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 Nerve.com 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!"

 

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.

 

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Animal Collective, Here Comes the Indian (Paw Tracks); Calla, Televise (Arena Rock); Cat Power, You Are Free (Matador); Glass Candy, Love Love Love (Troubleman); Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak (Lookout!); Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow (Load); Greg Ashley, Medicine Fuck Dream (Birdman); The Notwist, Neon Golden (Domino); Quintron, Are You Ready for an Organ Solo? (Three-One-G); The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop).

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