1. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/Virgin)
For the mainstream, 2003 will no doubt be remembered as the year of “Stacy’s Mom”, but, despite the fact that Grammys selected the Fountains of Wayne as a nominee for Best New Artist, all the cool kids had been waiting for this third album by Adam Schlesinger and company since, oh, about as soon as they’d finished listening to Utopia Parkway. They did not disappoint. One can only hope that the general public will take to other tracks on the disc as well as they did to the now-impossible-to-escape first single.
2. Joe Jackson Band, Volume 4 (Restless/Rykodisc)
When Joe Jackson, Graham Maby, and Gary Burke released Live in New York in 2000, it was clear that our angry young man Joe was on the road to recovery after those years of experimentation with more of a classical format. Unfortunately, Night and Day II wasn’t everything his fans could’ve hoped for. Fortunately, Volume 4 was. Pretty ballsy of Joe to include a 6-song EP of live classics with the new album… but, thankfully, most of the new disc holds up remarkably well next to his old favorites.
3. Warren Zevon, The Wind Artemis)
Certainly the most depressing release of 2003, though it was undeniably wonderful that the late Warren Zevon lived long enough to see not only the release of this, his final album, but also the birth of his grandchildren. The Wind was Zevon’s last fling with rock and roll, and it hits all the emotional highs and lows you’d expect from a disc recorded by a man who knows his days are numbered. Sadly beautiful.
4. Rooney, Rooney (Geffen/Interscope)
Rooney came to the attention of pop fans through a family connection; his older brother is Jason Schwartzman, late of Phantom Planet. Once folks heard “Blueside”, the lead track on their self-titled debut album, the family connection was forgotten in favor of Rooney’s own formidable musical merits. It’s like ELO meets the Cars, but with enough modern sounds to keep these young lads firmly rooted in present day. With old hands like Keith Forsey, Jimmy Iovine, and Andy Wallace involved on the production and mixing end of things, this is among the best debut albums of 2003… and certainly the highest ranking on my list.
5. The Thorns, The Thorns (Sony)
You can’t really call ‘em a supergroup, because, honestly, how well would Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins rank in a man-on-the-street poll, but for fans of quality American music, this album was a godsend. Comparisons to Crosby, Stills, and Nash are inevitable with the remarkable harmonies on the Thorns’ self-titled debut, but there are a lot worse people you could be compared to. Their sound is straight out of the ‘70s California scene, but what’s wrong with that? Not a blessed thing. Indeed, the folks from that scene who are still recording would likely kill to put out an album this strong.
6. Guster, Keep It Together (Palm/Reprise)
Unlike a lot of my friends who latched onto Guster in their earliest days and never let go, it took me awhile to really become a serious fan and, since some don’t find their latest album to be as strong as its predecessors, I suppose it’s a little ironic that this would be the album that finally sold me on them permanently. But it is.
7. Mark Bacino, The Million Dollar Milkshake (Parasol)
As frothy as its title would imply, Mark Bacino’s follow-up to Pop Job is, if not necessarily an astounding feat of artistic growth, certainly a worthy sophomore effort. It goes down smooth, and, perhaps unsurprisingly for an album of non-stop bubblegum pop, leaves a nice, pleasant aftertaste.
8. Fleetwood Mac, Say You Will (Warner Bros.)
First things first: without Christine McVie, Say You Will is, as a Fleetwood Mac album, sadly lacking in approximately 33.3% of the magic that made the band so incredible during its glory years. As a result of her absence, however, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks have adjusted the songwriting duties to an even 50/50, and any opportunity to score new songs from Lindsey Buckingham is something worth celebrating. Hell, even Stevie’s stuff is pretty song for the most part.
9. The Pernice Brothers, Yours, Mine and Ours (Ashmont)
Joe Pernice is a musical genius, plain and simple. If Yours, Mine and Ours isn’t the best album the Pernice Brothers have put out (and, okay, it isn’t), it’s still strong enough to land it in my top 10 of this year. Few musicians are willing to blend a love of Burt Bacharach with basslines borrowed from New Order and still have time to write a book about Meat Is Murder.
10. I Monster, Neveroddoreven (Dharma)
The dark horse in this 10-pack. In 2001, I Monster had a hit in Europe with the brilliant “Daydream in Blue”, but it took them until this year to finally come up with a full-length debut album. A mixture of dance, pop, and instrumental shenanigans, Neveroddoreven is a fun listen. Maybe nothing quite matches “Daydream in Blue” (which is included here), but it’s a hard act to follow; the fact that other tracks even come close is quite an accomplishment.
11. AM Radio, Radioactive
12. The Blondes, Swedish Heat
13. Michael Carpenter and King’s Rd., Kingsrdworks
14. The Format, Interventions and Lullabies
15. Hawks, Perfect World Radio
16. Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music
17. Mr. Encrypto, Secret Identity Crisis
18. The Singles, Better Than Before
19. Steadman, Revive
20. The Pearlfishers, Sky Meadows