Ear benders 

Well, the album as we know it survived 2003, but barely. What with rampant song downloading, mix tapes, pricey CDs and so on, it’s been a rough year for the full-length. Yet we here at Metro Times still believe in the idea of the album, the very idea of a body of songs that moves with a beginning, middle and end. We still believe in that. So much so that our music critics compiled yet again the time-honored list of the year’s best, with a couple of stinkers tossed in …


W. Kim Heron

1.) Thelonious Monk — Live at the Olympia — (Thelonious): The first release from the private stash of the Monk estate couldn’t be more promising. The quartet (featuring the superb saxophonist Charlie Rouse) is beyond swinging; these guys just about fly off the stage. With a three-song DVD to boot.

2.) Dave Holland Quintet — Extended Play/Live at Birdland — (ECM): Counterpoint that reminds you of watch gears; energy that makes you think the mainspring is about to go booiiinnnng. Two CDs.

3.) Griot Galaxy — Live at the D.I.A. — (Entropy Stereo): What becomes a legend most is finally having its music widely available, even if it’s roughly two decades late. This is Detroit’s premiere contribution to the jazz avant-garde in peak form. From sonic abstractions to African drumming to Sun Ra covers on a two-CD set.

4.) Gerald Wilson — New York New Sound — (Mack Avenue): His big band of the 1940s is a knockout on the collection Big Band Jazz: The Jubilee Sessions, 1943-1946 on the Hindsight label. More than a half century later he’s strong in the same game with an all-star ensemble.

5.) Cassandra Wilson — Glamoured — (Blue Note): True, her pioneering blend of folk, pop and jazz has become more common over the last decade— but that’s no reason to gloss over the fact that she of the husky contralto and seductive swing can still be sublime.

6.) Art Ensemble of Chicago — Tribute to Lester — (ECM): With three movements — from neo-jungle to swinging — in less than six minutes, “Suite for Lester” may be the cut of the year. And the other 50 minutes of this tribute to the late AEC trumpeter Lester Bowie ain’t bad either. (Also of interest is The Meeting on the Pi label, in which saxophonist Joseph Jarman rejoins the group for the first time in years.)

7.) Luciana Souza — North and South — (Sunnyside): Standards from the States and Brazil plus originals by a charming vocalist-composer at home musically in both the Americas. She can sing a line like “all my bridges burned” (in the classic “Never Let Me Go”) and make you wonder why you never before felt its danger and vulnerability.

8.) Martial Solal — NY-1: Live at the Village Vanguard — (Blue Note): A rare U.S. release for an elder European jazz pianist who suggests that improvisations are drawn like water from an inexhaustible well.

9.) Burnt Sugar, Butch Morris, Pete Cosey & Melvin Gibbs — The Rites: Conductions Inspired By Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps — (Trugroid/Avantgroid): The Stravinsky is more of a point of inspiration than a matter of translation for this post-fusion big band whose instrumentalists arrive from scenes that range from jazz to hip hop. The inimitable Butch Morris plays the ensemble like an instrument.

10.) Fred Hersch Trio — Live at the Village Vanguard — (Palmetto): Pianist Hersch lets us hear echoes of Monk, Evans and Jarrett — and with an abundance of feeling. With a rhythm section that knows when to lay back, when to push and when to pull.

Curio of the year:

Thelonious Moog — Yes We Don’t: A Switched On Tribute to Thelonious Monk — (Grownup): Thelonious Monk gets synthesized with goofball send-ups. Bach survived this treatment. So does Monk.


Jeffrey Morgan

1.) The AKAs — White Doves & Smoking Guns — (Fueled By Ramen): I don’t agree with everything these kids say, but God love ’em for sayin’ it. Unlike most of their contemporaries, the AKAs are mad as hell and, by Beale, they’re not going to take it anymore! Bonus points for quoting Samuel Clemens, using a Farfisa and having a name that places them first alphabetically.

2.) The Bloody Hollies — Fire At Will — (Sympathy): Wesley “Popeye” Doyle is a budding musical genius with a wicked sense of humor who just might be the new Todd Rundgren of garage rock. Not only does he write all the band’s songs, he’s also their singer; guitarist; harp player; and producer. And you wonder why he dresses like Ed Norton in Fight Club.

3.) Alice CooperThe Eyes Of Alice Cooper — (Eagle): Maybe it’s that painting Alice has stashed in the attic but, whatever the reason, the trademarked tough-as-nails timbre in his voice is as strong as ever. Not only that, but his new band of teenagers can beat up your new band of teenagers. Thank God that Alice Cooper is still here, rocking out like all get out.

4.) Reeves Gabrels — Live…Late…Loud — (Myth): This album has one of the loudest and filthiest guitar sounds ever recorded and is not recommended for everyone. Consult your physician first. Side effects may include: increased euphoria, a renewed belief in the sheer raucous power of rock ’n’ roll, and immediate acute deafness.

