domingo, 31 de janeiro de 2010

Os Melhores Discos de 2003 - Pitchfork

It always seems to take a new decade a few years to decide what it wants to be. 2003 was the first year that felt like a fully formed part of the 00's. For the first time, we completely ignored any and everything affiliated with the 1990s, instead embracing 80s excess, while music, finally, seemed ready to look forward. Few previously established bands delivered on the promise of their previous records; instead, an entirely new crop of songwriters and artists burrowed out the woodwork, laying the foundation for the decade as it will be remembered when we leave it six years from now. Which had an interesting effect on our staff: for the first time since Pitchfork's inception, none of us had any clue as to what might take our the list's top spot. Frankly, we're pretty psyched about the results: this has to be our most diverse year-end list to date, and many of the albums we felt deserved more attention than we were able to dedicate to them during the year get their due. We hope you enjoy listening to these records as much as we did. See you in '04.

50: Supersilent
[Rune Grammofon]

The most somber release from Norway's Supersilent is possibly the heaviest record of the year. The quartet has the improvising chops of jazz musicians, but on 6, they blur their organic lines into dark smears of color; gutteral patterns and buzzing, primitive electric chords jut out like the country's sharp mountain ridges against orange winter dusks. The mood is like floating smoke, but clears in sudden bursts-- like the dawnbreak of "6.6", or the climax of "6.3" that sounds like a choir in an underwater cave. Not many albums can create an atmosphere while stimulating you with the details, shock your attention and then sedate you with stretches of grace. But it's the group's style that's most compelling, the sound of four people exploring a common ground that subsumes their own voices: just as the band has said that no other combination of members could be Supersilent, nobody else could make this music. --Chris Dahlen

49: Cyann & Ben

Thus spoketh Circe to the man of many turns: "To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who beguile all men whosoever comes to them. Whoso in ignorance draws near to them and hears the Sirens' voice, he nevermore returns, that his wife and little children may stand at his side rejoicing, but the Sirens beguile him with their clear-toned song, as they sit in a meadow, and about them is a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling." As Dr. Murray turns Homer, so French quartet Cyann & Ben, label brethren and compatriots of M83, translate spacy mid-period Flying Saucer Attack and the expansive compositions of Sigur R�s to forth Spring, one of 2003's most secretly compelling releases. It is epos in its most inverted sense; Cyann & Ben are dramatic but hardly overblown. They, like the namesake of the album's fourth track, "Siren Song", are beguiling, their potency never cosmetic, always noble and still, ultimately irresistible. Thy comrades, would that thee never anoint thine ears with sweet wax. --Nick Sylvester

48: Saturday Looks Good to Me
All Your Summer Songs

Just to prove how wonderful the traditional form of pop music can be when flawlessly executed, Saturday Looks Good to Me hearkens back to the classic sound of the 50s and 60s-- saxophones, doo-wop harmonies, bells, tambourines, timpani, and soaring, dreamy orchestration. Like channeling the ghost of Brian Wilson or Phil Spector's famed "wall of sound" as heard floating up from the bottom of the sea, All Your Summer Songs isn't strictly a retro-polished throwback, either. Saturday mainman Fred Thomas follows lines similar to Stephin Merritt's work with The Magentic Fields: attention to the utterly timeless structure at the foundation that gave rise to not only modern pop music, but also to Chuck Berry and the first fledgling steps toward rock 'n' roll, and updates only as necessary, only at the fringes. It's often as simple as a few studio quirks, or heavy reverb to echo, paradoxically, the primitive production of elder decades, but it's all essential, making the golden, breezy melodies of All Your Summer Songs old and new, timeless and just-current-enough all at once. --Eric Carr

47: George
The Magic Lantern
[Pickled Egg]

One of two majestic, graceful avant-folk records that captured a sense of geography this year, George's The Magic Lantern combined jumble-sale instrumentation, found-sound percussion, and whispering-woods acoustic guitars to create evocative, rustic English pop. Singer Suzy Mangion's haunting voice hovers and floats through faded-photograph arrangements like an ominous cloud, creating alternating senses of wonder and doom that seem swiped from the celluloid of a Hammer horror film. Like Piano Magic's Glen Johnson-- for whom Mangion has provided vocals-- George excel at graceful texture and off-kilter balladry. Comparisons to Low catch the mood of some of the tracks but ignore the band's eccentricity and versatility: George transports a listener more than lulls and hypnotizes them, whether that experience is being "Alone in the Country House" or looking over you shoulder for a "stranger in the woods." --Scott Plagenhoef

46: M. Ward
Transfiguration of Vincent

Even in the deepest cold of winter, this album warms the blood like few others. An open tribute to a deceased friend, Transfiguration of Vincent is catharsis at its prettiest and most affecting, pulling threads of American folk and Brill Building classicism into a singularly timeless knot. The sentiment is simple, but not simplistic: "He only sings when he's sad/ And he's sad all the time," Ward lilts on the sweeping sad-sack anthem "Vincent O'Brien", his strangely coarse falsetto feeling its way through the melody. The album moves like a fever dream from back porch guitar rhapsodies and ancient-sounding Tin Pan Alley shuffles to freight-train folk-rock like "Helicopter" and the most stunning, sensual version of Bowie's "Let's Dance" you'll ever hear. Transfiguration of Vincent is captivating in its honesty and imperfection, a majestic threnody fully disembodied from time and place. --Joe Tangari

45: Ms. John Soda
No P. or D.
[Morr Music]

Wilheim, Germany-based newcomers Ms. John Soda hit with No P. or D. early in 2003, an understated IDM-pop masterpiece that saw collaborators Stefanie Bohm (keyboardist from the Munich post-rock band Couch) and Micha Acher (bassist/trumpeter of Wilheim's prestigious electro-pop quartet The Notwist) expertly alter the landscape of contemporary songwriting while channeling their love affair with digital glitchouts through an array of disparate genres. Songs like "Misco" and "Hiding/Fading" both lay gloriously spliced and reversed vocals loops atop the melodic shoegazing hum of dirty, interweaving guitar lines, while the radiating acoustic bass, unraveling piano notes, and decorous horns of "Solid Ground" may constitute lap-pop's first stab at Brian Wilson-esque pop balladry. Where so many "side project" run high on ambition but lack substance, No P. or D. has enough pop ingenuity to make most "real" groups green with envy. --Hartley Goldstein

44: Alejandra and Aeron
Bousha Blue Blazes
[Orthlorng Musork]

