The Best CDs of 2003

2003 was The Year When Everybody Died. The music world alone lost Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Hank Ballard, Howie Epstein, Johnny Paycheck, Barry White, Elliott Smith, Herbie Mann, Robert Palmer, and Bobby Hatfield. But for some of us, the worst blow came when the great Warren Zevon finally lost his battle with cancer on September 7. Fortunately, Warren had time to finish The Wind, a funny, poignant goodbye note to the world.

After The Wind was released, Jet, FoW, Evanescence, BRMC, and the rest were battling for second.

So, let’s review, shall we?

Disqualified for Reasons of Conflict of Interest

Fiction 8 – Forever, Neverafter
This would be a top-ten pick without question, but I can’t even pretend to objectivity because I co-wrote two of the songs on the disc. Still, I can say this about Forever, Neverafter. On one level it’s a break-up record, with all the angst and anxiety that entails (especially in a darkpop context). But it’s also a getting-over-it record, one that acknowledges the importance of friends in the recovery process. Finally, it’s a CD that engages some interesting questions about data, artificial life, and the secret life of art in a digital, file-sharing world. Forever, Neverafter is perhaps the richest, most complex and nuanced CD Fiction 8 has released to date, and it will be interesting to see what comes next for a band that has been through so much over the past couple years. Oh, yeah, and the tunes rock!

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into the list proper.

1. Warren Zevon – The Wind
It’s hard to separate art from its context. Considered in a vacuum, I don’t know how The Wind, Zevon’s last CD, really stacks up against the masterpieces of his career (Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Sentimental Hygiene). Honestly, I don’t know how I’d even begin to make that assessment, knowing what I know about Zevon’s final months. The fact is that you can’t dismiss the context, especially here, as one of our greatest musicians cum social commentators poured every ounce of creative (and physical) energy he had left into completing his swan song before cancer killed him. Given his race with death, The Wind is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever heard, a passionate last dance that confronts mortality with equal measures of brutal sincerity and the self-effacing humor that defined Zevon’s greatest work. In context, The Wind isn’t just the record of the year, it’s the crowning achievement of a brilliant artist and stands among the greatest albums ever made.

2. Jet – Get Born
Note to fans of the new wave of “garage rock” – Jet actually is all the things that The Strokes, The Hives, and White Stripes were supposed to be but really weren’t. Clearly these boys own many AC/DC albums, and you’ll hear bits and snatches inspired by any number of other rock legends throughout. My favorite is this wonderfully informed little snippet 1:50 into “Rollover DJ” where they spend a few moments knocking off Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business.” Gods, I love rock & roll….

3. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Take Them On, On Your Own
Well, damn. BRMC’s 2001 debut absolutely pinned my ears back, and the follow-up to my selection for the CD of the Year is as good, maybe better. As brilliant as the CD is, though, I’m not sure it touches the sheer force of the live show. It wasn’t until I saw them in concert last year that I realized what I was hearing on the CDs wasn’t multiple guitar tracks working the hell out of the lower register – it was the bass player. (I guess I don’t think enough about the details of what I’m hearing, huh?) And they can reproduce all those murky, swirling sounds live with just the three pieces. No sequencers, no guest guitarists, nothing. After two releases it’s now clear that BRMC is for real. They’re not just one of the best new bands in the world, they’re one of the best bands period in the world.

4. Evanescence – Fallen
To the best of my recollection, this is the most popular success that any goth or goth-inflected band has ever experienced. Peter Murphy sold a few records, but never came close to the kind of mainstream cash-in that this pseudo-Christian Rock band out of Little Rock is. The magic of Evanescence is part Amy Lee vocals – she both looks and sounds the part, and brings a strong presence to both studio and live performances – but mostly it’s about Ben Moody’s songwriting. These tunes incorporates the best of Nu Metal (which is to say, the punch of the genre) with genuinely tuneful melodies. These songs are as pretty as they are powerful, and that’s a compelling approach. Sadly, Moody left the band last year during the Euro tour. So unless he comes back – which seems doubtful – the band’s first success will likely be its last. Amy replaced Ben with another guitarist, but unless he’s one helluva songwriter it’s not going to much matter. Go ask David Lee Roth what happened when he went from writing with Eddie Van Halen to Steve Vai…..

