2003 will go down as my first year writing music criticism semi-professionally. Between that milestone and getting a CD-RW drive, I acquired hundreds of discs this year. Which sets up the following conundrum: Did 2003 suck in comparison to 2002 due to the quality of new releases? Absolutely nothing touched The Naked Dutch Painter or Scarlet's Walk or even One Beat. Or, have I developed a shrewder critical instrument as the result of reviewing so many records (many of 'em bad or just plain mediocre)? Time, and more writing will tell. If any words seem especially relevant and wise about pop music at this moment, they come from Lester Bangs (filtered through Nick Kent in his book The Dark Stuff):

What are these guys trying to sell us here?
What does this music say to your soul?
What's going on behind the masks?


20. The Go-Betweens, Bright Yellow Bright Orange
Proving that The Friends of Rachel Worth was less of a fluke and more the foundation for a borderline brilliant second act, McLennan and Forster's literate jangle pop sounds more vital (and subtly sound) than ever. And supposedly, even Princess Caroline of Monaco loves the song written about her.

19. Puffy AmiYumi, Nice
The girls asked Jellyfish godfather Andy Sturmer to produce, co-write and play on an entire album; he even extrapolated "Video Killed The Radio Star" especially for them. Why didn't they think of this before? The results are as solid as last year’s introductory compilation.

18. Basement Jaxx, Kish Kash
This one probably would’ve placed higher had I fully absorbed it yet. It simmers down (rather than drags) towards the end, but the indispensable, already classic kiss-off anthem "Good Luck" kicks off the usual excess of ideas (vocals from Siouxsie Sioux?). Solidifies into an ever-impressive whole, rather than just a keen collection of singles.

17. Northern State, Dying In Stereo
Their distaff Beastie Boys thriftstore splendor could be this decade’s love-it-or-hate-it debacle. Although their brainy wordplay and joie de vivre could be all too easily overrated, these eight songs sow the seeds of something potentially massive.

16. The Postal Service, Give Up
Deceptively dinky cut-and-paste New Order, and boy do we need it, especially the euphoric surge of tunes like "Such Great Heights" and "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight".

15. Blur, Think Thank
Proof that not only can Damon and the boys make a decent album without Graham, but they're also capable of putting together their strongest, most sonically interesting set since Parklife without his help, save a few still-appreciated guitars on the majestic closer.

14. Natacha Atlas, Something Dangerous
Too many cameos can't obscure that this otherworldly diva is really on to something here with her fusion of world exotica and contemporary R&B, particularly on the dizzying six-minute "Eye Of The Duck", which jams in every imaginable flavor and savors them all.

13. Black Box Recorder, Passionoia
Not as perfect as The Facts of Life, but a must-hear nonetheless, especially if inimitable orders from a dominatrix schoolmarm or equally mocking/loving tributes to washed-up pop stars are your cups of strychnine.

12. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers
Would've placed higher if it didn't peter out at the end. The first twelve songs, however, are everything you'd ever want from these neo new-wavers. And if you're sick of "Stacy's Mom", try "Mexican Wine", "Bright Future In Sales", or "All Kinds of Time"--all equally deserving of total saturation.

11. Oranger, Shutdown The Sun
Divine, unexpectedly consistent psych-pop that's enough to tide you over until XTC get around to releasing another album of new material. Hell, just "Going Under" and "Bluest Glass Eye Sea" both get the job done alone.

10. Super Furry Animals, Phantom Power
Why haven’t I rushed out and acquired this band’s back catalog since encountering this impressive, wonderfully strange set? Maybe I’m just still too preoccupied and entranced with uncovering the layers tracks like “The Piccolo Snare” (The Association, as produced by Brian Wilson) or “Liberty Belle” (an indictment of the US so scathing but so absolutely fair) have to offer.

9. +/-, You Are Here
I’ve never heard a note of Versus, and this side project from that band’s James Baluyut is so strong I’m not sure I’d want to, for fear that it might be a letdown. Regardless, this one’s all over the musical map, but every diversion is well worth checking out, from the spine-tingling new/wave emo of “Trapped Under Ice Floes (redux)” to the gorgeous, lithe, plucked-from-out-of-nowhere “Summer Dress 1 (All Her Winter Clothes)”.

8. The New Pornographers, Electric Version
In retrospect, a little of this band’s alchemy goes a long way. However, it’s a remarkable improvement over their first album, and whenever Neko Case opens her mouth, it soars to ecstatic, immeasurable heights. Even the best non-Neko moments, like the echoing vocal chorale on the second half of “Testament To Youth In Verse”, suitably take your breath away.

7. TV On The Radio, Young Liars EP
I haven’t felt this excited about a new band since Soul Coughing. Like Mike Doughty’s regrettably short-lived mid-‘90s combo, TVOTR seems reminiscent of Talking Heads without sounding like them at all, but the same energy, reinvention, and fearlessness comes through. In this case, it’s a thrilling spark of opposites (There’s A Riot Goin’ On-era Sly Stone meets Eno-produced Bowie?) that best translates into, well, industrial soul. Plus, The Pixies redone as doo-wop.

6. Stew, Something Deeper Than These Changes
A little disappointing after the monumental The Naked Dutch Painter, but it continues to grow on me in the deepest ways. Mostly abandoning the cleverness and laffs of yore, Stew goes for somber, reflective meditations on death, birth, and seemingly simple things like love as a “Way of Life”. Stripped down to acoustic guitars and a few keyboards, he proves capable of conjuring up amazing things, most delicately and inventively on a song written from a statue’s point of view that will stick with you for days, maybe weeks after hearing it just once.

5. Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Unlikely producer Trevor Horn could’ve spelt unmitigated disaster for this Scots collective’s sixth album. Instead, he births the year’s most delightful surprise, and the band’s most focused effort since If You're Feeling Sinister. And, it works precisely because they’ve stopped trying to make another Sinister, instead indulging in the retro pastiches that made their last few singles so endearing. Tell me this: could any of their imitators pull off a break-up song as rapturous as “I’m A Cuckoo” or a single as eloquent as “Step Into My Office, Baby”?

4. Paul Brill, Sisters LP
Alt-country singer/songwriter forgets about sticking to one genre and delivers an eclectic pop feast in the process. The best Michael Penn album possibly ever, from the sly southern swing of “Macon” and the blue-eyed Philly soul of “Two Stars” to the Ben Folds with guitars number “Westering”. The most consistent and accomplished record Splendid has sent me thus far. It frustrates me that John Mayer can top the charts, but not even your indie rock elite has heard of Brill. He’d be ideal to do the entire soundtrack for an inevitable remake of Harold and Maude.

3. Steve Wynn and The Miracle 3, Static Transmission
The paisley underground veteran yet again stumps the rock and roll continuum that says your work must decline as you age. Wynn’s in his forties, and like 2001’s double LP extravaganza Here Come The Miracles, this is one of his best. A refinement of all his strengths, every song could come from a different album, but they coalesce so well that you just want to smile all the way through, especially at the untitled bonus track that wisely notes, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.” It’s a trick Wynn continues to pull with loads of charm and guitar.

2. The White Stripes, Elephant
This might have been number one if it wasn’t already going to be on everyone else’s list. But the hype (not the backlash) is well earned. This scary, intense, playful, genuine and utterly alive garage rock moan and sigh sounds great the first time through, excellent the tenth, and absolutely essential the fiftieth. My favorite moment comes after the acoustic guitar-and-voice ballad “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket” (as good as Alex Chilton or Paul McCartney, but not either could sing it quite the same way as Jack White does), with “Ball and Biscuit”: seven sobering minutes of one remedial electric riff that renews my will to live each and every time I hear it. The only problem is, how can they possibly top this?

1. Rufus Wainwright, Want One

He’s surely has even better albums in him yet, and not everything here is exceptional, but at least four or five tracks are magnificently so, and their presence elevates what surrounds them. I can’t fully explain how this ended up my favorite album of the year. It’s only the first half, for Chris’ sakes (Want Two is supposedly due sometime in 2004). And it’s operatic and completely overblown, incorporating Ravel on the very first track and lyrically quoting the Three’s Company theme on the second. But after a promising, puzzling debut and a dazzling, exploratory follow-up, this is where Rufus, through addiction, rehab, and his love of Broadway and jazz really finds himself. On the exquisite, six-minute “Go Or Go Ahead”, he fluctuates between intimate, hushed sorrow and grand, sonorous drama so fluidly and effectively that it’s both joyous and chilling; you can’t help but surrender yourself to deep, soppy tears and not feel a hint of embarrassment about doing so.


Pedal Steel Transmission, "Amy" (from The Angel of the Squared Circle)
Calexico, "Quattro (World Drifts In)" (Feast of Wire)
Need New Body, "Pen" (UFO)
Rosie Thomas, "I Play Music" (Only With Laughter Can You Win)
Outkast, "Hey Ya" (Speakerboxx/The Love Below)
Death on Wednesday, "Wait For Love" (Songs To _____ To)
Bleu, "Could Be Worse" (Redhead)
Aceyalone, "Ms. Amerikkka" (Love and Hate)
The Singles, "He Can Go, You Can't Stay" (Better Than Before)
Marit Bergman, "It Would Have Been Good" (It Would Have Been Good)
Damien Rice, "Volcano" (O)
Weed Patch, "Like California" (Maybe The Brakes Will Fail)
Ani DiFranco, "Evolve" (Evolve)
Beth Orton, "Ali's Waltz" (The Other Side Of Daybreak)
Annie Lennox, "Pavement Cracks" (Bare)


Alison Moyet, Hometime
Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Behind The Music
Black Box Recorder, The Facts of Life
Jon Brion, Punch-Drunk Love
Jeff Buckley, Grace
DJ Shadow, Endtroducing
Charles Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Santa Esmeralda, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (on the Kill Bill, Vol. 1 soundtrack)
The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic
Kings of Convenience, Quiet Is The New Loud


Teenage Fanclub, 4766 Seconds: A Shortcut To
A revelation to anyone who thought all they did of merit was Bandwagonesque.


Erasure, Other People’s Songs

Ever-dated production and tired song selection (apart from Peter Gabriel!) shows sadly how far they’ve fallen since they injected life into old ABBA songs over a decade ago.


TV On The Radio. Their full-length debut is what I’m looking forward to most in 2004.

In addition to confirmed new releases from Wainwright, Ani DiFranco, The Mekons, and Mary Lou Lord, here is a wishlist for the new year: Bjork, Fiona Apple, Ben Folds, Kate Bush (hey, she’s workin’ on one!), PJ Harvey, Ivy, k.d. lang, Aimee Mann, Northern State, Sam Phillips, Pole Position, REM (a return to form, hopefully), Saint Etienne, Sleater-Kinney, Jill Sobule, Wilco, and the ever-lazy XTC.