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2003 top albums

May 14, 2012

Top albums, 2003

Why wait so long?

Looking back at 2003 a month after it’s over may seem as pointless as a Britney Spears wedding reception. Most lists like this come out at the end of the year.

But there’s little more frustrating than completing a list like this and suddenly realizing as one hears a new (to them) release, “Man, that would have made my list if I’d only had a little more time.”

So after a little time to plow through a few Christmas presents, here’s one man’s view of the best popular music had to offer in 2003. This, of course, is always subject to change.

1. Shazam, Tomorrow the World

Description: Cheap Trick for the new millennium – loud, guitar-based pop-rock.

Seeing them in concert, wearing black leather and reflecting shades, striking poses and playing these songs note-for-note, a fellow audience member said, “These guys are ROCK STARS.” They’ve got the tunes to back it up, too – memorable melodies, pinpoint guitar solos and an attitude of fun that’s sadly missing from music too much.

2. The Datsuns

Description: ’70s rock – AC/DC meets Thin Lizzy.

The dumbest album on the list, and that’s meant in a great way. It’s the same kind of dumb that makes you want to bang your head against a wall while listening to Ozzy Osbourne albums. Big riffs, big vocals, big noise and big, dumb songs. Almost any other year, this would have been my No. 1.

3. Waking Hours, The Good Way

Description: Melodic pop that could have been recorded in 1974, 1985, 1996 or 2003. Vocal harmonies, lyrical guitar solos and memorable hooks.

This California band is one of power pop’s hidden treasures, writing great song after unforgettably great song. For many bands producing a similar sound, that means rewriting the same song over and over, but The Waking Hours don’t do that. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they don’t frontload a disc with three solid songs and bury the bad ones in the back. This gets better the deeper you get. In fact, their only failing is a propensity at going through drummers with a speed that would make Spinal Tap blush.

4. Drive By Truckers, Decoration Day

Description: 1970s Southern rock at its best – think Lynyrd Skynyrd, or really prime Molly Hatchet – with some of the best lyrics you’ll hear anywhere.

Last year, their “Southern Rock Opera” (a two-CD concept set about growing up in South and being a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd – and at some points, about BEING Lynyrd Skynyrd) was a standard-setting opus. With this effort, though, they’ve surpassed themselves. Great, great songs about rural life, killing, running away with your maid of honor, killing, betraying your family, losing to The Man and killing. The characters in these songs live on in your mind long after the last notes have faded.

5. The Thorns, The Thorns

Description: Soft pop from the 1970s – Bread, America, Crosby Stills and Nash.

Thirty years ago, music like this would have ruled AM radio. And that probably means more to the 40-year-olds reading than to the 20-year-olds. Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins formed a sort of alternate-pop supergroup that performed sunny, sweet tunes awash with acoustic guitars, tight harmonies and unforgettable melodies. Thank goodness it was around for the summer.

6. Neil Young, Greendale

Description: Neil Young in his long-winded, Jimmy Reed and Rolling Stone rift-lifting mode.

Young’s best work in years, even if it takes a few spins to appreciate.

7. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers 

Description: Tuneful, melodic pop with some quirky lyric twists.

This might just slide by as a band with clever, catchy melodies and nice vocal work, but the lyrics are high enough up in the mix so you can have a good laugh at the witty lyrics as well. As opposed to a lot of novelty songs, “Stacy’s Mom” works on a number of levels, from the “did I hear that right?” lyrics to the Cars tribute in the musical style. If that gets more people into the album, all the better.

8. Alicia Keys, The Diary of Alicia Keys

Description: Aretha Franklin with a beatbox.

Proving her excellent “Songs in A Minor” was no fluke, Keys shows the potential to grow into a crossover superstar who can appeal to younger listeners with her hip-hop beats and to the older with her soul stylings. This may eventually prove to be my most listened-to album on this list – its charm should take a long time to fade.

9. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Description: Jumble of styles from rap to soul to pop – what the new millennium may sound like.

They’re one of the few bands recording now who makes you look ahead. This collection of songs is so unexpected that a listener can’t help but wonder what they’ll get up to next, even as you’re overwhelmed by the pastiche of styles present here. An unbelievably mature release, but not as ponderous or pretentious as that statement might lead you to think.

10. Jet, Get Born

Description: Guys who have spent a lot of time listening to 1960s British Invasion bands, especially the early Who.

The only album on this list more derivative than these guys is The Datsuns. But that’s OK, because The Jets hide their 1960s garage rock influences a little better, and the songs are just plain addictive. After a few listens, even the slower songs grow on you.

11. Steadman, Revive

Description: Radiohead rocking out with Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander singing lead. Sometimes.

Bearing no relation to Oprah Winfrey’s significant other, this tuneful British quintet isn’t changing the world – they just provide 12 impressive tunes, with solid guitar lines, memorable choruses and a guy who sings lyrics you can actually understand, and you might even want to. Oasis fans who miss that band will like this.

12. Gillian Welch, Soul Survivor

Sounds like: A folk album, lazily recorded in your living room one summer night.

Some of Gillian’s fan base, looking back at her previous three albums and thinking about her contribution to the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack album, were appalled by her use of electric instruments and drums on some cuts here. Those of us who aren’t quite traditionalists of that intensity still recognize her storytelling ability and pleasant voice. “One Monkey” may be the most hypnotic simple song in years.

13. Bangles, Doll Revolution

Description: Worldly-wise women making melodic rock.

If only they’d had the maturity and skill to pull this off 15 years ago, when people were waiting for what would follow “Eternal Flame.” They bring their beat-pop and tight harmonies to an adult collection of songs, which isn’t to say “boring” – they sing about more than finding Mr. Right, they sing about losing him, or ignoring the search (“Single By Choice”).

