Year End Review 2003

2003: REWIND

Repeat after me: “uh-oh-uh-oh-uh-oh-uh-oh”.  Say it again.  Come on, one more time.  People from Stockholm to Shanghai to Sydney to Seattle jumped to Beyonce as she took over J Lo’s crown as queen of the universe.  She might as well quit now, because she’ll never get better than “Crazy in Love”.  It led a truckload of fun singles this year, from 50 Cent’s “In da Club” to Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, No Doubt’s 80’s cover “It’s My Life”, Jason Mraz’ “The Remedy”, Kelis’ “Milkshake”, and anything from Missy E or Justin (the new king of pop).  Of course these are just the pop nuggets – the guilty pleasures – that are the tip of the iceberg of the year in music.

Just a few years ago, the VIP list at a Bands Who Rock My World party would have been a room full of nobody.  But over the past few years, rock has revived.  And just in time, because the state of hip hop and electronica is pretty dismal these days.  Other than a few innovators, hip hop’s celebrities of the moment are all following the same recipe of thugs+freaky+nasty=bling-bling.  And the masses eat it up.  5 years ago, some of the freshest, most exciting sounds in town were coming from trip-hop and house artists, who have all gone MIA.  What remains is a slew of chill-out and downbeat compilations, which are all pretty much copies of each other.  Rock, however, has been all over the map, with some legitimate superstars emerging.  Coldplay, the White Stripes, the Strokes, and Dashboard Confessional lead a pack of a variety of styles that have breathed new life into the sounds bursting out of our speakers.

And let’s set this downloading thing straight: downloading is good for music.  Really.  The majority of people download 2 types of songs: ones that they know, because they like them, and ones they don’t know, to hear someone they think they might like.  More people download, listen, and then go buy something they wouldn’t have otherwise bought than those who download an entire CD of an album they would have otherwise bought.  There are lots of exceptions, and some of the bigger artists lose out on album sales because of this, but many of the lesser known artists benefit, and they’re the ones, frankly, who deserve it.  In this way, MP3’s are supplementing radio (since radio plays a very limited range of music), not replacing CD’s.  Besides, anyone who is an actual music fan knows that quality of MP3’s and burned CD’s will not hold up over time, like a CD will.  And in case anyone hasn’t figured it out, suing 12 year olds over MP3’s is not good PR.  Ok, enough about that…

What follows is a list of 16 albums from this year that are worth your money.  They are complete albums, start to finish, in a variety of styles.  Side note: more and more artists are smartly starting to include a bonus DVD with new CD’s or as a separate item.  This is a great way to improve the quality of the product and give us a better reason to shell out the hard earned cash.  Onward:

ALTERNATIVE: designating or of an institution, enterprise, etc. that represents or appeals to unconventional or nontraditional interests

Dashboard Confessional – A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar (w/ bonus DVD Far From Home Movies)

Emo is what they call it.  Short for emotional, blood pumping, lighter waving rock.  Chris Carraba and his backing band take you through a varied but cohesive set of songs that ask you to look inward, question your passions, and demand that you be true to your soul.  Their style retains an integrity of days long gone, starting with the impossible urgency of teenage love in “Hands Down” through to the rallying anthem “Several Ways to Die Trying”.  Dashboard are sometimes hard, fast, and punk, sometimes slow and quiet, always sincere, never insignificant.  

White Stripes – Elephant

White Blood Cells and a Lego video made the White Stripes the talk of the town in 2002.  Who the hell were they?  Where did they come from?  Are Jack and Meg married or siblings?  Why do they always wear red and white?  All of these are details.  Elephant matched and perhaps even trumped White Blood Cells by throwing a smorgasbord of blues-tinged rock at you.  ”Seven Nation Army”, “There’s No Home for You Here”, and the rest blow up in your face and leave you panting for more.  

