As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, Jan. 2, 2004
Music lovers probably will remember 2003 as the year the big record companies sued hundreds of music fans, including at least one 12-year-old scofflaw who illegally downloaded "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands."
Or the year the FCC decided by a party-line vote that Clear Channel just isn't big enough, and the media giant as well as others, should be allowed to own even more radio stations -- and maybe some newspapers as well.
Or the year The Dixie Chicks became true "alternative country" by not only refusing to fall in line with the official flag-waving Nashville line, but to actually utter discouraging words about a certain fellow Texan.
But somewhere amongst the growing insanity of the music biz there was some fine music in 2003. Sometimes you have to look for it -- in columns like this, on left-of-the-dial radio stations, in corners of the internet unaffiliated with major corporations. Sometimes, to paraphrase an old Tom Waits song, the pursuit is as fun as the arrest.
1) The Electric Version by The New Pornographers. Even though it's winter now, this second album of upbeat, snappy, melodious pop rock from a wild band of Western Canadians remains perfect music for summer night cruising in your mind. What a wonderful world it would be if The Electric Version were blasting from every convertible on the road. True, there's probably not enough of Neko Case, who sings background on most tracks. Still, it's hard not to smile and think of the good things in life while listening to The Electric Version. (Matador Records)
2) Blackberry Belle by The Twilight Singers. As far as 2003 records go, former Afghan Whig Greg Dulli's effort is the dark sinister twin of The Electric Version. On some days, and in some moods, I even prefer it. Dulli draws from the rage of punk rock and the carnal power of soul. It's raw, tumultuous, emotional, sometimes hypnotic, and a little bit evil. "Black out the windows, it's party time." (Birdman)
3) Youth & Young Manhood by Kings of Leon. Clan Followill has the drawls and the mustaches and the hair to conjure Skynyrd comparisons. But Caleb Followill's blooze-rock growls navigate sparse, bouncy, hook-laden guitar rock that sounds a lot like their label mates, The Strokes. Their transgenerational roots consciousness helped make their debut album outshine The Strokes' disappointing sophomore album this year. (RCA)
4) Speaker Boxx/The Love Below by Outkast. Sometimes truly great popular music actually becomes popular. The two Atlanta guys who make up Outkast are intelligent. They're funny. They're funky. And most important, unlike so many thousands of third-rate gangsta rap goons, they're musical. As far as I'm concerned, Outkast is the true heir of George Clinton and Prince. (Arista)
5) Elephant by The White Stripes. Like the huge lumbering beast for which this album is named, you can imagine this music tromping through the jungle ripping tall trees from the ground. And you can imagine it using its trunk to gently take peanuts from the hand of a child. Luckily for singer/guitarist Jack White, Elephant made enough money for him to afford a good lawyer to fight the aggravated assault charges he now faces for allegedly pounding the snot out of another singer in a Detroit bar.
6) Growl by Ray Wylie Hubbard. Forget "Redneck Mother." Hubbard's latest album consists of tough, swampy blues, with the artist showing his underrated prowess on bottleneck guitar while drawling tales of hard living, hard drinking and hard luck from a Texas Zen perspective. (Rounder)
7) The Wind by Warren Zevon. Warren wasn't going to leave us without a proper goodbye. In doing so, he left a worthy coda to his career. While the fact that he basically recorded this on his deathbed adds untold poignancy to this record, The Wind is an album I'd have loved anyway. (Artemis)
8) Rediscovered by Howard Tate. The comeback of the year. Tate, a Philadelphia soul man of the 1960s, disappeared for decades into the netherworld of drugs and despair, cleaned up and became a ghetto preacher. I'm not sure how they convinced him to recording again, but I'm glad they did. Producer Jerry Ragovoy keeps the sound basic -- no yucky synths, no embarrassing pandering to hip-hop. Just good, gritty soul featuring a good horn section and not-too flashy blues guitar. (Private Music)
9) Decoration Day by The Drive-By Truckers. Compared with this group's previous effort, the sprawling double-disc epic Southern Rock Opera, this is a relatively modest effort. Still, Decoration Day helps cement the Truckers' place as true visionaries of redneck rock. They've done more than anyone else to advance the basic Exile on Main Street/Freedom Rock sound, informing it with punk and colored by a literary sensibility. (New West)
10) Fever to Tell by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs In terms of sheer unfettered, sexy, stripped-down rock 'n' roll fun, it's hard to think of a more fulfilling album than Fever to Tell by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Karen O squeals, shouts, cajoles and coos. Repeating the word "tick" in rapid fire, you think she might explode in ecstasy right there in your stereo. (Interscope)
Streetcore by Joe Strummer
Singing Bones by The Handsome Family
Lullaby For Liquid Pig by Lisa Germano
Red Headed Stranger by Carla Bozulich
Sky Dirt Speak Out Truth by Wildsang (more on them in my previous post, below)
Apple O by Deerhoof
Greendale by Neil Young
Truth is Not Fiction by Otis Taylor
The Old Kit Bag by Richard Thompson
Piosenki Toma Waitsa by Kazik Staszewski (an import-only album of Tom Waits songs by Poland's coolest rocker. Watch this column in upcoming weeks for a complete review.)
Blog Exclusive: Extra Categories
Comeback of the Year: Howard Tate.
Runner-up: Al Green
Best "Various Artists" CD: Shout Sister Shout (Rosetta Tharpe tribute)
Soundtrack of the Year: Only the Strong Survive (featuring Jerry Butler, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and others)
Runners-up: A Mighty Wind featuring The Folksmen, The New Main Street Singers and Mitch & Mickey
Cold Mountain featuring Alison Krauss, Jack White and others
Reissue of the Year: Heart Food by Judee Sill (Rhino Handmade)
Runners-up: Crazy: The Demo Sessions by Willie Nelson
Amerasia by Terry Allen
Disappointment of the Year: Shootennanny by The Eels
Runner-up Room on Fire by The Strokes
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