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Best Music of 2003 | #1-5

That favorite rite of passage for all music critics is here again . . . the annual top 10 lists, or in this case top 50. As in years past, we have top 10s from the whole crew of regular PopMatters music writers, but this year we're adding a twist. What you have before you is our mammoth list of the 50 best records of the year as voted on by our entire music staff.

BEST MUSIC OF 2003 1 - 5
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Boy in Da Corner (XL)
Critic Simon Reynolds has made the most intelligent statement this year about this teenage (!) Londoner's debut (!!) album: there's an element of vulnerability to it. Whether boasting about himself, toasting his mates, or roasting the competition, there's an inescapable feeling that Dizzee is a young man on the ledge of a dangerous yet alluring adult world that he's both too immature to have yet fully experienced, and with which he's too experienced to claim the ignorance of youth. And for such an alien-sounding album to these American ears, it's clear that arguing whether this record is skrewface UK hip-hop with UK Garage influences, UK Garage with a grimy US hip-hop flavor, or something else entirely, is to miss the point; it's a record that needs to be heard.
      � Anthony C. Bleach :. original PopMatters review

I almost left this off my list -- not because it doesn't deserve its place here, but because I thought it wasn't available in North America in '03 and I could always wait till next year's best-of list. But once it showed up in a western Canadian chain, I knew I had to include it immediately. Recently, American hip-hop has been broadcasting a one-way monologue into deeper and deeper space, seemingly. Suddenly, here's an answer from the deep, rolling void. And it's a vital one, loud and gut-lurchingly bouncy, head-poundingly dancefloor-dense, simultaneously familiar and alien like something scavenged then reconstructed. Last year, from England, we had Mike Skinner's the Streets, and now we have Dylan Mills aka Dizzee Rascal. Alternate-reality hip-hop -- post-UK garage, or simply "grime" -- this astonishing debut is a frantic, panicky, up-in-your-face East End teenage-prodigy endeavour to articulate the fragile, angry, slapstick, doubting, hilarious, and just plain confusing mish-mash of early 21st Century Western European life. A reflection of a time when the effort to retain one's (wounded) humanity can be so fucking hard, this is what Dizzee's rebounding head (like everyone's; like no-one's) sounds like in the attempt.
      � David Antrobus :. original PopMatters review

A year after the Streets kicked down the door with Original Pirate Material, in burst Dylan Mills, aka Dizzee Rascal, to blow the entire freakin' house apart. This is the new UK punk sound: a new generation of young British artists, influenced by hip hop, garage, and punk rock, have come out with their own, homemade, bastardized music, completely original, fervent, and perceptive. And not since Tricky's Maxinquaye album in 1995 have we heard such a unique record. Hailing from London's East End, Dizzee Rascal paints a much more grim picture than the Streets' Mike Skinner does, his lyrics much more blunt, something echoed in the jarring, stuttering, intense rhythms of his beats. In his inimitable vocal style, he talks about street life, girl trouble ("I Luv U"), and his deteriorating neighborhood, but underneath all the anguish ("Its getting boring always being miserable"), there's an underlying positive attitude ("Do It"), love of life, and compassion for his subjects ("Jezebel"). All that, and a mighty catchy single in "Fix Up, Look Sharp", too.
      � Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review

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.
      � Patrick Schabe :. original PopMatters review

Just brilliant. Pure pop perfection in every way: the perfect word in every rhyme, the perfect tone on every guitar, the perfect balance between sarcasm and sincerity. Fountains of Wayne bristles through "Bright Future in Sales" and "Little Red Light" with their peculiar lyricism that connects sleeping on a bench in the Port Authority to sitting in traffic on the Tappan Zee. But they can slow it down with the best of them, be it for a fireside "Valley Winter Song", or the poignant "All Kinds of Time", a tune that draws out the words "wide-screen TV" into the year's most moving bridge. A strong album puts itself over the top with "Stacy's Mom", whose synthesized hand-claps, staccato guitar leads and stupefying lyrical content are strong enough actually to have broken this relatively quirky band through to the mainstream. Welcome Interstate Managers was the statement this critically-acclaimed band needed to make Fountains of Wayne so much more than a reference point in driving to a Jersey Mall. Luckily for all, with the clear choice for album of the year, this incredible songwriting duo with their tight little studio band should remain on our collective maps for far longer than this year.
      � Seth Limmer :. original PopMatters review