5. Fountains of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers
There are, at last count, about 20 million bands out there playing Beatles/Who/Badfinger/Big Star/Raspberries-inspired power pop. Most of them lack the originality and wit Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood (who are occasionally almost too witty for their own good) display on this, their third release. Even if all the other songs were filler, this CD would be worth the money just for “Stacy’s Mom,” the band’s hilarious (and dead-on) homage to The Cars. The only thing funnier than “Stacy’s Mom” last year was “Stacy’s Dad,” an eerily accurate spoof from Uncle Izzy.

6. David Childers & the Modern Don Juans – Room #23
I don’t listen to a lot of what’s generally referred to as “Americana.” But the new disc by David Childers & the Modern Don Juans is a magnificent stew of country, rock, and honky-tonk that just knocked me feckin’ socks off. In a couple of spots I’m hearing songs that are sort of what I imagine Ronnie Van Zant might be doing today had he taken the bus instead of the plane, and I mean that as a high compliment. RVZ was a wonderful talent, and was considerably brighter and more complex than he was given credit for being. People don’t see that long-haired redneck rock star act and automatically think “rocket surgeon,” I guess. In addition to a profusion of outstanding songwriting and uniformly soulful performances by David and the band, you also have some predictably spot-on production from Don Dixon, who is (as noted before on the Pit) god. To my way of thinking, producers are like referees – they’re at their best when you don’t notice them. Dixon’s style has always been invisible, meticulously devoted toward revealing the pure essence of the song, to the point where I usually have a difficult time imaging how else the song could be done.

7. The Three Pickers – The Three Pickers
I’m don’t normally listen to a lot of bluegrass, either, but a friend got me this for Christmas. PBS got three legends – Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Ricky Skaggs – together for a show in Reynolds Auditorium in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, and this CD is the result. I’ve seen some critics complain that the CD is “sloppy,” and I guess from the standpoint of pure virtuosity that may be true. But this remains a real Hall of Fame kind of moment, especially when they’re joined onstage by Alison Krauss. The live setting fostered a certain spontaneity and honesty that you don’t always get from studio work, and for a style like bluegrass no amount of technical proficiency can substitute for authenticity.

8. Eels – Shootenanny!
Sometimes it’s almost wearying – “oh, there’s a new Eels record out. It’s freakin’ brilliant.” Right. It’s always brilliant.E is in the same category as people like Graham Parker and Peter Gabriel and Karl Wallinger, in that the worst thing they’ve ever done is better by far than the best that most artists will be able to produce. So, given this context, let’s keep it short – Shootenanny! is probably not as good as Electro-Shock Blues (which is true of 99.99% of all albums ever recorded, by the way), but it’s close. There. Go buy it.

9. Maroon 5 – Songs About Jane
And now, time for an “I told you so” moment. In 1997 I placed a bunch of LA teenagers calling themselves Kara’s Flowers in the #10 spot on my Best of list. Then they went to college, added a guitar player, changed their name to Maroon 5, and now they’re all over the damned place. I was wrong about one thing – I called singer Adam Levine the second coming of Paul McCartney, but it turns out that he’s Stevie Wonder instead. Right. While they were in college the kids discovered Stevie, and the result is Songs About Jane, which is hands-down the best Stevie Wonder record since, I don’t know, 1980 or so?

10. Celldweller – Celldweller

Celldweller is Klayton (aka Klay Scott), formerly of hardcore Christian industrial mainstay Circle of Dust (yeah, there is such a thing as hardcore Christian industrial who’d have thunk it, right?), and his solo project covers a lot of stylistic terrain. The default mode remains hardcore industrial, but the sound is a lot more guitar-driven than most darkbeat. Think mid-’80s Stabbing Westward, which is the band I guess I’m most reminded of. That said, Klayton has also been listening to Tool and A Perfect Circle, and makes occasional sidetrips into trance, techno, and drum ‘n bass. There’s angst and anxiety and rage aplenty, but the boots to the face are balanced by well-placed soft, introspective moments, and the CD benefits greatly from vocal cameos by Fluffy Starr (who I keep hoping will get her own album out this year).

11. Sarah McLachlan – Afterglow
McLachlan’s last studio effort, 1998’s Surfacing, was underwhelming, to put it diplomatically. It wasn’t a bad record, exactly, but it seemed like she had lost her edge. Her best work featured songs whose beauty belied their dark, occasionally sinister themes (yeah, “Possession” was about being stalked, folks), but all of a sudden she seemed, well, happier, and that had a weakening effect on her music. Afterglow isn’t Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, or even Solace, but it does prove that she can find some viable creative energy in what seems to be a more comfortable personal life.

