1. Brand New, Deja Entendu (Razor & Tie)
Brand New better not mess up. I like them too much to see their next album flop after this year’s brilliant Deja Entendu. Maturing both lyrically and musically from 2001’s My Favorite Weapon, these Long Islanders present themselves as a unified and sophisticated entity. The songs on the new album are varied and passionate, cinematic and smart. Above all, though, Deja Entendu is complete. From the ambient opening chords of “Tautou” and the pounding drama of “Sic Transit Gloria Glory Fades”, to the epic grandeur of “Okay, I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t”, right through to the morose closer, “Play Crack the Sky”, this is an album of passionate perfection. And the members of Brand New are all still young, which is so exciting. I seriously hope that they’ve got albums and albums of inspiration inside them. And I seriously hope they continue to improve with every release, because if Deja Entendu is any indication of what is to come, the youth of my generation are at risk of willingly placing our faith in this quartet of savvy Long Islanders. Don’t let us down!
Key Tracks: “Sic Transit Gloria… Glory Fades”, “Okay, I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t”, “Guernica”
2. Cursive, The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek)
A best of 2003 list wouldn’t be complete without some Saddle Creeker making it to the Top 10. Last year, Bright Eyes wowed everyone. This year, Cursive made the blip on the radar, coming, of course, from Omaha, Nebraska. Almost immediately after its release in March, The Ugly Organ garnered extensive critical acclaim, ranging from a top spot on the college radio charts to four stars from Rolling Stone. The album deserves every bit of positive press it got. With the recent addition of cellist Greta Cohn, the band has achieved a sound only hinted at on previous albums. Cohn adds a delicate and stately element to Cursive’s grating and often discordant compositions. Indeed, on The Ugly Organ, the songs evolve from almost painful dissonance to moments of breathtaking perfection. During “A Gentleman Caller”, vocalist Tim Kasher sings with frightening intensity until the crashing climax, at which time all the instruments drop out, leaving only Cohn’s haunting melody. I saw this song performed in a tiny club in Buffalo, New York, and the combination of Kasher’s shredded voice and Cohn’s cello functioned both to enthrall the crowd and to bring tears to my eyes—something that’s never happened to me at a show. “Bloody Murderer” and “Staying Alive” produce similar reactions, with instrumental peaks that induce a physical reaction. Listening to Kasher’s voice is draining and seriously cathartic. After the 10-minute last track, I’m exhausted.
Key Tracks: “Art Is Hard”, “A Gentleman Caller”, “Staying Alive”
3. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Capitol)
It must be pretty rough, that whole superhero role. Talk about pressure. For the last seven years, we’ve relied on Radiohead to jump in and save the music industry whenever it got crappy. So, yeah, we’ve been relying on Radiohead a lot. But some people are born to be superheroes, and these five Brits have finally accepted their places in the biggest and most innovative rock band in the world. I saw Radiohead for the first time at the Field Day festival this past summer, and I’ve never encountered a more jubilant group of guys. Thom Yorke shuffled and wiggled across the stage in a bizarrely graceful dance that only he and maybe Beck could pull off. And he was smiling. Johnny Greenwood leapt from instrument to instrument like some otherworldly elf, and from his various guitars and unidentifiable boxes he produced some of the strangest noises and wisps of melodies my ears have ever encountered. Phil Selway’s drums filled the stadium, and I agree with Yorke’s assertion: the rhythms on the new record are sexy. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Hail to the Thief, but every time I pop it in the old Discman, I hear something new—a few new blips on “Backdrifts”, a different rhythm on “There There”, or a new vocal trick on “Sit Down, Stand Up”. The fact that that a group of guys can possess such inspiration and talent on their sixth album gives me hope. Creative energy like theirs exists in the real world. Who knows where it will turn up next?
Key Tracks: “Backdrifts”, “There There”, “A Punch Up at a Wedding”
4. Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism (Barsuk)
I love it when bands get better with age! Seriously, I get so nervous before one of my favorite bands releases a new album, because I’m worried it’s not going to be as good as previous releases. Well, nothing to fear. Death Cab’s latest, Transatlanticism, is the band at its best. Singer Ben Gibbard’s lyrics have never been stronger or more vivid, especially on “Title and Registration”, a song about stumbling upon an artifact from a previous relationship. On “Passenger Seat”, the album’s most delicately beautiful track, the entire band comes together to create a late-night car ride down an empty, country road. And that’s what’s so great about this album: the band functions as a finely-honed, cohesive unit. The guys in the band nail every single song, which is what guitarist Chris Walla is most proud of. He connected lyrically with every song. This is clearly illustrated throughout the album, as the band members perform each song with passion, poise, and dedication to their art. Transatlanticism is an album to listen to from start to finish—an indie-pop journey about long-distance love and the passage of time.
