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The Best Music of 2003 You Might Have Missed PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 23 December 2003 18:00
Dozens of publications are offering you their lists of the best music of 2003, filled with big names and big records, from Radiohead to OutKast to White Stripes, but at the Reader, we prefer the sounds less heard. We’ve compiled a list not of the year’s best albums but of worthy music that you might have missed – either because it didn’t have major-label support or because there are few outlets for music that doesn’t conform to popular formulas. Capsules were written by Tom Swanson (TS) and Jeff Ignatius (JI).

Because we’re limited by space, you might also want to check out the psychedelic hard rock of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Take Them on, on Your Own, Drive-By Truckers’ Southern-fried Decoration Day, Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man’s haunting Out of Season, Guided by Voices’ wheat-gathering Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, The Raveonettes’ twisted experiments in formal pop on Chain Gang of Love, Richard Thompson’s millennium-spanning (and Britney-including) 1000 Years of Popular Music, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ dirty Fever to Tell.

Cat Power, You Are Free

Using the simplest settings imaginable, Chan Marshall – the woman who records under the name Cat Power – crafts some of the most poignant music I’ve ever heard. The minor-key lead track is simple voice and simpler piano, and it’s so laid-back that you expect it to be tired singer-songwriter dull. But it’s not. It’s sleepy but alive, goosed by a chorus line that pops into the song brightly and fades quickly like fireworks. The second song, “Free,” has more going on – there’s a robotic drum, an electric guitar, and a shouted chorus – and the album has a striking stylistic diversity. Still, You Are Free is consistently sedate and spare, no matter the idiom; there are few if any wasted notes – each musical and vocal choice carries a big load, and you strain to make sure you’re catching everything – and Marshall’s overlapping, carefully phrased singing is a finely calibrated instrument, conveying as much as the lyrics. – JI

Damone, From the Attic

Taking its name from the mall-cruisin’ schmoozer in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Damone’s sound couldn’t be a more appropriate companion to the film. On the Boston-based quartet’s debut, turbo-charged electric guitars, double-bass-drum runs, and lyrics such as “I’m rockin’ a musclehead car,” “Who’s that in your Chevelle?” and “You’re at the mall and I’m missin’ you” speak for themselves. One look at the Marshall stack on the cover of From the Attic, and you know exactly what you’re in for. This album might induce a cringe were its content not completely hilarious, its players so adept, or its primary vocalist, Noelle, so magnetic. Definitely worth checking out. – TS

Desert Sessions Volumes 9 and 10

This record sounds something like Queens of the Stone Age crossed with early PJ Harvey, which isn’t surprising considering that it’s the latest fruit of the regular sessions led by Queens’ Josh Homme, this time featuring Polly Jean. (The recording also includes Dean Ween of Ween, Chris Goss of Masters of Reality, and Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson.) It’s got the looseness of the early PJ Harvey records (particularly “Crawl Home”), the occasional heaviness of Queens (“Covered in Punks Blood”), a tossed-off, goofy charm, the freedom of performers unconstrained by their regular bands, and the draw of some supremely talented musicians working well together. The album was recorded in a week with a “see what sticks” method, so there’s a roughness to it, but it’s very nearly transcendent. – JI

Dressy Bessy, Dressy Bessy

With its third full-length release, Denver-based Dressy Bessy has produced one of the most infectious indie-pop albums to come around in a long time. Highlighted by the inescapably charming vocals of Tammy Ealon, the songs on Dressy Bessy are smart, simple pieces of three-minute joy. You can’t listen to this album and not be cajoled into a good mood. This effort, the follow up to California in late 2000 and Pink Hearts, Yellow Moons in 1999, never strays from its formula of quirky lyrical treatments, medium-paced tempo, and chunky electric guitars. Everything is well-placed and thought-out, but not to be mistaken as serious for even a moment. Dressy Bessy is a $15 anti-depressant … what a deal. – TS

Kathleen Edwards, Failer

Kathleen Edwards has been described as Lucinda Williams fronting Crazy Horse, and while that’s a compliment, it doesn’t describe the power of the songs that this 24-year-old from Ottawa, Canada, produces. The songs on Failer – recorded in 2001 and based on work from her 1999 debut EP Building 55 – are personal, mournful, rebellious, and revealing stories packaged in an acoustic style that indeed evokes thoughts of Williams and Neil Young but is at the same time all her own. And even though “No one likes a girl that won’t sober up,” I’m enamored. You will be, too. – TS

The Gits, Frenching the Bully

A re-issue (with a handful of bonus live tracks) from Broken Rekids of The Gits’ 1992 debut – the only album the band finished – Frenching the Bully is a stunning document of the talent the world lost when singer Mia Zapata was raped and murdered in 1993. The band itself is a competent post-punk outfit with good hooks but nothing that stands out musically, and the other Gits suffer mostly by comparison to Zapata, a fiery force whose voice and manner would be well-suited to Seattle contemporary L7. She sings with such conviction, ferocity, and expressiveness that the lyrics become irrelevant. The band becomes irrelevant. I had a revelatory moment listening to “It All Dies Anyway” when the bass, drums, and guitar receded and all that was left was Zapata. That’s what I heard, anyway. The singer had elbowed her bandmates off the record, and that’s not something I’d ever experienced before. – JI