For the mainstream, 2003 will no doubt be remembered as the year of "Stacy's Mom", but, despite the fact that Grammys selected the Fountains of Wayne as a nominee for Best New Artist, all the cool kids had been waiting for this third album by Adam Schlesinger and company since, oh, about as soon as they'd finished listening to Utopia Parkway. They did not disappoint. One can only hope that the general public will take to other tracks on the disc as well as they did to the now-impossible-to-escape first single.
      � Will Harris :. original PopMatters review

Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
Listening to the Shins is like eating an artichoke for the first time. As you peel back each layer, it's only when you reach the heart that you realize of the majesty of it all. Mining the catalogues of the Beach Boys, the Kinks, and even Patsy Cline, Chutes Too Narrow is a pop confection. Front man James Mercer's lyrics are literate and the melodies are delightfully sophisticated. Each repeated listen (one just isn't enough) uncovers a brand new favorite lyric or a musical moment you had missed before. A shimmering pop masterpiece.
      � Kevin Jagernauth :. original PopMatters review

The Shins are insistent on this album, intermittently loud, and sometimes reckless -- a giant leap away from the dreamy, controlled fantasy that charmed listeners on their debut two years ago, Oh, Inverted World!. But the relative wildness that comes through on Chutes is a welcome transition, one that sees the band realize their rock sensibilities without sacrificing their adorable pop charm. If, on Chutes Too Narrow, the Shins unleash their animal instincts, that animal is a lion... cub.
      � Devon Powers :. original PopMatters review

Instead of retreating from the successful glare of debut album Oh, Inverted World, newly Portland-relocated New Mexicans the Shins took all those warnings of running with scissors and ignored them, doing so at top speed. Where their debut album might have been filled with slight endearing quirks and resources of somber hurt, this new release amplifies all those qualities and seems downright ecstatic in the process. In fact, early on in the album's running order you're met with a happily yelping "Whoo!". Altogether bigger, better, cleaner, and that much more significant than its predecessor, Chutes Too Narrow is simply great.
      � Sal Ciolfi :. original PopMatters review

Elephant (V2/Third Man)
Yeah, I know, you used to like the White Stripes, but you're so over them now. Jack's dating Renee Zellweger, Meg's drumming still sucks, "Seven Nation Army" was a total sellout, and when are they gonna realize that their real fans never liked the whole red-and-white gimmick in the first place? Look, hop on the Backlash Bandwagon if you must, but I guarantee you the wheels will come off that thing long before the rock �n' roll freight train that is Jack White ever runs off the rails. It's a miracle to me that he's still cranking out albums this good with just an eight-track and, admittedly, an extremely mediocre drummer, but guess what? He is. If you swallow your indie pride and look past the hype, Elephant is probably the best thing the White Stripes have done yet. Success suits Jack White -- his music has always been about punk-meets-Delta-blues-by-way-of-early-Zeppelin swagger, anyway, and these days he has plenty to swagger about. Songs like "Black Math" and "Ball and Biscuit" fairly bristle with cocky attitude, and more plaintive tunes like "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart" still pack a punch, too. This guy is the best rock songwriter to emerge in nearly a decade, and he's maturing into a pretty spectacular guitarist, too. And if the shows I saw this past summer are any indication, he's only getting better. I hope their next album sells 10 million copies.
      � Andy Hermann :. original PopMatters review

Inexplicably endearing as ever, if a little more dark-bruise-smudged and wary, the White Stripes have still emerged victorious against the gathering stormcloud backlash. Planted ever more firmly in, and taking another Page out of (ha!), the archetypal dirty blues swamp/stomp manual, Jack's itchy hounds of hell scratchings and Meg's aloof Queen of England reserve crossbreed faux-naive pop-laced ditties and heartfelt punk diatribes exciting and raw and original enough to even make you want to go to Wichita. All this and Burt Bacharach too. Brilliant as a dark sputtering star in some cosmic alleyway.
      � David Antrobus :. original PopMatters review

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.
      � David Medsker :. original PopMatters review

