(As posted on 3wk.com, January 2004)
In this era of legal downloading, illegal downloading and iPods, the concept of the album is somewhat in jeopardy. Listeners no longer need to buy or sit through entire albums. And based on the inadequacy of so many mainstream, mass-market releases, it’s hard to blame them. But thankfully, there are still many artists capable of and interested in making complete, quality albums.
If you consider that over 2,000 studio albums with new and original music were released again this year, you’d hope there would be at least 20 that are worth your
time and money. Having listened to (at least part of) more than 700 of this year’s releases, I’m here to tell you that there is still plenty of hope for the album, if you look in the right places. I focused mostly on rock, hip hop, metal, pop, electronica,
r&b, and, of course, indie-rock. Here are my picks for the 20 most complete, ambitious and well-executed albums of 2003:
1. AFI Sing the Sorrow (Dreamworks) – Nothing more necessary or exciting graced the heavy rock world this year. Surprisingly, it’s from a band who were once regarded as indistinguishable, goth punk – a second-rate version of
The Misfits. Throughout five underground albums, they gradually wrote more memorable songs and developed a dedicated following. Then, major label Dreamworks Records and hit-making producers Jerry Finn (Rancid, Blink 182, Sum 41) and Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage) got a hold of them for their sixth album. The potential went from limited-but-promising to limitless. Sing the Sorrow is the unlikely and invigorating marriage of nitro-fueled, punk energy and arena-sized, anthemic metal – with an overtone of despair. It’s a
constant flow of cathartic, sing-along classics.
2. The New Pornographers Electric Version (Matador) – This is quite possibly the most perfect pop/rock album since The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. With bouncing organs, swirling synthesizers, dancing guitars and snappy three-part harmonies, The New Pornographers’ ambitious hodgepodge generates an
astounding number of unique toe-tappers. Remarkably it’s from a group whose six members all have other projects – most notably, sole female member, Neko Case. As a solo artist, she delves into darker, more soulful terrain, but here, she’s the secret weapon that makes all the sugar that much sweeter. The New Pornographers shouldn’t necessarily quit their other projects, but making this band a top priority for years to come could be a great thing for music.
3. Kings of Leon Youth and Young Manhood (RCA) – These three sons of a preacher man and their cousin make tight, raw, good ol’ rock and roll. But they don’t sound like a throwback. With their rhythmic stomp and Southern drawl, they immediately establish themselves as a new band with a vintage sound that falls somewhere in the midst of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground. Somehow they make songs about murdering cheating lovers, condemning corrupt evangelists, and chastising dirty hookers,
fun and danceable…but chillingly real, too. The potential for this young band is tremendous.
4. Outkast (Big Boi) Speakerboxxx (Arista/La Face) – With their 39-track, double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the boundary-busting Outkast overextended a bit. There’s no question that Andre 3000’s disc The Love Below boasts the completely original song of the year “Hey Ya!,” the sex-crazed freak out “Spread,” and a couple electro funk successes. But at nearly 80 minutes, its hit-or-miss, Prince-inspired experimentalism is unwieldy. Big Boi’s
Speakerboxxx may not jump into a new genre altogether, but his soulful, funked-out, genre-blending hip hop pushes the envelope further than any of his contemporaries. Plus it hits the mark succinctly and often, with party jams like “Bowtie” and “The Rooster” and street banger “Knowing.” Ultimately, if Outkast would have taken 2/3 of the highlights from Speakerboxxx, 1/3 from The Love Below and put them on one album, they would have made the album of the decade thus far. You might look into making this album for yourself.
5. 50 Cent Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (Interscope/Shady/Aftermath) – Sure his first two singles “Wanksta” and “In Da Club” were underwhelming. And his mushmouth delivery hardly makes him one of the most eloquent MCs of all
time. But the combination of 50’s hardcore street tales, expert production from Eminem and others, and an endless stream of hooks make this an extremely listenable album (if you can handle the language and content). Plus, it’s short on unnecessary guest rappers and useless interstitial skits – both of which plague and disrupt the majority of mainstream hip hop albums today. This is the best gangsta rap album in years.
6. Jane’s Addiction Strays (Capitol) – With a thirteen-year gap between full-length studio albums and without original bassist Eric Avery, this comeback was far from guaranteed. But Strays massively overachieves. Perry Farrell’s reverberated howls soar as high as ever into the stratosphere, while Dave Navarro announces that god-like guitar riffs aren’t extinct from rock’s vocabulary.
Multi-sectioned trips like “The Riches,” and “Price I Pay” are more immediate than previous epics at their condensed, five to six minute length, as they hypnotize and pummel. And the more streamlined rockers like “Superhero,” “Wrong Girl” and “Just Because” are more rewarding than most mainstream rock today. The psychedelic jams have been trimmed, but the intangible mystique remains. Strays is the easiest place for newcomers to understand the brilliance of Jane’s
7. Nas God’s Son (Columbia) – In a hip hop world full of so many inane releases, it’s quite refreshing to hear an album with substance. Losing his mother to cancer turned Nas inward to write poignant reflections on spirituality and mortality. He also encourages ghetto children to empower themselves through education rather than the illicit temptations of the street on the rally cry “I Can.” What about his Jesus complex? Though potentially alarming to many, his
perspective as a martyr for hip hop is intriguing. If you’re going to hear about someone’s savior-like burden and declarations of supremacy, it might as well be from someone as articulate as Nas. God’s Son is a concise, thought provoking album with a healthy variety of great production.
(Note: Dec. 2002 release. After my November 30th yearly cutoff)
8. Drive-By Truckers Decoration Day (New West) – Decoration Day proudly represents both Southern rock and alternative country. On the more aggressive parts, Drive-By Truckers fulfill the rural outlaw promise of their name by exploring the mindset of territorial disputes between families, protecting your
farmland from the bank, and misunderstandings between your daddy and your lover’s daddy. On the gentler side, they explore true love, doomed love, and love ending in divorce. With songs alternating between the group’s three singer/songwriters, they keep pushing you in a welcome variety of different directions. The consistent Southern authenticity and sincerity keeps it all together.
9. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists Hearts of Oak (Lookout!) – Ted Leo is certainly one of the smartest and most talented musicians out there today. He’s not afraid to use big words like “ossify” (to become conventional) or “fungible”(interchangeable) in prominent places. And though he has a backing band, he sometimes carries the load himself by using only his powerful voice and electric guitar. His literate-blue-collar, do-it-yourself creed recalls melodic punkers Elvis Costello and The Clash, while he carves his own territory by incorporating his Curtis Mayfield-inspired falsetto throughout. Occasionally the whole package feels a little obtuse, but much more often the passion and intellect comes together into a truly unique sound.
10. The Coral The Coral (Columbia) – This bratty six-piece of childhood friends take you on a trip to the late 60s. They equally conjure the dark, organ-colored rock of The Doors and the dreamy, psychedelic pop of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. With some elements of British ska revival and new wavy pop, there is evidence they didn’t miss the last 35 years completely. Regardless, James Skelly’s husky rasp is so strong, the band is so tight, and the songs are so solid
that you can forgive their dated sound. The Coral are a good band to discover now.
(Note: 2002 UK release. 2003 US Release)