Best Music of 2003 | David Medsker

1. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)
We didn’t deserve this. The White Stripes were supposed to enjoy a few cheeky moments of notoriety, and then disappear like all of those bands they were lumped in with (Strokes, Hives, Vines), even though they have absolutely nothing in common with any of them. Instead, Jack and Meg give us one of the great rock albums of all time, and easily one of the best albums, if not the best album, of the ’00s. All hail the Seven Nation Army.

2. The Stills, Logic Will Break Your Heart (Vice)
Never mind the fact that the songs are about 9/11. Never mind that this is a Canadian band talking about 9/11. What’s important is that this is one killer rock record, like Interpol making a tribute album to Echo & the Bunnymen. The guitars sing, Tim Fletcher’s voice positively aches, and the bass line to “Still in Love Song” was built for air guitarists the world over. Superb.

3. Death Cab For Cutie, Transatlanticism (Barsuk)
Transatlanticism is worth inclusion for the title track alone, a gorgeous, eight-minute meditation on long distance romance. As it turns out, Ben Gibbard & co. surrounded “Transatlanticism” with nine other songs that are as good or better. “We Looked Like Giants” beats Robert Smith at his own game of dealing with the awkwardness of young love, and “Expo ’86” sports a chorus Billy Corgan would kill for. They even got name-checked by Seth Cohen in The O.C.. Welcome to the big time, boys.

4. The New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador)
Power pop is a dirty word in some corners of the music world, but even the staunchest power pop hater would be hard pressed to say anything bad about the sophomore effort from this group of Canucks-plus hot Chicago chanteuse Neko Case. They also have the best song titles in rock (next to Guided by Voices, of course) in instant classics like “The New Face of Zero and One” and “Miss Teen Wordpower”. Not bad for a group who was never supposed to make a second record.

5. The Thorns, The Thorns (Columbia)
One of the more annoying buzzwords in music circles lately has to be “edgy”. The implication, of course, is that if a band aren’t edgy, they’re irrelevant. Rubbish. Bread and the Carpenters were both critics’ darlings and fan favorites, and the Thorns clearly remember those bygone days of smooth, west coast pop. Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins, and Pete Droge assemble a delightful collection of CS&N-inspired country rock with harmonies to the heavens. Sadly, the album stiffed. The Thorns just weren’t made for these edgy times.

6. Rufus Wainwright, Want One (DreamWorks)
The epitome of letting it all hang out. Wainwright’s albums had always been eclectic, but lacked focus. What he has never lacked, though, was fearlessness, and with Want One he puts together an album that could have been made at any time in the rock era, Britney Spears references aside. The epic “Go or Go Ahead” is one of the single greatest contributions to rock music in years. Thirty years from now, pop stars will assemble a Red Hot & Blue-style tribute album to him, just like the one Cole Porter received in 1990. Thank goodness, an artist that’s in it for the long haul.

7. Kenna, New Sacred Cow (Columbia)
Kenna’s debut was tied up in enough record industry red tape to make Aimee Mann shudder. Finally, two years later, we are given a nifty slice of new wave with hip-hop beats by the pound (thanks to Neptune Chad Hugo) that echoes Seal’s be-good-to-yourself vibe with twice the bounce. The video for the single “Freetime” is one of the best videos in years.

8. Steadman, Revive (Elektra)
British rock has undergone a massive identity crisis over the last few years, with bands either going mellow (Coldplay, Travis, Starsailor), in the way-back machine (The Coral, Elbow), or just plain nuts (Radiohead). The bands that have chosen to keep rocking, like Supergrass, are ignored, though Supergrass’ snubbing was also due to their first lackluster record. All of this was bad news for Steadman, who made one of the year’s finest UK rock albums that no one heard. With big Oasis-style hooks and a grandiose singer in Simon Steadman, British rock is finally starting to rock again. But is anyone listening?

9. Josh Rouse, 1972 (Rykodisc)
Rouse’s unapologetic homage to the year in which he was born and, more importantly, a year when pop music mattered, is nothing short of delightful. He may overdo it here and there — does a record really need that much flute playing? — but the songs are top notch, particularly “Come Back (Light Therapy)”, which has one of the catchiest bass lines in years. He’s good now, and he’s getting better.

10. The Pernice Brothers, Yours, Mine and Ours (Ashmont)
A nagging voice in the back of my head said I should use this tenth spot for something “important”, something that matters right now, like, you know, Jet. Instead, I’m going with an album I know I’ll be listening to a year from now, whereas Jet might be collecting dust. The rock-oriented third outing from Joe Pernice and brother Bob (plus friends) doesn’t hit the heights of their first two albums, but those two albums are classics, and Yours, Mine and Ours doesn’t miss the mark by much.

Top 5 Singles (noteworthy songs from bands that didn’t make the Ten Best Albums list)

1. “United States of Whatever”, Liam Lynch. Sifl & Olly was the last decent show MTV aired, so it would make sense that they’d stop airing after two years. Sifl creator Lynch lifts one of the funnier moments from his late, great show for an album of psycho demos and quirky knockoffs to Bjork and the Pixies, and in the process gets the award for Novelty Song of the Year. It’s even funnier with the Sifl & Olly intro.

2. “Hey Ya!”, OutKast. God love ’em. When was the last time a band this blatantly weird sold so many albums? Don’t know, don’t care. The new double album is supposed to be a brilliant mess, but this song is nearly perfect.

3. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”, Jet. This year’s “Hate to Say I Told You So”. Great beat, great breakdowns, and a killer vocal performance from Nic Cester. And they owe it all to I-Pod.

4. “Crazy in Love”, Beyonce feat. Jay-Z. While Destiny’s Child generally left me cold, Beyonce’s debut single was one of the hottest, catchiest slices of R&B in eons. If this doesn’t make you want to shake your groove thing, it’s because you’re dead.

5. “We’ll Do It All Again”, Bleu. He had the backing of Andy Sturmer, one of the most talented recluses in rock, yet his major label debut, Readhead, was woefully erratic, as if Bleu couldn’t decide if he wanted to make a record for right this moment or a record for all time. For a little over three minutes, though, he gets it all right on this sky-high power ballad that recalls Cheap Trick at the height of their powers. Pity the rest of the album couldn’t compare.