Friday, December 12, 2003

Top Ten* Albums of 2003

At long last, here it is: my list of my favorite ten (eleven, actually--hence the asterisk) albums released in 2003. Due to the fact that the holiday season inevitably brings more CDs my way, you can anticipate that this list will be shaken up and revised at least once in the coming year, but for now, here it is! (It is also available at 290MUSIC, where it will be front and center for a good long while, probably into 2004.)

1. Rufus Wainwright, Want One

This is part of a planned pair—Want Two is due next year—so it’s possible that in a few months I’ll have some second thoughts about Wainwright’s decision to cleave his bombastic efforts in two. On the other hand, W2 is supposedly the darker and more experimental half of the material from the sessions, so the division may have been an apt one.

Either way, Want One earns its spot on the list for several qualities. It’s consistently good—there are songs that are better, but none that beg to be skipped. The slowest songs are the shortest, maintaining a flow that carries the album along. The best song of all, “Go or Go Ahead,” is the longest, over six minutes of outburst that weaves myth and madness into a stunning package of sonic bliss. A microcosm for the album as a whole, the song builds for more than two minutes before erupting.

Lyrically dense, the album starts out in near nonsense territory with the repetitions of “Oh What a World” and builds to the poignant “Dinner at Eight,” an almost tear-inducing finale that acknowledges Rufus’s mixed feelings about his abandonment by his famous father. “I Don’t Know What It Is” and “Movies of Myself” belong on Top 40 radio, where they could oust less intelligent pop; “11:11” sounds silly at first but makes profound the words “ I was alive.” Born of personal experience and genetically inherited musical genius, Wainwright’s latest is the finest album of 2003.

2. Kathleen Edwards, Failer

This spot should belong to Lucinda Williams, but she met her match this year in a young Canadian with stories to tell that sound more naked and real than the over-imagined, over-wrought fare on World Without Tears. Failer is a remarkable triumph for a brand-new artist, and should have earned at least a Grammy nod in that category. It sounds like a northern winter and stings just as hard. It’s wry and self-effacing; witness track two, written at the last minute to add a tenth song to the album and one of the best songs on a record filled with them, called “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like.” She doesn’t sound like radio—she’s too good for that. I feel sorry for Kathleen Edwards. She’s got a tough task ahead of her trying to top this first effort.

3. Ryan Adams, Love is Hell, 1+2

There was a time, long ago, when artists did this: they’d write, record, and release tons of songs every year, building up impressive catalogs instead of touring until the fourth or fifth single played itself out and deigning to drop an album every third year or so. In that respect, Adams is heir to the Beatles and early Dylan, delivering quantity and quality at the same time. So it should come as no surprise that he now follows in their footsteps in other ways, placing two albums in one year’s top ten.

We start with his two-EP set, Love is Hell. Recorded as the official follow-up to 2001’s brilliant Gold, then jettisoned by his record company, Lost Highway, Adams considers this his truest artistic statement, and that seems like a fair self-assessment. It’s a beautifully written album, and Adams sings like he means every word.

The title track is rollicking fun, followed by a cover of “Wonderwall” that stakes a claim for Adams as its new owner, even in the eyes of its writer, Noel Gallagher of Oasis. There’s a splendid and wistful sadness in “This House is Not For Sale,” a song that’s actually about ghosts in their old house—sounds weird, but it really works. Adams can carry off an up-tempo tune as well, bringing Part 1 nearly to a close with “World War 24.” The final song, “Avalanche,” fades out beautifully, wrapping up the first EP so that it would stand well on its own as an eight-song album.

Instead, the second EP continues the mood of the first, though it is clearly a different side of the same record. (The full album has been issued on vinyl, which is what qualified it to be considered as a single entity.) With “Please Do Not Let Me Go” we discover the real impetus for such a sad work—the death of a close friend. This vein of tribute-thought continues on “City Rain, City Streets,” tumbles into “I See Monsters,” and completes a three-four-five punch on “English Girls Approximately.” The latter lifts the mood musically just in time, jangling with the flair Adams displayed on Gold, but even here the lyrics are sad, as the girl Adams loves says she doesn’t love him.

Overall, Love is Hell is a remarkable album. It changes setting halfway through—EP 1 seems to “take place” mostly in a rural setting, while EP 2 is more urban—but it holds together as one record. Its depth of emotion and the variety of tempo and instrumentation choices Adams makes to surround his weighty material make it worth having as a whole. It would be tough to divide it, in any case: the best material on each EP is sandwiched in its center, giving the overall album a good balance. Turns out you can be prolific and make coherent albums. May other artists take note.

4. Annie Lennox, Bare

The queen of broken glass is back with music that sounds like it—or, perhaps, like ice. This confessional, lyrically downbeat album is set to the logical electro-dance continuation of Annie’s old Eurhythmics music, and the results are fantastic. Highlights like “Pavement Cracks” and “Bitter Pill” soar as Lennox shows off the voice that made Diva an appropriate title for her last original album, while “Twisted” brings the album nearly to a close with an incredibly emotional remembrance: “I remember every word you said to me,” “I remember everything you did to me”—these phrases speak volumes, simplifying feelings that the music and voice convey until the depth of the anger and bitter regret behind them is almost painful. The album ends with the song that nearly kept it off this list, and now brings it back, “Oh God (Prayer).” Annie quietly confesses that she doubts God is watching over or listening to her, then bursts “But if you hear me” and begs for the help she needs to make it through, and the results…damn. They’re beautiful.

