LIFE Vs. THE LIFELESS: THE TOP MUSIC OF 2003 (according to me)
I do this every year. Sure, it's follwing the herd, since who doesn't do an end of the year recap, right? But, I do because I like it. I like keeping lists, I like tracking things. Music is about the only area, though, I feel I can do such a thing, since I can follow it with a much more comprehensive passion than I can, say, movies, prose, or even comics. You'll likely disagree with a lot, but then, you'll have to start your own blog, won't you?
1. Black Box Recorder - Passionoia/ Luke Haines & the Auteurs - Das Capital: The year belonged to Luke Haines. The popmaster simultaneously dug into his back catalogue, re-envisioning the cream of the crop from his first two bands as orchestral pomp and circumstance, lending a classical backdrop to his misanthropic world view. And on Black Box Recorder's third album, he dug deeper into the psyche of a hormonal music fiends, lending a sultry and slightly dangerous air to Bacharach-styled ditties. Long may he rave.
2. Blur - Think Tank: People love to count this band out, and with guitar god Graham Coxon finally disappearing up his own ass, the remaining trio decided to explore theirs without him. What they discovered were some new rhythms, a little bit of freedom, and a record that smashed the art into pop (it's usually the other way around) and started to rediscover their fire. Underrated, as per usual, Blur triumphed.
3. The Coral - The Coral/Magic & Medicine: Channeling the Animals and Pretty Things through an anarcho punk spirit, these British boys spit their debut out stateside just before serving up their sophomore effort in the UK. This meant a double dose of freakbeat for the dedicated. Sure, they have handfuls of sloppy flaws, but that's what makes The Coral work. Only a band who doesn't give two fucks would put two of their best songs--"Not The Girl" and "Like a Leaf to a Tree"--on their b-sides. Righteous.
4. Erasure - Other People's Songs/ Martin Gore - Counterfeit2/ Mandy Moore - Coverage: Something must be wrong if three of my favorite records in a given year are collections of covers. Erasure leant a high-gloss techno feel to classics from Phil Spector, Elvis, and Peter Gabriel, and did so with a surprisingly un-ironic lisp. Martin Gore, on the other hand, was a bit more earnest, ferreting out the dark parts of Nick Cave, Julee Cruise, and Lou Reed songs and casting them in deep, electronic suits. Finally, Mandy Moore, the pop princess nearly least likely to, dug up Blondie, XTC, and Elton John, and did so just for the sheer joy of song. If nothing else, this proves music needs a few more visionaries.
5. Lost in Translation - Original Soundtrack (with music by Kevin Shields): Sofia Coppola and I could have been mates in high school, it seems. We probably had a lot of the same records. Revisiting the otherworldly sounds of "shoegazing" provided the perfect film soundtrack for the other world that is Tokyo, and with my headphones wrapped around my ears, it transports me out of mine.
6. Mya - Moodring: Pop R&B with a positively pro-femme attitude. Not afraid to be spunky and fun, a bit bawdy, and even get a little sentimental (songs called "You" can be pretty tough; Mya's rates). Points off for containing the obligatory appearance from Sean Paul, but regained for getting Missy Elliott's best production this year, the single "My Love is Like...Wo."
7. Spiritualized - Complete Works Vol. 1/Amazing Grace: While I generally leave compilations off my list (and this year, there were a ton of great ones; just see below), the first Spiritualized collection was just too damn good. Collecting every stray track released on singles around the first two albums, it shows a band full of ideas and an unrelenting will to refine them. As a great counterpoint, Amazing Grace is a rough-hewn effort, recorded with a straight-ahead passion. 2003 saw both sides of Spiritualized--the sacred and the profane--and it was damn good.
8. Bubba Sparxxx - Deliverance: Timbaland wins the hiphop prize this year, transforming his also-ran white boy rapper into a true MC, giving him a catchy landscape where country & western samples are plowed next to heavy beats, harvested for a cash crop of banging tunes. It's actually harder to stay prejudiced against this record than to give in and admit it has the most clever and inventive production for the year. There but for the souls bared above, this would be on top. As it is, it dominates its genre, having several hundred pounds and a big pair of overalls more than the competition.