14. Matthew Sweet, Kimi Ga Suki

Description: A more muscular but slightly less melodically sweet (no pun intended) Paul McCartney.

Sweet reached a slight level of commercial success in 1991 with “Girlfriend,” one of the greatest power pop albums ever recorded. It saddled him with Bob Dylan’s burden – whenever Dylan releases a good album, it’s called “his best since (1975’s) ‘Blood on the Tracks’,” as if that means anything. That said, this is Sweet’s best album since “Girlfriend.”

15. New Pornographers, Electric Version

Description: A less bombastic Cheap Trick with a female singer popping in once in a while.

If every album released sounded something like this, it would suit me just fine. Melodic, upbeat, toe-tapping and clever, this is about as much fun as you can have listening to disposable pop music. One of those names that you’re embarrassed to type, however.

16. Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music

Description: A more country Crosby Stills Nash and Young.

These guys are so effortless with their melodies, it’s easy to overlook them. Their poppy country sound would have more luck in another era, but their devoted fans are greatful for each successive effort. This hasn’t threatened to change my outlook the way their wonderful “Sound of Lies” (1997) did, but it’s still a great country comfort.

17. Ringo Starr, Ringorama

Description: He sounds just like Ringo Starr, only he actually appears to be interested in what he’s playing.

For the most part, Ringo’s work over the last 30 years has relied on the strength of his personality, and the quality of the tunes has been about 12th on the priority list. These songs won’t change anyone’s world, and some of the puns (“Missouri Loves Company”) wear thin quickly, even as they’re in the middle of fine songs. But there’s enough variety to keep the mix entertaining, and at least he sounds like he’s having fun.

18. Rosanne Cash, Rules of Travel

Description: A dark trip down a lonely road, sung by a woman with a gorgeous voice and the world outlook you can only develop with age.

On her first real studio album in 10 years, Cash manages to outshine collaborators as impressive and diverse as Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow and her father, the legendary Johnny Cash. This is one of those albums that takes a few listens to appreciate – it starts off sounding simply like another pleasantly decent Rosanne Cash album, and ultimately reveals itself to be a diary of what one imagines might be Cash’s current state of life.

19. Amy Rigby, Till the Wheels Fall Off

Description: A female Neil Young, only more cynical.

Rigby’s work can be an acquired taste. Her lyrics are wry and witty, and her delivery is dry. Previous albums contained marvelous lyrics, but the music was too sloppy for my ears. This album, which features performers listeners ought to know but probably don’t (Bill Lloyd, Richard Barone, Todd Snider, Will Kimbrough), with its roots-y feel, goes into the ears a little easier.

20. Supergrass, Life On Other Planets

Description: The results of an overdose on glam rock of the 1970s, especially Marc Bolan/T. Rex.

As much as some loved their earlier albums, they always left me cold. So what’s different here? Maybe the blend of melodies, themes and eccentricities that make this a true album – the individual cuts may not be impressive, but as a whole, it’s cohesive, a genuine listening experience. Or maybe it’s the Spinal Tap reference on that one song.

Honorable mention:

The High Dials, New Devotion

Mark Bacino, Million Dollar Milkshake

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell

Adam McIntyre, Rockstars and Superheroes

White Stripes, Elephant

Daryl Hall and John Oates, Do It For Love

The Thrills, So Much for the City

Fans will love it:

Buzzcocks, Buzzcocks – These guys rock harder than kids half their age, and harder than they did in their 1970s punk/new wave heyday.

Deep Purple, Bananas – With the guitars turned down, this is keyboard player Jon Lord’s show. Their most solid collection of melodies in years.

Jill Sobule, The Folk Years (2003-2003) – An interesting collection, notable for the concert favorites she’s worked on but left off here. Not as solid as “Pink Pearl,” my pick for the best album of 2001, but still vital.

Dwight Yoakam, Population Me – The most consistent country music performer of the past 20 years releases another great album. Where and how does he keep coming up with this stuff? He’s already outdone most of his idols in longevity, creativity and artistic quality.

Andrew WK, The Wolf – He’s been listening to his Queen albums, adding even more pomp to his efforts. Nothing as catchy as “Party Hard” here, but some nice headbangers, nonetheless.

Fans already don’t like it:

Liz Phair, Liz Phair – Her grab for the sales brass ring has rubbed some the wrong way. There are a number of good songs on the album, but they get lost in glossy production that makes Phair sound too much like everyone else out there, as if she’s following the trend rather than setting it.

Elvis Costello, North – At one point, the guy was my pick for the most important performer in music. His stylistic jumps over the past 15 years may be satisfying to him, but they’re pretty choppy for the listener. Worse, this music is dull, something Costello has rarely been.

Fleetwood Mac, Say You Will – “It’s too long!” the complainers gasp. “It’s longer than (the band’s 1980 double-set) ‘Tusk.’ It’s like two solo albums.” So what? Lindsey Buckingham’s songs are amazing, Stevie Nicks’ only slightly less so, and as opposed to coasting on their considerable catalogue, the band is trying something new. Bands half their age should be half as daring.

Out of step

The Darkness, Permission to Land – Huge in England, and about to get a big push here, they’re billed as “Spinal Tap meets Queen,” which is fine, except they lack the humor and melodic skills of both. Most troubling – people whose opinions have my high respect like these guys a lot.

An ‘A’ for effort

Pink, Try This – The first two songs burn like a retro-rocket, especially “God Is A DJ,” a fantastic turn lyrically. She tackles a dozen musical styles, showing skills at each, but ultimately, a lack of spirit (and the absence of the summer single “Feel Good Time”) weighs it down too much.


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