Another year, another stressful round of trying to pick out the outstanding albums of the year. Stressful because, while 2003 was a good year for music on balance, nothing really seemed to break out of the mold and truly set new standards of have some undeniable cultural impact. Add to that the subjectivity of critics' tastes, the tendency for one genre to artificially dominate others, and the desire not to get swept up in the prevailing winds of fickle music media, and it's a tough process. Plenty of other critics are sure to pick out strong releases from media darlings of the recent past (the White Stripes, the Strokes, the New Pornographers) as well as some new rising stars (Broken Social Scene, the Darkness, the Wrens), so my list makes a conscious effort to include some releases that didn't receive the full press treatment, but were arguably just as deserving. Of course some of the top dogs are obvious choices, but the fact that the four leading discs continually shifted position as I attempted to write this list is an indicator of how difficult it was to force these discs to compete. Anyway, on with the show:
1. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, (S-Curve/Virgin)
Maybe it's not a rock opus or hip-hop masterpiece. Maybe it's diversions are adolescent. Maybe the cheesiness of "Stacy's Mom", despite all of its overtures to the Cars, is just too obviously commercial and its airplay slightly annoying. But for all that, Fountains of Wayne continues its tradition of mixing humor, everyday cultural observation, and deft power pop to deliver music that makes the case for the continued relevance of pop rock. Adam Schelsinger and Chris Collingwood return with a disc that is not only an ample follow up to their brilliantly fun Utopia Parkway, but actually mature just enough to be taken seriously (albeit with a knowing grin). More musically varied than their past work, songs like "Bright Future in Sales", "Hackensack", "All Kinds of Time", and "Little Red Light" are among the group's best. Despite being more "grown up" in subject matter and tone, Welcome Interstate Managers is a blessing to those who still feel that music's ability to entertain is as valuable as the need for transcendence, and that such entertainment can often be found in the simple pleasures of solid power pop.
2. OutKast, Speakerboxxx / The Love Below, (Arista)
If anyone managed to capture the media's enraptured attention with presence and identity alone in 2003, it was OutKast. Possibly the most anticipated release of the year, Speakerboxxx / The Love Below both frustrates and fulfills those expectations, as the duo continues to do what few other hip-hop artists can manage: creating hip-hop that appeals to both the genre's adherents and those who aren't usually fans. Yet they continue to do so on their own terms, and while Big Boi and Andre 3000 continue to prove how recycled and desiccated much of the genre's mainstream has become, they suggest a deliverance that they deal out in feints and hints, shrewdly commenting on what is while only giving glimpses of what should be. Were it not for the schizophrenic nature of the dual disc release (although challenging the existing definition of a duo is a nice touch), or the fact that Andre 3000's work has just slightly more appeal for me, this record would have been a shoo-in for top honors.
3. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief, (Capitol)
Forget trying to trump the insane expectations placed on Radiohead by fans and critics alike, Hail to the Thief was promised as a return to the past, and in some ways it succeeded. If its politics fell somewhat short of adequate, "2 + 2 = 5" remains a great song, while "A Punchup at a Wedding", "Myxomatosis", and "A Wolf at the Door" helped make Hail to the Thief another engaging release by a still-relevant Radiohead. Perhaps the relaxing of the noose will help Yorke and company put the past behind them in the future.
4. Apollo Sunshine, Katonah, (spinART)
For anyone who thinks indie pop is necessarily stale, I challenge them to Katonah. Wildly organic even when filled with synth and studio effects, Apollo Sunshine's exuberantly excessive approach is energizing and captivating. A supremely confident debut, Katonah promises an exciting future for this young band of musical chameleons.
5. The Jessica Fletchers, What Happened to the ?, (Rainbow Quartz)
While garage rock's revival has already become cliché and possibly run its course, this garage tinged psych-pop band from Norway produced a US debut that was both entirely retro and still a fun and charming release. Following in the footsteps of the Kinks, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys, and mining psychedelic pop and rock hooks with the skill of bands like Jellyfish, What Happened to the ? is a perfect dose of sunshine smile and rocking out, devoid of any hipster pretension. The disc is also further proof that Scandinavia is churning out some of the best pop around.
