Shock and awe, rock 'n' roll style


December 28, 2003



The past year had more than its share of shocking headlines on the pop-music beat, both nationally and locally.

There were the horrific deaths at the Great White concert in Rhode Island and the E2 nightclub on the South Side, and Chicago’s subsequent heavy-handed crackdown on live music venues throughout the city.

Topping the usual, inevitable list of pop stars misbehaving, there was Michael Jackson’s arrest on charges of having sex with an underage boy, and the accusations (since dropped) against Pete Townshend for child pornography.

There was the protest and what may or may not have been censorship of a band that may or may not have been white supremacists booked to play at one of the city’s leading rock clubs.

And there was the breakup of Zwan and Billy Corgan’s subsequent announcement that he has decided to go solo. (Well, maybe that one was neither very shocking nor particularly newsworthy.)

Without a doubt, though, the biggest music story of the year was the major-label recording industry’s vicious campaign against its own customers—or at least those who are guilty of downloading recordings from the Net without paying for them.

This story took myriad twists and turns over the course of 2003, and it hasn’t played out yet. Many questions remain, chief among them: Will the music industry ever come up with a new business model that pleases everyone—artists, merchants and fans?

This was a question that I was asked countless times, and lacking a crystal ball, I didn’t have the answer. We are in the midst of an historic change in the way we consume and listen to popular music—a period that can only be compared to the shift from sheet music and player pianos to recorded lacquer discs and primitive phonographs in the 1880s.

The only things I’m certain about are that the music industry will never again look like it did in 2003, and that I can’t wait to see if 2004 gives us a glimpse of its future.

Meanwhile, more or less oblivious to all of this, artists continued to make some incredibly vital and vibrant music, as they always do and always will. What follows is my list of the 10 Best Recordings of 2003, the next 50 on the list after those and a tribute to the artist of the year.

1. Cherrywine, “Bright Black” (DCide/Babygrande)

For far too long, mainstream hip-hop has been dominated by platinum-selling bubblegum gangstas who care more about bad-ass posing and raking in the Benjamins than they do about stretching the boundaries of the music. (Hello, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Eminem, et. al.) But old-school fans remember a better time when artists such as Arrested Development, De La Soul, Gangstarr, Digable Planets, and other “alternative rap” crews challenged listeners and themselves with smart, Afrocentric lyrics and sounds that refused to accept any genre limitations. New York’s Digable Planets disbanded in 1996 after two brilliant, groundbreaking albums, 1993’s Reachin’ (a new refutation of time and space) and 1994’s Blowout Comb. Now that crew’s leader, Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, is back with a new, kickin’ live hip-hop/funk/new-millennium blues band, Cherrywine, and a startlingly creative debut album, Bright Black. “Gangsta, oh it’s so fly,” Butterfly raps with an easy, laidback flow on “Dazzlement,” but the disdain in his voice is palpable: Seattle-based Cherrywine is much more ambitious musically and lyrically than the current passel of gangsta chart-toppers. These 10 tracks update the classic gonzo-funk pastiches of prime Parliament-Funkadelic for a new era while chronicling the many temptations of modern life (from cocaine to scheming women to the ever-looming lure of the sell-out). Ever the street-corner philosopher, Butterfly offers a better, more liberating way to live: Respect yourself and others, create instead of tearing down, and live for and enjoy the moment. “Be thankful that you got to go and do your thing/Laugh in the face of those you love the most/And be thankful that you got to drink more wine at the party boat,” he raps on “Gracefully.” Those are words to live by, and Bright Black is a prime soundtrack to groove to while you’re doing it.

