Best Music of 2003 | Seth Limmer

[31 December 2003]

By Seth Limmer

1. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, (S-Curve/Virgin)
Just brilliant. Pure pop perfection in every way: the perfect word in every rhyme, the perfect tone on every guitar, the perfect balance between sarcasm and sincerity. Fountains of Wayne bristles through “Bright Future in Sales” and “Little Red Light” with their peculiar lyricism that connects sleeping on a bench in the Port Authority to sitting in traffic on the Tappan Zee. But they can slow it down with the best of them, be it for a fireside “Valley Winter Song”, or the poignant “All Kinds of Time”, a tune that draws out the words “wide-screen TV” into the year’s most moving bridge. A strong album puts itself over the top with “Stacy’s Mom”, whose synthesized hand-claps, staccato guitar leads and stupefying lyrical content are strong enough actually to have broken this relatively quirky band through to the mainstream. Welcome Interstate Managers was the statement this critically-acclaimed band needed to make Fountains of Wayne so much more than a reference point in driving to a Jersey Mall. Luckily for all, with the clear choice for album of the year, this incredible songwriting duo with their tight little studio band should remain on our collective maps for far longer than this year.

2. The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music, (American)
Rainy Day Music is the album the Jayhawks have been promising to make for years. Layering lush harmonies and lolling guitars, the now-trio creates track after track of songs that at the same time sound so entirely fresh and new yet so remarkably familiar; Rainy Day Music feels like a classic of AM radio from yesteryear that we’ve only just rediscovered. With this powerful LP, the Jayhawks rediscover their wistful country roots, and create an album that jangles its way through up-beat tracks affirming both life and a commitment to musical subtlety: “Tailspin” travels from put-down to majesty between chorus and verse; “Stumbling Through the Dark” has a haunting romance that opens and closes the album with a perfect mix of hope and regret. “Angelyne” is a beauty of a love song, “Madman” is a moody standout, and “Will I See You in Heaven” is so well-written I had to check to see if Johnny Cash penned it. For over a decade, anyone who’s been listening to the Jayhawks has sensed that they had this kind of greatness in store; Rainy Day Music fulfills all that promise and more.

3. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)
What must it be like to be the darling of all media? To have your image made out of Lego? To play house band on Conan O’Brien? To go from unknown art band frontman to one of Rolling Stone‘s top 100 guitarists of all time? Only Jack White can know. Yet more impressive than the nearly universal acclaim received by his White Stripes is the band’s ability to live up to and then to exceed its own promise. As explosive and fresh as White Blood Cells was when we all first heard it and began telling our friends to go and buy it, Elephant sounds more dynamic, inventive and powerful still. Jack lets his blues roots roam free-form on “Ball and Biscuit”, shows his tender side on “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket”, and sasses his tongue-in-cheek sarcasm on “Well It’s True That We Love One Another”. But it’s tracks like the massive “Seven Nation Army”, the inspired “There’s No Home for You Here”, and the irresistible “Little Acorns” that demonstrate White’s true ability and power as both songwriter and guitar slinger. Ultimately, Elephant is so damn good that it makes you wonder what incredible trick Jack and Meg have up their red-and-white sleeves to create an even more superlative follow-up.

4. Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears, (Lost Highway)
There is nothing funny about this most recent release from brilliant-artist-with-troubled-soul Lucinda Williams. Yet on an album marked by harrowing loss, Williams demonstrates her unique artistry in turning vomit, cancer and perdition into the property of powerful poetry. But Williams is not only interested in the violent side of life; Lucinda sings exquisitely of lavender, lotus blossoms, sugar canes, sweet sides, John Coltrane, and Prince Charming as with the sugary innocence passionate kisses. Teamed with a strong backing band who play the blues as a tight unit, Lucinda fills her record’s world with plenty of tears, joy and just about every other emotion. World Without Tears is as complete an album as there can be: from the lacerating rocker “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” to the broke-down Gospel of “Atonement” to the stark ballad “Minneapolis”, there is never a let-down. Out of a most painful time in her life, Lucinda has crafted some of her best work in years.

5. Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, A Mighty Wind, (DMZ/Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)
Christopher Guest knows that parody at its best is duplication so dead-on that a wink is needed to remind you that it’s all a joke. With a superb soundtrack to a troubled film, Guest and company’s A Mighty Wind is art that is such a perfect imitation of life, it does in fact seem real. Were it not for the wink of the “mockumentary” packaging, even the most diligent student of the ‘60s might think that in A Mighty Wind they have found a lost trove of rarities and b-sides of those groups who could have defined an era along with Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and the rest. Every song on this set is guaranteed not only to make you laugh, but to compel you to sing along. From the stupid joy of “Old Joe’s Place” through the laughable sea shanty of “Fare Away” and up to the best cover of the year, a gut-busting, dead-on folk version of the Stones’ “Start Me Up”, A Mighty Wind is a parody so good it crosses the line from humor into art.

6. The Thorns, The Thorns, (Sony)
It’s difficult, but not impossible to find a person who owns a Matthew Sweet album. But try to meet one such soul who can not only spin “Girlfriend”, but also can play for you any song ever recorded by Pete Droge. And if you think that’s difficult, consider it impossible ever to locate anyone, anywhere, who fits the above criteria and also owns anything ever done by Shawn Mullins. So what were the people at Columbia Records thinking when they took these obviously talented yet superfluously un-famous three folkies and decided to put them together on one disc? Were they expecting perhaps a block-busting twelve sales, total? Evidently, thing in the industry are not as bad as they might seem if a group like the Thorns can record and album like The Thorns, and convince a rather stodgy, forward-looking label to promote such backwards-gazing music. It’s not going too far to say that Sweet, Droge and Mullins are the Crosby, Stills and Nash of this age; at least as far as both trios go, they released one heck of a first album. Like CSN, the Thorns also rely on sun-drenched harmony, plenty of acoustic guitars, and a subtle joy discovered in the misery of a lovelorn existence. And, in keeping with their hippie predecessors, these gen-Xers also know how to create music of timeless beauty that gets better after every listen.

7. Warren Zevon, The Wind, (Artemis)
The man was dying. The man had friends with big names. The man kept a recording studio in his own home. The man covered Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. The outlook was not so good for either Warren Zevon or what was seemingly his final record. But, bucking the odds, Zevon assembled a wonderfully rocking album of great tunes that sings far more of the joy of living than the pain of dying. “My Dirty Life and Times” and “Prison Grove” are two of the strongest songs this writer of strong songs has ever penned; “Disorder in the House” and “Rub Me Raw” are some of the nastiest blues Zevon ever committed to tape. And, ultimately, on an album that tries so hard not to be trite and tired, “Keep Me in Your Heart for a While” is a perfect, poetic epitaph for a man who deserves precisely such an honor.

8. Kings of Leon, Youth and Young Manhood, (RCA)
These guys are good. Defying the labels so easily slapped on them, the kings alternatively combine the best of the Allman Brothers, Bon Scott, Cheap Trick and the Doors, just to go through the first four letters of the alphabet. Add to this rock and roll stew a splash of Stones, a smattering of Sloan and a sprinkling of Strokes, and you get the idea that this debut album is pretty strong indeed. “Red Morning Light” and “Wasted Time” are the light and dark sides of classic rock, respectively; “Joe’s Head” and “Dusty” are beautiful, sparse ballads that take just the right time to develop. But the highlight of this album is clearly “Trani”, a heartbreaking song with gritty urban lyrics set against the backdrop of southern country soul. Forget how difficult it was for you the first time around, because this version of Youth and Young Manhood is worth living a second time around.

9. Ryan Adams, lloR N kcoR, (Lost Highway)
I don’t care if lloR N kcoR is the album Adams really wanted to release this year. It doesn’t matter to me if half the riffs and two-thirds of the melodies on this album are stolen from the greatest bands of the last 30 years. All great llor-n-kcor artists have been guilty both of obvious theft and ridiculous snobbery for almost 50 years now. It is that snobbery and pomposity that make lloR n kcoR a great album that lives up to its titular promise; far from sounding like a dispassionate art thief, Ryan truly sounds as vulnerable and raw as his own lyric, “Bloody like the day I was born”. Adams work is more subtle than first blush suspects: on repeated listens, the album sinks deeper under your skin as all its intricacies become clear. If Adams is only channeling the past on this album, he nonetheless proves himself a most worthy vessel.

