Best of 2003
by Peter Jesperson
1. Robert Wyatt - Cuckooland
I've been crazy about this guy for over thirty years and this record is among his finest. He's one of my favorite singers ever (his voice has been described as "the saddest in the world"). A real 'ideas man' with a limitless imagination. A gifted melodist and musician (he recently told Mojo, "I'm trying to get the prettiest notes in the right order."). A poetic/funny/provocative lyricist. And the fact that he's a great writer who frequently chooses to do material by other writers impresses me all the more. Cuckooland is pure, uninhibited, genius artistry. Special guests include Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, David Gilmour and Paul Weller. A wondrous album!
2. The Sleepy Jackson - Lovers
From Perth Australia, lead by the singular Luke Steele. They so startled me on this, their debut record, and in one seriously demented live performance that it takes me back to some of my earliest musical experiences - I'm awe-struck. The words range from simple to nonsensical to strange. They're undeniably Beatle-ish - specifically in the vocal harmonies and a number of Harrison-esque guitar parts (one writer described them as sounding at times like "The Beatles at their beardiest"!). Live, there was Townshend-like invention in the guitar playing. I also hear traces of The Only Ones, Wire, The Fall and Tim Keegan's Departure Lounge. But, overall, it's mind-bendingly original stuff.
3. Neil Young - Greendale
Impossible to separate from the live spectacle, the album is an extremely daring move - a complex multiple character study of a small town community told in songs recorded just hours, some maybe even minutes after they were written. There's such a focus on the narrative that frequently the lyrics don't rhyme or the cadence of phrases completely disregard the song's tempo, other times the words are spoken. For a guy who's made something in the neighborhood of 40 records it's shocking that he can come up with something that is so different from the rest of his work. Stripped down to a trio for the first time in his career, it's even less refined than Time Fades Away or Tonight's The Night. Naturally, Neil's guitar playing is powerful throughout. I can't tell you if the album works without seeing the live show, but I don't think it's supposed to. Greendale is simply one of the most bull-headed and inspiring artistic moves I have ever experienced - a towering if imperfect achievement.
4. Rufus Wainwright - Want One
Here's one I didn't like at all the first few times I listened to it. It's REALLY over the top. Now, I'm completely GONE on it. It's like a record from some other time. Intricate, ornate, masterfully sung and arranged, utterly beautiful. There really is no one else doing what this man is doing. Like what I imagine Harry Nilsson might've sounded like if he'd collaborated with Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. The vocals alone are worth the price of admission.
5. Centro-matic - Love You Just The Same
South San Gabriel - Welcome Convalescence
Along with The Sleepy Jackson, these guys were my big discovery of '03 though they've been recording since 1995. When I first played Welcome Convalescence, it was instantaneous - I flipped. I feverishly tracked down the other releases by mastermind Will Johnson and his cronies (six Centro-matic albums, one more under the moniker South San Gabriel and one by Will solo - I'm still looking for the singles and cassettes). Not an easy band to peg. Generally speaking, they're a rock band. But they're all over the map, in a good way. Sorta alternative, sorta progressive, like some twisted hybrid of Neil Young and early Pink Floyd. These boys also blow some willfully oblique, charged language our way. Many of the songs on Love You Just The Same are ridiculously catchy - I find myself singing along to relatively normal lines like "Don't you know that time is on your side" or gorgeous phrases such as "Christmas lights inside your eyes/that hynotize" or puzzlers like "He's constantly caught/and he's constantly traumatized/the mighty midshipman." From the SSG album "Smelling Medicinal" is a candidate for best song I encountered all year. It appears to be partly about hearing music you can't stand coming from the house next door. And it still cracks me up when I find myself muttering the line, "And I guess/I was just shaken from the rage ..." These people are scary-good. They're also a real band - Mark Hedman is a knockout bassist, Scott Danbom is a virtuoso handling keyboards and violin as well as perfectly sympathetic backing vocals and Matt Pence who, I say without reservation, is one of the greatest rock drummers I have ever heard. Honestly, sometimes I put Centro-matic records on just to listen to the drumming. In summary: I think you should buy every record these guys have anything to do with and never miss 'em live.
