Rather than promote yet another annoying ballot on which most people in past years have penciled in their votes for Xtina, Britney, Limp Shitstick, and so on and so on, I decided to foist upon you my own picks for the best music of 2003. Undoubtedly, many of you will disagree with my picks and/or be disappointed that your personal faves didn't make this cut. But frankly, after a decade of sifting through literally thousands of CDs looking for a few gems worthy (mostly) of review in this fine publication, I believe I've earned the right to force my opinion on what records to buy down your gullet. That's what I like to think anyway. Without further ado, I proudly present what I honestly believe to be the best music released during the past year.
The Top Five National Releases of 2003
Dameon Lee has a remarkable musical gift. But because he's perhaps best known as the former bassist of Albuquerque-based punk band Scared of Chaka, you'd probably never guess that said gift would be an eerie tendency to write Church-like melodies for songs that sound like low-speed collisions involving Galaxie 500, Pink Floyd and Calexico.
There's a relaxed quality to Lowlights' debut that allows it to drift rather aimlessly into the ears, but its addictive pedal steel passages and reverb-washed vocal melodies beg for a pair of headphones and a beanbag chair.
Lee, along with harmony vocalist Angela Brown, multi-instrumentalist Dustin Reske, drummer Noah Wilson and a few guest contributors has created some 53 minutes of pure post-rock afterglow. Lowlights is the best record of the year.
Otis TaylorTruth is Not Fiction(Telarc)
Taylor's brand blues isn't merely the echo of some bygone era, but a living, breathing extension of himself. When he retells the tale of Rosa Parks on the album's opening track of that title, he sings the lyrics in real time, as if he's standing at the back of that infamous bus in 1955. The entire record is just as visceral, with Taylor bleeding tragedy, grief and angry sadness into its 12 songs—you can almost hear the tears splashing against the worn head of his banjo. But for all its sorrow, Truth is Not Fiction does emanate light from the narrow end of its tunnel in the form of Taylor's casual banjo and guitar melodies, which come across with the same gentle familiarity as backwoods nightnoise.
Taylor's arrangements are sparse and serve the story rather than tell it. Truth is Not Fiction is built upon the rhythmic pulse of Taylor's impassioned strumming, with expertly placed dollops of electric bass, cello and ominous background vocals filling in the mix. The occasional guitar solos sound like the voice of God or the Devil himself.
Disconcerting yet eerily beautiful, Truth in Not Fiction is a triumphant recording. Taylor, through his sheer artistry, is able to master difficult subject matter and present it with a magic touch that's both compelling and tragically romantic. A bona fide masterpiece.
Rodney CrowellFate's Right Hand(DMZ/Epic)
Fate's Right Hand is a ballsy, sobering look at Rodney Crowell's present-day life and the existential questions that force him to ponder his very existence. The album's opener, "Still Learning How to Fly," starts us off with a sense of hope, if only for a fleeting moment. We're then faced with ugly realizations that beg the ultimate question: Is it all really worth the effort? Crowell uses subtle undercurrents to hint at affirmations, but also to underscore the reality that the proverbial act of getting there is full of value, but not necessarily all that much fun.
Aided by brilliant electric guitar playing courtesy of Will Kimbrough and Pat Buchanan, Crowell brings to life 11 songs that take us on an inner journey that's at once deeply personal and universal. What we're shown along the way often isn't pretty, but it's all necessary in getting from point A to point B. And between the bookends, we're treated to lessons in peerless progressive country music and a drama that unfolds in real time.
The last time country music was this compelling was Billy Joe Shaver's The Earth Rolls On. Prior to that, you'd perhaps have to go as far back as Red Headed Stranger to find as complete a single thought.
Bill Callahan (a.k.a. Smog) is Everyman: everyone who's ever loved secretly, everyone who has fought The Man from stations unknown, everyone who's ever contemplated his or her own fate in the context of high school football players, cheerleaders and glee club members. His story is yours, but he tells it more brilliantly than a thousand misunderstood outcasts at an open mic night.