12. Delerium – Chimera
My take on Chimera is something akin to my comments above on Sarah McLachlan – this release marks a return to form, sort of, for a fantastic act that hit something of a lull with its last effort. After Semantic Spaces and Karma, which were just incredible, Delerium produced Poem, which came off like the work of a band caught in something of a creative rut. Poem tried to go to the Karma well once too often, and the result was still pleasant enough (especially the Matthew Sweet track, “Daylight”). But in order to succeed, a CD either has to go someplace new or, if it’s going to do what has been done before, it has to do so better. Poem did neither. Chimera, while it doesn’t break new ground, does a better job than Poem at working familiar terrain. Long story short: if you loved Karma, you’ll like Chimera.

13. Fuel – Natural Selection
You know, a lot of critics don’t like Fuel. People like the jackmonkey at Allmusic.com, for instance. He seems to be in the “has to beak new ground” camp I describe above, which is fine. But for my part, I listen to Fuel and I hear a band that pumps out hard, melodic, atmospheric, well-conceived rock & roll, and they do it very well. Their sound owes a lot to Bob Mould circa Black Sheets of Rain (although the bass player told me after a show a few years that he’d never heard of him – I’m guessing some of the bands that influenced Fuel’s sound listened to a lot of Bob Mould records, so let’s hear it for second-generation influence), and while they certainly don’t pack the innovative wallop that Mould does, there is something to be said for a band that translates that level of power into music that’s a step or two more accessible.

14. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow
This is a CD I respect a lot, but I fear I don’t like it as much as I probably should. To the band’s credit, I feel guilty about this, and I believe that good music ought to make us feel guilty for not embracing it. Chutes Too Narrow is a neat little intersection of Beach Boys, Modest Mouse, and Built to Spill, and as musical triangulation goes, that ain’t a bad place to be.

15. Outkast – Speakerboxx/The Love Below
I listen to less hip-hop than I do bluegrass, and no rapper has ever made the Pit’s Best of list. But every once in a while a rap artist will do something that strikes me as genuinely inventive. This is it. I don’t know enough about the genre to speak authoritatively, but I heard somebody say that this double-CD set is the Rubber Soul of hip-hop, and that may be a fair assessment.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)

A Perfect Circle – Thirteenth Step
APC’s second effort is moody, tense, brooding, and introspective as hell. However, I’m betting a lot of folks who loved the first record didn’t like this one because, as Butt-head might put it, this album doth not rock. Really, it’s an odd progression for the band, because Thirteenth Step is plenty heavy, but noticeably slower than Mer de Noms. That may or may not be a productive path for a metal band to be exploring.

David Bowie – Reality
With Bowie I’m always waiting for his next incarnation. And on his last few efforts it’s almost as though he’s revisiting earlier moments in his career, perhaps seeking an updated revelation that merges his recent work with the legendary stuff from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I guess I can’t help holding Bowie to a higher standard – specifically, the standard he set for himself with Ziggy Stardust and the like – and while I like Reality, there’s no way of arguing that it’s in the same league as the music that made him famous.

Fictional – Fiction
Seabound – Beyond Flatline

I’ll mention these two discs together because they’re so very similar. Both CDs feature strong, dance-oriented darkbeat that occasionally blurs the line between industrial and trance – something some people hate, but that I like a great deal. In their finest moments both bands remind me of VNV Nation, but the technology associated with electronic music sometimes lulls artists into a sort of lethargy. There are moments on both discs where the autopilot takes over. This is fine for ambient, but it doesn’t work so well when you’re taking an active listening interest.

Massive Attack – 100th Window
I think “broke no new ground” may be the theme for 2003. Massive Attack actually has a reputation for always doing something new, but on 100th Window they seem content to explore familiar terrain. What rescues the disc from the “same-old” bin and actually makes it succeed (for me, anyway) are the contributions of Sinead O’Connor, who co-writes and contributes vox to three of the CD’s nine tracks. O’Connor translates her trademark socially charged lyrical intensity nicely into a trip-hop framework, and I can’t help thinking the disc would have benefitted had she been employed on more tracks.

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