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Five Years Later: The Best CDs of 2003!!

Five Years Later: The Best CDs of 2003!!

Happy New Year!! You read that correctly, the Best CDs of 2003. Year end lists are such a tenuous thing. As critics, we are forced to meet a deadline to espouse our favorite albums of the year. There is much wrong with that logic. Firstly, one can never hear nor give proper time to every release in such a limited amount of time. Secondly, tastes change, albums grow or grate. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these albums sound NOW!” Sure, we’ll always have nostalgia, but trends end and new love affairs bloom. Are Echoes by The Rapture or Welcome Interstate Managers by Fountains of Wayne still top o’ the pops? We think not. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. One thing we discovered: this shit still rocks. Enjoy this little feature and welcome back, dear readers. – David Harris, Editor-In-Chief

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10. Broken Social Scene

You Forget It In People

[Arts & Crafts]

Broken Social Scene-Art-pop, alt-pop, post-pop…call it whatever you want, but the unarguably eclectic You Forgot It In People’s indie-pop mask attracted both critics and scenesters–this sophomore release put Broken Social Scene on the map. By this time, the collective was a conglomerate of more than 11 members–talent from Do Make Say Think, Stars, A Silver Mt. Zion, Metric, and more. Here’s a definitive quote by one member: “We’d already made our art-house albums… the whole ideology of trying to write an actual four-minute pop song was completely new to so many of us.” You Forgot It In People complicates traditional pop-rock in both track-length and cadence. Songs frequently merge together via surprising atmospheric effects, and take frequent time-outs for broad instrumentation. A third of these tracks are instrumental; we don’t get words until halfway through song two. Throughout, the vocals range from stabbing and attentively melancholy, to nonchalant, hidden, or distorted. The lyrics are the usual, almost-committed modernist narratives found in art-rock, but sometimes aim for discomfort (see “Lover’s Spit” and “I’m Still Your Fag”). Accusations of too much variety here are pure oversight–there are consistent themes that we can recognize as innovations. You Forgot It In People explodes lounge beats, and lets the “perfect” pop song run over five minutes so that there’s plenty of time to insert spacey effects into all the cracks and tack on extra instrumental verses. Cinematic strings, modest use of samples, imperceptible vocals, tracks that build in their intensity, the banjo, and the brass were all here before they were most everywhere in indie rock. You Forgot It In People is darkly upbeat, and unforgettable for two reasons. “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” is a repetitive vocal experiment; beautiful and completely inexplicable. “Shampoo Suicide” (and many other moments) made me fall in love with what I would later recognize as post-rock. – Caren Scott

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9. Calexico

Feast of Wire

[Quarterstick]

Only rarely do we meet an album that changes the sonic possibilities of rock music. Feast of Wire is such an album, and so has my vote for best album of 2003. Five years on it still sounds fresh; there’s a lot here that has not yet been investigated. I imagine that 15 years from now we’ll be able to see Calexico’s influence, as we’ve only recently been able to understand how influential the Pogues were. Both bands re-imagine Rock ‘n’ Roll as though its folk inheritance had been something different. Instead of mixing blues with Appalachian country, Calexico forge their music from Tex-Mex horns, flamenco guitar, Hollywood strings and Rock ‘n’ roll itself. Though Feast of Wire was their fourth album and six years after their first, it’s the album on which all this came together most completely. The songwriting is beautiful, layering evocative images and moving stories over novel textures and rhythms to create a music that is both alien and comforting. It’s such a warm album that it takes a long time to realize how tragic the stories are; most (if not all) are tales of border crossing, and the Calexico border is no happy place. There’s something inescapably cinematic about this album; the songs punctuated with instrumentals create the feel of a soundtrack, though the juxtaposition of “Across the Wire” with “Attack El Robot! Attack!” makes it difficult to imagine fitting this all into a single film. The story of American music is largely one of a nation of immigrants looking for its roots; Feast of Wire is folk music for an America founded in the southwest, for our new nation of immigrants. Despite the tragedies in its lyrics, it holds out hope of a new America, a continuation of the process by which a nation of immigrants becomes a nation unified, though the influx never ends. – Bob McCarthy

