In my opinion, 2003 had some of the best music in years. Though I tried hard to listen to as much as possible, I realize there may be gems I've missed. My apologies to those overlooked artists, and also to those I had to exclude when winnowing down my list. With every close call, I opted to recommend someone you might not know. I remain partial to melodic rock (guitar or keyboard driven), strong song-craft, and whenever possible, clever or unexpected lyrics. Here then are my baker's dozen selections of best albums for 2003:
1. Bleu, Redhead (Columbia/Aware)
Boston native Bleu McAuley has immense talent as a singer/songwriter with an old-fashioned sense of craft. An expressive voice, lyrics that capture teenage angst, dual guitar leads, and wonderful sing-along melodies are just some of the things that make this an instant pop-rock classic. Chock full of great songs from start to finish and well produced by John "Strawberry" Fields, Redhead is a happy revelation.
2. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/Virgin)
This CD is the aural equivalent of a great collection of short stories, each song presenting a slice of life with a range of interesting characters. Weighted more toward ballads, this album overcomes the emotional distance that plagued FoW in the past. Collingwood and Schlesinger retain an uncanny ear for finding hooks that gnaw at your subconscious, writing perfect pop gems you'll be hearing upon awakening. Musical tales of winners and losers in love, dreamers, quarterbacks, waitresses, and plenty who tend to drink excessively, Welcome Interstate Managers is a fast favorite. Face it: New Jersey is more than a state -- it's a state of mind.
3. Sukilove, Sukilove (Hidden Agenda/Parasol)
Belgium's Pascal Deweze shows charm and smarts in Sukilove's first full-length release. Given the extended forum, he goes against the grain of the commercial marketplace, serving up 13 uniquely mature and melodic songs that largely take their sweet time expressing subtle nuances. Still, they are well worth your while. Deweze has a knack for pretty melodies and can write stunning lyrics that touch both heart and mind. Sukilove manages the feat of approaching old topics from new and interesting angles, and manages to make sadness optimistic and somehow uplifting. This isn't easy music, but it's easily some of the finest new song craft around.
4. Rooney, Rooney (Geffen/Interscope)
Sunshine and retro-rock ripe for beach days, Rooney serves up light-hearted pop-rock. The music of Robert Carmine (another actor/singer from the Coppola clan) suggests the illicit love child of Ric Ocasek and Rivers Cuomo. Add in some Britpop to the Cars and Weezer references, set your blender to soiree, and let the kids have their innocent fun. Carmine's vocals and songwriting abilities bode well for Rooney's future, and while these songs won't challenge or change the world, you still can sing along and enjoy them. An auspicious start for this hard-working young California band.
5. Lazy, Essentially (Slumbertone)
Lazy are the talented Joel Bell and Pete Pagonis. Essentially has been years in the making, and it shows. Ten quality songs that sparkle -- fully realized compositions with no filler -- with a sound akin to Crowded House/Neil Finn or Squeeze/Glenn Tilbrook. Every song is melodic, well crafted and intelligent, well executed (great lead vocals, harmonies, leads and instrumentation), and well produced. These songs display complex set-ups and time signatures, no three-chord simplicity here. Further, Bell's lyrics reveal the kind of smart turn of the phrase that's sorely lacking in most modern pop, as well as intriguing approaches on the usual topics. Encouraged by the success of other melodic pop bands, Bell and Pagonis decided to let this material see the light of day -- I'm glad they did.
6. Lynchpin, Hand-Picked Words (self-released)
This sophomore effort from Melbourne, Australia's Lynchpin is packed full of pleasant mid-tempo numbers with heartfelt sentiments. Guitarist/lead vocalist Andy Kirkland, drummer Glen King, and bassist Dave Stevens have been together for a decade or so, and the tight sound reflects that long-term togetherness. Kirkland's vocals are reminiscent of a younger Neil Finn (thus some of Lynchpin's songs have an early Crowded House feel to them). These tracks cover traditional relationship issues (trust, deception, loneliness, and more) in intelligent ways, but couch them in mellifluous melodies that come across with a healthy serving of vocal honesty and soul. Hand-Picked Words features songs that stick with you in the best of ways.
7. The Contrast, Wireless Days (Rainbow Quartz)
David Reid, creative force behind the Contrast, alternates lyrical tendencies between the obscurely eclectic, the culturally knowing, and the heartbrokenly mundane, then couches those words behind strong beats and a slick mastery of the Rickenbacker guitar. His band's sophomore effort, Wireless Days, is an impressive and solid package of music, a dozen songs that build on the promise laid out on their debut, layers of great guitar, strong rhythms and pleasant harmonies. The quartet display the confidences borne of playing well together, but the real magic comes from Reid's ability to tap into what's gone before and translate it into something moody and new.
8. The Deal, Goodbye September (Not Lame Archives)
Here's a band that had so much bad luck over the years they should be known as the Raw Deal. A long time fan contacted Bruce at Not Lame, and after twenty years this fine music finally is being rescued from oblivion. These 15-tracks of demos and lost studio recordings are sweet and memorable. Mark Roebuck writes songs based on acoustic sounds with harmonies, gentle folk rock that predates that Posies sound circa Dear 23 . Add to these well-constructed infectious ditties the kind of powerful lead guitarist you'd only find in louder bands (Haines Fullerton) and you've got the winning paradox that was the sound of the Deal.
9. The Heavenly States, The Heavenly States (Future Farmer)
Guitarist/songwriter Ted Nesseth and brother/sister team Jeremy and Genevieve Gagon are the Heavenly States. Together, they manage the difficult feat of wedding angry intensity to delicately finessed grace as they create strange yet lovely pop creations, lush and unpredictable and often with a hard guitar edge. The Heavenly States delivers 14 songs that challenge a listener with the sheer enormity of musical range covered. Every song here is interesting -- over fifty-three minutes of music that goes beyond the pale, a multi-dimensional treat that is as welcome as it is unexpected and destined to be considered an underground classic.
