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Sean's Best of 2003
12.29.2003 by Sean

Please forgive the indulgence of writing about each of my favourite twenty records from 2003: this wasn't the year of a single, cataclysmically great album. Instead, what I heard was a lot of excellent music, and I'd like to share as much of it as possible. My favourite songs of the year are also online. For information or mp3 samples for any of these albums, click through to the full reviews when applicable. Otherwise, to Google!

Now without further ado,

The top 20 albums of 2003

20. Jolie Holland - Catalpa [self-release/Anti]
Now widely available in an Anti rerelease, this understated, lo-fi debut is a small and dusty treasure. Holland, a founding member of the Be Good Tanyas, presents bare folk and bluegrass songs like someone out of a Grimm fairytale. One of Tom Waits' picks for the Short-List Prize, Catalpa even has me singing the upbeat "I Wanna Die" as I drive down the highway. (full review)

19. REM - In Time: The Best Of [Warner]
While a bit of a cheat on a year-end wrap-up, I figure it's okay to drop this in at #19; there's no getting away from the brilliance of R.E.M.'s career over the past ten years. From the lows of Monster to the underrated highs of Up, and the bonus of one of 2003's best new songs - "Bad Day," - In Time is an outstanding collection of smart, musical alt-rock, carefully assembled, dazzlingly performed. (full review)

18. Manitoba - Up in Flames [Leaf/Domino]
When I first heard this record, it just about blew my head off - thick, rainbow sounds; loving pop leaps; wit and melody and lush arrangements. Although the intervening months have severely dampened my feelings on Up in Flames' all-out brilliance, this remains an inspiring marriage of laptop sparkle and pop-rock bombast, like the Notwist performing with a full orchestra - on Venus.

17. The Dears - No Cities Left [Maple Music]
Finally, Montreal's dark noise-pop royalty come of age, unleashing an album of righteous, confident songs. Cello and piano knock up against Sonic Youth feedback fuzz, Murray Lightburn doing one of the most capable, versatile vocal turns on any record this year. In a startling reversal, 2003 showed that The Dears could make a more consistent LP than Radiohead, and while they lack the Oxford band's sonic tickle-trunk, they make up for it in bold and loud singing, a determination to make stormclouds cringe. (full review)

16. The Weekend - Teaser + Bonus Level [Teenage USA]
A zinging pop-punk marvel that is a lesson on how to have fun, Andrea Wasse guides crunching guitars through should-be-hit after should-be-hit, barely pausing for breath. Like Avril Lavigne on amphetamines, The Weekend prove that London ON could kick Napanee's butt.

15. Nina Nastasia - Run to Ruin [Touch and Go]
Haunting, savvy, and full-throated, Run to Ruin shows Nina Nastasia continuing in the spirit of last year's The Blackened Air - apocalyptic, string-soaked songs with bitterly whimsical lyrics and a witchy tang. The Dirty Three's Jim White scatters drum-fills like half-forgotten memories, random yet assigned. (full review)

14. Damien Jurado - Where Shall You Take Me? [Secretly Canadian]
A beautiful return to the acoustic storytelling that earned Jurado his reputation, Where Shall You Take Me? drifts from the blood-and-adultery of "Amateur Night" through to the Appalachian harmonies of "Window." "Texas to Ohio" is a better rocker than anything on Jurado's I Break Chairs rock'n'roll record, and the sweet-and-idyllic "Matinee" is like an anthem for simple family pleasures. Lovely. (The chance to watch the big Jurado singing out these small, true-and-earnest songs only deepened my appreciation for the man, and his work. See him live.) (full review)

13. Elbow - Cast of Thousands [V2]
Elbow's second album is at least twice as good as their debut, which made the Tangmonkey Top Ten for 2001. It's quiet-to-loud art-rock in the Radiohead vein, laced with a purple melancholy that drives anger and loneliness and transcendental euphoria. "Ribcage" and "Grace Under Pressure" are better than anything Coldplay released this year, and though the songs on Cast of Thousands sometimes get a little muddy, the thought, maturity and richness of sound makes the album a cathartic pleasure. Good for break-ups, mopes, and for the rapture that will signal the end of the world.

12. Sufjan Stevens - Michigan [Asthmatic Kitty/Soundsfamilyre]
The banjo and oboes are alone enough to carry this into my top fifteen; Stevens has created an avant-folk record that impresses even as it lulls. The warmest of arrangements carry his oblique lyrics and dulcet voice, and while the tracks may drift into sameness, there is enough variety here to sustain long and active listening. Gorgeous, acoustic songs that reward anyone who gives them a chance. (full review)

11.5. Exploding Hearts - Guitar Romantic [Dirtnap]
(30/12/2003 Addendum: Somehow, I forgot this album when doing the transition from paper notes to website text. But it must not be overlooked!) The kick-ass record of the year, Guitar Romantic is gloriously sloppy, messy, ringing-jingling and rocking. It's the garage-rock album that I'll take over all of the 2003 competitors - the Deadly Snakes, the Strokes, the White Stripes. Guitar Romantic is as fun as the Beatles in Hamburg - it is riotous and noisy and songful. "Modern Kicks" is the sound of mod-rockers bursting out of a pumpkin, "Throwaway Style" is a catchy, fearsome wonder. Sadly, the greatness of the band's debut only heightens the tragedy of a van-crash in July, when three of the band's four members were killed. It seems grossly unfair that such young musicians should suddenly disappear. Guitar Romantic is left, at the very least, as a tremendous monument.

11. Okkervil River - Down the River of Golden Dreams [Jagjaguwar]
While it doesn't reach the heights of the astonishing Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See, Golden Dreams is like everything good that Bright Eyes hasn't yet accomplished: varied, rich and musical songs; soaring heights; wise and narrative lyrics; passion that doesn't resort to whining. I stand by my assertion that Will Robinson Sheff is one of the very finest songwriters in America - he's Will Oldham with a folk-orchestra, and on his lips are everything from murder ballads to love-songs to cautionary tales for children. First-rate. (full review)

10. Four Tet - Rounds [Domino]
Perhaps the biggest surprise to me this year, Kieran Hebden's collection of organic electronic compositions are endlessly original, like jazz-folk tunes split apart at the seams, torn and twisted into beautiful shapes. What Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot did to Pet Sounds pop, Rounds does to St. Germain or John Fahey. It's Gastr Del Sol with rhythm, downtempo IDM to flow over and around. "She Loves She" blows me away every time - like a pop song gone wrong, my sister keeps asking if the CD's skipping, and I just bask in the sound, in the shattered and rearranged musical stained-glass.

09. Postal Service - Give Up [Sub Pop]
The indie kids' hit of the year, Give Up almost lives up to its reputation, pairing Ben Gibbard's star-struck lyrics and catchy vocal lines with Dntel's energetic, tumbling electronics. It's an intensely human record, lonely and in love, the beautiful next to the banal; "Clark Gable" is terrific, and although Iron & Wine's cover of "Such Great Heights" surpasses the original (see the Such Great Heights EP), Give Up's earnesty and cream-soda pop rewards make it one of 2003's best. (sort-of review)

08. Josh Rouse - 1972 [Rykodisc]
A folk-pop homage to the year Rouse was born, 1972 is perhaps most notable for the way that it singlehandedly redeems the flute in pop music, layering it in alongside acoustic guitar, horns, strings, and even bongos. From the laid-back cool of the opening lines, through the beautiful melodic turns of "Sunshine," Rouse proves himself as a first-class songwriter: the arrangements are note-perfect, the songs revelations. Comforting as an old friend, but no less clever. Carol King would be jealous. (full review)

07. The Clientele - The Violet Hour [Merge]
Hop over into Narnia - heck, skip across to England - and The Violet Hour will be that perfect wooly soundtrack for the walk past a lamppost, for the fog that drifts down lanes. Smiths-kissed guitars swirl into a golden haze and a poet's murmured lyrics coax will'o'the-wisps into the pub. This is an album that can't be broken apart, that needs to bathe you in its smoke and evening light, warmcool and sparkling. Pixiedust rock'n'roll. (full review)

06. The Long Winters - When I Pretend to Fall [Barsuk]
The best guitar-pop since I-can't-remember, the Long Winters have whipped out an altogether killer record, a batch of pop-rock songs that boast all the things that Sloan and the Beatles once did so well: smart and whimsical lyrics; hip-hip-hooray melodies; addictive hooks; and guitar solos to sing along to. I feel so much joy listening to these songs - composed yet loose, energized, near-brilliant. "Scared Straight" makes me want to learn to play guitar; "Cinnamon"'s mandolin makes me swoon. If I was a CD, I think I'd want When I Pretend to Fall to father my children. (full review)

05. The Books - The Lemon of Pink [Tomlab]
An awe-inspired improvement on the duo's excellent debut, The Lemon of Pink presents a model for electro-acoustic music for which I have yet to find an equal. Cut-up strings, strums, thrums and clicks are woven together into a marvellous cavalcade of textures, pushing and pulling into tone-poems and folk songs, all the more enriched by Anne Doerner's woozy, bluesy vocals. "Tokyo" is a note-perfect mood piece, a collage of indistinct sensations that feels like a missing piece from Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation; the opening title track, meanwhile, lurches lickety-split like Mothersbaugh's Rushmore soundtrack, until out pops Doerner with her blur of blues. This is a record too rich to know: you need to guess at it, remembering its finest blossoms only as they bloom from the speakers.

04. OutKast - The Love Below / Speakerboxxx [Arista]
It's important that The Love Below be listed first here: Speakerboxxx is the awkward older brother. While "Unhappy" sets me a-dancin', and the rest of Big Boi's record competes solidly with Jay-Z for hip-hop album of the year, The Love Below is an absolute revelation. The one-two-three punch of "The Love Below," "Love Hater" and "Happy Valentine's Day" presents some of the most playful and genius music that's been released in years, and it's still four more tracks until "Hey Ya!" explodes the universe with its nostalgic dance-floor carnival-act. "Hey Ya!" alone might catapult this album toward classic status, but matched with "Take Off Your Cool," "Prototype," "Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre," "Spread," and a wealth of other cuts, there's no holding this baby back. Boasting a command of soul, funk, swing, r&b, rap, jazz and more, I think Andre 3000 is better than Prince - no joke - and if things didn't drag a bit in the album's last third, zing-boom, this might well have been #1. Ohboy I can't wait to play it some more.

