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The Best Records of 2003

From world fusion to gangsta hip-hop to Broadway-bound folk princesses, our critics sift through the year's finest.

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ROB HARVILLA

GRANDADDY
Sumday
The look: Insomniac lumberjacks. The gear: Acres of beat-up garage sale keyboards. The voice: Jason Lytle's Nilla Wafer-thin falsetto rasp. The result: pulverizingly gorgeous space-rock, an eight-days-unshaven grandiosity that nails the great nonmilitary spiritual crisis of our time -- the battle between the soul-destroying technology in your office cubicle and the life-affirming natural world that blooms beyond it -- with luscious pop that disguises how important the outcome is. Unbelievable, irreplaceable. (V2)

BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE
You Forgot It in People
As catastrophically messy as your bedroom after a violent eight-day post-breakup crying binge, this Canuck indie-rock art project alone can finally pull you out of it. It's like a ten-mile-wide sidewalk chalk mural bombarded by a flash monsoon: The thoroughly rockin' guitar freakouts bleed into the lewd dream-pop piano ballads and the oddball, intimate instrumentals. Thirteen audaciously ambitious tunes designed to make the coldest-hearted Pitchfork reader fall in love. (Arts & Crafts)

THE WEAKERTHANS
Reconstruction Site
More hosers with English degrees, overflowing diaries, and screeching Telecasters. With apologies to Missy Elliott, "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue" is 2003's shoulda-been grand-slam hit single, a feline-POV deconstruction of postgraduate loneliness and aimlessness that still rocks hard enough to land the band on Epitaph. It's nestled deep in a lovely chicken soup of pointy-headed literary references and alt.country hooks, too smart for its own good but just warm enough for yours. (Epitaph)

THE POSTAL SERVICE
Give Up
You got a cheap Casio keyboard for Christmas. You got a hot date for the Harvest Dance. You got a Molly Ringwald fixation. You got Jazzercise class Tuesday night. You got a twenty-pound block of electro-pop cheese in the fridge. You got Death Cab refugee Ben Gibbard crooning lovelorn lyrics so unabashedly dorky you can almost hear the jocks givin' him a swirlie in the background. You got a sense of melody as effortless and glorious as the foam on your root beer float. You got it, and it gots you. (Sub Pop)

THE PERNICE BROTHERS
Yours, Mine and Ours
Melancholy as the highest form of beauty. Joe Pernice is Morrissey stripped of his douchebaggery, blessed with a wit sharp enough to recognize the absurdity of his pain and a bleeding heart large enough to still feel that pain acutely. Together they merge into a Thinkin' Fellers rustic rock juggernaut epic enough for AM radio but intimate enough to turn your headphones into angel's wings. Please please please let him get what he wants, but wait a couple more albums. (Ashmont)

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS
Decoration Day
The three best American novelists still breathing have abandoned the form entirely and now guzzle brew-dogs, channel Skynyrd, and bow down to their snarling amps instead. Each track on this Southern rock super-epic packs enough surging electricity to juice up the surliest biker bar, but the generosity and compassion the Truckers' triple-threat songwriter team brings to its characters screams "Pulitzer" as loudly as it screams "PBR." Pump your fist without irony for once in your life. (New West)

SOUL POSITION
Eight Million Stories
Blueprint just wants to buy his girlfriend a chalupa: "I wanted Taco Bell -- she like, 'You cheap as hell.'" Perfect timing, perfect delivery. When all the indie hip-hop world seems obsessed with its own perceived hardness, you need this guy: witty, urbane, mischievous. There's a dark inner-city soul to this two-man tap dance between 'Print's barely-not-cracking-himself-up wisecracks and superproducer RJD2's shockingly fly beats, but this record's aural grin never fades. (Fatbeats)

BRITISH SEA POWER
The Decline of British Sea Power
Nautical metaphor overload! Behold the S.S. Pretentious Brit-Rock, hopelessly adrift on stormy seas and assailed by jagged waves of hardcore guitars, overexcitable drumbeat thunderbolts, and the howling wind of a crazed, drunken narrator who bellows Poe-caliber cryptic poetry as if he were rewriting "Wonderwall." Lush, romantic, bizarre, amusing, life-threatening, life-affirming. (Sanctuary)

MATES OF STATE
Team Boo
Music to skip by. Blissfully wedded lovebirds Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel bleat out hideously giddy keyboard-and-drums Pop-Tarts eight times cheerier than any other CD on yer shelf, but you'll stop sneering and forgive 'em eventually, once the sheer joy and sly inventiveness of these quietly complicated tunes finally sink in. The lyrics make no sense; nor does your crush on your History 232 teaching assistant. (Polyvinyl)

KATHLEEN EDWARDS
Failer
Any flannel-clad rustic mistress with a twang in her voice and a sinking stone in her stomach must bear the scarlet LW (Lucinda Williams), but Edwards bursts straight outta Ottawa with a disarmingly husky croon and a U-Haul full of heartbreak, cheap sex, self-medication, and infinite sadness. She sounds like your rain-drenched beagle looks, and howls prettier, too. (Rounder)

RON NACHMANN

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