6. Jay Farrar - Terroir Blues
This would be Jay Farrar's most exploratory work to date. Size: Huge. And this album, along with its counterpart Sebastopol, is as good as anything he's ever done. Here's a man that has never made so much as a slight artistic mis-step (except, maybe, attempting to do these highly detailed recent songs live as only a duo). Another bull-headed artist, I may initially scratch my head (why the numerous instrumental sections, why the duplicate songs?) but I always come around. The songs "Fool Kings Crown," "California" and especially "All Of Your Might" are highlights. Meticulous, melodic, multi-layered stuff so deep you can crawl around inside these songs for years.
7. The Jayhawks - Rainy Day Music
When my brother-in-law first heard this album, he remarked, "This sounds like what The Everly Brothers might be doing if they were still making records." That comment really wopped me up-side the head. Interesting to ponder but also a perfect description of the music. Expertly sung and played, sophisticated, romantic, timeless. Along with Rufus, The Jayhawks are the best singers in the business today. "Angelyne" is another candidate for best song I heard all year.
8. Kraig Jarret Johnson - self titled (E.P.)
To me, this is the best music to come out of Minneapolis since The Jayhawks hit their stride with Hollywood Town Hall. A fair description might be Big Star meets Neil Young. Through all his stellar support roles over the years with Run Westy Run, Golden Smog, The Jayhawks and Iffy, we shoulda known he'd been woodshedding, but these songs are just unbelievably good. And he has one of the killin'-est bands I've seen in EONS - a seriously stunning line-up: Ed Ackerson on guitars and keyboards, Jim Boquist (speaking of woodshedders!) on bass and backing vocals, Peter Anderson on drums and sometimes guitarist/backing vocalist David Poe. I can't wait to hear what Kraig does next.
9. Stereolab - Instant 0 In The Universe (E.P.)
I played this a million times, especially in the mornings. Their arrangements and their sound have never been more inviting. The warmest electronic music I've ever heard. Also, some of my favorite vocal music. Bitter-sweet, as it's their first release since the passing of key member, Mary Hansen.
10. Lisa Germano - Lullabye For Liquid Pig
I can't listen to this record with anyone else around. The very definition of "harrowing." And flat-out beautiful.
11. Hem - Rabbit Songs
A perfect record. Not a moment on it that I don't love. Although not an actual 2003 release, I first heard it this summer and I laugh when I think back to driving around in the heat but keeping the windows rolled up so I could hear every delicate nuance. This music sounds more like it came from the rural British Isles than Brooklyn. Piano driven, female sung, pastoral folk music with beautiful string arrangements and great words.
12. Paul Westerberg - Come Feel Me Tremble
Grandpaboy - Dead Man Shake
In a general way, I love them both. If you wanna get specific, I think Paul needs an editor. Each contains some fantastic material alongside weak and/or unfinished stuff. Either way, four albums in a row of crude recordings on which Paul plays all the instruments stretches the concept a little thin. Having said that, "Dirty Diesel," "My Daydream," "What A Day (For A Night)" and "Meet Me Down The Alley" knock my socks off. The cover of "These Days" is pretty revelatory. And, as with Stereo/Mono, he's doing some of the best singing of his career.
13. Visqueen - King Me
Exuberant, catchy, smart, non-stop fun from Seattle. Lead singer/writer/guitarist Rachel Flotard really has a way with a song and is truly one of the finest singers I've ever heard in a punk-pop-rock n' roll band. Former Fastback, Kim Warnick, harmonizes perfectly, plays a mean bass and, along with monster drummer Ben Hooker, maintains a dynamite rhythm section. There are many great lines on this record but none more wonderful than in "Lovely Guilty" where Rachel sings, "I can't stand one more minute/of this life if you're not in it." If their song "Vaxxine" isn't some kinda hit somewhere, it'll be final proof there is no justice in this world.
14. M. Ward - The Transfiguration Of Vincent
Introverted and carefully crafted singer-songwriter mixed with a raggedy John Fahey-style, fancy guitar thing. His soft, raspy, slurred singing reminded me at times of Louis Armstrong. Then, I caught him playing a show in a little basement cabaret in San Francisco where he covered one of Louie's songs and thought, "Aha!"
15. Thea Gilmore - Avalanche
Literate, savvy music that alternately rocks and folks. Certainly sounds older than her 24 years but full of the youthful joy of making music with a very real sense of purpose. Definitely one to watch.
