God, what a year it’s been.
It moved simultaneously faster than light and slower than dirt. It was, simultaneously, the worst year in recent memory as far as my personal life goes, but somehow ended up one of the best years I can recall for music. I’ve taken up too many column inches this year with my own heartbreak and despair, and at this point, I’ve already said good riddance to 2003 in my mind, so why repeat that here? It’s better to focus the last column of the year on the positive aspects of the past 12 months, artistically speaking, and I can think of no better way to accomplish this than with my annual Year-End Top 10 List.
Honestly, it wasn’t until I was compiling this list that I realized what a banner year we’ve had as far as good new music goes. Most of the 10 albums on my list have, with one notable exception, slipped beneath the radar of the mainstream music media, but having to dig and discover treasure doesn’t make it any less valuable. At one point, my honorable mentions numbered more than double those albums in my list – I’ve rectified that, of course, but it demonstrates just how much good stuff found its way out this year.
Of course, there is a downside, and as usual, it’s my increasingly irritating rules. I know, they’re self-imposed and can easily be self-repealed, but I still think they’re valuable, even considering the growing number of great records they force me to exclude every year. I’ve pared the rules down to the following: Only new, original studio albums released between the first of January and the 31st of December are eligible. That sounds easy enough, but it leads to some conundrums, as you shall see.
Most distressingly, once again my favorite album of the year has been disqualified. Last year it was Ben Folds Live, and the same rule (no live albums) keeps Jeff Buckley’s mesmerizing, captivating, altogether superhuman Live at Sin-E from topping the list. But take it from me – music in 2003 got no better than this album. If you’ve heard that perhaps this Buckley guy was pretty good, but you’ve never understood why, even after hearing “Last Goodbye,” people talk about him like some mythic being, then you have to hear this. Two hours, one guy, one guitar, and one indescribable, spirit-touching voice.
Why isn’t it atop the list if it’s the best of the year? Well, it was recorded in 1993, and four tracks from it actually preceded Buckley’s 1994 debut, Grace, as the original Live at Sin-E EP. Put simply, it’s not new, even though we’re just now hearing most of it. It’s also live, and it’s additionally made up mainly of covers. The songs are interpreted and reinvented by Buckley, it’s true, but the original compositions were not, by and large, his. These rules are important – they keep the likes of Frank Sinatra off this list every year.
They’re also going to keep Johnny Cash off this list this year, unfortunately, but he should be used to it by now. His Unearthed box set, compiled before his death but released posthumously, is far and away one of the best sets of studio recordings I heard this year. Like all things Cash, it’s mostly filled with interpretations of others’ songs, which doesn’t disqualify it as art, but it does prevent it from living up to the criteria of new, original studio albums.
The word “albums” caused me some consternation this year as well. Almost as a rule, I don’t include EPs or mini-albums in this list, no matter how amazing they are. What I didn’t count on is the unfortunate tendency this year to cleave albums in two, calling the result EPs. For instance, Ryan Adams would likely have garnered an honorable mention for his Love Is Hell, had it been released whole. Instead, his record company released it in two halves, neither one of which could stand on its own.
Ben Folds also shot himself in the foot this year, as far as this list goes. His planned trilogy of EPs was truncated to a duology, but had he combined Speed Graphic and Sunny 16 into one 10-song document, he’d have had a decent shot at the top 10. But that’s all right – we’ll probably see Folds in this space next year, when he delivers his full-length album.
I know that in the era of downloadable singles and I-Pods, such concerns about format must seem quaint, but I, for one, will mourn the impending death of the album. Already we’re seeing bands take to the internet to release single after single, and if they do make a hard-copy album at all, the result sounds like what it is – a collection of songs that were never meant to sit together. I’m a believer in the complete album statement, and the above rule strongly reflects that. A solid disc, from beginning to end, should be the goal of any musical artist, and I like to reward those who can carry that off for extended running times. Soon the album-length statement as we know it will be gone, but here at my corner of the web, we’re going to celebrate it while it’s here.
