Top 10 Albums and Top 5 Concerts of 2003
by john wenzel
Top 10 Albums
1. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
The follow-up to their acclaimed debut was equally as buoyant and melodic, but admirably complex. James Mercer's wafer-thin voice and crisp guitar work sounds world-weary, as if his resolve was strengthened as his cynicism deepened. The songwriting is the most graceful synthesis of The Zombies, Paul Simon and Bowie I've ever heard, and these Albuquerque-by-way-of-Portland boys deserve every accolade they get.
2. Radiohead - Hail to the Thief (Capitol)
Hail to the Thief is an aural delicacy, a pompous and beautiful mixture of familiar and jarring, bringing Radiohead's career as close to full-circle as it's ever been. Vaguely political, often pretentious, and consistently radiant, Hail to the Thief is the most uplifting "sad" album of the year.
3. OutKast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
OutKast's ambitious double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, on which Andrew 3000 and Big Boi split their duties down the middle, is their most confounding and challenging to date, swirling together high-register sexxx jams, funky instrumentals, jazz-inflected pop and everything else good about the intersection of rhythm and melody. Let's hope it isn't their last.
4. Pinback - Offcell EP (Absolutely Kosher)
San Diego's dynamic duo released this teaser EP of sci-fi lovin', Police-rhythm-stealin', downcast math-pop to uniformly positive reviews and an enthusiastic cult base. If it's any indication of next year's Tough & Go full-length, they might as well just take the "best album of 2004" right now. The title track is tighter than your neighbor's babysitter, and twice as pretty.
5. Guided By Voices - Earthquake Glue/Hardcore UFOs (Matador)
A pile of ho-hum releases for Bob Pollard's Fading Captain Series and the sudden (and shady) departure of bassist Tim Tobias couldn't diminish the astoundingly good Earthquake Glue, or the release of GBV's third boxed set/career retrospective. Yes, the reigning kings of indie are a wholly different (and in many ways, better) band than they were ten years ago. But if Pollard can still write emotionally inspiring songs like "Secret Star" and "My Kind of Soldier" while getting hammered and playing kick-ass, three-hour shows every night, GBV are easily still my favorite band.
6. The Caribbean - History's First Know-It-All (Endearing/Tomlab)
This inscrutable collection of 21st century pop tunes fits snugly next to your Books and Blusom discs, succinctly grafting organic elements onto studio trickery. Their nimble, unpredictable drumming suggests jazz respectability even as crunchy acoustic guitars, watery keyboard flourishes and sub-basement bass lines circle like drugged birds, all coated in a thin layer of barely-in-key vocals. Melodic and experimental, dense and clever, it's everything you've been wanting out of your music, but were afraid to ask for.
7. Blusom - Go Slowly All the Way Round the Outside (Second Nature)
Ex-Acrobat Down and Maraca 5-0 members join forces for a left-field collection of bittersweet tunes that straddle indie and electro-ambience with wide legs. Vocalist/guitarist Mike Behrenhausen's resolute vulnerability (think Mac McCaughan in Berlin, exorcising his Thom Yorke demons with a bottle of absinthe) fits flawlessly with Jme White's deft swells of electronic dissonance, which recall Aphex Twin, Eno and the sound your car engine makes when it's about to die.
8. King of Prussia - Blood Rains Down on My Hometown (Best Friend)
Prolific Prussia, Pennsylvania-based home recorder Sam Henderson begs for a comparison to another prolific home recorder (we'll call him Uncle Bob), but ultimately follows his own path to indie radiance. Culled from over 400 songs, Blood Rains Down on My Hometown is instantly likable and endlessly listenable. As droll and unforgettable an album as you're likely to hear out of Pennsylvania this year.
9. The Strokes - Room on Fire (RCA)
Room on Fire is not quite as inspired as Is This It, but it's the only straightforward rock record of 2003 to possess the perfect balance of snarling apathy and drunken curiosity, careful melody and well-placed dissonance. Call them what you will, but these cologne-models in thriftstore frocks are never boring. Room on Fire consistently plugs me into the mainline of pop-rock exuberance in which bands like Guided By Voices and The Shins somehow manage to thrive.
10. Beth Gibbons - Out of Season (Sanctuary)
If you resist the urge to compare this to her rightfully lauded work with trip-hop pioneers Portishead, you'll realize what a subtle, accomplished album it is. Though pitted with lulls and uneven patches, the standout tracks ("Mysteries," "Sand River") are the best I've heard from Gibbons, reclaiming her voice from intellectual potheads and handing it over to the dark-folk orchestral set.
Top Five Concerts
1. TV on the Radio, The Larimer Lounge, Denver, 11/11/03
TV on the Radio should have been the headliners during their first Denver appearance. This Brooklyn quintet absolutely exploded onstage, humbling the audience and making every act I've seen at this venue just seem woefully inadequate. Art-damaged guitars and relentlessly precise drumming deftly combined themselves with soulful vocals and polyrhythmic bass to create riveting, wholly original rock music. If only their recorded work was this engaging.
2. Beth Gibbons, The Ogden, Denver, 10/19/03
Gibbons' post-Portishead songs find her experimenting with pseudo-orchestral arrangements while retaining her riveting, measured vocals. Her appearance in Denver had more emotional resonance than all the shows I saw in 2003. Despite the slow pace of her recent solo album with Rustin Man, the songs were spellbinding in a live setting, as Gibbons' voice bellowed serenely from her tiny, chainsmoking head.
3. Radiohead, Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, Colo. 8/26/03
Stunning, moody electro-rock driven home by an amazing performance at the most enchanting venue in North America. Thom Yorke was positively possessed as the spazzed-out elf with the angelic falsetto and tragic dance moves. Nothing comes close to the eerie silence throughout the crowd while Yorke sang "Karma Police" a cappella. Fucking brilliant.
4. The Shins, The Gothic, Denver, 11/12/03
Their Denver concert in support of Chutes Too Narrow improved significantly upon their last appearance (The Bluebird Theater, 4/01). Leader James Mercer exhibited a confidence and grace that enhanced both the intensity of the songs and the audience's reception. Their new multi-instrumentalist/guitarist is an excellent addition as well.
5. Guided By Voices, Westword Music Fest, Denver, 6/21/03
Just another festival appearance? Not when GBV are in town. This all-day showcase was underwhelming in its offerings, but GBV capped it righteously with a riotous two and a half hour performance that drew heavily from Earthquake Glue. High point: Pollard's redneck tourmate "The White Buffalo" taking a seven-foot dive onto the concrete while playing air guitar to "My Kind of Soldier." They stopped the show, scraped him off the concrete and continued playing. Soldiers indeed!
Note: To read the "What We Loved Most in 2003" feature straight through, click here to go directly to the next article.