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8. Jay-Z

The Black Album

[Def Jam]

Let’s time-travel, shall we? 2003 happened to be the year when Jay-Z made his final bow from performing and escaped by making a presidential bid. President of Island/Def Jam Records, that is. They say history has the tendency of repeating itself, and just like Michael Jordan trading in slam dunks for home runs, Jay’s retirement from the mic didn’t last too long, having made two albums since then and another Blueprint on the way. The “Best Rapper Alive” is just as hard at work as ever, but nothing may ever touch the sheer passion of the defining Black Album. An extensive production from some of the modern greats (The Neptunes, Kanye West, Just Blaze, etc.) including tracks on his childhood, his life as a drug-runner, even his thoughts on heaven and hell make this album an epic concept record and a brilliant “final curtain” to an already brilliant career. Rick Rubin’s blazing production on the iconic “99 Problems” gave a whole new breath of life to the album’s stunning popularity at the time. Known for his work with alternative rock and the records of the early days of Def Jam, this couldn’t have been a more well-planned match-up. Those guitar and drum samples still ring loud in my memory and will surely still be there 20 years from now, as will be every bell on “Change Clothes,” every great line of “December 4th” and the excitement of hearing his first song (unimaginatively titled “My 1st Song”). This is certainly one for the ages. – Cameron Mason

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– New Pornographers

Electric Version

[Matador/Mint]

Mass Romantic (2000), the first album from the mostly Canadian New Pornographers, felt like a left field happy accident and few expected the indie super (at least in terms of talent) group to release a follow up. Electric Version, if not the surprise of their debut, is a more confident, accomplished and purposeful album. Pop is often a derisive term in the indie/alternative community, but the New Pornographers reach that sweet tooth many didn’t know they had. Brimming with bright melodies, catchy hooks, smart lyrics, great vocals and sounding like a condensed guide to virtually every great power pop band of the last 30 years, the album could be a key text for Pop Songwriting 101. Though the songs are almost immediately familiar, they aren’t derivative and all the seemingly worn out elements of pop are put together to form something new and exciting. As with all their albums, the most obvious pleasure is the inimitable Neko Case’s full-throated vocals, which come in like sun bursting through the clouds, but everything about Electric Version, from the confident playing to the immaculate production to the clever song titles (“Miss Teen Wordpower”) is fresh, vibrant, and invigorating. With this and other albums, the New Pornographers set the benchmark in the ’00s for intelligent, instantly memorable pop greatness. – Lukas Sherman

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7. Radiohead

Hail to the Thief

[Capitol]

Hail To The Thief is tangible proof that Radiohead is the gateway drug for any Rock ‘n Roll purist too stubborn to expand their musical tastes. While the brilliant OK Computer introduced the notion of electronica in anthemic rock music, follow-ups Kid A and Amnesiac took a high dive into electronic territory suited for more eclectic tastes. These explorations eventually led to Radiohead’s impending zenith. Hail is the album that seamlessly merged the two genres into an accessible and captivating hybrid. For the first time, it was acceptable on a mass level to listen to and appreciate artificially created music. Five years later, Hail continues standing on a pedestal of its own. Sure, many bands have tried to mimic Radiohead’s genre-bending knack, but prominent results are few and far between and are usually achieved by limelight-deprived bands. Hail was built for the mainstream. Yielding splashes of techno and sonic textures under Radiohead’s signature angst-ridden rock, the record spans a generous girth of tones. From the anxiety-driven race of “2+2=5” to the eerie, enigmatic “Sail to the Moon” to the funky, groove-laden “A Punch Up At a Wedding,” Radiohead proves its proficiency with all types of moods melancholy, ecstatic, reflective and beyond. Highlights like “Sit Down, Stand Up” and “A Wolf At the Door” still sound ahead of their time, an impressive feat considering artists have had five years of enhanced technology to dabble with. And aside from sporting nary a dull moment of music,Hail To The Thief is the album that all electronic artists owe thanks to. – Jory Spadea