Musically, Supper is more upbeat and hopeful than most Smog releases, but you can still count on Callahan's lyrical jabs to make you hurt all over. One of the more striking aspects of this record is that Callahan's supporting cast perform as an ensemble, at least more so than on the Smog catalog past. Sarabeth Tucek, who shadows Callahan's morose, carefree vocal style on several tracks, sounds perfectly suited to punctuate his signature penchant for dragging gentle melodies through the depths of bleakness.
Supper is not happy music for happy listeners, but regardless of your current emotional state, it's always good to know that you can count on Bill Callahan to be worse off than you are. "Butterflies Drowned in Wine" is worth the purchase price alone.
The Handsome FamilySinging Bones(Carrot Top)
The Handsome Family—Brett and Rennie Sparks—wear their influences on their sleeves, but few listeners are privy to the contribution thereof with regard to the canon of American music. The Handsomes produce Americana, but despite deriving it from a variety of clear sources, their presentation defies the forces of gravity, juxtaposition and just about everything in between. We feel lucky to have them despite the fact that we can't help fearing for them.
The Handsome Family write their perfect little gems in some far-off place, where mechanization is still in its toddlerhood and electric lights are yet to be taken for granted. Here, songs are heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation and, occasionally, harvested from the ether by just the right set of hands to shape them into taught melodies.
For Singing Bones, the Handsomes seem to have traveled farther than ever before to mine material and brush the dust from it. They put a wider variety of instrumentation to use in a museum—like chronology that serves their sound well. Yet another ghostly beautiful chapter in a book we should all hope never ends.
The Next Five ... (in no particular order)
ScenicThe Acid Gospel Experience(Hidden Agenda)
The instrumental band's sound has always relied heavily on Robert Loveless' majestic, if sometimes self-indulgent, layering of keyboard voices, and that's certainly true of Acid. ... But here, also, guitarists Mark Mastopietro and Bruce Lichner add their own opaque, e-bowed layers to a mix that includes fretless bass, chamberlin, horns, various percussion instruments and a vast array of digital and analog electronic noisemakers. The result is almost overwhelming sonically speaking, but it's also otherworldly beautiful.
Death Cab for CutieTransatlanticism(Barsuk)
With Transatlanticism, DCFC take a cue from Signals-era Rush that's parlayed into stop-and-jerk arrangements and more ethereal, textured guitar figures than fans are used to. But the lyrics and melodies still drift like gloomy clouds over alternately somber and searing guitar-driven emocore. DCFC's brand of emo, though, goes far beyond nerdy glasses and unkempt hair—they actually feel this stuff.
These days, though—save for a few installments by members of the Elephant 6 collective—one is hard-pressed to find shreds of perfect jangly, post-punk pop sound, and Elf Power come closer than anyone to capturing the magic. Creatures is the record you've been waiting for since Bob Mould turned cynical and Tommy Stinson joined Guns 'n' Roses.
Corey HarrisMississippi to Mali(Rounder)
Slide master Corey Harris is able to channel the raw emotion of the Delta blues. But he's been known to approach the raw goods from a kaleidoscopic perspective, mixing in everything from New Orleans brass to hip-hop. On his latest release, though, recorded in Mississippi and Mali and with a list of sidemen that includes Ali Farka Toure, Harris's attempts to trace the connection between African folk music and American blues. The results are so satisfying that you won't need to buy another blues CD until well into 2004.
And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of DeadThe Secret of Elena's Tomb(Interscope)
AYWKUBTTOD may be nature's most perfect band. They're The Who, The Clash, Nirvana, Jawbreaker and Helmet all at once. Their 2003 EP further proves their relevance, and folks who believe that signing to a major means selling out and selling short need only listen once to prove themselves wrong.