2003 was a quietly great year for electronic music; not because of the breakthroughs, but because groups like transcontinental duo Alejandra Salinas and Aeron Bergman demonstrated how aspects of electronic composition and production are seamlessly integrated into music everywhere. Bousha Blue Blazes is their powerfully emotionally resonant hybrid of traditional folk and field recordings, musique concrete and laptop manipulation. The "songs" here consist of found bits of Bergman's grandmother Bousha singing to herself, sometimes accompanied by the radio, passersby, glitchy computer noises or even her old baby grand. The music proceeds not as a collection of short pieces, but rather like a single, concise documentary film. Along the way, scenes from the Spanish village where Bousha lives are presented with what feels like grand cinematography, and we're left with a modest portrait of an obviously warm, creative soul. Salinas and Bergman have fashioned an artistic document to sit alongside Alan Lomax's series of folk recordings, and in the process, raised a signpost for the next generation of laptop compassionates. --Dominique Leone

43: The Fiery Furnaces
Gallowsbird's Bark
[Rough Trade/Sanctuary]

We music geeks all note, mentally or in finely cataloged notebooks, those upcoming albums we anticipate most, knowing full well the records we likely log highest into the Year End Best Of notebook were those that dropped out of the blue. The Fiery Furnaces created no radar blip, which added to the immense pleasure of discovery. Beyond that, the duo's skewed blues refreshingly followed no trends. It's hard to even discern a precedent, beyond the go-for-it crapulence of Royal Trux or the angel dust arrangements of Captain Beefheart. But wait, come back! It's listenable! The song structures piece together like Humpty Dumpty, and the logic of the mixing comes across as Venetian or Inuit. Yet, it flows from the band purely, never forced. The sheer exuberance pulls you through as toy pianos, organs, slide guitars, handclaps, and other junk is spit at you wrapped in the seductive fever-dream imagery of the mysterious Friedberger siblings. Sometimes the greatest lore is that which you have to make up yourself. --Brent DiCrescenzo

42: Braodcast
HaHa Sound

In a year where old was the new new, Broadcast dug a decade deeper than the post-punk revivalists, emerging with a delicious pastiche of the 60s that were overshadowed by Woodstock and the hippie movement: Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra soundtracks, early Moog demo albums, Perrey & Kingsley records, and synth pioneers Silver Apples and The United States of America. "Pendulum" is Stereolab with spikes, resident chanteuse Trish Keenan's lovely voice slinking through a swarm of buzzing, blipping synths and chimes. Neil Bullock's spacious drums provide otherwordly rhythm to Broadcast's weightiest batch of songs yet, the band pays direct tribute to electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott on the skittering "Man Is Not a Bird", and it's impossible to deny the transcendent weirdness of headcase pop like "Lunch Hour Pops" and "The Little Bell". HaHa Sound is every bit the exuberant aural celebration its title implies: forty-five minutes in Willy Wonka's grandfather clock would probably sound about like this. --Joe Tangari

41: The Darkness
The Darkness

The incessant, dull arguments over whether The Darkness actually are a serious band need to stop immediately. While the band's unabashedly 80s aesthetic may serve as a fine marketing tool for the suit-and-ties over at Atlantic Records, the inspiration behind the band's majestic din of rock runs much deeper. The chunky guitar riffage of "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" rips a page out of the Angus Young lexicon of riffology and sloppily pastes it to the liner notes of Cheap Trick's Dream Police, managing to sound more classic than classic rock has in two decades. The heroin romp "Givin' Up" (sample lyric: "I'd inject it into my eyes/ If there was nowhere else to stick my skag") swaggers like The Stones in their heyday, while the acoustic ballad "Love Is Only a Feeling" brims with Zeppelin's idyllic passion and mythology. How could anyone doubt the ingenuity of a group who opens their debut record with a speaker-exploding rocker named "Black Shuck" about a rabid one-eyed dog that wreaks havoc on priests? Honestly. --Hartley Goldstein

40: Animal Collective
Here Comes the Indian
[Paw Tracks]

Brooklyn's Animal Collective might currently be lumped in with "free-folk" acts like Sunburned Hand of the Man, Six Organs of Admittance and Tower Recordings, but they operate on a decidedly futuristic plane where their peers might go for rustic strangeness. Here Comes the Indian is a surreal, distorted view of some bizarre child's Wonderland, replete with wild beasts, primal chants, pixie-dust ambience and the occasional violent outburst. Nestled deeply within the quartet's world of almost childlike fantasy (and nightmare) is actually a fractured pop ideal, wherein any sound is good so long as it leads you safely to the next adventure. Despite the multitude of unidentifiable noises on the record, ranging from hacked, wooden percussion to drastically mutated human voice, it's easy to be swept up in a fit of joy at any moment. Like Black Dice's Beaches and Canyons from last year, and Boredoms' Vision Creation Newsun before that, Here Comes the Indian is a vibrant, messy collection of sounds that may seem chaotic on the surface but ultimately reveals itself as a beacon of originality and peaceful catharsis. --Dominique Leone

39: Angels of Light
Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home
[Young God]

On the Angels of Light's epic third album, frenzied dirges, pagan laments, and celebratory incantations build tension like Poe's tightest tales and then, without fail, release a piss-storm of Old Testament wrath as redemption. In the CD booklet is a picture in which a copy of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Yanqui U.X.O. rests atop a pile of mail, papers, and musical detritus-- the homage is intentional, yet while The Angels of Light share Godspeed's sense of protracted anguish and triumph, Angels frontman Michael Gira did it first with Swans, and still does it better. Still practicing compassionate masochism through visceral intrusions rather than suggesting global politics through facelessness, static diagrams and expected loud/soft dynamics, Gira embodies disaster and its attendant unpredictability, concocting a breakneck prophetic power struggle that comes off like holy writ. Or at least the orchestral punk-rock edition of Paradise Lost. --Brandon Stosuy

38: Califone Quicksand/Cradlesnakes
[Thrill Jockey]

Tim Rutili's capacity for marrying lo-fi, backroom bangs with loopy electronic diddling has always provided Califone plenty of prickly internal tension: Quicksand/Cradlesnakes is the improbable sound of studio hounds rattling away on pots and pans, pitting the grit of American roots music against the gloss of their quirky gear, tinkering with peaceable folk cuts until they play more like freaked-out, futuristic compositions. Ben Massarella's otherworldly percussion tips and tatters while Rutili's surrealistic mumbles (read "Your Golden Ass": "Early minor Japanese pitcher sidearm slow tic/ A wolfish mouth/ On a mouse-ish face lady from Shanghai third man/ Shot wild in the house of mirrors") somehow never obfuscate, but instead add another craggy layer of poetic nonsense, each lyric as firmly rooted in cagey blues traditions as in postmodern prose. With its grimy blend of rust and shine, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes is an endlessly compelling experiment in contemporary genre-bending. --Amanda Petrusich