The Postal Service – Give Up

80’s synth pop + 90’s electronica + modern day post-rock = The Postal Service.  Pleasantly reminiscent of the Lightning Seeds and “Don’t You Want Me” Human League, updated for the 21st century.  Fronted by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, this side project got their name from collaborating through the mail.  Each song stands on its own musical ground, incorporating organs and keyboards, lo-fi drum machines, and even drum and bass beats in the last song.  Lines like “I am finally seeing why I was the one worth leaving” and “and true, it may seem like a stretch, but it’s thoughts like this that catch my troubled head when you’re away when I am missing you to death” punctuate the subtlety of the beats and let the lyrics do the talking.

Grandaddy – Sumday

A little bit quirky, a little bit fun, a little bit gloomy.  In the spirit of Marcy Playground, Flaming Lips, and Beck, Grandaddy makes alterna-country-electro-pop.  In a right world, “Now It’s On” and “Stray Dog with a Chocolate Shake” would be bouncy radio staples, and “The Warming Sun” would be that song on every teenage girl’s mixtape that makes her sob.

Radiohead – Hail to the Thief

I can’t believe that I’m writing this.  After 2 of the best albums of any decade (The Bends and OK Computer), I quickly tired of the complexity and of the albums that followed.  We admired Radiohead for their ambition, and their intentions to push the boundaries of “pop” music – but innovation at the loss of melody isn’t necessarily progress.  And so with Hail to the Thief, Radiohead wander back away from the edge – not all the way back, but the result is an intriguing, interesting, fairly accessible collection of songs, especially “There There” and “Go To Sleep”.

POP: intended for the popular taste, esp. as exploited commercially

Damien Rice – O

Rarely does an album come along that bears such freshness and lack of comparison as Damien Rice’s “O”.  Listening to this Irishman’s assortment of 10 songs, you’ll be convinced that he assembled his group of musicians and hid in a studio for a year with no contact to the outside world.  The songs are acoustic based, but draw on a wide variety of other genres and sounds, including strings, opera, and Gregorian chants.  From one song to the next, on all pieces of this mosaic of an album, Rice and Lisa Hannigan’s voices dance with each other from one line to the next.  At its heart though, it is a fairly simple pop record, with some embarrassingly heartfelt tributes (”Cannonball”) and gorgeous, rising vocals and melodies that might raise Jeff Buckley from the dead (”Cold Water” and “Eskimo”).  Astonishing.

Coldplay – Live (CD and DVD combo)

How to Become the Biggest Band in the World. Step 1: Gather a bunch of young, talented musicians.  Step 2: Make simple, direct, lovely first album.  Step 3: Demonstrate artistic growth by expanding on sound and lyrical range in more varied second album.  Step 4: Go on tour to really showcase your goods, and record it.  Step 5: Release live DVD/CD combo for all to enjoy.  Step 6: Create masterpiece third album by continuing to grow and evolve?  Ok so Step 6 isn’t here yet, but we can hope.  All signs point to yes.

Liz Phair – Liz Phair

Indie queen sells out!  Critics and hipsters cried foul over Liz Phair’s supposed switch to mainstream pop, but fans have known and loved her whip-smart pop sensibilities from the start, all the way back to “Supernova” and “Never Said”.  Liz was the inspiration and revolutionary for Alanis, Jewel, and crew when she busted out in the early 90’s.  Her latest album is more polished and poppy, but it’s still Liz singing about misguided love (”Why Can’t I?”), her sexual prowess (”H.W.C.”), and the consequences (”Little Digger”, a song to her son about the new man in her life who is not the boy’s father).

Sarah McLachlan – Afterglow

After peaking with one of the most passionate and vital albums of the 90’s (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy), Afterglow follows in the spirit of her last album, Surfacing, as richer, more restrained ground.  The Lilith Queen has always made girl pop with an edge, but delivered within a whispery voice and lush production, it’s easy to underestimate the weight of her topics.  The lyrics here are nowhere close to her best work, but it’s still a high quality effort.

