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Independent writers pick the most compelling CDs of 2003



Todd Snider
Near Truths and Hotel Rooms
Oh Boy

There’s nothing new about a guy with harmonica and guitar singing G/C/D folk songs, but on this live album, Todd Snider manages to add fresh flavor to an old recipe. As much an involving storyteller as he is a singer, Snider’s melodic folk is edgy, witty and irresistibly charming. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

The Raveonettes
The Chain Gang of Love

To paraphrase Brian Eno: Only a few people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them started a band. Well, the Raveonettes are one of those few (coincidentally the band may have also been one of the 500,000 who picked up The Monkees). The songs are reminiscent of Pretty in Pink (or a Nike ad)—but in a good way. (Jed Gottlieb)

Apollo Sunshine

The debut album from this Boston pop-rock outfit offers enormous promise. Combine Dinosaur Jr’s rock sensibilities with some Queen-style guitar hooks and you come up with the mix-and-match of Katonah. There’s enough pop here to please a Strokes fan, but also enough offbeat tangents to woo those newly acquired Flaming Lips followers. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

The Joggers
Solid Guild
Startime International

Nothing else like it anywhere—it’s like these Portland dudes sprang fully-formed from the head of the same god who spawned Captain Beefheart and Gang of Four. Solid Guild boasts two guitarists getting chocolate all over each other’s peanut butter, thrilling four-part harmonies, a lead singer who even the record label agrees sings like he’s got his nuts caught in a wood chipper, and twelve amazing songs to show for it. (Andy Smetanka)

Michael Franti and Spearhead
Everyone Deserves Music
Boo Boo Wax

Spearhead’s 2003 release is uplifting almost to the point of insanity, in that Barney the Dinosaur TV-marathon sort of way. Yet Franti’s incisive, occasionally militant lyrics and inherent soul save Everyone Deserves Music, placing it right up there with vintage Curtis Mayfield. Target audience: spiritual liberals who dig the gospel style but could do without “all the Jesus stuff.” (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

The Strokes
Room on Fire

Meet the new Strokes, same as the old Strokes. Every bit as good as Is This It?, the new album is another pop song pinnacle. No, the band’s not the Second Coming of the Beatles, Stones, Ramones or Velvet Underground, and the boys may not deserve a cover story in every music magazine. But the Strokes are still good. Damn good. (Jed Gottlieb)

Neil Michael Hagerty
Neil Michael Hagerty & The Howling Hex
Drag City

I deem my critical acclaim for this masterpiece purely solo (it doesn’t seem like anyone else really likes it much). While it’s true Hagerty pinches from big-time sell-outs the Rolling Stones, who doesn’t these days? This adventurous songwriting and delivery is above and beyond mere mortal—Hagerty’s brand of folk/blues is born in the boondocks but played on Saturn. And yep, it’s still the best this year. (Bryan Ramirez)

2 Skinnee J’s
Sexy Karate
Dolphins vs. Unicorns

Brooklyn’s rap-rockers come of age on their best-realized album, drawing on the Beastie Boys and Devo. Take 2 Skinnee J’s rap, “Friends don’t let friends listen to rap-metal” with a wink, since many J’s songs border on this genre. But unlike the legions of Korn-shuckers, J’s take chances, unafraid of mixing the hardcore with the pretty or silly. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

Super Furry Animals
Phantom Power
Beggars Banquet
SFA’s flame still burns brightly after accomplishing the near impossible: producing this gem so soon after their masterpiece, Rings Around the World. They work out a smart balance of electronics plus nostalgia, creating timeless tunes. These Welsh fellows walk their own walk and create paths that are much needed in the modern world of music. There really is no other contemporary pop band that compares. (Bryan Ramirez)

My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves
If push came to shove, I’d still take 2001’s At Dawn over this one, but It Still Moves is basically more of the same from these wild-eyed Southern boys: loose, rambling country rock dripping with reverb and pierced by singer/songwriter Jim James’s Neil Young-like nasal tenor. Highly recommended for fans of Levon Helm and the Band, the aforementioned Young, and Wilco fans who couldn’t quite get with the overrated Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. (Andy Smetanka)

The Thorns
The Thorns

Take three underrated singer-songwriter types (Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge), put ’em in the studio with heavy-duty rock producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam et. al.), and what comes out? A badass (and underrated) folk rock trio. Sweet rations his trademark guitar stomp to just a few entries here, leavening the sweetest accumulation of male harmonies since Crosby, Stills and Nash decided they could do without Neil Young. (Brad Tyer)

David Byrne
Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Thrill Jockey

The former Talking Heads leadman assembles an all-star cast of Scottish musicians (including Belle and Sebastian’s drummer) for the instrumental soundtrack to the Scot film Young Adam. As composer/musician, Byrne resists overwriting his own part, resulting in a cohesive soundscape of strings and percussion. Here are hauntingly beautiful melodies unlike anything you’ll hear elsewhere. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

