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Matt Wellins counts down his favorite recordings of 2003.

Say YES! to
M!CH!GAN! (Matt Wellins)

"My Expert Opinion"
by Matt Wellins

10. Various Artists - Down In The Basement: Joe Bussard's Treasure Trove of Vintage 78's 1926-1937
It may be bad news to start a best-of 2003 list with a compilation of music over 60 years old. Yet, this collection is so thrilling, varied, humorous, dark, and at times, outright bizarre, it seemed irresistible.

9. Farmers Manual - RLA DVD
Out of all of the other releases, this will be the one that completely changes the course of history. Always the Mego agenda to push the envelope, RLA is four days of music on a single DVD – it is a veritable culture onto itself. Even the Merzbox only has about half of the sheer music on this DVD. Farmers Manual are comparably relevant. They are early visionaries in the impending culture of digital music and someday, when all records are four days long, people will reflect on the RLA-ian influences. Not to mention you can buy RLA for the cost of Merzbox shipping.

8. John Fahey - Red Cross
This album isn't flawless, by any means. And I am suspicious of the dramatic 20 minutes of concluding silence… Yet, here it is. Red Cross is communicative, almost informal, a brief glimpse at someone still working towards something. This makes it all the more difficult to deal with his departure. I have this naïve belief that people somehow make peace before they pass away, Red Cross, as well as the recently published Vampire Vultures, suggest that at the end of the day, conflict is all there is.

7. Mirror - Der Spiegelmanufaktur
Quite simply, a fantastic droning record. Mirror has the distinction of being one of the most visually evocative minimalists, opting to paint surreal landscapes as opposed to the political/temporally-redefining agendas of earlier experimenters. Aquarius Records describe an earlier release, Eye of the Storm, as inducing a sense of "the cold & humid foggy air of a sleepy coastal town", which sums up what makes this group so special pretty accurately. If only they would stop doing all of these limited edition releases!

6. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - Master and Everyone
I was skeptical of Ease Down the Road, initially, as I was of Master and Everyone. These two records are so much brighter than the anticipated Oldham-fare, not so much about the insurmountable overwhelming darkness and frustration of life, but more about living fully with that nagging desperateness right at your heels. Master and Everyone is an Oldham album that a listener can live with, something that conveys both a stirring impatience and a certain gratefulness for it.

5. Linda Perhacs - Parallelograms
Out and out, an incredibly enjoyable reissue. Perhacs fits into the picture somewhere alongside of Joni Mitchell, somewhere in the Laurel Canyon songwriting tradition, but with a distinctly experimental production sense that surprises on every song. Strings and saxophones glisten and whirl, and her voice puts across an intimacy that her contemporaries could never hope to touch. Parallelograms is a remarkably beautiful reminder of the singer-songwriter tradition, in an age where it has been demoted to frappe-house status.

4. Town and Country5
I think I summed up my feelings on this record pretty well in the Dusted review, so I won't go to great lengths here. Suffice to say, 5 is a really great, thoughtful piece of minimalist music, vigorous and animated in a very unique way.

3. John Tilbury/Keith Rowe - Duos For Doris
Re-listening to this record so that I could write what the Dusted editor refers to as "annotation", I was struck by how evasive and slippery this record seems. I was hoping to come out of this with your relatively predictable "two guys from AMM, masters of improvisation, spiritually sparse, etc..," but this album reaches points of great roar and the timbres are so imminently discrete and personally-honed as to seem outright hermetic. There is a logic and progression to the music on this record that defies its relegation to the vastness of "free improvised music" – there is something at play here that goes beyond any obvious themes of communication between two players. There is a narrative only apparent in the sounds themselves, well beyond the capabilities of any descriptive language. .

2. Phil Niblock - The Movement Of People Working
I'll be honest – while I enjoy and care about a lot of music, most of it does not have a truly overwhelming resonance. Not everything stays around for months at a time. Niblock is one of the few exceptions that entirely gets through to me, even more so than any of the other composers he's affiliated with, which are all excellent in their own right. This work thrives even more on the visual element that is finally available on this DVD. The Movement of People Working pretty accurately sums up the content, but if only I could convey the vividness of the colors, the incredible off-kilter grace of the motion, or just how the overpowering droning soundtrack allows the viewer to completely drown in the whole experience, perhaps I could better sell the record to you.

1. Sufjan Stevens - Michigan
Call me sentimental. How many albums in pop music feel like an honest-to-god gift to the listener? Perhaps one should be skeptical of those who believe music can somehow be more than music, but this album is my life raft right now. I don't believe in God, but this album sings of an order in our lives that, which, while often harrowing, at least exists. Maybe you don't need to be reminded. I did.

By Matt Wellins

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