2. Deftones, “Deftones” (Maverick)

Like the equally ambitious Incubus and Tool, the Sacramento, California quintet the Deftones has never really deserved the “nü-metal” tag it’s been saddled with. While the group does indeed share some sonic similarities with rap-rock boneheads such as Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park (notably via the hip-hop-flavored rhythms, frontman Chino Moreno’s mix of Cookie Monster growling, rapid-fire rapping, and more melodic crooning, and the largely pointless and inaudible turntable work of DJ Frank Delgado), the band stands apart from many of its peers by virtue of its intelligence (Moreno’s lyrics alternate between a sort of stream-of-consciousness Beat poetry and a Peter Gabriel-like theatrical role playing) and its musical innovations (simply put, drummer Abe Cunningham and guitarist Stephen Carpenter are shred). With 2000’s White Pony, the group began to incorporate trippy, moody washes of sound, recalling the interstellar explorations of Pink Floyd, My Bloody Valentine, and the Cure, and their long-awaited fourth album continues in a similarly experimental vein. “Lucky You” adds a dollop of dub reggae to the mix; “Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event” is a delightfully minimalist track based on flittering cymbals and a tinkling grand piano (grand piano on a Deftones record?!), and the first single “Minerva” is not only the most melodic track the band has ever produced, but the most uplifting (“God bless you all for the song you saved us,” Moreno croons in the indelible chorus, holding out the promise of salvation through music for his angst-ridden fans). These aging skate punks haven’t gone soft as they hit their 30s—tracks like the one-two opening punch of “Needles & Pins” and “Hexagram” pack as much of a punishing wallop as 1997’s breakthrough hit, “My Own Summer (Shove It)”—but, like Led Zeppelin back in the day, they’ve figured out that the softer interludes make the harder moments all the more potent.

3. Granddaddy, “Sumday” (V2)

With its incongruous mix of characterless strip malls and rebellious skateboard parks, serene nature reserves and ugly suburban sprawl, Northern California is an organically surreal place, and few bands have captured its weird vibe as well as the Modesto quintet Grandaddy. The delightfully idiosyncratic group spent three years crafting the follow-up to 2000’s inspired and wonderfully skewed concept album The Sophtware Slump, but it was worth the wait. The melodies on these 12 tracks are even more effervescent and more memorable, while the dense, layered production hones a brand of modern psychedelic pop that has less in common with the legions of Deadheads in nearby San Francisco than it does with cosmonaut peers such as the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev.

“Paint the words a simple wish/For peace of mind and happiness,” bandleader Jason Lytle sings on “El Caminos in the West” as a gently propulsive groove, droning analogue synthesizer, and sinewy guitar line decorate his typically impressionistic lyrics. Those lines could well be the band’s mantra, as each tune here sketches another unique soundscape, and it all adds up to one of the trippiest, most soulful, and most enticing summer soundtracks since the Beach Boys’ “pocket symphony to God,” “Good Vibrations.”

4. Macy Gray, “The Trouble with Being Myself” (Epic)

Two factors distinguish the former Natalie McIntyre of Canton, Ohio, from her female peers in the burgeoning genre of neo soul or natural R&B (a group that also includes Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, and Alicia Keyes). The first is that she’s by far the most unique of what’s already a pretty distinctive group of dedicated individualists; whether she’s butchering the National Anthem by botching the words or singing like Betty Boop after one too many hits on the bong, Macy Gray is never afraid to fly her freak flag high. More significant, though, is her unfailing knack at crafting memorable hooks, an ability that’s grown stronger and more focused (even as her songwriting has gotten weirder) since 1999’s much-hyped debut, On How Life Is, and 2001’s giddy and unjustly overlooked follow-up, The Id. Gleefully blending old-school soul, jazz, rock, and hip-hop with the sweaty, kickin’ backing of a horns-heavy band, Gray yodels, croons, and squeaks her way through a dozen strong new tunes on her third outing, giving us typically gonzo takes on love and the lack thereof (“When I See You,” “She Ain’t Right for You,” and “She Don’t Write Songs for You”), as well as turning uncharacteristically serious by offering dark recollections of a troubled youth (“My Fondest Childhood Memories”). She definitely has one of those love-it-or-hate-it voices, but for anyone who finds a real off-beat personality sexy, she’s simply irresistible, and her consistently surprising genre-blurring sounds are securing her place in the proud pantheon of freaky funksters, right up there beside George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and whatever the hell Prince is calling himself these days.