5.) The Jony James Blues Band — In This World — (Blue Wave): Sure Hendrix was great in his day, but that was a long time ago. So stop living in the past, take off that copy of Nine To The Universe, and listen to this album instead. Because there’s a new experience in town, and his name is Jony James.

6.) Derek Miller — Music Is The Medicine — (SOAR/Arbor): As good as Derek’s studio album is, you just gotta see his band live. This stripped-down power trio — featuring Miller on guitar, Kenny Hoover on bass, and Sean Kilbride on drums — exudes the kind of bravura technical skill, keen power pop sensibilities, and refreshing youthful blues-fueled rock ’n’ roll energy that I haven’t seen or heard the likes of in a nascent group for thirty years.

7.) Sarah-Jane Morris — Love And Pain — (Evolver): Sarah-Jane has an astonishing voice that’s unlike anything you’ve heard before. Not only that, but her weird and wonky Love And Pain would’ve been right at home on Island Records in the mid-’70s. So shift over and make room in the M section of your record collection because a new inmate is taking over the asylum.

8.) The Romantics61/49 — (Web): Dirty. Vertiginous. Churning. Smoldering. Grizzled. Sonorous. Distorted. Frothing. Wasted. Pneumatic. Swervy. A 36-minute crash course reminder of what real rock ’n’ roll is all about.

9.) Ringo Starr — Ringo Rama —(KOCH): Wherein the erstwhile Mr. Starkey comes up with his best outing since 1973’s Ringo. Of course, having the likes of Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Van Dyke Parks, Willie Nelson, Charlie Haden and Roy Orbison along to ride sonic shotgun doesn’t hurt either.

10.) Snapcase — Bright Flashes — (Victory): Face Front, True Believer! Take it from me: This rockin’ new album by Snapcase is one lease breaker you dare not miss! Even Honest Irving Forbush has a copy, so what are you waiting for, O Hallowed One? And just to be on the safe side, you’d better buy up every copy you see! After all, you don’t want Doctor Doom to get his hands on this sonic reducer, do ya? ’Nuff said!


Khary Kimani Turner

1.) Talib Kweli — Quality — (Rawkus): One of my two most important hip-hop albums this year. Quality is a conscious party in the midst of rap music’s material madness. You say you don’t like your music preachy? I say it depends on who’s preaching. Definitives: “Get By,” “Good to You,” “Gun Music,” “The Proud.”

2.) Outkast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — (Arista): My other most important hip-hop album this year. Outkast totally disregarded hip hop’s strict fashion and content codes. The double-solo-CD concept is outrageous too. Definitives: “Hey Ya (Andre 3000),” “Roses (Andre 3000),” “The Way You Move (Big Boi),” “Unhappy.”

3.) Jay Z — The Black Album — (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam): A triumphant ending to a storybook career, not Jigga’s best, but it’s up there. Hova ties elements from each stage of his career into a cohesive album. Streets to suites, it’s all here. Definitives: “What More Can I Say,” “99 Problems,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Moment of Clarity.”

4.) KemKemistry — (Kemistry/Motown): All of Detroit is biased on this one, but Kem made it easy by bringing soul back to soul music. His independent release-cum-Motown debut is the best baby-makin’ music since Brian McKnight’s first joint. Definitives: “Love Calls,” “Say,” “Matter of Time.”

5.) Dwele — Subject — (Virgin): Dwele’s album was slept on for much of the year—even though the Detroiter is a superstar overseas. Thank goodness it’s catching stateside. Raw, creative soul, well-written and consistent from front to back. Definitives: “The Truth,” “Find A Way,” “Let Your Hair Down,” “Subject.”

6.) Sean Paul — Dutty Rock — (VP Records): At last! A real dancehall reggae album hits big in the States! This one didn’t need a guest appearance by an American artist on the lead single, or an American beat cloaked by Jamaican lead vocals. This is pure reggae, with pure riddims. Definitives: “Gimme The Light,” “Get Busy,” “Punkie.”

7.) Wayne Wonder — No Holding Back — (Atlantic Records): Sean Paul opened the door for other reggae artists seeking American success. Wayne Wonder’s emergence felt good, because he’s been around longer than some of his newer fans have been alive. No more repackaged American hits for Wonder. Definitives: “No Letting Go,” “Friend Like Me,” “Enemies feat./Supriz.”

8.) Erykah Badu — Worldwide Underground — (Motown): This is not Badu’s best, and the experimentation gets self-indulgent at times. Nevertheless, she’s one of the best songwriters in soul music today, and some of her risks flat-out take heart. Definitives: “Back in the Day (Puff),” “Danger,” “Love of My Life Worldwide,” “Steady on the Grind.”

9.) Joe Budden — Joe Budden — (Def Jam): Know that I consider parts of this album a waste of time. Know that other parts of this album contain some of my favorite tracks of the past several years. Budden, at his best, personifies hip hop in production and wordplay. Definitives: “Pump It Up,” “Focus,” “Fire,” “#1.”