URBAN: characteristic of the city as distinguished from the country; citified

Slowpho – Hotel Sleep

Swank, slow beats with lavish strings and icy cool vocals from Christian Watkins and Hilde Drange.  Picking up where Portishead, Lamb, and Gus Gus left off, Slowpho take trip-hop to a new level via Scandinavia.  The album starts brazenly with Hilde chronicling her addiction to porn, and flows through the more groovalicious sounds of “Lovetech” and the title track, with a recurring water theme in the more subdued second half of the album.  Ideal for late-night chill-out.

Alicia Keys – The Diary of Alicia Keys (w/ bonus DVD A Diary)

2 years ago, Songs in A Minor was in this column as a prime example of what the investment of time and guidance can have for a young, talented artist.  A classically-trained, street girl from Harlem, Ms. Keys follows up that promising debut with another sample of great things to come.  She hasn’t made a masterpiece (yet), but it’s coming.  Her second album draws back to her youth and sounds of the 70’s, mixed with new soul – more ballads this time, and a bit less poppy.  The album’s centerpiece and first single, “You Don’t Know My Name”, is a prime example of this fusion of past and present.  This girl’s going to be around for a long time.

Massive Attack – 100th Window

This is the soundtrack to a sushi bar in the Lower East Side in 2008.  Skitterish beats, pulsing rhythms, and long drawn out vocals all set the mood for a trendy, dark, gritty, futuristic scene.  Keeping with their style, Massive this time invites bastard child Sinead O’Connor along to do some vocals.  While Mezzanine incorporated aggressive guitar sounds, this set is more subdued – until you take a close listen through headphones, where it will take on another intense level of sound.  And like their previous albums, this one will probably not come into its own for another 5 years, when we’re ready for it

.Justin Timberlake – Justified

Teen pop boy grows up.  Yes, he was a Mouseketeer.  Yes, we all loved to hate ‘N Sync, at least at first.  But by the time Celebrity came out, “Girlfriend” and “Gone” were, um, great pop songs – and Justin clearly had something to do with it.  With Justified, he’s gone and pulled a George W on us by getting elected without that much talent and surrounding himself with a great team.  He’s clearly learning from his mentors, and he’s choosing good ones in the Neptunes and Timbaland.  With “Like I Love You”, “Dance With Me”, “Senorita”, and especially “Cry Me a River”, Justified is being compared to Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall as his coming out party.  Britney, Christina, and even Beyonce – you got Punk’d this year by Justin!

BEST: of the most excellent sort; surpassing all others

Everything but the Girl – Like the Deserts Meet the Rain

This “best of” collection was hand picked by Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, and the result is a fresh setlist of hits, rare songs, and remixes.  The variety serves as an excellent introduction to the new listener or a longtime fan.  Tracey’s deadpan delivery of each line over their span of bossa nova, acoustic, downbeat, and house sounds all blend wonderfully together from one song to the next.  Highlights include “Corcovado”, the Massive Attack collaboration “Protection”, “My Head is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Mirrorball”, and the Chicane remix of “Before Today”, but with ebtg, it’s all good.

Beth Orton – Pass in Time

A 2 disc compilation with her singles on one disc and rare tracks on the other.  Beth has a style more similar to 70’s poets Carole King and Joni Mitchell than modern songstresses.  Her unique style draws on folk, melancholy trip-hop, and acoustic blues.  An excellent sampling of one of this generation’s most extraordinary artists.  Start here and you’ll want more, and each individual album is a keeper.

REM – In Time (CD) or In View (DVD)

20 years in, REM is still making beautiful music.  Never ones to be resting on their creative or financial laurels, the band has evolved through many phases, and their last 15 years are showcased here (their early hits are included on Eponymous, and this picks up where that left off).  A few of their best albums have only one song here; leaving off a few hits like “Shiny Happy People”, “Bang and Blame”, and “Strange Currencies”, to make room for some soundtrack appearances and 2 new songs is questionable, but hey, it’s still a fantastic collection.  The DVD and CD differ slightly in their songlists.

Support music in your local schools: http://www.mustcreate.org/index.shtml  

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