1. Fruit Bats, Mouthfuls (Sub Pop)
Eric Johnson and Gillian Lisee produced one of the most enjoyable records of the year, full of charm and wonder and great pop-flavored hooks. But it's more than just a mouthful of sweetness. There's mature complexity to these otherwise seemingly simple songs that evolves over time. Themes of nature and mysticism explode from beneath gentle surfaces; the new is always colliding with the old and earthy. But it doesn't happen in a violent way; rather, it's an immersion that seems completely natural -- take "Union Blanket" as the best example of such fusion, as digital noise and beats mesh seamlessly with banjo and folky acoustic guitar. Yet, there's not just one track that stands out here. Instead, Mouthfuls is a whole record; one piece can stand on its own, but it's so much better when digested all at once.
2. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
Wilco may be the best band in America, but James Mercer and company are breathing down Jeff Tweedy's unshaven neck. By all rights, these guys shouldn't be rock stars. Yet here they are -- an Anglophile and three southwest college radio geeks with a penchant for penning throwback pop tunes awash in the best of the indie rock tradition. And they -- well at least Marty Crandall -- have supermodel girlfriends to boot. They burst onto the scene with 2001's amazing Oh, Inverted World, but they didn't stop there. Remarkably, they produced a more mature, confident and, hell, better record in 2003. From the brilliant opener "Kissing the Lipless" (with great, impressionistic lyricism like "You tested you metal / On does' skin and petals / While kissing the lipless / Who bleed all the sweetness away") to the country-tinged, sing-a-along "Gone For Good" ("I find a fatal flaw in the logic of love / And go out of my head"), Mercer and the Shins are hitting on all cylinders. A record any goddamn better than this and the Tweedster might as well give up.
3. Cat Power, You Are Free (Matador)
Yes, she's insufferable as a live performer. Sure, she's frequently pretentious and sometimes derivative. Chan Marshall is a flawed artists and probably human. But that's what makes You Are Free so remarkable -- it's a masterpiece with its flaws as much a part of its beauty as its unblemished perfections. There's a bit of PJ Harvey, a taste of Joni Mitchell, and maybe even little of the Velvet Underground's Nico, but Marshall somehow reclaims that territory and more for her own. The slow burning "Good Woman" is about two hopelessly flawed lovers, "Fool" challenges the excesses of a throw-away, soulless society, and "Werewolf" and "Keep on Runnin'" are peculiar but mostly effective nods to the past. It's a record that convulses all over the music map while somehow showcasing the growth of a talented but troubled artist.
4. The Notwist, Neon Golden (City Slang)
If you knew of the Notwist prior to 2003 (or 2002 if you're overseas) and you saw this one coming, raise your hand. Liar. Known mostly for a harder-edged rock sound, the Notwist weren't your most likely candidates for Radiohead-type evolution. Yet, one of the most talked about but never heard records of 2002 got its proper U.S. release in 2003 and folks started taking note of this peculiar transformation. A mix of beats and blips and beeps with thoughtfully crafted lyrics and pop jams, Neon Golden should put to rest any thought that using a laptop to create music cheapens the product. There's banjo, plucking strings and guitars, and straight-ahead electric rock mixed in with the less organic sounds; the result is a haunting new type of electro/pop/folk that is sure to inspire other bands to make the plunge into electronic music.
5. The Decemberists, Her Majesty, The Decemberists (Jealous)
Her Majesty is the most wonderfully weird type of pop album. It's infectious and groovy and a helluva lot of fun. Yet, the stories are complex. These are the tales of soldiers and sailors and chimney sweeps. Stories of a girl's red right ankle and all that it reveals about her. With lyrics that evoke the best of the storytelling folk tradition and music that makes you want to get off your hands and dance like a star-struck '60s-era teenage girl at a Beatles show, the Decemberists are both throwbacks and forward thinkers. It's not the most innovative of innovations, but it'll do. It'll do.
