Well, another year in music has gone by. What have I learned? Well, if nothing else, I learned that the White Stripes apparently ruled everything this year. I don't get it. Elephant had to be as static and dull as anything else the band has turned out. And if I see another rock mag with another cover shot of Jack and Meg White on the cover... well, I'll probably do nothing but bitch about it some more. The bubblegum bop might finally be over, but the New York groove might be its rightful successor as the over-hyped spot on the map. How many sound-alike so-called "garage" bands can we have? Thank your big wigs for that. And they wonder why people download music. Certainly the music lovers in the world have no clue as to what's good, right? So here come the cookie cutter bands your way. Enjoy it. It's going to be that way for a long time. That is until the RIAA can sue the music buying public into an ironic bankruptcy and no one will be buying anything. Sign here on the dotted line and promise you'll never do that again, please. Anyway, here's my ten best of 2003, completely White Stripes, Radiohead, and Strokes-free. Check these out if the safety dance of the mainstream bores you as well.
1. Tom Heinl - With or Without Me (Leisure King)
I literally just got this disc two days ago in the mail and haven't stopped listening to it since. This album is the funniest work I've heard in ages, and Tom Heinl has the greasy trucker country weeper pop of the '70s down hard. With or Without Me is guaranteed to have you doubled up in painful laughter and wanting to hear it one more time all the way through ad nauseam. I try to remember what life was like just a couple days prior without the likes of "Three-Way", "Peein' in Am Empty", "Half Day Vacation" and the immortal "IHOP" coming forth from my stereo. It's all just a grey mess of a memory. Thank you, Mr. Heinl for recording the best album of the year and sneaking it in under the radar just in the nick of time. I'm your new number one fan.
2. Canoe - I Give You
Canoe! (Amazing Grease)
This was going to take top honors until Tom Heinl snookered the list. Another great band from the unbeatable Austin, Texas music scene delivers an album full of distorted pop that's not quite retro and not quite now, but a hell of a lot of fun. Remember the heart of rock and roll? The fun and sweat and simplicity that made you want to just dance and sing along? No? Well Canoe will remind you of just that. Loud drums, a cheesy as hell keyboard on overdrive, nicely shouted vocals, and guitars a-rockin' all over the place. At first you might think it's too bombastic, but then the hooks sink in and you realize this is the greatest album all those wannabe fakers wish they could make on their worst days. Pure rock gold.
3. Venus Hum - Big Beautiful Sky (MCA)
Sleeper of the year, right here. Where's the justice? MCA turns out an excellent band who tours with Blue Man Group on one of the grooviest packages of the summer and the people simply sit there. For shame. Annette Strean has a gorgeous voice that could put so many others to shame. The electro pop offered up by Venus Hum is warm and enveloping. The love songs are not to you or me, but to nature, the sky, and god. You can dance to it, or you can meditate on it. Either way, just go out and buy this one now and find out what that group backing Blue Man on the cover of "I Need Love" is all about.
4. The Color Bars - Making Playthings (Paranoiac)
For those who have that Brian Wilson/Beatles sweet tooth, this one's for you. A New York band sounding decidedly un-New York and all the better for it. Super-tight harmonies, melodies from heaven, and those old familiar favorite '60s ghosts smiling down on the procession. Making Playthings is labeled as an EP, but its eight songs pack more punch than most peoples' long-players these days. Bouncy rhythms, quasi-psychedelic flavors, and the sweetness of pure pop run through these songs. The solo in "We're A Tag Team" will make it all so perfectly clear. This is the right way to make an album like this; too often, those influenced by the Beach Boys and Fab Four have good intentions but not enough talent. You'll be singing these songs for months on end.
5. Mosquitos - Mosquitos (Bar-None)
You've heard these people, I know it. If you watch TV, I know it even more. Did you see that short commercial this past summer for Bailey's Irish Cream Minis? Then you heard the Mosquitos. If you like Brazilian-flavored pop that instantly reminds you of "The Girl From Ipanema", you'll want this one in your collection but fast. This album is a pure slice of pop utopia, and that song used in the commercial, "Boombox" will nag at you constantly until you play it "just one more time" again. Lead singer Juju has a sultry voice that floats on the air and invited you in for summertime fun even when it's cold outside. The perfect album for cruising to, falling in love with, or just tapping your toes to. Other famous products have since picked up "Boombox" as well, so the Mosquitos are going to bite you eventually.