10.) Jeff Bradshaw — Bone Deep — (Hidden Beach): The trombone plays center stage on this well-balanced fusion of jazz, soul, blues and funk standards. Jill Scott’s musical director puts together an album with an all-star cast that feels damn good, and goes down easy. Definitives: “Slide,” “Soul of the Bahia,” “Make It Funky.”

Worst record:

Dudley Perkins — A Lil’ Light — (Stones Throw): I never want to listen to another Dudley Perkins album again. I thought the former Lootpack member might put together a good album, since he’d established a name for himself with his former crew. Then I remembered the only thing I really liked about Lootpack was their name. Their music sucked. I don’t know if Moore’s love of puffing the sticky green explains the scattered ramblings in homie’s songwriting. To picture it, imagine handing a microphone to a sloppy drunk who’s stretched supine on the couch, and then ask yourself if you want to spend your money to hear an hour of what he has to say.


Brian Smith

1.) Lloyd Cole — Music in a Foreign Language (Import) — (Sanctuary): Think of a master short-story writer along the lines of Raymond Carver or Kevin Canty whose terrain is average people caught up in fucked-up situations. Drop that into gentle, acoustic-driven songs that faintly recall in tone Leonard Cohen and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan, and you might come up with Cole. Music shows one of the world’s best storytellers in song (certainly the most underrated) offering up lullabies that juxtapose beautifully the humdrum color and grim poetry of a rote existence with melody that hangs in the head for days. The power here lies in the stories, and Cole can make the mundane sing, can make regret and longing sound downright inhabitable.

2.) The Everyothers — The Everyothers — (Hautlab): The sound of Mick Ronson all dusted off and out for a walk in his glitter boots as a tourist in the self-obsessed, detached world of the modern rock ’n’ roll hipster. And old Ronson is, of course, horrified and pissed off. That’s what this record is like. It’s the soaring beauty of great rock ’n’ roll with a nod and a wink to Bowie, Iggy and Mott, but with a sound all its own. Best rock ’n’ roll record of the year.

3.) Rickie Lee Jones — The Evening of My Best Day — (V2): Rickie Lee Jones has always been the coolest chick in the pop netherworld; hence, she’s undervalued and often ignored. Here, Jones is everything: She’s your insight-spouting grandmother with a few highballs in her gut; she’s the lover that you’ll never hold onto; she’s your sticky-fingered kid sister skipping barefoot to the corner store through cinderblock and chain-link neighborhoods; and she’s a mother with a daughter completely appalled with George W. Bush. Her loping and graceful jazz-influenced folk and blues is reinforced with a sundry cast of like-minded oddballs, from Mike Watt and DJ Bonebrake to Syd Straw and Bill Frisell.

4.) Sleepy Jackson — Lovers — (Astralwerks): Aussie Luke Steele and his revolving door of mates renovate the pop songbook from A to Z. Here the dots are connected between ’70s George Harrison and the Church, Robyn Hitchcock and Stealers Wheel. Could easily be cheese. But it isn’t at all.

5.) Alice Cooper — The Eyes of Alice Cooper — (Eagle): Who would have guessed that the Coop was capable of coughing up his best record since Welcome To My Nightmare? I mean, the guy’s been written off more times than a martini lunch, only to come back time and again with fists flying. This record is the Coop of old; the junk riffs and swagger of his Detroit days updated with cheeky stabs at his own celebrity. What’s more, the album includes the year’s best song in "Novacaine."

6.) Pernice Brothers – Yours, Mine and Ours — (Ashmont): Sing-song melancholy and sadness in mouth-along pop choruses where lines like "Won’t you come unbury me" are sung in such a way that you believe every word Joe Pernice sings is from the bottom of his wretched little heart. Stunning.

7.) Brendan BensonMetarie —(Star Time): Some things in pop are sacred, and that would include any cover of a Beatles or post-Beatles song. Benson’s stellar take of McCartney’s "Let Me Roll It," however, makes this EP one of the finest moments of the last 12 months.

8.) Romantics — 61/49 — (Web): At the risk of sounding gauche, this record signaled the triumphant return of a rock ’n’ roll band once left for dead amid the carcasses of ’80s nostalgia. Considering the haircuts and the red suits, the odds were stacked.

9.) Autumn Defense — Circles — (Arena Rock): Wilco man John Stirratt’s downtime combo has the strength and power of a thousand California sunsets from a vantage point somewhere near the top of Laurel Canyon. You can smell the winey ferment. You can see the burnt orange poking through just over the Pacific. You can hear the ghosts of Harry Nilsson and Crosby, Stills and Nash and Al Stewart whispering from below.

10.) Fountains of Wayne — Welcome Interstate Managers — (Virgin): Fat guitars and lofty power pop armed with a healthy love of Simon and Garfunkel and the workaday world. Every song a single.

