Top 10 Albums of 2003

Number 10.  –  Fallen – Evanescence

The saving grace of Daredevil, it is unfortunate that Evanescence are completely contrapuntal to the film that made them.  Whereas the blockbuster film was a boring mess, featuring lacklustre performances from all of the lead roles (then again, my expectations from Colin Farrell weren’t high), Amy Lee leads the Evanescence parade with panache.  Her singing really elevates Evanescence from a standard act into a force to be reckoned with.  She can transform her keening voice from a quivering whisper into a wholehearted wail at a moment’s notice, all of the time sounding more melodic than any of her contemporaries that she’s forced to share airtime with.  As much as Amy may try to pretend otherwise, this is not Gothic Rock.  This is simply a solid Hard Rock album, with little tinges of different styles to keep things interesting.  For example, the choir makes a decided appearance in the concluding cut, “Whisper”, while “Tourniquet” explains the band’s Christian backgrounds and Fallen benefits from its orchestral backing on several occasions.  This subtle aspect likens Evanescence to symphonic metal bands such as Nightwish, although the more common comparison is to Lacuna Coil.  Still, whatever style it is, Evanescence’sformula has come up trumps, and I hope they don’t tinker with it too much to fit public opinion: as Lee notes in “Hello”, ‘Don’t try to fix me, I’m not broken’.

Number 9.  –  Fever To Tell –
Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs are one hell of a noisy band, and they don’t hold anything back on their debut full-length Fever to Tell. Whether it’s their feedback-laden guitars courtesy of quiet genius Nick Zinner, the crashing cymbals and pounding drums of Brian Chase, or Karen O’s punk-y, sexy vocals, this album is sure to melt your face off. Hailing from New York City and inspired by the punk rock scene that originated there in the 1970s thanks to bands like Television and The Ramones, the three members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs manage to fuse elements of art punk and garage rock to create one whopper of a record. Distinctively, there is no bass on this album and it is easy to suspect that maybe they might be overcompensating for their lack of it. This is not true however, and they still manage to fill in as much space as they can with as much noise as they can muster in just around 35 minutes without sounding desperate. One thing that stands out about this album is Karen O’s vocals; playfully wicked, with enough orgasmic  screeching to make them truly unlike any vocals I’ve heard. While they may be enough to turn listeners off (and during my first listen to this album a few years ago, it left me perplexed and uncomfortable), it does grow on you as you realize it’s entirely fitting for the lyrical content of the album. Endlessly hyped upon its release ten years ago, Fever to Tell sounds like walking down the coolest ghetto in New York City. With drums, guitars, and vocals all somehow exuding the same negative energy as they screech and scream their way from one ear to the other, it’s certainly not an album you’ll be forgetting sometime. While it may be only about 35 minutes, that time span is certainly long enough to make your ears bleed and your face melt, and that’s exactly what the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have set out to do.

Number 8.  –  Mary Star of the Sea – Zwan

Not many people know about this band formed by the infamous Billy Corgan after he broke up his world famous band, the Smashing Pumpkins. The major thing that shocks people when they do hear this album is the outlook of it. While most of Corgan’s repertoire of Pumpkins songs were love songs, most people regarded the Pumpkins as a depressing band, or shall I say mellon collie (Yes, I know that was a terrible joke)? This album is so happy and spiritual it’s almost religious. That said, it’s not a Christian rock album, though there are several references to Jesus and God, it’s much more than that. I think this will probably be the most surprising choice.  I’ve always thought of the Zwan album as a defacto Smashing Pumpkins album, since the album features Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin with Billy writing all of the songs, like most Pumpkins releases.  Many Pumpkins fans criticized this album as being too poppy and generic, but it really is one of Corgan’s strongest bodies of work ever.  Every song is memorable, just an incredibly catchy and inspired album.  I could give a shit about the live songs and demos left off, the songs that made the album are great.  The title track Mary Star of the Sea is one of my favorite Smashing Pumpkins/Billy Corgan songs.  Standout tracks include: Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea, Settle Down, Of A Broken Heart, Lyric, and Ride A Black Swan. I would definitely suggest any fan of the Smashing Pumpkins pick this album up, be it causal or hardcore. Anybody not normally a fan of the Pumpkins might find something to like as it is a bit more tame and poppy than any of their previous material.

