My Best 20 of 2003

By liz

When the little hand meets the big hand in a round of 2004 kisses and jubilation... I will be a little sad to see it go. This was musically one of the best years I've heard since the late 90s. Week after week, month after month I was enthralled with new artists and brilliant records from some old favorites.

I've been an anglophile for over a decade now and I'm a little perturbed by the lack of Brits on my top 20. There are some, but not those that should be expected. The lack of a true British music scene just isn't interesting me anymore. Keeping-up-with-the-NME hasn't been my style in years but I think this is the first year where not a single one of the British bands of the moment has stayed within my radar for very long. So what's taking their places? A LOT of Americans, some Canadians, a few Danes, Swedes etc.

No more time for the pomp and circumstance, we've got some music to hear so let's get on with it...

20. Lucksmiths - Naturaliste
Lucksmiths - Naturaliste The oh-so-normally-happy Lucksmiths seem a little sad. While the Aussies' 6th album contains the same simple pop melodies that made them one of the most in demand indiepop bands of the summer... this album is in a low. Luckily for us, a low for the L'smiths is still higher than the average 3 piece off the street. 'Yeah, you're upset... so am I." While I never expected the melancholy, it's actually a welcome change from the constant (and therefore unrealistic) upbeat songs delivered on previous records. Despite a few clouds in the sky... the sun is still shining down on The Lucksmiths.
Best Tracks: The Perfect Crime; The Sandringham Line; Take This Lying Down; There As A Boy That Never Goes Out; Stayaway Stars; Midweek Midmorning
The Lucksmiths | Drive-In Recordings

19. Bettie Serveert - Log 22
(Palomine/Hidden Agenda)
Bettie Serveert - Log 22 I haven't rated a Bettie Serveert record so high in years... 10 actually. After the college-radio-classic that became 'Palomine'... I'd listen to the band's subsequent releases in the store and never figure they had enough 'oomph' to merit purchase. Despite that... I bought Log 22 sight unseen (or unheard) and was not the least bit disappointed. This was the year of jangle and Bettie Serveert fed my impulses nicely. A solid return to form should always be celebrated, so with the guitar hooks, pop jangle and slightly unnerving vocal harmonies... they can count me in.
(Side note: I had the pleasure of seeing the band live this year and experienced something quite rare... absolute awe. The Netherlands has been hiding one of the best live guitar players I have ever seen in Peter Visser. I rarely find myself stunned to jaw dropping silence by fretwork and guitar fancy... but man, oh man. If they make it back stateside in the forthcoming years, do NOT miss them live.)
Best Tracks: Smack; Wide Eye Fools; Given; Not Coming Down; Log 22; The Love In
Bettie Serveert | Hidden Agenda

18. Erland Oye - Unrest
Erland Oye - Unrest Once upon a time I bought a record by some Norwegian boys called 'Kings of Convenience'... after one listen through I decided it was entirely too fey and wrote them off forever. Luckily, forever is only a few years because when I revisited the album this year I decided it was pop brilliance. Magically about the same time Erland's solo record crossed my path. More electronic than KOC but JUST as good, it's beautiful electro-melodies set to simple beats with a pitch-perfect delivery. While it appears from the sleeve to be a record full of concept songs (each track was recorded in a different city with different producers)... every track reinforces the others and creates a cohesive album.
Best Tracks: The Athlete; Every Party Has A Winner; Ghost Trains; Sudden Rush; The Talk

17. Stars - Heart
(Arts & Crafts)
I am Liz and this is my heart. Yes, pure cheese in the opening seconds of what is otherwise a wiser and more refined Stars. Forgive them for that because once you make it actually INTO the album... you are met with sweet pop stylings of the lovelorn. Stars are teetering on the edge here... between the oh-my-i-haven't-heard-a-record-this-sappy-EVER and take-my-breathe-away-sweetness. Torq and Amy have now mastered the art of the male/female duet to playfully work off of each both on record and live. Stars are one of the many Canadian bands to keep an eye on.
Best Tracks: Elevator Love Letter; Heart; The Vanishing; The Woods; Death To Death; Romantic Comedy; Look Up
Stars | Arts & Crafts