6. Scout - This Soft Life (Mod Music)
Scout's already had a taste of some big time moments. They have had some songs featured in various shows and movies, and I'm still trying to figure out why they haven't hit. Maybe it's better that way. Lead singer and guitarist Ashen Keilyn has one of those husky female voices that can play it both tough and gentle. "Just Between You and Me" is the best heartbreak song of the year, and other tunes like "Good Enough for Now" and "Here's the Thing" guarantee instant love. One of these days the world will wake up and bands like Scout will be topping the charts. If the pasty Clay Aiken can bring it home for the kids, there's no reason why a real band such as this couldn't rock their asses off twice as hard.
7. Nate Ashley - The Darker Corners of Your Heart (Left-Handed Label)
Nate's been creating dark and dreamy pop for some time now and his latest album just pushes his sexy and sensual envelope a little further. In fact, Nate might be the only guy who can claim a sexy music title and not come off corny at all for it. You listen to this album and the songs bathe over you like a long-lost lover coming back to hold you again. "The Will of Water" is achingly hot to the point of breaking and "Billy, Bonnie, & Butch" casts an outlaw tale that is not to be missed. The whole affair is strange, surreal, and one way to spend a hell of an evening. So turn down the lights and let Nate Ashley play on.
8. Pink - Try This (Arista)
Pink won me over last time around with M!ssundaztood and on Try This she takes the best elements of that great album and pushes them a little farther down the line. Gone for good are the dance beats; this time around, it's all about the rock, baby. The first half of this album swings hard and fast, while the middle finds Pink ripping through a set of stunning ballads before the back brings up the guitar armies once again to shut it all down. She's still tough as nails and sweet in the middle, making Try This one of those albums you can put on for any occasion. Here's looking to more evolution and funky times from miss Pink in the future.
9. Mandy Moore - Coverage (Epic)
Don't you dare laugh. This is a fucking great album on its own, not to mention a terrific bunch of covers as well. Mandy Moore decides to toss away her youthful fronts, but unlike Xtina goes for a different approach and strikes gold with Coverage. According to Mandy, she recorded the album without her label's knowledge and then delivered it, also proclaiming that anyone who bought her early albums should get a refund. She might not star in the best movies, but she can sing and the choice of material on this disc is terrific. Everything from "Senses Working Overtime" to "I Feel the Earth Move", "Breaking Us in Two", and "Help Me". Moore does all the songs beautifully, retaining the spirit of the originals while injecting her own personality into each. Kudos to her for doing exactly what she wanted. It might not sell millions and millions, but it's a light years ahead of so much of her prior output.
10. Lillix - Falling Uphill (Maverick)
I saw this one day at a Border's in one of their listening stations and decided to try it out. What can I say? It's great female pop that managed to outlast my other purchases that day (The Sounds and Fountains of Wayne). Sometimes TRL-type groups even win over this cynic's ears. "Quicksand" does some wild-ass sort of updated Beatles thang while "Invisible" is downright sexy. Who am I to argue if the goods are good? Lillix is downright great. Will they last? Who knows. If they keep making albums like these, then I'll keep buying them. The cover of "What I Like about You" may be a little obvious, but the originals are solid and fun.
Top Songs of 2003
1. "Tonight's the Night" by Pink. The best rocker on Try This should (and will probably) make a hell of a single. Another tune about getting the groove on and doing her own thing, it leaves "Get This Party Started" in the dust and never looks back.
2. "Corndogs Are Our Friends" by Canoe. It's hard to explain why this damn song is so irresistible. You'd have to hear it to understand. The surprise hooks in the melodies just don't let up, like so many other Canoe tunes. Silliness never rocked so good.
3. "IHOP" by Tom Heinl. Anyone who's ever eaten at an IHOP will instantly relate to this tragedy. Heinl comes off sounding like an even more bent Tom Waits circa Small Change if you can imagine that. Greasy country overtones mixed with a dash of merry-go-round creepiness. Good to the last drop.
4. "Boombox" by Mosquitos. Hear it once, and you'll never be the same again. There's something about suntan lotion in there, as well as "He's so far out that he fits right in". They may as well be singing about themselves. Exotic pop at its sweetest and most memorable.
5. "Here's the Thing" by Scout. It's so good that it sounds instantly familiar like so many great songs do. The lyrics even break down into a simple puddle after a while, but you'll be pressing the repeat key on your player to hear this song as many times as sanity will dictate.
Worst Album of 2003
Danny Wood - Second Face (Damage/BMG)
This pick is a no-brainer, and I'm personally sorry for anyone who actually heard it. My original review generated a nice amount of expected hate mail. One DJ from New York even invited me to call up his station and discuss it "if I had the balls". Discuss what? How bad it was and that it stiffed right along with Vanilla Ice's new album released around the same time? A few old female NKOTB fans wrote me as well chiding me for not giving Danny a chance. Hey, you can love it all you like. Me, I know better. Watching a pop has-been try and "get real" is never a pretty sight. Even Bruce Willis albums are better than Second Face.