Worst record of the year:

Kid RockKid Rock — (Atlantic): Song for song, self-touting garbage of the highest order. The one-time Vanilla Ice knock-off seems to fancy himself a cross between Ronnie Van Zant and Duane Allman. Hardy-har-har.


Fred Mills

1.) Bob Dylan — Eat The Document — (Watchdog): D.A. Pennebaker documentary of the ’66 Dylan/Band European tour finally gets a proper (albeit underground) airing via what may be the best video transfer yet of a historically significant artifact. Fun fact: Included in the DVD are outtakes from the infamous Dylan/John Lennon back seat summit in which they jabbered away, stoned and drunk.

2.) Spacemen 3 — Forged Prescriptions — (Space Age): 1987 studio outtakes for one of the greatest psychedelic records of all time, The Perfect Prescription. From dreamy minimalism to overdriven freakouts, it holds up as well as the parent album. Fun fact: Two choice covers are included, MC5’s “I Want You Right Now” and Roky Erickson’s “We Sell Soul.”

3.) My Morning Jacket — It Still Moves — (ATO/RCA): Who says you can’t fuse DIY sensibility (Guided By Voices, Flaming Lips) to deep-roots classicism (Neil Young, Stones, Grateful Dead), along with the occasional perverse curveball (Stax-Volt, pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd)? Fun fact: There’s so much reverb it sounds like Phil Spector recording a roots-rock orchestra in a shower stall.

4.) Joe Strummer & Mescaleros — Streetcore — (Hellcat): World service bulletin: Joe gets in the final word long after eulogies have been uttered and ales have been hoisted. Clash-like stompers, country-gospel ballads, worldbeat-dub thumpers and more. Fun fact: Trippy “Midnight Jam” features vocal samples of Joe deejaying on the BBC. This is radio Joe, on pirate satellite …

5.) Carla Bozulich — The Red Headed Stranger — (DiCristina Stair Builders): Willie Nelson remade/remodeled by Geraldine Fibbers ex-frontwoman Bozulich, who brilliantly re-envisions Nelson’s 1975 minimalist concept record (about a preacher who kills his wife) as an avant-garde passion play. Nelson himself guests. Fun fact: The original album has been described as “the weirdest platinum-selling country album of all time.”

6.) V/A — Miami Sound: Rare Funk & Soul From Miami 1967-74 — (Soul Jazz, UK): TK Records was Miami’s own Motown/Stax. Herein be some seriously stankified stuff, from the familiar — Timmy Thomas (“Funky Me”), Gwen McRae (“90% Of Me Is You”) — to the lesser-knowns, in particular Willie “Little Beaver” Hale’s slippery “Funkadelic Sound” and Clarence Reid’s swamp-funk strut “Cadillac Annie.” Fun fact: Reid also moonlighted as X-rated comedian Blowfly, of “Girl, Let Me Cum In Your Mouth” fame. Yeow!

7.) Television — Marquee Moon and Adventure — (Rhino/Elektra): The combined Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd assault of edgy, riff-fueled aggression and dramatic, jazz-tinged modal jamming made the CBGBs band a legend among punks, musos and hippies alike. Fun fact: Certain media boneheads to this day call TV “a punk-rock Grateful Dead.”

8.) V/A — Tales From The Australian Underground: Singles 1976-89 — (Peel Presents, Australia): Long before Kurt Cobain’s junk-corroded, splattered brains came to define rock ’n’ roll’s unruly, primitive spirit, bands such as Radio Birdman, Died Pretty, Cosmic Psychos, The Birthday Party, etc., were doing the troglodyte stomp with booze-fueled finesse. Fun fact: Included are The Scientists, a huge influence on St. Cobain’s Mudhoney pals.

9.) Love — The Forever Changes Concert — (Snapper): As with Brian Wilson and the Pet Sounds rehabilitation/recreation, Arthur Lee steams back with a live rendering of his sixties masterpiece — strings, horns and all. Fun fact: Recorded in London last January, near show’s start an adoring fan blurts, “Arthur! You don’t know how long we’ve waited!” Amen to that.

10.) Al Green — I Can’t Stop — (Blue Note): We don’t need no steenkin’ comebacks. Except this ’un. Reunited with old producer Willie Mitchell, Green sounds like he only ducked out for a sec to make a quick call. Fun fact: Ever-superstitious, Mitchell recorded Green’s vocals with the same mic he had in the ’70s. They just don’t make R&B like they used to, eh?

Worst album:

The Strokes — Room On Fire — (RCA): Jeez, it seems, like … soooo yesterday. I didn’t set out to trash these model-shtupping rockisback! brats; I loved the ’01 debut. But someone — it won’t be the cheerleaders at Spin — needs to say it: The Emperor has no clothes, and this album has no goddamn tunes! In lieu of actual verses, choruses, bridges, codas, etc., you get a skeletal collection of half-assed riffs, sloppy bass lines, monotonous beats (please shoot the rhythm section) and screechy, overly compressed vox. Not to mention the most one-dimensional, dynamics-free production this side of an old cereal box record. Incredibly enough, an album that retroactively justifies all the pre-emptive/preliminary backlash that the “hatas” leveled last year.