16. Broadcast - HaHa Sound
Britain's maestros of eery electrosoul have done it again. 'Haha Sound' is the haunted house of my dreams... the place where the world is just a tinge psychotic and a whole lot sci fi lullabies. (Sorry Suede, but you don't deserve the title half as much as any track on this album.) The twisted rhythms and stuttering electronics are further out there than 'The Noise Made By People'... yet seem to complete that broader puzzle of who exactly Broadcast wanted to be... pure meandering pleasure with every turn.
Best Tracks: Colour Me In; Ominous Cloud; Before We Begin; Pendulum; The Little Bell
Broadcast | Warp

15. Mosquitos - Mosquitos
(Bar None)
NY's indiepop scene has been needing a lil jolt of something different... and the bossa nova beat of Mosquitos is liberating. They are NOT like their NY contemporaries so if you are looking for another Interpol or Yeah Yeah Yeahs.. move on. "He's so far out that he fits in right in..." Indeed the lyrics from 'Boombox' can speak volumes about this entire record. Mosquitos do fit in... if we were still living in the world of Astrud Gilberto or Arto Lindsay. These aren't just kids playing dressup however... lead singer Juju Stulbach brings her Brazilian breathiness to the solid indiepop melodies of Chris Root and Jon Marshall Smith. As intoxicating as that breathe of fresh air when stepping off the plane onto an island paradise...
Best Tracks: Boombox; Preguica; Juju - Blue; Mosquito; Rainsong; Nos Dois
Mosquitos | Bar None

14. Sprites - Starling, Spiders and Sprites
For the purpose of journalistic integrity (as if) I should tell you I held my birthday at a Sprites/Lucksmiths show... and although the always coy J. Korzen didn't dance with me his album has been dancing the meringue round my heart all year long. So snappy, so catchy and too damn cute for words. The big sound of one acoustic has never hit a better note with me.
Best Tracks: Ask Me To Dance; Following Her Around; Do It Yourself; Wish I Sang A Little Better
Sprites | March Records

13. Ben Folds - Sunny 16
I hear your dismay... an EP? You can't do that! Oh yeah? I just did. There may only be 5 tracks on this release but it's Ben's best work to date. The opening track, "There's Always Someone Out There Cooler Than You" is a brilliant one uppance to those indier (and hence holier) than though. A true anthem of rare cleverness for the nonjudgmental set. 'All You Can Eat' is the political rant that Ben once claimed he'd never make. I quite like Ben doing these quick one off singles... as long as he keeps them as fresh and creative as 'Sunny 16'. Butterflies and yumminess all around please!
Best Tracks: There's Always Someone Out There Cooler Than You; All You Can Eat; Songs of Love (Divine Comedy cover); Rockstar; Learn To Live With What You Are (yes... i did just name all 5 tracks)
Ben Folds

12. Cat Power - You Are Free
Chan was all the rage back in March. Her sound/name/image was plastered on every indie medium from here to Saskatchewan. (To be fair I did not go to Saskatchewan to see if they were also inundated). Regardless of the early critical praise of 'You Are Free', the album has held up spectacularly until the end of the year. If albums were to be judged for emotional honestly alone... this would be the record of the year.
Best Tracks: Free; I Don't Blame You; He War; Speak For Me; Shaking Paper
Cat Power | Matador