Which brings me to the honorable mentions. I think there are more Number 11s this year than any in recent memory, and most are excluded from the list for the tiniest of reasons. Everything I’m about to list from here on out is worth a listen, if not a purchase. As I said, it was an extraordinary year, and here are several extraordinary works that back me up:
Near the top of the list must be Blur’s Think Tank, the first of our #11s. While there are certainly some bum tracks here (“Crazy Beat,” “We’ve Got a File On You”), the majority of Think Tank is given over to some of the warmest electro-pop you’re likely to hear. It’s odd that atop mechanical backdrops, Damon Albarn delivers one of his warmest vocal performances to date. It’s a winning synthesis of the metallic and the organic, and perhaps the sweetest and saddest album Blur has made.
Radiohead finally delivered on their own promise again with Hail to the Thief, their first collection of actual songs since 1997. Among them is “Scatterbrain,” one of the most haunting works of the year, but the remainder of the album is uncharacteristically excellent as well. At times they even sound like a band again, one that perhaps remembers how great Radiohead used to be. Thief doesn’t scale the heights the band once did with apparent ease, but at least it finds them looking at the right mountain and judging the distance again.
Mark Eitzel should be on this list, but I can’t allow it. His The Ugly American is fantastic, a collection of older Eitzel songs performed with Greek musicians who add surprising depth and emotion. And Eitzel found reserves of emotion within his voice as well – he sounds better here than he has in years. Sadly, it’s still a collection of older songs, not new ones, and hence is ineligible. But it’s overwhelmingly wonderful just the same.
OutKast struck a blow for ambition and artistry with the world of hip-hop with their double-disc extravaganza Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. I heard fewer rap albums this year than usual, mostly because what I heard all sounded the same, but Big Boi’s half of this record easily outdoes everything I encountered. And Andre 3000… well, what can I say about a guy who wants to be Prince, George Clinton and Al Green all at once? His half is a mind-boggling mess that solidifies OutKast’s position as the most creative rap outfit currently performing.
I missed Ester Drang’s wonderful Goldenwest two years ago, and while they didn’t quite top it with this year’s shorter, more direct Infinite Keys, they made an album of dreamy pop that rises above most of their contemporaries. I say most because one of them landed at number 10, after much consideration and flip-flopping. Suffice it to say that my final decision is a lot less final in my mind than here in print, and should anyone like Infinite Keys better than my number 10 choice, I wouldn’t blame you a bit. It’s a terrific, powerful little record.
Which brings us to Warren Zevon. We said goodbye to Zevon this year, but not before he crafted his final aloha, a rollicking yet tender little album called The Wind. Much like George Harrison’s Brainwashed last year, I find myself unable to adequately judge The Wind as an album, so wrapped up in the emotions of its finality is every song. “Keep Me In Your Heart” makes me cry almost every time, though, and that alone is worthy of an honorable mention. As an album, I don’t know where it fits, but as the final farewell from cynical, hard-bitten Warren Zevon, it’s pretty well perfect.
Okay, enough of my babble. Let’s see the list:
#10. Grandaddy, Sumday.
Why the Flaming Lips get all the ink, I’ll never know. Grandaddy treads the same terrain – atmospheric pop full of quirky beauty, and concerning mechanical failure as a metaphor for human decay. The thing is, Jason Lytle and his band do this sort of thing so much better than Wayne Coyne and his. Sumday was almost released on two discs, six tracks apiece, and while the opening six blend together in a strummed blur, the final tracks explode the sound into brilliant colors. There’s almost no better closing trilogy this year than the three wonderamas that conclude this album. Sumday makes Yoshimi look like the work of clever amateurs, so infused with real feeling and melodic grace is Grandaddy’s sound. This is a work of wonder.
#9. Cerberus Shoal, Chaiming the Knoblessone.
