Now Hear This

The Very Best Albums of 2003


5. The Rapture, Echoes (DFA/Strummer/Universal)

This is your last exit from Brooklyn. After Williamsburg's fever broke, the electroclash queens packed up for Manhattan and the less-than-famous post-punk groups moved back to the Midwest. But the Rapture are still trying to break out. You can hear the claustrophobia in their doom-disco beats: the Cure blasting through the wall from your neighbor's studio apartment, the headphones-clad technophile humming next to you on the subway, the bassline from a Gang of Four song creeping up through the floor from the bar downstairs. Without the space to move forward, or even move around, the past has no future. So the retro-fitted club kids check their watches: When the hands stand still, they move their feet instead.


6. The Microphones, Mount Eerie (K Records)

It begins with the end of everything. "I know you're out there," a solitary voice calls out on the first track of Mount Eerie, but the only soulmate he's searching for is Death. This is the allegory of Phil Elvrum, a concept album in which a man born at the bottom of a mountain fears the Reaper all the way to the top. "Do you really think there's anybody out there?" challenges the Greek chorus in his head--and then the music shows you just how "out there" anybody can be. Wind chimes crash, trumpets blare, drums beat faster as vocals warble like records spinning backward. In this psychodrama session for the ears, K Records label impresario Calvin Johnson plays the Voice of the Universe, which makes you wonder if the real swan song here is for the Olympia music scene. The mythic narrative delivers an indie rock epic about K, which never sounded so alive. But both stories end as all stories do--the Reaper wins.


7. A.R.E. Weapons, A.R.E. Weapons (Rough Trade)

They spoke to the oracle, consulted with Ravi Shankar, read the bodhisattvas' texts, summoned Timothy Leary from beyond the grave, and ultimately discovered the true meaning of all existence: "Life was meant to be awesome!" Okay, so maybe they just smoked a ton of pot. But if these New York punks aren't exactly philosopher kings, there is a little of the street poet in them. These are the Kids in America, sprung fully formed from Larry Clark's noggin, spouting off Jim Carroll sermons from the arcades on Avenue C while their sludgy new wave synths trickle down through the gutters into the high school id. And after the basement party explosion of screeching guitars, shouted choruses, and Space Invader loops, the only thing left in your dizzy brain is the last thought of Casper the Friendly Ghost: Jesus Christ, what happened?


8. Broadcast, Haha Sound (Warp)

The ha ha here ain't so funny, but it is a little peculiar. When Broadcast's Trish Keenan blows these twin syllables into your ear, she extends each vowel so luxuriously and with such a supernatural cadence that you don't care if the next words out of her mouth are hey nonny nonny. Keenan's vocals jangle as softly as silver bracelets on the wrist, while music-box synths mirror her murmur with a shivery reflection--if you touch them, they'll blur into a watercolor haze. Such Krautrock-sanctioned aloofness should ooze like coolant, but the bursts of feedback disrupting each delicate melody rush all the blood to your head. When the album is over, you can still feel your pulse in your ears.


9. The Books, The Lemon of Pink (Tomlab)

Blipworld. Fakegrass. Speedblues. Chamberclick. Eccentrock. Country and Eastern. The Books use a lot of fancy language to describe their "post-anything" music, but after hearing this album for the first time, I only found one word appropriate: Huh?!? Five bazillion listening sessions later, I'm waxing jargonistic myself, trying to piece together the various elements of their, um, absurdist folktronica. String sections babble like a gaggle of hens while plunderphonic vocals project their non-sequiturs into a collage of electro-acoustic hooks and ancient Indian melodies. It's like encountering a wall of television sets and trying to watch every program at once. Yet somewhere in this aural math equation lies something more than just an experimentalist's goof. I still can't quite say what that "something" is. But it feels like bohemian rhapsody.


10. William Basinski, Disintegration Loops II (2062)

The world doesn't end with a bang or a whimper--it unravels slowly with the crisp paper sound of a Chinese yo-yo held upside down. And when it finally comes undone, William Basinski will be there to capture it. Two years ago, just before September 11, the New York sound artist rediscovered a collection of analog tape loops he had mixed together from samples of shortwave radio static back in 1982. When the Twin Towers fell, Basinski was in his Manhattan apartment, digitally processing the magnetic tape, which had begun to disintegrate due to its age. Playing those fragile compositions back, he discovered an eerie meditation on the ephemeral relationship between music and the mind. Just as each sad strophe expires, it loops back upon itself like a memory that can't be removed--proof that some things take on permanent significance only in death. That the only way to preserve something is to let it break down completely.

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