Critic: Kirsten Ferguson
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
Belle and Sebastian
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.
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.
The Exploding Hearts
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.
Fountains of Wayne
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
The Deadly Snakes
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.
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.
The Chesterfield Kings
Mindbending Sounds Of . . .
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.
in da Corner
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.
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
song a classic. A rare, flawless piece of work from the Bay
can I say? I remove my hat and look for a national landmark
to salute whenever I hear them.
Swedish warfare from these At the Gates understudies. You
can hear the boots marching.
After Riff After Motherfucking Riff
most underrated band in the freakin’ world. Seriously.
That Glitters Is Dead
love these guys. I can’t help it. Reckless, awesome, slutty
Sacrifice to Survival
death metal from these hard-working locals.
of the Plastic Empire
don’t care what you think and it shows.
once hilarious and appalling, like the WWE.
driving music, especially on Sudafed.
The White Stripes
all about the ax. Probably the only artists in the V2 stable
who record to eight-track.
Critic: David Greenberger
Yo La Tengo
Joe Strummer & the Muscaleros
triumph of sad final recordings.
Maize & Corn
sound of a place that has “Pet Sounds” as its national anthem.
Tord Gustafson Trio
and mystery from a Norwegian pianist with a rhythm section.
Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1
wisecracking, thinking giant walks among us. Revisiting four
decades of songs, he accompanies himself on piano, with an
orchestra playing in his head.
Feel Me Tremble
that made him great is still there, from tear-it-up grooves
to heartbreak ballads.
and fractured circumstances that step across the centuries.
speaking Italian, his songs mesmerize. Reading the translations
amaze and transport.
Eric Presents the Len Bright Combo
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
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
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
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
of the Cynics
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.
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
The Pernice Brothers
Mine & Ours
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?”
You Just the Same
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.
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.”
Guided By Voices
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.
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.”
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).
Time Home From Here
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
Hamell on Trial
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?”
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.
Star of the Sea
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
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.
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.
The White Stripes
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.
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.
Cab for Cutie
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.
Mine and Ours
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.
Fountains of Wayne
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.
& Young Manhood
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.
to the Thief
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.
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
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.
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!”
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.
De France Soundtracks
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
Jethro Tull Christmas Album
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,
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
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.
to the Thief
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.
Feel Me Tremble
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
year’s indie rock masterpiece, delivered by its most diligent
and brilliant footsoldier.
voice and spirit may remain of a gilded past, but her songs
outshine anything else coming out of Nashville today.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Them On, On Your Own
edgy American-bred Brit rock. Like Oasis at their best, with
more brains and less ego.
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!”
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
the real “pop” back in pop-punk while shouldering all the
“power” power-pop never quite mustered up.
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
Critic: Shawn Stone
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.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
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.
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.
The Black Eyed Peas
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.
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”
Gang of Love
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.
It Be . . . Naked
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.
is Not a Test!
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