Number 7.  –  A Drug Problem That Never
Existed – Mondo Generator

Second album from the former Dwarves/Kyuss/QOTSA bass player Nick Oliveri and baldy does not disappoint. “A Drug Problem That Never Existed” provides a relentless sonic attack that is not void of catchy melodies. Obviously Mr Oliveri is not here to change the world so this record is all about just fucking shit up, threatening people, doing drugs and you know, just clean fun, fun, fun.   Oliveri plays it smart and safe to a point; the rock n’ punk melodies are right there (“So High, So Low”, “Jr. High Love”), the contributions too (Josh Homme, Dave Catching, Josh Freese, Rex Everything, Alain Johannes among others), and adding entertaining and trasgressive lyrics, and short songs the album never runs out of steam. It is a shame to know that he is no longer part of the mighty QOTSA, on the other hand who knows, Mondo Generator could keep putting albums out like this one and I certainly would not mind.

Number 6.  –  Damnation – Opeth

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Damnation sounds and feels the way it does.  Arguably Opeth’s greatest strength as a band is their sense of taste – in two genres as suspect to pretence and silliness as prog rock and death metal are, they stand out by blending the two in a way that avoids any kind of schlocky cheesiness or nursery-rhyme silliness, and that doesn’t disappear up its own arse.  That alone would be a trick worth respecting, even if they sucked. Damnation is the same, despite the sudden shift in tact and atmosphere – everything about it is judged impeccably.  I hesitate to use the word ‘perfect’, because it opens up a philosophical can of worms and points toward a tired old debate that none of us want to have, but if you were going to pin me down and ask to pick an album that I thought was perfect, this would probably be it.  It feels like every note was carefully paused upon to make sure it was right. And the songs!  I’m not sure it’s fair on the likes of Still Life to say that Damnation has the best songs of any Opeth album – it’s more likely that this shift in genre just makes the quality more obvious.  Still, this is one seriously world class set of songs.  The way tracks like “In My Time of Need” and “To Rid the Disease” slide into their choruses is stunning, a model worth studying and endlessly emulating for any songwriter that wants to understand how tension and release should be handled in a rock song.  “Hope Leaves” has one of the most beautiful arpeggios in rock history (seriously), and “Windowpane” transcends its own repetitive C#maj11 arpeggio with a cerfully unwinding structure that takes in three brilliant guitar solos.  “Ending Credits” and “Weakness” stop this from being a 5-star album, the first being a recap of ideas from the first six tracks, the second being a stripped-back ballad with just keyboard and vocal that would be great on any other album, but breaks the atmosphere here.  Both are still seriously good songs, but the former seems a little unnecessary and the latter feels ill-fitting.

Number 5.  –  Silent Hill 3 OST – Akira Yamaoka

Funny that I don’t normally put a video game soundtrack in the best of albums list, but Silent Hill 3’s soundtrack is so damn good that it’s worth placing it. This is Akira Yamaoka’s best work in VGMs and Konami should be proud to have a composer like him to give the company an identity, musically. What I admire most about the Silent Hill 3 soundtrack is that they perfectly utilize the trip hop genre with special guest Mary Elizabethe McGlynn that suitably fits the tone the third game of the series was going for. The first of the Silent Hill soundtracks to include vocal contributions from Mary Elizabeth McGlynn finds another intriguing stylistic shift. Since Silent Hill 3 was something of a return to the plot and aesthetic of the first game, it would have been all too easy for Yamaoka to simply revert to the industrial side of his celebrated ambient/industrial mix. Instead he actually opts to push both sides of the classic Silent Hill soundtrack formula out of the spotlight a little (though both aspects are present at points) in favour of bringing to the fore the trip-hop influences which had manifested on the previous soundtrack. Dance With Night Wind is an absolutely classic track, whilst the songs featuring McGlynn monologues put me in mind of a Silent Hill version of Meanwhile, Back In Communist Russia…, though that said I find the album somewhat less compelling than its predecessor (and Jose Romersa’s vocal on Hometown is pretty poor – it sounds more like an unconvincing David Bowie impression than someone’s natural singing voice).