37: DM + Jemini
Ghetto Pop Life

This album has few competitors for most playful rap debut of the year. Jemini, a good-natured emcee out of Brooklyn, capably assumes hip-hop's usual street-slick postures with cartoonish dexterity and impeccable inflection, dropping rhymes about drugs and gats and bitches with all the deadpan glee of a Bullwinkle, or maybe a Spongebob Squarepants. Athens-based producer Dangermouse, meanwhile, works from an impressive library of theatrical samples with the single-minded intention of creating an incredibly sick party album-- here, he dresses up in a mouse suit and constructs elaborate, concert-choir backdrops for vacuous gangsta lyrics. Jemini is solid but not especially inventive; his ghetto-themed hook formulas (the thug one, the drug one, the money one, the cheating one) offer little substance and occasionally lose steam, but DM never falters, delivering a huge Technicolor bump for every last lyric-- on point or not. --Jascha Hoffman

36: Junior Senior
D-D-Don't Stop the Beat

2003: Da Year Crunk Broke. More remarkably, however, the O. Three was the year of the novelty band. Image and concept gets ink before a band even hits a studio. The list of examples is endless: A.R.E. Weapons, Fannypack, Har Mar Superstar, The Darkness, Electric Six, The Locust, Bumblebeez, Glass Candy & Shattered Theater, Peaches, The Polyphonic Spree, Gay Dad, Selfish Cunt. In being Danish, metrosexual, and a two-piece, Junior Senior hit the trifecta to become the ur-novelty band of the year. On first listen, their record sounded like an obscuro artifact dug up in a roller rink basement. Now, merely months later, it already feels nostalgic. But this is pop music, and we're fooling ourselves if we want our Fruit Stripe flavor to last longer. Amazingly consistent beyond its singles, D-D-Don't Stop the Beat preempts 22nd Century Nuggets Box Sets (assuming we still have music, boxes, or a planet), and somehow, it still falls under the first genre mentioned in this blurb. --Brent DiCrescenzo

35: The Decemberists
Castaways & Cutouts

If the arrangements are simpler and the acoustic ballads more samey than The Decemberists' follow-up, many fans nevertheless cling to the band's debut, Castaways and Cutouts, as the better of the two albums. In May, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy told Pitchfork that the band was struggling with time and equipment restraints when they made Castaways, but it's hard to imagine how they could have improved the melodic pop of "Leslie Anne Levine" or "Here I Dreamt I was An Architect". And even if they only coughed up one rocker ("July, July!") it proved that Meloy could jam intricate lyrics into a song without hobbling it. Starting here, Meloy's material has been typecast as a bunch of ghost and sailor stories, but it's the quality and not the content that's so striking here; the words to "Grace Cathedral Hill" come out with the power of a catch in your breath: "I paid twenty-five cents to light a little white candle." Even the ambitious decision to close the record with the three-part "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade" pays off like a guilty pleasure. Should indie bands play highway anthems, and if so, should they sound this glorious? --Chris Dahlen

34: Cat Power
You Are Free

Never has an artist's personality worked so hard to ruin my appreciation of their music as Chan Marshall's did in 2003. It got to the point where I had to ban myself from reading her interviews and concert accounts, so fed up was I becoming with her slow-motion helicopter wreck of self-pity and amuck pharmacology. But maybe it takes someone this annoyingly tormented by personal demons, a struggle so vivid it comes out in her hypnotically strangled pronunciation, to make a statement like You Are Free. Reclaiming a word bandied about for all manner of cynical and distressing reasons this year, Marshall sings repeatedly of a freedom both motivationally uplifting and burdensomely heavy. Whether alone at the piano, buoyed by the counterpoint violin of Warren Ellis, or brandishing an appealingly unconvincing harder edge on "Free" and "He War", Marshall managed to come out with a perfectly eerie album almost in spite of herself. There's a popular line from Angels in America that goes, "The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing, he set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody can reach it." Maybe it only takes someone slightly cracked to hit it every once in a while. --Rob Mitchum

33: My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves

Ever since R.E.M., most indie rock bands from the South seem to consciously attempt sounding like they came from somewhere else. My Morning Jacket, however, have embraced their roots since song one. In fact, it may not be a misguided assumption to say that their entire mission is to recapture the lost grandeur of Southern rock. Like The Band before them, My Morning Jacket heard a kernel of something in the tunes drifting across the Tennessee valley and decided to build a sound around it. Their major label debut, It Still Moves, shows flashes of a bigger budget than their Darla Records releases, but mostly, it sounds warm and familiar. Gorgeous songs like "Golden" are easy to love immediately, while longer impressionist tracks like "I Will Sing You Songs" reveal themselves in time. There's a reason people so often invoke cathedrals when describing My Morning Jacket's fondness for reverb: there's something a little bit holy in their sound. --Mark Richardson

32: Menomena
I Am the Fun Blame Monster

Nostradamus himself probably couldn't have seen it coming, as this innovative Portland, Oregon trio came virtually out of nowhere this year, grabbed our brain stems and shook vigorously. New enough to have never even toured beyond their hometown, Menomena dropped I Am the Fun Blame Monster so quietly we're lucky we even heard it-- but once we did, we couldn't put it down. Behind the eye-grabbing, hand-assembled flipbook artwork lay an album of movable parts fashioned into breathtakingly odd, reverb-saturated pop confections-- sax swelling and fading in clusters, sheets of cascading piano, smoky guitar loops and measured vocals that put the "affected" in "affected British accent." That Menomena built these bracing songs from improvised loops with their own specially modified software is conceptual icing on an already sweet cake. --Joe Tangari

31: The Decemberists
Her Majesty The Decemberists
[Kill Rock Stars]

With the hype and interest generated by their debut album Castaways & Cutouts still fresh, The Decemberists took their second album as a chance to dispel the two prevalent misconceptions surrounding them; that they're ripping off Neutral Milk Hotel, and that they have no sense of humor. On Her Majesty, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy played down the occasionally stifling singer/songwriterisms of Castaways and took a much more varied and playful approach. The songs here are every bit as imaginative and graceful as the words Meloy chooses to inhabit them, incorporating many more dramatic structural changes than the largely heterogeneous Castaways. "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground" builds to a moving and unexpected crescendo with subtle harmonies and sampled strings. "Song for Myla Goldberg" wraps Meloy's bell-clear voice in chugging drums and soaring organ. "Red Right Ankle", Her Majesty's sparsest track, seems all the more poignant amidst the intricacy and fanfare of the record at large. Here, Colin Meloy truly came into his own as a songwriter, and The Decemberists proved themselves to be much, much more than a humorless homage. --Matt LeMay

30: Aesop Rock
Bazooka Tooth
[Def Jux]

The baroque concept album of the year, this dense follow-up to Aesop's lost Marxist weekend has yet to be responsibly unpacked. Plotting an ambitious trajectory, its rich verbal and sonic tapestry is a fuzzed-out re-mapping of post-9/11 New York City as a genetically fucked carnival attended by a cast of warped and beautiful characters: "I ordered a hovercraft off the back page of an Archie comic/ Built it in three days and thought about snarky comments/ My gills call the East River rock bottom home/ And three-eyed guppies and sea horse mutations/ See New York as Ancient Rome." With details Thomas Pynchon would enjoy (including a 50-foot Bob Barker sent to destroy New York!) and a heady dose of Biblical numerology, Aesop maps evolution and hip-hop's glory days before linking Pompeii, the East Village, and other doomed geographies as sites of apocalyptic activity. Like Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, Aesop sketches an inspired personal cosmology and makes it universal. Damn, son. --Brandon Stosuy