10. Zwan, Mary, Star of the Sea, (Reprise)
All the brilliant wash of smashing sound that Billy Corgan forsook on the Pumpkin’s swan song, Adore returns in his latest reincarnation, Zwan. A bastard step-child of the band he left behind—Corgan brings former drummer Jimmy Chamberlain along for the ride—Zwan recreates the Smashing wall of guitar sound while letting slip the downcast pessimism that marked the Pumpkin’s best work; Zwan, along with its frontman, actually seem happy. “Lyric” is a testament to epic opportunity, “Yeah!” is as affirmative as its title attests, and tidy pop tunes like “Declarations of Faith” and “Honestly” set the stage for a wonderfully uplifting experience. And the album’s gem, the epic “Jesus, I/Mary, Star of the Sea” is the most listenable example of self-deification since the Stone Roses’ “I am the Resurrection”. And Zwan is the light….

Songs of the Year:

1. “Where is the Love” Black Eyed Peas, Elephunk.
The only possible song that could best a gem like “Stacy’s Mom” would have to be the second coming of “What’s Going On?”. And that’s exactly what the Black Eyed Peas came up with for the surprise hit from left field of the year. A soulful tour de force that interweaves rhymes about “The big CIA/The Bloods and Crips/And the KKK” with taut criticism of “Wrong information always shown by the media/Negative images is the main criteria/Infecting the young minds fashioning bacteria”, “Where is the Love” has all you could expect from a song and more. It’ll make you cry, it’ll make you think, it’ll make you dance at the same time. That is why “Where is the Love” is the best combination of message and music we’ve heard in almost 20 years, and that is how the Black Eyed Peas top the list for 2003.

2. “Stacy’s Mom”, Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers.
Never has resurrecting the early ‘80s sounded so fresh or fun. Sounding like the lead single of the best Cars album you never heard, “Stacy’s Mom” lit up ears all over the world this summer with its ridiculous message and sublime execution. Its three minutes of bliss defy you not to sing along, not to clap your hands at just the right time, or not to shake to its undeniable beat. So go ahead, try to ignore its power. Try to claim that the song is just too silly or too derivative to count for anything. Claim you hear it every five minutes and tire of its majesty. But in the end, “Stacy’s Mom” is coming for you, and, even as you attempt to run from its truth, eventually you’ll have to agree with the rest of us that “Stacy’s Mom” has got it going on.

3. “Hey Ya!”, OutKast, The Love Below.
All you really need to do is see the video. Really. Andre’s energy, brilliance, creativity and complete dedication to the cause pervade “Hey Ya!” the same way that his thousand green-and-white Andre’s fill MTV screens every day. A perfect dance track, “Hey Ya” combines an unforgettable hook, a deep groove, and the best dance lyrics in a decade truly to earn its exclamation mark. Andre would have place in the hall of fame simply for asking the question “What’s cooler than cool?” and answering it with the sly self-reference, “Ice Cold”. But taking him over the top of most dancehall junkies and putting him in the rarefied air of the James Browns and Princes of the world is his bewildering imploring of all the ladies to “Shake it like a Polaroid picture.” Genius!

4. “There’s No Home for You Here”, The White Stripes, Elephant.
This song just rocks. Combining everything we’ve come to know and love about the White Stripes—Jack’s driving, furious guitar, Meg’s primordial drumming, the constant switching from oh-so-soft to deafeningly loud—“There’s No Home” takes that base and pushes it light years forward. Add in the conjuring up of Queen for background vocals [OK, just the sound of Queen], and the brilliant moment of realization that occurs at 1:55 when the squeal of Jack’s guitar crushes the seven nation army of his vocal wall of sound, and you’ve got the best rock song of the year.

5. “Free”, Cat Power, You Are Free.
The most unique sounding single of the year juxtaposes Chan Marshall’s liberating promise with a repeating guitar line from which you are never free. The instrumentation is perfect in every spot, the lyrics are always dead on. You may not be able to dance to it, but this highlight from Cat Power’s recent release is one of the most refreshing listens all year.