5. Longwave, “The Strangest Things” (RCA)

Friends of the Strokes and part of New York’s “New Wave of New Wave” along with kindred spirits Interpol and Hot Hot Heat, the four members of Longwave have a musical vision that is much broader than that shorthand introduction may indicate. The group blends minimalist, propulsive drumming with great moody washes of ambient sound, and searing psychedelic guitar a la mid-period Flaming Lips (whose regular producer, Dave Fridmann, was at the board here) with a flair for big, bouncy, Beatlesesque hooks in the style of the early “bubblegum psychedelia” of The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen. Yet all that name-dropping doesn’t really do them justice, either—not when they’re capable of writing tunes as strong and memorable as “Meet Me at the Bottom,” “Pool Song” and “I Know It’s Coming Someday.”

6. Outkast, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” (LaFace)

News about the fifth album from Atlanta’s wildly inventive hip-hop duo didn’t bode well: Andre “3000” Benjamin (a.k.a. Dre) and his comic sidekick Antwan “Big Boi” Patton had opted to make two solo albums that would be sold together as a package (shades of the four infamous Kiss solo discs!). The charm of the crew had always been that the two members balanced each other out—or so the thinking went. But rather than diluting Outkast’s potent mix, this set proves that the members have more than enough creativity to merit such a sprawling canvas, whether they’re working separately or together.

Yes, there is a fair amount of self-indulgence here, as there was on 2000’s equally impressive “Stankonia.” Some of the comic skits wear thin fast, and some of the musical detours go nowhere special. But the high points are very high indeed, the set is priced right at about the cost of a single disc, and the overall effect is that of a diverse, genre-hopping and thoroughly mind-warping musical feast, with tracks ranging from electro-pop to hardcore funk, and from psychedelic rap to jazzy hip-hop, with some surprising guests popping up along the way (among them: balladeer Norah Jones, Atlanta homeboy Cee-Lo, pop diva Kelis and platinum superstar Jay-Z).

Many fans knew Dre (who sings in his nasal whine more than he raps) as the soulful, sensitive and more tuneful member of the duo, but Big Boi comes on strong, showing a lot more range and depth than he has in the past. (In wanting to step outside of his Flavor-Flav role, he may well have been the one pushing for the double -disc format.) Lyrically, the rappers veer from heartfelt comments about the power of faith and family to incisive political commentary to sheer horny silliness, some of it brilliant and some of it b.s. But the albums really succeed on the strength and scope of the music: To match this kind of ambition, you’d have to reach back to vintage Prince, Parliament-Funkadelic or Sly and the Family Stone, and hip-hop has seldom seen its peer.

7. The Strokes, “Room On Fire” (RCA)

When it arrives in stores next week, the Strokes’ much-anticipated second album will be a disappointment only if you’ve joined the terminally misguided rock press in heaping unfounded expectations on the group.

Always eager to label and box in any exciting new sound, the Strokes were dubbed the “new Nirvana,” the band most likely to reinvigorate modern rock and bring it back to the top of the charts with its 2001 debut, “Is This It” (which did very well indeed, though it wasn’t “Nevermind”). The New York quintet was also branded as the standard bearer of a new New York rock scene with fellow travelers such as the Rapture, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol representing the biggest burst of energy in the Big Apple since the punk explosion. Of course, they were’70s revivalists (“Just look at those shag haircuts and leather jackets!”), and a part of “the New Wave of New Wave” (“Hey, they lifted that hook from the Cars!”).

The Strokes never claimed to be any of these things; they just wanted to write concise, focused and ultra-tuneful rock songs as good as their heroes in Guided by Voices (whom they in fact leave in the dust). To complain that “Room on Fire” is too much like “Is This It” is to focus only on the superficial aspects of the band’s sound: Yes, the rhythms and Julian Casablancas’ distorted, droning vocals are the same this time out, but those are as much of a trademark for this band as Lou Reed’s nasal whine was in the Velvet Underground or Tom Verlaine’s elegiac guitar sound was in Television.