Key Tracks: “The New Year”, “Passenger Seat”, “We Looked Like Giants”
5. The Postal Service, Give Up (Sub Pop)
Ben Gibbard is the man of the year, as far as I’m concerned. Not only did his primary band, Death Cab for Cutie, release its best album yet, but his side project, the Postal Service, came up with “The Little Album that Could”, Give Up. Released in February, the record hit it big on the college charts and since then, has been gaining popularity on a broader scale. Hell, my mom loves this record. Of course, she works in a post office. Anyway, on Give Up, Gibbard, with the help of Dntel mastermind Jimmy Tamborello, creates nearly perfect pop songs. Sure, most of them are about relationships, but listening to the lyrics is a trip through the minutiae of love—the awkwardness surrounding a meet-up with an ex in her new apartment, matching freckles, and dream realities where kisses rival Clark Gable’s. Throw in a few social commentary tunes and one wild, indie-pop’s-version-of-drum ‘n’ bass last track, and you’ve got the most infectious album of the year.
Key Tracks: “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”, “Nothing Better”, “Brand New Colony”
6. The Mars Volta, De-loused in the Comatorium (Universal)
At the Drive In rocked. The band did, and then it broke up. Lucky for all of us, the Mars Volta rocks too. Emerging from the wreckage of their previous band, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala collaborated with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and big-time producer Rick Rubin to create the genre-shattering album, De-loused in the Comatorium. This record is punk, jazz, Latin, avant-garde, psychedelic, and just plain weird. In other words it’s invaluable.
Key Tracks: “Inertiatic E.S.P.”, “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)”
7. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)
Some rock and roll is meant to be dirty. Elephant is dirty. Jack and Meg White are strange pair, but, boy, do they have chemistry. On Elephant, these two bring back straightforward, nasty rock music. No curse words, no lewd videos—they’re still sweaty and up to their ears in classic hooks and huge rhythms. Jack sounds like Paul McCartney if he outgrew his pop sensibility. Meg sounds like Nancy Sinatra after a few smokes. Together, their music is timeless.
Key Tracks: “Seven Nation Army”, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”, “In the Cold, Cold Night”
8. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)
All hail the Kings of Garage Rock! Most imitators have nothing on these guys, and judging by the number of sophomore albums coming from those bands, it’s clear at least to me, that the Strokes have taken their place at the head of their genre. Room On Fire swaggers, stumbles, and sways with the genuine “Rock Star” attitude this band seems to have been born with. Julian Casablancas’s compressed voice blends with guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi’s slick riffs so that all three instruments are at the same volume. This unique sound, combined with the bending of their own genre—garage reggae, garage new wave, and garage Motown—make Room on Fire the perfect sequel to Is This It?
Key Tracks: “Whatever Happened”, “Automatic Stop”, “Between Love and Hate”
9. A Perfect Circle, Thirteenth Step (Virgin)
This is an album that’s so dark and heavy and angry and complex and theatrical and striking that it couldn’t not be on my list. Maynard James Keenan’s voice is a powerful instrument, one that remains barely restrained on “Weak and Powerless” and explodes on “The Outsider”. His songwriting, coupled with the dark energy of the musicians playing with him, makes for a work of stark beauty.
Key Tracks: “Weak and Powerless”, “The Nurse Who Loved Me”
10. The Bad Plus, These Are the Vistas (Columbia)
Even for someone who’s not much of a jazz aficionado, The Bad Plus’s debut is totally accessible. True, covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Heart of Glass”, and a delicate version of Aphex Twin’s “Flim” make These Are the Vistas more appealing to an indie-rock kid like myself. But regardless of my status as jazz novice, this mid-western trio has impressed me. Bass, drums, piano—simple, timeless, dignified, and totally head-bobbable.
Key Tracks: “Flim”, “Big Eater”
Top 5 Songs 2003
1. OutKast: “Hey Ya!”
The official “Feel-good Hit of the Year”. Watching eight Andre 3000’s shimmy around on stage and request that girls “Shake it like a Polaroid picture”... there’s no room for error.
2. Radiohead: “Backdrifts”
The most complex song on the album, this one scrambles your brain if you listen on headphones. Brain scrambling good. Try it.
3. Cursive: “A Gentleman Caller”
This is the most intense song I have ever heard in my life. Tim Kasher is at his most passionate on this track from The Ugly Organ. Cursive’s sound is so raucous that when this song hits its peak in a moment of melodic perfection, I find it hard to breathe.
4. The Postal Service: “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”
A little ditty about ex-girlfriend awkwardness that evolves beautifully. Ben Gibbard’s boyish voice sounds like it will break at any moment, and Jimmy Tamborello’s initially delicate beat grows and escalates into a manic pulse that stands out against Gibbard’s self-deprecating lyrics. “I am finally seeing / I was the one worth leaving”.
5. The While Stripes: “Seven Nation Army”
Jack White’s guitar riff is huge. This Detroit duo has learned the art of the rock song. When listening to this one, I wish I knew how to walk like a rock star. I think having a swagger while listening to “Seven Nation Army” would be really great.