|Top40: The Best of 2003|
Top40-Charts presents the 40 best albums of 2003 (also you will vote them very soon for having our users opinion).
21. R. Kelly
Naming your album Chocolate Factory in the midst of a child pornography scandal might not be the wisest decision, especially with all the youthful connotations associated with the children's classic. Rehashing the phrase 'come to daddy' and referring to ones self as the ' Pied Piper of R&B' is equally na´ve at best, brazen at worst. R-Kelly is guilty of all the above but has still managed to pull off one of the most relevant musical offerings of the current millennium.
Kelly has made a concentrated effort here to move away from the formulaic (not a Neptunes track in earshot) and has tailored an organic blend of soul, gospel, blues and salsa. In addition he single-handedly serves as writer, producer and arranger. Old-school receives a thorough dusting down and is presented as brand sparkling new on this monster 16 track CD that, also offers listeners 5 bonus cuts from the neglected Loveland project, bootlegged to extinction in 2002.
Musically, the album reunites all the soul greats into one delectable platter. Take a listen to the seductive groove of the 'Step In The Name Of Love' because has musical experimentation, and take a spin of the Latin inspired 'Snake'. It's apparent that the troubled star has found a happy medium to create a release, the joyous screams are frequent; he doesn't sound like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but a revived soul in spiritual euphoria.
However, the tempo skips the blissful beat on several tracks, most notably, the autobiographical 'Heaven I Need A Hug'. This emotive track will provide many a talking point for those who crave celebrity fodder as Kelly presents the proverbial middle finger to the media and detractors alike.
Sexual connotations aside, we can only hope R-Kelly's 7th studio album will indeed set a new precedence and assist R&B back on the right path of creating classic, non-disposable, music for the soul. His seventh album serves as a reminder - but its soft-focus, ballady slush doesn't become him. Perhaps he considered it imprudent to unleash the usual single-entendre R Kelly experience, but he's not much cop at anything else. It's not that he doesn't hurl himself wholeheartedly into sluggish torch songs such as Forever and Dream Girl, just that this is Celine Dion territory. Nor does he have any business toiling through formulaic jams like Step in the Name of Love. His light tenor is as expressive as ever on the superior Chicago-blues pastiche You Made Me Love You and a duet with a wheezy Ja Rule, Been Around the World. So it's no big surprise when he does one of the best albums for 2003...
22. Fountains of Wayne
Welcome Interstate Managers
After a four-year hiatus notable for some film and television soundtrack work, a lapsed contract, and a relaxed songwriting schedule Fountains of Wayne return with their third and best CD to date. The New York-based power-pop quartet delivers a diverse feast of infectious melodies and endlessly clever lyrics. Songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood still slide on a sweet scale between the Beatles and the Monkees, but they've branched out from '60s sounds to include bona fide alt rock ("Little Red Light," "Bought for a Song"), orchestrated pop ("Halley's Waitress"), a country lark worthy of Dwight Yoakam ("Hung Up On You"), and hints of psychedelia ("Supercollider"). The Cars-flavored "Bright Future in Sales" and "Stacy's Mom" warrant heavy-rotation airplay. Following their acclaimed eponymous debut and the vastly underrated 'Utopia Parkway', Welcome Interstate Managers leaves no doubt that Fountains of Wayne are gaining strength.
There's a lot of sugar in Fountains of Wayne. As soon as the seconds start ticking and the guitar starts strumming on "Mexican Wine", you know what you're in for: fuzzy guitars, big Warner Bros. drums, and the gravelly voices of Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, which hang out somewhere between Wayne Coyne's raspy tenor and the boat the British Invasion came in on. Throw in a delicate Beach Boys castanet, and you've got a killer opening number. Indeed, "Mexican Wine" is the biggest rocker on the record. To be fair, the first single, "Stacy's Mom", aims for king of the hill, but its routine pacing keeps it from breaking away from the pack - even if the crystalline harmonies during the chorus are worth noting.
Welcome Interstate Managers is delicious power-pop, unpretentious, loose and perfect for teenagers driving down to Ocean City for the weekend; Schlesinger and Collingwood pen mighty fine tunes ripe and ready for sing-alongs, drawing equally on the lighter-than-air innocence of the 50s/60s. This is an album that stands proudly on its own. Even if you had never heard of Fountains of Wayne you would be blown away by this record!
23. Cat Power
You Are Free
Chan "Cat Power" Marshall's performances have become legendary marathons marked by Marshall's shyness and her ability to create moments of fragmented beauty. Five years on from her last collection of original songs, 1998's Moon Pix, Marshall has reined in the silvery brilliance of her shows. The 14 pieces on You Are Free maintain a spontaneity, but, compared with their digressive live incarnations, they've been given focus - a development that owes something to a notable supporting cast that includes Dave Grohl on drums and Eddie Vedder on vocals. Marshall's impressionistic vision is expressed with a new clarity while retaining its affecting understatement and sense of dislocation. Her past kinship with Bonnie Prince Billy and Smog gives way to PJ Harvey and Nina Simone comparisons. You Are Free confirms that Marshall is one of the most original and compelling singer-songwriters around!
For the stunning variety and intrigue of its first eight songs, the second half of You Are Free is somewhat spotty. As the old adage goes, ten songs is an album, and in this case fourteen is a few too many; some of these closing tracks should have been kept back for B-sides. The overwrought, repetitive "Half of You" is a less meaningful country pastiche than the searing Western blues heard earlier on the record, and "Maybe Not" - though great on its own - is basically an alternate piano take on "Fool". Chan's been playing the frayed Joni Mitchell card in advance of You Are Free, and it's starting to wear thin, though she probably thinks she's just begun to explore this mode. The two real missteps here are "Baby Doll" - a too-simple nylon string plod - and a fantastic but hiss-coated cover of John Lee Hooker's "Crawlin' Black Spider" reappropriated as "Keep on Runnin'." Again, the cover is outstanding on its own merits, but interrupts the album, forestalling the icy chill of its stupendous finale, "Evolution". The monotonous, glacial insistence of "Evolution"- Cat Power's proper duet with Eddie Vedder - is as out of place as the album's opener, a perfect bookend and resolution to a record that almost effortlessly shifts between incongruous styles. Vedder appears in hushed baritone, nicely meshing with the piano line and allowing Chan's tongue-tied, sedated lilt to sit on top. "Evolution" is as poetic a retelling of moral apocalypse as you're likely to come by, insofar as it ignores melodramatic conviction and the temporal impulse to wax politic. This is pure Hemingway!
You Are Free is a very nice record nowdays; it contains detailing the sound of current north american scene with a singular voice!
24. John Mayer
John Mayer's big label debut was a multi-platinum breakthrough success whose sensual anthem "Your Body is a Wonderland" scored him an unlikely Grammy for Best Pop Vocal. That out-of-the-box success-and more than a few critics grousing that Mayer's muse was cloned from Dave Matthews-primed him for the typical sophomore slump.
Instead, Mayer delivers an album whose tone and title suggests a gentle, tongue-in-cheek rebuke to his naysayers. Propelled by the subtle ambitions of an expanded pop-jazz framework (largely courtesy of Sheryl Crow/No Doubt/Jellyfish producer Jack Joseph Puig), