1. Tiga, DJ-Kicks (!K7)
!K7 Records' DJ-Kicks series, which focuses on DJs who bend the boundaries of dance music by steering clear of the usual house/trance/techno club fodder, has always been varying degrees of excellent. Artists like Kruder & Dorfmeister, Thievery Corporation and Truby Trio have done some of their best work under the DJ-Kicks name. So when I say that this 24-track mix from Montreal's DJ Tiga was not only my favorite album of 2003, but my favorite in the entire DJ-Kicks series, you get an idea of how incredible it is. It's primarily an electro album, but don't let that scare you -- Tiga's palette ranges far beyond the trite poseur sounds of electroclash to incorporate elements of disco punk (DFA's remix of Le Tigre's amazing "Deceptacon"), classic synth pop (an obscure Soft Cell B-side, "So"), electro-breaks (Codec & Flexor's "Time Has Changed") and even a few echoes of the minimalist tech-house that used to be his stock-in-trade. And if you must have your dose of electroclash, he also includes the best song that scene has produced, Felix Da Housecat's "Madame Hollywood", served up here in Tiga's own deliciously arch remix/remake. Oh, and did I mention that the mixing is creative, gutsy, and totally seamless? Eventually this guy is gonna be a superstar.
2. Goldfrapp, Black Cherry (Mute)
Okay, I admit it: I was wrong about electro. A year ago I was still railing about what a lame genre it was, but now here I am singing the praises of Tiga's DJ-Kicks and this, the buzzy sophomore album from Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp. Black Cherry surprised a lot of people -- mainly because everything on Goldfrapp's debut Felt Mountain was enveloped in such a soft-focus gauze of John Barry cool and avant-pop sophistication, while songs like "Train" and "Twist" were simple, hooky and defiantly unsophisticated -- raunchy, even, the electro/synth-pop equivalent of Exile on Main Street-era Stones. But Gregory and Goldfrapp are extraordinarily gifted producers and songwriters, and even the simplest songs in this set unfold in ways that still satisfy on the twentieth listen. It's exciting to hear artists take this many chances over the course of just two albums and have nearly all of them pay off. And it sure doesn't hurt that Alison Goldfrapp has one of the most meltingly lovely voices in popular music.
3. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)
Yeah, I know, you used to like the White Stripes, but you're so over them now. Jack's dating Renee Zellweger, Meg's drumming still sucks, "Seven Nation Army" was a total sellout, and when are they gonna realize that their real fans never liked the whole red-and-white gimmick in the first place? Look, hop on the Backlash Bandwagon if you must, but I guarantee you the wheels will come off that thing long before the rock 'n' roll freight train that is Jack White ever runs off the rails. It's a miracle to me that he's still cranking out albums this good with just an eight-track and, admittedly, an extremely mediocre drummer, but guess what? He is. If you swallow your indie pride and look past the hype, Elephant is probably the best thing the White Stripes have done yet. Success suits Jack White -- his music has always been about punk-meets-Delta-blues-by-way-of-early-Zeppelin swagger, anyway, and these days he has plenty to swagger about. Songs like "Black Math" and "Ball and Biscuit" fairly bristle with cocky attitude, and more plaintive tunes like "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart" still pack a punch, too. This guy is the best rock songwriter to emerge in nearly a decade, and he's maturing into a pretty spectacular guitarist, too. And if the shows I saw this past summer are any indication, he's only getting better. I hope their next album sells ten million copies.
4. Karminsky Experience, Inc., The Power of Suggestion (ESL Music)
Dear god, not another pair of skinny English dudes putting out an album of downtempo hipster tunes? Yes, I'm afraid so. But wait: For all the obvious comparisons to Bent, Lemon Jelly and their assorted ilk, James Munns and Martin Dingle's debut artist album manages to be a strikingly original blend of 60s soundtrack riffs, midtempo soul, jazz and trip-hop grooves, and Eastern exotica that fairly brims over with smoky atmosphere and intrigue. It's a combination of sounds that actually bears more resemblance to retro-lounge DJs like Tim "Love" Lee and Ursula 1000, but where those swinging bachelors approach their source sounds with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Munns and Dingle manage to strike a steadier balance between campy numbers like the Dr. Seussian beat jazz of "A Little Happening" and straight tunes like "Assignment Istanbul" and "Exploration", which anchors its spacey vibe with the best of the album's many rock-solid grooves. All of it has a sweeping, cinematic vibe that sounds great blasting out of the car stereo as you drive across the desert -- or across the neon wastes of Los Angeles. My guess is it sounds pretty good against most other landscapes, too.
5. Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango (¡Ya Basta!/XL Recordings)
Like a lot of good records, the debut album from Gotan Project came out pretty much everywhere except the U.S. over two years ago; it finally made its Stateside debut this year, and its brilliance remains undimmed. The programmed beats and dubby keyboard and bass effects from Philippe Cohen Solal and Christoph H. Müller are what give the record its unmistakable sheen of 21st century cool, but the individual musicians are what really make the record and its tango/jazz/dub/electronica fusions so endlessly fascinating. Nini Flores' bandoneon croons and sighs with the seductive allure of a fading cabaret singer who's smoked too many cigarettes; Eduardo Makaroff's crisp, rhythmic acoustic guitar breathes life into the spaces between the looped beats and basslines; and Line Kruse's violin is simply a thing of beauty, swooping and diving through every solo with just the right balance of passion and virtuosity. In a year that saw Latin/electronica crossover acts sprouting up faster than Starbucks franchises, no one ever topped this.
