Best Music of 2003 | Anthony C. Bleach

[18 December 2003]

By Anthony C. Bleach

The Aislers Set, How I Learned to Write Backwards (Suicide Squeeze)
This third full-length by these San Francisco noise-popsters isn’t their best album, but it is the one that best encapsulates the contradictory nature of their aesthetic. The murky sound (especially on the faster songs) might easily be chalked up to the domestic production techniques, but said techniques do lovely justice to the jingling bells, clapping hands, warming organ, soaring choruses, and occasional horn on this suite of pop songs about friends and neighborhoods. Since they’re literally a garage band, I’m constantly baffled by how often I hear a symphony here. By the way, if Phil Spector needs money after his possible murder trial ends, he needn’t bother looking for a buyer in the Aislers Set, since his famous wall of sound is already in vocalist/guitarist Amy Linton’s house.

Basement Jaxx, Kish Kash (Astralwerks)
If the next-big-thing-of-2003-that-wasn’t is the mashup (“A Stroke of Genius”, I’m listening to you), then this album is the bastard offspring of the mashup; this is pop music that’s been mashed together, held only by a remarkable grasp of the history of pop music. As such, it’s both like and unlike any pop music anyone on earth (besides Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe) has ever heard. With a platoon of hot (Dizzee Rascal, Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello) or not (JC Chasez?) guest vocalists on display, we get some Electro-Northern Soul (“Good Luck”), Mutant Big Beat (“Supersonic”), Middle Eastern Garage (“Lucky Star”), Ambient Quiet Storm (“Feels Like Home”), and Fractured Chartpop (“Plug It In”). And while this record runs out of steam three-quarters of the way through, it’s breathtaking when it’s on. Why hasn’t any track on here hit mainstream radio?

British Sea Power, The Decline of British Sea Power (Rough Trade)
Bands that wear uniforms on stage when performing are either incredibly talented and deserve every column-inch of praise that comes their way (the Beatles, the Mummies) or are pretentious hacks who should have stayed at home, performing at decrepit Elks Lodges for beer money (... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead). Fortunately for us, British Sea Power falls into the former category. Out of all the guitar-driven records that rode out in 2003, this one had a refreshing set of influences (1990s Britrock, especially of the Ride variety) and an equally refreshing take on those influences. They may rant one minute and whisper the next, but the album coheres like their vintage World War I uniforms do. Let’s hope that we hear more from them in the future.

Dizzee Rascal, Boy in Da Corner (XL)
Critic Simon Reynolds has made the most intelligent statement this year about this teenage (!) Londoner’s debut (!!) album: there’s an element of vulnerability to it. Whether boasting about himself, toasting his mates, or roasting the competition, there’s an inescapable feeling that Dizzee is a young man on the ledge of a dangerous yet alluring adult world that he’s both too immature to have yet fully experienced, and with which he’s too experienced to claim the ignorance of youth. And for such an alien-sounding album to these American ears, it’s clear that arguing whether this record is skrewface UK hip-hop with UK Garage influences, UK Garage with a grimy US hip-hop flavor, or something else entirely, is to miss the point; it’s a record that needs to be heard.

The Door and the Window, Detailed Twang (Overground)
I’m still trying to figure out why I like this reissue - which collects TDATW’s 1980 album, plus EPs and compilation tracks from 1979 through 1980—as much as I do, since some of the songs are, to put in nicely, annoying as an errant eyelash. TDATW formed in the wake of punk rock in London and did it themselves, much like their contemporaries Alternative TV, the Desperate Bicycles, Scritti Politti, and Throbbing Gristle did. In other words, they’re punxperimental as fuck. Some of this (the LP tracks especially) reminds of songs that Vyvyan and Rick might have written if The Young Ones had to rely on their (lack of?) musical talent for musical guest spots: herky-jerky, rudimentary, and repetitive rhythms, too-smart-for-their-own-good absurdist/political lyrics, and minimal synthesizer/guitar accompaniment. And some of this (the EPs and other material) might be perhaps summed up by one title: “I Like Sound”. Well, I do, too.

Erase Errata, At Crystal Palace (Troubleman Unlimited)
The sound of music falling apart and coming together. Sara Jaffe might be one of the most innovative and underrated guitarists around; she ignites her fretboard on fire with some bizarro strumming and plucking. Ellie Erickson and Bianca Sparta are a nimble rhythm section, making chaos sound easy; Erickson’s bass throbs and globs, while Sparta’s drums maneuver through treacherous enemy territory. And sprinkled on top of this stew, Jenny Hoyston mega- and tele-phones in her vocals from the inner and outer continents of our planet. You can certainly ponder how all of this really shouldn’t fit together as fantastically as it does, but you’ll definitely be moved to move.

OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
Has anyone actually listened to this ambitious double-CD set all the way through? For those brave souls who have, can anyone say anything interesting about it? And for those brave souls who have said something interesting about it, what did they talk about? For all the amazing and weird stuff that’s going on here, I’m struck by one thing: Andre 3000 and Big Boi must have been bored, since they move from style to style (electro, funk, jazz, hip-hop, rock n’ roll, techno, etc.), never sounding like they’re satisfied remaining in any one genre. In that way, it might be easy to compare OutKast on this album to Guided By Voices: incredibly prolific, occasionally catchy, and unable to sustain their interest in a song beyond its length. Fortunately, they do sustain our interest.

The Rapture, Echoes (DFA/Strummer/Universal)
For an album that was as scaldingly-anticipated (and long-in-the-making) as this one, it’s nice that Echoes doesn’t suck. Credit must go to the DFA (Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy) for helping the four boys in the band achieve their presumed ambition of becoming the most versatile band around, moving from acid housing to disco-rocking to balladeering without a misstep. Sonic genius. (Having said that, though, it’s difficult to imagine them doing much more on a major label: it’s no doubt that future releases will satisfy those of us who are already Rapture-ous converts, but how will they convince the suits in charge—those schooled in narrowcasting and niche-marketing –- that versatility is important?)

The Ssion, Opportunity Bless My Soul (Version City)
The Ssion come from Kentucky, not a state that’s really known for producing bands as challenging and charged as them. While they sound closest to Le Tigre performing in a version of The Rocky Horror Show, (early) Madonna guesting on an (early) Black Flag record, or the geeks in the audio-video club doing the best note-for-note cover of “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” possible with rickety equipment, they might best be described as the audio equivalent of a day-after-two-day-drunk breakfast at the Waffle House: too messy and loud for the well-dressed Sunday crowd. Hell, they’re even too messy and loud for the two-day-drunk crowd. Led by wunderkind Cody Critcheloe (who does the band’s videos and artwork), they are polymorphously perverse, funny, and a much-needed enema for independent music.

Various Artists, Disco Weapons Inspection (WFMU Marathon 2003 Promo CD)
It’s probably unfair of me to devote my blah to this CD, considering it’s a promo-only gift I received after donating money to radio station WFMU (and also considering I name at least nine officially-released albums below), but it was a long long time until this exited my CD player. Featuring college marching band songs (the Bethune Cookman College Marching Band version of Barry White’s “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything” has wrung literal tears of joy from my eyes), corny (The Ritchie Family’s “American Generation”) and not-so-corny (C.J. & Co.‘s “Devil’s Gun”, Tasha Thomas’ “Shoot Me”) disco, and some futuristic Italo-sounding business (Naked in Paris’ “No-No, Heh-Heh”), this is a refreshing refresher on why disco is important. And why music-lovers everywhere should respect and support independently-owned radio stations in an era of increasingly frightening Clear Channel consolidation.

Also Worthy Ten:
Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll (Lost Highway)
Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Capitol)
Sunburned Hand of the Man, Magnetic Drugs (Manhand)
Rufus Wainwright, Want One (DreamWorks)
Paul Westerberg, Come Feel Me Tremble (Vagrant)
Various Artists, Cool As Ice: The Be Music Productions (LTM)
Various Artists, Mutant Disco (Ze)
Various Artists, New York Noise (Soul Jazz)
Various Artists, Rough Trade Shops: Post Punk 01 (Rough Trade)

Top Five Songs (in Numerical Order):

1. 50 Cent, “In Da Club” (Shady/Interscope)
It’s amazing that such a minimalist song as this has turned out to be such a monster hit. Never has so little meant so much to so many.

2. OutKast, “Hey Ya!” (Arista)
The only two-verse single on the radio whose best section—the ad-libbed vocals and the breakdown—comes after the second chorus. Huge respect for wedding electronic bassline to acoustic guitar, and for not bringing in said bassline until the 30-second mark. Cooler than cool, and also the best video of the year.

3. Kanye West, “Through the Wire” (Roc-A-Fella)
Mixtape champion + rapping through a post-auto-accident wired-shut jaw + sped-up sample of Chaka Khan vocal = bliss.

4. Missy Elliott, “Pass That Dutch” (Goldmind/Elektra)
While this might take huge bites from “Work It”, it certainly took bites from the good parts. Second-best video of the year.

5. Kelis, “Milkshake” (Star Trak/Arista)
If you need even more proof of why the Neptunes rule the schoolyard and the clubs, listen no further than this.

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