16. The White Stripes - Elephant
I must admit, part of my being excited by this band is the world's excitement by them - I mean, how can their smashing success not give you hope for the future of non-mainstream music and it's ability to get people's attention??!! But it really is one of the coolest real rock n' roll records of the year. Traditional and groundbreaking at the same time.
17. The Libertines - Up The Bracket
Not only one of the finest punk rock records I've heard in a decade but one of the finest sounding too. For which, I guess we have producer Mick Jones at least partly to thank. And to hear the looney, high-spirited, vaudevillian trademarks of one of my all-time favorite bands, The Small Faces, only makes me love 'em more!
18. Mark Eitzel - The Ugly American
New renditions of some of the greatest Eitzel/American Music Club songs, recorded (in Greece!) with a traditional Greek back-up band. Another of the year's most flat-out beautiful records. Mark's voice just couldn't sound better.
19. Macy Gray - The Trouble With Being Myself
A party record with substance. She continues to be one of the best singers of the day.
20. David Bowie - Reality
Keeping up the return to form for the most part. The song "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" would be on any 'best of Bowie' comp I would make.
... And four more I gotta mention:
The Willard Grant Conspiracy - Regard The End
Jet - Get Born
Joe Ely - Streets Of Sin
Fountains Of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers
Reissues/ remasters/ archival stuff:
The Beatles - Let It Be...Naked - In my circle as a kid, we had the 'naked' Glyn Johns version on a bootleg (titled Kum Back) six months before the Spector-ized version came out, not to mention the plethora of tapes from these sessions that leaked for years after so this is less a revelation to me than it might be to some. Still, I'm floored by how great these simplified mixes sound and by how superior and soulful McCartney's original vocals are on "Long And Winding Road" and "Let It Be" compared to any later version.
Bob Dylan - 15 titles John Wesley Harding sounds particularly good to me.
Neil Young - On The Beach, Reactor, Hawks And Doves, American Stars And Bars.
Robert Wyatt - Solar Flares Burn For You - Two BBC sessions from '72 & '74 plus three recent recordings. All previously unreleased. Fantastic liner notes.
Percy Mayfield - His Tangerine And Atlantic Sides
The Byrds - Sweetheart Of The Rodeo
Uncle Tupelo - all four albums
Amazing live shows (in L.A. except where noted):
Neil Young - 7/22, 23 & 25 - Greek Theater
Iris DeMent - 6/21 - Guthrie Theater - Minneapolis/ 12/3 & 4 - The Birchmere - Alexandria, VA
Vic Chesnutt - various cities
The Sleepy Jackson - 11/21 - The Knitting Factory/22 - Amoeba Records in-store
Supergrass - 5 shows - 3 in February (Roxy/Troubadour/Spaceland), 2 in August (at The El Rey)
The Jayhawks - 7/24 - House Of Blues
Drive-By Truckers - 1/17 - The Troubadour/J 6/18 - The Bowery Ballroom -NYC / 8/16 - The Troubadour / 9/6 - Georgia Theater - Athens, GA
Centro-Matic - 9/18 - Spaceland
Kraig Johnson & The Program - 4/5 - First Avenue - Minneapolis
Tegan & Sara w/band - January & July - Knitting Factory
Tommy Stinson - 8/6 - Largo
Tim Easton/Jay Farrar - 7/19 - The Roxy
Procol Harum - 7/28 - The John Anson Ford Theater
Chuck Prophet - 7/30 Austin City Limits Taping
M. Ward - various cities (opening for Vic Chesnutt)
American Music Club - 12/15 - Spaceland
R.E.M. - 9/10 - Hollywood Bowl
A Coupla Final Notes:
I went on the mother of all Rolling Stones binges after reading the two Andrew Loog Oldham autobiographies - Stoned and 2Stoned. They are among the best written, most enlightening and informative rock tomes ever. I cannot recommend them more highly.
Lastly, in the "Did This Really Happen?" Department:
Concert For George - (film screening) 9/24 - Steven J. Ross Theater - Warner Studios Lot - Jennifer and I were beyond excited to be getting a sneak preview of this film but when Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Olivia and Dhani Harrison, Ravi Shankar and Jeff Lynne sat down in the same row as us, a few seats to our right ... ummm ... words to describe the situation haven't been invented yet ... 'surreal' will have to do for now. The movie, of course, was brilliantly done with such care and class. And my opinion of musical director Eric Clapton increased tenfold.