9. Kylie Minogue - Body Language: Oh, Kylie! Was it that you thought the party was a little crowded, and you decided to make a record to scare some of the Johnny-come-latelies away? Or was it that you wanted to teach them that no, it's really okay to dance? Because Body Language follows up your massive hit of two years ago by taking a challenging route down electric avenue. Every song here, from the snake-like slinkiness of the opener, "Slow," to the innuendo-laden "Chocolate," and resting back at the beginning with the raise-your-hands-jump-up-and-down anthem "After Dark," eschews shiny pop for futuristic sparkle--with you recasting yourself as a breathy Brigitte Bardot. Some people can't seem to dig it, but we never invited them anyway, did we?
10. Faye Wong - To Love: The Chinese chanteuse has more albums in her back catalogue than just about anyone here, but she sounds just as fresh as the day she started. Continuing an unbeatable track record that has seen her edge ever closer to a creative zenith in the last several years, To Love balances techno adventures against emotional ballads with an ease that only an artist that knows exactly what she is doing is capable of. It doesn't matter that she sings in another language, you're going to feel every syllable. This is Bjork if she were as cute as you really wanted, mixed with the elegance of a classic cinema star--and all merely a vessel for a smooth and beautiful croon.
11. The Raveonettes - Chain Gang of Love: You know that bit at the beginning of "Be My Baby," that Phil Spector drumbeat that makes you sit up and listen whenever it creeps through the speakers on your car radio when you're listening to the oldies station? This is an entire album of that! Fuuuuuuuuck!
12. Alicia Keys - The Diary of Alicia Keys: I've only had a short time to go over Alicia's confessions, as it was one of the last records released this year. But since she put it in my hands, I haven't wanted to let go of it. This is soulful and funky and sensual--all the things Prince used to be, but without the pomp and circumstance, without hiding behind his freaky persona or wishing he were a rock god. Her debut was a simple affair, not overdone; this disc ups the ante and shows she knows how to turn a meal into a banquet and not cook too much. Bless.
13. Britney Spears - In The Zone: Also known as the album I will get the most shit for having on my list, even more so than the record that follows it (and sometimes, I am sure, because of the record that follows it--for how dare I place Britney ahead of Chris!). But you can all piss right off. This record is fantastic. While Kylie beats the youngster to dance record of the year, when was the last time we had two great albums from disco divas in one twelve-month span? True, you need to skip the first two tracks and replace them with "Answer" and "Don't Hang Up" (available only on various import versions), but when you do, get ready for a CD of many moods. There are the bangers ("Toxic"), the chill out ("Early Mornin'," produced by Moby ("sell out!" they cry, "again!")), the string drenched ballads ("Shadow," "Everytime"), a new wave rocker ("Brave New Girl"), and even an ode to masturbation ("Touch of My Hand")! Now you can whack off to Britney listening to her talk about whacking off, and possibly imagining that she is doing it, too, by imagining some fan doing it while listening to that song. Or is that just me?
14. Dashboard Confessional - A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar: If I gave an award for most pretentious title, this album would get it; same, though, if I gave an award for the disc I didn't expect to be here. Frequent Confessions readers will be aware of my recent conversion, my conquering of prejudices against this band--and this here is the proof I meant it. Your preconceived notions really no longer apply. This is a rocking album that, yes, will wear its heart on its black-clad sleeve, but the music is smooth and catchy, with Carrabba's voice soaring where it needs to and getting gravel-scarred and sad on the next go-around. And when it's done, I want to hear it again.
15. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Master & Everyone: Will Oldham is pretty hit and miss for me, and he seems to only really hit under the Bonnie "Prince" moniker. His music is a sparse form of backwoods country, obsessed with sex, death, and religion, and how the three inevitably mix. This album has a lot of songs about relationships. They may be of many kinds, but somehow it all sounds like love when Oldham's gruff whisper is the messenger. His lyrics are hard-won and deeply felt, and when he strikes a chord, it stays struck.
16. David Bowie - Reality: What can I say? The guy still has it. Since the release of Outside over half a decade ago, Bowie has been on a real roll. Cast in the same vein as Heathen, Bowie's post-Gabrels period shows a new love for rocking songcraft. "New Killer Star" is his best single in ages, and he turns out fantastic covers by George Harrison and Modern Lovers (easily topping the original there, which normally I wouldn't give the time of day). The man loves what he does, and it shows.
17. Relaxed Muscle - A Heavy Night With...: Pulp's Jarvis Cocker steps back from the high-shine of his brilliant band to do something a little more dirty, a little more twisted. Sporting an early Wax Trax influence, he takes the piss out of the current state of macho music, and manages to put a spring in the step at the same time.
