1. Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won, (Atlantic)
For a band as legendary as Led Zeppelin, the lack of a definitive live album in it’s catalogue was a longstanding criminal oversight. Zep fans were forced to wait over thirty years for a suitable concert recording, but all is forgiven with 2003’s epic triple disc release. Captured at their musical zenith in 1972, Plant, Page, Bonham, and Jones show that with the exception of vintage Who and MC5, the mighty Zeppelin was unrivaled on stage. They power through (soon to be) classic material with abandon, showing off their individual levels of brilliance while solidifying the live Zep legacy. From faithful song renditions to expansive jams, every bit of crunch and bombast are present, making this collection a fitting tribute to one of rock’s greatest acts.
2. Iggy Pop, Skull Ring, (Virgin)
To the grandfather of punk, age ain’t nothing but a number, as Iggy shows he hasn’t lost a step in middle age. Reuniting with his Stooge compatriots Ron and Scott Asheton, as well as several other notable artists, Iggy offers up a generous amount of sneering abrasiveness, evidence that he is indeed the King of Pop. Lean and mean just like the Ig-man himself, the album is a high octane blueprint on how to do it right while giving the world the finger. A recording that deserves to be turned up L-O-U-D, Skull Ring is a tremendous outing for Iggy. Should we have expected anything less?
3. Jane’s Addiction, Strays, (Capitol)
Surprising fans and critics alike, Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, and Stephen Perkins reunited after a near decade long hiatus, (teaming with bassist Chris Chaney), to create an impressive rock record. Sure, hints of the old band’s flavor are present, but make no mistake, this is a mature and harder edged Jane’s Addiction. While Farrell’s singing and writing retain their usual sharpness, Navarro makes the record much his own with his impassioned guitar work. No longer viewed as the torch bearer for the alternative movement, Jane’s is still one of the best bands on the active circuit, and judging by the quality of Strays, Perry and the gang still have much to offer.
4. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, (Arista)
Essentially two solo albums cloaked as a single release, the latest offering from OutKast is nothing short of ambitious. Over three dozen tracks run the gambit from hip-hop to pop, cutting a wide swath across musical boundaries. The tone of the album is far from haphazard though, as Big Boi and Andre show their respective talents as experimenters, finding a great deal of success in their musical explorations. Time will tell if other rap artists are courageous enough to similarly break from tradition, but this is one of the rare albums that has the potential to become legendary as a historical milepost.
5. Rancid, Indestructible, (Hellcat)
Rancid deserves praise for staying true to the punk aesthetic while the music industry has embraced everything else over the past decade. The album is not merely a statement of the group’s integrity however, but also proof that Rancid is just a damn good band; fine writing and strong playing make this a solid addition to the band’s catalog. Additionally, it exposes a wealth of acts that claim to engender punk, but are merely “flavor of the moment” music biz darlings. Kudos to Rancid for continuing to walk it like they talk it.
6. Guided By Voices, Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, (Matador)
Irrespective of popularity or record sales, GBV is the band the Strokes wish they could be. Sharp song writing, expert musicianship and adherence to the ethic of creating art for art’s sake have made the group a cult favorite. Perhaps GBV is simply too good for mainstream acceptance, but one thing is certain, Robert Pollard and company continue to make music the way they want to, without apology or compromise. That unto itself allows GBV to stand tall amongst a litany of pretenders, and the fact that the band continues to churn out quality albums further enhances it’s impressive reputation.
7. Various Artists, Blues Kingpin Series, (The Right Stuff/EMI)
A beautifully crafted tribute to six legendary artists, the Blues Kingpin Series offers listeners the opportunity to revisit the best work of their blues heroes. The individual CDs pay homage to Fats Domino, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, Elmore James, and Ike Turner, and boast exquisite sound quality and informative liner notes. While it is impossible to fully distill these artists’ accomplishments onto single CDs, each disc is a sufficient glimpse at genius. Taken as a set or simply as solo albums, these recordings are essential to any musical library.
