Ten Best Albums of 2003: Flowers From the Underground

BY JEFF LEVEN

Going back through twelve months’ worth of music to compile a list like this offers up an intriguing, sometimes revelatory, cross-slicing of recent memory. For those of us who care deeply enough about the ripples and rhythms of pop culture, it’s a way of trying to figure out what key the harmony of the spheres resonates in at the moment in which we find ourselves. I’m reminded of that scene in Scratch where DJ Shadow sits in sober and reverent reflection in the midst of huge stalagmites of records buried in the basement of a dingy San Francisco mom-and-pop record store. Making a list like this, like digging for a good beat, is a quest of some minor spiritual archeology – putting together a story from a field full of otherwise disconnected ideas, and adding your own touch to their composition as a way to kiss it with your own yearnings and tranquil fixations. So what I present to you is something kind of like a sonic collage – a mix in words and associations that itself may say more about the author than it says about anything else.

The official story, as I choose to present it, however, goes as follows: moreso than any year in music that I can remember, 2003 was a testament to the elegance of the underground. As the major labels hustle to acquire each other and sue college kids and generally thrash about, the cooler heads and hipper tastes of the indie world have churned out a field full of magic. As a result, 2003, a year with very few obvious blockbusters, was also a year of outstanding musical ferment, much of it coming from groups you may never have heard of:

10. Meadowlands – The Wrens: The tenth spot is a hard spot to fill, in part because this is inevitably the album that squeezes so many others off the list. What distinguishes Meadowlands from such close-but-no-cigar efforts as Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief or Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism, however, is the undying lyrical insight it unleashes at every turn. While Death Cab for Cutie replaces Jimmy Eat World’s eighth-grade poetry with lighter guitars and twelfth-grade poetry, and while Radiohead struggles to reign in the John Cage within, the Wrens bless us with “hopes pinned to poses honed in men’s room mirrors,” a catalogue of simple longings in complex relationships packaged in a happy sprawl of swirling guitars and tasteful synthesizers, and songs like “Ex-Girl Collection” and the bristling “Per Second Per Second” that carry their angst far more maturely than undoubtedly most of the Pitchfork readers who bought this disc in droves (from which I don’t exclude myself). As they say in one of their songs, “every win on this record is hard won.” Damn straight.

9. Decoration Day – Drive-by-Truckers: After I criminally overlooked their Southern Rock Opera last year, DBT redeemed me by putting out this, the most unassumingly excellent follow-up to an all-time classic that I can think of. While Opera was swathed in the noble glory of a bunch of Southern boys with guitars out to tackle the moon with a gut-full of whiskey, Decoration Day slinks into the shadows of a darker self-reflection. More stylistically broad and lyrically melancholy than its predecessor, the album tempers DBT’s Skynyrd instincts with an extra dose of Johnny Cash – witness the jilted lover fable “My Sweet Annette” (told from the point of view of the jilter) or the weary self-defenses of “Heathens.” While there is still plenty of boozy fun to be had (ex: “Marry Me”), the retreat from mythology is arresting, and, in retrospect, the best possible way to wear the hangover that an album as painfully sensational as Opera could dish out.

8. Feast of Wire – Calexico: An elegant, flawless collage of gorgeous Southwestern sonic scenery, Feast of Wire sweeps in surf, country, mariachi, jazz and spaghetti western music with an economy that’s nothing short of dazzling. Like a seasoned cinematographer, Joey Burns sweeps and pans across the arid and unrelenting plains with epics like “Black Heart” before launching into tipsy tears through dark alleys on moonless nights somewhere south of the border on songs like the Latin-tinged “Guero Canelo.” Churning through the whole thing is a vague dark undercurrent of confusion and displacement – the subtle cuttings of context that result when borders are crossed (the allegorical “wire” in the album’s title), but in the end this displacement is merely the price of freedom, as every song strains with a type of untamed energy born of the wide open spaces it imagines. Soft and stark, it’s a feast that’s well nigh irresistible.

7. Speakerboxx/The Love Below – Outkast: Each year there are a lot of albums that are funky, but what puts this overstocked double-shot ahead of, say, Basement Jaxx’s Kish Kash in the albums-that-often-sound-a-lot-like-Prince category is its gleeful refusal to sit still long enough to lapse into pattern, coalesce into statement, or succumb to the confines of a group’s supposed “sound.” More than a dizzy declaration of independence, Speakerboxx/The Love Below is Outkast’s statement on the state of hip hop – a pride-filled acknowledgement that the format has matured to the point of being able to be blown open in this way and still stay relevant, ecstatic, and massively accessible.