6. Marshmallow Coast, Antistar, (Misra)
Andy Gonzalez emerges from the protective wing of the Elephant 6 collective and his Of Montreal connections to assert Marshmallow Coast as a beautiful entity of its own. Merging pure pop with doses of tropicalia and jazz, Antistar is low-key in all the right ways. Intimate, warm, and mellow, Antistar is a lazy Sunday album perfect for some quiet, relaxing time around the house -- which may not sound appealing, but everything about this disc is.
7. Entrance, The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken by Storm / Honey Moan, (Tiger Style)
With both a full-length and an EP in 2003, Guy Blakeslee, a.k.a. Entrance, raised the bar on neo-blues for the indie rock crowd. Despite being slightly put-off by my initial exposure to his work, I kept returning to these two discs in my spare time and finding myself more captivated as time went on. This young man sounds like a world-weary Delta bluesman, and his unaccompanied acoustic guitar playing is both classic and inventive. Between these two discs, Entrance proves himself to be a blues and folk traditionalist in indie rock clothing, burning with a rare and powerful energy.
8. Throwing Muses, Throwing Muses, (4AD)
Reuniting for a fan convention after being effectively broken up since 1996, Kristen Hersh and Throwing Muses went back into the studio and produced this self-titled disc. What emerged was something more raw and aggressive than the late-career discs by the Muses, signaling a return to the gritty post-punk of Throwing Muses' origins, with great results. Although not 100% consistent, songs like "Civil Disobedience" and "Portia" make this a powerful disc overall, and one that hold up surprisingly well over repeated listens, not mention a welcome return from a classic indie rock act.
9. The Devils, Dark Circles, (Tape Modern/Universal)
Who would have thought that Stephen Duffy and Nick Rhodes would ever work together again after having founded the original incarnation of Duran Duran? And who would have guessed that this reunion would generate the most musically engaging new wave throwback in years? Putting all the young whelps of the electroclash scene in their place, these elder statesmen created a sexy, atmospheric, and complex album that shows that the formula can best be improved upon by the originals.
10. Marizane, Stage One, (Vibro-Phonic)
Although I'm loathe to put an EP on a list of full-length albums, knowing that it's harder to maintain interest for forty minutes over twenty, Stage One is just too much fun not to include. Let the Darkness have their dirty blues-rock version of glam revival, Marizane wins by taking the high road of David Bowie's old sci-fi pop formula and bringing it into the present, with powerfully over-the-top results.
Top 5 Songs of 2003
1. "Hey Ya", OutKast, from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Just... can't... resist... this... song! Andre 3000 crafts one of the best sex odes, with one of the most inventive videos, of the past decade. Interminably catchy, it might not be the best OutKast song ever, but it's among the most loveable. If a simple song can promote statements from the Kodak corporation (it turns out that shaking a Polaroid picture actually can smear the image), then you're at the top, kid!
2. "Mayday Disaster", Apollo Sunshine, from Katonah
Despite being on an album that works best as a single piece, "Mayday Disorder" stand out as being the most balanced between pop and rock on Katonah and grabs the listener's attention every time. Full of impenetrable lyrics, it's the "Beck fronting the Flaming Lips" moment on the disc, and it's wonderful.
3. "A Punchup at a Wedding", Radiohead, from Hail to the Thief
Hearing the reaction of fans, it's interesting to note the differences in favorite song when it comes to Hail to the Thief. Those who side with OK Computer tend towards "Myxomatosis" and "2 + 2 = 5", while Kid A fans head for the loftier realms of "Backdrifts" and "We Suck Young Blood". For my money, "A Punchup at a Wedding" is the most fun, because it shows that Yorke hasn't lost his touch with the more pop-structured material.
4. "Seven Nation Army", The White Stripes, from Elephant
I want to dislike the White Stripes. I really, really do. And I'm not even sure why, except maybe as a reaction to the heaps of directionless praise that seems to follow their every step. But every time I hear this song, no matter what the location, I start bobbing my head, then tapping my foot, and finally drumming the table, and its rhythms get stuck in my head for hours. Deny it as I might, that's a successful song.
5. "I Keed", Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, from Come Poop with Me
A brilliantly incisive look at the music industry and a revelatory display of the peccadilloes of some of its major players, this song brings to light some of the frank issues of musicians that the press seems unwilling to touch. In the manner of investigative journalism, Triumph challenges the listener to reconsider their musical allegiances and idol worship Ha ha! No, I keed, I keed! I joke with you!