Best Music of 2003 | Stephen Haag

[29 December 2003]

By Stephen Haag

Yes, this list is alt-country and garage-centric. And yes, I am aware that OutKast is the greatest band on the planet. You can read about the merits of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in this and countless other fine publications. And yes, there were better albums than these 10 released this year. But these 10 provided my own personal 2003 soundtrack. And wither the ladies on this list? I swear, Holly Golightly and Kathleen Edwards were numbers 11 and 12, respectively. That said, here we go.

1. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)
It seems foolish now, but I remember worrying that this album might suck. Jack and Meg White were no longer toileting in obscurity in Detroit, churning out records whenever the spirit moved them. (Looking back it’s hard to believe White Blood Cells was released in July 2001, with little comparatively fanfare.) Hundreds of magazine profiles later, Jack and Meg were proclaimed garage rock royalty. Surely the band, with all eyes upon them, would misstep. Ha. The duo instead holed up in London’s renowned Toe Rag studio and cut Elephant on 40-year-old equipment. Granted, antiquated studios do not a year’s-best record make, but the proof is in the pudding. From the bracing “Black Math” and bluesy “Ball and Biscuit” to the now-expected-from-Jack tender “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” and “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart”, it all clicks. Even the potential novelty songs, the Burt Bacharach cover “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”, and Meg’s coquettish vocal turn on “Cold, Cold Night” ring true. Forget White’s sometime verbal sparring partner Ryan Adams or Chris Martin or Thom Yorke or anybody else—Jack White is rock music’s true savior.

2. Jesse Malin, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction (Artemis)
Or, the best album Ryan Adams was involved in this year. As producer, Adams turned punky former D-Generation frontman Jesse Malin into the best bruised-heart alt-country troubadour, since, well, Ryan Adams, circa Heartbreaker. The rollicking “Wendy” is easily one of the year’s best songs, and other gems such as “Queen of the Underworld”, “Riding on the Subway” and “Almost Grown” prove that Malin and Adams, the goofballs of punk one-off The Finger, know exactly what should be on a near-perfect roots rock album. When people (myself included) finally give up on Adams, I’ll look back on The Fine Art of Self-Destruction and say, Malin shoulda been the star.

3. Minus 5, Down with Wilco (Yep Roc)
How Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck got interstellar indie rock icons Wilco to return to Earth long enough to collaborate on this bakers’ dozen of shimmering, delicate pop gems that don’t collapse into dissonance is beyond my ken, but thank God they did. Yes, technically this is McCaughey’s release, and his cockeyed cynicism is smeared all over this album—see “I’m Not Bitter”—but I’ll be damned if it’s not Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s keenest project since Summerteeth... another album that doubled as a fine Beach Boys pop homage. Down with Wilco is a forgotten classic-in-waiting.

4. The Darkness, Permission to Land (Atlantic)
Leave it to a quartet of long-haired cheese-metal lovin’ Brits to craft (yes, craft) the year’s best “love-it-or-hate-it” album. Packed with monster guitar riffs and soaring falsetto vocals that suggest the unholy love child of Angus Young and Freddie Mercury, Permission to Land could have fallen on the wrong side of the clever/stupid line (to paraphrase Spinal Tap frontman/Darkness touchstone David St. Hubbins). Fortunately, lead singer Justin Hawkins and his bandmates take their job of rocking seriously and turned in a batch of airtight, air-guitar inducing songs about love (“I Believe in a Thing Called Love”), STDs (“Growing on Me”), heroin (“Givin’ Up”) and, um, Hell-spawned dogs (“Black Shuck”). I remember reading somewhere that late Warren Zevon once called his “Werewolves of London” “a dumb song for smart people”. The Darkness have done Zevon one better, creating an entire album of dumb songs for smart people.

5. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/Virgin)
Welcome Interstate Managers could have been a four-song EP consisting of only the first four tracks—“Mexican Wine”, “Bright Future in Sales”, “Stacy’s Mom”, and “Hackensack”—and it still would have made this list. Hell, the video alone for “Stacy’s Mom” justifies this entire album’s existence. And, oh yeah, the rest of the album ain’t too shabby either. Years of unerring pop craftsmanship and odes to suburban New Jersey finally paid off for Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, as Welcome Interstate Managers garnered the band the best reviews of their under-recognized careers. Maybe 16 saccharine pop songs is akin to Will Ferrell’s sucrose-intensive diet in Elf, but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally indulging your sweet tooth.