6. Dressy Bessy, Dressy Bessy (Kindercore)
Lovable psychedelic Denver rockers Dressy Bessy grew up this year, following up their widely praised performance at SXSW and a "greatest hits" record earlier in 2003 with this self-titled indie pop confection. It's a harder, more aggressive sound for Tammy Ealom, John Hill and company, but it's still inherently hummable and as much fun as you can have in go-go boots.
7. Beulah, Yoko (Velocette)
Breaking up is hard to do. Members of Beulah found that out the hard way this year. After a string of divorces and nasty breakups while making the follow-up to The Coast Is Never Clear, Beulah announced on its Web site it was breaking up after recording Yoko. Well, as that crazy Lee Corso on ESPN would say, not so fast my friends. Trumpet rock is here to stay. Still, the record is dark departure from the sunny disposition the group branded on its previous efforts. Luckily, though, a bit of an edge suits Miles Kurosky just fine. With songs about his relationship (or non-relationship) with God and coming to terms with the end of a love, Kurosky shows off a more mature and focused songwriting that should insure more Beulah records to come.
8. Nik Freitas, Heavy Mellow (Future Farmer)
Heavy Mellow harkens back to the good ol' days of rock 'n' roll, when a good beat and an armload of passion were enough to make a kick ass record. There's nothing overly clever or experimental about what Nik Freitas does. He just does it well. Stripped down like Spoon and full of the grand, heart-bleeding optimism of "Tiny Dancer"-era Elton John, this is a record that makes you believe in everything that is good about rock music. It just doesn't have to be any more complicated than this.
9. The Be Good Tanyas, Chinatown (Nettwerk)
Frazey Ford, Samantha Parton, and Trish Klein made a decent enough living touring the folk festivals in Canada. When they finally got around to recording Blue Horse in 2000, their sound was already nicely refined. But something was missing amongst this mostly cheery collection of folk ditties. Enter 2003's Chinatown. A darker, more complex record, it demonstrates the Tanyas still had plenty of room to grow. With songs about burying a dead dog, a dead love, and a dead life, it's certainly a departure from Horse. Yet, the jazz infusion on several tracks and the overall growth of the band is evident. Keep an eye out for these gals.
10. The Wrens, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)
Ok, so it's slighty emo. And we all know emo is bad. Bad, I say. Yet, somehow the Wrens make it all work on The Meadowlands. Unlike Rufus Wainwright, the boys in the Wrens know when to exercise restraint. In fact, this record is a perfect example of the good things that can happen when you stop just short of saying all it is you want to say. This is an album that slowly simmers in a deep emotional pot, never boiling over yet never losing steam. It's hard to imagine any other "emo" band pulling off a feat such as this.
TOP FIVE SONGS
1. The Shins, "Kissing the Lipless" (Sub Pop)
Hand claps, man. It's all in the hand claps. A devastatingly perfect pop song that demonstrates all that is remarkable about James Mercer's lyric ability.
2. Beulah, "Me and Jesus Don't Talk Anymore" (Velocette)
Miles Kurosky says this song is about questioning his relationship with God. But with lines like, "Woke up today / Just called to say / Your body's cold and you're going nowhere", it could just as easily be a gleefully executed break-up romp with cowboy yelps and "ah-ha"'s thrown in for good measure.
3. Gillian Welch, "Ms. Ohio" (Acony)
Gillian Welch is punk as fuck and this song shows off why. While all the wannabes are yelping around on stage in ridiculous outfits, Welch is carefully crafting lazy lullabies that question authority and boundaries of all kinds better than anything the kids today could come up with.
4. Wilco, "More Like the Moon" (self-released)
Stripping away some of the experimental pretensions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (which, while a record for our times, still had its flaws), Wilco demonstrates on this EP single that it's still at the top of its game and plans on being there for a while.
5. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, "Us" (Matador)
When Stephen Malkmus lets his figurative hair down and relaxes, he's capable of scary-type brilliance. Too bad the rest of Pig Lib is littered with throwaways.