My Musical Choices of 2003
by erin hucke
1. The Fiery Furnaces, Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade)
Sister and brother team Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger mix genres freely and effortlessly on their debut album, Gallowsbird's Bark. Tempos and moods change without warning. The combination of guitar, piano and drums is nothing new, but somehow The Fiery Furnaces manage to make it sound completely fresh and original. I love this album so much, anything I find to say about it seems inadequate to describe its beauty, complexity and wit.
2. Grandaddy, Sumday (V2)
On the surface, Sumday sounds warmer, dreamier and at times a bit rockier than Grandaddy's previous effort, The Sophtware Slump. Dig a little deeper and notice the observational lyrics have become much cleverer and less story-bound. With commentary on office life, aging technology and the deteriorating environment, lead singer Jason Lytle has positioned himself as a bearded, slightly sarcastic spokesperson for the modern age. With references to El Caminos, fast food trash and lines like "And the sprinklers that come on at 3 a.m. sound like crowds of people askin' 'are you happy what you're doing?,'" are you going to argue with me?
3. Radiohead, Hail To The Thief (Capitol)
What can I say about Radiohead that's still a halfway original thought? I feel like everyone who knows a lick about pop music already knows them inside and out or has actively chosen to ignore their Brit brilliance. Hail To The Thief again proves that brilliance, blending off-pitch squeals, cacophonous drum machines and a renaissance of guitars, noticeably absent from their two preceding albums. Additionally, HTTT gives us reason further to be paranoid about the world around us, boasting lyrics about bunny rabbit diseases and blackmail. Contrasting is the hopeful-sounding "There, There," with its warm percussion and reassuring refrain before it, too, turns sinister about halfway through. There may ultimately come a day when a Radiohead album will disappoint, and it won't make my year-end best-of list. But this isn't that day.
4. Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
Dear Catastrophe Waitress had indie kids all around the world clamoring, "what happened to Belle & Sebastian!?" Who knows what inspired this change, but we should all be glad whatever happened over there in Scotland happened. Dear Catastrophe Waitress is an invigorating, breakthrough record that brings B&S's inherent poppiness to the surface and turns it up to the max. From the campy "Step Into My Office Baby" to the 80's-inspired "Stay Loose," this album pushes Belle & Sebastian to the next level.
5. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Pig Lib (Matador)
Pig Lib opens with the wonky rhythms of "Water & A Seat." Obtuse and slightly off-putting, you can be certain that you won't appreciate it on first listen. Don't let that scare you off. For all you "Malkmus-in-Pavement-or-no-Malkmus-at-all" fans out there still whining about his solo career, it might do you a bit of good to completely forget about Pavement for an indie rock minute and listen with fresh ears. You might discover there's a lot to appreciate in songs like the loveable "Vanessa From Queens," the homo/hetero love quadrangle story of "Craw Song" or the easily digestible pseudo-country tune "Us." Plus the quality of Malkmus's wordsmithing has not fallen at all, working in lines like "I wonder sometimes what you're made of/Is it rayon or is it dust?" OK, so Pig Lib is a stupid title (even if it does have assonance), but it's a fun and rewarding album, so don't hold it against them.
6. Super Furry Animals, Phantom Power (Beggars/XL Recordings)
Musically, Phantom Power continues on the same path set by 2002's Rings Around The World, covering many styles in a cohesive manner. "Golden Retriever" is a 70's-inspired fuzz-rock romp while the two instrumental "Father Father" tracks set a soothing, somewhat sophisticated tone. With lyrics like "Holy bombs make holy holes/Holy holes make homeless moles," the band also has soldiered on creating pretty and witty political rock. ("The Undefeated" even ends with sounds of machine gun fire as the a cappella chorus fades out.) Phantom Power may be a bit more orchestral, less weird and less electronicky than the band's previous albums, but it's still testament to the fact that Super Furry Animals is one of the most innovative rock bands today.
7. The Minus 5, Down With Wilco (Yep Roc)
Down with Wilco! Down with R.E.M.! Down with the Minus 5! With the members of Wilco, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and auxiliary R.E.M. musicians Ken Stringfellow and frontman Scott McCaughey, the latest version of The Minus 5 collective should have the Wilco- and R.E.M.-obsessed of the world unfurrow their brows to sing funny things like, "they call me DJ Mini Mart, 'cause that's where I work."
8. A Mighty Wind: The Album (Sony)
Christopher Guest & co. show their immense songwriting and musical talent once again with folk songs created in three different styles for the three fictitious bands featured in the film. The songs aren't just parodies of the folk style - they really are folk music. Once you get past the inherent silliness of moments like the pause for an actual kiss in the middle of "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," it's easy to get hooked on the sweet and beautiful duets sung by Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catharine O'Hara). Though the songs by the New Main Street Singers are hilarious in the context of the movie, they are a little less listenable as real songs on a real CD. But the meat and potatoes of the collection are songs by The Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), including a great cover of The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," which wasn't included in the film. These songs may have been written for a grand bit of mockery, but you'd never guess it.
9. Cat Power, You Are Free (Matador)
Cat Power's Chan Marshall may not be the most skilled musician. And she might put on a pretty shoddy live show. But it's what she does with these handicaps that amazes. There's something magnetic in her raw, whispery voice, something that stretches beyond a pretty melody or an insightful lyric. The collection of songs that is You Are Free hangs as proof to her indefinable appeal. Plus it boasts backup vocals from both a children's chorus and Eddie Vedder in the same song.
10. The Delgados, Hate (Beggars Banquet)
On Hate, The Delgados continue to blend rock instruments with string arrangements that complement the gentle voices of tag-team singers Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock. Quite simply, the dramatic swells as in "All You Need Is Hate" and "All Rise" just make me smile. A great follow up to The Great Eastern.
11. Mogwai, Happy Songs For Happy People (Matador)
Note: To read the "What We Loved Most in 2003" feature straight through, click here to go directly to the next article.