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6. Death Cab For Cutie

Transatlanticism

[Barsuk]

I’ll give Ben Gibbard this, he knows how to turn out album after album filled with clever lyrics and innuendo. Transatlanticism is more or less the artistic peak between Death Cab For Cutie’s musicality and lyric prowess. It marks the turning point when Death Cab matured into my generation’s version of The Cure and made it a college radio mainstay. Gibbard is clever. The album is all about a long-distance relationship. Simple enough. Many an artists could simply say, “Oh I miss you so much,” but Gibbard has the song “Title and Registration” kick off with “The glove compartment is inaccurately named. And everybody knows it.” Who talks like this? Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla are the hopeless romantics that we all wanted to be in high school. Pouring your heart out without sounding like a total tool while doing so. The title track is the album’s opus. Coming in just under eight minutes, it sucks you in and time just flows by, asking simply, “I need you so much closer.” Listeners find themselves cast out on an ocean of sound that seems endless. Where “Tiny Vessels” and “Death of an Interior Decorator” are transitional and lend themselves to creating a more stable album than being stand out tracks. Transatlanticism stands up to the test of time because it is so introspective and filled with catchy hooks. Who could possibly stand still when you have the xylophone solo of “The Sound of Settling” beating around in your head? – Nicholas Ryan

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– OutKast

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

[La Face]

It’s fitting, in a way, that the ubiquitous “Hey Ya!” was the Number One song for Casey Kasem’s final Top 40 program, it being a succinct summation of popular music for as long as Kasem had been playing records. That fever dream of a pop song demands music critic hyperbole and I am not immune to this intense gravitational pull. The song is godhead. It was inescapable in 2003, deserving every last dollar and amount of exposure it generated. To further illustrate its genius, the strength of “Hey Ya!” alone sent millions to the record store to lay down cash for a wildly excessive double album by rap’s premier duo, Andre 3000 and Big Boi each taking a disc. Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is a relentlessly loud, manic hip hop record whose instrumental variety and rapid fire rhymes are buoyed by his lyrics. Big Boi spits with an eye turned toward the everyday trials of the young, directionless adult black male, addressing spiritual health in “Church,” alcohol abuse in “Unhappy,” and fighting in “War.” Big Boi even handles marital dissolution like no other MC could on “The Rooster,” where he briefly worries he may be repeating himself (“Beginning to feel like Ms. Jackson done got cloned!“) before resuming, understanding the urgency of the emotions at hand. Andre 3000’s The Love Below is concerned with the relationships between the Horny Young Man of the ’00s and the women he lusts after, the women he does romance and the woman who raised him. Not content to voice his meditations through just the idiom of hip hop, Dre visits spoken word, bebop and slow jams before fusing it all together in “Hey Ya!” Almost as great is Dre’s second single, “Roses,” a dis song that starts dark, gets funny, and ends, leaving the listener unsettled, having grooved along to such a bitter, venomous jam. Good records will do this, and as relentlessly indulgent as this double album sometimes is, there’s plenty here to revisit years and years later. – Chris Middleman

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5. The Decemberists

Her Majesty The Decemberists


[Kill Rock Stars]

