1. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)
Hyped to the nines, Elephant was being called "The Best Record of the Year" before the year was even a third over. From the pulverizing salvo of opener "Seven Nation Army", it was clear that The White Stripes matured bounds beyond White Blood Cells while keeping their garage crunch. Success making the twosome decidedly darker didn't hurt either. Decades of music are spanned and crisscrossed recklessly; "Ball and Biscuit" would've fit perfectly somewhere between Led Zeppelin I and II, while "Girl You Have No Faith in Medicine" nicks the grunge of Urge Overkill's "Positive Bleeding". Lyrical depth begs for deciphering as Jack White defiantly and caustically lays down verbiage along with a plodding bass, a slap in the face to those who said the Stripes were a novelty because of the lack of that particular instrument. There wasn't a better album released in 2003 - at least not one of this magnitude that shakes, snaps and quakes like rock and roll is supposed to.
2. The Twilight Singers, Blackberry Belle (Birdman)
Former Afghan Whig leader Greg Dulli has hit a cocksure musical stride on his second Twilight Singers record. Fifteen years in, strutting along a rough and tumble world of lost loves, major label bullshit and the constant battle for mainstream appeal in one of the greatest soul rock bands ever, it's about time for people to stand up and take notice. Not exactly a solo project and not quite as dysfunctional lyrically as his previous outfit, Twilight brings together a collective of musicians diverse as Mark Lanegan, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Apollonia to help spread (or shed) the love. The result is the equivalent to a cinematic masterpiece where all the characters play their roles to the hilt, while Dulli shines in the lead. Start to finish, Blackberry Belle is a ride full of tragedy and love with just enough of a pop sheen to mask the lyrical bloodletting. It's got mainstream appeal ("Teenage Wristband"), it's bleak ("Martin Eden"), and it's pure brilliance in a place where the sun doesn't rise and the darkness is constant.
3. A.F.I., Sing the Sorrow (DreamWorks)
Major label jumps always bring a few outcries of sellout, and with such a devoted following, there was no way A.F.I. could avoid a tidal wave of fury from their possessive obsessive loyalists. Sing the Sorrow is polished pop... and so much of what their earlier hardcore leanings railed against musically. It also introduces the masses to explosive amounts of emotive howls of pain and fury from singer Davey Havok, who stays as true as he can to his goth roots while reeling newbies in. When, on "Miseria Cantare - The Beginning", the chants enlighten listeners somewhat pretentiously "You / are now / one / of us", you suddenly get the feeling that A.F.I. are right. Most bands that cash into the big leagues wish they could do it this well.
4. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
The new OutKast release shouldn't be considered a true follow-up to Stankonia by any means, but that's nothing to be disappointed about. Rather, with tensions of a musical partnership between Big Boi and Andre 3000 running high, they've pulled sort of a hip-hop Kiss solos project, but better and without make-up. Both get to explore their different personalities with a disc apiece; on Speakerboxxx, Boi hits hard with old school beats and funkadelica, while Dre comes out in all of his sex-crazed Prince-like glory on The Love Below. The distance is discernable, but in separation, there is an undeniable innovative equality on each effort that is similar in feel. That both records are so damn fine leaves little doubt that when the two geniuses eventually reconvene together under the OutKast moniker, there won't be a group on the planet that can touch them.
5. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)
Room on Fire sounds just like Is This It, with a few spurts of growth, but not too many. So what? Sticking with the ain't-broke-don't-fix-it motto works just fine. Julian Casablancas continues his microphone inserted in mouth, disaffected lounge singer routine, with the ideal match in the minimal guitar and bass lines. The real star, surprisingly, is drummer Fab Moretti. His beats keep the music together, most noticeably on what may be the band's best song yet, the languorous crooner "Under Control." The Strokes still act like they don't care what anyone thinks, and when the music is this good, they shouldn't have to.
6. Marilyn Manson, The Golden Age of Grotesque (Interscope)
One of the most vilified entertainment figures in history has put the music ahead of everything distracting, and the result is stunning. The Golden Age of Grotesque dispenses with all of the conceptuality, ego tripping, and shock, allowing the focus to rest solely on the product. With the opening bombast of "This Is The New Shit", Manson makes a statement by both dismissing and announcing his music, playing it safe, yet taking a risk at the same time not to mention it's the most straightforward and powerful track Manson has recorded to date. From the slow, synthesized twitch of "Para-Noir" to the biting "(s)AINT', guitarist John 5 shines, and without interludes, dragged out inconsistencies and new alter-egos introduced, Manson acknowledges that the act doesn't always have to reign over the talent.
7. Al Green, I Can't Stop (Blue Note)
Hearing I Can't Stop is akin to stepping into a sonic time warp - and it was meant to sound that way. Producer Willie Mitchell and soul legend Al Green team up for their first album of secular material together in over a quarter century. The landscape of Soul and R&B has changed so drastically since their last pairing, that an updated attempt at a classic sound surely would've been met with mixed results. In a stroke of genius, the duo went beyond a typical try to recreate the past magic - they dusted off everything from the same microphones to the session players themselves who made the '70s Green records sound so sweet. The result is amazing, with the singer hitting all the old high notes and putting hi patented emotion into songs like "Rainin' in My Heart" and the title track. A bit more polished with the aid of today's technology, I Can't Stop doesn't taint the history of Green, as it's not contemporary by any means, nor totally nostalgic; it just sounds familiar.