11. Rufus Wainwright - Want One
Rufus... like a glass of perfectly aged Sirah... and just as pretentious. Sip and lick your lips on this one. It's hard not to listen to this and imagine Rufus' ideal as the big, bustling Broadway musical... and he's getting closer to that dream. While the show tunes seem to be beckoning... he just can't leave the popworld in the dust yet. Despite all the grandiose drama, at the heart of each song is a simple haunting desire for a better understanding of the world around him. "Wrap your loving arms around me, While the cold winds blow... Tell me what I really want to know, Cause I'm looking for a reason, a person, a painting"... at the core it's the hauntingly beautiful melodies of longing that tug at my heart and keep me listening.
Best Tracks: 14th Street; Movies of Myself; Vibrate; Oh What A World; Vicious World
Rufus Wainwright | DreamWorks

10. Goldfrapp - Black Cherry
This made me fall out of my chair. I don't know what I was expecting from the earth shattering vocalist but this surely wasn't it. Looking back upon the freshman release, this is a natural progression but it shocked the hell out of me. Dirty beats, laser beams, sex, drugs and Allison Goldfrapp... is not a bad combination. I fear too many people are going to lump this release in with the 'Electroclash' movement but it's a natural flow from the yodel happy Goldfrapp of yesteryear to the Add N to (Goldfrapp) of today... there's no bandwagon jumping here. Allison (and musical partner Will Gregory) have a rare talent to fuse the sweet and sour better than any Chinese takeaway.
Best Tracks: Train; Black Cherry; Deep Honey; Crystalline Green; Strict Machine
Goldfrapp | Mute

09. Junior Senior - D-D-Don't Don't Stop The Beat
(Crunchy Frog/Atlantic)
Dance Danish boy dance! I was hesitant to listen to Junior Senior. I took one look at the British hype machine in full effect and decided I wanted nothing to do with them. A quick stop at a Virgin listening station proved me dead wrong. Produced by Thomas Troelsen (of the Superheroes) and engineered by Per Sunding (of Eggstone and Tambourine Studios non-fame)... disco has never been this relevant and fresh. Go Junior! Go Senior!
Best Tracks: Move Your Feet; Boy Meets Girl; Rhythm Bandits; Go Junior, Go Senior
Junior Senior | Crunchy Frog | Atlantic Records

08. Metric - Old World Underground, Where Are We Now?
(Enjoy Records)
So many of these songs have been reverberating in my head throughout the year, these kids have worked oh-so-hard to earn this space in my Top 10. Rarely does someone make art rock that can break out of easy classification... but Emily Haines and James Shaw have done just that. The explosively catchy rhythms and the saucy hip grinding beats take the high road through synths and full throttle guitars... leaving me a bit bewildered as to how this four piece managed to sneak out of the woodwork and onto center stage.
Best Tracks: Combat Baby; Dead Disco; IOU; Succexy; Wet Blanket; The List; On A Slow Night
Metric | Enjoy Records

07. Radio Dept - Lesser Matters
Make no mistake... if I hadn't discovered this so late in the year I'm sure it would have climbed even higher on the chart. Nearly every song is an intoxicating blend of fuzzy guitars, Chapterhouse-esque droning and simple pop melody. There have been quite a few kids-inspired-by-the-shoegaze-greats-of-the-early-90s to hit the airwaves this year, but NONE OF THEM reached the heights of Sweden's Radio Dept. Trying to discover Radio Dept's influences is a strange trick in every track, yet despite the sonic diversity this band never sounds as if they lost their vision. You can't feel the sunshine fading... a truly great debut leaves me eagerly awaiting the next record.
Best Tracks: Ewan; Strange things will happen; Slottet #2; Against The Tide; 1995; Why won't you talk about it; Where damage isn't already done
Shelflife | Labrador

06. Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips - L'Avventura
(Jet Set)
This ain't no Luna record. On most tracks the sophisticated romanticism seems so far removed from the pair's main musical outlet that you can float away without realizing how they got here. Yes, the majority of tracks are covers... but so far removed from their original incarnations they take on a new bliss. A record made to be enjoyed lounging under the covers in a snuggly embrace on a Sunday morning...
Best Tracks: Night Nurse; Your Baby; Threw It Away; Random Rules; Ginger Snaps; Moonshot
Dean & Britta | Jet Set

05. Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress
(Rough Trade)
I fell in love with this album instantly. One rotation and I was hooked but it took me months to figure out why. I've finally settled on an answer and it might need some explanation... confidence. I'm not sure if it was collaborating with Trevor Horn or the critical flop that was their last album but the B&S kids stepped up to the plate and hit the Grand Slam they've been teasing us with for years. From the band of underdogs that once sang "If you're looking for success don't be us", they aren't afraid of being beaten to bits as the twee whipping boys (and girl) anymore. Someone clued them in that they are the best selling Scottish musicians in recent history... and therefore OK to be Belle & Sebastian. Although not outwardly stated, B&S sound more in control than they've ever been.
Best Tracks: If She Wants Me; Step Into The Office, Baby; I'm a Cuckoo; Stay Loose; Roy Walker; Lord Anthony; Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Belle & Sebastian | Rough Trade | Jeepster

04. Pernice Brothers - Yours, Mine and Ours
(Ashmont Records)
Amusingly this year there was an argument about whether Joe Pernice was TOO SUGARY. Alright, there is no such thing as TOO sugary (obvious exception: The Free Design)... but certainly not from this crew. Come on now... there's a song that not only ELUDES to the sawing apart of children but is CALLED 'Baby In Two'. Yeah a real sugarpop composition there. In keeping with the Beach Boys love of the last album we've got 3 minute harmonized pop gems galore... and even the weakest track on this album far surpasses the attempts of other musicians. I've always held Joe Pernice to a higher standard and releases like this exhibit why.
Best Tracks: Weakest Shade of Blue, One Foot in the Grave, How to Live Alone, Sometimes I Remember
Pernice Brothers | Ashmont Records

03. Postal Service - Give Up
It seems this emerged out of thin air... or the mail I suppose. The Postal Service as emerged as perhaps THE most talked about surprise of the year and for good reason. Jimmy Tamorello and Ben Gibbard created a fabulous new sound from the recycled air of the Human League. You'd be hard pressed to find an indie kid round these parts who didn't at least exhibit a passing fascination with this record. Completist beats just one step off the norm and melodies perfectly synced with that somehow find that unknown refrain within all of us.
Best Tracks: Nothing Better; Clark Gable; The District Sleeps Alone Tonight; Brand New Colony; Natural Anthem; We Will Become Silhouttes
Postal Service | SubPop

02. Dears - No Cities Left
(Maple Music)
Why the world hasn't exploded in lust with the Dears is beyond me. Are they too hidden up there in Canada? Surely all the disgruntled Blur fans would at least recognize that Murray is holding Damon's voice of yesteryear for ransom (perhaps he's as disturbed by the continual freefall of the Blur empire). Beyond the vocal comparisons though this entire album is fresh and relevant. Strings, horns and beautiful studio work have given Murray every possible trick up his sleeve to create one enduring ballad after another.
Best Tracks: Never Destroy Us; Lost In The Plot; Don't Lose The Faith; Expect The Worst, Cos She's A Tourist
The Dears | Maple Music

01. Marlboro Chorus - Good Luck
(Future Apple Tree)
Yeah, I know... you've never heard of them. Wanna know what's worse? This is their debut. Not my fault. Exploring into the lesser known parts of the world can sometimes lead to a gem... and the Marlboro Chorus are a perfect example. Their album is so overwhelming it beat out a mass of indie veterans for the top honors on my stereo. I heard A SONG (that's how it always happens isn't it)... found the album and played THAT SONG over and over again. While I never grew tired of the song, I began to feel ridiculous and decided to play the whole album. It rarely leaves my stereo, iPod, or laptop now. No matter my mood I come back to this record over and over. Why? They've OUT POPPED the poppiest of my favorite bands.
Best Tracks: The Clock Puncher's Carousel; The Discoverers; Potters, Daisies; Car Parked, Girl Crying; Truly Sorry; fuck it... ALL OF THEM!
Future Apple Tree