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Best Of 2003: Albums

Twenty years ago, Los Lobos asked whether the wolf would survive, and now people are asking the same thing about the album. The answer likely depends on what your definition of the word of "survive" is.

Technically speaking, the vinyl LP has survived. Sure, they account for a very miniscule percent of recorded music sales, and aside from hip hop and dance music and the occasional hipster indie rock album, hardly anything is even pressed on vinyl anymore. This may seem like apples and oranges at first--the only artistic difference between LP and CD is that an LP has two sides and a CD has one, while the difference between an album-based consumer and artistic consciousness and a single-track-based one is a much larger gulf to navigate. But if the issue in essence is the answer to the question, "How to consumers want their music?" then it indeed seems like a relevant example.

In recent months, a shocking number of people I know have admitted to me that they did not buy a single CD all year. While I can't relate to this at all--aside from legal and ethical concerns about downloading, I'm an old-fashioned sucker for packaging--in some ways I can hardly blame them, given the lack of mainstream exposure for music that's likely to appeal to them.

So while, for the time being, the album is still considered the dominant platform for artistic expression in popular music, that distinction may be in its waning days. Again, I may be wrong. Critic Dave Marsh pointed out in his 1988 book "The Heart And Soul Of Rock & Roll" that he compiled a list of the best singles of all time, rather than the best albums, because "People don't go around humming albums." People don't download filler, or if they do, they erase it quickly.

As the iPod generation takes over, the importance of the album, which has enjoyed a solid 35 to 40 years now as the predominant unit in which people consume music, may well be lost. And while I ultimately agree with Marsh's comment, and I do value the concept of a song (or more, a specific recording of a song, not a song as written per se) over the concept of the album, I think it's fair to say a lot of us would be devastated if the album went extinct.


1. PERNICE BROTHERS - Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont)
If simply calling them the best band in the country isn't enough, can I tempt the reader by mentioning that the Pernices embody--and yet transcend--all the best qualities of The Zombies, The Left Banke, The Smiths, and The Cure?

2. FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE - Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/Virgin)
N.J. power-poppers make the album of their career with this ambitious and incredibly fun 16-tracker.

3. THE SOUNDS - Living In America (New Line/Scratchie)
Sweden's answer to Blondie, or at least Berlin, fill an album with '80s-influenced potential hit singles.

4. THE TROUBLE WITH SWEENEY - I Know You Destroy (Burnt Toast Vinyl)
Artful without being pretentious, intelligent without being obnoxious, this is the kind of album Wilco ought to be making.

5. LIAM LYNCH - Fake Songs (S-Curve)
The best rock & roll novelty album since "Weird Al" Yankovic's Dare To Be Stupid (1985), if not ever.

6. RYAN ADAMS - Rock N Roll (Lost Highway)
A lot of people resent Adams for being able to make a near-perfect rock album in his sleep; call me crazy for admiring him.

7. THE ALUMINUM GROUP - Morehappyness (Wishing Tree)
More gentle, soothing sounds with dark, literate lyrics from the band so soft they described their music as "If Wonder Bread could talk."

8. JUNIOR SENIOR - D-D-Don't Stop The Beat (Crunchy Frog/Atlantic)
Zigzagging genres almost as much as Fountains Of Wayne, these two Danes made the goofball party-dance-pop album of the year.

9. ROONEY - Rooney (Geffen)
A sweetly tuneful debut album I'm confident I'll still be listening to 10 years from now.

10. KINGS OF LEON - Youth & Young Manhood (RCA)
Boogie-rock is back; in some ways it never really left.

11. THE STROKES - Room On Fire (RCA)
If it lacks the memorable singles of the debut, it makes up for it with an overall high level of quality throughout.

12. YEAH YEAH YEAHS - Fever To Tell (Interscope)
Formidable first full-length from another group of New York City's finest.

13. HAMELL ON TRIAL - Tough Love (Righteous Babe)
The best studio outing to date from the acoustic punk-folk troubadour is the only album this year that might incite you to riot and also make you break down in tears.

14. GOLDFRAPP - Black Cherry (Mute)
By turns delicate and devastating, an electronic tour de force.

15. TED LEO/PHARMACISTS - Hearts Of Oak (Lookout)
Jersey guy who proves my favorite adage--"Amateurs copy, professionals steal"--by copping early Joe Jackson and Billy Bragg to perfect effect.

16. THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS - Electric Version (Matador)
Automatic for the nerd-rock people.

17. STELLASTARR* - stellastarr* (RCA)
Inspired NYC post-punk, take three (see also numbers 11 & 12 above).

18. ALL GIRL SUMMER FUN BAND - 2 (K)
Most accurate band name of the year.

19. ANJALI - The World Of Lady A (Wiiija)
Cool, upbeat electric lounge-pop swankfest with sitars.

20. IMA ROBOT - Ima Robot (Virgin)
Veers between almost-goth synth-pop to middle-of-the-road New Radicals territory, charmingly.

21. PUFFY AMIYUMI - Nice. (Bar/None)
Female Japanese power-pop with Andy Sturmer (ex-Jellyfish) as svengali, and the best album cover of the year.

22. THE WRENS - The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)
The hurt is palpable in these 13 artful creations from Jersey indie rock gods.

23. BELLE & SEBASTIAN - Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
Proof that they are one of the three to five best bands on the planet: perhaps their lamest album ever, and still it almost made my top 20.

24. TRIS MCCALL - Shootout At The Sugar Factory (Melody Lanes)
Beguiling keyboard-based indie rock snapshot of northern New Jersey.

25. OUTKAST - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
3-1 odds that the best 45-minute album of the year is hidden somewhere in these two hours and fifteen minutes of music.