10. The Boris Flats, The Sunshine Imperative (Boris-Tone Multimedia)
The Boris Flats -- basically the talented multi-instrumentalist songwriters Van Norris-Jones and Geoff Webb -- confound and amaze, creating the paradox of being both derivative and eclectically original, often even within the space of a single song. The Sunshine Imperative is essential for its sheer breadth of range -- humor and melancholy, sunshine and darkness, an expansive mélange. These musical chameleons take disparate elements and mix them into something new and infectious and pop (of various shades and tones). Even if you hate one track, you might love the next. The end product is a breathtaking mix of so much from what is essentially a two-man musical circus. This admirable, intelligent adult pop achieves its own identity amid obvious influences, where similar efforts by others often fall short. A wide range to choose from, and a big aural wow.
11. Chris Von Sneidern, The Wild Horse (Innerstate)
After a few experiments in setting poetry to music, the talented Chris Von Sneidern visited the studio for his first traditional pop release in years. The Wild Horse proves well worth the wait -- CVS returns with nuance and subtle shadings that make his new music a pleasure to behold. The music has acquired maturity, enhanced by a mastery of the keyboard and a strong vocal sense of soul beneath the pop exterior. Older, wiser, and no less talented, CVS gives us songs in a wide variety of styles, some with plenty of soulful retro-feel. This strong collection should please older fans and attract new ones. The years have enriched his talents, and his songwriting and performances here reflect that while ultimately enriching us too.
12. HotSocky, HotSocky (Billtown USA)
This NYC quartet bursts onto the scene with an impressive array of powerful music -- 12 incredible cuts of melodic thunder guaranteed to make true pop/rock fans smile. The music is energetic and fun with a hint of glam rock, some 1970s-style anthem rock, great crunchy guitars, hook-laden melodies, sunny harmonies, and darkly cynical lyrics (there are no illusions about an overly happy world). HotSocky gives energy and excitement to the music, even though much of it deals with the downtrodden. With slickly produced songs exuding structure, middle bridges, solos, layers of guitars, and great sing-along choruses -- what more could one want?
13. Ike, Parallel Universe (Bisbee Roadkill)
When the John Faye Power Trip added bassist Joann Schmidt, things clicked in such a way as to make it seem like an entirely different band. Thus the new band name, Ike. While there was adversity in recording and getting Parallel Universe released, Faye has dealt with challenges -- as such, he's a man who writes songs from the heart. His voice remains the compelling centerpiece to these complex compositions, with lyrics that express equal parts light and dark. His music draws from rock's past and adds traces of Philadelphia soul. Faye, his fantastic voice and solid supporting band (Cliff Hillis, Schmidt, and Dave Anthony) haven't rebuilt the wheel -- but they have created something that rocks and rolls. This CD isn't trendy -- these merely are intricate, mature-sounding songs that stick in your head.
Five Best Songs from 2003
1. "The Weakest Shade of Blue", Pernice Brothers, Yours, Mine & Ours, (Ashmont)
I love this opening track. Maybe it's Joe Pernice's poetic lyrics: "Won't you come unbury me? / Will you light me up like a lemon grove? / I'll save you from the dreamy life, to the hardest love you could ever know / Could it be so wrong, so wrong?" Perhaps it's the catchy melody. Nope: it's just the romantic notion of it -- I'll forever be a sucker for that.
2. "Where Home Used to Be", Marshall Crenshaw, What's In The Bag? (Razor & Tie)
Crenshaw's poignant post-9/11 tribute to his memories of downtown NYC. In the framework of a man revisiting where fond memories were formed, Crenshaw's guitar and voice manage this emotional reminiscence to perfection: "Familiar shadows remain, but they are all that's unchanged / Because this whole street seems haunted now, and the atmosphere is still and strange / We didn't worry 'bout much, we never had a spare dime / This is where home used to be in a different time / I know it's hard to believe, so much has turned to dust / But this is where home used to be, and it was good to us, more than good to us". Jane Scarpantonio's cello aids this lovely memorial and prayer for a better day.
3. "Somethin's Gotta Give", Bleu, Redhead, (Columbia/Aware)
Bleu's collaboration with Semisonic's Dan Wilson. This song does a great job relating all those horrible feelings and thoughts that survive a recently ended adolescent relationship: "Since you left me, I've been almost fine / Back to normal, back to boring life / Drama's over since we dulled that shine / I saw your mom at the mall just the other day buyin' you a brand new bed / Said she missed havin' me around / I could only die as I nodded my head / If ya' wanted me back I know I'd go and letcha do it / If ya' wanted me back I know somehow we'd wander through it / If ya' wanted me back I know I'd go but someday somethin's gotta give".
4. "All Kinds of Time", Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, (S-Curve/Virgin)
Hard choosing one song from this great CD, but part of what makes Collingwood and Schlesinger great is their ability to find new topics for songs. This song is related from the point-of-view of a quarterback in the zone, able eventually to find the open man and complete a pass. Former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha guests on guitar.
5. "Something New", Lazy, Essentially, (Slumbertone)
Joel Bell writes words that remind me how lyrics should be: poetic, meaningful and unexpected. This tale of disappointment and love lost becomes something more in the deft hands of lyrics that provoke thought: "All we lose gathers very quietly and waits for the news that we don't need it / Then the steady march of memory empties out the past / I will wait until you find / Nothing good was built to last / C'mon it's me you're talking to / That's something new for you". This track features wonderful guitar work from Pierre Gaillard.