It seems foolish now, but I remember worrying that this album might suck. Jack and Meg White were no longer toileting in obscurity in Detroit, churning out records whenever the spirit moved them. (Looking back it's hard to believe White Blood Cells was released in July 2001, with little comparatively fanfare.) Hundreds of magazine profiles later, Jack and Meg were proclaimed garage rock royalty. Surely the band, with all eyes upon them, would misstep. Ha. The duo instead holed up in London's renowned Toe Rag studio and cut Elephant on 40-year-old equipment. Granted, antiquated studios do not a year's-best record make, but the proof is in the pudding. From the bracing "Black Math" and bluesy "Ball and Biscuit" to the now-expected-from-Jack tender "You've Got Her In Your Pocket" and "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart", it all clicks. Even the potential novelty songs, the Burt Bacharach cover "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself", and Meg's coquettish vocal turn on "Cold, Cold Night" ring true. Forget White's sometime verbal sparring partner Ryan Adams or Chris Martin or Thom Yorke or anybody else -- Jack White is rock music's true savior.
      � Stephen Haag :. original PopMatters review

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
The outstanding album of the year, the double disk from OutKast has allowed expressions of Big Boi's political outrage (on "War", "When will we all, awake up out this dream? / Come here and smell the Folgers, the soldiers are human beings. / Man actin' as if he was the supreme bein'") and, more strangely, a recuperation of André's performative chutzpah -- is there an awards venue where he has not jumped up for "Hey Ya," in any number of magnificent outfits? His take on love may be skeptical (for "Dracula's wedding," he offers, "You're all I've ever wanted, but I'm terrified of you, / My castle may be haunted, but I'm terrified of you"), but his instincts are ever-sharp. The conceptual split makes for all sorts of thematic connections, and an album that is simply stunning in its mélange of breadth and insight.
      � Cynthia Fuchs :. original PopMatters review

What the hell is this album? This release doesn't just simply separate OutKast into its component parts (one album by Big Boi, one by Andre 3000); it also dresses those parts up like freaks, pumps them full of acid, and drives them off a cliff at 100 miles per hour. The result is The Love Below as the jazzy, horny, Bobby Rydell-meets-Teddy Pendergrass-meets-Eazy-E soul spaz-out, and Speakerboxxx, a pulsating, concentrated, party-hopping rap-and roll that speaks the Devil's tongue. I defy you to make it through this set without an orgiastic soiree spontaneously erupting.
      � Devon Powers :. original PopMatters review

To be sure, this is the album that seduced even folks who don't normally like rap or hip-hop. Outkast are the closest thing hip-hop has to the Beatles, and this double-CD flashes all of their talents in dizzying fashion. Andre 3000's disc envisions a world where Prince was elected supreme ruler of the world, and Big Boi's side totally submerges itself in genre-busting hip-hop. The scary thing is that, as good as both of these solo discs are, they're nothing compared to what these two produce when they're working together.
      � Andrew Gilstrap :. original PopMatters review

Has anyone actually listened to this ambitious double-CD set all the way through? For those brave souls who have, can anyone say anything interesting about it? And for those brave souls who have said something interesting about it, what did they talk about? For all the amazing and weird stuff that's going on here, I'm struck by one thing: Andre 3000 and Big Boi must have been bored, since they move from style to style (electro, funk, jazz, hip-hop, rock n' roll, techno, etc.), never sounding like they're satisfied remaining in any one genre. In that way, it might be easy to compare OutKast on this album to Guided By Voices: incredibly prolific, occasionally catchy, and unable to sustain their interest in a song beyond its length. Fortunately, they do sustain our interest.
      � Anthony C. Bleach :. original PopMatters review

Big Boi and Andre 3000 could have released this big messy double disc as a pair of solo albums, but instead opted to revel in their split personalities with spectacular results -- notably the two singles, "Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move". Big Boi, on the Speakerboxxx portion of the program, drenching his B-boy raps in a thick veneer of contemporary R&B, some old-school funk and a whole lot of dance grooves. By itself, Speakerboxxx would have been one of the better hip-hop records of the year, but its pairing with the phantasmagoric and funkadelic The Love Below, Outkast has managed to create one of the most remarkable discs of the year. Andre 3000's contributions are a melting pot of neo-soul, space-age '70s-era love-will-conquer-all funk (à la George Clinton and Earth, Wind & Fire) and a sly sense of humor that turns the entire affair into one long dirty joke.
      � Hank Kalet :. original PopMatters review

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