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BEST MUSIC OF 2003  26 - 30
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30 CLEARLAKE
Cedars (Domino)
An obvious key to the triumph of Cedars rests near its conclusion: the chilling hesitancy of “Treat Yourself with Kindness”, the album’s second-to-last track. It is anything but a denouement. Guitars crawl eerily out of dark silences to captivate your consciousness; drums and bass lines pinning you down to be slowly, surely compelled by Jason Pegg’s legato singing, his words constant yet distinct, like the pace of water between droplets and a stream. Then the burst: clashing cymbals, deafening guitars, singing that seems to be begging the noise for mercy. Dynamism, theater, action, expectation—all here in one package, but threaded masterfully throughout Clearlake’s sophomore effort.
      — Devon Powers :. original PopMatters review
29 FRUIT BATS
Mouthfuls (Sub Pop)
Eric Johnson and Gillian Lisee produced one of the most enjoyable records of the year, full of charm and wonder and great pop-flavored hooks. But it’s more than just a mouthful of sweetness. There’s mature complexity to these otherwise seemingly simple songs that evolves over time. Themes of nature and mysticism explode from beneath gentle surfaces; the new is always colliding with the old and earthy. But it doesn’t happen in a violent way; rather, it’s an immersion that seems completely natural—take “Union Blanket” as the best example of such fusion, as digital noise and beats mesh seamlessly with banjo and folky acoustic guitar. Yet, there’s not just one track that stands out here. Instead, Mouthfuls is a whole record; one piece can stand on its own, but it’s so much better when digested all at once.
      — Mitch Pugh :. original PopMatters review
28 MANITOBA
Up in Flames (Leaf/Domino)
2003 has been a very fruitful year for great music, as many excellent albums have come out, but in my mind, nothing really stands out above all the rest, and it’s a real toss-up among my top ten. In picking my favorite album of the year, I went to the one that resonated with me emotionally the most, that one being Manitoba’s folktronica standout Up in Flames. Canadian laptop whiz Dan Snaith has crafted a deeply layered cut-and-paste collage that sounds equal parts Flaming Lips, Boards of Canada, and My Bloody Valentine, a euphoric, giddy, 39-minute experience that reveals something new every time you hear it. On this album, Snaith establishes himself as a singular talent; he makes Radiohead’s clumsy Hail to the Thief sound pretentious and emotionally empty, and equals the Flaming Lips’ ability to combine electronic beats with blissed-out pop in a way that would make Wayne Coyne wish he had collaborated with Manitoba instead of the Chemical Brothers. It might not be the most important album of 2003, but it is the most beautiful record I’ve heard this year. That’s all the convincing I need.
      — Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review
27 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.
      — Rob Horning :. original PopMatters review
26 JOE STRUMMER AND THE MESCALEROS
Streetcore (Hellcat)
Streetcore is Joe Strummer’s straight-on rock and roll record, the disc we’ve been waiting for since Strummer and his bandmates kicked fellow frontman Mick Jones out of the Clash nearly two decades ago. It is a rocking, rumbling record, a pastiche of straight-on rockers, ‘60s rave-ups, folk, and Third World rhythms, upon which Strummer sets his most focused lyrics since his days with The Clash. It is an album of memory and politics, of connections and echoes, references to the Clash (“London is burning”, he sings at one point) mixing in with ruminations on aging (“I want to do everything silver and gold / and I’ve got to hurry up before I get too old”) and calls to political action and freedom—his simple, exquisite cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song functioning as the disc’s focal point.
      — Hank Kalet :. original PopMatters review
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