2003 Retrospeculator
by Marc Hirsh

You know, I struggled for a long time with the question of how to format this year’s list so that it made any sense whatsoever. Normally, there’s an album that claims the top spot with force and confidence or, at the very least, there are a number of clear contenders battling for supremacy. Not so this year. For the first time since 1998 , I find myself putting a list together without a clear victor; for the first time since 2000 , I find myself unable to come up with two full hands’ worth of albums to rave about (though, to be fair, my list does indeed comprise ten discs). As a result, I’m taking a cue from one of the big film festivals (I forget which one) and opting not to give out a top prize this year. I take my pick for the best album of the year far more seriously than anybody should, and I stand firm that its virtues should not simply be measured against the music that was released during the appropriate calendrical period but should compare favorably with the others that have topped the list in the past. The albums listed here range in quality from great to amazing, but I can’t in good conscience place any of them at #1, since even the highest-ranked CD here drags in more spots than I can reasonably ignore (its relative dominance over the others listed here is a function of how flabbergasting and frequent its high points are). If that bothers you, feel free to bump each album up a notch and call it the winner. But I’ll know in my heart that it finished a close second.

Ice cold! 2) Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista). It happens once every decade or so: the most prodigiously talented artist of his/her/their generation spits out a double album that is excessive, widely varied, overlong and supremely confident, serving notice to all comers that it’s your fucking move, punks. The Beatles did it in 1968, Stevie Wonder did it in 1976, Prince did it in 1987, and although I can easily see how they got there in retrospect, I can honestly say that I was caught off guard that it was Outkast this time. Like all of the above, their two-fer could stand to be culled a bit and would unquestionably lose its power in the process, simply because its sheer scope is the entire point. On first listen, it was the anything-that-comes-to-mind jazz/soul/pop/funk jambalaya of Andre 3000’s The Love Below which sent my jaw to the floor, but subsequent spins of the more or less (maybe less) straight-up rap set of Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx knocked this hip-hop non-fan to the floor with its equally relentless invention. When they performed “Ms. Jackson” on Saturday Night Live about a year and a half ago, I couldn’t help noticing that at times they seemed to be doing nothing so much as strutting. Enjoy it, fellas, I thought, the world is yours. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t take it.

What a million looks like 3) You Am I, The Cream and the Crock (BMG Australia) [available from http://www.whammo.com.au ]. The best rock band Australia has ever produced took another minor breather this year, spitting out a simple best-of collection sprawled across two discs of singles and album tracks that could have been interchanged for one another without anybody blinking. Disc one, the singles, might as well have been called Arse-kicking, Aussie, Big and Bossy and is enough to make you wish you could pick up Triple J on your FM dial in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s incomplete at under 50 minutes (at least one single from each album didn’t make the cut, although “Deliverance” merely migrated to the second disc) but benefits from the chronological sequencing, allowing you to hear Tim Rogers’s songwriting evolving from grunge-plus to neo-mod to arena power pop while the band tightens up into an unstoppable unit. Disc two simply throws the remainder of their studio albums, all classics, into the changer and hits “shuffle,” coming up aces and revealing that the aforementioned evolution never abandoned the hooks, empathy and keen lyrical eye that has always been the band’s foundation. All told, The Cream and the Crock offers three new songs (or two and a half, depending on how you choose to count the now-Rogers-vocalled “Trouble”), precious few rarities, none of the live cuts or covers that they disgorge by the ton on their B-sides and bonus discs, nary a guitar solo until David Lane joins the band in 1999 and a beautifully representative survey of one of the most consistent bands in recent memory.

One monkey don't stop the show 4) Gillian Welch, Soul Journey (Acony). For me and (apparently) others, 2001’s Time (The Revelator) bore more weight upon its shoulders than can be reasonably asked of any album, so on Soul Journey, the lady and her man kick back and relax, in their way. Welch hasn’t abandoned the sort of timeless folk music she’ll be lumped alongside for the rest of her career (as evidenced by “No One Knows My Name,” “I Had A Real Good Mother And Father” and “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”), but she adds a band this time, and the result is like the Stray Gators playing Blonde On Blonde. Simplicity remains the key, though, so even though the first appearance of a drum kit in the opening “Look At Miss Ohio” hits you like a jolt to the spine, it’s still a shock when the same damn thing happens four songs later in “One Monkey.” In the hands of Welch and her partner David Rawlings (whose name should really be on the cover as well), even a backing band is imbued with a stark clarity. Which kinda still makes it folk music after all.

