1. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)
Inexplicably endearing as ever, if a little more dark-bruise-smudged and wary, the White Stripes have still emerged victorious against the gathering stormcloud backlash. Planted ever more firmly in, and taking another Page out of (ha!), the archetypal dirty blues swamp/stomp manual, Jack's itchy hounds of hell scratchings and Meg's aloof Queen of England reserve crossbreed faux-naive pop-laced ditties and heartfelt punk diatribes exciting and raw and original enough to even make you want to go to Wichita. All this and Burt Bacharach too. Brilliant as a dark sputtering star in some cosmic alleyway.
2. Nina Nastasia, Run to Ruin (Touch and Go)
What's this? Folk music? Who knows and who cares? First, its hushed sparsity echoes with a bewildering array of the less celebrated of human foibles -- vindictiveness, collapsing self-esteem, obsessive compulsion, envy -- and then its rural chamber richness resonates with, and ultimately illuminates, all the ensuing ruination. Short, nuanced, you can't look, yet you can't look away. The chilliest warmth, or the warmest of chills, take your pick.
3. The Constantines, Shine a Light (Three Gut/Sub Pop)
Showing no fear, no embarrassment, no wooly-minded self-doubt whatsoever, the Constantines blaze out of the gates (not to mention Guelph, Ontario) with a riotous, passionate ensemble of Fugazi-like commitment, early Springsteen heart and a raucous, grooving, resounding clash (Clash!) of dub, jazz, punk and rock. Music that might conceivably, in its intensity and conviction, enforce your relocation from sterile nondescript rooms to the birdshit-and-asphalt rooftops, needle and condom-littered streets, to confront our familiar urban night(mares) with awkwardly defiant courage, smashed lips, and a raw-throated howl. Hey, not a particularly cool thing to do in these days of studied detachment, but it sure feels good and (let's be truthful) fucking honest, dammit. Blame Canada or something.
4. Dizzee Rascal, Boy in da Corner (XL)
I almost left this off my list -- not because it doesn't deserve its place here, but because I thought it wasn't available in North America in '03 and I could always wait till next year's best-of list. But once it showed up in a western Canadian chain, I knew I had to include it immediately. Recently, American hip-hop has been broadcasting a one-way monologue into deeper and deeper space, seemingly. Suddenly, here's an answer from the deep, rolling void. And it's a vital one, loud and gut-lurchingly bouncy, head-poundingly dancefloor-dense, simultaneously familiar and alien like something scavenged then reconstructed. Last year, from England, we had Mike Skinner's the Streets, and now we have Dylan Mills aka Dizzee Rascal. Alternate-reality hip-hop -- post-UK garage, or simply "grime" -- this astonishing debut is a frantic, panicky, up-in-your-face East End teenage-prodigy endeavour to articulate the fragile, angry, slapstick, doubting, hilarious, and just plain confusing mish-mash of early 21st Century Western European life. A reflection of a time when the effort to retain one's (wounded) humanity can be so fucking hard, this is what Dizzee's rebounding head (like everyone's; like no-one's) sounds like in the attempt.
5. The Weakerthans, Reconstruction Site (Epitaph)
More Canadians with a social conscience. Boasting (or burdened by, if you prefer) genuine politico-punk ancestry (Propagandhi), John K. Samson's waving wheat kings the Weakerthans concoct an unheralded, virtually unsung, veritable unholy mess of pop, country, folk and punk rock. However, turns out it's not really a mess at all. Reinserting the "lit" in "politics", they reference Amis (Jr) and Agee as well as Pomo stalwarts Derrida and Foucault, among others. Heady stuff, for sure, but the whole project is rescued from the overly cerebral by warm, piquant songwriting and a sharp sense of the resonant pop hook (and glowingly heartfelt lyrical embers) amid tumbling, cascading wordplay pyrotechnics. The prairies finally get their own Tragically Hip? Nah, it's better than that.
6. Cat Power, You Are Free (Matador)
Released on the virtual eve (and by a virtual Eve, in the archetypal indie-chick sense) of destruction, this record's preemptive timing was downright eerie. Not content with making us wait years between new songs, Chan Marshall drops a slow-fuse cluster bomb out of a pure blue sky. Lamenting war and child abuse and sundry darknesses far more oblique and cryptic than phantom WMDs (werewolves! John Lee Hooker!), this was a timely plea for sanity from an artist whose own grasp of emotional health is all too often glibly impugned by the sheltered and the heartless. So some of the bomblets are squibs, who cares? For "Good Woman" and "Maybe Not" alone, Marshall deserves iconic status. So assured in its fragility, we barely notice Messieurs Vedder and Grohl painting minimalist strokes on an aberrant canvas.
7. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Capitol)
Thom Yorke and the shy knob-twiddling boys from Oxford delve into the Jungian realm of childhood myth in an urge to merge creepy Brothers Grimm legend with the real world's contemporary horrors. Call it Hans Christian Apocalypse, perhaps. It's patchy, it's melodic, it's angsty, it's beat-driven, and while the critics argued incessantly over rock versus electronic/experimental cred (like either arena really matters over the actual music), Radiohead sailed over everyone's talking heads while occasionally engaging the (damn near breaking) heart, and even the itchy, glitchy feet. Genres. Whatever. When all the dust has settled, ponder this: how many bands have released a successive quintet of albums this consistently good?
