1. The National, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (Brassland)
While not the jaw-dropping reaction I had with the band's debut album, this group still is one of those bands that may never quite reach the acclaim they richly deserve. Whether it's the opening "Cardinal Song," the tone of this album is dark and brutally truthful. "Never tell the one you love that you do/Save it for the deathbed," lead singer Matt Berninger sings on the opener "Cardinal Song". Fusing a spacier country feel with rock undercurrents, the band brings to mind a pissed off Cowboy Junkies. "Dear, we better get a drink in you before you start to bore us," he sings in the brilliant "Slipping Husband". Excellent!
2. Ocean Colour Scene, North Atlantic Drift (Sanctuary)
My first encounter with this band was a rather bland and lifeless B-sides collection. This new record was in my player for the better half of the last few months. Teeming with Brit pop and Brit rock melodies, the band picked up the mantle where Blur, Pulp and Oasis seemed to once hold. From the slower ballads such as "Second Hand Care" and the Cure-ish "When Evil Comes", the album works better than it should. The Canadian version includes four bonus tracks, with the lighter, infectious pop oozing on "Questions" and the Beautiful South-like "I Want to See the Bright Lights". Keep putting out records like this and the bright lights will come.
3. Ian McCulloch, Slideling (Cooking Vinyl/spinART)
The debut album from the front man of Echo and the Bunnymen shines with a grace and ear-pleasing groove from start to finish. Whether it's the slower material of "Playgrounds & City Parks" or the slow-dance, love-handles hugger soul of "Baby Hold On", McCulloch never falters on this record. What's more surprising is how much of a crooner he can actually be. But the nuggets on this album align themselves more with the pop rock of his better-known gig, especially the closing batch of songs like "High Wire" and the pop perfect "Stake Your Claim." One of the few albums this year that never grows old.
4. Sloan, Action Pact (BMG)
The Halifax-cum-Toronto boys came full circle it would seem with this fabulous collection. Returning to albums such as Twice Removed and One Chord To Another, the quartet have penned some of their finest work yet. Whether it's the shimmering and sugary single "The Rest Of My Life" or the Patrick Pentland led combo of "Hollow Head" and "Backstabbin'", the band's pop arrangements are ideal. And while they won't come out and say it, the line in "Gimme That" says it all: "So take your nickel back nickel back/I'm oh gunning for a dime." Cohesive to a fault!
5. Travis, 12 Memories (Epic)
This album hasn't been given the credit it's due, mainly because the cheery folk pop of "Turn", "Side" and that bloody rain tune has been replaced with a darker, moodier yet melodic Brit rock motif. The band's first album since drummer Neil Primrose's neck injury has a little bit of everything - from singer-songwriter gems like "Somewhere Else" to the more urgent "Peace the Fuck Out" and "The Beautiful Occupation". The Beatles-esque approach is all over this record, especially on the lovable "Quicksand" and "Paperclips". Not the political album most people think, but the band's most cohesive album to date.
6. Andrew Walker, Floating Shift
This Toronto perform has released a small indie-record that is a mere ten songs in length, but given the quality and depth of the songwriting, the alt.country or Americana styles have rarely sounded this perfected and polished. Laid back without falling into a lull, Walker brings to mind a poppy Jeff Tweedy or a Jim Cuddy-led Blue Rodeo on the opener "Charity". With help from musicians such as Colin Cripps (the guitarist and beau of Kathleen Edwards), Walker takes the opportunity to show what he has to offer. And it's a hell of a lot! And have Kleenex ready for "Seven Years". You've been warned!
7. The Gathering, Souvenirs (The End)
An earlier release this year was this fabulous rock-cum-industrial-cum-ambient style from this group from Holland. If you could picture a collaborative effort between Enya, Alanis Morissette and Trent Reznor, you might get a glimpse of this inventive band's sound. Lead singer Anneke van Giersbergen's ethereal approach doesn't smack of glossy layering but rather a heartfelt approach to "triprock", the group's self-description of their sound. "These Good People" is a groovy introduction but "Broken Glass" and the title track surpass it in spades. Hypnotic at times and gorgeous in others, The Gathering have delivered a solid set of murky, alternative nuggets.
8. The Cash Brothers, A Brand New Night (Rounder)
This brother tandem has only gotten better with each album. The record itself isn't all that different from previous efforts, but the memorable opening "Shadow Of Doubt" is just killer material with the twangy guitar hook. Andrew and Peter Cash's timbre is the selling point by far, with sparse acoustic tunes such as "Tillonsburg" and "Into A Brand New Night" working equally as well as the poppy "You're It". The only disappointing track is the subpar "Give Me Your Hips". But given the schlock that came out in droves this year, it's a no-brainer pick for 2003.
9. Rosanne Cash, Rules of Travel (Capitol)
Having nearly lost her voice, Rosanne Cash's return is an album that Johnny and June can look down on with glee. And it's that distinctive voice that sets this album on the right path. "September When It Comes" marked the first and last time she sang with her late father, and the nuances of the relationship can definitely be seen on this tune. Guest appearances from Steve Earle and Sheryl Crow are also highlights, but the title track seems to be the best of the bunch. Other gems include "Will You Remember Me" and "Beautiful Pain", penned by former Odds member Craig Northey.
10. The Be Good Tanyas, Chinatown (Nettwerk)
After the band's debut album tore through Americana charts, this trio has upped the ante with more of a melodic tone to this great record. The lead single "It's Not Happening" mixes folk with just a touch of adult contemporary pop. But the best parts of this album are the ambling folk-meets-roots concoctions such as "Waiting Around To Die", the Townes Van Zandt tune. The Dolly Parton-esque harmonies are haunting and gorgeously eerie at times. The sparse arrangements also lend themselves to the listener's ear, with just one fabulous take after another, especially the acoustic funk of "Ship Out To Sea".
Top 5 Songs
1. No Doubt, "It's My Life". The cover of this Talk Talk track seemed more suited for Gwen and company than the creators.
2. Sloan, "The Rest of My Life". Sugar-coated and enough head bobbing moments to make you sick. Illegaly infectious.
3. Travis, "The Beautiful Occupation". Beautiful Beatles-inspired pop regardless of what you think of the message.
4. Guided By Voices, "My Kind of Soldier". From Earthquake Glue and recently on the best of collection, this is pure adrenalin from top to bottom.
5. Dido, "See You When You're 40". A reflective little ditty about a flame that flickered out.