It's been so long since you've been a friend of mine 5) Liz Phair, Liz Phair (Capitol). By around the fifth or sixth time I listened to this publicly reviled album, I noticed an odd sensation during the four Top 40-aimed songs, and it was not without surprise that I identified it as genuine pleasure. Even amidst their Matrix-fuelled calculation and personalitylessness, it sounds like Phair is having fun, and for all of the sex on her previous albums, that’s new for her; there’s something to be said for the fact that the song about wanting (literally) to bathe in her lover’s semen is more charming than the song about wanting (metaphorically) to be her lover’s underwear. So if she’s never again the cultural standard-bearer that she once was, Liz Phair suggests that the level of talent that remains now that she has joined the ranks of more earthbound music-makers is more than enough to justify a long-term career. For heaven’s sake, she gave you people “My Bionic Eyes” (which roars), “It’s Sweet” (which hums) and the utterly devastating “Friend of Mine,” the lyric of which is probably the last thing I would ever want to hear from anybody I care about in my entire life. What more could you possibly want?

Come back to me my darling 6) Eisley, Laughing City (Record Collection). Comprised of four siblings and a pal, all of whom are prettier than you, Eisley released two EPs of gently dramatic eyes-closed pop this year that portend an interesting future without straining too hard to get there before they’re good and ready. I give their debut Laughing City a slight lead over the followup Marvelous Things, partly due to my admittedly subjective resistance to 6/8 time but more importantly as a result of the former starting out with one for the ages: “I Wasn’t Prepared,” on which Sherri Dupree’s butterscotch voice wraps around a stupefyingly gorgeous melody that sounds like it’s trying to wriggle free from the languid bass and an electric guitar that makes its point with a single strum and then doesn’t do a thing because it knows it doesn’t need to. Hell, a band could make a whole career just out of the sweep that leads into the chorus.

Acetominophen 7) The White Stripes, Elephant (Third Man/V2). “Can’t stand the White Stripes,” said a friend about a year back, and while I didn’t agree, exactly, I more than sympathized. Elephant might not do much to sway either side of the debate, even though it’s an improvement over 2001’s White Blood Cells by every conceivable measure; Jack White may very well be some new breed of pop genius, but he sure seems intent on doing everything in his power to obscure that fact. Like some amalgam of Angus Young without the chops, Kurt Cobain without the suicidal depression and Robert Plant without the Viking complex, he storms so forcefully through the album that it barely matters that the beat’s being kept by the most clearly incompetent drummer of any gold-selling act in history (seriously, Meg must have had one hell of a divorce lawyer for her to get half of this band). The gorgeous harmony-with-piercing-guitar midsection “There’s No Home For You Here” shatters any illusions that Jack’s instrumental asceticism is anything more than a hipster dodge and “In the Cold, Cold Night” is this album’s “After Hours,” but most of Elephant just charges ahead with numbers like “The Hardest Button To Button” and “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine” taking the youth of America on a weird ride that they desperately need to be taken on.

