2003 / Music / Top 10

Soundbytes: Top 10 Albums Of 2003

Read Reviews Of The Best Of The Past Year

Read The Reviews: White Stripes | The New Pornographers | Black Eyed Peas | The Shins | Bubba Sparxxx | Yeah Yeah Yeahs | Cat Power | Outkast | The Black Keys | Stephen Malkmus

Just a decade ago, a year like 2003 would have been cause for the music industry to sound the panic button. It’s a statement of the kind of beating the industry has endured in recent years that 2003 is instead being perceived as a year of recovery.

In review, 2003 certainly doesn’t look pretty. Record sales still haven’t recovered from the slump that began in the late ’90s. In fact, this year’s top seller didn’t even surpass 10 million units sold (rapper 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” sold little more than half that.)

With such a grim bottom line staring at them, the major record labels have responded internally by curtailing their artist rosters and gutting their infrastructure with layoffs.

This year also saw the labels trying a new tactic. They’ve decued to go on the offensive and target their chief scapegoat for the paltry sales figures: illegal downloading. While many of the online file-trading services have remained under legal assault, the labels took the unprecedented step of suing music fans directly (or in some cases, those who owned the computers where downloading allegedly took place). The actual benefits of this strategy, which has been lambasted by critics, has yet to be determined.

Despite the ongoing bleekness, the latter part of the year saw the industry’s fortunes improving slightly. Rolling Stone magazine reported that CD sales for the fourth quarter jump by more than 5 percent as compared to the same period in 2002.

Another success has been iTunes, Apple Computer Inc.’s online music store. Unveiled in April 2003, the industry-approved store, which offers users a database of downloadable songs, generated millions of sales as well as supportive press. Although initially offered for only MacIntosh users, a version for Windows was launched in the fall.

And after years of fending off grumblings about label consolidations and corporate interference in the industry, one of the five major labels — Warner Music — took a lesson from many of its artists and broke away from its parent company Time Warner to try it solo.

Putting business aside, it’s almost always a good year for music in my opinion (what’s popular, however, is a different topic entirely). While popularity typically fades and artists, movements and scenes come and go, there’s always quality music to be heard if you have an open mind.

So, here’s a list of my picks for the best albums of the year, in no particular order:

White Stripes “Elephant”

While his name has been bandied about in the media a lot more often as late for who he’s dating or how he allegedly pummeled a guy in a Detroit bar fight, what 2003 really says about the White Stripes svengali Jack White is that he’s no musical fluke.

Photo: V2 Records

Photo: V2 Records

Sure, the White Stripes and their fellow garage-rock revivalists have failed to live up to the predictions made back in 2001 that they’d dethrone the music world’s reigning heads.

But while many of White’s compatriots have jinxed themselves by releasing shoddy records the White Stripes have proven themselves to be the exception rather than the rule. This year, they released “Elephant,” which restates that the kind of musical and songwriting skills that White honed in the years prior to recording the indie landmark “White Blood Cells” have not abandoned him. Instead, it renewed hopes.

Like its predecessor, “Elephant” features plenty of bruising romps steeped in the blues and blues-rock and showcasing White’s throttled guitarwork and bandmate Meg White’s stalwart drumming. The chord progressions and melodies — awash in distortion — might be simplistic, but are always thrilling.

“Elephant” truly leaves its mark in the handful of semi-ballads that litter the record’s second half. The stripped-down songs emphasize the duo’s musical range and their pop smarts and keep the record from being overwhelmed by White’s frenzied guitar or his hysterical blues holler.

He sounds almost sweet singing “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” backed only by an acoustic guitar. On the piano-based “I Want To Be The Boy,” White shows off his acting chops, charging his voice with the needed sense of urgency that bolsters the song’s realism. Even Meg gets in on the act, making her slightly off-key vocal debut for the lovely, stark “In The Cold, Cold Night.”

And who can deny themselves against a song as infectious as “It’s True That We Love One Another,” both because of its folkie sing-along chorus (featuring guest vocals from British singer Holly Golightly) and because the lyrics (consciously or unconsciously, you pick) that hint at all those rumors about the Whites’ real relationship.

OK, now I’m getting into the rumor mongering. But in a way, the public’s interest and the media’s tongue wagging about White’s private activites is in part inspired by the quality of his songs. People want to know more about the man making this remarkable music.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), a record as great as “Elephant” insures that people will keep interested.

For More Info:

The New Pornographers “Electric Version”

Perceieved as a power-pop side project for a bunch of rockers from Vancouver, Canada, the New Pornographers made a great case this year that they should become a full-time band thanks to their second LP, “Electric Version.”

Combining crunching guitar chords and pleasing vocal harmonies that swell into inescapable choruses, the band has created a slew of irresistible singles that, in a right world, would top the charts.

Despite their all-star membership (and maybe because of it), the New Pornographers have created songs that have a great group sound — everyone singing, everyone contributing musically. Perhaps because the group isn’t their primary creative outlet, the band members feel comfortable passing the ball around and supporting each other.

Individually, it’s the band’s most famous member (and the most underused on “Electric Version”) who turns in the record’s best performance: roots-rocker Neko Case. But from her star turns on this record, you’d never know how much she evokes Patsy Cline in her solo career. Fronting the band for gems like “All For Swinging You Around” and “The Laws Have Changed,” Case sings pop as well as she does country. Shania should start worrying.

New Pornographers fans should worry too. Band leader Carl Newman recently told Canadian music site ChartAttack.com that while the group plans to record a new record in 2004, Case might not appear because of the numerous demands of her solo life.

That said, it seems that “Electric Version” has encouraged the band members to reaffirm their commitment to each other. This would-be side project appears poised to become a full-time endeavor.

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Black Eyed Peas “Elephunk”

On “Elephunk,” the Black Eyed Peas will do whatever it takes to get you dancing.

Whether they’re imploring listeners to give themselves over to mindlessness for a good time (“Let’s Get Retarded”) or encouraging a humid, hedonistic celebration of that most un-sexy of holidays (“Labor Day (It’s A Holiday)”), the Peas are dedicated to building jams that will get people up and moving.

The Los Angeles-based quartet (led by rappers/producers will.i.am and apl.de.ap) shows the same ruthless enthusiasm for the groove in their selection of music. Whether its with live instruments or samples, the group employs whatever sound advances the song: classy, big-band horns; flamenco rhythms; strings; Caribbean rhyming cadences; disco basslines; or old-school funk.

On “Labor Day,” the group is brave enough to recast the famous one-two punch horn sample from Public Enemy’s tale of crack-created apocalypse, “Night Of The Living Baseheads,” into something that signals that festivities have begun and it’s time to feel carefree.

“Elephunk” becomes most intriguing when, after a string of well-paced dance songs, the group’s attention turns away from strictly carnal pursuits and shows an expanded emotional range.

Boiling over with angst, the Peas are all business as they hook up with metal band Papa Roach for a rap-rock collaboration, “Anxiety.” Backed by a swirling guitar lick, the group’s eagar MCs nearly stumble over each other to deliver their rhymes about living under a shadow.

Equally fascinating is the Peas’ big hit, “Where Is The Love.” Credit the tip-toe string melody or Justin Timberlake guesting on backing vocals, but the Peas have somehow succeeded in creating a syrupy pop ditty so catchy it’s able to overcome the track’s cheesy, “Let It Be”-like lyrics.

“Elephunk” proves that whether their mission is to get people dancing sexy or trying to solve the world’s woes, the Black Eyed Peas get the job done.

For More Info:

The Shins “Chutes Too Narrow”

Although not as overtly melodic as their heavenly debut, “Oh, Inverted World,” the Shins’ latest has the makings of a great record.

“Chutes Too Narrow” is the kind of record that gives you some of what you want (cheerful melodies, emotive vocals and harmonies) but so much more that you didn’t expect, repeat listenings are required.

Having found their footing on the first album as a guitar-based, ’60s style pop outfit, the group is now branching off from conventional song structures and pursuing more abstract and complex musical arrangements.

“Gone For Good” is worth the price of this CD alone. A maverick country tune in a collection of avant-garde pop, the song is a clever kiss-off to a scatterbrained girl that’s kept the protagonist waiting a bit too long. Underpinned by a steel guitar, the chorus features some of the best roots-tinged vocal harmonies since the Jayhawks heyday.

The main voice of the Shins is band mastermind James Mercer and his presence looms larger on this record than in the past. His high tenor voice sounds brighter and more prominent in the mix this time around (think of a happier version of the Cure’s Robert Smith), and he seems more confident in the spotlight. He stands out front more often to carry slower, acoustic guitar-based material like “Young Pilgrims,” “Those To Come” and “Pink Bullets” while his bandmates steadfastly supply support.

Still hiding in the indie rock underground, the Shins can expect their profile to rise and their achievements to multiply if they continue on the trajectory set by “Chutes Too Narrow.”

For More Info:

Bubba Sparxxx “Deliverance”

Dr. Dre will go down in hip-hop history as the quintessential producer, the one who inevitably comes to mind when seeking someone comparable to Phil Spector’s role in rock.

But while Dre continues to be successful beatmaker (think 50 Cent’s success), his work can frequently be as formulaic as Spector’s was. When Dre dropped the gangsta posturing for 1996’s “Dr. Dre Presents…The Aftermath,” its lackluster sales figures quickly sent him back to try to repeat what he did on “The Chronic.”

Matching sheer daring with a knack for honing hit-making beats, Timbaland is the producer that deserves the shot at Dre’s title.

Witness Bubba Sparxxx’s “Deliverance,” as Timbaland fuses danceable, marching band bass drum-sized beats with instrumental passages borrowed from the blues and country. He simultaneously expands hip-hop’s musical horizons while creating the kind of grooves that would kickstart any party.

Like his mentor, Bubba tries to broaden the music by incorporating the sad story song tradition of country music into his rhymes, as he does with “She Tried” and “Jimmy Mathis.”

“Deliverance” also features a string of tracks — “Nowhere,” “Take A Load Off,” “Like It Or Not” and “Hootnanny” (which also features an appearance by Mr. Timberlake) — that defy stylistic categorization but will keep everyone’s head nodding along.

“We’re going to keep doing our thang/Whether you like it or not,” Sparxxx raps. Thank you Bubba and Tim.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Fever To Tell”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O is a dissatisfied woman. She wants many things and she spends a great deal of time calling out for them on her band’s boisterous debut, “Fever To Tell.”

She is post-punk’s greatest proponent for bangs since the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hyndes and can screech like she’s P.J. Harvey’s kid sister, and seems completely unafraid to sound like an undersexed brat for most of this 30-minute long record.

What she doesn’t realize (or doesn’t care) is that guitarist Nicolas Zinner’s ragged lines answer her every yelp and squeal of yearning. Like a good friend consoling her as she vents, Zinner conjures halos of sound that swirl above her moaning in “Rich,” trills his approval at her shrieks in “Date With The Night,” and encourages her ranting on “Tick” with Stooges-like chord runs and high-pitched runs.

Zinner’s playing proves an adaptable foil, and with only a drummer rounding out the trio, helps O carry the weight of the melody with a great deal of sonic flexibility.

None so much however as on a pair of standout rockers like “Man” and “Y Control,” in which the band really seems to coalesce. As O raises hell, the guitar sounds explosive, generating punishing riffs, but then spices up the ruckus by adding ethereal licks.

Another highlight, “Maps,” reveals that O can croon a post-modern love song. It also harkens back to another exquisite cut off one of the band’s EPs in which the band likewise turns the energy level down, “Modern Romance.”

Hopefully, all the hype the band has endured the last year will keep them thoroughly dissatisfied.

For More Info:

Cat Power “You Are Free”

With its unhindered, observational lyrics and quiet, intermittent instrumentation, Cat Power’s “You Are Free” comes across like you are listening to someone’s private art project — something labored upon on weekends and off-hours at night.
This perception is bolstered by the fact that Cat Power is essentially a one-woman outfit, the brainchild of folkie singer-songwriter Chan Marshall.

And while “You Are Free” certainly sounds personal — diary-like entries sung over some home-recorded demos — little is really revealed about the woman behind it all.

Instead, Marshall’s creative eye is focused on others, and who and what she sings about is often quite intriguing. She chides her audience not to get caught up in star worship; she very plainly tells of the tragedies that befall a group of dysfunctional children; and she croons a sympathetic portrait of a werewolf.

The melodies that accompany these stories typically are built by a piano or a couple of guitars. When there are supporting players here, Marshall calls in the big guns: she enlists the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl on drums and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for backing vocals.

Marshall’s primary melodic device is her voice, which at times recalls Fiona Apple and Sarah McLachlan, but lacks either one’s range or emotional punch. What you get is a cold, almost passive commentary on events.

And yet, when it all comes together, there’s an element about each song that seems to make it click. For the Neil Young-ian “Good Woman,” there’s a squeaky violin that mimics a hoarse-sounding harmonica. For “I Don’t Blame You,” it’s the pretty piano chords and the sense of empathy that Marshall’s singing exudes for a fellow performer who’s pulling an Ryan Adams-like stage tantrum.

With no jaw-dropping musical moments or high emotion content, “You Are Free” succeeds because it emphasizes Marshall’s songs. In the era of over-produced and overly confessional songwriting, her unique vision deserves emphasis.

For More Info:

Outkast “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”

Back in the 1970s when rock music was the dominant genre in pop, double albums became commonplace for the big artists of the day.

Double albums were a really happy medium for all involved. They permitted big-headed rock stars the chance to include their every self-indulgent musical doodle on a record while allowing the businessmen to charge fans a little bit extra to hear what’s new from their favorite act.

Thirty years later and as it becomes increasingly apparent that rock is losing ground in the pop world, it seems more than coincidental that the hippest bands like the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are turning in 30-minute records. It’s as if in fight for space on TV and the radio dial, these groups decided to boil their music down to just the essentials.

The climate is far different for hip-hop artists. Although the music has taken some hits as late, it is enjoying an ever increasing demographic base and widespread media access. Thus, its artists have more latitude.

Enter Outkast, a hip-hop duo that’s never known musical restraint, and its latest creation, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” This ambitious double album is essentially a pair of solo projects by rappers Big Boi and Andre 3000 released under the group’s umbrella. One could argue that “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” would ultimately be stronger if melded into a single record, but both solidly stand apart from each other.

First, let’s dispel what you might already have heard: While Andre 3000 is perceived as the group’s musical free spirit, his half of this, “The Love Below,” is not as experimental as you might expect (read: feared). Rather, it’s a first step in a new direction. Andre shows he’s willing to more openly embrace R&B, jazz and funk as well as hip-hop than he had in the past.

Instead of approaching this music as a purist, Andre is still dabbling, effectively bridging the gap between his P-Funk-loving past and his eclectic present. While cuts like “Love Hater” and “My Favorite Things” utilize quintessential jazz rhythms, he merges and colors them with his Prince-like vocal mannerisms or some tasty techno beats.

Secondly, while Big Boi’s disc, “Speakerboxxx,” more consistently follows in Outkast’s tradition of making bombastic party funk anthems and he’s popularly perceived as the group’s lesser half, the quality of these jams and his fast-paced rhyming make clear that he’s been underestimated.

It’s hard not to get swept up by the rhythm in his voice as he confidently strolls through horn-filled workouts like “Bowtie,” “Last Call” or “The Rooster.” Boi also shows he’s willing to dabble in other genres as well. For “Bust,” he employs heavy metal guitar to create a nightmarish soundtrack. “The Way You Move” sounds like a Hall and Oates clone.