Robert Gorell

1.) Matthew DearLeave Luck to Heaven — (Spectral Sound): After a disappointing full-length on Plus 8 and lackluster work with Perlon, Matthew Dear charts techno’s depths for the next generation. LLTH might be the first electronic album to fully capture the essence of pop, glitch, electro and ambient in a single, fluid voice without forsaking techno’s tortured soul.

2.) Outkast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — (La Face): Even though The Love Below is a way better album and Outkast could’ve no doubt trimmed some fat off this beast, the duo collectively ignited hip hop’s imagination more than ever.

3.) PlastikmanCloser — (Mute): Many would-be fans didn’t get it. They thought it was too introverted, boring, not “plastik” enough, with stupid, cheesy vocals, and why he gotta put that shitty Death Star effect on ’em!? The haters missed out on the most deeply subconscious Plastikman record yet.

4.) Ayro — ElectronicLoveFunk — (Omoamusic): Sounds like Stevie Wonder reincarnated as a skinny hippy-lookin’ white dude with updated sound and some of the most soulful beats ever to squeak through an MPC. “Burning Brightly” is the year’s thickest slice of dance floor sunshine — a wonderful gift to Motown’s legacy.

5.) Manitoba — Up in Flames — (Domino USA): My Bloody Valentine, Spiritualized/Spacemen 3 and American Analog Set are among those whose retro-futurist production styles have been … borrowed here. Orchestral swells ebb and flow throughout this melodic masterwork that makes psychedelic, spaced-out, subconscious, light-headed, heavy-handed, analog-tinged rock ambience OK to, like, experiment with again, maaannnn.

6.) Ricardo Villalobos — Alcachofa — (Playouse): Meaning “artichoke” in Spanish, Alcachofa is a savory, layered thing with plenty o’ heart and architectural intrigue. Like Matthew Dear, Villalobos gives solid direction to the nuanced, melodic trend in modern techno.

7.) V/A — New York Noise — (Soul Jazz, UK): Thanks to Soul Jazz (and the Movement festival), bands like ESG and Liquid Liquid today get the respect that only anointed music geeks had given them previously. If ESG’s A South Bronx Story had come out now instead of 2000, however, it would’ve eclipsed this compilation.

8.) White StripesElephant — (V2): Jack and Meg took all their problems and ripped ’em apart. Jack straightened his curls, wanked the blues, drained his pen and laced up his shoes. Meg wistfully sang through some cold, cold nights. And ultimately, they were like the squirrel — diligent, resourceful, and climbing to the top. (Gotta watch those Stripes reviews nowadays — Great White Hype’s gotta mean right.)

9.) Various artists — Superlongevity Three — (Perlon): Just when it seemed Perlon’s EP release schedule was getting pretty obviously hit-or-miss, the Berlin crew drops its best team effort yet. Let’s just hope we’re still very far away from Urban Outfitters selling Perlon comps by the register.

10.) The Rapture — Echoes — (Strummer/Universal): Last year, Interpol gave me strength to appreciate bands that sound like other groups and Luke Jenner tries his whiny damnedest to be Robert Smith, but their shows at The Stick and this record are too brutal to dismiss as fad.

Worst album:

In a year that saw another exploitative, posthumous Tupac remix release, Lou Reed going from train tracks to full-on train wrecks, Violent J riding his own cock down the Yellow Brick Road on a Wizard of Oz-themed solo joint, and the recycled pop puke of American Idol’s Christmas record, the absolute sludge came compliments of Evanescence — a group brought to my attention by a friend who’s forced to listen to ’DRQ at work. Fallen, a wildly overproduced, Linkin Park-meets-Tori Amos-at-a-group-therapy-session record, single-handedly defined nu-diva mall-metal/rap. Has it really come to this? Where have we failed as a society?


Nate Cavalieri

1.) Saturday Looks Good To MeAll Your Summer Songs — (Polyvinyl): It’s like a balloon that swells just above your stomach and just behind your lungs. This year, All Your Summer Songs, brought heart to throat every single fucking time I put it on — every one of the more than 200 times I played it. And by inspiring an emotional muddle of nostalgia, excitement and fear, it remains overwhelming time and again.

2.) Ted Leo and the Pharmacists — Hearts of Oak — (Lookout): After years of unsung heroics in the rock underground, Ted Leo finally seems to be screaming loud enough for people to hear. Leo’s ferocious delivery on Hearts of Oak makes a rough diamond that bristles with passionate messages, distorted sing-alongs and pure fisticuffing genius.