Who's that in your Chevelle? 8) Damone, From The Attic (RCA). The reason adolescence as a topic and a theme often results in such sublime pop music is the same as the reason that it sucked when we went through it: it can be sheer, confusing agony to become what you are. But as wonderful as an album like that dog.’s terrific Totally Crushed Out! can be, it’s patently phony due to the simple fact that the folks who made it left high school behind years ago. That’s not a problem for the actual-teenager-fronted Damone, who make like Weezer-damaged heshers and crank out eleven odes to adolescent behavior that worries adults not because it’s delinquent, exactly, but because it’s just so… adolescent. If that sounds familiar, that’s because From The Attic already topped this list in 2001 when it was called This Summer and the band was called Noelle. It’s ranked lower this year as a result of huger but less subtle production and the replacement of four songs, one of which, the transcendently high schoolish “Rock Star,” I found myself occasionally referring to as the best song on the album . But if new songs “Feel Bad Vibe,” “Overchay With Me” and “At The Mall” don’t make up for its absence, they certainly need not apologize for their presence, and the rest of From The Attic is heedless to the restraint that we adults feel the need to saddle ourselves with for some reason (just when you think the neoclassical guitar solos in “Up To You” and “On My Mind” couldn’t get any more kickass, in come the harmony guitars!). I don’t know how much longer they can go on like this: the departure of guitarist Dave Pino not long after the album came out leaves the band without their main (and, up until now, sole) songwriter, and Noelle turned a whopping 18 this year besides. By time she turns 25, she will have moved beyond such juvenilia, but she sounds like she’s in no hurry to grow up anytime soon. I think she knows she’ll miss it when it’s gone.

I'm at this party and I'm here to rap 9) Northern State, Dying In Stereo (Startime). If Le Tigre went all out and made a full-on hip-hop record, this would be it. Part of me’s still not sure they didn’t. Inspirational verse: “Keep choice legal/Your wardrobe regal/Chekov wrote The Seagull /And Snoopy is a beagle.”

Widows and orphans:

1) Rosanne Cash, “License To Kill,” live at the Somerville Theatre (Somerville, Massachusetts), June 21, 2003. Her album, Rules Of Travel, was a nice return to the biz which would’ve made my Next Five if I still did that nonsense. But this isn’t on it. A Bob Dylan song unfamiliar to me, as its original home Infidels comes from his wandering-in-the-forest eighties period, this tune was trotted out to address a war that couldn’t have even been imagined when it was written, and Cash threw herself into it with such empathetic ferocity that when it finished, the words “Holy shit” slipped out of my mouth before I could even get it together enough to realize that my hands were supposed to be banging together like everybody else’s.

2) t.A.T.u., “All The Things She Said.” If this weren’t sung by two teenaged Russian faux-lesbians, you’d be falling over yourself to ensure its place in the canon of hormonal adolescent melodramas right alongside “Leader of the Pack,” “Be My Baby” and “Teenage Kicks.” But facts is facts, and marketing is marketing, and the shoddily constructed image that surrounds t.A.T.u. threw enough people off the scent that it’ll probably be a while until we hear another song that quite so forcefully captures the freak-out insanity of teenagers caught in the thrall of feelings that they can’t even begin to comprehend. Don’t worry if you missed it; there’ll be another one. There’s always another one.

3) The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed.” I haven’t got the foggiest idea what this song’s about. And when my hammer, anvil and stirrup are throwing a party like this, I honestly don’t care. Extra points for a video that… well, let’s just say that I’ve had dreams exactly like this .

4) Jonny Polonsky, “Even The Oxen.” What has power pop maven Jonny Polonsky been doing since 1996’s Hi My Name Is Jonny? To judge from this track, waiting for a war to disagree with so that he could write one of its most trenchant, if heavily encoded, protest songs, in which the ways of man are stupid enough for the livestock to notice. And if your leanings bring you into disagreement with what he’s saying, then feel free just to pay attention to the way he gallops up to the chorus and then squeezes as much tension out of it as the song can bear before the beat returns and he takes off like a shot. And bear in mind that if you download this track , the way it was meant to be acquired, then you’re screwing your ideological opposite, even if only a little.

5) The Bangles, “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution).” Despite the quality of the band-penned songs on their first two albums, it was with covers that the Bangles made their name, so it’s no surprise that the best song off of their sporadically worthwhile reunion album Doll Revolution is the handiwork of an outsider (and, inevitably as these things go in the Bangles universe, a man at that). An already fierce snarl from Elvis Costello’s When I Was Cruel, “Tear Off Your Own Head” gains force not just from the playing but from the harmonies that the vocal firm of Peterson, Peterson, Steele and Hoffs can probably pull off in their sleep by now. Sounding like she’s having a blast blowing the cobwebs off of her youthful indiscretions, Susannah Hoffs digs into the lead, chewing hard enough on the word “backwards” that it couldn’t get away if it gnawed its own S off.