Number 4.  –  Michigan – Sufjan Stevens

Michigan is an elegy for the state as it suffocates from its economic collapse (particularly in the automotive industry implosion of the 1970s), class disintegration and frozen climate. Even if it is currently rebounding from these troubles, Michigan is Sufjan Stevens’ personal portrait of the state as it was when he was growing up there, when it hit such lows that Flint, Michigan had a reputation as one of the poorest, worst cities in America (when Michael Moore makes a documentary about you, things aren’t going well). Both in sound and theme, Michigan sits directly in between Seven Swans and Illinois. It has some of the Reichian big mathematical compositions, songs based around various local histories and civic slogans, and it was the kicking-off of the quasi-mythical 50 States Project, but it is much more subdued and personal than Illinois. This was where Sufjan grew up and it is an elegy for his lost childhood in equal measure as it is for the Michigan he grew up in. It is fiction drawn from hard personal experiences, and at times highly evocative and emotionally stirring. This album means a lot to me for a lot of personal reasons and there are two songs in particular that never fail to break me down. “Holland” is a very subdued bit of doomed romance and I cloud up right from ‘All the time we spent in bed, counting miles before we set.’ Light acoustic guitar and the light sparkle of piano, even softer and more clutched to the breast than the songs on Seven Swans, building some momentum of sadness. Beautiful, utterly. The second is the stark “Romulus” about maternal estrangement, and the closing ‘and I was ashamed of her’ is devastating, with just the slightest tremor in his voice. Of course, for all the tragedy and sadness of the album, it is tempered with light humour. The epic “Detroit, Lift Up Your Head!” is a cheerfully ridiculous series of gleeful pronouncements like ‘Tigers game!’ and ‘Wolverine!’ and ‘Auto cars!’ concluding with the aside ‘hesistate to burn the buildings.’ This song sprawls for eight minutes in between those two deep, dark emotional moments. Of course, the song titles throughout are mostly touristy nonsense of absurd cheer (especially “Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!”). However, this is much more downbeat than any of his other work, just the romance of tragedy writ large.

Number 3.  –  Elephant – The White Stripes

If you’ve ever dreamed of hearing an album that contains nothing but filler tracks, then thank your lucky stars, because The White Stripes’ discography is here to satisfy you. Elephant, as we all know, is a White Stripes album, so I see no reason why you shouldn’t pick up this one to begin your filler journey. The magnum opus of The White Stripes, ELEPHANT is the definitive garage rock album with the energy of Japandroids and the strong hooks of The Black Keys (though in my opinion, ELEPHANT trounces any release by either of those bands). Every song hits home (except perhaps the overtly weird “Little Acorns”) and “Seven Nation Army”, “Black Math”, “The Hardest Button to Button”, and “Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine” have few peers at the same level in the modern rock scene. Add to the mix an exceptional blues track (“Ball and Biscuit”) and some nice balladry (“In the Cold, Cold, Night” and “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket”) and you’ve got a near impeccable album. 4.5/5. “Elephant” is an addictive album to say the least. There’s generally a lot of stuff going on in the songs, multiple instruments and stuff. The guitars are surprisingly heavy and raw, while a lot of these riffs are show stopping arena rock material that sound straight out of some classic 70’s hard rock staple of a band. There isn’t a single song that I felt like skipping, despite being 14 tracks long, and that’s quite a feat itself.  An album like this proves you just have to be smart (with talent, I guess), and not god gifted musicians to make great music. “Elephant” is just one great modern guitar album. “There’s No Home for You Here” has to be my favorite. It’s just so Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple or The Doors, man. This album feels so fresh, yet so retro and it’s made by a guy and a chick.

