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Andrew's Best of 2003
1.15.2004 by Andrew Ladd

My music consumption patterns in any given year usually include a great deal of filling in holes in my collection; consequently, many of the things I buy during the year are not new releases, and I had a lot of trouble selecting my contemporary favourites of the year. What follows, therefore, is not a top ten exactly, but rather a selection of a few praiseworthy items from each of the styles I've been listening to this year.

Best Hip Hop Album
Ugly Duckling - Taste the Secret
I still can't decide if I prefer Taste the Secret to Ugly Duckling's previous Journey to Anywhere, but I am quite certain that I prefer it to every other hip hop album I've heard this year. I'm thankful for this certainty, because in print the record sounds a little dubious: it's a concept album based on a fictional fast food restaurant called 'Meat Shake', that only serves products containing meat. From the beginning, though, Secret is a triumph. It's introspective ("Opening Act"), critical ("Dumb it Down"/"Potty Mouth") and tender ("Abigail Silk"), but always, above all, droll and very, very fun. Taste the Secret is memories of childhood; it's summer afternoons; it's a night out with friends. In short, it is incredible.

Most Un-Hip-Hoppy Album From a Hip Hop Artist
Madlib - Shades of Blue
A tastefully done jazzy retrospective, in a vaguely Us3-like vein, Madlib pulls tracks from the Blue Note archives and pleasingly tinkers with them to create an intangibly alluring collection of tracks. They retain the soothing history of the label, but are demonstrably closer to hip hop than to their jazz roots. What's interesting here is the constant dialogue between past and present; "Slim's Return" will be immediately familiar to many from The Herbaliser's album Very Mercenary, but here you get a much fuller sense of the original recording, even as Madlib lays on scratching and electronic distortions. Listening to this album is like stepping outside of the present and seeing the whole of hip hop's history at the same time. I'm in musical limbo, and I like it here.

Best Hip Hop Song
DJ Format f. Abdominal - "The Hit Song"
I don't think I can accurately quantify (a) how many times I've listened to this song or (b) how much joy it brings me. I think if I had to demonstrate to someone what a perfect hip hop song should sound like, I would play them this. Everything just works so well; the effortless drumbeat, the lazy bassline, the careful samples, and most of all the lyrical gimmicks, performed by Abdominal with what can only be described as aplomb. Utterly, utterly brilliant; a dizzying high from a towering album.

Honourable Mention: Best Hip Hop Song for Making Me Eat My Words
OutKast - "Hey Ya!"
I know, I know, I was a cynical bastard desparate to be unimpressed by Speakerboxxx/Love Below. For the most part I stand by my judgement. But after being subjected to "Hey Ya!" on MuchMusic for several months, I have to admit that I've fallen head over heels. It's frenetic and unapologetically suave; the slicked-back hair beneath Andre 3000's well-deserved crown. I remain skeptical about the album as a whole (despite some other memorable moments), and, in my opinion, my other choices are still superior, but "Hey Ya!" has made for some surprisingly pleasant listening.

Best Alternative Pop/Rock Album
Turin Brakes - Ether Song
I only discovered Turin Breaks this summer, but was instantly taken with them. Sure, they're fairly predictable guitarry Britpop in places, and some of their lyrics are, frankly, so badly written it's bizarre ("Future Boy" springs to mind); but some of their lines grab you with so much force it's impossible to ignore them. The chorus of "Pain Killer" ("Summer Rain/Dripping down your face again") sounds obvious but is just incredibly powerful; it carries me away, every time. Turin Brakes might be accused of sounding 'samey' (and Ether Song is certainly not a huge leap from their previous Optimist LP), but at least their sameness is a rich, warm, nighttime-drive sameness that I, at least, can't get enough of.

Best Album in This List On a Technicality
Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man - "Out of Season
Out of Season was released in Britain in 2002, but only made it to the US as a domestic release in 2003, so I'm happy to be able to include it here. This album is a beautiful showcase of how much Beth Gibbons is capable of, beyond her (admittedly elegant) languid Portishead wailing. She goes from breathy poetics to Blossom Dearie and back, while Rustin Man's melodies cover everything from break-ups to bedtime stories, from blowing bubbles by moonlight to the verge of jumping. The range of this album is remarkable; you just can't listen to it too much.

Guiltiest Pleasure Pop/Rock Album
Fountains of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers
I've talked about this album at length elsewhere; suffice to say here that Fountains of Wayne have made it okay to like contemporary American rock/pop, and I thank them for it.

Honourable Mention: Most Unexpectedly Enjoyable Pop/Rock Song
Stereophonics - "Help Me (She's Out of Her Mind)"
I've never liked the Stereophonics enough to buy a whole album, but every now and then they'll release a song which just sounds right. So it is with "Help Me," which is, in my opinion, a great piece of good ol' fashioned Brit rock from what is otherwise, by most accounts, a fairly average album. The song's message seems confused (Jones pleads "Help me" so lethargically you have to question the seriousness of his problem), but the music is a well-ordered collection of brash and prickly sounds; one of the infrequent occassions when the band is definitely at the top of their game.

Best Late Night Introspectives Electronic Album
Cinematic Orchestra - Man With a Movie Camera
This is the Cinematic Orchestra doing what they do best. Quietly, beautifully, hauntingly perfect melodies that would make an ideal soundtrack to any late night activity (never mind the obscure 1940s movie to which the album is meant to be a sountrack). At times they try out some new ideas, with varying success ("Theme De Yoyo" sounds very Corduroy-esque, and to be honest they'd be better off leaving the sounding like Corduroy to Corduroy), but the identifiably Cinematic Orchestra tracks are superb. "Dawn" is just that, and each piano key struck in "The Magician" is like a snowflake fluttering in the darkness. Marvellous.

Best Non-Late Night Introspectives Electronic Album
Bent - The Everlasting Blink
Simply, you haven't lived until you've heard "King Wisp." I could do without the pseudo-philosophizing at the track's opening, but from then on the chirping of the synths, the catch-me-if-you-can drumbeat, and, more than anything else, the gorgeous, horizon-reaching strings are pure beauty. At the other end of the album, things wrap up with "Thick Ear," an energetic trip that is so optimistic one wonders if it's really best-used as an outerlude. While some speak disdainfully of the kitschy pop sounds that pervade the rest of the album, anyone with an ounce of sense will at least appreciate this for its undisputable peaks.

And finally, an honourable mention the Propellerheads for managing to delay the release of their second album for yet another year. Keep up the good work, guys!

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