3.) The Shins — Chutes Too Narrow — (Subpop): There’s good reason for the unanimous critical gush over the Shins sophomore release. In terms of picture-perfect baroque pop, the Shins have it in spades. They might also have penned the year’s best lyric with “Just a glimpse of an ankle and I react like it’s 1805.”

4.) Nappy Roots — Wooden Leather — (Columbia): Though 2003 was no banner year for major label hip hop, Nappy Roots delivered a masterful record of big hooks, big beats and no shortage of banjo (!?). Additionally, Wooden Leather offered reassurance that the much-ballyhooed Dirty South had real staying power.

5.) Jean-Yves Thibaudet — Satie: The Complete Piano Music — (Decca): It’s not just that this collection offers a half-hour of Satie’s never-before-heard solo piano scores, it’s that Thibaudet treats these tasty cupcakes of French folk-impressionism with appropriately kid gloves. If the 6-CD set is a little too-Frenchy for you, Decca also offers a condensed one-volume version, The Magic of Satie.

6.) Iron and Wine — The Sea and the Rhythm — (Sub Pop): Highly recommended for late-night listening, this collection of whispered melancholia evokes the hush of Elliott Smith’s first homemade outings. In its own right, the record’s charm lies in its simplicity. By far the best guy-and-acoustic-guitar record of the year.

7.) Outkast — Speakerboxx/The Love Below — (Arista): For what might well be the white-guilt crit pick of they year, I had to trade some record store asshole three promo box sets. But I did get it two weeks early. And, oh yeah, it was on quadruple LP. That guy was a sucka.

8.) Brad Mehldau — Largo — (Warner Bros. Jazz): Largo’s message was clear: Brad Mehldau is not the new Bill Evans. For much of the record he ditched the trio format and backed his muscular piano improvisations with everything from chamber orchestra winds to lite drum ’n’ bass. The cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” ices the cake, further proving that Mehldau might be the only major player in contemporary jazz who flips the bird to the genre’s catatonic state of academic irrelevance.

9.) The Pernice Brothers — Yours, Mine and Ours — (Ashmont): She’s wears a black turtleneck sweater every day. She is pale. She likes it when it rains. She is sad that the Smiths will never get back together. Do you want to have sex with her? Give her this record.

10.) Jeff Buckley — Live at Sin-é: Legacy Edition — (Columbia): This reissue of Buckley’s fateful solo engagement at Sin-é is the finest record in his uncannily large posthumous outpouring. Vastly expanded from the original EP, highlights include Buckley’s impeccable covers of Van Morrison, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dylan and Johnny Mathis.

Worst album:

Yeah Yeah Yeah’s — Fever To Tell — (Interscope): This style-over-substance turd might make the YYYs this generation’s Thompson Twins.


Serene Dominic

1.) Joseph Arthur — Redemption’s Son— (Real World/Universal): Because I love a religious album with a doubting Thomas in its midst. The fact that the Almighty is a no-show in most of the songs makes Him seem as important to Joseph Arthur as the other big H was to Lou Reed. Even with too many songs, this sounds like a future classic, but don’t be surprised if thousands of people will lie about being there first in 2013.

2.) Fountains of Wayne — Welcome Interstate Managers — (Virgin): At first I thought this sounded like someone finally made a rock concept album of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and it was The Ohio Express. But the more I played it, I thought Collingwood and Schlesinger sound like they grew up watching The Graduate and thinking the hero of the piece was the guy who told Benjamin to mull over plastic. Come to think of it, “Stacey’s Mom” is “Mrs. Robinson” to the Ric Ocasek set and “Valley Winter Song” is the best Paul Simon snow day song since “April Come She Will.”

3.) You Am I — Deliverance — (SpinArt): Who knows why jangly, crunchy guitar pop became synonymous with zero record sales, but apparently the memo never reached Melbourne, where You Am I continued their fascination with the underappreciated Big Star/Cheap Trick/Replacements demigods of yore and handed in a perfect album without a wasted moment on it, only to get dropped by a second major label stateside. These guys don’t deserve to be less popular than The Vines or The Strokes — those chumps open up for You Am I down under.

4.) Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros — Streetcore — (Hellcat): Unlike other posthumous albums this year, this was the only one that didn’t see ol’ Reaper coming and is probably better for it. And if life begins and ends at 50, Strummer settled his affairs with poignancy, class and ferocity — this is a man who hit the sky knowing that his best work wasn’t all behind him. And who knew he had psychedelia in him too?

5.) 50 Cent — Get Rich or Die Tryin’ — (Shady/Aftermath): No one has found more new ways of saying, “I’m gonna pop a cap in you,” and if he has, I don’t wanna meet him.

6.) Ween — Quebec — (Sanctuary): Any album that begins with the Motorhead-hearted opener “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night” followed by a trippy-dippy salute to “Zoloft,” with feel-good platitudes and soothing helicopter sounds whooshing from speaker to speaker, is just sick enough enough to make me wonder if they’ve resumed their five-cans-of-Scotch-Guard-an-album habit.