29: The Postal Service
Give Up
[Sub Pop]

Not unlike the Six Million Dollar Man, Ben Gibbard's melody-weaving skills, having reached their rock-band compositional nadir with Death Cab for Cutie's sleeping pill Transatlanticism, were given a complete technological makeover by Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello. The potency of the mixture had already been tipped off by "This is the Dream of Evan and Chan", their collaboration on Dntel's Life Is Full of Possibilities, but Give Up managed to exceed expectations, offering an earnest update of synth-pop and a welcome reprieve from indie rock's technophobia. The Postal Service walked a successful line by not being biased towards either of the two elements being combined: live drums performed duets with laptop beats, that obsolete instrument the guitar was allowed to make a few appearances, and for all the IDM flourishes, the song structure never deviated far from something you could whistle. Gibbard's Hallmark lyrics may have been too sweet for some, but hearing them revive the lover's duet on "Getting Better", backed by 8-bit-soundchip-meets-pops-orchestra dressing, is worth the extra flossing. --Rob Mitchum

28: TV on the Radio
Young Liars EP
[Touch & Go]

One track into Young Liars, it is immediately clear that TV on the Radio are equal to more than the sum of their parts. From the sound of this record, the Brooklyn-based trio might be worthwhile candidates to produce your record, direct your video, paint your portrait or write your resume-- they've certainly written a fine one for themselves, having worked on this very release with members of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. Though uniquely modern, vibrant and expansive, Young Liars is also soulfully timeless and razor-sharp: Tunde Adebimpe's spiritual falsetto is backed by oven-fresh songwriting that roots itself in pure old-timer's soul. And check their swagger: they even closed this five-track EP with an a cappella barbershop rendition of The Pixies' "Mr. Grieves". --William Morris

27: Ellen Allien
[Bpitch Control]

The title could be a diminutive Berlin or an alternate, feminine map of a city I've never visited. On initial listens to Berlinette, not wanting to miss the message, if any, I paid special attention to the most ephemeral details of this smorgasbord of diaristic Kompakt iciness, New Order hooks, and haunted dadaist collage. For example, I focused on individual instruments or distinct sounds, like the live guitar on "Wish", the breathy percussion on "Erdbeermund", the repetitious and irredeemably evocative lyrical sloganeering of "Trash Scapes". First discovery: From the Moon Pix-styled cover down, Berlinette is the new face of non-faceless techno. Live, though, Ellen Allien chooses to disappear behind her equipment and she claps with the audience when it comes time for those sorts of applause things. Maybe she was praising the sounds and the borrowed techniques floating around the room, rather than the person who set 'em spinning. Hmm, this sort of gracious non-egotism must have something to do with the title, right? So I keep listening closely. --Brandon Stosuy

26: Ted Leo/Pharmacists
Hearts of Oak

Fuckin' indie rock. Just when I think I'm out, it pulls me back in. The culprit was Ted Leo, with an assist from PFM's Dexys-dropping scribe Rob Mitchum, whose mention of Kevin Rowland and Leo in the same sentence had me reaching for my debit card CD burner. He was dead on: Hearts of Oak is the most thrilling Ghanaian-American sensation this side of Freddy Adu. Here, Leo props up his conviction and honesty with a solid foundation of wit, energy, and an expressive, gymnastic voice that flips and soars, yet is arguably more charismatic and engaging when it doesn't quite nail its landing. The album had twenty- and thirtysomethings cringing at the familiarity of Leo's descriptions of drunken nights and teens pumping their fan-boy fists at his sharp hooks and impassioned idealism, and more than a few people reaching for their dictionaries. Like those whose loss he laments, Leo's abilities to coax sharp, agile melodies from his band and vividly paint flaws, fears, and uncomfortable truths are all-too rare, and I fear there will come a day when we ask, "Where have all the Ted Leos gone?" --Scott Plagenhoef

25: Viktor Vaughn
Vaudeville Villain

Underground hip-hop overlord MF Doom is known for his multiple personalities-- sometimes it seems like he's got more aliases than songs-- but on Vaudeville Villain, he racked up even more, effortlessly narrating countless metamorphoses: supervillain becomes rapper, rapper becomes quirky schoolkid, quirky schoolkid becomes drug bookie, drug bookie becomes perfect street scientist. Incredibly, none of this multiplicity comes at the expense of clarity. Indeed, Doom is as focused here as ever, his poetic frenzies entrenched in nostalgia and backed by four production styles evoking unhinged doors and tattered jackets for his tired but confident tales of "innercity streets with more ammo than Rambo" that apexes at the tale of an underage triste that'll put your right back at thirteen. Lyrically, hip-hop doesn't get much better: MF Doom's innate skills are so polished for consistency that finding a single stale rhyme or slip-up is nearly impossible. --Nick Sylvester

24: The Clientele
The Violet Hour

Those who dug The Clientele's singles and EPs collected on last year's Suburban Light were relieved to find that the band's proper debut didn't change a damn thing: the reverb-heavy mix would still sound delicious drifting from a dashboard AM radio. Yes, there were stabs at longer forms ("Lamplight", "The House Always Wins") and some new instruments here and there, but any ten-second stretch of the record could be instantly identified as The Clientele. The Violet Hour makes me think of the movies. Almost every song on the record is perfectly suited for a Wes Anderson montage reflecting longing, as Alasdair MacLean amplifies the tiny details in a life where the dream/reality divide is a blur. Actual survival has never been an issue for his characters, so they are free to contemplate the poignant metaphors that pile-up during a long, drunken walk home after a humiliating evening. If you've ever written a line of poetry it all makes perfect sense. --Mark Richardson

23: Lightning Bolt
Wonderful Rainbow

Wonderful Rainbow is not only one of the year's greatest rock records, it's also one of the least likely: Rhode Island noise-rockers Lightning Bolt clobber drums, warble with microphones jammed tightly in their mouths, and spit out throbbing, unhinged basslines, collectively spewing an uncharitable tangle of violent black noise. Consequently, listening to Lightning Bolt is not entirely dissimilar to flipping your car off the interstate: terrifying, bizarre, and instantly transformative, all crooked metal and harsh, bleating sounds. But Lightning Bolt's brand of ear-pummeling is also an unexpectedly appealing fight-- mostly because their one-two punches are almost always packaged up inside perfectly coherent (albeit intense) songs. This makes Wonderful Rainbow not only oddly accessible, but also undeniably compelling, a sloppy, wild-eyed, arm-flailing romp through steamy rock aggression. --Amanda Petrusich