The fact is, each of the 11 tracks on “Room on Fire” stands as a perfectly crafted rock song, with every interlocking instrumental part a paradigm of tuneful precision. These are minimalist masters who don’t waste a single note or play any part that doesn’t contribute something essential to the song. And in their never-ending search for the perfect hook, they do broaden their horizons here, subtly evoking everything from ’50s doo-wop balladry to dub reggae grooves to goofy New Wave keyboards (emulated via the always diverse guitars of Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi).

Dismiss the Strokes as over-hyped media darlings if you will, or write off “Room on Fire” as evidence of a sophomore slump. But to do so is to not only be thoroughly wrong, but to miss out on one of the strongest and most energizing albums of the year.

8. Thursday, “War All the Time” (Island)

While its champions strive for lyrics that border on poetry, one of the shortcomings of emo is that all of that hyper-emotional soul-searching can sound insular and ridiculously self-centered. Harder-edged musically and lyrically, the so-called “screamo” bands fare much better.

The best of these groups—Poison the Well, the Used, Sparta, Thrice, and Thursday—understand that the personal is political. On its new album, The Artist in the Ambulance, Thrice poses an existential question: What is the artist’s responsibility to society—to help the afflicted, or merely to chronicle their suffering? On its brilliant third disc and eagerly-anticipated major-label debut, Thursday goes even further, creating one of the smartest and most moving surveys of life after the attack on America, all without ever once directly mentioning 9/11.

Images of life in the trenches permeate War All the Time—the lyrics are lousy with references to bombs, bullets, guns, and fire—but unlike their New Jersey neighbor Bruce Springsteen on The Rising, vocalist Geoff Rickly and his bandmates don’t milk recent events for cheap Hallmark-card sentimentality, nor do they make the mistake of some pedantic punks who strive to tell us “what it all means.” Working once again with underground-punk producer Sal Villanueva but focusing on shorter, more concise song structures, they’re simply reacting emotionally. And, like all of us, they’re trying to survive.

Not for nothing has the New Brunswick quintet been pegged as a “Next Big Thing” and the screamo band most likely to broach the mainstream. (The group scored a hit on modern-rock radio and MTV2 with the single “Understanding In A Car Crash,” propelling 2001’s Full Collapse to sales of 230,000.) Thursday boasts all of the sonic hallmarks of this burgeoning subgenre—jarring dynamic contrasts between punishing, pummeling verses and quiet, melodic breaks (or “Between Rupture and Rapture,” to borrow the title of one of the new tunes); fiery guitars that mix thrash-metal chops with punk-rock intensity, and gut-wrenching screaming that alternates with soothing crooning. But the Thursday boys outshine most of their peers with the level of their abilities as songwriters and musicians.

Thursday understands the power of ambiguity—of allowing listeners to complete the song and determine its meaning. “For the Workforce, Drowning” can be heard as a protest of these soulless corporate times or an account of the horrors at the World Trade Center. (“Falling from the top floor, your lungs fill like parachutes, the windows go rushing by.”) “Asleep in the Chapel” questions unthinking faith in anything—God, country, basic human decency. And, like much of the disc, “Marches and Maneuvers” views life as series of draining battles, from relations with other countries, to connections with friends and lovers, to conflicts within ourselves. (“This is a war we live and the sides are drawn,” Rickly howls. “We’re all wrapped up in fatigues and they wear us out.”)

Meanwhile, twin guitarists Steve Pedulla and Tom Keeley blur the lines between lead and rhythm, coiling around one another like copulating snakes. (Think vintage Judas Priest meets Television at hardcore-punk tempos.) And bassist Tim Payne and drummer Tucker Rule shift gears at the drop of a dime, pounding like a relentless jackhammer, then playing with the sensitivity and subtlety of a great jazz rhythm section in the next measure.

Don’t let the rock critics’ inevitable focus on the lyrics make you think that Thursday is all about the words. Yes, the group gives you plenty to think about, if you’re so inclined. But it also provides a uniquely thrilling musical rollercoaster ride. Climb on board for a hell of a ride.