6. Groove Armada, Love Box (Jive)
Groove Armada has always been one of those acts that's too eclectic for its own good; a typical GA album hopscotches around from house to big beat to downtempo to rasta-dipped dub with a glibness that makes the overall experience somehow less than the sum of its parts. But Love Box won me over in ways that their previous discs never did. It's not even that they've gotten more consistent; it's more just that now, when Tom Findlay and Andy Cato take a swing at a particular style, they're far likelier to knock it out of the park. So never mind the tedious dancefloor burner "Final Shakedown", the weirdly flat collaboration with Neneh Cherry ("Think Twice"), and the ghoulish grafting of the late Sandy Denny onto dubby space rock and a boys' choir on "Remember". What makes this album so good is the gorgeous progressive house of the title track, the deep, dirty funk of "Groove is On", and especially, the tracks where Findlay, Cato and company forget that they're "electronica artists" and simply rock out, which they do in highly convincing fashion on "Madder" and "Purple Haze". And they deserve huge props for introducing a whole new audience to the underrated Richie Havens, whose achingly beautiful voice has never sounded better than it does on "Hands of Time".
7. Bonobo, Dial M for Monkey (Ninja Tune)
Simon Green, the beat programmer and one-man band behind Bonobo, has been churning out gorgeous little downtempo ditties for the better part of a decade, but on this, his sophomore full-length, he just seems to be hitting his stride. A fragile, fluttering moth of an album at first listen, this entirely instrumental collection of just nine songs has the deceptive depth of a great abstract painting; what seems at first like just a clever arrangement of form and color keeps drawing your eye back to it, compelling you to savor its beautiful simplicity. It's almost pointless to talk about individual tracks, though if pressed I'd single out "Noctuary", "Flutter" and "Nothing Owed" as the best of the bunch. But this is that rarest of albums that really demands to be listened to in its entirety; only then does it become clear that Green is making something here more profound than just pretty background music.
8. The Postal Service, Give Up (Sub Pop)
This should have been a sideshow, a throwaway collaboration between Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard that would give them a chance to vent their love for 80s synth-pop before going back to their main gigs. But two things conspired to make this one of 2003's best, and arguably the best thing either Gibbard or Tamborello has ever done: first, Gibbard's remarkable gift for setting smart, emotionally rich lyrics to insanely catchy melodies; and second, the less-is-more, indie-rock sensibility Tamborello brings to his mostly electronic arrangements. Where most electronic music producers can't resist cramming every second of every track with as many Pro Tools-polished, computer-generated sounds as possible, Tamborello's inclination is to keep his arrangements sparse and uncluttered. Against these beautifully simple, almost claustrophobic tracks, Gibbard's plaintive voice and lyrics sound even more intimate, and even more heartbreakingly sweet. "I want so badly to believe", he sings on "Clark Gable", "that there is truth, that love is real". On Give Up, the Postal Service make us want to believe, too.
9. Shakatura, Galactivation (CyberOctave)
San Francisco's incredibly prolific CyberOctave label churns out so much hippie raver music, nearly all of it featuring the same clichéd mix of psy-trance synth effects and "tribal" percussion, that when I first got a copy of this CD, I admit listening to it once, thinking "Yeah, more chill room fodder," and tossing it aside. Thankfully I happened to pick it up again later in a more receptive frame of mind, and this time Bay Area musician/DJ Galen Butler's clever blend of ambient, dub, psy-trance and world beat sounds caught and held my attention. Most of the planet will, admittedly, never be able to tell the difference between this and the hundreds of other purveyors of ambient sounds for acidheads, but for fans of the genre, this is very nearly an instant classic, smartly spicing up the usual psychedelic stew with head-bobbing trip-hop beats, groovy basslines (one of which sneakily turns "Lavatube" into that most oxymoronic of animals, an ambient dance track), and even the occasional pop hook (check the gorgeous guitar riff on "Geko"). I'm not expecting "psy-dub" or whatever you want to call this stuff to become the next big thing, but I am expecting to hear Galen Butler's name a lot more; his talent is too great to stay confined to the chill rooms of San Francisco forever.
10. Weekend Players, The Pursuit of Happiness (Multiply/FFRR)
I'm as surprised as anyone to find myself apparently filling the role of Andy Cato's Number One Fan, but damn if this guy isn't on a roll. All he did between August of 2002 and April of 2003 was put out three brilliant albums with three different projects: Groove Armada's Love Box, Caia's themagicdragon, and this, his smoky, soulful collaboration with vocalist Rachel Foster. The last spot in my top ten was something of a tossup between this and the lush, trip-hoppy themagicdragon, but Weekend Players make the cut thanks mainly to Foster's amazing, velvety voice, which inhabits some sultry crossroads between Sade, Tracey Thorn and Annie Lennox (and yes, she really does deserve the comparison -- I was lucky enough to see them live earlier this year and the audience was one giant goosebump after "Jericho"). She's the perfect foil to Cato's smart, sophisticated arrangements, on which he tosses around everything from house beats ("21st Century") to Steve Reich samples ("I'll Be There") with an assuredness that rivals his brashly eclectic work in Groove Armada. This came out in England in 2002; thankfully, American audiences only had to wait six months to get their hands on it over here.
Top Songs of 2003
Best Trance: Paul van Dyk, "Nothing But You", from Reflections
Best Progressive: Hybrid, "Gravastar", from Morning Sci-Fi
Best Downtempo/Ambient: Bent, "Strictly Bongo", from The Everlasting Blink
Best Soul: Truby Trio feat. Joseph Malik, "Bad Luck", from Elevator Music