Now Hear This

The Very Best Albums of 2003

Here's my number-one Desert-Island, All-Time, Top Five List: City Pages scribe Peter S. Scholtes's "Top Five Favorite Ways to Waste Precious Pre-Deadline Hours":


  1. Making lists;
  2. Really, there's just the one. Which leads to my number-one Desert-Island, All-Time Reason Why We Don't Need Desert-Island, All-Time Top Five Lists: Nick Hornby.

In Songbook, the king of the Top Five recalls the first time he heard Nelly Furtado's ridiculous hit "I'm Like a Bird" on the radio and fell in love with the song. In the doctor's office a short while later, he listened as four Afro-Caribbean girls sitting across from him sang the Furtado track together, instantly transforming the single into his favorite song of the year. "I try not to believe in God, of course," he writes, "but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double take."

In the face of such a sacred, subjective experience--something that you can't quantify in numerical terms--Top five lists seem counterintuitive and cold. I like to think that my own level of true musical obsession has progressed beyond such plebian rituals. So this year, out of respect to Hornby, I've resolved not to write a top five list. Nope, not me.

I'll write a Top 10, instead...


1. Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)

The gospel according to Outkast: God is a woman. You can tell 'cuz she uses her divine powers to make your girl lose her panties. That's neither the first nor last lesson in this double-disc book of revelations: The biggest epiphany wrought by this R & B-boy experiment is that, at a time when hip-hop records finance Best Buys across America, two top-selling rappers decided to make the rock album of the year. (Not nu-rock, not rockisback, not rock revival--to Andre 3000, a rose by any other name would smell like shit.) A bold move, maybe, but after 19 tracks of The Wiz-style wizardry, 20 tracks of southern-equator quakings, and a million references to dropped drawers between them, these ATLiens prove that they know what they're doing. By the time Big Boi's backup singers erupt with hallelujahs on "Church," you're ready to shout A-men! I mean A-lady.


2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell (Interscope)

Boys are bitches, girls are dicks, and Karen O. is somewhere in between, spitting out punk bravado with a song in her heart and a microphone stand between her legs. But no one, not even this burly broad, can push through a dozen tracks of crotch-ripping, ashtray-licking, kick-you-in-the-lipstick rock without collapsing somewhere along the way. Behind this cocksure Story of O lies the voice of uncertainty, the sound of a more vulnerable Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman whispering maybe maybe maybe. As the album winds down, Nicolas Zinner's guitar rings like a department store security alarm spilling out into the street, and O is the last clerk left in the building, crouching behind the check-out counter, calling out to anyone who hears her. At times, she's so fragile that her words disintegrate on her tongue before they hit the air. Be warned, though: If you run in to save her, she'll probably bite your hand off.


3. Postal Service, Give Up (Sub Pop)

The old saw that when laptop artists perform live, they're really downloading porn just isn't true--they're probably setting up Friendster profiles. For broken-hearted emo kids with no time to date, love is a business negotiation, advertised on and sold to the patron who'll eventually deliver the best proposal. This is the sound of romance in the digital age: Microsoft Windows' twinkling greeting, file-sharing networks' wind chime jingle, the percussive click of fingers on keyboards. You can hear it all on Give Up, as knob-twiddler Jimmy Tamborello turns the nameless, faceless aura of IDM into something more human. Complementing Tamborello's visions of electric youth, Ben Gibbard's fantastical lyrics turn everyday blog diaries into the stuff of Clark Gable films. "I've been waiting since birth to find a love that would look and sound like a movie," he croons. To give that screen dream a silver lining, this idealist just has to play himself.


4. FannyPack, So Stylistic (Tommy Boy)

Brought to you by the youngest Skittle-diddlers in electro, here's a "No Scrubs" for a generation whose age of innocence was lost with the Paris Hilton video. As 16-year-old Belinda Lovell,18-year-old Jessibel Suthiwong, and 22-year-old Cat Martell see it, the problem with today's society isn't that young girls feel objectified by the catcalls they get from the skoonky, the cranky, the foogly, the oogly. It's that the older dudes yelling "You sexy!" aren't trying hard enough to get their numbers. ("You better tighten up that game/There's a million other guys tryin' to get with us/And you all sound the same!") But this L'Trimm send-up isn't your typical rock-a-fella skank single: "Hey Mami!" parodies the clumsiness of grown-up sex instead of simply calling for streetside motherfuckers to seduce teenage fatherfuckers. In truth, these ladies find more pleasure in rhyming about bunnies over ColecoVision beats, making fun of their producer's funny shirt, or lambasting a middle-aged mallrat for having a "frontal wedgie." Then again, the long-term goals they proclaim in the album's intro could not be more adult: "OK, people, let's get famous. Let's get famous! LET'S! GET! FAMOUS!"

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