Soothing that savage beast
A treat-filled, Kid Rock-free look at one observer’s top 10 recordings for the year just concluded
OK, this is the last look back on 2003 you’ll see in SN&R, until we get around to covering the Oscar nominations. Yeah, yeah, this is a week late, but the mailman promised to deliver Paris Hilton’s remarkable CD debut, Paris Is Burning for You, You and You, which never did show up. Too bad; it was a near-certain lock for No. 1.
Instead, a bunch of other records made the cut. Before listing them, a few quick observations: One person’s music is another person’s fingernails across a blackboard. There are so many titles released in a given year that it is impossible for one person to write an honest, definitive “best of” summation. Music, and the perception of its charms, is deeply personal.
Ergo, there are some years when one feels expansive, omnivorous and ready to take on the world of music and digest its contents. For this scribe, 2003 was not one of those years. Instead, the year turned out to be much more inward-looking, and the records that resonated most tended to be ones with a certain amount of sonic familiarity—think musical comfort food with, in retrospect, a pronounced 1970s vibe.
With Nixon redux in the White House, that seemed weirdly fitting, somehow.
My Morning Jacket,
It Still Moves (ATO/RCA):
This Louisville, Ky., band, which I wrote about in this space a few weeks ago, represents the logical successor to the Band, Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Lynyrd Skynyrd and other 1970s rock ’n’ roll-based exponents of the genre that came to be known as Americana. Singer Jim James sings with the same haunting, otherworldly quality that characterizes Young’s better laments, and the band plays with so much reverb that you can almost smell the pungently scented smoke wafting from the audience. It Still Moves was the band’s major-label debut, and it’s more sonically focused and better recorded than the band’s two previous indie albums. Just listen to the soaring arpeggio-driven dirge “Rollin’ Back” and see if the ghost of the Band’s Richard Manuel doesn’t materialize right before your eyes.
Fountains of Wayne,
Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/EMI):
Possibly the best pop band on the planet, if you measure pop by catchy songs that should have been hits—and probably are in some parallel-universe world where radio doesn’t suck and the good guys usually win. If Fountains of Wayne isn’t the best pop band on the planet, certainly it’s the best pop band named after a fountain and garden store featured on an episode of The Sopranos (and the band took its name before that season-three episode was conceived). The new album appears to be a commercial breakthrough, after two criminally ignored albums on Atlantic Records. Yes, the bubblegum-ish “Stacy’s Mom,” with its video starring Rachel Hunter, was near ubiquitous for a while, but that isn’t the whole picture. Welcome Interstate Managers covers a full spectrum, from out-Oasising Oasis on “Supercollider” to nailing Office Space culture on “Bright Future in Sales” to rivaling Simon & Garfunkel’s finest urban folk-pop on “Valley Winter Song,” which features a short, punctual guitar solo that’s still breathtaking even after dozens of listens. Fountains of Wayne’s principals, Chris Collingswood and Adam Schlesinger (who wrote the theme song for the film That Thing You Do, among other things), are two of the finest craftsmen working in the pop-music milieu; they manage to combine sharp but often subtle social commentary with irresistible music.
The Pernice Brothers,
Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont):
A stunning power-pop album. Yes, branding an act as “power pop” is pretty much the kiss of death when it comes to selling records. But this collection of shimmering three- minute masterpieces should be in the CD player of anyone who ever thrilled to a Beatles record. No, the Pernice Brothers do not re-create the Fab Four; they’re closer in sound to such 1960s revivalists as Dwight Twilley, Tommy Keene and R.E.M., mixed with a healthy dose of 1980s English mope-pop acts like the Smiths, New Order and the Cure. The disc opens with “The Weakest Shade of Blue,” perhaps the most perfect marriage of Smithereens and Smiths ever committed to tape, or hard disc, or whatever people record on these days. Other songs, such as “One Foot in the Grave,” “Baby in Two” and “Waiting for the Universe,” continue this skein of remarkable guitar pop. The Pernices aren’t really brothers; they seem to be a platform for songwriter Joe Pernice (Scud Mountain Boys and Big Tobacco) to deliver his musical vision to the world, a vision that deserves to be heard by more than a small group of ardent pop-music freaks.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (La Face/Arista):
An expansive throwback to Prince circa Around the World in a Day, this double CD is like the Purple One’s best work: all over the map and full of loose threads. The bicoastal duo programmed this set like two solo albums, with Andre 3000’s Prince-like jams—including the huge hit “Hey Ya!”—on one, and Big Boi’s more traditionally R&B Earth, Wind & Fire-flavored tunes on the other. It would be fatuous to state that hip-hop needs this kind of explosion of raw creativity to survive, but records like this bode well for the genre’s future.