22: Outkast
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Surely, the KISS solo albums are tired comparisons by now (partially because it's just cruel and wrong to compare Peter Criss' record to Andre's), but here's one that isn't: What if Daryl Hall and John Oates had split their personalities down the middle for a double-disc epic that revealed Daryl as the mild-mannered Jeckyll to John's mustachioed, orgy-crazed Hyde. It couldn't have sounded anything like this spiralling journey into the limits of experimentation in rap and R&B-- even if an Oates version of "Spread" doesn't seem impossibly far-fetched. Indeed, while Big Boi's Speakerboxxx struck like a Cadillac ride through a tunnel-shaped solar eclipse, Andre's psych-hop The Love Below developed like a Sexaholics Anonymous field trip to Cirque du Soleil. Which you preferred likely hinged on your tolerance for the bizarre-- Andre veered toward barrier-breaking jazz-funk, with torch songs, Cameo-style breakdowns and enlightened, idiosyncratic lyrics, while Big Boi played it (comparitively) safe with deep bass quakes, intricate rhyme schemes and classic intelligent hoodlum hard talk-- but one thing was unianimous: if Andre's disc didn't find itself in the company of your favorites of the year, Big Boi's did. --Rollie Pemberton

21: Songs: Ohia
Magnolia Electric Co.
[Secretly Canadian]

To harp about this record's sonic debts to Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd is redundant: Yes, Jason Molina, that short, complicated, and often brilliant man, has retired his stage name with a wedge of carny-core twang-bang, breaking the hearts of those who have stalked Ohia since its vinyl debut on Palace Records, and surpassing the codpiece-country of his benefactor (and onetime collaborator) Will Oldham's Viva Last Blues. Magnolia Electric Co. turned all of Molina's traits up to eleven: the listener gets barrelfuls of oblique earnestness, well-milked spent imagery, characters who are crisis-junkies, characters whose strengths are also their defeat mechanisms, folk-rock tropes (John Henry and Highway 66 in the same song), and rust-belt mysticism. Like Sufjan Stevens' similarly industrio-pathic Greetings from Michigan, this disc's heartbreakers blow the dust off of hipsters' emotional antennae. Then again, certain numbers groove so proficiently that the band could be performing at an alternate Altamont where the Hell's Angels gave out loaves and fish. Humorless, self-helpy, and replete with guest vocalists, Magnolia Electric Co. is a fitting farewell transmission for a band prone to investigating how the words "depression" and "union" refer to economic matters as well as the state of the soul. --William Bowers

20: King Geedorah
Take Me to Your Leader [Big Dada]

Turning obscure 80s soul, rock and television themes into raw street anthems, Daniel Dumile may not be exhibiting his classic style of effortless multi-syllabic rhymes, off-the-cuff non-sequiturs ("Do his thing for the little kings, like Sling Blade") and street knowledge gems ("Born alone, die alone, no matter who your man is/ Hope he live long enough to tell it to his grandkids"), but his beats make up for his absence. His solidly jagged use of hand drum programming and loose sampling style are at their best here, whether he time-phases beatbox drums over a black college halftime horn line ("The Fine Print") or battles snares with underwater flutes, muted voice samples, vibrating horns and elevating speeds ("No Snakes Alive"). The guest rappers impress as well, with legends like Kurious and MF Grimm laying facts and newcomers like Gigan and Hassan Chop displaying bright futures. Like Pete Rock's Soul Survivor before it, Take Me to Your Leader manages to not only spotlight its creator's own strengths in lyrics and production, but also to illuminate the developing artists he hangs out with. --Rollie Pemberton

019: Non-Prophets

Bridging the gap between the idiosyncratic humor of modern avant-garde emcees and the traditionalism of mid-90s rap, Non-Prophets' Hope saw Sage Francis rebuilding his battle-ready persona, alongside friend and frequent producer Joe Beats, in an absolute clinic on accessible underground hip-hop. Here, Sage progressively pays homage to the past while simulatenously mapping a legacy of his own and dropping some of the year's most clever metaphors ("When the shit hits the fan, I'll blame it on G.G. Allin"). Likewise, Joe Beats comes into his own on Hope with a strikingly direct, yet instantly identifiable production style: building upon hip-hop's classic beat archetypes, his drum programming, deep basslines and creative samples here instantly establish him as one of the underground's best producers. I can't decide which is more impressive: that Francis so quickly transformed from a journal-scribbling slam poet into one of the indie world's hardest emcees, or that the duo so effortlessly turned a low profile hobbyist outing into a soon-to-be-classic indie rap standard. --Rollie Pemberton

018: The Wrens
The Meadowlands
[Absolutely Kosher]

After putting their music lives on hold after a tragicomic series of label mishaps, New Jersey quartet The Wrens re-emerged in 2003 to a world that finally seemed prepared to recognize their talents. Thankfully, the band came prepared as well: The Meadowlands is not only their finest record to date, but one of the most profound, diverse, intelligent and accessible records conventional indie rock has produced yet this decade. Jumping seamlessly from windmill guitar rockers like "Faster Gun" to skeletal ballads like "13 Months in 6 Minutes", The Meadowlands covers a remarkable range of emotional ground, but what holds the album together is the band's classic, disarmingly elegant songwriting. When it rocks out, The Meadowlands overflows with melody and energy; when it goes for the heart, it's the dusty, neglected journal to emo's shiny weblog, brimming with personal truths that often seem too difficult and painful to comfortably share. Indeed, nothing about this record seems to have come easy, but rather than ignore its problematic conception, The Meadowlands embraces it, creating a self-referential narrative that eternally relives every harrowing dispute, every moment of doubt, and every obstacle finally overcome. Welcome to indie rock. --Matt LeMay

017: Jay-Z:
The Black Album

Occasional Pitchfork archvillain Mullah Omar's favorite strawman is the nefarious rock critic, luring rap stars like Andre 3000 and Jay-Z away from their gully roots and towards "mature" "experimentation." Though The Black Album could hardly be deemed experimental, it is the very definition of hip-hop maturity. Eight years have transformed Jay from a hardened street thug to one of America's most successful entrepreneurs-- and if you can't hear the Hamptons in the back of his throat, the Martha Stewart comparison should do the trick. Thing is, this etiquette-packed outing didn't just appeal to "rockist" music journalists, but to all varieties of hip-hop fan as well. Coaxing Grade A material from major league producers, Hov let his autobiographical tendencies run wild like never before with farewell acknowledgements, hooks composed entirely of his own discography, and a cameo from mom. Which would all be pretty insufferable were it not for that famous Shawn Carter charisma and jaw-drop performances like "What More Can I Say?" backing up all the talk. Here's hoping he burns out on playing basketball team owner as soon as possible and makes that inevitable comeback. --Rob Mitchum

016: Deerhoof
Apple O'