Ten Others You Should Buy Now
The Black Heart Procession Amore del Tropico (Touch and Go)
Hella Hold Your Horse Is (5RC)
Andrew Bird Weather Systems (Grimsey)
Electric Six Fire (XL Recordings/Beggars Group)
Lyle Lovett My Baby Don't Tolerate (Curb/Lost Highway)
Johnny Marr and the Healers Boomslang (iMusic)
Cracker Countrysides (iMusic)
Tim Easton Break Your Mother's Heart (New West)
The Shins Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
Robert Earl Keen Gravitational Forces (Lost Highway)
The Top Five Local Releases of 2003
Mary & MarsMary & Mars(self-released)
Mary & Mars have flipped through many pages of old yellowed parchment, absorbing a harmony technique here, a flat-picked melody there, then combining all of it in their own Great Book of Americana. Their music could be categorically lumped into the acoustic bluegrass stable, but the fluency with which they perform the tunes would make doing so a near travesty.
Danny Winn and the EarthlingsLeap for Mankind(self-released)
Local ska vets Danny Winn and the Earthlings come as close as anyone has to capturing their live sound on record. Like its reggae parent, ska is best served live, and while there's only one "live" track on Leap ... , the album has the overall feel of being at an outdoor venue on a balmy evening watching a top rate ska band at their peak.
The Friendly's debut release, Mean, reveals a trio that has struck an almost perfect balance of straightforward post-punkishness and nerdy, time signature-shifting math groove. Mean's instrumental tracks take prisoners.
SimulacrumOne Side Remains(Formfit/self-released)
Concocted while most other local bands were busy moving away or claiming "label interest," Simulacrum appear to harbor no fantasies where superstardom is concerned, instead putting the butter on the bread with tightly woven arrangements that tread the shallows between math and emo. Fucking killer.
Milo de VenusMilo de Venus(Buckin' A/self-released)
Santa Fe's Milo de Venus is my kind of band. The fact that many of their melodies resemble Monkees songs makes me want to hug them all over. A bit of surf, a touch of instrumental Meat Puppets and just a pinch of Camper Van Beethoven when they weren't fighting each other for the spotlight.
The Next Five ... (in no particular order)
Syd Masters and The Swing RidersCowboys on the Moon ... and Other Hillbilly Make-out Songs(Vision)
It's unlikely that you'll be able to resist tapping your feet to this latest release by local singing cowboy Syd Masters and his Swing Riders. The 13 original tracks put the swing back in country more effectively than the drivel currently being foisted upon us by Nashville. Herein lies a skip for everyone's step and a glimmer in hope for every eye tearful at the current state of country music.
Civtas just get better with each new release. On their second CD, the eclectic quintet once again spread the groove through a wide variety of genres, but the funk has been turned up a notch throughout, and the Caribbean flavors shine through more promenently. Most importantly, though, the jam band slop factor hovers right around zero for the album's entirety.
Mucho Buddha sound like a worldbeat version of Steely Dan. Much of that can be attributed to guitarist/vocalist Chuck Hawley's excessively strong, smooth voice, but taught, subtly intricate arrangements and clean production also contribute. Dragonfly benefits from perfectly solid grooves and the clever employment of various feels—from Afro-Cuban to Caribbean. The playing is top-notch throughout, and the band sound utterly true to their live presence.
Liquification are a female-fronted electro-industrial powerhouse, delving deeply into the electronic underground while snatching at shards of goth and ethereal metal. Vocalist/lyricist/multi-instrumentalist Kindel sings with a breathy rasp that's at once engaging and disconcerting. Her beautifully crafted melodies are then juxtaposed against a dreamlike backdrop of musical menace and frightfully satisfying grooves.
GuajiraReflejos del Alma(La Merea)
One of Albuquerque's best salsa bands shows how sexy and inspiring they can be on, Reflejos del Alma. Teeming with beautiful piano, female vocals and harmonies and Spanish guitar, Guajira keep to their Latin roots without suffocating bright bursts of contemporary highlights. Their songs are alluring, spontaneous and passionate. At the same time, Reflejos del Alma will make you want to shake what your mama gave you.
Five Others You Should Buy Now
GoMotorCar True Tonight (Socyermom)
Roger Jameson The Great Compromise (Red Rebel Records)
Larry Freedman Get Out and Stay Out (self-released)
Jason and the Argonauts Live in El Paso (self-released)