5. White Stripes, Elephant

“Seven Nation Army” describes the sound of this critics’ darling as well as its first song. How can two people, with no technology to help them, make a sound this big, this good? The album plays to strength after strength. Jack White sounds like Robert Plant on the Zeppelin-esque songs and like some classic crooner on the pitch-perfect “I Want to Be the Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart.” There are a few lulls among the fourteen tracks, but the album starts and finishes strongly enough to find its way back into the player over and over, a feat few 2003 releases achieved.

6. Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll

Ryan Adams’ response to the current state of rock—especially pals The Strokes and the White Stripes—plays like a greatest hits album for a career he hasn’t pursued at all. Often accused of faulty quality control, Adams has made a short album that never slows down long enough to question its quality at all. It wasn’t the album he wanted to make—look above for that—but we’re lucky Lost Highway pinned him into a corner. Having this album is a very good thing.

7. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers

There’s so much more to this album that the hilarious “Stacy’s Mom.” In fact, too much—at 16 tracks, it drags by one or two. But it’s catchy and smart—the songs sound like ear candy but turn out deep, satisfying your sweet tooth and your need for intellectual stimulus. “All Kinds of Time” is a clever song that turns out to be about a quarterback seeing the field in a new way, while “Fire Island” is a nice musing on teenage mischief. And “Halley’s Waitress” is funny and relatable—“Darling, don’t you know we miss you when you’re gone?” Who hasn’t gone from wanting to order coffee and dessert to twisting in your seat to hail the waitress for the check and paying cash to avoid another long wait? Fountains of Wayne tie into these common experiences and make them live. They have just the right blend of wit and guitars to pull it off.

8. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief

So brilliant, so easy to forget. That’s the verdict on the new Radiohead, it seems. This CD rode around with me for months, and it still lives in my head—or parts of it do. “2+2=5” is the perfect opener for an album whose title was swiped from the sign of a Bush protester. And even the more experimental songs are very good—at least a few times around. Unfortunately, while they can grow on you enough to enjoy them, they still force on the listener a moderation that keeps the gems of this album, like “There There,” “Myxomatosis,” and “Wolf at the Door” away from needy ears for too long, both on the back-loaded album itself and over time, as Hail gathers a bit of dust despite its genius. Radiohead was a couple songs away from a truly transcendent album. That makes the result that much harder to accept.

9. Fleetwood Mac, Say You Will

This could have rivaled Rumours, which isn’t as perfect as people now remember it being. (It’s still pretty close.) Say You Will suffers from bulk and Buckingham. The bulk comes in the form of a 76-minute album that far outlasts its interest. Lindsey Buckingham adds volumes to this problem with songs like the unnecessary “Come,” a seven-minute thrasher which simply doesn’t work, and the indulgent “Murrow Turning In His Grave.” Cut this album down to 12 songs, though, and it’s a thing of beauty. The title track, “Miranda,” “Peacekeeper,” and the spectacular “Thrown Down” are among the best of Fleetwood Mac’s work, and that’s saying something. A flawed jewel, perhaps, but with a little polish and a programmable player, Say You Will makes a fine album indeed.

10. The Thrills, So Much For the City

Can’t anyone write a decent slow song anymore? The Thrills’ first album sounds like an instant classic for a little while, pillaging California for musical ideas until the only clue that they’re Irish is the cover photo—and even that’s no giveaway. In many ways, songs like “Don’t Steal Our Sun” sound like the Flaming Lips on Soft Bulletin, and the comparison makes instant classic designation a very real possibility. But, to quote the fourth track, “Deckchairs and Cigarettes,” the bottom falls out of this album as it goes on. It’s tempting to take it out thirty minutes in—perhaps after the seventh song, “Say It Ain’t So”—and call it a great EP. That would deny you the excellent bonus track, though, with its classic line, “I can’t see you smiling pumping gas.” The slowest songs are the longest, and that kills the flow of the album. Nevertheless, it’s still a good CD—it just misses too often to place any higher on the list than this.

11. Dido, Life for Rent

Poor Dido. She can’t quite crack the top ten with me. This year she’s mired at number eleven with an album that I really like but don’t feel compelled to listen to as often as it deserves. The single, “White Flag,” is a breath of fresh air in a tired pop world, filled with regret and bordering on the creepiness of a certain Police hit from the past. As I said in the original review: “Dido's songwriting remains strong on this album, and her classical training informs a musically interesting work that occasionally slips into sounding too much like itself by maintaining the same mid-tempo beat for much of the album. Nevertheless, that feel suits the songs, and as a result Life For Rent is just as strong as No Angel, if a bit more consistent.”

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