6. The Star Spangles, Bazooka!!! (Capitol)
Will I regret ranking this debut album so high someday? Maybe. But for the time being, the Star Spangles—four guys from NYC who are cooler than any of us—have crafted the perfect response to (shiver) corporate garage rock. (Sorry, Strokes. Real sorry, D4.) Sure, Bazooka!!! borrows liberally from the Ramones, the Replacements and Johnny Thunders, but who said sounding like those bands was a bad thing—especially when songs like “Which of the Two of Us is Gonna Burn this House Down?” are the end result? A fantastic debut that sets the stage for—hopefully—an even stronger follow-up.

7. Stephen Malkmus, Pig Lib (Matador)
At first, this album struck me as a tad chilly, especially when compared to Malkmus’ loosey-goosey 2002 self-titled solo debut. Needless to say, I came around to Pig Lib‘s charms. It’s a testament to Malkmus and his Jicks that Pig Lib is an evolutionary leap from Stephen Malkmus. The songs that would have fit best on the debut (“Vanessa from Queens”, “Craw Song”) are among Pig Lib‘s weaker tracks (though still tunes nearly anyone else would kill to pen), making gems like “Water and a Seat” and “Us” truly shine. Tighter songs, a more cohesive vision, Malkmus’ trademark wit and wordplay and heroic guitar solos—if I were smarter, I’d rank this CD higher.

8. The Thrills, So Much for the City (Virgin)
I was telling a friend about the Thrills, and the best description of lead singer Conor Deasy I could come up with was this: What Wayne Coyne would sound like if he grew up listening to Neil Young instead of the voices in his head. I’ve been waiting all year to use that line. More to the point, though, is that the Thrills—five pasty Irish guys—captured the sunny, laid back ‘70s West Coast pop rock vibe on their immensely likeable debut. Sure, the cynics may argue that the Thrills’ idea of that sound is merely plucking a banjo and plinking a keyboard while name-dropping locales west of the Continental Divide (Big Sur, Las Vegas, San Diego, etc.) but still, So Much for the City ranks as the best approximation of Gram Parsons’ Astral Americana since Beachwood Sparks’ Once We Were Trees.

9. Kings of Leon, Youth and Young Manhood (RCA)
Kings of Leon are not the Southern Strokes. Nor are they the Indie Rock Allman Brothers. I’m not sure what they are, but I do know their debut was one of the year’s out-of-left-field gems. Led by mushmouthed frontman Caleb Followill, the Kings’ swamp-soaked boogie fell just on the acceptable side of potentially ironic. Image and hype aside, tracks like “Joe’s Head”, “Molly’s Chambers” and “Holy Roller Novocaine” rocked as hard as anything released this year. I’m not sure they can duplicate the joys of their debut, but this list doesn’t ask that of them.

10. Grandaddy, Sumday (V2)
It’s probably just me, but Grandaddy haven’t always been the easiest band to love. To be sure, they’ve got a warm heart beating under all the bleeps ‘n’ bloops on songs about alienation, robots, and alienated robots. But unlike similar musical-path-trudgers the Flaming Lips, whose enormous heart is capable of enveloping all of humanity, Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle sometimes buries his lyrical heart a little too deep. The band corrects that problem on Sumday, a welcome warm-n-fuzzy take on their desolated worldview. “Turn It On” and “The Group Who Couldn’t Say” buzz with the awe of discovery; “El Caminos in the West” and “Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake” exude a warmth and humanity that Grandaddy have been hinting at all along. Sumday is Grandaddy’s polished, confident step towards the summit of the indie rock scene.

TOP FIVE SONGS OF 2003 (Apologies to “Stacy’s Mom” and “Danger! High Voltage!”)

1. OutKast, “Hey Ya”, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
Andre 3000 is not of this planet. Handclaps and “Lend me some sugar / I am your neighbor”. Need I say more?

2. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”, Hearts of Oak (Lookout!)
You’d be “foooo-ooh-ooh-ooh-lish” (sorry) not to get caught up in Leo’s insanely hook-laden ode to the Specials.

3. Minus 5, “Retrieval of You”, Down with Wilco (Yep Roc)
Scott McCaughey’s tale of a “fumbled rekkid star” turned Mini-mart employee reduced to kidnapping his protégé (I think that’s the plot) is the year’s sunniest, funniest stalking song.

4. Jesse Malin, “Wendy”, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction (Artemis)
Glam punk-turned-roots rock troubadour Malin wrote nothing but catchy, achingly beautiful songs on his veryfine solo debut. This is the best one.

5. Kathleen Edwards, “Six O’Clock News” and “Westby”, Failer (Zoe/Rounder)
Part Neil Young, part Liz Phair, Edwards spun some powerful tales on her alt-country debut. “Six O’Clock News” still gives me goose bumps when Edwards’ pregnant narrator sees her fiancée gunned down by a cop, and the wry May-December romance of “Westby” is one of those songs that explain why they put “repeat” buttons on CD players.

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