In a year of heated political debate, war, and the loss of too many great artists, music was important again, getting to dance and think in equal measure.
The End Of Apathy (Jason Dungan)
2003: A year of war, economic stagnation, and political uncertainty. Under the “leadership” of G.W. Bush, America continues to plunge towards mass-cultural self-destruction and diplomatic isolation, and the Middle East is more unstable than one would have thought possible only a few years ago. And yet, and yet. The American left has been roused from its apathetic torpor, and the comforts of the latte-90s are slowly giving way to a sense of artistic immediacy: the feeling that exciting things are happening, and what’s more, that times like this demand a response. Whether that response is directly political or simply an exhortation to dance seemed unimportant: action itself felt necessary again. Should music be political? Is dancing a political act all on its own? No one knows, but the culture’s thinking again, and music mattered like it hadn’t in quite some time.
1. The White Stripes – Elephant (V2)
Avoid this album at your own risk. There were quite a few amazing records this year, but for my money this is the best, hands down. Forget the magazine covers, color-scheme-and-sibling gimmickry, this is simply a great, thundering rock record, perfectly designed to hit your brain’s pleasure centers in ways both familiar and unexpected. Freewheeling, noisy, and funny, Elephant obsesses over sexual perversity, squirrels, and good old-fashioned love, at once both totally sincere and coldly distanced. It’s also a record about the perfect combinations of drums, voice, and guitar, with moments of simple, devastating invention that feel like the first time you’ve ever heard a rock song.
2. Black Dice – Live Performance: The Garage, London
My first Black Dice show was a disappointment. I had heard a lot about the band and I was expecting big things when I came to the Garage that night. What I got was a lethargic, wanky dirge with a few interesting sounds that mostly amounted to a busy psychedelic soup. Their September show at New York’s Knitting Factory was another story. Perhaps they were pumped for the hometown crowd, or, more likely, the London show was merely an aberration. At the Knitting Factory, the band reached an ideal I hadn’t even imagined, an hour-long piece of indescribable sound, both brutal and unnervingly complex. At one point, after a long, slow build with fragile electronic squiggles and guitar, the band suddenly unleashed a furious, impenetrable wall of noise. Both extremely painful and surprisingly complex, the sound was both heard and felt, its tones inseparable from the sheer physical experience of the noise. The set was perfectly pitched, its dynamics guided intuitively and expertly by the band through an enormously diverse and satisfying set. It’s still possible to make music that sounds like nothing else.
3. Matador Records
The venerable New York label had such a big year that it almost overshadowed its individual bands. Old favorites like Yo la Tengo, Cat Power, and Steven Malkmus put out some of their best work in 2003, and recent signings like Dead Meadow and Interpol pointed towards an eclectic but no less exciting future. Both the veteran bands and the label itself have managed to survive the indie rock boom-and-bust, taking risks to stay vital and maintaining high standards.
Yo la Tengo released a host of recordings in 2003, including the full-length Summer Sun. The album reflected Yo la’s interest in jazz, and despite grumbling from guitar-missing naysayers, it was an exciting extension of the band’s sound. Summer Sun was their most subtle and delicate release yet, and repeated listens proved it to be one of the band’s most satisfying: a nuanced, nimble pop record that actually bests their other quiet-fest, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. A recent set of shows with Sun Ra’s Arkestra showed the band to be in fine form, relentlessly experimenting on stage without losing the balance between noise-pop, free-jazz, and folk that made them so beloved to begin with.
Guided By Voices returned to the Matador stable last year, after recording two albums for a quasi-major which were generally agreed to be disappointments. Coming back to Matador seems to have sparked a sense of rejuvenation within the group, and this year’s Earthquake Glue was proof: a record full of Robert Pollard’s best songs in years. GBV also released a fantastic greatest-hits record, several EPs, and a massive box set (their third). Simply more great rock from a band who have recovered from a mid-career tailspin to put out some of their best material.
Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, has been on the sidelines for the last few years, allowing our fervent interest to almost die out. Almost. Her new record, and a series of performances were powerful reminders of why she was so important in the first place. You Are Free is probably her best record, an aching, bluesy album that mixes Talking Heads-style rock and gorgeous, painfully beautiful piano ballads. Marshall’s shows have been as mesmerizing and frustrating as ever, proving her undeniable star power while simultaneously undercutting her enormous gifts. Almost certainly a genius, if that word means anything anymore.
