Thomas Zimpleman recounts his favorite records of 2003.
The Year in Music (Thomas Zimpleman)
Maybe I’m just unperceptive, but I failed to pick up on an overarching trend in 2003; I’m not sensing a lot of unity amongst the underground, and I’m blithely unaware of any more popular trends to either react against or emulate (this, perhaps, indicates just how unaware: I have still not heard G-Unit). And while I might just be young and naďve, I find the lack of an overarching trend worth remarking upon. I have not had to write an awful lot of these sorts of wrap-ups, but the 2003 version seems to lack the requisite drama: no breakout style, no breakout city (or at least no new breakout city), and no breakout nation (with the possible exception of Canada, although the Canadian Invasion, such as it is, has flown below the radar).
A fairly quiet, fairly diverse year presents nothing worth complaining about, however. If 2003 lacked coherence, if it could be summarized in any of a number of ways, it also gave an awful lot of power to the listener. Again, my memory doesn’t stretch back that far, but I cannot remember a year when the power of individual choice was so great. There was nothing to be with, nothing to stay away from, and nothing that had to be listened to in secret. It was the Year When You Liked What You Like, and whether or not that was a completely new development, it was certainly a welcome development.
With nothing more to offer than my own personal opinion, then, I offer in no particular order some of the music I enjoyed in 2003.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Master and Everyone
This album struck me as Will Oldham’s most subdued effort – no upbeat faux-canonical folk, no cathartic rock – but also his least gothic. As great as Oldham’s work has been, it’s always lacked a consistent voice – at times, it was like the entire southern literary tradition set to acoustic strumming. On Master and Everyone, on the other hand, Oldham strikes the right balance of melancholy and aspiration. As a testament to the value of peace of mind, it’s also a useful reminder of the price that we pay to attain it.
The Zephyrs – A Year to the Day
While one could lob the usual shoegazing criticism at the Zephyrs – they are just using distortion to give phony atmosphere to fairly straightforward music – such criticism caves in to some fairly base cynicism. They construct the sort of minimalist country-tinged songs that would sound haunt the listener with or without the help of the distortion pedals. When those distortion pedals go to work, however, the songs become something else entirely – mumble voiced anthems whose ponderous beauty comes from the added white noise. There have been times when I was convinced that new shoegazers were just novice guitar players covering up their own humble abilities, but A Year to the Day reminded me that it can be more than that, too. We can, indeed, find a salient difference between a god-awful song buried under distortion and a pretty good song written to have distortion added.
Summer at Shatter Creek – Summer at Shatter Creek
While I enjoyed this album for its scattershot pop hooks, what kept me listening was its cracked compositional style: lyrics come in either long verse-less stretches or endlessly repeated single lines, melodies are played once and promptly forgotten, and the occasional sample springs up like a jack-in-the-box. Not entirely new, of course. “Home for the Holidays” certainly isn’t the first song in which the verses all seem to be composed to a different melody, when the chorus was apparently thrown in whenever the singer felt like belting it out, and whose fade-out splices a completely different song over the last minute, but when every verse is catchier than the last and the chorus becomes more enjoyable with each rendition, the originality of the material ceases to matter. Each track comes off as so innocently expressive – listen for the way they mix quotidian difficulties like being stuck in traffic with confessions about distance and isolation that will break your heart – that melodies and production tricks that might have sounded worn out were brand new once again.
TV On the Radio – Young Liars EP
As I am fairly skeptical of this latest wave of New York bands, it took me at least three listens before I really began to enjoy the Young Liars EP. I made the mistake of looking for a point of historical comparison, or, rather, I made the mistake of looking for a single point of historical comparison. There are dozens, and I could not toss off a reference to TV On the Radio like I could toss off a reference to some of their geographic brethren (“it’s a little like Television,” “it’s a lot like New Order”). But on my third run-through of “Blind,” the highbrow blend of lounge and rock finally made sense to me. True, Young Liars sounds a little half-assed at times, but then I suppose a band does not want to overplay its hand on a debut EP.
Stafrćnn Hákon – Skvettir Édik á Ref
Stafrćnn Hákon was completely unknown to me until Dusted’s Otis Hart asked me if I wanted to write a Destined feature about him. Subsequent to getting the album, however, a day has not gone by without listening to at least part of it. Skvettir Édik á Ref proudly displays the musical amateurism of its composer, but compensates for its simplicity by utilizing bizarre, haphazard guitar tunings that create clamoring ambient sounds for the album. Where previously those sorts of tunings might be part of an overpowering sonic blast – for what else could be the point of purposelessly keeping your guitar out of tune? - Stafrćnn Hákon uses them to put the listener at ease. Here’s to music you can fall asleep to.
Yo La Tengo – Summer Sun and Today is the Day!
YLT fans were lucky enough to get two releases this year, and they could not have been more different from one another. Summer Sun continued what And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out began, keeping the amplifiers in check, relying more upon songwriting than upon guitar freak-outs. Those who equated this new direction to middle-aged complacency failed to notice both how good the songs were and the courage required, in the days of the nascent garage revival, to turn down for a while. And then Today is the Day arrived, which restructured the quietest song on Summer Sun with a pounding drum beat and a healthy dose of distortion. This year established that Yo La Tengo can do just about anything.
Sufjan Stevens – Michigan
Maybe I like it so much because I’m a transplanted Midwesterner living far away on the west coast. Maybe I like it so much because after years of feeling insecure about the musical ability of my favorite bands I finally liked an album that could stand up to the criticism of even the most ill-tempered musicologist. Maybe autumn was just the right time to pick up such a gorgeously produced album, when it wouldn’t get lost amid the summer frenzy. I could go on all day like this, but I’ll just merely say that there’s only one good reason not to buy this year’s best album: you don’t want to spend the next six weeks of your life listening to it non-stop.
No doubt if I felt more with it I would come up with a different list. As it is, I’m skewing towards the personal and the sedate, which I suppose reveals something about my own taste. As far as I can tell, however, in 2003 just as in many other years, one’s own taste was really all that mattered. Thanks for reading; best wishes for the new year.
By Tom Zimpleman