18. Elvis Costello - North: I recently traded e-mails with a friend and we talked about how neither of us could get into Robyn Hitchcock. I called him Sub-Costello, part of a British school that was impressed by its own cleverness, but unlike their sensei, never got past that point. Elvis has more emotional latitude than the legions he spawned, something this gorgeous collection of quiet, romantic ballads illustrates perfectly.
19. Tricky - Vulnerable: Tricky visits some dark places, and sometimes he get lost, but he always is following his own muse--or at least searching for it. You have to respect that. Teaming up with the first vocalist since Martina to really deserve her microphone stand, Tricky once again sounds like he did when he debuted a decade ago. Full of piss, vinegar, and the occasional flight of fancy. His beats are heavy, and his backdrops are stark. Like Costello for the electronic age, many try to imitate him, but none of them can. (Features amazing covers of XTC and The Cure, as well, keeping in with the theme of 2003.)
20. Kelis - Tasty: While Kelis' albums are usually a bit bottom heavy and begin to lose steam by the end, Tasty does the best of any of beating that. Which, yes, is damning with feint praise, but really, I'm just trying to say she's figuring it out. This works 95% of the time, and you gotta love an album that goes from telling guys to cut the sexual gossip ("Keep It Down") to ordering them to indulge their wildest exhibitionist fantasy ("In Public") and is brazen enough to put the songs back-to-back--all the while keeping it funky and smooth. "Milkshake" was easily the sexiest video of the year, too, beating out a lot of pop tarts.
It should be noted that this year, there were perhaps more excellent compilations than any other in recent memory. And more often than not, they were souped-up packages with extra discs, DVDs, or some kind of cool booklet. Ones I couldn't stop listening to came from artists like the Pet Shop Boys (they had two!), Suede, Inspiral Carpets, No Doubt, Primal Scream, R.E.M., Chemical Brothers, Erasure, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Weller, and Ride (the awesome colletion of BBC sessions, Waves).
Noteable for the worst album of the year was Madonna. Her American Life travesty was pompous and, worse, flaccid. Her recently released EP Remixed & Revisited showed how off base she was from a production standpoint by allowing three of the album's cuts to be remixed by artists with more of a pulse left (though, "American Life" itself was proven irredeemable). Sad to have seen someone that was once so good become so self-important. And here I was all ready to give this position to The Strokes or Black Rebel Motorcyle Club.
1. Kelis - "Milkshake": The Neptunes have always seen something special in Kelis, and while previous efforts have gotten close, this is where the genius really shines through. A raunchy bounce propels the year's most suggestive vocal performance into the groin of every man, woman, and child in earshot. They just wanna love our brains, and if we dance in the meantime, that's excellent, too.
2. The Coral - "Dreaming of You": A throwback, to be sure. To the Mersey Beat scene, to Eric Burdon and the Yardbirds in Blow Up--but damn, does this song capture something. Coming in under three minutes, it doesn't waste any time on any sound that doesn't count. Right to the heart of pop.
3. Suede - "Attitude": Sadly, the band's swan song. Double sadly, it shows them getting groovy, experimenting with rhythm, and taking their sound in directions they've been promising for a couple of years now. As an epitaph, this can't be beat. Lyrically, it's Suede to a T--a little bit of attitude, a little bit of something rude, a little bit tacky, too. A decade on a 45.
4. Relaxed Muscle - "Billy Jack": Absolutely absurd, and fantastic as a result. Cocker does little more than summarize the '70s vigilante movie over a disco line-dance shuffle. Brilliant.
5. Kylie Minogue - "Slow": Where Kelis pushes you against the wall and shoves her tongue down your throat, Kylie twists you up in satin sheets and rolls over you, back and forth, nice and...slow.
6. Black Box Recorder - "These Are the Things": Arty disco ticking off life's mundane moments, and how they lead into, perhaps, the less mundane aspects of interpersonal relationships. Cold, yet sexy; pop, yet brainy.
7. Blur - "Out of Time": The ache of a breaking heart sets an acoustic guitar vibrating, and the result is soothing, tender, and just a tad bit painful. Blur can be lovely when they want to. We tend to forget that, and perhaps that's what occasionally makes them so sad. I guess good on us, then, eh?
