2003 was a year of re-prioritizing. There were very few shows (comparatively speaking) that I attended and I don’t think I took many, if any photos this year. I just wanted to enjoy the music. While it was difficult staying on top of what was going on, I made time to comb the albums that were not only crammed down our throats, but also the ones that people whispered about in my ears. This year I saw my musical taste broadening. I sat down with albums I never would have listened to were it not for my job, especially with regards to Hip-Hop and R&B. Even some of the more mainstream pop was a guilty pleasure, but when I sat down to compile a list of albums that really had an impact, I realized just how much delightful music came out over the past 12 months. There were also some real stinkers that I had high hopes for, but I’ll save those for another list. The following 20 albums made a difference. They made me feel and carried me through a challenging year.
20 Grandadbob – Waltzes For Weirdoes
I never would have come across this band were it not for my job. We were working on a film in which “Mmmnn” was placed for a while. I think it’s actually out of the final version, but I digress. This is certainly of the more unique albums I have heard all year. Shake your ass to the funky dance rhythms. The album hasn’t been released in the states yet, but it’s certainly worth picking up on import.
19 Ryan Adams – Love Is Hell
Released as two separate EPs because his label thought it was a bit too dark [read non-commercial], this album should have saw the light of day before Rock N Roll, which is also quite good. I haven’t had enough time to spend with the album, but my knee-jerk reaction to it was that it was masterful, tragic without being overly dramatic and it almost always put me in somewhat of a somber mood. There’s something to be said for an album that moves me up or down. It made for good balance.
18 Josh Rouse – 1972
Long before the complete album came out, someone from Ryko sent me a white label CD-R titled “Four Songs from 1972.” I’ve been a tremendous fan for years, but I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with what I heard. I decided that Josh had, as the album title hints at, been listening to a lot of music from the 70s. When I finally received the full album and listened to it as a whole, I fell in love. It was groovy and vibey and still maintained the sweetness which has always attracted me to Josh’s music.
17 Elbow – Cast Of Thousands
There was so much anticipation built up for this album, that I was sure to be let down a little, and admittedly I was. Ultimately I decided that Elbow had to move forward and it was much more fair to judge this album on its own merits and not compare it to Asleep In The Back. The first song that I fell in love with was “Fallen Angel,” which I put on one of my monthly mixes and proceeded to listen to over and over and over. I saw them play an outstanding show at the Troubadour and was reminded why they are such a magnificent group of players. Guy Garvey (lead singer) has the distinct honor of being one of the few singer/songwriters to bring me to tears.
16 The Neptunes – Clones
The first time I heard the stark production with the distinct vocals of Busta Rhymes on “Light Your Ass On Fire,” I got chills. I can’t even explain why. There’s not much Hip-Hop that exudes that type of response, but this album is one of them. The variety of talent pooled together to make this album is just short of stunning and stands as a testament to the production team known as The Neptunes. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about Pharrell Williams’ and Chad Hugo’s production. In fact, some people think it lacks something, but that’s why I think it works. There’s just enough space in the production to allow the other talent to shine.
15 Basement Jaxx – Kish Kash
I have to give credit where credit is due, so Hipster Detritus gets props for introducing me to this one. It’s not that I wouldn’t have come across the album, but Nate brought it to my attention. If you have a soft spot for slightly crazy dance music, then this album will satisfy, at the very least. If you don’t like at least one track on this album, perhaps you need to re-examine your taste in music. This album is fun and no matter what kind of mood I am in, when I hear a song like “Lucky Star,” I cannot help but at least start bouncing my knee. Shake your rump-ah!
14 Outkast – Speakerboxxx / The Love Below
I don’t think a top list would be complete without mentioning Outkast, but that’s not why it’s mentioned here. It is deserving of most of the hype it received. Strangely enough, I think the label was planning on releasing “Ghettomusick” as the first single from Speakerboxxx, but the infectiousness of “Hey Ya!” is undeniable. It is perhaps the most played song of the year for me. That’s not to say that the rest of the double-CD package was ignored, but let’s be honest here, if you combined the stand-out tracks from both albums you would have one hell of a single CD. It’s a playlist on my iPod and it’s called Love Below The Speakerboxxx. While it’s unfortunate that Andre 3000 and Big Boi probably won’t be collaborating much in the future, each album gives us confidence that each can stand on their own deftness.
13 The Cooper Temple Clause – Kick Up the Fire And Let the Flames Break
TCTC aren’t known by many in the states, but there’s a reason for their massive popularity in the UK, which is no doubt due to the epic, and sometimes ferocious nature of their music. There’s a fine line between the chaos and the order, but their keen sense of rock and song makes for a sharp album. They skillfully combine delicate electronic music with guitar dramatics only to be strengthened by the Gallagher-esque vocal talents of Ben Gatrey. This is another album worth the few extra bucks to be had on import.
12 Athlete – Vehicles & Animals
Athlete’s acclaim never quite made it over the pond, but that didn’t stop their debut album from being lauded as one of the year’s best. This album is happiness, and I mean that in a wake-up-and-smell-the-fresh-air kind of way. If Athlete were the sun, you’d need some dark sunglasses. I suggest you taper off the Prozac and put this album on repeat. It’ll set your serotonin straight in no time. The catchy choruses of “Beautiful” and “You Got Style” will be bouncing in your head. You’re welcome.