7.) The Kills — Keep On Your Mean Side — (Sanctuary): Because Polly Jean didn’t release an album this year and this one is good enough to scare her into rocking again. And yes, phone messages between songs are sexy.

8.) Paul Westerberg — Come Feel Me Tremble — (Vagrant); Grandpaboy: Dead Man Shake — (Fat Possum): Maybe the combined filler on these two releases cancelled out one really great album. A more patient person could’ve distilled a knockout Westerberg album but he might have left off great filler like “Making Me Go,” the best junk rocker you’ve never heard on a pizzeria jukebox and “MPLS” in favor of shit filler like “What Kind of Fool Am I.” My guess is the next record is the one that gets baby-boomer shoppers to redistribute their Goo Goo Dolls dollars for indie product.

9.) Alice Cooper — The Eyes of Alice Cooper — (Eagle Rock): Alice Cooper is back at the top of his game — and I don’t mean VH1’s Fairway to Heaven. By assembling his best two-guitar assault since Bruce and Buxton made six-strings sound like school detention bells, and insisting every rhythm track was recorded live, the Coop has scored a coup his hardest rocking opus since the Mesozoic era.

10.) The Shins — Chutes Too Narrow — (Sub Pop): This excellent album would’ve probably come in higher if I could relocate the advance copy that I played in my car for a month solid. Proof that mobility, CD holders and my eradication of jewel cases to save space is actually complicating things.

Most pathetic repackage of 2003:

Michael Jackson — Number Ones — (Epic): The King of Flop has now repackaged hits from Thriller for the third time in ten years. Unlike similar chart-topper sets by the Beatles and Elvis, Jacko’s Number Ones is padded out with five songs that were never No. 1 singles anywhere in the entire solar system — “Thriller,” “Smooth Criminal,” “You Rock My World” and “Break of Dawn” and a new stinker written by R. Kelly pleading for “One More Chance” with his kiddy constituency, which had about as much chance of hitting numero uno as a thirtysomething Webster has of being invited for a Neverland sleepover. And I like how as a special sales incentive, Number Ones came with four special edition covers, each depicting Jackson in a different pleading position.


Chris Handyside

1.) The Shins — Chutes Too Narrow — (Sub Pop): Remember when you were a kid and you could remember all the words to your favorite songs like they were multiplication tables? The Shins make me wanna be like that again. If you haven’t heard this record yet, go do it now. Not enough room to do it justice here, but as of this moment it’s my favorite record of the past two or three years.

2.) Electric SixFire — (XL Recordings): Fuck it. Remember when I said the Shins was my favorite record? That was the deluded side of me talking. “Fire” is the soundtrack to my inner party person. The mind of a “Police Squad!” episode and the body of a “Dance Fever” runner-up. Hell yeah! Too bad the original band got shattered.

3.) White Stripes — Elephant — (V2): All year there was an elephant in the corner. Last winter, there were rumors and CD advances. In spring, a Seven Nation Army marched on radio and the White Stripes’ two-night stand at the Masonic Temple sure felt right. Conan O’Brien, dead-center media attention for once. Car crashes, broken hands, celebrity gossip, world tours, universal acclaim, epilepsy-inducing videos and hometown scuffles all behind them. Even listening back on it now, the White Stripes have made a magnificent record. And even though I understand its purpose on the record, “Ball and Biscuit” is still wank.

4.) PW Long — Remembered — (Quarterstick/Touch & Go): Remember, kids, “literate” isn’t just a word that rock critics use when they’re feeling lazy. And when you can mix literacy with whiskey and country blues as PW does, mutherfucker, you got no need for rock critics or their clichés.

5.) Ted Leo and the Pharmacists — Hearts of Oak — (Lookout): Scruffier than his previous effort, The Tyranny of Distance, Hearts of Oak nevertheless offers a peek at Leo’s love of Celtic rock, Springsteen and folk, and shows that this go-for-broke troubadour transcends the indie ghetto in ways the masses may never realize. Their loss.

6.) Saturday Looks Good to Me — All Your Summer Songs — (Polyvinyl): A revelation in four-track. But that’s unduly pigeonholing this remarkable, emotionally and sonically vast record. Fred Thomas’ deft arrangements, cut-to-the-quick songwriting and perfectly short-attention-span compositions look, smell, taste and feel like classics.

7.) Fiery Furnaces — Gallowsbird’s Bark — (Rough Trade): Shoulda been called “Taking Big Rock Candy Mountain by Strategy.” Its easy demeanor will invite you in. The nooks and crannies will keep you poking around.

8.) David Cross — Shut Up You Fucking Baby CD/ Let America Laugh DVD — (Sub Pop): Aren’t comedy records awful? This one isn’t. David Cross may have saved us from a lifetime of Neil Hamburger’s diminishing returns by recording a record and making a DVD documentary that’s aren’t only funny as fuck and smart to boot, but that also mean it.