Killing Joke, Killing Joke

Politically obvious and lyrically a bit off (“We’ll take your wealth / You’ll have much less” and “Going to carve up your wealth / Like pumpkin pie” have the unintentional humor of a Spinal Tap song), Killing Joke’s self-titled album from 2003 makes my list because of its combination of pummeling force and startling sonic richness. The group has been around for more than two decades, a pioneer in industrial dance music, but this record is firmly in the metal camp. The band (including guest drummer Dave Grohl) and producer Andy Gill have miraculously turned the band’s thick, measured aggression into one of the clearest-sounding hard-rock records you’ve ever heard, and the musical settings are inspired and brutal. The vocals are surprisingly expressive, ranging from creepy subdued growls to marble-mouthed roars that more than make up for the band being knee-jerk contrary. – JI

The Kills, “Cat Claw”

While The White Stripes got the critical kudos and sales with Elephant and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs got the buzz with the justly celebrated full-length debut Fever to Tell, the sleazy-sexy minimalist-blues record I can’t stop listening to is The Kills’ Keep on Your Mean Side. The funny thing is, I’m still not sure it’s as good as those other two. But this duo’s slinky “Cat Claw” is such a ferocious, stunningly nuanced force that I listen to again and again and again. Musically, the song is built on the most basic riffs, beats, and chorus, but singer-guitarist VV grabs you by the throat with a passionate delivery that never fails to surprise; in the verses, she seems to address the listener directly, as if she’s standing right in front of you, boring holes in your head with an unwavering stare. And The Kills populate the song with flourishes and freak-outs that add even more complexity and texture. Hands down, my favorite song of the year, and even if the rest of the record can’t measure it, it’s still pretty strong. – JI

Kings of Leon, Youth & Young Manhood

Brothers Caleb (vocals, guitar), Nathan (drums), Jared (bass), and cousin Matthew (guitar) Followill make up Kings of Leon, and they just happened to release one of the best rock albums of the year. Although they’ll undoubtedly be compared to the likes of bands like The Strokes and White Stripes, Kings of Leon’s brand of rock and roll is much closer to the southern ’70s stadium variety, and any comparisons are most likely based on the band’s timing and the resurgence of rock’s popularity over the past two years. Yeah it’s cool to play rock and roll again, but these Nashville boys are the real deal. Caleb Followill’s grainy vocals reek of sneering disdain and gritty nonchalance, while the band rumbles behind him with a force that is comparable to The Heartbreakers after a fifth of Jack Daniels and no sleep. – TS

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Pig Lib

With every new project, former Pavement frontman and guitarist Stephen Malkmus reiterates what a strong contributor he was to the sound of his former band. He just writes great songs. The Portland, Oregon, prodigal son’s latest effort and second solo outing is no exception. With his backing band, The Jicks – drummer John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme – Malkmus produces material that is at once funny and contemplative, and it flows out of him like a casual comment. Catchy, melodic riffs underscore quirky lyrics – “Got your ballerina tights around my head in a samurai pose on your bed” – that are highly situational and probably aren’t too far from the truth. Along with the content, it’s his delivery – the way he breaks down sentence structure – that makes the work so unique. One moment he’s confronting his demons – “Should madness come so much the better. Touché” – and the next he’s chiming, “I made you a dinner and boy it’s a winner. Better than chocolate. And pink champagne,” and it all fits. – TS

My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves

Louisville, Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket produces songs that evoke thoughts of lonesome nights out on the prairie, riding along with Hank Williams and Merle Haggard in a sky full of reverb-impregnated stars. Truly Americana in nature, It Still Moves, preceded by 1999’s The Tennessee Fire and 2001’s At Dawn, finds songwriter and vocalist Jim James in a little more of a rockin’ mood. This album is by no means as raucous as the Kings of Leon’s latest outing, but it’s definitely more upbeat and energetic than the band’s previous efforts. If Brian Wilson smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, ran his mic through a Fender Super Reverb, and added haunting melodies over swelling guitars, organ, and drums, the result might come close to the essence of Jim James and My Morning Jacket. – TS

The New Pornographers, Electric Version

A Canadian indie-pop supergroup whose most famous member – the country torch singer Neko Case – is relegated to background vocals, The New Pornographers deliver a platter full of sweet, hooky power pop that’s so insistent that it simply will not be denied. These aren’t songs that grab you immediately; they burrow slowly into your brain and take up permanent residence there. The second record from this six-person occasional outfit is sunny, perky, detailed, and fun, a perfect accompaniment to the salty sea air of a drive along the ocean but rich enough to reward endless “repeat” cycles. Of special note are “The Laws Have Changed” (distinguished by Case’s honeyed singing and a propulsive keyboard line that seems to have taken refuge from the ’80s), “The End of Medicine” (with its impossibly catchy introduction and solo), and “It’s Only Divine Right” (with its deft balance between cheesy pop and rock, and its quirky vocal phrasings). – JI

Pocket Dwellers, Lifecheck

I cannot say enough about the Toronto-based Pocket Dwellers. (See “Pocket Dwellers Shine, Live and on Record,” River Cities’ Reader Issue 444, September 24-30, 2003.) I’ve seen the band three times, and its musicianship, cohesiveness, and energy never cease to amaze me. This time around, the Pocket Dwellers have captured that live feel on an album, and it’s a great sampling of the band’s sound – a mix of jazz, funk, soul, and hip-hop. There isn’t a band that works within this style that could hold a candle to what these guys do on stage, or we’d damn sure know about them. Anyone who saw them at RIBCO on December 13 would say the very same thing. Lifecheck is the perfect opportunity to hear what all the fuss is about. – TS
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