Producing five albums in the last five years, Deerhoof have grown from a solid foundation of harsh no-wave noise to spread their tendrils into super-sweet J-pop, tinkling errata, and some of the catchiest indecipherable hooks ever conceived. The unhinged, rhapsodic hysteria of 2002's Reveille was a tough act to follow, but Apple O excelled: it's the San Francisco trio's most accessible thirty minutes to date, if not their purest. Built on a loose theme of childish romance, these 13 tracks sketch an epic battle between cloying hookery and mind-melting noise, with occasional truces punctuated by a glockenspiel. No one wins. Like a big fat shiny caramel apple, Apple O will either rip your teeth out on first contact or leave you with a sugar headache and an uncanny craving for more. --Jascha Hoffman

015: Four Tet

Listening to Four Tet's Rounds is a surprisingly easy way to reconfigure your basic understanding of what music means. Check the record as a simple method for reconciling the puzzle-piece fiddling of 2003's phenomenal technology with the bleeding-fingered passion of classic, hands-on-instrument wanking: Rounds is, essentially, an impassioned celebration of sourceless sound. Here, ambitious laptopper Kieran Hebden channels pretty, tinkling melodies through his groaning hardware, pumping out majestic, multifaceted songs and fattening each of his compositions with tiny, manipulative bits. From its opening heartbeats to its soft, buzzing finish, the album sprays a fiber-optic stream of honks and rolls, beats and beeps, each ethereal pop split and looped until it fits perfectly into Hebden's haunting whole. Blissfully weird and startlingly dynamic, Rounds is the kind of record that follows you around long after it's spun to a close, a sprawling, glitchy success that refuses to fade without having left its inimitable impression on your circuitry. --Amanda Petrusich

014: Exploding Hearts
Guitar Romantic

Nothing was new about this album, but everything was better: Portland-based Exploding Hearts took the tried-and-true formulas of power-pop, pushed their levels into the red, and beat out one of the year's most passionate and exuberant records. Here, songcraft takes precedence over everything: "Modern Kicks", "Sleeping Aides and Razorblades" and "Throwaway Style" all burst with infectious melody, unfettered by pretense and undistracted by overwrought production. The mentality of Guitar Romantic mirrored that of the band members themselves, who, refusing to be caught up in the trenches of retro-irony that threaten such unmitigated earnestness, embraced their pink-and-yellow sound with palpable devotion. Frustratingly, this breath of fresh air was cut short in July when three of the band's members died in a car wreck on their way back from a San Francisco performance and promising talks with Lookout! Records. It's a disheartening tragedy that putting on Guitar Romantic at once reminds us of and, if only for thirty minutes, helps us to forget. --Nick Sylvester

013: Mu
Afro Finger & Gel

Maurice Fulton and Mutsumi Kanamori are responsible for one of the cooler out-of-nowhere records of 2003. Beyond the damaged rhythm tracks, coming on like an overdriven Kraftwerk performing David Shire's classic "Salsation" from Saturday Night Fever, Kanamori's seductress/witch/dominatrix persona is the star. There are moments suggesting a healthy history collecting electro records, but very little sets a precedent for the range of Kanamori's expression. She's ominous and cold in "Jealous Kids", gets aggressive on the funk party essential "Tell You Something", and then delivers the most incredible vocal performance I heard this year on "My Name Is Tommi". On the latter track, she re-enacts a Cheaters-style reality TV series, assuming the role of every character, right down to the thrilling confrontation ("You never home! You never home! Why you never try to talk to me?!"), while queasy ambient blurs, wild synth bends and stuttering drums create a disarmingly tense digital backdrop. Fulton's programming is wildly eccentric, and though Afro Finger & Gel is remarkably cohesive as a whole, isolating any particular moment generally returns Dadaist overtones. Still, the world needs more records like this. Unique, exhaustingly varied and funky, the world needs Mu. --Dominique Leone

012: Dizzee Rascal
Boy in Da Corner

Doing for East London in 2003 what N.W.A. did for Compton in the 1980s, 18-year-old Dizzee Rascal's debut full-length, Boy in Da Corner, was an unrelenting portrait of urban entrapment, its tragic figure imprisoned in an urban hell where adolescent love begets the responsibility of teenage pregnancy and the infinite cycle of gang violence threatens his every breath. On merciless tracks like "I Luv U" and "Jus' a Rascal", Dizzee delivered his rhymes in a frantic spitfire frenzy draped in a heavy East London accent that struck as part aggressive, primal holler, and part ravishing cry for help. His torrent of abrasive, icy beats offered little shelter: the self-produced instrumentals are a potent blend of Timbaland's minimalist stutter-funk, two-step, and Jamaican Dancehall with trails of gunshots, police sirens and other signs of urban depravity woven throughout. Indeed, the urgency of Dizzee's place-specific rhymes, matched with the stressful sonic architecture of his beats made Boy in Da Corner's urban narratives a veritable Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the new millennium. --Hartley Goldstein

011: The Strokes
Room on Fire

As soon as the first horse hair rubbed steel on "Venus in Furs", Groucho Marx turned to Yogi Berra in the back of the Max's Kansas City crowd and remarked, "Every one of these bohos is going to go start a band." Of course, Berra ran the cliche deep into the ground like "deja vu all over again", and The Velvet Underground's legend has benefitted since. The idea is overrated. When you walk into the Art Institute of Chicago and look at Van Gogh's Self Portrait, do you say, "Shit, I'm going to go do that?" Good art should humble you. From two angles, The Strokes make you not want to form a band. On one hand, they release meticulously planned rock songs that sound banged out on a whim. The drummer is inhuman. They have impeccable style. They have the resources and lifestyle to practice hours a day, every day. You're never going to be this good. On the other hand, they're a symbol of nepotism. You'll never be as fortunate. Maybe The Velvet Underground were off that night. Maybe the crowd was powerfully inebriated. Every generation needs a rock band that shames the others, until, of course, some young, privileged punks come along with the chutzpah to start it all over again. --Brent DiCrescenzo

10: The Unicorns
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?

