erasing clouds

The Best Music of 2003

by paul jaissle

Most people find it terribly silly to catalogue one's favorite albums of the year. But it seems just as silly to me to make a list of resolutions that will be abandoned mid-February. So once again I pull out all the discs I bought this year and loose sleep for a few weeks just so I can annoy a hand-full of people who can't figure out the big deal about all of this. Enjoy.

1. Songs:Ohia, The Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian)

Jason Molina has proven himself to be one of the best songwriters working today with his past offerings under the Songs moniker, but this is a different beast entirely (obviously, due to the decision to change the name to The Magnolia Electric Co.). No stranger to sonic experimentation, Molina has upped the ante with this outing by surrounding himself with musicians who don't play along but rather build his often skeletal songs into huge sweeping arrangements that feel just as passionate and intimate as a hushed, solo performance. Even when the lead vocal duties are handed over to someone else, the band still functions as an extension of Molina and treats his words with a level of reverence they obviously deserve. The spine-chilling slide guitar intro on 'Farewell Transmission' and even the Neil Young & Crazy Horse guitar thunder on 'John Henry Split My Heart' only add to the cold precision of the words they frame: their subtlety and nuance is preserved even amid the increased volume. The is not a major shift in style, but a natural evolution of artistic expression: a humbling and fascinating achievement that will comfort, haunt, and inspire for years. Amazing.

2. The Darkness, Permission To Land (Atlantic)

Based solely on the number of listens I gave this disc, it may rank as one of the best rock albums ever. I'm tired of defending it: even if you simply tolerate rock and roll, there is no reason Permission to Land shouldn't be blaring from your stereo on a regular basis. A perfect mix of 70's hard rock majesty, power-pop sheen, and arena-sized guitar heroics all done up in a pair of tight spandex trousers just begging to come rolling into your town, rock your ass off and then fuck your girlfriend. Are they being serious? Is it simply to be ironic? Who gives a shit? Certainly not the band themselves. Hell, they are probably too busy doing blow off some chick's ass to notice they have created the best hard rock album in ages.

3. Grandaddy, Sumday (V2)

Sometimes it is evident that you are witnessing a band at their best: at a pinnacle moment in their career that will be looked upon later as not only important to their history, but as a major event in the musical landscape of the time. Sumday is such a record. Grandaddy have not only delivered on the promises made with their previous efforts, but improved on their already winning formula. This is indie rock at its best and most effective: experimental yet traditional, catchy yet off-kilter. Jason Lytle's songs are so effortlessly charming and timeless that is sometimes seems impossible to remember a world before Grandaddy. Certainly future generations will feel an understandable envy toward us who were around to witness this part of the Grandaddy legacy. Clearly a band on the rise, off on their merry way toward something great.

4. The Decemberists, Her Majesty, The Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars)

Sure they sing about pirates and chimbly sweeps, but there's a lot more to the Decemberists than their high school drama club vibe. Her Majesty is a record head and shoulders above its predecessor, Castaways and Cutouts. While that album showcased frontman Colin Meloy's creative writing course take on Neutral Milk Hotel's psych-folk style, Her Majesty finally reveals that the band can make unique, thoughful arrangements for Meloy to lay out his tales of high seas adventure and romantically involved soldiers. Just listen to the perfect Brit-pop vibe of 'Billy Liar,' the laid back groove of 'Los Angeles, I'm Yours,' or the sweeping 'I Was Meant For The Stage.' Her Majesty is an album that reveals a new sound, a new idea, a new vibe with each listen. The Decemberists not only deserve your attention, they've earned it.

5. Sufjan Stevens Greetings From Michigan (Asthmatic Kitty/Sounds Familyre)

Apparently Sufjan Stevens is planning on basing an album on each state in the union. Well, if any of the other 49 resulting discs are even close to this, it would be an worth the effort. With Michigan (his home state), Stevens not only manages to drop references to various cities and locations, he is able to capture the spirit of the state itself: both the serene beauty of Tahquamenon Falls and the bleak concrete prisons of Detroit and Flint. The songs range from the slow, plaintive tale of a dying mother on Romulus, to the jazzy, exuberant Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (imagine a less manic Danielson Familie) all while retaining a sense of respect and affection for the state. Do you have to be from Michigan to understand this music? No, but it's hard to imagine anyone not from the state being able to nail it so well musically.

6. Paul Westerberg, Come Feel Me Tremble (Vagrant)

No point restating the greatness of the Replacements here: we all know they were a great band ahead of the time. But in case his Replacements work didn't prove it to you, Come Feel should provide ample evidence that Westerberg is one of Rock's greatest songsmiths. Finally cleaning up his act and far away from major labels, Westerberg is able to bang out song after song in his basement (he put out both solo and Grandpaboy discs this year and last year, and his next disc, Folker, is due in the spring). The first few tracks find him trying his hand at Keith Richards riffs and Stonesy swagger. But, it's the softer tunes like 'What A Day (For A Night),' 'Never Felt Like This Before,' and 'Meet Me Down The Alley' that show his songwriting chops. The highlight, however, are the two dramatically different readings of 'Crackle & Drag,' a song which recounts the suicide death of poet Sylvia Plath. Come Feel Me Tremble may not be perfect, but it is a perfect example of an American great at work, warts and all.