I’m dreading having to try to explain the appeal of this thing again, so unsuccessful was I last time. The Shoal has recently reinvented itself, parting ways with three members and taking on three more, but they couldn’t have made the transition sound any more natural and complete than they have here. Knoblessone is the first full-length from the new lineup, and it’s a fully formed flower of a sound. This is where the Beatles meet the beat poets meet the prog-rockers meet the avant-garde. There’s no explaining a programmatic beast like “Story #12 From the Invisible Mountain Archive” or a sweet melodic meander like “Sole of Foot of Man.” What can I say? This is a slow-burning genius, an album so bizarre that it sounds exactly right on first listen and only deepens from there.
#8. BT, Emotional Technology.
Brian Transeau finally made his masterpiece. This is the album that combines his fascination with the technological and the organic, the whirring of machines and the soul of the human. It’s not a techno album, it’s not a pop album, it’s a perfect synthesis of the two without sacrificing either one. This is what all those Delirium albums should have sounded like. Here are explosive beats and basslines, sweet vocals, strummed guitars and string quartets, and everything is processed, folded, spindled and mutilated into something new. Here is one of the finest examples of genre-destroying in quite some time, and one hell of a fine listen to boot.
#7. The Alarm, In the Poppy Fields.
I will admit two things. First is my heavy bias towards the Alarm – I grew up with them, and have always thought of them as one of the best bands on Earth. Second is my love for sprawling, ambitious works, and you can’t get much more sprawling and ambitious than Poppy Fields – 54 new tracks spread out over five CDs. It’s the first Alarm album since 1991, and even if three-fourths of the band is different, the voice and vision still belong to Mike Peters, and he brings his trademark passion to all three and a half hours of this thing. Poppy Fields is an achievement U2 wishes they could still make, a sterling statement of purpose from a guy who’s never wavered in his commitment to soaring, beautiful, anthemic rock and roll. Here’s a whole bunch of it, and it’s all worth hearing and treasuring.
#6. Supergrass, Life on Other Planets.
Beck dreams of being this good at this sort of thing. Supergrass is a walking cultural blender, a mixture of influences so deep and wide that the only recourse is to make use of all of them, all at once. But Planets goes deeper than that – the individual influences sound vintage here. If the bass and vocal lines are supposed to recall Lou Reed, then they do, even if the synth part is ELO and the drum beat is pure punk. That they fuse these disparate sounds in the service of some great, fun songs elevates the album from sonic experiment to work of pop magic.
#5. Travis, 12 Memories.
Let’s face it, Travis is pretty much universally written off as a lightweight band. Up ’til now, they could most accurately be described as “pleasant.” So what a stunning surprise to find an album this muscular, this punchy, from these wishy-washy Brits. 12 Memories practically explodes with newfound force, and at times it feels like showing off – “Look what we just found out we can do!” If Britpop is dead, then someone forgot to tell these guys, because they’ve just made an album of superb loud pop songs, played with all the fire of a brand new band.
#4. Over the Rhine, Ohio.
If I have a sentimental favorite here, it’s probably this one. With often minimal instrumentation, Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist strike right through the artifice and pretension of the world and touch the soul. Ohio is more than 90 minutes long, weighs in at 21 tracks, and feels all too brief. The songs are deceptively simple, yet they never stand in the way of the emotional connection Bergquist is searching for, both vocally and lyrically. There isn’t a moment on Ohio that isn’t pure, heartfelt, open and perfect. Hearing Bergquist sing “Changes Come” while Detweiler accompanies her on mournful, longing piano is the closest anything on this list came to a spiritual experience this year. And the rest of this album is similarly extraordinary.
#3. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers.
