2003 produced more music that I enjoyed than any year since 2000, when Doves Lost Souls and Radiohead's Kid A vied for the top spot on my list. Like that year, I had the toughest time deciding between numbers one and two, whether The Rain Band's debut or The Strokes' sophomore release deserved top billing. After much deliberation, The Strokes got the edge, if only because the band has a higher profile and will likely have a greater impact on the modern rock landscape for years to come. The rest of the albums are, more or less, interchangeable, but each one, in almost any other year, might have finished with the gold medal.
1. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)
The rap on this album when it first leaked was that it was nothing more than Is This It part II. Boy, were those people wrong. If you still have any doubts, might I suggest listening to these two albums back to back. Where Is This It complemented facile, unfussed melodies with even simpler passive observations of relationships gone bad, Room on Fire considerably ups the ante, incorporating touches of metal and new wave into their ramshackle garage. Meanwhile, Casablancas has taken a more active role in his vignettes, deftly navigating a complex emotional terrain spiked with jealousy, guilt, and coldhearted indifference. The end result is one of most brilliantly conceived and expertly executed follow-ups in the history of mainstream rock, deserving of a place alongside OK Computer and In Utero. Respect is definitely due.
2. The Rain Band, s/t (Temptation/Island UK)
Critics tend to put too much of a premium on creativity. Generally, they're reluctant to place an album on the year-end list that fails to break any new ground. The Rain Band's debut certainly falls into that category. At best, it cleverly combines the familiar in novel ways. But the album also reminds us that genre records can occasionally transcend their modest aims. Like B.R.M.C. or The Strokes, The Rain Band are a rare group that came fully formed and aged -- their aesthetic, songwriting, and image already light years ahead of their contemporaries. Mixing the slick, mechanical veneer of New Order and the warm dance grooves of the Happy Mondays, The Rain Band are quintessentially Manchester, but have a potentially broader appeal as well. Right now, they may have nothing more than regional acclaim; however, I wouldn't rule out greater success if afforded the same opportunities as their fellow Manchester natives, Doves.
3. Elefant, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid, (Kemado/Palm Pictures)
Many writers dismissed Elefant as shameless peddlers of Britpop nostalgia. These people are sadly and profoundly misguided. For while songwriter and frontman Diego Garcia obviously owes a debt to the pristine guitar pop of Pulp, he displays none of Cocker's usual arrogance or authorial distance. Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid, Elefant's remarkably assured debut, goes for the purer pleasures and captures the swooning romanticism of youth better than any album since Is This It.
4. Grandaddy, Sumday (V2)
Not content to be held on standby, Grandaddy frontman and principal songwriter Jason Lytle managed to convert his fascination with dilapidated, Radiohead-ish sonic landscapes into easily digestable marvels of pop economy. Some no doubt were revolted by the shameless simplification on the Modesto outfit's third full-length, but there's bravery in brandishing such bold hooks in a genre where pretension reigns supreme. Grandaddy, for once, sounds like a band of its own design.
5 + 6. Twilight Singers, Blackberry Belle and Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair EP
Like Quentin Tarantino, who went into a sort of self-imposed exile following the critical indifference that greeted Jackie Brown, Greg Dulli faded into anonymity after his solo project's self-titled debut failed to capture the fire and ominous foreboding that were the trademarks of his former band, The Afghan Whigs. Fortunately for him, Blackberry Belle was no Kill Bill. Dulli not only resurrected his wayward career, but proved that there are at least a few worthy second acts in American indie rock. The EP ain't too shabby either.
7. Wrens, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)
Emo is dead. Long live emo -- at least as played by these Jersey natives. The Wrens finally restore some dignity to a form withered by crass commercialization at the behest of Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World. By trimming the syrupy bathos and finding inspiration in hallowed indie figures like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, the Wrens manage to avoid the genre's many trappings. Some may miss the frenetic pace of the Wrens earlier efforts, but there's something to be said for maturity in a genre afflicted with hormonal imbalance.
8. The National, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (Brassland)
If Interpol decided to play songs off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Nick Cave lent his voice to the proceedings, you might wind up with a close approximation of The National's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers -- a simultaneously brutal and gorgeous slice of rootsy, gothic Americana. Yet while the band is clearly steeped in tradition, there's an unmistakable post-modern twist, probably due to the contributions of producer Peter Katis (Interpol). Whatever the reason, this much is clear: you won't find a more honest and impassioned testament to the power of good old-fashioned songwriting. It's only too bad we needed a reminder at all.
9. Cobra High, Sunset in the Eye of the Hurricane (Cold Crush)
Those clamoring for a group to bring some bite back to the wayward Seattle scene may have found their saviors in Cobra High, four black-clad, surly-looking men who are fond of keyboards, less so of vocals, and worship at the altars of chaotic noise purveyors like Add N to (X) and Pretty Girls Make Graves (and thank both of them in their liner notes). Their debut album, Sunset in the Eye of the Hurricane is shocking, daring, and a complete anomaly in a city currently awash in the indie pop exploits of Death Cab for Cutie and their Barsuk brethren. Whether it's the electro drum clatter and the glistening guitars on "To See Two Suns" or the primitive Doors-isms on "Paper Gods," there's a ceaseless and forcefully inventive impulse at the heart of these compositions -- the fleeting glimpses of brilliance that can only come from a band unfazed by the tides of fashion. Mark my words: this is a band to watch.
Reissue of the Year: Simply Saucer, Cyborgs Revisited (Sonic Unyon)
Edgar Breau has a classic rock star voice, equal parts jagged insouciance and forlorn longing. But it's ensconced in one of the most challenging musical explorations of the past quarter century. Merging the brainy hippie expanses of Pink Floyd and the Dead with the chugging swagger of embryonic punk, the Saucer surely made no sense in their own time, which perhaps explains why the album wasn't released until 10 years after it was recorded. However, in hindsight, their one and only album provides the perfect bridge between two musical eras, classic rock and punk, often considered wholly distinct. But that description also sells it short, for Cyborgs Revisited is more than a mere historical artifact. These songs rage with a palpable and present desperation that belies their age. Hear their roar.