8. Lucky Boys Confusion, Commitment, (Elektra)
Like a blast of fresh clean air, Lucky Boys’ sophomore effort is a welcome eye opener. Upbeat and energized, the album’s sixteen tracks meld various musical influences to form a unique and satisfying collection of sound. Credit the Boys with their willingness to be different; the growing sophistication of their music sets them apart from the current crop of skate punks and pop poseurs, yielding a superbly crafted album. While many of their contemporaries are experiencing respective fifteen minute periods of fleeting fame, the Boys are building their credibility through grassroots support and aggressive touring. Their rise to the top may be slower, but the stay should be considerably longer once the Boys arrive.
9. The Star Spangles, Bazooka!!!, (Capitol)
Deviating from the formulaic approach of current pop/punk acts du jour, the Spangles travel back in time to harness the energy and spirit of New York’s lower east side circa 1974. Influences from the Ramones, Blondie, Television, and the Dolls adorn the album, providing a wonderful change of pace from the Good Charlotte/Sum 41 dreck now polluting the airwaves. The band and its music embody shabby artist chic without pretension, while gaining a dedicated fan base in the US and UK. As long as the Spangles stay true to themselves and their vision, good things should come their way, and they’re a band to watch for breakthrough success in 2004.
10. The Mooney Suzuki, Electric Sweat, (Columbia)
Technically an indie offering in 2002, Electric Sweat was given the “enhanced CD” treatment once the Mooneys were signed by Columbia, and released again in 2003 under the major label banner. The album sticks to an often forgotten musical formula: Keep it simple, keep it energized, and keep it turned up loud. The result: a dozen tracks that capture the group’s live intensity, hearkening back to the days when band’s were judged based upon how they played versus how they looked.
FIVE BEST SONGS - 2003
1. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” - Jet
How could it not be on top of the list? It’s got an infectious beat, a cool guitar riff, and was instantly gobbled up for use in a computer commercial. Not bad for the single off a major label debut album
2. “Hey Ya!” - OutKast
Not since Sly Stone blended funk with psychedelics has an artist so deftly transcended genres as OutKast’s Andre Benjamin. “Hey Ya!” can be heard blasting from frat parties to dance clubs to rock radio stations, proof of the song’s massive cross-over appeal. It is made even better by an incredibly inventive companion video that combines elements of Motown, Beatlemania, and George Clinton’s Mothership. A visual and aural treat, “Hey Ya!” has got everyone’s attention.
3. “Hypersonic” - Jane’s Addiction
Not the hit single from the long awaited Jane’s album, but simply the best new song that Farrell and company put on tape. It boasts a distinctly polished aggression that is a testament to the maturation process the band has experienced over the years, and is an optimistic harbinger of things to come.
4. “Hey Driver” - Lucky Boys Confusion
A perfectly crafted pop song for 2003: Upbeat tempo, strong vocals backed by twin guitars, and a chorus that begs to be sung along to. Throw your fists in the air and start bouncing, this is great fun.
5. “Perverts in the Sun” - Iggy Pop
The cartoonishly witty lyrics, the overpowering guitar blast, and Iggy’s impassioned howl make this song as close to vintage Stooges as possible. Iggy and his band the Trolls lay waste to the competition with this scorching track.
BEST RE-ISSUES - 2003
1. The Who, Who’s Next Deluxe, (MCA)
The original magnitude of Pete Townshend’s “Lifehouse” project can now be fully appreciated with the addition of an extra disc and a half worth of material to the original 1971 studio album. Alternate song tracks and a live performance from the Young Vic Theater bring the album even closer to perfection as the band is showcased at its creative peak. Recorded in the same relative time frame as Live at Leeds and Isle of Wight, Who’s Next is proof that there was no better band than the Who in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.
2. AC/DC, Back in Black, (Epic)
Arguably one of the most important albums of the past quarter century, Back in Black has never sounded better. Behind Brian Johnson’s ear splitting shriek and the Young brothers’ wall of guitars, lies the lethal, (and highly underrated), rhythm section of Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd. Twenty-three years after its original release, the album still serves as the Holy Grail for radio friendly heavy metal by combining crunching power chords with catchy songs. The true value of the record however may be in its lasting tribute to the fallen Bon Scott.
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