Best Music of 2003 | Mark Desrosiers

1. The Midnight Evils, Straight ‘Til Morning (Estrus)
Drunk Minnesotans fumble at the bra-strap of their Muse, with Jack Daniels on their breath and some Nazareth records in the changer. She’s panting, biting lips, clutching at their hair, and this sense of urgency — blue balls and a jammed zipper — is what motivates these 12 tracks. Well, that, plus lots of weed & booze. Namby-pamby “rock” artistes such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the White Stripes, Andrew W.K., they are like gentle floating feathers lost in the contrails of this cock-rocket. Why is this the best album of the year, you ask? Do you really think there’s a better album out there?

2. The Fiery Furnaces, Gallowsbird’s Bark (Rough Trade)
Bursting out from the orlop deck and breathing deep the salty air of the crow’s nest, Eleanor Friedberger liberates the creaking ship of art-rock with a carefully spaced barrage of words. Yes, she sounds like a young, hungry Patti Smith. Sure, this album is weird and beautiful. But not impenetrable: at times it sounds like a fairly obvious recreation of an anonymous office worker’s fantasy life. Family, love, hunger, lust, feminism, syllables dropping off a wet tongue. This ain’t just spitting into the wine-dark sea, though. More like spiked grog handed to you by Lady Pirate. Bow head down, boys, and sing it again.

3. Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day (New West)
It’s not often that you get three brilliant songwriters in the same band, but here we have it. Patterson Hood says, “The sound you hear is my daddy spinning”. Mike Cooley says, “Well my daddy never pulled out, but he never apologized”. And Jason Isbell, the band’s secret weapon, says, “Don’t act like your family’s a joke”. All that Faulknerian squalor gets distilled and straightened out for the 21st century, plus you hear straight-no-chaser accounts of boys acting like sensitive assholes. Cooley’s “Sounds Better in the Song”, for example, refers to the classic “Free Bird” refrain (“Lord knows I can’t change”), and he actually makes you give a shit. His other classic, “Marry Me”, is the best Stones rip in recorded history, and a good candidate for song of the year. The album rocks, gets solemn and serious, then gets real pretty, then it rocks again. Mostly it’s an all-too-candid accounting of two generations of boys (fathers and sons) finding, feeling, fucking, and never forgetting.

4. The Blood Brothers, Burn, Piano Island, Burn (ARTISTdirect)
The blasted volley of thunder here is undercut with hooks and a strange sense of beauty. Occasionally a bell dings and the feral howls turn into earnest adenoidal choruses. What to make of it? It’s a lease-breaker, that’s for sure. And it will annoy the fuck out of your boyfriend and/or girlfriend. My pal Meg broke her hand while listening to it all alone in her apartment! Skittery rhythms and pain-screams and some strange expansive lyrics like you’ve never seen (consult the CD booklet). This is the perfect madness, the din-splitting beacon, the righteous ruckus we’ve been waiting for forever since the Minutemen and Primus wound up their tunes so tight they were giving off heat. “Can you put the bile back in the beast you’ve broken, tied, and teamed?” No you can’t Brothers, of course you can’t . . .

5. The Weakerthans, Reconstruction Site (Epitaph)
John K. Samson is very intelligent and poetic, and he sings like a grinning grad student. But, curiously, Samson also seems to have direct experience with an unshaven noon-whiskey, pissing-in-the-sink dissipation, which allowed him to compose a wonderful self-pitying tune from the perspective of his straight-edge cat Virtute. I’m not sure how to categorize this album. Punk antecedents, folky flow, punchy drums, AOR guitar solos on a coupla’ tunes. Aw hell, he’s a great blinkered pop songwriter just like Alex Chilton used to be, and he’s got similarly detailed squalor-diary sources to draw from. Plus, he’s better than before: this is by any measure the greatest Weakerthans album, especially since he’s abandoned the mellow bullshit of Left and Leaving

6. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak (Lookout!)
Virtuosity and nostalgia are the two reasons why this album is so dazzling (why it exists at all, really). Ted Leo’s voice is something to behold, an enthusiastic swooping-to-the-highest-branch like you haven’t heard in years. And these hook junkies make sure that the Romantics will just bow out of the canon forevermore. Really, this sounds like the majestic power-pop album the world awaited in 1982, and the standout track, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”, is actually a two-decades-late complaint about the prematurely dead Two-Tone scene. But there is some real emotional content here too: the way his voice hits the skies in “I’m a Ghost” (towards the end), it’s kinda like spine-tingling yourself to an old Journey album. I ain’t kidding (and I ain’t disparaging Journey either).

7. The Handsome Family, Singing Bones (Carrot Top)
Welcome to Albuquerque, kids. I’m just glad the marriage counseling (or whatever it is) hasn’t turned them into brain-eating spiritualists. Rennie’s words are bleak and beautiful, and Brett’s baritone is astonishing (especially when it’s not getting double-tracked or angel-bedecked). “The Bottomless Hole” and “Fallen Peaches” will stop you in your tracks, mostly because Brett’s alone at the mic (and the mic may as well be a mountaintop). The other tunes will just haunt and jar you. Thirteen songs to fortify you in the morning, or break you down at bedtime.

8. The Soviettes, The Soviettes LP (Adeline)
Girlpunks without a five-year-plan, but already with two all-time classics in their set list. “Matt’s Song” is a poignant excursion into drunken flirting across the gig floor (I always picture the blurry Xmas-light atmosphere of the Turf Club), and the absolutely brilliant “Land of Clear Blue Radio” is a venom-dunked arrow aimed at ClearChannel’s groin. The rest of the tunes shake them marbles in the oilcan, and punk proles get rounded up for re-education.

9. Deerhoof, Apple O’ (Kill Rock Stars)
Sylvia Plath on electroconvulsive therapy: “Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me.”. This album’s kinda like that, except there’s two slow, boring songs that shoulda been left off.

10. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People (arts & crafts)
This album is a lot less interesting than you’ve been led to believe. Vast stretches of it consist of dull instrumentals (one of which sounds like a sad outtake from an old Chicago album), and two of the actual songs-with-vocals are just boring. And yet, and yet . . . there’s this song called “Almost Crimes” which echoes through my head, and pings in and out of every other track, and it made me love those two snoozefest tracks anyway. Really, has a supergroup ever recorded an album this resonant? Does anyone recall a single song from Blind Faith, or the Traveling Wilburys?