No songwriter has read as many books as Colin Meloy has, and no (living) band sounds quite like The Decemberists. More musically complex than Castaways and Cutouts and less accessible than Picaresque, Her Majesty The Decemberists, their second album, gets overshadowed in the band’s discography despite delivering the band’s trademark literate, darkly comic story-songs in a Christmas present of musical growth and experimentation. Immediately the threatening, epic opener “Shanty for the Arethusa,” with its cinematic sound effects and sparsely instrumented verses, informs us that we’re venturing into territory unfamiliar to those accustomed to the lighthearted shanties of Castaways and Cutouts— docks too menacing even for whores, booming battlefields to make the legionnaire beg for the reprieve of the burning desert, and even vomit-flecked, cocaine-scented Los Angeles herself. Meloy’s picaresque characters endure, but even the uptempo ditties aren’t unaffected by the mood. Billy Liar is met with disgust and violence, and the Chimbley Sweep announces his existence with fury. It’s all delivered with wit and dark comedy, of course, as in “The Soldiering Life,” a classic boy-meets-battlefield love letter to the trenches. Meloy sings of bullets and mortars and the chorus sounds as if our soldier was at the top of a ferris wheel. After all this talk of soaring gymnasts and domineering, lustful bachelors, you’ll want a drink to dull the senses, of course, and the small, rootsy “As I Rise” will meet you at the juke joint as the patrons knock over chair and table alike and the album comes to its upbeat conclusion. Unless, of course, you have the album on repeat. – Danny Djeljosevic

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4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Fever to Tell

[Interscope]

For those blue balled since the release of their EP in 2001 from the grimy sex-drunk sounds that came out of the Karen O’s mouth, the frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell was a much needed and appreciated album. The trio put together its first full length with 11 songs that kept the sensational sexual destruction of their EP while making a slightly more accessible sound. The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s renegading trio brought demented lyrics and manic punk sounds to the mainstream radio in a movement that has helped transform modern music by introducing something that was aesthetically pleasing without being pop. Behind all the hype has always been the refulgent Karen O. On all 11 songs from this gem was her devastating and destructive voice belting out hits such “Y Control” and “Maps,” the racing replete in “Date With the Night” and “Tick,” and my personal favorite in the the brutal ode in “Man.” Each and every song packed the punch of the mid-’80s grunge but with the pop hooks of aughts. Fever to Tell was one of the those albums you could just “press play” with, helping it stand the test of time as one the best albums of the decade and without a doubt one of the best albums of 2003. – Edmond Stansberry

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3. The White Stripes

Elephant

[V2]

Just last week, VH1 included “Seven Nation Army” among its 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs of All-Time. Sure enough, the riff that opens Elephant stands as the decade’s most instantly memorable and universally identifiable, heir apparent to “Smoke on the Water” and “Back in Black,” a bang-your-head wallop for an era when riff-rock is rote, if not altogether extinct. It’s simple enough for Beavis and Butt-Head to recite in unison; complex enough to drive a treatise on preferring seclusion to commodification. That juxtaposition of backward-looking nostalgia and forward-thinking apprehension, visceral speaker-rattling rawk framing intellectual self-flagellation, keeps Elephant a fantastically layered, continually rewarding listen. Elephant is Jack White’s leap from preternaturally talented, schtick-prone garage-rocker to fascinating rock icon: a Byronic hero recast as guitar god. Along with his own Lady Caroline (i.e. Meg), who obsequiously supports and dares not upstage him, he unleashes a blistering, cathartic assault on the dramas and traumas swirling ’round his pancake-batter brain, schooled in classic rock (Zeppelin, Kinks, Queen), adept at clever wordplay and preoccupied with romantic delusions. In the year of metrosexuals, emo-pop and Seth Cohen, White strives to comprehend the crises, confusions and contradictions of modern masculinity. Across three consecutive tracks, he wields passive-aggressive mama’s-boy resentment (“I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart”), encourages possessive love (“You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket”) and rides a thrusting groove into sexual release (“Ball and Biscuit”). Whatever his mood—the standoffish crank of “There’s No Home for You Here,” the wounded martyr of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” (the ballsiest Bacharach spin since Love’s “My Little Red Book”)—White makes Elephant an intense do-or-die power play, with rock power the refuge of the amorously powerless. – Charles A. Hohman

