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Best Music of 2003

By Terry Sawyer, Pop Matters

1. Buck 65, Talkin' Honky Blues (Warner Canada) Man, I love Buck 65 so much I should just marry him. Hearing "Roses and Blue Jays" live is the only time I've ever cried at a concert. Every single time I hear "Wicked & Weird", it's all I can do not to pack up my life say fuck it all and head off into the sunset with nothing but blue jeans and whiskey. This is a record of encyclopedic inspiration, a hard knock fable delivered by a thirty-something going on Bible people old with a voice that's all grizzled, pyred, and Smokey mountain growled.

2. Matt the Electrician, Made for Working (Good Guy) I feel like I should just save a spot on my end of year list every year for whatever Matt the Electrician has done. I know the words to every single song, though I'll be damn if I'll ever have his optimist's sarcasm and I know I'll never have a voice that's like rock tumbled gravel, hard but nearly edgeless. If you could get the pure spoon tar from unrefined Joy and shoot it up with a few singer-songwriter junky friends, you might come close to approximating the Matt buzz. Made for Working also contains my favorite line of the year: "I should have stayed in bed for the greater Good."

3. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People (Paper Bag) This is the only album this year that I insist on listening to with headphones since Broken Social Scene has created a record with trap doors, hidden layers, and kooky little mistakes sewn lovingly into tucked-away corners. If My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth had ever collaborated, it's possible that the result would sound like Broken Social Scene, though they are by no means that easy to critically stake down. Imagine everything you love about experimental rock and roll without abandoning the comfort of real songs, good lyrics, and white noise melodies.

4. T-Love, Long Way Back (Astralwerks) This is the sequel Lauryn Hill could have made had she not went off the Rasta-Bible deep end. With an acrobatic polyrhythmic lyrical flow rivaled only by the likes of Bahamadia, T-Love spins intelligent days in the life of a whole cast of characters whose situations are fertile ground for her consciousness-raising repartee. This inexplicably under-praised gem should have made bigger ripples than it has, but it's still not too late to run out, buy this, and make sure that there are still artists out there pumping oxygen into hip-hop's cracked windpipe.

5. Fruit Bats, Mouthfuls (Sub Pop) For every Beach Boy harmony that's ever raised the hair on your neck comes a two-piece that sounds like the Polyphonic Spree's extended family. Mouthfuls has a hugeness that would be ridiculously grandiose if didn't absolutely gush wave after wave of symphonic beauty built from simple acoustic chords, shufflingly subtle electronica, and melody piled cake high. Imagine the Shins recording an ode to the Grand Canyon from the bottom of the Pacific and you've come close to snagging their space-age, noveau hippy abandon.

6. AJ Roach, Dogwood Winter (self-released) After listening to AJ Roach I'm tempted to think that Sam Beam, from Iron and Wine, grew up in an Appalachian mall. I'm kidding, Iron and Wine is good eatin', but Roach is a deep woods troubadour with a cunning wit and southern gothic spiritualism that sounds older than voodoo. His music is parochial and far-flung at the same time, witchy and unabashedly romantic, full of writer-envy lines like: "I reckon her kiss was part of her scam". He's a shitkicker poet with a voice that crackles, pierces, smokes and then smoothes it all over with a shared shot of hope.

7. Noonday Underground, Surface Noise (Setanta) Okay, so technically this was released in 2002 but it hasn't yet been released domestically in the U.S. so it falls under one of those special hidden exceptions in the end-of-year-list rulebook. Noonday Underground is one of the most successful trip-hop hybrids I've ever heard. I know that's not the best endorsement given the genre's high flotsam density, but if you can imagine Massive Attack remixing the soundtrack for Hairspray, you'll come to close to figuring out why you'll want this band weaving in and out of the rotation at your next party. But the real gold among the revolving door of guest vocalists is singer Daisy Martey whose ghostly Dusty Springfield/Grace Slick/Beth Orton cocktail will leave you in horny awe.

8. Paris, Sonic Jihad (Guerilla Funk) You could probably gather from an album cover depicting an airliner about to hit the White House, that the artist inside probably doesn't give a fuck about what's politic to say in mixed company. In the tradition of Public Enemy, KRS-One and newer torchbearers like Dead Prez, Paris drops radical politics on pugilistic beats. Though I don't agree with a lot of his sentiments, (I don't think everyone should just start randomly shooting cops) I can't help but find his visceral rage at the state of the world refreshing. I saw this bumper sticker the other day that said something like: if you're not currently outraged, then you're not paying attention. Paris hasn't missed a beat.

9. Innocence Mission, Befriended (Badman Recording Company) Karen Peris sounds like she mugged a stray Angel and somehow managed to smuggle its purity into her otherworldly, tear-jerkingly gorgeous pipes. The instrumentation provides the perfect, spare gesture for the white light delicacy of her voice, a shuffling near scarcity of guitar, brushed drums, and tugging piano chords. It's a shame that so few Christians are willing to give up the political nipple and get back into the beauty making business. This is comfort sound, for the times when you're nearly fetal with naked hurt. This album will hit your ear like a rose petal gently rippling a coy pond.

10. Jeffrey Lewis, It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through (Rough Trade) Shambling and crumble-voiced, Jeffrey Lewis sounds like a cross between Jonathon Richman and a well-read schizophrenic. It's impossible not to piss your corduroys on songs like "Back When I Was 4" and "If You Shoot the Head You Kill the Ghoul" and "No LSD Tonight" will make you spill your moonshine with its furious commandment to hickerbilly stomping. Lewis is a songwriter nervously in love with the way people actually speak: inserting everyday foibles, asides, and nude truths into songs that sound almost clumsily parenthetical. But it works, it's touching, it's intelligently childish and I deeply admire his scaled-down gutbucket weirdness.

Songs of the Year

Monsieur Leroc, "Hawaii Bikini Inspector" Though blatantly copping a feel from Marvin Gay's "Got to Give It Up", at least they thoroughly know what they're doing in this horny, falsettoed R&B track with banged out kettle drums.

Lexicon, "I Gotta Believe" An intelligent summer slacker anthem with finger pops and stand-up bass reminiscent of Diggable Planets. Not to mention a swaying tire-swing on steroids rhythm that will have you driving your car into the ditch.

Holly Golightly, "Walk a Mile" She's really too cool for this world. If you think snide can't be sexy, check out this sneering country & western put down, wrapped in a chorus that will make you want to go out and buy go-go cowboy boots.

Lifesavas, "Hellohihey," I wrote a terribly disparaging review of this record that I now deeply regret. There were a few political sentiments I just couldn't get over, but I should have because these gentlemanly scholars are madly talented. With shades of early Pharcyde, this track hilariously criticizes the everyday perils of ego complete with a surprise ending.

The Postal Service, "Nothing Better" Benjamin Gibbard and Jenny Lewis together are the best thing since Mallo Cups. This back-and-forth missed connection love song, with all its cheap poptronica melodrama, goes perfectly with long, night drives and fresh regret.

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