9. Wire, “Send” (Pink Flag)

Between the initial flowering of punk during 1976’s Summer of Hate and their first extended sabbatical starting in 1980, the revered English art-punks of Wire produced three hugely influential albums whose genius has been hailed by artists as diverse as the Minutemen and Blur, R.E.M. and Fischerspooner (both of whom covered the group). Their progression was startling: 1977’s Pink Flag was a minimalist masterpiece that “cocked a snoot” at the history of rock ’n’ roll, mashing it all up into one 21-song collection of stark, gripping, and insanely catchy two-minute vignettes. Chairs Missing (1978) brought psychedelic experimentation into the mix, earning the group the sobriquet of “the Punk Floyd,” while 154 (1980) added ambient synthesizer textures, presaging everything from David Bowie’s Scary Monsters to the entire career of New Order.

The specter of New Order loomed large when Wire resurfaced after a seven-year break to begin the second phase of its career, a far-less groundbreaking series of Spartan industrial dance records that stretched from The Ideal Copy (1987) through The Drill (1991), with the band members becoming increasingly more enamored of computerized grooves and disdainful of what they sneeringly called “the beat combo” (a.k.a., the traditional guitar-bass-drums rock band). When they broke up for the second time, guitarist-vocalist Colin Newman, bassist-lyricist Graham Lewis, and guitarist Bruce Gilbert all went off to fool around in the techno/ambient underground, while drummer Robert Gotobed hung up his sticks and took up farming.

Even dedicated fans of these perverse contrarians were surprised when the four reformed for Round Three a few years back, contradicting pretty much everything they’d said about the beat combo, and returning to abrasive, minimalist punk based on the model of the concluding track from Pink Flag, the incendiary “12XU,” coupled with the unrelenting drive of the signature track from Wire Mach II, the machine-like industrial groover, “Drill.”

The 11 self-released tracks here (two-thirds of which were previously issued on D.I.Y. EPs) rock with unmatched gusto—not only for forty-something artistes, but for your hardest hardcore teenage skate punks—delivering a punishing body blow while simultaneously fucking with your brain via Lewis’s impressionistic Beat-poetic lyrics (which Newman delivers with what remains the best Cockney snarl in rock history), Gilbert’s grinding sand-in-your-joints noise guitar, and Gotobed’s metronomic (in the best way) 4/4 pulse.

“Alright, here it is, again,” Newman sneered at the beginning of “12XU,” and now Wire is back to deliver once more. Veteran fans couldn’t have asked for anything stronger, less compromising, or more energizing, and new initiates will surely have their minds and eardrums blown.

10. Neil Young, “Greendale” (Reprise)

After living for a while with Neil Young’s new album, its accompanying 14-page booklet and the bonus DVD featuring a live performance of this 10-song rock opera (Neil’s idiosyncratic version of “Our Town,” populated by unrepentant hippies, ecoterrorists, old cranks railing against the intrusive media and Satan), I’m still not sure I understand the concept behind this absurdly ambitious concept album. But I’m certain that that couldn’t bother me less.

Young has always had some extra oomph whenever he’s teamed up with Crazy Horse, the best of any of his backing bands, and not only because of the much-vaunted guitar jams; drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot remain one of the most fluid and entrancing groove machines in rock history. But “Greendale” works as more than just a wonderfully noisy and propulsive rock ’n’ roll blowout. The bottom line is that the 57-year-old “godfather of grunge” hasn’t written songs this melodic or inspired since 1990’s “Ragged Glory.”

The piled-on hooks in tunes such as “Falling from Above,” “Double E,” “Grandpa’s Interview” and “Be the Rain” rank among the strongest of Young’s career. And if the libretto as a whole remains largely inscrutable, particular lyrical passages jump out as poignant and insightful characterizations of distinctly American characters, dead-on critiques of our current political situation and inspiring Youngian philosophy.

“A little love and affection/ In everything you do/Will make the world a better place/With or without you,” Neil sings in a chorus that comes closer than anything else to summing up what “Greendale” is “about.” The challenge of filling this album’s sprawling canvas was clearly a labor of love for the ’60s veteran, and fans can’t help but be filled with affection and gratitude in return.