7. Guided By Voices, Earthquake Glue (Matador)

Without any major event surrounding its release, Earthquake Glue runs the risk of being forgotten as simply another Guided By Voices album. That would be a shame since this album sees Bob Pollard at his closest approximation of the Who's Next-era arena rock he's been striving for since Mag Earwig! Although not as sonically diverse as last year's Universal Truths and Cycles, the songs are more developed and sound more like full band efforts rather than simply more tunes effortlessly thrown out by Pollard. While 'My Kind of Soldier' and 'Useless Inventions' are standard GbV fare, 'Dead Cloud' and 'Dirty Water' prove that Pollard still has some new tricks left up his sleeve. It's true that the immediate satisfaction of past albums may not be present, but the longer tracks do deserve your attention because they pay off big time on repeated listenings. Besides, it's hard to imagine anyone not loving the bass-driven simplicity of 'The Best of Jill Hives' or throwing up a fist during the power chord thunder of 'Secret Star.'

8. Cobra Verde, Easy Listening (MuscleTone)

The fact that they briefly served as Bob Pollard's back-up band during GbV's Mag Earwig! Period seems to matter little to the band now. They have moved on, and in the process developed a knack for big, glam soaked power pop tunes. 'Riot Industry' may be one of the most perfect opening tracks in recent memory with it's big power chord riffs and fade-out solo by guest player J Mascis. The band feels equally at home in both the Bowie-flavored 'To Your Pretty Face' and the Cheap Trick-y 'Whores,' all the while placing enough mid-Ohio smokestack grit into everything to keep it interesting and not derivative. It's enough to make you pull out all your old Urge Overkill discs (and yes, that is a good thing).

9. (Smog), Supper (Drag City)

Much like fellow Chicago musician Jeff Tweedy, Bill Callahan is able to use both traditional song styles and structures as well as more experimental sounds. On Supper, Callahan has moved away from the lo-fi experimental feel of earlier albums and embraced the full arrangements that defined his Red Apple Falls and Knock Knock material. While the lush pedal steel and piano touches may make the whole affair seem too slick and easy listening, they actually allow Callahan's words to shine. "When they make the movie of your life/ they're going to have to ask you/ to do your own stunts," sings Callahan in his signature baritone, "because nobody nobody nobody/ could pull off the same shit as you/ and still come out alright." Probably my favorite lyric of the year.

10. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)

After feeling completely unimpressed by the Shins' debut album, this album was quite a surprise. James Mercer clearly has got his pop songwriting chops down, and the band is able to construct the perfect arrangements to capture his slightly skewed take on pop song structure. All the Beach Boys comparisons in the world cannot capture the perfection the Shins created here: all the familiar elements one would expect from a pop record are here, but so are enough twists and turns to keep the whole thing interesting. You'd be hard pressed to find a better example of the sort of post-modern pop music indie rock has always striven for than the gorgeous 'Saint Simon.' Finally, I get what all the fuss was about with their first disc, but Chutes improves on all of it ten-fold. I'll certainly be looking forward to more from this band soon.

11. The New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador)

More power-pop perfection from the indie rock supergroup. Comes off more like a greatest hits collection than an actual album due to the sheer consistency of each song's catchiness, but that can hardly be a fault. However, I still found myself skipping right to the Dan Bejar penned songs, specifically 'Ballad of a Comeback Kid,' which features the best Meat Loaf-inspired breakdown of the year (and probably ever).

12. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (ATO)

Given its 70 minute plus run time, listening My Morning Jacket's big label debut is like running a marathon: it may seem impossible to get through, but it's worth all the time invested. Obviously easier to take in chunks than as a whole, the disc contains some golden moments. The shimmering opener 'Mahgeetah,' the sleepy ballad 'I Will Sing You Songs,' and the driving 'Run Thru' are all highlights. Aside from a few cheesy horn overdubs, the major label makes no difference here, and something new is noticed with each listen. Probably the only Allmann Brothers inspired disc I'll openly endorse.

13. The Natural History, Beat Beat Heartbeat (Star Time)

Yet another New York combo singing about sex and relationships over short, catchy post-punk arrangements. But the Natural History avoid the lazy Buzzcocks/Television comparisons that met the Strokes and their ilk. Here, things are kept simple and driving but never predictable or overly familiar: guitarist/singer Max Tepper keeps things more punchy and nervous than his contemporaries. A pretty flawless debut: 11 songs in 28 minutes. Perfect.

14. Radiohead, Hail To The Thief (Capitol)

Who would have thought the new Radiohead album would be met with such indifference? I mean, who would have expected them to make an album that sounds (surprise!) just like Radiohead? Sure, Hail certainly doesn't rock like OK Computer or isn't a grand statement like Kid A, but is more immediately gratifying than Amnesiac. Aside from a few glitchy misfires like 'Backdrifts' and 'The Gloaming,' this is Radiohead functioning as a band once again. Even if Hail isn't the grand artistic statement you were expecting, it's still a great reminder of why we liked Radiohead so much in the first place. Very few tracks this year have rocked quite as hard as '2+2=5' and the incredible 'Myxomatosis.'

15. Damien Jurado, Where Shall You Take Me? (Secretly Canadian)

Although not as instantly enjoyable as his Rehearsals For Departure, this year's Damien Jurado is the most haunting he has done. The influence of Nebraska-era Springsteen may be a little obvious, but it is genuine. Jurado has always been a master storyteller, and his lyrics and imagery are in top form here. Steeped in the tradition of American folk songs, Where Shall You Take Me? conjures images of dust bowls and lost highways with songs that haunt and demand to be re-listened to.

R.I.P:Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, Wesley Willis, Warren Zevon

Note: To read the "What We Loved Most in 2003" feature straight through, click here to go directly to the next article.

Issue 19, January 2004

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