Later That Day (Quannum Projects):
This disc, by former Davis resident Lyrics Born, appears to have slipped under a lot of radars. Too bad; it’s a fine mix of low-riding clavinet funk that echoes everything from the funky high-water marks of Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone to such proto rap acts as Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. And the day-late-and-a-dollar-short lyrical thrust of the record, common on R&B albums from the 1970s recession, is thoroughly in sync with today.
The White Stripes,
Elephant (Third Man/V2):
Why do critics go crazy for this guitar-drum duo? There was such a layer of critical spew encrusting the Stripes that I tried to avoid them as long as I could, until I was clobbered by White Blood Cells in 2002. At the core, the White Stripes sound like what might happen if a talented wannabe arena rocker talked his girlfriend into sitting in on drums in the garage while he cranked up his amp and churned out a mess of electric blues clichés, histrionic glam-boy vocals and glorious fretboard wankistry. “Seven Nation Army” may feature the best pure Sabbath riff since Paranoid, “Ball and Biscuit” is the kind of rawked-up blooze appropriation of Mississippi Delta clichés that Led Zeppelin got famous for, and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” is the most inspired rock cover of a Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune since Love’s “My Little Red Book.”
Rainy Day Music (American/Lost Highway):
One of 2003’s funniest moments happened when I walked into the J Street record emporium The Beat one afternoon. This guy named Tom was behind the counter; we got to talking about new records, and I asked him if he’d heard the Jayhawks’ latest. His face turned markedly sour. “The worst record I’ve heard all year,” he sputtered, before adding that Rainy Day Music was a vile commercial attempt by a band that had burned its last shreds of artistic integrity. Perhaps. On the good side, the album was the best Eagles record the Eagles never made, with such Byrds-ish songs as “Stumbling Through the Dark” and “Tailspin” vying with tuneful but mawkish pap like “Eyes of Sarahjane.”
Country for True Lovers (Zedtone):
As the cliché goes, Eleni Mandell could sing the phone book, and I’d be all ears. Mandell is kind of an American Lotte Lenya, or a modern-day Julie London, and what’s not to love about that? Here she offers her take on country music, which balances the world-weary Los Angeles sensibilities she grew up with, as in Exene Cervenka and Tom Waits, with the two-fisted twang abandoned by Nashville in the wake of Shania Twain’s success. From covers like Merle Haggard’s “I’ve Got a Tender Heart” to such originals as “Another Lonely Heart” and “Kingsport Town,” this is an album truly worth savoring.
Death Cab for Cutie,
On its fourth album, this swell Seattle pop band delivers a mature indie-rock masterwork, for better or worse (worse if you like your Death Cab less polished). Songwriter Benjamin Gibbard knows how to write smart pop music that echoes the spirit of the Beatles’ forays into examining dimensions of interpersonal relationships without slipping into any kind of mimicry. And, like such mature Beatles works as Rubber Soul and Revolver, Transatlantacism flows nicely from start to finish.
Hail to the Thief (Capitol):
Almost didn’t want to include this, because it’s so uncool in certain critical circles to like this album. Screw it: Radiohead is the band whose influence most often shows up today among local club-level acts, the way Pearl Jam or Nirvana or U2 or R.E.M. (or our very own Deftones) once did. Hail to the Thief is an album-length bad mood; it’s Prozac in reverse, guaranteed to bring in dark clouds and a bitter wind blowing dead leaves. That said, its brilliance exists as a treasure to be mined over multiple listens, and it will be given much higher regard in years to come than it received this year. And “There, There” is a great song, so there.
And there lies one person’s top 10 for 2003.
Oops—crikey—I left out one: Shelby Lynne’s remarkable album Identity Crisis (Capitol) was the kind of soulful record that’s easy to overlook in an era when the term “soul” has been hijacked to mean “dog whistles, muezzin-style melisma and other cheap parlor tricks.” It’s truly deep.
Anyway, with a resurgence in independently produced music, economic uncertainty, the ongoing threat of war and an upcoming election whose integrity appears from this vantage point to be quite dodgy, 2004 should shape up to be even more interesting than 2003 was.
Do complicated times make for good music? We’re about to find out.