Townes Van Zandt
In the Beginning

There’s been no shortage of sketchy re-releases and tributes and compilations since Townes Van Zandt’s 1995 death, mostly drawn from his late, great drunken phase. But this one—10 previously unreleased songs from an early Nashville session two years prior to the release of Van Zandt’s debut, For the Sake of the Song—captures the young poet, nearly bleeding ambition, in limber voice and fine picking style. Not so much a revelation as an unexpected expansion of the canon. (Brad Tyer)

Bicycle Thieves
Second Place Confessional

Ah, the well-constructed three-minute pop song. McCartney was the master, Costello a brilliant second. The Bicycle Thieves can’t yet measure up, but the band’s trying, and should be proud of the effort. Jack Johnson guests, but doesn’t get in the way (thankfully). This is pure pop for now people. (Jed Gottlieb)

U.S. Maple
Purple on Time
Drag City

Though more, erm, accessible than past releases Talker and Acre Thrills, the fifth U.S. Maple album is still an acquired taste. Once you acquire it, you won’t be able to get enough of singer Al Johnson’s peculiar wheezing vocals and skittering guitars, but the learning curve is a steep one. An incredibly creepy version of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” will leave you wanting to scrub to the bone with Lava soap. (Andy Smetanka)

Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros

The mystic rules that govern the universe somehow allow soon-to-be-dead artists a last gasp. Streetcore is Strummer’s. Resplendent in Telecaster glory, Strummer rips through Brit-punk while still leaving room for lonely last songs like “Silver and Gold.” Thanks, Joe, for breathing life into one glorious swan song. (Jed Gottlieb)

First Utterance
Get Back

This 1971 reissue (with a bonus EP) snuck into unsuspecting minds and literally creeped out its listeners. Cross The Manson Family with Ghost, add the prog-rock contingency of Henry Cow with Slapp Happy and maybe a mental condition. Haunting commune rants with acoustic guitars and percussion make this shrilly bombastic beauty an unforgettable experience. You won’t want to listen to this wild-eyed hippie music in the dark. (Bryan Ramirez)


Does the idea of white guys from Boulder, Colo. playing Zimbabwean music give you the same embarrassed feeling as watching uncle Larry dance to Nelly’s “Hot in Here” at your cousin’s wedding? Well, don’t worry. Jaka’s sound—electric guitars, mbiras, marimbas and a horn section—isn’t some clumsy cross-pollination of Zimbabwean music and electronica beats or bluegrass banjos. Jaka belies their Wonderbread background with an authentic sound. (Jed Gottlieb)

Terry Reid

Reid was the guy Jimmy Page originally asked to join The New Yardbirds (aka Led Zeppelin). Originally released in 1972 and reissued by UK label Water, this stripped-down swamp-blues-rock penetrates the psyche and stuns with Reid’s songwriting and immense vocal talent (you hear this and know from whence Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson ripped off his chops). Made to feel like it was born in a shack and delivered in the dirt. Real good with whiskey, too. (Bryan Ramirez)

Hail to the Thief

In which Radiohead takes everything they’ve learned over their career (including pop melodies, studio tricks, longing and sonic force) and smashes it all together. The guitars have returned, but so have the keyboards, programmed drum beats, PowerBooks and overall weirdness. Think of it as a greatest hits album with all new material. (Jed Gottlieb)

Drunk Horse
Adult Situations
Tee Pee

Drunk Horse releases were lukewarm at best until they let their hair down in homage to Prince (on a Wäntage USA seven-inch), and now this full-length of mighty-bro riff-rock, all clever licks and goofy lyrics. They sing of J.S. Bach like he’s The Nuge, and songs like “Fried Chicken Cadillac” abound. I once told singer/songwriter Eli Eckert that Drunk Horse was the band the kids in late ’70s stoner movie Over The Edge would’ve started. Everyone should agree. This rock blow-out rarely left the car stereo in 2003. (Bryan Ramirez)

The Thrills
So Much for the City

Let’s just take a certain way with a tune for granted from these six Irish lads, who for starters hail from the same city as U2. Now strand them on a beach near San Diego for four months and this is what you get: rib-sticking pop haunted by the ghosts of Pet Sounds and ’70s easy-listening gold. “Old Friends, New Lovers” is an amazing hybrid of Giorgio Moroder and the Honeydrippers that will lodge itself in your head for days on end. (Andy Smetanka)

Rocket From The Tombs
The Day The Earth Met…
Smog Veil

I swore John Fleming from Ear Candy was playing a cruel trick when he handed this disc to me, an actual RFTT release in the raw, culled from their 1975 basement/live sessions. These over-distorted/crude recordings of classic cast-in-iron anthems help you thankfully forget the sad state of commercial punk rock. This is truly the genre at ground zero, and it still rocks rabid. (Bryan Ramirez)

Hypnotic Underworld
Drag City

Just when it seemed like these Japanese space travelers had embarked on a trip from which there was no returning, they return nearly five years after their sprawling last album with the best of their enigmatic career. Hypnotic Underworld finds Ghost building on their every previous strength. From the opening drone of the 23-minute title opus to its final nerve-shredding 16 seconds, from the arcadian meadow-rock of “Hazy Paradise” to the hospital-corners prog of “Holy High,” it’s pure orange sunshine LSD for your hi-fi. (Andy Smetanka)

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