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Every year I’m flooded with music I love; here’s my best attempt to capture some of that in a list.



1. Tom Waits, Blood Money (Anti)
When looking back over a year in music, it’s easy to focus on the sparks that caught you by surprise, the new faces and fresh sounds that seemed to come out of nowhere. But it’s just as important not to ignore musicians who are already acknowledged as legends yet are now doing some of their best work. Over the last few decades, Tom Waits has quite simply written some of the best pop songs ever, but he’s also displayed a gift at using the album format to throw listeners into a fully realized universe. With Blood Money, he offers his most vivid created world since 1987’s Frank’s Wild Years. Sonically the album draws on after-hours jazz, old-world folk music, musical theatre, the sound of a lone piano playing “auld lang syne” to no one and the invisible soundtrack to loners combing dark alleys in search of something to live for. With Waits serving as both the album’s devilish, pessimistic narrator and its lovelorn protagonists, Blood Money is a rich, textured human story told through song.



2. Talib Kweli, Quality (Rawkus)
Absolutely blessed with the gift of wordcraft and not afraid to use it to express his most deeply held beliefs, Talib Kweli has all the makings of an MC who can make people think twice about their longheld assumptions, someone whose words get you thinking. What makes Quality so powerful, though, is the way he balances that with his love for raw hip-hop and his desire to make music you can dance to, nod your head to and live to. Brighter and more varied than his other recordings, Quality is a joyous affair that uses elements from throughout the history of soul music and hip-hop and makes them sound fresh.



3. RJD2, Deadringer (Def Jux)
RJD2’s Deadringer is one of those much-hyped albums that actually deserves the hype, and then some. His compact tracks take obscure R&B classics, meld them with on-fire hip-hop beats and add a layer of cinematic atmosphere. In doing so, he somehow forms an invisible bridge between the stars and the streets, making music that’s rooted in real life but projects a head-in-the-clouds dreaminess. Rugged yet heartfelt appearances from three up-and-coming MCs (Blueprint, Jakki, and Copywrite) are integrated into the album in a natural way, without drawing the attention away from RJ’s ability to create riveting music.



4. Sonic Youth, Murray Street (Geffen)
Though Murray Street has been touted as Sonic Youth’s return to form, the truth is that the group never slipped in any way. Murray Street picks up on their amazing recent recordings, including their forays into sheer experimentalism (the SYR series) and the flair for grouping songs together in a cohesive way that they displayed on NYC Ghosts and Flowers), but combines that with accessible, straightforward pop-rock songwriting. The mixing of humable melodies with guitar-driven dives off the tallest cliffs makes Murray Street grab listeners firmly by their ears. The way they combine it all so seamlessly makes the album even more brilliant.



5. Bright Eyes, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek)
The songs of Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, delve into the deepest human emotions (fear of being alone, desire for affection, worries about death) in a stark yet friendly way. He comes across like a true friend revealing his inner-most thoughts, but in an especially articulate way that taps into the things everyone feels but few try to dwell on. That aspect is part of what draws an ever-growing legion to his music. The other aspects—a gift for melody, a raw but affecting singing voice, a continually improving skill at taking stripped-down songs and augmenting them with interesting instrumentation and atmosphere—are just as important, what makes Lifted both powerful and endlessly entertaining.


6. Irving, Good Morning Beautiful (Eenie Meenie)
For a group with five songwriters, Irving offer a surprisingly cohesive rock-pop vision. Their music is rooted in 60s psychedelia and modern bohemia (the Elphant 6 cadre in particular), but also nods towards old-fashioned pop songs, futurist electronics and whatever else seems to fit. In short, their debut album Good Morning Beautiful is filled with great pop songs, songs you’ll be singing until the cows come home. Yet the songs aren’t forgettable sugar candies but come from people, their lives and their stories. Good Morning Beautiful is loaded with feeling and creativity; it collapses the past, present and future into one giddy pop-rock party.


7. Namelessnumberheadman, When We Leave, We Will Know Where We’ve Been (Urinine)
As the debut full-length from a Kansas City, Missouri-based trio who rarely plays outside of their hometown, When We Leave… is likely to slip under the radars of most people. But it shouldn’t, as it’s one of the most rewarding pop albums of the year. An atmospheric and melodic hybrid of future-leaning electronics and rustic folk-pop, their music is filled with both beautiful, widescreen sonic landscapes and intimate, introspective ponderings of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Their music might be hard for corporate-types to place in terms of genre, but that’s part of what makes them great. They transcend boundaries by doing what feels natural to them and making it work.


8. DJ Spooky, Optometry (Thirsty Ear)
DJ Spooky views jazz as a hybrid, and sees what he does as a DJ as fitting into that same dynamic. With Optometry he’s made that connection literal, using elements of jazz music as part of his breathtaking stew of beats, rhythms and sounds. Optometry is the sound of barriers flying out the window, as modern-day jazz (and by relation, jazz history) meld with hip-hop, dub reggae, avant garde experimentalism, ambient mood, poetry and classical placidity. Optometry is a dizzying, varied creation that showcases the brilliant and exciting creations that emerge through flux and chaos. As one song title puts it, “It’s a mad, mad, mad world.” In Spooky’s mind, that’s a good thing.


9. DJ Ordeal, John (Sparticus Stargazer)
As a vinyl-only limited edition of 300 copies, available only in the UK, John might not be the easiest recording to find. Yet it’s way too fascinating to be neglected just because of its availability. The enigmatic DJ Ordeal isn’t on the technological cutting-edge: John was created with reel-to-reel tape and cassette players and recorders. Yet his music is stunningly fresh, even as the source material is old. John is a haunting montage of music from Hollywood melodramas and musicals, of the pop hits of yesteryear. Everything is blended together into one glorious instrumental megamix of drama, emotion and, above all, mystery. It’s an exhilarating puzzle, a trip into the dreams of the past that is intriguing enough to birth legions of new dreams today.


10. Airport 5, Life Starts Here (Fading Captain Series: Rockathon/Recordhead)
While Universal Truths and Cycles was an enjoyable yet traditional Guided By Voices album, GBV head Robert Pollard used the other months of his year to explore more exciting territory. His Go Back Snowball and Circus Devils collaborative albums were splendid, as was my favorite Pollard release of the year, Life Starts Here. The second collaboration between Pollard and Tobin Sprout as Airport 5 brought out the blissful, dreamy side of the two musicians. Pollard’s lyrical non-sequitors and “weird energy” are married to Sprout’s gorgeous ambient-pop instrumentals, making a spacey sort of beauty, one grounded less in the classic-rock raw energy that GBV so often taps into than the haziness of clouds and ghosts, the etherealness of shoegazers, space-rockers and ambient composers.


20 Other Amazing Recordings that I can’t not mention:


Best EP: The Clientele, Lost Weekend (Acuarela)


Best live album: Damon and Naomi with Kurihara, Song to the Siren (Sub Pop)


Best compilation of previously released material: The Lucksmiths, Where Were We? (Matinee)


Best Various Artists Compilation: Single Wish: A Benefit Various Artists Compilation Presented by The Caffeinated Robots (Sprite Recordings)


Best Boxed Set: Beat Happening, Crashing Through (K)


Best Movie Score: Punch-Drunk Love, Jon Brion


Best 2003 album that I’ve heard so far: Tobin Sprout, Lost Planets and Phantom Voices (Recordhead)

Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine ErasingClouds.com, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.


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