8. The Midnight Evils, Straight 'Til Morning (Estrus)
Forget Jet and the like, the real result of the 2000 garage rock movement exists in bands like The Midnight Evils. Screeching guitars distort and wah wah like a modern day Stooges with some Bon Scott-era AC/DC inflections. It's a kick in the balls, and while it might sound like Nashville Pussy, The Midnight Evils are dirtier, skankier and colder - hell, they're from Minnesota. They play fast, hard, and they don't have anytime for the slow shit. Any record that credits a guy for "hootin' and hollerin' on the whole record" is music for the four o'clock hour - that's four in the morning, you know, when the drink really starts to flow.
9. Anthrax, We've Come For You All (Sanctuary)
Everyone in the metal community was floored when Anthrax dropped this gem from out of nowhere. Sure, they had always been a solid metal band, and even more so with singer John Bush, who kept them relevant through most of the '90s, but this is probably the best album of their career. "Safe Home", with radio hit written all over it, "Black Dahlia" has the old school thrash flavor, and guests lined up to be a part of the project knew something the rest of us didn't. Dimebag Darrell puts down a Pantera-worthy lead on "Strap It On", and Roger Daltrey sings backing vocals on "Taking the Music Back"; that's how good it is. We've Come For You All is the record that Metallica was supposed to make.
10. Damien Rice, O (Vector Recordings)
These days, O comes across almost as an outdated representation of Damien Rice. Today, he is an on the rise rockstar, as evident from his explosive live show and drastically evolving sound (see any of the new tracks packaged with this record's singles). O is a fairly quiet affair, songs of wistfulness, heartbreak and consternation. Whispers sometimes turn into wails ("I Remember"), and the importance of the subtle vocal injections from Lisa Hannigan cannot be overstated. Ultimately, the record will be seen as a snapshot of a brilliant artist, who seems to have passed through a studio to lay down some tracks on his way to bigger things. With his continuous growth clearly evident, Rice has the most promising future of any new artist from 2003.
The Top Five Disappointing Records of the Year
1. Metallica, St. Anger (Elektra)
It's quite sad, but you'll find St. Anger near the top of many a critic's best of list this year. The reason, is for months, any writer worth their pen bragged about how the new Metallica was going to kick ass. A return to the hardcore roots! Forget the Loads and Symphonies of the recent past, all hail the return of metal! Seven months have tick-tick-tick-tocked by since the record's release, and everyone is laughing and pointing (especially at the guy playing the pots and pans), but still no one will tell the former emperors of metal that they have no clothes.
2. The Beatles, Let It Be... Naked (Capitol)
A more apt title might've been: Let It Be... Sir Paul's Revenge for what amounts to little more than a full album overhaul for one over the top orchestral maneuvering on McCartney's original, Phil Spector produced, "The Long and Winding Road." The first problem with this project is that Beatles fans were spoiled a few years back with the Anthology volumes. ...Naked pales in comparison to those exhaustively comprehensive goldmines. Secondly, you can't go screwing around with a record so firmly embedded into the consciousness of music fans here, there and everywhere, unless you strip it down entirely, turning it into something completely new. Changing the track order, removing some of Spector's strings, losing two unnecessary ditties and adding a demo and one song from the rooftop performance doesn't cut it.
3. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Capitol)
We wanted The Bends redux. Thom Yorke promised OK Computer II. All we got was Kid B. Radiohead has become the band that smart kids and slackers obsess over, but here's the secret: nobody really listens to the new stuff. They just get hyped for the new record, frown at first listen, second, third and so forth, lie to their friends about how much they "get it", then go back to playing "Black Star" and "Paranoid Android" over and over in their bedrooms.
4. Limp Bizkit, Results May Vary (DGC)
It's just a shame that such a piece of shit can be released while far more talented rock bands are slaving away in sweaty, urine stinking clubs hoping to one day land a record deal. Celebrity stalker / bad lyricist / annoying as all hell / faux microphone fiend Fred Durst has brought in a guitarist that sounds nothing like the innovative Wes Borland, leaving Limp Bizkit sounding like a bad cover version of themselves. By the end of the disc, Durst decides to butcher The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" so bad that there's no variation on these results; Rap Metal is dead.
5. The musical genre known as Britpop
Where did you go BritPop? We used to have such high hopes for the future. In 2003, Stereophonics and Richard Ashcroft put out decent records, but nobody noticed... and what the hell was that bunk that Travis put out? Didn't their drummer almost die? They couldn't come up with anything stronger than "Peace the F*** Out" (which is actually a pretty good song)? The hope for the genre lays in the sophomore efforts from Starsailor and Elbow (both January '04), the identity crisis carrying, but somewhat reliable Charlatans, and chronic disappointers Oasis. In other words, it doesn't look good.
Top Five Songs of the Year
1. 50 Cent, "In Da Club"
This was the most overplayed song of the year, and it never got old. Dr. Dre's beat with 50 singing out the side of his mouth was a flawless combination. If your ass didn't start to move on it's own when this track came on, you don't have one.
2. Jane's Addiction, "Just Because"
The round and round guitar announced the return of Perry Farrell and Co., and it slammed. With cocky double tracked vocals, Dave Navarro playing like he was born to be a rock God, it has a genuine swagger and attitude sorely missing from today's new rock.
3. Sean Beal, "Can't Smile Without You"
Technically, this cheesy little pop chestnut came out on the Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo soundtrack in 1999, which perhaps three people purchased. This year, it was used in a Yahoo! ad that seemed to be on during every commercial break, and since it first gained popularity as a Barry Manilow song, it's officially one of biggest guilty pleasures of 2003.
4. Powerman 5000, "Free"
Rob Zombie's little brother Spider released the best hard rock song this year and nobody paid attention. It's a pity, because this is a classic front to back raise-your-fist-and-forget-about-it rocker.
5. Richard Ashcroft, "Check the Meaning"
A laid back eight-minute album opener that gives any Verve song a run for it's money makes Ashcroft one of the coolest cats in Britain