6) Hillary Duff, “So Yesterday.” Things I learned while driving from D.C. to Boston this past September: 1) Careening down (well, up, technically) I-95 at 75 MPH in a rented 14-foot truck in the rain in the dark with almost zero visibility while nursing a headache generates a terror so complete that it eventually passes entirely and transforms into a sort of zen-like feeling. 2) If you do the above for, say, five hours straight without stopping and getting out to stretch, the knee of your pedal leg will feel like it’s the size of a football. 3) By the third time you hear this latest, and greatest, assault on America’s eardrums by the Matrix (who were bound to get one totally and completely right one of these days), you’ll discover to your dismay that you crave it and will frantically scan for another Top 40 station in the area as soon as it ends in the hopes that the playlist rotations are sufficiently staggered for you to hear it all the way up the Eastern seaboard. Playing Duff, whose contribution is inconsequential, like nothing more or less than another instrument, the Matrix end up with a perfect pop song, and credit goes to the wrong damn person.

7) Prance, “Sexy Mind.” As electroclash fades into the obscurity that it couldn’t have avoided even if it hadn’t embraced it, let us now praise one man’s utterly ridiculous paean to his own self-delusion. Over a wonderfully sleazy synth bass, a heavily vocodered Prance rattles off a list of all the things that he lacks that would normally attract a mate before the chorus informs us that what he does, in fact, have is a sexy mind. And it’s at this point that Melissa from W.I.T. sends the song from the ridiculous to the sublime, with dirty-talk interjections that are so overly exaggerated that even she must know how preposterously unsexy they are. Call-and-response couplet of the year: She: “I wanna touch you and caress you and kiss that little moustache.” He: “What an affectionate gesture.”

8) The Strokes, “12:51.” I didn’t ask for a new Cars song, but I’m for damn sure taking the one they’re giving me. “Hey Ya!” notwithstanding, the handclap song of the year.

9) Amy Rigby, “O’Hare.” In which Amy carefully selects every word coming out of her mouth to deny that she still has any feelings at all, while betraying with every action that she desperately needs to believe that she does.

10) Fountains of Wayne, “Hackensack.” “If you ever get back to Hackensack,” promises a loser who compensates for his failure to escape the tri-state area by fixating on a winner who did, “I’ll be here for you.” Embedded within that vow are a declaration of unconditional love, a prediction of someone else’s failure, blind hope in a salvation that will never come and, somewhere deep down, the realization that one’s life has amounted to nothing. In one swift (and temporary) abandonment of sarcasm and cleverness, Fountains of Wayne stumble across sincerity. Oops.

Try a little harder The Better Late Than Never award goes to a weird pick this year, since I usually name an album that I have been personally remiss in discovering until now. In this year of bucking tradition, however, I’m giving it to Rock City’s Rock City (Lucky Seven), an album that the business has been professionally remiss in making available until way too late. Rock City don’t sound much like Big Star, the band it would eventually become, even when they’re cranking through early versions of “My Life Is Right,” “Try Again” and (as Ice Water) “Feel.” Instead, they come across like Pete Ham fronting a Memphis-based Raspberries and in the process deliver a stronger Badfinger album than No Dice. Even as I shudder at the thought of what the world would sound like had they met with any success at all (thus depriving us – okay, me – of Big Star), Rock City would have fit snugly into the now-established power pop canon, and it’s almost shameful that these recordings from 1969 and 1970 weren’t released at least twenty years ago; it can’t be the fact that these are just (fine-sounding) demos, since that’s only a problem for as long as it takes you to say “ The Modern Lovers.” Whatever the reason for the delay, we’ve got them now, a document of Chris Bell’s second (or, more accurately, first) great support role, here bolstering Thomas Dean Eubanks and sending 14 shining pop gems straight into the void.

I choose to leave the movies to the experts this year. You’re welcome.

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