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So crazy right now (Daniel Levin Becker)

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The hitmakers of 2003 have made their way on to another self-indulgent year-end list through poise, precision, and audacity. Let's observe.

So crazy right now (Daniel Levin Becker)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was another year in a long and unrelenting succession of years which inevitably have their good times and their bad. To illustrate the latter, consider the deaths of heroes like Cash, Bronson, Said, Willis, Hepburn – the list goes on. Most tragic was the suicide of Elliott Smith, perhaps the best songwriter to grace indie rock in recent memory (and certainly the best ever to appear onstage at the Oscars). Other unfortunate incidents probably won't look too good come a decade we can pronounce, such as the ever-dubious war in Iraq, the slow death knell of democracy in California, and Alice Cooper's The Eyes of Alice Cooper, but, if nothing else, we can look back and laugh at Cruz Bustamante's name.

But the good was never too far behind, particularly in the creepingly collectible world of artistic media. Below, then, are 10 records which I found to be absurdly awesome, a handful of exceptional songs from not-quite-as-great albums, and then some random stuff which kept sustained a reasonable quality of life in 2003.

1. The Postal ServiceGive Up (Sub Pop)
Perhaps the most polarizing album of the year; everyone I know either loved it or hated it [Does loathe qualify as hate? It does? Then no argument here.– ed.]. Firmly planted in the first category, I declare that Ben Gibbard's tenderly nonsensical poetic leanings and Jimmy Tamborello's icily smooth electronic production worked sheer wonders together. "Brand New Colony" is without doubt my favorite pop song of 2003, and a couple average tracks here and there are drowned out by the beauty of the rest of the record. To hell with being too sentimental or poppy or dancey; Give Up made me uncharacteristically happy between January and late April, and I am grateful.

2. BeulahYoko (Velocette)
Beulah's first three albums were increasingly fantastic bastardizations of ’60s pop, and their fourth continues the trend impeccably. But whereas The Coast is Never Clear was still a little too happy to be taken all seriously by anyone properly jaded, Yoko is pierced through and through with a gorgeous melancholy. Granted, it's not like no one's fused pretty pop and heartbreak before (hence Yoko's coming in second to an album much more likely to get me made fun of [Correct again. – ed.]), but damned if this isn't a great record. If, as rumor had it, this is to be Beulah's last, it's quite the swan song; let's just hope it doesn't have to be.

3. MonoOne Step More and You Die (Arena Rock)
Japan's answer to Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky joins the international post-rock pantheon, lacing ordinary pretty long-form instrumental crescendo rock with a wonderful sense of drama and emotion. Heavy on everything from delay to ridiculously abrasive white noise, One Step More and You Die is towering, moving, and thoroughly by-the-book, but oh so good.

4. Brother AliShadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers)
The album that Atmosphere's Seven's Travels should have been and conspicuously was not: witty, charming, emotional enough to be powerful when necessary, tastefully produced by Ant, so on. Brother Ali isn't quite at the level of Slug (who even sounds better on his two cameos here than he does on his own record) in his heyday, but he beats him all to hell at the moment. Besides, Slug never got to write a song about being a 250-pound albino who couldn't be happier to be a 250-pound albino.

5. The Jealous SoundKill Them With Kindness (Better Looking)
Jangly, brooding, catchy, emo at its sheepish best. Ex-Knapsack/Sunday's Best/etc. members regroup and fend off generic label troubles to make angrily sweet, eminently singalongable album. I'll stop.

6. The Pernice BrothersYours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont)

7. CursiveThe Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek)
Truly, the Saddle Creek release of Saddle Creek releases: cathartic, conceptual, self-referential. A subtle-enough theatrical undertone (it is, debatably, a rock opera) and a well-wielded cello steer it away from the emo leanings of 2000's Domestica and all its overripe sentiment, and focus instead on delicate introspection and caustic retribution. Dramatic, yes, but wholly convincing and often beautiful.

8. Four TetRounds (Domino)
The fleshed-out counterpart to Pause, but better in all sorts of ways. Strange compelling odysseys into computerized dreamworlds with a conscientiously/admirably accessible undertone.

9. Non-ProphetsHope (Lex)
If William Safire were an independent rapper, chances are he'd still be lamer than Sage Francis, who uses words with a reckless smirk to make the most jaded grammarian blush slightly. 90% neologisms ("Anticonquistador") and witticisms ("Nobody knows so I press on/ I go to Fugazi shows requesting Minor Threat songs"), and a handful of the soul-baring introspection that characterized last year's excellent Personal Journals, Hope casts Sage's verbal mischief over capable production from Joe Beats. A bit gimmicky at times, but an impressive document overall.

10. Tie (or lame, noncommittal cop-out):
M. WardTransfiguration of Vincent (Merge)
and TV on the RadioYoung Liars EP (Touch & Go)
A record and an EP which are both nearly inexplicable, yet on opposite ends of the novelty spectrum: Matt Ward makes enchanting music without any temporal identity, very old and still oddly current, while TV on the Radio's noisy mess is at once primitive and clearly the wave of the future (the sound of Peter Gabriel on a number of hallucinogens is a start, but doesn't give much of a clue). Both are also great.