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2. The Shins

Chutes Too Narrow


[Sub Pop]

Chutes Too Narrow still crushes most other 2003 albums like grapes, albeit in an unimposing and highly melodic way. Foregoing the lo-fi, keyboard-centric approach of debut album Oh, Inverted World, the Shins’ sophomore effort blended understated and gorgeous arrangements with incisive, wry, and darkly humorous lyrics. Though harder-edged songs like “Turn a Square” and “Fighting In a Sack” were reminiscent of that debut effort, most of Chutes Too Narrow found the band moving in a new musical direction. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the album is still catchy as hell; in a perfect radio world its songs would have stormed the airwaves a little more to the right of the dial. Straddling the line between folk and pop, songs like “Kissing the Lipless,” “Young Pilgrims,” “Pink Bullets,” and “Those to Come” offer melodies that are instantly memorable. Rarely have I enjoyed having such sounds lodge themselves into my brain and refuse to leave. This economic use of time extends to the song’s structures as well. There are no unnecessary or bum notes here; the various interludes and wandering atmospheric flourishes that puffed up the running time of Oh, Inverted World are thankfully absent. These melodies are nicely juxtaposed by James Mercer’s lyrics. Sometimes achingly sad, sometimes cynical, and sometimes both, the lyrics are direct without being banal, evocative without being obtuse. Many of the songs are dotted with a sense of lost time and regret, whether it’s the “grey remains of a friendship scarred” in “Kissing the Lipless” or the resigned admission that “the years have been short but the days were long” in “Pink Bullets.” Rarely have such sentiments sounded this good. – Eric Whelchel

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1. The Postal Service

Give Up

[Sub Pop]

To me, the sound of melancholy will always be the soft, ominous opening notes of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”, the first track from The Postal Service’s 2003 sort-of debut, Give Up. The very first time I ever heard those fuzzy droning tones was the beginning of a poorly thought-out romantic dalliance, and for the brief and inadvisable time we spent together, we almost always woke to The Postal Service. And so now whenever I hear that album, I can only think of gray December skies, the two-mile walk back home and the ridiculously lonely way I felt. I can’t think of anything more suited to Give Up.

The genesis of the album is practically indie-rock legend by now; Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie corresponding with Dntel (aka Jimmy Tamborello) via mail, matching beats with melodies and lyrics, even calling up Jenny Lewis and Jen Wood for backing vocals. It’s the kind of project that could end up going nowhere, or being submerged in a sea of egos, but miracles do sometimes occur: Give Up was one of the high points of 2003. It’s melancholic without being sappy, full of the elements of dance music without ever quite getting there. It’d be easy to pigeonhole the beats and keyboards as Dntel’s work and the winsomeness as all Gibbard, but an album this incongruously organic can’t be categorized so quickly. For all of the distance in its creation, there’s a terrible tenderness to The Postal Service, a humanity that is so often lost amongst synthesizers.

Gibbard is as often lampooned as praised for his miserablism, but Give Up is one of those rare beasts whose whole makes up for individual flaws. Rarely does music sound both joyous and heartbroken, as on “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”, when it soars up over a simple guitar arpeggio and Dntel’s drums kick faster and faster. On “Sleeping In”, he sings of a dream-world where global warming is just a reward for good behavior, because “Now we can swim any day in November” and it’s impossible not want a world in which it could all be that simple. Even the dark heart of the album “This Place Is A Prison” betrays a longing for human connection and vision in its bitterness “I know there’s a big world out there like the one I saw on the screen/ In my living room late last night/ It was almost too bright to see.”

Give Up became Sub Pop’s second gold album ever, but chances of a sequel seem dim. Perhaps for the best; sometimes unique accidents create more lasting impressions. Still, at least we have an album like this one to remember: wistful, youthful and beautiful. I have my memories of it, sad and wonderful as they are, and have no doubt that a million other kids from 2003 do too. – Nathan Kamal

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