26. LIZ PHAIR - Liz Phair (Capitol)
"What's wrong with being sexy?"

27. DIZZEE RASCAL - Boy In Da Corner (XL - U.K. import)
This 19-year-old British MC's stark and striking debut is a unique framing of hip-hop within a hard-edged electronic dance context.

28. THE INCREDIBLE MOSES LEROY - Become The Soft.Lightes (Ultimatum/iMusic)
A mellow--but quite hummable--turn from the eclectic guy who took #1 honors on this list in 2001.

29. MY MORNING JACKET - It Still Moves (ATO/RCA)
Everyone's saying it's Neil Young meets Radiohead, but Radiohead hasn't sounded this warm--or relevant--since "Fake Plastic Trees."

30. ELECTRIC SIX - Fire (XL/Beggars)
Goofy, danceable electronic pop fun.

31. MICHAEL FRANTI & SPEARHEAD - Everyone Deserves Music (iMusic)
This wore on me quickly, but its politically-charged soul-rap songs might yet prove to be enduring.

32. THE FIERY FURNACES - Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade)
So much less foreboding than its name, this is seriously playful, if that means anything.

33. SUPERGRASS - Life On Other Planets (Island)
Though a notch down from their previous output, a solid outing from these Britpop survivors.

34. JET - Get Born (Elektra)
Rip off Bachman-Turner Overdrive once and you're on dangerous ground; do it twice in the space of three songs, and you've won me over.

35. THE RAPTURE - Echoes (Strummer/Universal)
Can't tell if these electro-rockers are putting us on or not, but it works either way.

36. JOE HENRY - Tiny Voices (Anti)
Having peaked with 1999's Fuse, Henry continues his ambitious exploration of a muse that has yielded some of the best and bleakest atmospheric records of the last decade.

37. THE STAR SPANGLES - Bazooka!!! (Capitol)
New York punks with a spark reminiscent of Tim-era Replacements.

38. THE WHITE STRIPES - Elephant (V2)
Begins and ends most impressively; inbetween, wanders.

39. MOSQUITOS - Mosquitos (Bar/None)
Brazilian touches adorn a pop-friendly indie album.

40. THE TYDE - Twice (Rough Trade)
Mellow California dreamin' on this Beachwood Sparks side project.

41. DAVID BOWIE - Reality (Columbia)
Another solid--if not life-changing--return of the Thin White Duke.

42. THE THRILLS - So Much For The City (Virgin)
Still haven't picked up The Jayhawks' 2003 release, so this jangly roots-rock from Ireland ably holds the fort for the genre.

43. BLACK BOX RECORDER - Passionoia (One Little Indian)
Cynical but seductive, and almost danceable.

44. PEACHES - Fatherfucker (XL/Beggars)
On her second collection of electro workouts on the topic of sexual omnivorousness, Ms. Merrill Nisker does deserve most of the attention she so clearly craves.

45. MISTY ROSES - Komodo Dragons (mistyroses.com)
Sexy '60s and '70s soundtracky samples and live singing make this lush, lush, lush.

46. THE DARKNESS - Permission To Land (Atlantic)
If it bends, it's funny; why do I fear that any who dare to follow in these guys' wake will break (and I mean that in both ways)?

47. THE FLASHCUBES - Brilliant (Northside)
Syracuse's power-pop faves reunite.

48. GUIDED BY VOICES - Earthquake Glue (Matador)
Though no longer the indie standard-bearers of yore, they're still capable of some gems.

49. BLUR - Think Tank (Virgin)
The downward slide continues, though there are fleeting moments of greatness.

50. STEELY DAN - Everything Must Go (Reprise)
Worthy even if it merely hints at their genius of decades ago.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

STARS - Heart (Arts & Crafts)
MR. ENCRYPTO - Secret Identity Crisis (Silent Bugler)
SEKSU ROBA - Pleasure Vibrations (Eenie Meenie)
WEEN - Quebec (Sanctuary)
SUPER FURRY ANIMALS - Phantom Power (XL/Beggars)
THE RAVEONETTES - Chain Gang Of Love (Columbia)
AMY RIGBY - Til The Wheels Fall Off (Signature Sounds)
LONGWAVE - The Strangest Things (RCA)
THE NEPTUNES - Present...Clones (Star Trak)
RALPH MYERZ AND THE JACK HERREN BAND - A Special Album (Emperor Norton)



BONUS
MIKE C.'S TOP 15 EPs OF 2003

I've never done a list of best EPs before, but there were so many good ones in 2003 that I felt a separate category was warranted.

1. KINGS OF LEON - Holy Roller Novocaine (RCA)
2. THE BENS - The Bens (attackedbyplastic.com)
3. RYAN ADAMS - Love Is Hell Pt. 1 (Lost Highway)
4. RYAN ADAMS - Love Is Hell Pt. 2 (Lost Highway)
5. BEN FOLDS - Speed Graphic (attackedbyplastic.com)
6. BEN FOLDS - Sunny 16 (attackedbyplastic.com)
7. TED LEO/PHARMACISTS - Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead (Lookout)
8. THE HEAD SET - Ask Her Twice (Businessman Businessman)
9. CROOKSTON - Troublemaker (crookstonmusic.com)
10. STRATEGIA - Rudimentary Rhumba (geocities.com/strategiaband)
11. PINHEAD GUNPOWDER - Compulsive Disclosure (Lookout)
12. VUE - Babies Are For Petting (RCA)
13. THE STREETS - All Got Our Runnins (Vice)
14. JOSS STONE - The Soul Sessions (S-Curve)
15. BOWER HILL - Bower Hill (bower-hill.com)


More lists...
50 Favorite Singles Of 2003
20 Favorite Reissues/Compilations/Historical Releases Of 2003
25 Favorite Live Shows Of 2003