9.) Prefuse 73 — One Word Extinguisher — (Warp): I like glitchy hip hop as much as the next guy — that is, I think, only occasionally and intensely when my brain is in a certain “place.” For that reason, I keep this record at least 15 feet from the “sell” pile just to avoid being caught in a moment of weakness and regretting losing this gem of a fucked-up record.

10.) Bulb Records 10th Anniversary Showcase Magic Stick: It occurs to me that the Magic Stick reinforced their floor joists almost immediately after this show. It may have had something to do with Andrew WK inviting the entire crowd of 400 sweaty, grinning dudes (and the odd chick) onstage to jump around whilst being pummeled with the best damn rock ’n’ roll ever (for that night at least). As close to a religious musical experience as I’ve had in a long, long, long time.

Worst record:

Kings of Leon — Youth & Young Manhood — (RCA): Please!


George Tysh

1.) J.S. Bach — Goldberg Variations — (ECM New Series) András Schiff, piano:

Schiff landed a 2003 Grammy nomination for “best instrumental soloist” with this heavenly performance, an all-time high-water mark for Bach’s daunting, dazzling suite. Smoother, friendlier and more deeply felt than even the Glenn Gould and Wanda Landowska versions, it’s the strongest argument yet for updating Bach from harpsichord to pianoforte.

2.) John Cage — Sonatas and Interludes / Herbert Henck — Festeburger Fantasien — (ECM New Series): Cage’s oft-recorded, convention-busting series for prepared piano has rarely resonated like this. Henck, with an expert hand from producer Manfred Eicher, brings out all the deep gamelan poetics and tree-falling-in-the-forest particularity of this 20th-century exercise in mindfulness. Henke’s own improvisations begin at the Sonatas, but swirl further through sonic layerings.

3.) Morton Feldman — Late Works with Clarinet — (Mode): Carol Robinson, clarinets, and Quatuor Diotima. Who knew that clarinet was as central an instrument for Feldman as piano or viola? The late-great American composer of languidly pulsing meditations has rarely been as gloriously represented as in Robinson’s readings of these three works. Accompanied by cello, piano, percussion or string quartet, she makes the silences sing.

4.) Kim Kashkashian — Hayren: Music of Komitas and Tigran Mansurian — (ECM New Series): Kim Kashkashian, viola et al. Detroit-born viola virtuoso Kashkashian has used her longtime ECM connection to turn out one after another programming adventure (in particular, her recordings of Kurtág and Berio). But immersed in these amazing pieces by Armenian composers Komitas and Mansurian, she takes more chances (with a greater emotional payoff) than ever before.

5.) György Kurtág — Signs, Games and Messages — (ECM New Series): Hungarian contemporary Kurtág continues the legacy of Bartók and Webern into the 21st century with a profound and passionate approach to the art of the fragment. Though he loves to quote from the whole history of Western classical music, his true achievement is in making the overarching, lyrical, cosmic connections.

6.) Thelonious Monk — Underground — (Columbia/Legacy): Monk aficionados shouldn’t overlook this reissued treasure from the Columbia vaults. Despite wacky cover art, it contains two brilliant takes of “Ugly Beauty,” one of the master pianist’s loveliest mid-tempo tunes, interpreted by the quartet featuring Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), Larry Gales (bass) and Ben Riley (drums) — a glittering gem indeed.

7.) Thelonious Monk — Monk in Paris: Live at the Olympia — (Thelonious): Will the riches never end? We hope not. The Monk-Rouse-Gales-Riley quartet, caught in March 1965 in person at one of Europe’s most exciting venues, is a set for the ages, with superb performances of Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning” and “April in Paris,” augmented by a three-song DVD from the quartet’s Oslo, Norway, concert.

8.) Jason Moran — The Bandwagon — (Blue Note): The hottest keyboard hands in jazz belong to Moran, and his cohorts (Nasheet Waits, drums; Tarus Mateen, bass) know it. Here’s the flashing, slashing trio live at the Village Vanguard, with Turkish poetry samples, Brahms and “Planet Rock” interpretations, and anything else Moran can think of to take us higher.

9.) Greg Osby — St. Louis Shoes — (Blue Note): The postmodern-veteran altoist reinterprets nine jazz standards (from Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” through Monk’s “Light Blue” and Gerry Mulligan’s “Bernie’s Tune” to “Summertime” and “St. Louis Blues”) in an ultra-personal survey of the tradition. It’s another uncanny demonstration of Osby’s ability to burn and chill at the same time.

10.) Matt Wilson Quartet — Humidity — (Palmetto): Picking up where Ornette Coleman left off (if he ever did), Wilson and friends make avant-garde mayhem with alto and tenor saxophones, bass and drums, augmented by violin, trumpet and trombone. It’s a lot deeper in the pocket than one might expect, and a lot moodier and more grounded too.

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