Box Set of the Year:
Johnny Cash, Unearthed, (American)

If one can excuse the absolutely unacceptable pun of a title for an anthology released so near to the man in black’s interment, Unearthed is the best gift anyone could receive this holiday season. Sharing with us the raw and polished gems of Johnny’s late-in-life collaboration with Rick Rubin, this set allows us to see Cash’s power in all its breadth and depth. Unearthed is no mere rehashing of the four most recent albums Cash recorded: disc one is chock full of outtakes from the first, all-acoustic album, while the second CD contains extra material from Johnny’s recording sessions with the Heartbreakers; the third disc focuses on outtakes from the later sessions, while the fourth is an album into itself, a collection of JC’s mother’s favorite gospel songs. Lastly, the final disc comes around as a “greatest hits” of sorts of the original American recordings; it lets the consumer hear the good work that Cash did in those otherwise spotty sessions. Especially since Unearthed was conceived of by Cash during his final days, the set sounds like a the most powerful voice in contemporary music history delivering his own moving, powerful, tearful and uplifting eulogy.

Remaster of the Year:
Television, Marquee Moon, (Elektra/Rhino)

In a year that saw revelatory new sonic portraits of the Bob Dylan, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Uncle Tupelo, it takes a strong release to top “Slow Train Coming”, “Freakey Styley” and “Still Far Gone”. But this year’s re-master, re-package and re-release of Television’s landmark album is that far ahead of the pack. Aside from the liner notes humorously annotating producer Andy Johns’ inability to understand what the band wanted, and beyond the addition of the early, truly indie single “Little Johnny Jewel”, Marquee Moon simply shines spectacularly in this format because its gritty realism and guitar arithmetic become apparent in all their clarity. And, despite Richard Lloyd’s wobbly vocals, a dedication to clarity—of tone, of lyric and of intent—is precisely what has made Marquee Moon a classic all these years. That modern technology has finally caught up with Television’s vision leaves us with the year’s most prized re-package.

Compilation of the Year:
Various Artists, Masked and Anonymous: Music from the Motion Picture, (Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)

Larry Charles poetic film tribute to the enigmatic existence that goes by the nom de plume Dylan might be as spotty and incoherent as critics claim; the movie’s soundtrack is not. Opening with the hilarious yet completely unnerving version of “My Back Pages” performed by the Magorokoro Brothers in Japanese translation, the album lets you feel comfortable in all of Bobby’s old shoes before lighting your feet on fire. Combining works of beauty like Jerry Garcia’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, straight-ahead rockers like Los Lobos’ bilingual “On a Night Like This”, and new versions of old classics by the mystery himself [“Down in the Flood”, “Cold Irons Bound”, and “Dixie”], Masked and Anonymous is both a fun listen and a frantic lesson in just how powerful this man’s art has become to people of all stripes and sizes. Witness an Italian rap version of “Come una Pietra Scalciata” or a French torch ballad of “Non Dirle Che Non E’ Cost”: Dylan’s songs mean many things to many people. The masked man’s hardly anonymous work spans from heaven to hell, and covers all ground in between: this most bizarre collection of songs that accompany a more bizarre film not only draw the lines of that epic span, but take you on a great ride across all its seemingly lost highways.

EP of the Year:
Yo La Tengo, Today is the Day, (Matador)

Summer Sun, the full-length record released this year by this Hoboken trio, was as weightless and filled with air as the beach ball burned onto the CD. But if grand over-expanses of sound dominate the rather autumnal full-length release, Yo La Tengo proves they can return to their visceral best on the EP, Today is the Day. Containing, in six mere songs, all the elements that create the band’s magic, this [unfortunately] little disc showcases Yo La’s true artistry: the title track and “Styles of the Time” are a return to the avant-chaos of “Big Day Coming” and “Sudden Organ”; “Needle of Death” is a haunting acoustic paean to loss on a par with Neil Young’s riveting “Needle and the Damage Done”; and “Cherry Chapstick”, one of the stronger tracks from 2000’s And then Nothing Turned itself Inside Out, here receives a treatment that reveals all its inner beauty. If you want to know why so many people love so much of what Yo La Tengo has done, these perfect 20 minutes are the only answer you need.

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