Go

Loose and tight at the same time, as the world’s most anal studio geeks let their hair hang out just a bit, producing their best record since Aja in the process.

4. Kraftwerk
Tour De France Soundtracks

Twenty years after the single “Tour De France,” the world’s second-most-anal studio geeks round it out with a tour de force of old-school electronics and ultramodern post-electronica.

5. Electric Six

The biggest, stupidest rock record of the year, built around a lyrical construct that somehow manages to blend sex and combat into a cohesive whole, good for dancing or making war.

6. Turbonegro
Scandinavian Leather

The second biggest, second stupidest rock record of the year, built around a lyrical construct that somehow manages to blend sex and denim into a cohesive whole, good for dancing or pillaging.

7. Warren Zevon
The Wind

Jeez, how can you not include this one, a sweet-and-sour goodbye to (and from) Mister Bad Example himself, just as the Grim Reaper was finally about to run him down in his Clownmobile.

8. Ween

The “brownest” record Ween’s issued in quite some time, preserving the solid techniques of White Pepper, but mating them with the weirdness of Pod; a welcome return by producer Andrew Weiss.

9. Jethro Tull
The Jethro Tull Christmas Album

The best record they’ve issued since Songs From the Wood is actually a like-minded affair: pastoral, heavily acoustic, introspective and wise. The best holiday record of the year, bar none.

10. Fleetwood Mac
Say You Will

This would have been my record of the year if they’d cut it in half, eliminating most of Stevie Nicks’ material and preserving Lindsay Buckingham’s work. Still, that’s what the “skip” button is for, and his half of the album still beats most everything else out there.

Critic: John Suvannavejh

1. Warren Zevon
The Wind

Written and recorded while lung cancer ate away at his body, The Wind topped off Zevon’s career in extraordinary fashion—full of satire and wit, giving the mind a leg up over matter.

2. Radiohead
Hail to the Thief

An existentialist exploration in paranoia and wonder—this time Radiohead are more interested in rousing the “ghost in the machine” rather than just tinkering with the machine itself.

3. Paul Westerberg
Come Feel Me Tremble

With this second helping of self-made basement tapes, Paul unites the pairing of sentiment and swampy rock he split up on 2002’s Stereo/Mono and delivers perhaps his finest post-Replacements album.

4. Ted Leo
Hearts of Oak

The year’s indie rock masterpiece, delivered by its most diligent and brilliant footsoldier.

5. Gillian Welch
Soul Journey

Welch’s voice and spirit may remain of a gilded past, but her songs outshine anything else coming out of Nashville today.

6. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Take Them On, On Your Own

Slick, edgy American-bred Brit rock. Like Oasis at their best, with more brains and less ego.

7. Outkast
Speakerboxx/The Love Below

Bringing post-Prince dance music back to its core idea: Your brain will dance, your butt should wiggle, and you’ll find yourself a singing fool, yelling out lines like “Lend me some sugar! I am your neighbor!” or “I know you like to think your shit don’t stank, but lean a little bit closer, see, roses really smell like poo-poo!”

8. Cobra Verde
Easy Listening

Sonically equidistant from Wayne Kramer’s MC5 (whose Muscletone label they’re signed to) and enlisted guitarist J. Mascis’ Dinosaur Jr., Cleveland’s bigwigs take a seat among the best bands of rock & roll’s fuzzed-out past.

9. Exploding Hearts
Guitar Romantic

Putting the real “pop” back in pop-punk while shouldering all the “power” power-pop never quite mustered up.

10. Drive-By Truckers
Decoration Day

As south as Southern rock gets with all the swagger of Skynyrd, but coming from a band who employ their Southern roots not for cheap showcasing or cultural genuflection, but to explore their own psychology and bring meaningful subject matter to their music.

Critic: Shawn Stone

1. OutKast
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Let me count the ways of this two-disc set’s greatness: beats, wit, politics . . . and sex. (Existential question of the moment: “Where are my panties?”) Though these are essentially two solo albums, there’s no White Album feeling of everyone working at cross-purposes. OutKast are still OutKast.

2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse

There’s a family living happily just outside Greendale. Everything’s great, ’til the nephew commits a senseless murder. (The devil lives in the town jail, but can leave whenever he wants.) I love Neil Young when he can’t contain, let alone understand, his own ideas.

3. Weak

Rarified pop of the highest order. Antony Widoff is eccentric and negative in all the right ways; the peppiest song is about a relationship gone stale. You want references? Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, blah blah blah.

4. The Black Eyed Peas

I half expected to hate this, but Elephunk is proof that sharpening one’s sound to create a big commercial explosion doesn’t always result in crap. Let’s get retarded.

5. Kelis

An outsider finally gets her due. Kelis’ third album is her best, with an array of songs (from an array of producers) all expressing and serving her prickly, uncontainable personality. And “Milkshake” is irresistible.

6. The Raveonettes
Whip It On

7. The Raveonettes
Chain Gang of Love

These guitar-worshipping Danes must be sincere—two 35-minute albums in one year? The former is dark; the latter is light. Both are exemplary odes to noise, and typify a kind of Eurotrash devotion to style that would make Bryan Ferry weep.

8. The Beatles
Let It Be . . . Naked

What a bad year for Phil Spector. First he’s indicted for murder, then the Spector-less version of the Fab Four’s farewell (though not last) album is released. And it’s an improvement (as we’ve always suspected). Plus, it’s always poignant to hear testy millionaires trying to like each other again.

9. Missy Elliott
This is Not a Test!

More to the point, this is not a party album—at least in the sense of her recent work. That doesn’t mean it isn’t pointed, nasty fun anyway.

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