Finally, triumphantly, Steven Malkmus sheds the weight of Pavement and makes an album on par with Crooked Rain or Wowee Zowee. While his first solo LP was solid, and had patches of brilliance, Pig Lib simply rocks for its duration, erasing memories of the lethargy of Pavement’s late period. Here, Malk embraces his strengths: wry lyrics, softly shuffling pop, and a gift for creating perfect melodies. He also displays some new tricks, most notably his jones for lengthy Eagles-style guitar solos. Although always an inventive player, nothing really prepares for the full-on guitar madness of Pig Lib, an album that sounds very little like Pavement and is all the better for it. The band’s tour showed Malkmus to be relaxed, slightly drunk, and simply having fun, which didn’t seem to be the case in Pavement’s final days. Not a return to form, but rather a confident new direction. If you can, get your hands on Pig Lib’s bonus EP, which is worth it simply for the track “Dynamic Calories”. A chooglin’, bouncy pop song concerning a fictional 80s band of the same name, it features references to “wet wet drums” and “angular chops”, while the band does its best new wave impression, complete with actual wet-sounding drums.
4. Bob Dylan – Self-Portrait (Columbia) / The Rolling Stones – Goat’s Head Soup (Virgin)
Although a fan of both Bob and the Stones, I was largely unfamiliar with these two records until I stumbled upon them in a friend’s old vinyl collection. They are both quite minor releases in the artists’ canons, especially Self-Portrait, which many consider to be one of Dylan’s worst. But on a closer listen, Self-Portrait is the sound of someone dealing with artistic and personal pressures by simply refusing to acknowledge them. Instead, Dylan chose to record a batch of old cover songs and some country-influenced originals. There are definitely some duds, like Bob’s warbling rendition of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer”, but much of the record is a low-key, breezy pleasure, featuring some of Dylan’s most beautiful tunes. In your rush to pick up Dylan’s newly-released remasters, don’t forget little albums like this one.
Although known primarily for the hit “Angie”, Goat’s Head Soup is actually one of the Stones’ more well-rounded efforts, recorded (presumably) in a haze of pot smoke in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973. The band would soon become something more of a corporation than a group of musicians, but on Soup, they sound confident and even thoughtful, detailing the wreckage wrought from their unique take on the rock and roll lifestyle. Overdoses, lost loves (often to another band member), and violence echo throughout the album, which rolls by like one long hangover. Guitars are few and far between on the record, the Stones instead preferring a dense mesh of keyboards, horns, and piano. Talented outside players, such as Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins, give the album a rich sense of feeling that cuts deeper for its subtlety. “100 Years Ago” is easily one of the best things the band has recorded, a keyboard-propelled tale of loss with Jagger at his languorous, melancholy best; “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” is a passionate and prescient indictment of police violence that sounds more than a little like Quasi. The record is the sound of a band with nowhere left to look except at each other, and the strange life they’ve made for themselves.
5. Superchunk – Cup of Sand (Merge)
A band that has always been about singles, even as it began to really craft its albums. Short, sharp, dense expressions of emotion were always the band’s strength, and this double-album comp is full of such gems, as well as the band’s more outré experiments. Synth-pop, full-on hardcore, and strange covers fill this enormously enjoyable group of songs which detail the band’s arc from cuddly punkers to makers of sophisticated guitar pop. A good reminder that a band doesn’t need to radically alter its sound to stay interesting; sometimes music suggests its own path.
6. Quasi – Hot Shit (Touch and Go)
You know Quasi, that band that sings about being depressed. Long known as the chief deadpan sad-sack of the indie world, Sam Coomes changed tack with Hot Shit and put out a musically diverse, passionate album about personal confusion and political disenchantment. Relying more heavily on guitar than on previous albums, Coomes sounds reenergized, giving some of his best performances to date. Live this year, the band was fluid and amazingly light on its feet, clearly having a blast making so much noise. Quasi may have mapped out a very specific terrain, but their razor-sharp pop has a firm emotional core, which gives their songs a weight that goes far beyond their initial pop rush.
7. Loose Fur – Loose Fur (Drag City)
I almost missed out on this record, just picking it up recently. A minor pop masterpiece, the record seamlessly melds the divergent aesthetics of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Jim O’Rourke into a blissful entanglement of guitar beauty and warped electronics. Glen Kotchke’s percussion is perfectly unbalanced, giving the record a wobbly sense of propulsive dreaminess. Instead of clashing, Tweedy’s and O’Rourke’s sensibilities draw out each other’s strengths, resulting in bizarre yet affecting songs, even when the lyrics include references to “urine on cold slate”. The playing is wonderfully loose, casually taking the songs through different states and tones, pushing discordant elements without ever losing the balance of the track. In a way, the record sounds like what we expected from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a batch of songs that retain their pop smarts while quietly destroying every formal element of songcraft. By comparison, YHF is a rather conventional album, and one hopes that Wilco’s next recording pushes things even further.
8. Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy
On a recent car trip, I discovered an enormous cachet of cassettes from the 1970s and early 1980s at my old college’s radio station. Having forgotten to bring any music, I bundled a handful of the tapes into the car for the journey home. One of these cassettes was Steely Dan’s Countdown To Ecstasy, released in 1973. Never having been that much of a fan, I nonetheless plugged in the tape and had a revelation. The album is rolling, bumping, white jazz-funk, an indictment of coked-up L.A. that makes being coked-up sound like demented fun. While it’s true that there is an air of icy session precision, the playing still feels relatively loose; this is a couple of years before they turned truly robotic. It’s a strange piece, with songs about partying that possess a dark, hollow core, and a sound that still feels completely out of its time. What lingers is the precise fusion of the different players, and of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan’s nuanced gifts for arrangement and airtight harmonies. Put this on at a party and watch it blow up.
9. Radiohead – Hail To The Thief (Capitol)
Although it’s somewhat predictable for rock critics to salivate over every note dropped by the Oxford band, with this one they’ve earned it. Not the full return to rock that Thom Yorke hinted at, but rather a full synthesis of almost everything the band has done. Songs like “There, There” confidently deploy every trick in Radiohead’s book, creating music that is achingly beautiful, complex, disturbing, and toe-tapping, all at once. It’s the sound of a band relaxing (a little), the sound especially of Thom Yorke having the confidence to simply plough forward, whatever the consequences. The record also has the nice effect of recontextualizing the “difficult” Kid A and Amnesiac albums, which with the passing of time seem delicate and sonically thrilling, rather than awkward or obtuse.
10. Silkworm – You Are Dignified (Touch and Go)
Instead of showing off their record collection or trying to impress with obscurities, Silkworm instead chose to “honor” some of its peers with the stripped-down covers on this acoustic stopgap. Partly, the songs work because of the left-field approach: no one, except maybe Steve Albini, has ever considered doing an acoustic Shellac song, especially “Prayer To God”, a depraved tale of sexual spite and murderous revenge. That the song transcends its perversity and functions as a distilled purge is a credit to Silkworm’s performance. Other gems include “Let’s Kill Saturday Night”, the best song about working-class alienation ever. A band that functions much like a Minimalist sculptor, Silkworm can floor you with a couple of notes; nothing more is needed.
11. John Coltrane – Ascension (Impulse!)
If you don’t already have it, try to pick up the Impulse! double-cd reissue, which contains both takes of Ascension, as well as Om, Kulu Se Mama, and Selflessness. Although I’m well aware of the “classic” status of these recordings, my immersion into them this year was a good reminder of how classics need to be brought back into our ears from time to time, lest we forget why they were so important in the first place. Both takes of Ascension are dazzling explosions of sound, wonderfully intricate and unpredictable. For once, cd is better than vinyl, since the forty-minute piece can be heard without having to flip the record over half way through. Although the washes of sound, sonic experimentation, and group dynamic are well-known influences on just about everybody, this still sounds fresh and urgent. And, in our current political climate, there’s something incredibly powerful about hearing music made in another complex time, when war was on everyone’s mind and words sometimes weren’t enough. A truly transcendent piece of music.
12. Neil Young – On The Beach (Reprise)
Although real Young-heads will have a musty vinyl copy already, its release, along with three other previously vinyl-only records, reaffirms the brilliance of his ’70s work and brings it to a wider audience. Generally accepted to be the “best” of the unreleased albums, On The Beach is a stunner: a woozy, broken, sloppy guitar record that charts the demise of Young’s romantic notions of love, self, and California. Forming part of the “trilogy” completed by Zuma and Tonight’s The Night, Young here is both embittered and brilliantly energized, well-aware that if he doesn’t change himself he’ll be sucked into the sinking mass of celebrity-obsessed, coked-up California. The passion, inspired playing, and emotional honesty of this record suggest a path for Young’s escape from the darkness of that time, which took quite a few of his musical collaborators, including guitarist Danny Whitten and the Band’s Rick Danko, who plays on this record and would later die of a drug overdose.
