In no particular order, here are my candidates for best albums of 2003:
Summer Sun, Yo La Tengo
This album should almost get a vote purely for introducing me to Yo La Tengo. But the album stands on its own distinct from the rest of the YLT corpus: hushed, funny, contemplative, it’s darned good heatwave listening and works just about as well in the dead of winter.
Electric Version, The New Pornographers
Hard to find something about this album that hasn’t already been said. Yes, it’s a bracing melodic pop blast; yes, Neko Case is God; yes, Carl is a control freak; yes, this album had some of the most infectious sing along pop of the year.
Key tracks: “The Laws Have Changed,” “All For Swinging You Around”
Elephant, The White Stripes
I’ve seen at least one year end list calling this album a disappointment. The reference must have been to the sales, because artistically and viscerally this was one of the key albums of the year. Featuring some of the low down dirtiest rock and roll blues as well as straight metal and unbelievably pure ballads, one song puts the album over the top and on this list: the alternately vulnerable and unhinged cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.”
You Are Free, Cat Power
From the hard rocking to the, well, very different but still hard rocking. This finds Chan Marshall coming back rocking from the depressive depths of The Covers Project. The tough album bounces from melancholy into exultation into reflection into anger in the space of four tracks, and that’s before the insanely catchy two note riff of “He War” gets under your skin. Probably the best album that Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder performed on this year.
Yours Mine & Ours, Pernice Brothers
This, the third album by ex-Scud Mountain Boy Joe Pernice’s main band, pulls all the pieces together: impossibly driving bright guitar pop and somber post-Smiths lyricism have never sounded this good. Pernice’s clear, supple tenor and falsetto vocals have sometimes been smothered in past releases, but this record gets him out in front of the band with striking results. With some of the most striking fast pop this year as well as some of the most gorgeous ballad work, this album feels like the Saturday night-out and comedown secret sibling of Electric Version, but succeeds as a more consistently great collection of songs.
Live at Sin-é (Legacy Edition), Jeff Buckley
This is an unusual entry for two reasons. First, it’s a reissue—though given the amount of never before heard material, it almost qualifies as a completely new album. Second, my initial take on this album was pretty harsh, on the basis of one track. What a mistake. While this was clearly early days for Jeff, with vocal maturity to match, there are some really incandescent performances on the album. The early performances of “Eternal Life” and “Mojo Pin” are as vital as on the original EP, but the eye openers here are among the many covers in which Jeff seems to be simultaneously invoking his influences and bidding them farewell. I don’t think any Westerner could ever channel Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as well as Jeff does on “Yeh Jo Halka Saroor Hae,” and “Be My Husband” is pretty show-stopping too.
When I Pretend to Fall, The Long Winters
In the grand tradition of orchestral chamber pop albums, this sophomore album from local band The Long Winters is bouncy and irrepressible fun. From the singalong of “Cinnamon” to the horn-drenched kiss-off of “Scared Straight” to the They Might Be Giants-esque verbal play of “Shapes” to the almost Son Voltish “Bride and Bridle” to the sleepily symphonic “Blanket Hog,” it’s all good from start to finish.
Mæstro di Capella, Suspicious Cheese Lords
Reviewed in detail in January. My favorite classical recording of 2003.
Hail To The Thief, Radiohead
Quite possibly the album of the year for me. The only thing holding it back is the continued decline of Thom Yorke’s once prodigious vocal pipes. But the level of invention, melodic and rhythmic genius, and yes social conscience on this album are unparalleled in recent memory
Key tracks: “Sail to the Moon,” “There There,” “Sit Down, Stand Up”
There are a few others, like the Postal Service, Nada Surf, and the Shins that might have crept onto the list, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to them yet. Oh well.
But here’s the other thing that’s interesting: I bought almost all of those albums as digital downloads, not physical products. One thing is clear: digital music is here to stay. It makes too much sense not to.