While they obviously reflect the personality of their creators, the records are not entirely separate either. Both remain lyrically preoccupied by skirt chasing. In addition, Andre enjoys producing and songwriting credits throughout “Speakerboxxx” and Big Boi returns the favor by guest rapping on Andre’s “Roses.”

While most artists who created double albums in the ’70s saw their grandiose visions outstretch their talent, Outkast seems well-suited and comfortable in its excess.

For More Info:

The Black Keys “thickfreakness”

Entering a rock field that’s already littered with dozens of young garage-rock, post-punk and New Wave upstarts, the Black Keys might just seem like yet another blues-rock two-piece from the Midwest.

Dismissing them out right would be a mistake. Thanks in large part to their second record, “thickfreakness,” word-of-mouth hype that has been building about the group during the past couple years. The buzz was so great that it compelled acts like Beck and Sleater-Kinney to snatch them up as an opening act.

While the their fellow blues aficionados, the White Stripes, use the blues as Led Zeppelin and the Yardbirds did — as a platform to leap off from — the Akron, Ohio,-based band are more traditionalists. The band is stricter musically and they seem to prefer remaining in a tight, turgid groove.

The Keys also sound differently from a vocal perspective. Rather than harkening back to the blues’ tradition of yellers as Jack White does, the Keys’ singer/guitarist Dan Auerback’s voice is more reminiscent of Texas blues figures like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Doyle Bramhall II.

From the sound of it, the story that “thickfreakness” was recorded during 14 straight hours doesn’t seem that surprising. Driven by Auerback’s distorted guitar lines, the music chugs along like a steady locomotive. The songs seem to flow into each other, each loyally embodying the spirit and tradition of the blues. Songs like “If You See Me” and “Everywhere I Go” are relentless.

While the Keys aren’t breaking down any musical doors, “thickfreakness” establishes that the band stands out from its rivals.

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Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks “Pig Lib”

Two years ago, I included Stephen Malkmus on this list for his solo debut.

Looking back, however, I think the choice was a mistake. While I can probably pick out a bunch of albums from 2001 that should or could have made the list. I probably haven’t listened to Malkmus’ self-titled record since. (That’s not to dismiss the record out right, but I’m just reassessing how deeply its hooks grabbed me.)

It is with great pleasure that I can now report that the former Pavement leader’s “Pig Lib” is such an improvement on its predecessor that it seems unlikely to become as disposable.

Rather than try to perfect the concise yet smarty-pants style of songwriting that flourished on Malkmus’ first record, the tracks on “Pig Lib” seem looser and more relaxed. Malkmus is not as concerned about adhering to any formula. Instead, he wants to just play with his band.

The result is a number of guitar-based jams — and a level of interaction between the instruments — that buttresses any of Malkmus’ unorthodox musical tangents or bizarre lyrical scenarios.

Take “Craw Song,” a song with a convoluted narrative about love and one filled with sexual innuendo. But with the track’s lovely melody, created by an acoustic guitar and light accordion accompaniment, the lyrics become less important. They are just another sound working with and contributing to a greater whole.

This is what makes “Pig Lib” such a strong album. More than giving something to hang on to, these are songs that show Malkmus is willing to push himself and his audience to places that they’ve never been before.

And this time, I’m confident that I won’t have second thoughts about “Pig Lib” in two years. I think.

For More Info:

This year’s honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:

  • Atmosphere “Seven’s Travels”
  • Radiohead “Hail To The Thief”
  • Kings Of Leon “Youth And Young Manhood”
  • Fountains Of Wayne “Welcome Interstate Managers”
  • The Rapture “Echoes”
  • Justin Timberlake “Justified”
  • The Raveonettes “Chain Gang Of Love”
  • Drive-By Truckers “Decoration Day”
  • Grandaddy “Sumday”
  • The Stills “Logic Will Break Your Heart”
  • Supergrass “Life On Other Planets”

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2003 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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