The Alkaline Trio, “Good Mourning” (Vagrant)

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, “Source Tags & Codes” (Interscope)

Janet Bean, “Dragging Wonder Lake” (Thrill Jockey)

Bettie Serveert, “Log 22” (Hidden Agenda)

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, “Take Them On, On Your Own” (Virgin)

David Bowie, “Reality” (Columbia)

Buzzcocks, “Buzzcocks” (Merge)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Nocturama” (Anti)

Consonant, “Love and Affliction” (Fenway)

Dashboard Confessional, “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar” (Vagrant)

Death Cab for Cutie, “Transatlanticism” (Barsuk)

The Dirty Three, “She Has No Strings Apollo” (Touch and Go)

Even In Blackouts, “Myths & Imaginary Magicians” (Lookout!)

Fallout Boy, “Take This to Your Grave” (Fueled by Ramen)

The Fleshtones, “Do You Swing?” (Yep Roc)

Michael Franti and Spearhead, “Everyone Deserves Music” (Artist Direct)

The Goldstars, “Gotta Get Out!” (Pravda)

Al Green, “I Can’t Stop” (Blue Note)

The High Llamas, “Beet, Maize and Corn” (Drag City)

Jane’s Addiction, “Strays” (Warner Bros.)

Candye Kane, “Whole Lotta Love” (Ruf Records)

Kelis, “Tasty” (Arista)

Kill Hannah, “For Never & Ever” (Atlantic)

King Crimson, “The Power to Believe”

Kraftwerk, “Tour de France Soundtracks” (Astralwerks)

Local H, “The No Fun EP” (Thick)

The Mekons, “Punk Rock” (Quarterstick)

John Mellencamp, “Trouble No More” (Columbia)

Mest, “Mest” (Maverick)

Midstates, “Shadowing Ghosts” (Mental Monkey)

Ministry, “Animositisomina” (Sanctuary)

Peaches, “Fatherfucker” (Kitty-Yo)

Pink, “Try This” (Arista)

The Raveonettes, “Chain Gang of Love” (Columbia)

Lou Reed, “The Raven” (Sire/Reprise)

Spiritualized, “Amazing Grace” (Sanctuary)

Stereolab, “Instant O in the Universe” (Elektra)

Stew, “Something Deeper Than These Changes” (Smile)

The Stratford 4, “Love & Distortion” (Jetset)

Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, “Streetcore” (Hellcat)

Supergrass, “Life On Other Planets” (Def Jam)

The Supersuckers, “Motherfuckers Be Trippin’” (Mid-Fi)

Thrice, “The Artist in the Ambulance” (Island)

The Thrills, “So Much for the City” (Virgin)

Throwing Muses, “Throwing Muses” (4AD)

Paul Weller, “Illumination” (Yep Roc)

The White Stripes, “Elephant” (V2)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Fever to Tell” (Interscope)

Yo La Tengo, “Summer Sun” (Matador)


On the pop-music tip, Johnny Cash has to be considered the artist of the year not because of the fact that he died, but because of the inspiring way that he lived and continued creating essential art until the very end.

From Neil Young to Lou Reed, and from Wire to David Bowie, 2003 was a year that offered plenty of exceptions to the usual parade of venerated rock elders coasting through their twilight years, resting on their laurels and living in the past as they endlessly repackage their art and rely on their reputation to fill the arenas. (I’m talking about you, Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, the Eagles and “The Doors 21st Century.”)

In contrast, the Man in Black stayed cool, defiant and wildly creative right up until his death at the age of 71. He began working with producer Rick Rubin (the man who brought us the Beastie Boys) in 1994, and he ultimately gave us four volumes of “American Recordings”—stark, minimalist collections that found him performing songs by a new generation of diverse artists.

The best of these amazing songs, along with numerous outtakes that will stand as his last new offerings, are rounded up on the brilliant five-disc “UnEarthed” box set. They stand as a great tribute to a great artist—one whose music offered not only catharsis in troubled times, but a path toward something better in the future.