11 The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow
Following up Oh, Inverted World had to come with a little bit of pressure. And I have to admit, I wasn’t quite sure if they could do it, but the moment I listened to this album I was sorry for ever having any doubts. The Shins know pop music and craft it with such absolute mastery. James Mercer’s vocals and the yummy, jangly lake of gorgeous music are in top form here. More hooks than a bait and tackle shop. Hot damn!
10 Nada Surf – Let Go
If someone told me that Nada Surf was going to come out with an album that I would not only like, but think is one of the greatest albums of the year, I would have cried foul at the top of my lungs. After I had spent some time with the album, I was sorry I didn’t go see them when they were playing clubs around town. How was I supposed to know?! This album makes “Popular” totally forgivable. Don’t let the fact that Avril Lavigne’s album has the same name fool you.
09 Jay-Z – The Black Album
I was having a conversation with a co-worker about MCs and when Jay-Z was brought up, there was no argument. While I had never purchased a Jay-Z album, he certainly had my respect. I’m not going to pretend that I know much about any of his other albums, but this one is a masterpiece. He claims this is his last, and while I don’t have a lot with which to compare, I’d say it’s damn good swan song. The production is tops and the collaborations only aid in making this one of the most significant albums of the year.
08 Calexico – Feast Of Wire
There’s something very California about this album, and I’m not talking Los Angeles. It sounds like a border town or perhaps somewhere out in the middle of the desert. There are stories to be told and you’ll want to light a campfire for this one. The Mariachi style guitars and eerie strings are perfection. If I were to pick one album that hit the spot purely based on sonics, this might just be the one. It’s one of the only CDs that I kept in my car for an extended period of time and just listened on repeat. The way that each song just moseys along to the next shows an impressive attention to detail. Seamless in the way it all flows, Feast Of Wire is music artistry.
07 The Postal Service – Give Up
I could have sworn this was released in 2002, which just goes to show the tremendous amount of mileage the album has received. There’s something so refreshing about the happy, synthetic electro-pop of Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel), which provides a perfect foundation for the beautifully boyish vocal stylings of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie). The balance between organic and machine may be obvious, but sometimes it’s worth noting because it does make for exquisite music.
06 Stars – Heart
Calling all music supervisors for the WB! “Elevator Love Letter” is your next big theme song. In fact, someone should just write a show around this song, just so you can use it for the theme. All kidding aside [kinda], I saw Stars mentioned on one of those bands-to-watch lists fairly recently. Based on the short review, I had to track them down. It’s somewhat of a coincidence that The Postal Service is right next to them on my list. While Stars are probably a bit easier on most people’s ears, they share that fantastic mix of synth and pop and it just keeps getting better with every listen. By the way, did anyone else think of Coldplay when they first heard “Elevator Love Letter?”
05 Earlimart – Everyone Down Here
I can’t help but start off by comparing this album to the likes of Sparklehorse, Grandaddy (yeah, I know Jason Lytle co-produced) and even a little bit of Flaming Lips. None of this is to take away from the magnificence. The music is emotional, at the very least, and the songwriting is praiseworthy. “The Movies,” “We’re So Happy (We Left The Piano In The Truck)” and “Dreaming Of…” are dazzling and I find myself stopping whatever I’m doing when I hear them. I just want to listen keenly, so as not to miss anything.
04 Hem – Rabbit Songs
I am consistently sleeping to this album. It has nothing to do with it being boring in the least. It’s the captivating vocals of Sally Ellyson that do it to me. They literally melt me into a mess of relaxation. Next to having her sit in a rocking chair and sing me lullabies, Rabbit Songs is one of the best ways to fall into a deep slumber. The divine neo-folk music that rests under Ellyson’s voice makes for some of the most delicate and lovely music I have heard in years.
03 Guster – Keep It Together
I first heard Guster while I was in college in the early nineties. At the time, they were touring around doing a bongo and guitar show that was much more stimulating than the mental image that comes to mind when someone says, “bongo and guitar show.” Believe it or not, it was one of the best things I heard and saw. They’ve since graduated to a full band, with contagious songs intact. Keep It Together is one of the best albums I have heard so far this decade. It’s a lush and complete album to which I still listen with the same amount of enthusiasm that I had the first time.
02 Turin Brakes – Ether Song
Two years following one of the best albums of 2001, Turin Brakes released a highly anticipated follow-up that not only lived up to every one of my expectations, but showed that Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian moved forward as songwriters and musicians. This time around they employed the services of Tony Hoffer, which helped bring a slight polish to the equation. It’s not that I ever minded the somewhat lo-fi sounds of The Optimist LP, but listening to Ether Song puts a smile on my face and has me singing at the top of my lungs. The gentle vocal harmonies coupled with the careful guitar playing sails across the backing and creates something that hovers just above the ethers.
01 Damien Rice – O
You cannot help but hear the wandering in Damien Rice’s music. Everything he saw, felt and heard while he was on the journey through Europe that lead to the recording of this album. If you’ve sat down and listened to O, then you’ve undoubtedly been impressed by his music. It is undeniable, exquisite, precious and sharp. When I talk about being moved by music, Damien’s immediately comes to mind. I can only hope that he never runs out of stories to tell. Albums like this keep me listening to music with an open and hopeful ear. All is not lost.