8. Matt Elliott, The Mess We Made (Merge)
Disquieting, chilling, melancholy, harrowing. Whatever becomes of the Third Eye Foundation legacy -- and it may not matter to most, but the spatially/sonically audacious drill n' bass theatre was a quirkily welcome alternative to other post-rock acts during the late-millennial countdown -- Matt Elliott himself may never show up on the mainstream radar. Which is too bad. Or is it? I'd pretty much only recommend this largely beat-free yet freakish agglomeration of grinning, swivel-eyed lunacy to those sufficiently stable (and therefore able) to hear its nursery crime glee. And yet, only those whose hearts cry real blood and elicit genuine tears may truly, ultimately, "get" it. A conundrum, then. A paradox. Good.
9. Enon, Hocus Pocus (Touch and Go)
The White Stripes may have commandeered the candy stripe iconography, but in some ways, in mysterious ways, Enon own it. Predictable as a barber's pole, the alternating red of Toko Yasuda's pop confectionary and the blank slate of John Schmersal's starkly white spazz rock (or is it the other way round?) form the basis of the band's sound; and although Hocus Pocus is no great departure from last year's High Society, it's a further consolidation of their pretty much unique alchemy. Sex, abandon, klutziness, delicious diversity -- all conjured seemingly from nowhere, and packaged into bite-sized chunks of dark, electuary sweets. Resistance is futile. Not to mention pointless.
10. Sin Ropas, Trickboxes on the Pony Line (Sad Robot)
Don't let that impenetrable title fool you; or, for that matter, the band's evocatively Spanish name ("without clothes"); this is a stunningly impactful record by Califone and Red Red Meat alumnus Tim Hurley and his wife Danni Iosello, by no means some dusty forgettable arcana. Painful and raw in places, sublime and lost in others, Trickboxes transcends genre altogether in its smeared and weary amalgam of country, blues and... something else altogether; something beamed back to us from the fuzzy, indistinct future, perhaps; something chillingly familiar yet entirely elusive. It might herald new hope, or more likely, the probable slow suicide of an entire species. Ours, of course. After the last plaintive guitar distortion, asthmatic organ wheeze and percussive thrift store clunk-tap has died away, just remember to keep paying attention. It's not often you'll get to hear Tom Waits' frail and distant cousin playing for keeps with Led Zeppelin's ghosts, right there in Hell's waiting room, trying to warn us all.
Ten more beating ceaselessly on the shaky doors of the Top Ten:
Broken Social Scene, You Forgot it in People (Arts & Crafts)
The New Pornographers, Electric Version (Mint/Matador)
Damien Jurado, Where Shall You Take Me? (Secretly Canadian)
The Rapture, Echoes (Strummer/Universal)
Fiel Garvie, Leave Me out of This (Words on Music)
American Analog Set, Promise of Love (Tiger Style)
Earlimart, Everyone Down Here (Palm Pictures)
Manitoba, Up in Flames (Leaf/Domino)
Rainer Maria, Long Knives Drawn (Polyvinyl)
Songs: Ohia, The Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian)
Finally, the Top five songs of 2003:
1. "Crazy in Love", Beyoncé, featuring Jay-Z (Columbia)
Eyes wide, nostrils flared, every muscle flexed and poised, waiting... and when those horns kick in, all your obsessions feel realisable, desire and madness acceptable, and even Jay-Z's lay-Z interlude can't lower the elevated mood of avid expectation.
2. "All the Things She Said" - t.A.T.u. (Interscope)
A direct assault on the authenticity-fetishists, this frenetic, breathy pop song (real teenage Russians, fake lesbians, or is it the other way around?) makes you believe in glorious, precious forbidden love amid the rainy synth hooks, mutual desperate looks and awful disapproving stares of evil cartoon passersby.
3. "The Laws Have Changed", The New Pornographers (Matador)
What begins as fairly standard surf-inflected indie-pop suddenly erupts in a euphoric swirl of stunning summery harmonies courtesy of Neko Case and the Vancouver boys. All this and a veiled attack on the Bush administration, too. Near perfect, really.
4. "Hey Ya", OutKast (Arista)
If I believed in heaven, I might also believe it possible to get there on a beat so bouncy, a Casio hook so infectious, a musical smile so winningly, goofily proud, that all the grey sadness and dull pain of the world could be erased by the shaking of a Polaroid picture. André may well be the prophet of that new, gaudy religion. Convert us, please.
5. "Maps", Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Interscope)
Perhaps included here partly due to its surprise factor, Karen O's astonishingly deft and heartfelt amalgam of Chrissie Hynde and Polly Harvey could elicit a tear from a mannequin. Nick Zinner's shimmering, coruscating guitar work certainly doesn't hurt, either. Any permission for all those haughty indie kids to access their broken hearts has to be a very good thing. And I mean that in the kindest possible way.