Underwater parasites, extinct fantasy creatures, desert-island deaths, and a purely unfathomable "bone Camaro": morbidly absurd or absurdly morbid? Is there even a difference? Does it matter? Not to The Unicorns; the mortal fixations of their "more easily referred to by acronym" debut, WWCOHWWG?, are frequently as hilarious as jokes about various cancers and being torn apart by hungry cougars can be, but most cunningly serve to conceal one of the most intelligent pop albums of 2003. It's stealth-pop; underneath the black humor, gurgling analog synthesizers, occasionally too-cute vocal tradeoffs, and crashing cymbals and guitars lies a sleeping melodic juggernaut. Count the bread-and-butter chorus refrains on one hand and you'll have fingers left over, but that just leaves the band free to pluck any passing hook out of the sky, hone it to, uh, infection, and discard it before symptoms develop. And you, you poor sap, won't even realize it until you walk away from the inspired chaos seemingly unaffected only to find one (or more) of the innumerable catchy bits lodged permanently within your psyche. --Eric Carr

09: Broken Social Scene
You Forgot It in People
[Arts & Crafts/Paper Bag]

Prologues! Reprises! Earned indulgences! How many bands wish they could deliver the year's best bassline ("Stars and Sons"), or tried to record the best co-ed bash-up ("Almost Crimes")? How many attempted to rescue the sax from Eddie Money and his 80s cabalists? The only group more populous than Lambchop, in the year that Canada kicked ass, concocted a cafeteria-style Ziggy Stardust for the AD/HD "generation." No couple on this planet should apologize to each other without the nu-grass "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl" spinning in the background. "Lover's Spit" thrives as indie rock's answer to Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day". Listen closely for VU-style interband coachings before the crescendo of "Shampoo Suicide" leaves you caressing daddy's guns. Finally: the great disc that The Sea & Cake forgot to team up with Sonic Youth to make, an anglophonic masterpiece of libidinal politics. Pitchfork's editor made fun of their bandname, but in literary, sociological, and psychoanalytic ("social penetration") theory, breaking a social scene is a form of ideological critique, a means of dismissing an Eisenhower-hymen. This album asks: What if Altamont went right, on a subway, in Belgium? What if, when we peed, we aimed for God? You Forgot It in People travails such porn-turf as watersports, snowballing, and barely-legalism, resulting in unadulteratedly subversive and sophisticated pop art. --William Bowers

08: M83
Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts

A good twelve years after Loveless, a gorgeous wall of melodic guitar noise just doesn't seem so impressive anymore. While countless bands have shallowly imitated My Bloody Valentine's signature aesthetic, French electronic duo M83 broke it down to its fundamental core, reconstructed it with drum machines and dance synthesizers, and turned it into one of the most beautiful albums of the year. Rather than obsessing over textural nuance, M83 placed their focus squarely on songwriting, building sprawling organic masterpieces from decidedly inorganic sounds. Though Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts is remarkably dense, nothing seems gratuitous or out of place-- melodies collide and tangle, synthesized snare drums bounce off monoliths of hissing analog noise, and hushed vocals float atop crushing electronic symphonies. At times almost unbearably intense, Dead Cities is an unrelentingly engrossing listen from start to finish-- an album that demands your undivided attention, and never ceases to justify that demand. --Matt LeMay

07: The Shins
Chutes Too Narrow
[Sub Pop]

After The Shins' debut album, Oh! Inverted World, put the Albuquerque-based foursome on the tip of every indie music fan's tongue two years ago, fans wondered if the group would could possibly strike such gold again. Suffice to say, Chutes Too Narrow shattered expectations, a meticulously sequenced, stripped-down collection of indie pop gems encompassing endless Technicolor universes where frontman James Mercer's lyrical abstractions rub shoulders with shimmering heroic guitar lines, and layer upon layer of catchy melodic bliss. Clocking in at just under thirty minutes, and with exuberant, sparkling production from the Pacific Northwest's favorite producer Phil Ek, Chutes Too Narrow seems-- even months after its release-- incapable of wearing out its welcome, particularly as its piece-de-resistance, "Saint Simon", builds upon a swirling brew of guitar chord changes where decadent verses are as memorable as the chorus, and irresistible bridge sections drop from the heavens like Kinks-encrusted pop manna. It's a moment so intoxicating, you might forget that Chutes Too Narrow has nine more of them. --Hartley Goldstein

06: Prefuse 73
One Word Extinguisher + Extinguished: Outtakes

No one on this list can touch Scott Herren for boldness and endurance this year. Clocking in at over two sick hours of precisely calibrated breakbeats, Prefuse more than made good on the promise of his jittery debut, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives. One Word Extinguisher broke ground as the first instrumental break-up record in the history of hip-hop. Consumed by rage, shame and loss, a mind had locked itself in the studio to lick its wounds and gnash its teeth, to spit out what was left of her, or at least to choke it down. Somehow, it worked: The subsequent hour-long companion LP, Extinguished, carries little trace of that bitter ordeal. It's Prefuse at his most verbal and impatient, hurtling through dozens of twisted fragments with barely enough time to drop, flip, and scrap each one for the next. The effect is crowded, dizzy, and best taken lying down. The two records sound similar and feature their fair share of non-sequitur transitions, but each has its own personality: One Word Extinguisher is slower and more consistent, favoring gauzy textures and extended polymetric feels; Extinguished is harsher and more outlandish, riddled with vinyl twists, vocal scraps and battle raps. The left turn Herren's just taken with the new Savath + Savalas album make it clear that he'll not be held hostage to success. While mainstream rap producers continue to cultivate their stutters and lilts, for the time being Prefuse has a near-monopoly on the hard, dark edge of hip-hop. --Jascha Hoffman

05: Manitoba
Up in Flames

Manitoba's follow-up to 2001's glitched-out debut, Start Breaking My Heart, was one of 2003's biggest surprises: Somewhere between his first Boards-inspired instrumentals and his signing to Domino Records, the instrumentation and production of the Aquarian age had inspired Dan Snaith to leave his pastoral IDM roots in the dust. In a year that saw most of the major names in the vast world of IDM making at least some concessions to traditional pop form, Snaith went all the way. Trading his Reaktor sound tools for a guitar and a rusty glockenspiel, he decided to see us on the other side.
Well, almost. Despite the bands that are frequently namechecked in comparison, Up in Flames isn't an album of songs-- at least, not in the conventional sense. What I hear in this record is a guy in love with the sound of 60s psychedelia much more than with the melodies, harmonies or outrageous personalities. Despite the booming drums, guitars, swirling organs, and Shangri-la backing vocals, this music is about tension and release, builds and breaks, not verses and middle eights. The lyrics are an afterthought, while the titles are long and specific in the Kid606 tradition, offering the emotional guidepost sterile IDM so often needs. Here, of course, it wasn't necessary: This record has feeling to spare. Snaith used the kandy-kolored tangerine-flake signifiers, and the borrowed or handed-down memories that go along with them, and, with the digital auteur's sense of control, created music to express life-affirming bliss. --Mark Richardson

