Best Music of 2003 | Rob Horning

by Rob Horning

30 December 2003


1. Deerhoof, Apple’ O (Kill Rock Stars)
Some of the best drumming on record, combined with imaginative guitar interplay and some unhinged Sesame Street singing from bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki. It’s hard to imagine anyone growing bored of this record (assuming one wasn’t immediately irritated by its agitated adventurousness): the brief songs’ structures are all varied from each other and all sui generis, impossible to predict where they’re going even after you’ve heard them a dozen times. They’re loaded with unconventional hooks that can come at any moment from any instrument, and layered with well-chosen sounds that run the gamut from cloying sweetness to an industrialized abrasiveness. Don’t let the comparisons to the Shaggs fool you: this is accomplished and carefully orchestrated. It’s the only album all year that made me think something new was still possible, the only thing I thought my friends just had to hear.

2. Evan Dando, Baby I’m Bored (Bar/None)
After a several year hiatus, Dando returns with an album that sounds a lot like the good half of 1996’s Car Button Cloth, his aesthetics of shrugging indifference still firmly in place: he is probably the only singer who can make artistic apathy seem sweet. His voice is as warm and instantly appealing as it ever was, despite his allegedly having destroyed it through rampant crack smoking. Indeed, on the final track, where he simply repeats the line “In the grass all wine-colored, wine-colored grass,” he proves he can be profoundly moving no matter what he sings. But on “Hard Drive” and “All My Life”, both written by former indie teen-sensation Ben Lee, Dando has material that suits his honey tenor perfectly; he’s able to draw out unlikely profundity in words that would look blasé on a page.

3. Cat Power, You Are Free (Matador)
Though Chan Marshall’s prima donna stage behavior and erratic public persona (cryptically justified on this album’s self-absorbed opener, “I Don’t Blame You”) makes her hard to warm too, she still miraculously manages to craft songs whose speakers earn much more of our sympathy than she can, as on “Names,” a chilling exploration of childhood trauma, and “Good Woman”, an affecting and resolute break-up song. While “He War” showcases Marshall in an unusually propulsive rock setting, and “Free” finds her toying with the idea of doing a danceable track, most of this album is given over to spare, quiet ballads whose layers require several listens to unravel, though always repaying the patience required to assimilate them.

4. Broadcast, Haha Sound (Warp)
Though its overtly experimental moments don’t work, the second album from Broadcast nonetheless succeeds in expanding from the Portishead derived sound of their first record, 2000’s The Noise Made by People. Haha Sound finds them ditching the trip-hop in favor of spookier electronics reminiscent of sixties pioneers such as the Silver Apples and White Noise, and the spacey timelessness psych exemplified by the Ultimate Spinach’s “The (Ballad of) The Hip Death Goddess” or the United States of America’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”. The result is several entrancing trips down the rippling, reverb-laden rabbit hole. Singer Trish Keenan is as frigidly precise as ever in her disembodied delivery, but here, liberated from the loops and samples that dominated before, her voice takes on a poignant fragility, suggesting that restraint has a profound pathos of its own.

5. Dump, A Grown-Ass Man (Shrimper)
On his first album of original material in five years, James McNew doesn’t fuss with the recipe that’s made his previous work as Dump so winning. McNew reprises some of his customary songwriting approaches: the droning build in “Daily Affirmation”, the primitive drum loops in “Sisters”, which also features his trademark shift from subdued muttering to anguished pleading delivered in his fragile, richly emotive falsetto. While the lyrics on “The History of Love” and “I Wish/You Wish” are hopeful, the omnipresent sense of despair on the album remains thinly-veiled. His cover of the overtly optimistic standard “Once Upon a Time” typifies this: In their marked inability to harmonize, he and duet partner Sue Garner sound more suspicious than joyful. Still A Grown-Ass Man seems to soothe even as it bristles at love’s platitudes.

6. (Smog), Supper (Drag City)
A return to form for Bill Callahan, the songwriter behind (Smog), who follows up the difficult, diffuse Rain on Lens with this far more straightforward collection, on which he delineates with his usual respect for the listener’s intelligence and attention span the difficulties of maintaining adult relationships and the different ways we contrive to destroy them when they begin to feel too comfortable. The presence of Sarabeth Tucek’s vocals, particularly on the duet “Truth Serum”, do a great deal to dispel the claustrophobia (and alleviate the monotony) that overwhelmed his last album; her vocals not only sweeten his brusque, often affectless baritone, but they afford a conceptual counterpoint, a questioning tone to add yet another level of ambiguity to Callahan’s already deeply ambivalent lyrics.

7. Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
You’d have thought that Trevor Horn would bring more Frankie Goes to Hollywood to his production work here, but he’s surprisingly restrained, evoking the sounds of the eighties less than the spirited and crisply arranged whimsy of the A&M label’s heydey, when people bought their Herb Alpert and Baja Marimba Band records at department stores rather than thrift stores. In the process, he helps Belle and Sebastian reinvigorate songwriting formulas that had grown tired in their recent work. Stuart Murdoch takes full charge here (mo more wheezy songs by the subordinates), and serves up what may be his most barbed set of lyrics yet.

8. The Hong Kong, Rock the Faces (Etherdrag)
This Brooklyn band’s debut consolidates all that’s good about New Wave revivalism while seeming to skirt the smirking self-awareness and histrionic self-importance that usually accompanies such efforts. While a general debt to Eat to the Beat-era Blondie is obvious both in Catherine Culpepper’s voice and in the lilting melodies she sings, there’s more to the music than homage. It takes special talent to make familiar hooks feel new again, to convince you that you’re not better off just listening to the source material. Their tentative attempts at jet-set sophistication are made human, almost poignant, by the simple, restrained production; when they are outfitted with a real recording budget, their work may not remain so warm and approachable.

9. Puffy Amiyumi, Nice (Bar/None)
The shamelessness with which Japanese pop duo Puffy Amiyumi steals from whatever genre they run across makes them irresistible; they pilfer with such aplomb that they seem more imaginative than those earnest, obscurantist bands trying to be post-something. Puffy has the same pan-national knack for melody that Abba had, with two identically voiced female leads to match. They sing in Japanese, but the exuberance of their effervescent guitar-driven attack makes words superfluous anyway; understanding them would only interfere with the campy brilliance of a song like “Tokyo Nights”, which at once pays homage to the Buggles, E.L.O., and A Taste of Honey (of “Boogie Oogie Oogie” fame). Puffy’s specialty is taking quirky indie rock hooks and blowing them up to stadium size, operating with the supreme confidence (and bankroll) that comes from being megastars in their native country. The results hint at what American power pop might sound like if it were actually popular.

10. The Darkness, Permission to Land (Atlantic)
A hard rock band that exploits what Queen knew, that you can never be too flamboyant or over the top. That you can’t really tell for sure how serious the band is only adds to the fun. Never mind that “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” seems a blatant rip-off of Urge Overkill’s “Sister Havana;” the riff still kills, as do the AC/DC riffs they cop on “Black Shuck” and “Givin’ Up”. Lead singer/unitard-devotee Justin Hawkins, when not sounding like Robert Smith fronting the Sweet, sings as if someone’s got a firm grip on his gonads, emitting a wonderfully preposterous falsetto that would do the Bee Gees proud. A perfect antidote for nu metal, Permission to Land is a welcome reminder the best music makes you laugh, over and over again.

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