8. Dashboard Confessional - "Hands Down": When your heart is done breaking, you can remember what it was like when you first fell in love, the rush that made it worth it. Purists may prefer Chris Carrabba's acoustic original, but the electric guitars are the perfect vehicle for the explosive feelings, the charge that leads to elation, and taking a skip off the front porch of your original romance.
9. Bubba Sparxxx - "Deliverance": A rap song distinctive for its acoustic guitar and melodic hook, Timbaland inches his protege towards something new with more honest lyrics and a scope free of the bling-bling limitations of the mainstream.
10. Oasis - "Songbird": The Beatles? Yes. But why not?
11. Erasure - "Solsbury Hill": If Peter Gabriel ever sounded this carefree when he recorded his own stuff, I might actually buy his records.
12. Saint Etienne - "Soft Like Me": Classic Etienne with a groove that bubbles just under placid, quiet whispers from Sarah Cracknell, and a spoken word/rap guest spot that matches the trio's measured cool. An amorphous single that is breezy in the spring, sunny in the summer, wistful in autumn, and crisp in winter.
13. Timbaland & Magoo/Missy Elliott - "Cop That Shit": Knicking a beat from the Neptunes that sounds like someone pounding their fists on a broken Casio, this hiphop trio rails against a thieving musical culture that bites styles and bootlegs tracks, simultaneously warning them to get out of the way while taking their followers with them.
14. The Coral - "Don't Think You're The First" - As odd as "Dreaming of You" was catchy. This is a kiss-off, a wake-up call, and it's more slithery than their propulsive rock stuff. Thinner, so it can slide in under the door and slice your ears. Pop always had a superiority complex.
15. Robbie Williams - "Come Undone": Robbie has the best sense of humor in pop, and when he turns it on himself, it's positively wicked. A look at the dark side of fame, with Mr. Williams narrating what it's like for the rich and bratty to let loose, and how much they might regret it come morning. Though, really, the sound of falling apart is far more memorable than actually being part any day.
16. Mya - "My Love is Like...Wo": Fun, sassy, and unashamed. Missy lays down the beat, Mya picks it up and celebrates herself.
17. King Adora - "Kamikaze/Nothing To Lose": Trashier than Placebo, more tart than Xtina, less cash-flush than The Strokes, these lipsticked boys keep their tunes cramped and sweaty, and wield chainsaw guitars that cut a jagged path out of your speakers.
18. David Bowie - "New Killer Star": "Ready, set, go!" he said, and then he did. This could fit in easily with Ziggy-era rockers on the inevitable future greatest hits repackage.
19. Justin Timberlake - "Rock Your Body": Oh, right. Like you didn't sing the falsetto bits every damn time it was on. Liar!
20. Pet Shop Boys - "Miracles": Narrowly defeating Placebo's sugar push of glamtastic paranoia, "This Picture," this anthem of atmospheric dance pop is the second song on the list to be a throwaway from a greatest hits collection--proving some bands' rubbish is another's dream 45.
Winner of my award for great single that tumbled down my chart faster than any other is Outkast's Andre 3000 and "Hey Ya." Only Beyonce was more ubiquitous this year, and her "Crazy In Love" had the same problem as "Hey Ya," but not nearly as bad. These songs are all middle. They always allude to where they are going, but never arrive. Beyonce at least changes up the hooks, but Andre 3000 sticks on the same line and never wavers, and eventually you realize that "Hey Ya" is a wisp of a song, not really there at all. See him perform it live a couple of times, and you realize it further, as he does the exact same thing he does in the video--every time. Somebody needs to put Outkast back together again, for not just their sake's, but ours.
All in all, it feels like a pretty odd year. A lot of what stood out were throwbacks, either to rock or to disco, with covers nearly ruling the roost (and one soundtrack looking at a non-movement that stopped moving ages ago). Doesn't necessarily mean it was a bad year, as a lot of stuff I wanted to write about had to be left off the list. But the critics have been pulling their "something is around the corner now that pop/rap-rock/whathaveyou is dead" for some time now. If they're right, it ain't here yet; if they're wrong, then maybe were just settling in to letting music be music and not worrying about the rest of it.
(Pssst! If you want to read what I thought last year, then check here. Interesting to note that the Neptunes didn't rack up as much for me this year (though 2 1/2 singles is pretty good), and Missy Elliott's album, This Is Not a Test, was in the low 20s and thus missed the list.)
Current Soundtrack: The Beautiful South, Gaze