Number 2.  –  Dead Cities, Read Seas,
Lost Ghosts – M83

When My Bloody Valentine’s epoch-defining blissout masterpiece Loveless came out, everyone was dying to know what was going to top it. When Kevin Shields pulled a Brian Wilson and dropped out of contention, that answer seemed left unanswered. Or perhaps partially answered, by the post-rock of Disco Inferno and Bark Psychosis. French synth duo M83 aren’t necessarily breaking new ground with technology that dates back to 70s Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, but they’ve done a wonderful job in replicating the hypnotic multi-toned harmonics of My Bloody Valentine, substituting synths for the distorted guitars. The result is somewhat less gauzy, but equally transportive and hallucinatory. Less songs than looped textures with slow-moving melodies blanketed on top, with a swirl of psychedelic color, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts really does offer a new twist in sound and approach, while avoiding cliche in a way that Air and Fennesz achieved a few years back. Named after an intensely beautiful spiral galaxy, M83 don’t evoke the ambient awe and dread of vast space like Amon Tobin can, but tracks like “Gone” come pretty close, and are more than capable of wiping all electroclash residue from your memory, leaving only the pleasant afterglow from the fragile “Beauties Can Die.” The thing that shocked me the most about this album is how totally gritty and mucky it is, in contrast to the sleek, dreamy, ethereal textures on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. To be perfectly honest, I actually prefer the polished sound to the edgy, sharp, grainy sounds of this album. The choice of synthesizer textures is really not too much to my liking — too many saws, sine waves, etc. The percussion is also fabricated electronically, and this bothers me. The really emotional lyrics and airy vocals have all but disappeared and have now been replaced with these samples and one-liners. I just don’t really much get it, and I certainly do not like it as much as my other exposure to M83. Disappointing, to say the least, though I can see the allure.

Number 1.  –  Give Up – The Postal Service

I’ll never be a Death Cab fan, but this is a charming and lovely little album. It sounds no less imperfect from far away because, well, it was always flawed. Ben Gibbard’s voice is simultaneously timid and upfront enough to make his uber-mawkish lyrics retain every bit of mawkishness. The way the guy sings lines like the notorious ‘freckles in our eyes’ bit in “Such Great Heights”, or the John F. Kennedy bit in “Sleeping In”, or the ‘making you my bride’ bit in “Nothing Better”, or even small passing lines like ‘how long must I wait’ (why not ‘how long should I wait,’ Ben? would’ve sounded a bit more poetic in that song’s context, and not so pointlessly antiquated), or wondering what’s buried under the asphalt in the opener…all this stuff is so fuckin’ prompt that it always sounds like he’s just telling you straight-up: ‘I will now proceed to gaze at my navel.’ “Nothing Better” is essentially a breakup duet – like a friendlier and less icy “Somebody That I Used to Know” – between Gibbard and Jen Wood (who along with Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis provides the backing vocals here, and both women do provide welcome emotional counterpoint while keeping their tones appropriately in the clouds), but it sounds like both of them are reading their lines directly from a sheet of paper. ‘I swear I’ll do my best to comply’? ‘I feel I must interject here’? Christ, just ’cause the music sounds like a computer doesn’t mean you have to talk like one. Each of the first eight tracks off Give Up is strong enough to qualify as a career highlight, even if I get less excited about lead single “Such Great Heights” than the average fan.  Personal favorites include the slow-burning opener “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”, the lyrically quirky yet absurdly catchy “Clark Gable”, and “Recycled Air”, whose winding bridge stands as the record’s finest moment.  I also feel obliged to mention “This Place Is a Prison”, which is the most Transatlanticism-esque thing on the record and strikes me as the releases’ most artistically significant offering.  Both the bouncy indie pop ditty “Brand New Colony” and the Kid A-influenced (mostly) instrumental “Natural Anthem” have their moments, but those always make the record a tiny bit of a chore to finish off. An essential indie-pop album.  If you really like Give Up yet for some reason have never gotten into Death Cab, I suggest starting with Photo Album as the most Postal Service-esque record from Ben Gibbard’s more famous band.

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