The Grammy people get around their ignorance of new music by awarding a Best New Artist nomination to a band that, during a certain year, established their “public identity.” Fountains of Wayne got that nod this year, despite nearly a decade in the biz, because of “Stacy’s Mom,” a first-rate novelty tune, but if the Rachel Hunter video is their public identity, then the public is dead wrong about them. Anyone buying Welcome Interstate Managers and expecting an LP full of “Stacy’s Mom” will likely be surprised by the warmth and depth of the record, as well as its impeccable craft. Fountains go after emotions and explore characters that other artists disregard – the small-town guy longing for his famous classmate in “Hackensack,” the quarterback who suddenly discovers he has “All Kinds of Time” – and they do it with a cleverness that transcends novelty. With “Valley Winter Song” they wrote one of the year’s loveliest tunes, and with “Hey Julie” one of its catchiest. And they also delivered the most fun you’ll have in three minutes this year with “Bright Future in Sales.” If not for the subpar final four songs, this nearly perfect pop album might have been even higher on this list, something no mere novelty band could ever accomplish. Welcome Interstate Managers is a brilliant delight.
#2. Bruce Cockburn, You’ve Never Seen Everything.
For months on end, Cockburn had the lock on the top spot with this devastating, fantastic record, and even now I’m not sure I’m making the right choice. This is easily one of the most complete artistic statements of Cockburn’s 30-plus-year career, from the mission statement “Tried and Tested” to the jazz-tinged venom of “Trickle Down” to the absolute bleak horror of the mostly spoken title track. At its heart, it’s about finding hope in a terrifying world, and it never shies away from depicting that world in all its chilling detail. Cockburn has been everywhere, and he has a global worldview we sorely need in Bush’s America, but more than that, he has a master’s touch with words and melody that brings that worldview into impressive focus. This album is a grand summation from Bruce Cockburn, and one of the most important and unjustly ignored albums of the year. Moreover, it’s one of the most musically captivating, wrapping you up in its carefully controlled power. It’s a masterwork from a guy with nothing more to prove, and that makes it all the more stunning.
Which brings us to the top, and the source of most of my consternation. I swear, it was almost a tie, and the top two positions switched places often enough that I can almost consider it an even draw. It came down to which one pushed my personal buttons more, and even though Cockburn’s record outdoes the winner for social conscience and lyrical power, I’m always going to go where the melody is, and no one delivered better melodies than this guy:
#1. Rufus Wainwright, Want One.
I’ve been watching Wainwright since his debut, certain that he would one day make a magnificent album. I honestly didn’t expect one this good so soon, however. Want One sparkles with confidence and majesty. It’s a pop album in the purest sense of the term – Wainwright remembers when pop referred to the likes of Gershwin and Berlin. This set of 14 songs packs more surprises and delights for a melody addict like myself than anything I’ve heard in years, all recorded with a sense of grandeur and drama missing from just about all pop music these days. It’s all topped with Wainwright’s voice, an even-toned powerhouse that he’s honed into a graceful instrument. Wainwright makes writing great songs sound incredibly easy, as if most other songwriters are just being lazy. As I said in the original review, any discussion of the year’s best songs would be dominated by this album, and “I Don’t Know What It Is” leads the list as the best single song I heard this year.
In the end, it came down to one tiny moment, though. There’s a bit near the end of “Beautiful Child” when, after three minutes of crescendo, all the other instruments (including guitars, drums and horns) drop out, leaving nothing but Wainwright’s lead vocal and an ocean of his multi-tracked backing chorale. It’s like that moment when you go over the first hill on a roller coaster, a genuinely spine-tingling instant of giddy drama. That’s the sort of thing that makes all this searching for good music worthwhile, and Wainwright was the only one to provide me one of those moments this year. That edged him over Cockburn, but the rest of this dazzling album put him in position to be edged in the first place. Whatever he does from here out is irrelevant – he’s carved out a permanent place in the pantheon with this record. Regardless, I can’t wait to see where he goes from here.
I’m writing this on the last day of this stupid year. I’m hoping that 2004 is kinder to the people I love. Good riddance, 2003. Get the fuck out of here.
Next week, I begin rectifying some glaring omissions from the past 12 months. Year four, here we go. Thanks for hanging in there this year, and for joining me for the next one. I’m grateful for you all.
See you in line Tuesday morning.