1. Elbow, Cast of Thousands (V2)
It's a shame that the best album of the year came out in August, but won't reach the States until mid-January, because Cast of Thousands is simply sensational. Elbow's second album is not the most innovative or the most emotional or the most provocative of the year, but it's at the top of my list for reaching out in so many ways. Rarely has an album satisfied so many sides of me: by being oblique enough to satisfy the hipster, earnest enough to satisfy the romantic, and complex enough to satisfy the musician. For those of you who haven't picked up the import yet, there's good reason to look forward to the new year.
2. Calexico, Feast of Wire (Quarterstick/Touch and Go)
Calexico's got an arid sound, reminiscent of riding a horse through the Tortilla Curtain. Accordions and steel guitars memorably join with acoustic guitars and horns, something like Wilco lost in the desert. This wonderful music alone isn't enough to get Feast of Wire into my top 10; the band's intense lyrics contribute strongly to my selection. The disc's first lyric, off the beautiful "Sunken Waltz", hits hard: "Washed my face in the rivers of empire." It's gritty traveling with Calexico, but it's worth every minute of it. The band even manages to slip a little of Jim West's landscape into the album, with the jazzy "Attack el Robot! Attack!", the second-best robot fight song of the last few years. Calexico sings of people "Holding so much / With no show of heart". Fortunately, only the first half of those lyrics applies to this group.
3. The Wrens, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)
I was prepared to be disappointed with The Meadowlands. Between critical raving, the intriguing back-story, and the hype of friends, the album didn't seem likely to live up to my expectations, but it did. The frequently upbeat music juxtaposes nicely with the gloom of most of the submerged lyrics, classically giving us sonically the determination weaved throughout the words. The album opens with crickets, a soft guitar line, and a frequently quoted line: "It's been a long time." The Wrens confess where they've been and what they feel. The transparency could hinder the record, but it works beautifully. By the time the closing track arrives, its coughing and throat-clearing seem almost natural, and the hoarse vocals leaves me satisfied, but reluctant to let go.
4. Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantics (Dirtnap)
Guitar Romantics is the best punk or power pop record of the year. Influenced by bands like the Ramones and the Jam, the Exploding Hearts do very little that's novel, but what they do, they do exceedingly well. Songs like "Modern Kicks" and "Sleeping Aides and Razor Blades" sound like they were written 30 years ago but will be great 30 years from now. Sadly, this album will be the only one the band makes, but at least it's an incredible one.
5. Clearlake, Cedars (Domino)
There's no sophomore slump for Clearlake. Cedars is all wit and emotion and risk-taking that works nearly perfectly. Singer Jason Pegg creates nearly visible characters that disturb almost as much as they linger. Clearlake's ability to set a mood may have been unmatched in 2003, and the tensions between the sound and the lyrics create memorable songs and a record for overcast days. Without ever sounding like they're experimenting just for novelty's sake, Pegg and his bandmates have provided some of the most unique tracks -- and psychological studies -- of the year.
6. Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango (Ya Basta!/XL/Beggars Group)
Before listening to Gotan Project, it would be easy to assume that they're just a novelty act with one clever gimmick: combining the music of tango with house beats and aesthetics. However, La Revancha del Tango is an artfully constructed album with 10 strong tracks that remains interesting from start to finish. It's also the coolest record of the year (and I use "coolest" in the non-pejorative sense). Finally you can have the record that's smooth enough to put on while you're making dinner for a special guest, and hot enough to listen to again while you eat.
7. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak (Lookout!)
Ted Leo is possibly the best songwriter on the pop scene right now, and Hearts of Oak is just another stunning argument in support of that idea. He's got the musical tastes of new Paul Weller, and he shows his mod sensibilities on tracks like "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?". Hearts of Oak, in spite of all its pop aspirations, can be a demanding listen. It's a political album full of religious imagery; Leo struggles to find hope in difficult times, but worries that no one's being saved. Despite the likelihood of failure, he commands, "Don't let's stop until it's done". Hearts of Oak is a complex work of musical and lyrical genius. And, oh yeah, it rocks.
8. Grandaddy, Sumday (V2)
From the encouraging "Now It's On" to the conflicted "The Final Push to the Sum", Grandaddy take us on bizarre-but-moving tour of their modern world. On Sumday, the group has become more accessible, greatly to its benefit. The harmonies shine here, as do the warm electronic tones. "The Group Who Couldn't Say" tells the story of a band that feels so good it forgets the words, but the real Grandaddy provides stellar lyrics, one after another, with melodies that stick. The album closes with a repeated question: "What have I become?" Well, Grandaddy, you've become a pop band, and you've produced a great album.
9. Four Tet, Rounds (Domino)
Four Tet (a.k.a Kieran Hebden) has produced a laptop record that outshines anything by its peers. The opening sound, a sampled heartbeat, emphasizes the fact that Rounds is a rhythm record, and the inventive beats maintain the disc throughout, with Hebden bringing in myriad influences to round out his sound. Jazz springs to mind immediately, with the smooth piano and bass parts throughout, but Hebden also works in traditional American folk and, on "Spirit Fingers", a European folk sound. Hebden merges these styles (using the sounds of guitars, pianos, chimes, saxophones, and other instruments) effortlessly over his beats, from hip-hop to trip-hop to IDM. Featuring "As Serious As Your Life" -- one of the year's ten best songs -- Rounds is easily one of the year's most beautiful and musically intelligent albums.
10. The Unicorns, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (Alien8 Recordings)
The Unicorns -- perhaps not surprisingly as my number ten pick -- have the most tenuous hold on their spot. Not because they haven't created a brilliant album, but because it hasn't been out long enough for me to give it one final test: staying power. I took my first listen to this disc after I had already been working on my best-of list, and it was hard for me to knock off the Shins for a new arrival. However, the hooks and lyrics on Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? are just too incredible. They're creative, catchy, and intelligent, and the Unicorns deserve recognition for having produced one of the best albums of 2003.
Honorable mentions: The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow; The Heavenly States, The Heavenly States; The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music; Over the Rhine, Ohio.
Top 5 Songs
1. OutKast, "Hey Ya", Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
If you can resist Andre's call to "Shake it like a Polaroid picture", then you are not welcome at my house. Ever.
2. Calexico, "Quattro", Feast of Wire (Quarterstick/Touch and Go)
It's got a great drum line, a nearly perfect hook, insinuating steel guitars, a personal struggle, and a beautiful melody. What more could you want?
3. Mando Diao, "Sheepdog", Bring 'Em In (Mute)
"Sheepdog" reminds me of an out of control "I Feel Fine", opening with some feedback before breaking into an unforgettable guitar riff. On Bring 'Em In, Mando Diao sounds too much like their British invasion influences to be truly great, but "Sheepdog" rocks out as effectively as anything I've heard all year.
4. Grandaddy, "Now It's On", Sumday (V2)
On an oddly optimistic album, "Now It's On" is the anthem that you'll listen to over and over. This track sets the tone for the succesful struggle that's to follow, and it couldn't do it any better.
5. Radiohead, "A Punchup at a Wedding", Hail to the Thief (Capitol)
Who listens to Radiohead for the bass line? Even if you missed this bass hook, the lyrics and the piano are emblematic of the tone of Hail to the Thief. The experimentalists are hinting at pop here, and it's working (as if we doubted it would).
Just missed: Four Tet, "As Serious As Your Life", Rounds; Clearlake, "Almost the Same", Cedars