13. The Rapture – Echoes (Strummer)
Although not the best album EVER, I dare you not to like it. Generously over-hyped and delayed by label troubles to the point that the record is behind the curve the Rapture themselves helped to originate, the band’s debut is still a winning, snotty dance album that seamlessly blends all that was sleazy and fun about the 80s. Luke Jenner can’t sing to save his life, but then, who could back in the day? The band is tight and inventive, the DFA are undoubtedly gifted producers, and the songs mix seamlessly like one long party mix, full of white-boy funk and scrawly, scratchy guitars. There’s also the necessary romantic yearning sprinkled throughout, as well as some nice 4/4 techno beats. The question, however, remains: when, exactly, is Falco going to put out his comeback album?
14. Bonny “Prince” Billy – Master and Everyone (Palace/Drag City)
No longer creeping us out with songs about incest and errant semen, Will Oldham has instead turned to increasingly stripped-down meditations on intimacy between a man and a woman. Emotionally open to the point of either embarrassment or potential insincerity, Oldham now appears to be playing a much more subtle game, if he’s playing one at all. The songs here are intimate, very quiet, and haunting, consisting of his voice, a guitar, a bass, and occasional vocal accompaniment. It’s a stunning, deceptively simple album, sad and achingly beautiful. His recent shows were just as remarkable, the work of someone deeply in touch with his own peculiar muse.
15. Black Eyes – Black Eyes (Dischord)
D.C. remains on the map. During a generally strong year for Dischord, Black Eyes have jumped out with a jaw-dropping record that raises the bar for every post-hardcore band today. Propelled by two bass players, deliriously intense drumming, and a clutch of singers that sound like a cross between Mike D and Ian MacKaye, Black Eyes have nearly reinvented punk rock in the space of one album. As fiercely political as it is defiantly weird, the record burrows itself into your brain and refuses to leave. And these guys are probably all 17.
16. Ludacris and Chingy, featuring Snoop Dogg – “Holiday Inn”
Although in some ways, it’s merely a tired rehash of every hip-hop cliché of the last decade, it’s also, perhaps, the music’s apotheosis. Taking cues from Snoop, now the cuddly uncle of hip-hop, Chingy and Ludacris slur their way through a shorty-filled romp at the local motel. Dirty, hedonistic and completely excessive, the song encapsulates the good-times narcissism that has so deeply pervaded hip-hop these last few years. But with bands like Outkast making such boldly experimental albums, songs like “Holiday Inn” just might be on the wane, and perhaps we should enjoy them before they fade away, because every party has to end some time.
17. Eleventh Dream Day – Prairie School Freakout/Wayne EP (Thrill Jockey)
Troubled by the usual label hassles throughout their career, Eleventh Dream Day could have easily been forgotten or buried in post-punk’s history if their records weren’t so damn good. They’ve reissued the one that got them so much attention in the first place, before Atlantic bumbled their releases and bands like Built to Spill even existed. If you were too young (as I was) to hear this the first time out, get it now, especially if SST-era Dinosaur and Husker Du are your thing. Thick, extremely guitar-heavy jams populate the record, which betrays the half-drunk excitement with which it was conceived. There’s real majesty here, a band full of big ideas who were struggling brilliantly with how to bring them to life.
18. Portastatic – Summer Of The Shark (Merge)
Maybe this is the album of the year. A complex, wide-ranging concept album about the emotional wreckage created by September 11, Summer Of The Shark avoids mawkish sentimentality and instead details the human experience of sudden tragedy. While Mac McCaughan has been refining his songwriting for years, his lyrics usually verge on the oblique, opting for vivid imagery and allusion rather than pointed references. Here, however, McCaughan confronts the aftermath of the attacks head-on, without losing a sense of the universal in the process. He tells stories of people who are afraid to come outside, who dream of the Hudson burning, regular people touched by unimaginable events in ways they don’t fully comprehend. Wisely, he doesn’t try to write an elegy for firefighters or a ballad for one of their widows. Their experiences don’t belong to us, and a pop song is perhaps the worst way to approach such things, as Alan Jackson has shown. But we all know what it was like to try and call people in New York that day, and it’s here that the album situates itself, in the dread felt when those we care about are threatened. Of course, the lyrics can’t really work without the music, and McCaughan hasn’t neglected this aspect of the record, producing complex, lush sounds throughout. It’s a beautiful album, combining the acoustic influence of earlier Portastatic with electronics and even some Springsteen-style rock. In a year when the President talks about waging war to “save lives”, it’s important to remember that death leaves a void, one that no amount of flag-waving can fill.
By Jason Dungan