A mixtape or two's worth of songs not to be missed:

90 Day Men – "Eyes in the Road" (2.23): The instrumental epilogue of Too Late or Too Dead +2, a 12-minute EP which somehow manages to sound just as epic as last year's To Everybody.

Alkaline Trio – "All On Black" (4.00): Chicago heroes' fourth proper album, Good Mourning (Vagrant), glosses over some of the gritty charm of past work and overdoes the morbid imagery (see title), but stays true to general theme of infectious pop-punk. Sweet drum work too.

American Analog Set – "Come Home Baby Julie, Come Home" (5.53): The most sublime of the unexcitable Promise of Love (Tiger Style); quiet, lilting, great.

Andrew W.K. – "Never Let Down" (3.58): The Wolf is the same record as I Get Wet (albeit with "party" replaced by "triumph"), but that's cause for celebration, not grounds for criticism.

Beyoncé f. Jay-Z – "Crazy In Love" (4.08): Quiet, you. It's my life, and I'll live it the way I want.

Calexico – "Sunken Waltz" (2.27): A rustic, accordion-soaked world of tragedy in under three minutes.

Death Cab for Cutie – "Expo '86" (4.11): It's been a good year for Ben Gibbard, and the overtones of self-assurance on Transatlanticism (Barsuk) don't always work out, but the simplicity of "Expo '86" qua rock song proves Death Cab is still on top of shit.

Explosions in the Sky – "The Only Moment We Were Alone" (10.14): The highlight of their third record The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (Temporary Residence), and probably the only song that realizes the potential slathered so thick throughout the whole thing. And there's this awesome moment at 9.26...

Fountains of Wayne – "Stacy's Mom" (3.18): It was about time someone rewrote The Cars' "Just What I Needed," wasn't it?

Hey Mercedes – "Boy Destroyers" (3.25): The whole of Loses Control (Vagrant) is excellent, but this song has it all: conspicuous technical aptitude, melodic sensibilities, and the refrain "why does every evening have to end this way?" The summer anthem that never was.

Kill Hannah – "Race the Dream" (3.36): Chicago heroes (the other ones) finally get signed to Atlantic (meh) and release an album which, though poorly titled (For Never and Ever) and overproduced, fails to repress their knack for writing amazingly catchy pop songs.

King Geedorah – "Fazers" (3.17): The logical extension of MF Doom's lush, imprecise production techniques and monster movie fixation was Take Me To Your Leader (Big Dada) which, though somewhat overrated and not as good as his Viktor Vaughn record, had its share of gems like this one.

Mogwai – "Hunted By A Freak" (4.18) or "I Know You Are But What Am I" (5.17): Subdued and predictably minimal songs by Scottish po-ro masters, from subdued and predictably minimal album Happy Songs for Happy People (Matador). Freaky, cool.

The New Amsterdams – "All Our Vice" (3.54): Get Up Kids singer Matt Pryor keeps releasing solo albums which are middling to above average, but which have one or two gems. This, a pleasingly smoove departure from the usual countryish overtones of the project, is one of those.

Outkast – "Hey Ya!" (3.55): Dude, it's in, like, 22/8 time. And, naturally, oh so phresh.

Liz Phair – "Why Can't I?" (3.28): What? Old crushes die hard. I am only too happy to fit into her target audience these days.

Pinback – "Grey - Machine" (11.07): Two eerie songs in one, bridged ever so subtly and with typical Pinback glamour, a suitable closer for the Offcell EP (Absolutely Kosher), which more than made up for that awful Rob Crow solo album.

Prefuse 73 – "Perverted Undertone" (3.18): At last, a Scott Herren song with half an attention span. To say nothing of an incredibly insistent bell sound that has not yet failed to make my roommate's ears perk up with intrigued irritation.

Radiohead – "A Punch-Up at a Wedding" (4.55): Since becoming willfully difficult, Radiohead have failed to thrillify me like they used to. But Hail to the Thief, although a worse title is hard to imagine, is a step in the right direction, and "Punch-Up" is one of its many misanthropic highlights.

Small Brown Bike – "A Declaration of Sorts" (3.14): Mississippi band finally restrain that unpalatable screemo vibe in favor of artful vindictiveness (see Cursive), make convincing and cathartic hit single.

Elliott Smith – "Pretty (Ugly Before)" (4.47): A live favorite committed to the 7" teaser for Smith's upcoming album. Beautiful in the lush tradition of his last two albums, and rendered all the more important/tragic in light of the fact that it turned out to be his last release.

Sole – "Plutonium" (4.53): Never has scatterbrained uberpolitical emo-hop sounded so good.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – "Maps" (3.39): The only redeeming quality I can find to this band. But what a lovely redeeming quality it turns out to be. I know no one who disagrees.

Yo La Tengo – "Little Eyes" (4.20): Surprise surprise, another good year for Yo La Tengo. Summer Sun (Matador), as well as the later Today is the Day EP, kicked ass in the most passive of ways.

See also:
This or this; probably this; this, this, and/or this, and almost certainly this.

Here's to 2003 and a better 2004. One.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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