03. Songs:Ohia - Magnolia Electric Co. and M.E.C. Demos [Secretly Canadian]
It took a long while for Songs:Ohia's big, bristling, southern rock record to click for me; there was too much noise, too much obviousness. Jason Molina was supposed to make quiet, stricken alt.folk songs, not amp-plugged, Crazyhorse rawk. But with the volume raised, I began to understand Magnolia Electric Co. The spirit of it, the wistful folkie center, was still there: in fact, it was all the brighter for the way that it sailed between arching electric guitars. Although the album is marred by two odious tracks where other vocalists take over for Molina, Magnolia is still able to hold its #3 position when bolstered by the marvellous CD of "demo" material which accompanied the first x,000 copies of M.E.C. that were sold. Here is the Songs:Ohia we're used to - stripped-down, lofi arrangements of many of the same songs (including those sung by others on the album proper). They are raw and acheing interpretations, quiet twin sisters to the finished versions. They're like two faces to the same tremendous songs, one in shadow and one dazzlingly bright. If you didn't luck out and get the bonus CD with your purchase, I point you toward P2P; it's well worth it. (full review)

02. The Microphones - Mt. Eerie [K]
I'll admit that as I was assembling this list, I had some doubts as to whether Mt. Eerie really had any right to be here. The Microphones' weird, iconoclastic album has yet to appear on any other critic's list that I've seen, and it's not one that I can sling on and expect my friends to immediately adore. Any doubts I had, however, were wholly dismissed after a late-night listening session en route to Ottawa: yes, this is a wondrous and important record. Over a mere five tracks, Phil Elvrum considers life, death and the universe, his spiritual discoveries manifested in the simplest of stories - images of sun, flood, ship, mountain. The music is kindly and human, but it's stirred into a mix of sudden bangs and slow fades into fuzz; voices climb out of pits and drums circle down like vultures. The eight minutes of drum-play that open the album are there to drop you into a trance, to pound you into another frame of mind. Then, when the track finally opens up - when Elvrum's song and the strum of his nylon-stringed guitar emerge from the smoke, - it's like the first break of dawn. The strange sort of prog-folk that follows is altogether original, but also genuinely moving. It calls for careful listening, for the suspension of normal pop instincts, but it's not difficult music. Mt. Eerie is merely its own magnificent beast: a towering, brave, epic achievement. (full review)

01. Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People [Arts & Crafts]
This album was released in Canada in 2002, but due to Emily Haines's tortuous j.lo impression when I saw the group live, I didn't bother picking up the CD before well into the new year. What I found, contra to my lukewarm experience with the live band, was a remarkable feat of a record: indie rock songs that huddle around pop melodies and post-rock textures, that swirl together into one long, technicolour trip. Lyrics bleed like watercolours into the fuzz and chime of electric guitars, or else cut through the haze like warmed knives. Volleys of horns cascade over slow string crescendos, and the drums crash in like an army returning home. The instrumentals don't just establish mood - they're as exciting and crafted as the 'songs' - and all of it is awash in joy and spirit and a wistful urban glow. You Forgot It In People is like an awesome opposite to the fractured, hostile (and woefully inconsistent) Hail to the Thief. It's the bloodstain that's a kiss, that's a rosepetal, that's a smeared sketch bleeding through the page. Broken Social Scene have made a whole and classic album - a delight for winter nights and the most radiant of summer showers. (full review)

Also very good:
Arab Strap - Monday at the Hug & Pint; Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Master and Everyone; Cat Power - You Are Free; Devendra Banhart - Oh Me Oh My...; Grandaddy - Sumday; Isobel Campbell - Amorino; Jay-Z - The Black Album; Nedelle - Republic of Two; The Unicorns - Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?

Biggest disappointments:
Julie Doiron and Okkervil River - Split EP [Acaruela]
This Acaruela EP of new material from both groups simply didn't add up to its promise. While an impressive number of songs is contributed by each, Doiron's tracks lack committment and Okkervil River's don't have enough soul to justify the bluster. This, from a collaboration whose announcement had made my month.

The Strokes - Room on Fire [RCA/BMG]
Is This It? had continued to grow on me, entrenching itself as a terrific recording of effortlessly clever, catchy songs. What a disappointment, then, to find that Room on Fire went through the opposite evolution: my initial enthusiasm was swiftly replaced by embivalence. The material here simply isn't as good - the harmonies are staid, the melodies lacklustre. Find me a single!

Sean Paul - Dutty Rock [Atlantic]
Um, why is this not song after song of amazingly awesome dancehall? No, I'm serious: there are twenty-two tracks here, but not even a handful of tolerable singles. I demand vengeance.

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