04: Radiohead
Hail to the Thief

Hot damn, them epochal Brits done trucked over to Hollywood and dropped another compelling puzzle-piece on the stunted grad student in us all! This episode's secret word is "aphasia," as our fave quintet plods exquisitely through a batch of literate and almost standoffish anti-pop anti-anthems about the failure of utterance, as if channeling Reagan's delirium. The booklet's phrase-map artwork, the album's four titles, and the songs' double-namedness initiate a thematic bombardment that quickens throughout the 1984-referencing "2 + 2 = 5", the tongue-tied "Myxomatosis", and the hallucinatory "Scatterbrain". Thom Yorke alludes to the Bible, Homer, fairy tales, and The Stepford Wives, but this disc's closest hardbound kin is Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, the protagonist of which mumbles at reel-to-reel recordings of himself in his fallout hut. See Hail's pro-bunker stance, its spliced dialogue songs, its schizophrenic chants (THE RAINDROPS THE RAINDROPS and little babies' eyes eyes eyes), its line about erasing all tapes, and its final line before the album ends with seven seconds of silence: "Turn this tape off."
Beckett's Krapp was alone, but Hail's wailer has children to be paranoid about. Caught up in the old trick of how some things are worth worry, while worry remains worthless, Yorke sounds as deflated as a teat ransacked by its oblivious litter. When the band's not consigned to lurch through nullabies that evoke offloaded Les Paul DNA, they meticulously rollick like fingerpainting automatons, or, during the squall of "There There", as if submitting a soundtrack for Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' in... 'Shaft'. The breakdown from The Beatles' "I Want You" is wrung neurotic to supply the backing for "A Wolf at the Door"'s taxman-citing panic-rant about calling the cops (consult Go Home Productions' mash-up of "Karma Police" and "A Day in the Life"). "We Suck Young Blood" is seasoned with off-time zombie handclaps: a Down With People hymn for the dawn of brand-name pill organizers. The production is Howard Hughes hermetic; just as early Springsteen seems the perfect warmth for vinyl, Radiohead match the coldness of CDs and the even more abstract MP3. Still, a new sentimentality and reliance on cliche have emerged: Kid A is growing up, and Yorke has begun to care about the lil' motherscratcher. Thus his band is becoming our ham-fistedly intricate Pink Floyd. --William Bowers

03: Sufjan Stevens
Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State
[Asthmatic Kitty/Soundsfamilyre]

The paper says that now that we've lost our manufacturing jobs, we're down to selling the mills: a few entrepreneurs are taking them apart and mailing the pieces to China. The grimmest thing about watching our fellow Americans lose their jobs and communities is how utterly powerless we feel about it-- voting for one clown or against another or buying a Michael Moore book won't even make a ripple in the economic sea. That Sufjan Stevens can capture that melancholy, alongside a dozen other themes in this record about his birthstate, explains why this sleeper release has earned so much praise. His ingenuity lets him blow past the usual self-imposed rules of singer-songwriting: Stevens places his sympathetic Elliott Smith/Art Garfunkel vocal on acoustic ballads, but also orchestrates pulsing post-rock arrangements-- repetition as industry as hope as a fleeting illusion-- that break up the melancholy. Tracks like "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!" pound their way to a state of delight.
Of course, it's no slight to the music to say that Michigan's true greatness rests in its lyrics. Stevens doesn't just bare his feelings here, he digs through them to find why they matter; he shows an unusual sensitivity, and never resigns himself to an answer (a la "That's Just the Way It Is"). Let's face it, at a time like this-- when most artists steer away from reality and focus on making you feel good, horny or angst-ridden-- anyone who tackles the question of America, who challenges himself this much, deserves credit and imitators; by doing it so successfully, Sufjan Stevens has made a record that's damn near crucial. --Chris Dahlen

02: The Books
The Lemon of Pink

Like their 2002 debut, Thought for Food, The Books' The Lemon of Pink is the cerebral world of thought, feeling, and idea made sound. Arbitrary, disconnected soundbytes rattle around beneath swells of fiddle, banjo, and other antique strings like half-remembered moments of clarity. The otherworldly samples and vocal snippets could easily be relegated to the status of novelty, or worse, distraction, in less perfectly arranged music, but here the spoken interludes and melodies work in beautiful concert: otherwise distant, sepia-toned nostalgia is lent emotional resonance by eggshell-fragile plucking and triumphant crescendos, and with the album's very first utterance, "The lemon. Of pink," amid its first hesitant tunings, hits like a blast from the Reading Rainbow past, making it plain that this album is less reality than fairytale.
And as the cover itself implies, beyond the casual innocence of so much of the material and presentation, the strict construction of a storybook is at work here, too; moreso than its predecessor, The Lemon of Pink feels like a journey, and more importantly (like any good story), a journey with a beginning, middle and end. As an album, and as individual songs, it never lacks purpose. The unfocused wanderlust of the Thought for Food's more disjointed, experimental tendencies has been slightly shifted towards a more refined sense of melody; in every aspect, from the what is surely the best production heard on any album this year to the most intricate subtleties of the compositions themselves, The Lemon of Pink strides confidently forward, not content to simply be musique-concrete background noise, but to create a remarkable listening experience, and it succeeds. Without question, it succeeds. --Eric Carr

01: The Rapture

Some albums are worth the wait. When "House of Jealous Lovers" first began circulating to UK clubs on white-label 12-inches in 2002, the buzz grew so quickly that within two months, everyone I knew had downloaded it and become addicted. It didn't take long for us to forget that only two years prior, The Rapture had gained some degree of notoriety as a terrible live band who'd lucked into a contract with Sub Pop before quietly and mysteriously parting ways with the label. This bore no similiarity to the band's previous outings. This was something completely fresh, something we hadn't heard done in quite this way, or at least not quite so flawlessly.
As the Brooklyn-based production team DFA rose to prominence, issuing new singles every few months, word came that Echoes was finished and ready for release. It would be out, they said, just as soon as the label could secure solid distribution. And then, just as soon as the producers could sway the band to add their names to the songwriting credits. And then, just as soon as the band could decide which major label's offer to take. As bullshit mounted, people began to fear the record was missing its window of relevance-- by the time it saw official release in October of this year, the dancepunk frenzy "House of Jealous Lovers" had ignited more than a year previous seemed already on life support, as hundreds of art-pose rich kids rode its coattails with their own hastily produced bids for the crown.
Fortunately, Echoes had long-since arrived by then. Like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot before it, the record had leaked to file-trading services in June and blown up dancefloors all summer long. Which was as it ought to have been: Of the hundreds of dancepunk albums to flood the underground, none even began to approach this album's crystalline vision. Treble-charged guitars attacked like guard dogs and back alley killers, lunging out with knives drawn and stabbing furiously. Keyboards reflected dirty neon like rainy streets and the Hudson River's toxic glow. Live drums locked with preprogrammed electronic ones in sweaty, hedonistic neo-disco trances that instantly filled floors like Paradise Garage in its prime-- although unlike so many of Larry Levan's Stephanie Mills and Crown Heights Affair cuts, movement wasn't imperitive; this record was as devestating in the club as in your cubicle.
In retrospect, there's no question now that this sound was the gold standard most aspired to by young bands this year, and for a number of very good reasons: It was the most innovative, it was the most inspiring, and with the evening news stuck on an infinite loop of war casualties, economic misery, pedophilia and corporate downsizing, it was the most fun. When this era enjoys its renaissance in fifteen years, we will remember this album: nothing says 2003 more. --Ryan Schreiber

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