6. Tough Love – Hamell on Trial: If this is where punk and folk are headed, we’re in for a wild and gut-tugging ride. Oscillating between the confrontationally vulgar and the heart-rendingly gorgeous, Ed Hamell offers up a world where victories and tragedies, small and massive, are locked into an inscrutable dance with one another, as the angry banshee of “Don’t Kill” pulls back to imagine the victims of hate murders (including Matthew Shepard and Tina Brandon) peacefully uniting in heaven on “Hail.” With scrap and swagger, Tough Love is a soundtrack for a Scorsese film yet unmade – one in which the wrath and passion of the smart-alecky, street-smart protagonist subtly scrubs away the stains that mar the dark subterranean world of his city’s midnights. And ours.

5. Guitar Romantic – Exploding Hearts: Tragically, three of the members of Portland’s Exploding Hearts perished in a van accident shortly after this album’s release. As such, Guitar Romantic remains as glossy evidence of a glorious path never taken: the snuffed fuse of fireworks unlaunched. With tousled hair, scuffed guitars, and the naïve teenage charm of punk kids who dye their hair and wear Misfits gear when they’re really in love with Buddy Holly, the Exploding Hearts were the sparky and star-gazing ragamuffins the suits at MTV would like you to think the Strokes are. From the doo-wop heartbreak of “Thorns in Roses” to the early Buzzcock harmonies of “Rumours in Town” (note the anglicized “u”), Guitar Romantic is one big ball of lovingly rendered unadulterated energy – a classic before, after, and during its brief time.

4. Vaudeville Villain – Viktor Vaughan (MF Doom): In the flamboyant sartorial story-line he creates on Vaudeville Villain, MF Doom’s alter ego Viktor Vaughan is a sassy, rhyme-dispatching blackheart, reeling out a thousand clever name-checks per second to a rumbling post-Wu underground beat. What starts out as a comic book, however, turns into a full-fledged groundbreaking graphic novel by the time the disc’s 17 tracks leave you gleefully spun out and grinning from ear to ear. Funny, slick and vicious in its taut braggadocio, this nocturnal rampage eats most of the year’s hip hop albums as a midnight snack and spits them out in shards of jagged, steely irony. It’s stuff like this that makes guys like Jay-Z retire. Maybe he’s just clearing the way.

3. Streetcore -Joe Strummer: If this disc had contained nothing but “Coma Girl,” it would probably still make this list. Distilling everything from reggae, classic sixties Spector-pop, and, of course, garage punk into a few minutes of radio magic (at least the kind of radio that existed when Joe was a kid), it’s the perfect capstone to a career of unspeakable dignity, ambition, and conviction. As an added gift,
however, we get the soul-drenched dub of “Get Down Moses,” the loose groove of “Midnight Jam,” the reflective musings of a world left-to-be-redeemed on “Ramshackle Day Parade” and “Burnin’ Streets,” and the grinding rock of “All in a Day.” Streetcore is the album where Joe Strummer’s post-Clash voice is at its truest and most weighty, and as such it stands as his loving final gift to posterity.

2. Ghosts of the Great Highway – Sun Kil Moon: In a year with a lot of beautiful albums, Mark Kozelek’s wistful opus is nothing less than a majestic ray of early morning sunlight shimmering off fresh snow in some well-loved pasture in the heartlands of your soul. Kissing us into range gently with the nostalgia of “Glenn Tipton” (a Judas Priest guitarist for those who care), Kozelek proceeds to deliver some of the best Neil Young songs Neil Young (and Crazy Horse) never wrote – the dazzling “Carry Me Ohio,” the brawny “Salvador Sanchez” (lushly reprised on the acoustic “Pancho Villa” – another Young-esque trick), and the album’s piece de resistance, the gorgeous tonal architectural masterpiece “Duk Koo Kim.” By the time the multi-stringed castles of “Si Paloma” are in sight, it’s hard not to be deeply, hopelessly in love with this album and the imponderable well of inspiration it clearly draws from. One man’s summary of the American musical tradition, Ghosts of the Great Highway is a haunting, arresting masterpiece for all time.

1. Elephant – The White Stripes: Simply put, the White Stripes are very, very good for music right now. In the midst of all these great albums what makes this disc come out on top is the simple fact that it has pretty much single-handedly pulled the rock mainstream back to the center of its soul – the deep, gritty, muddy yawp of ancestral blues filtered through the garages of the fearless noise-makers of rock’s storied past. From John Lee Hooker to the Kinks to the MC5, Jack White and his guitar are a lightning rod for the primal energy that has animated so many of the best works rock ‘n’ roll has to offer, and the fact that he and Meg carry it off with simultaneous humor and fragility makes the accomplishment all the more laudable. Big picture aside, Elephant is also one great song after another – from the throbbing pulse of “Seven Nation Army” to the bawdy harrumph of “Ball and Biscuit” to the spooky gray-moon visions of “In the Cold, Cold Night.” By the end it does nothing less than set the standard for rock ‘n’ roll in our young decade, and also the musical bonanza that was 2003.

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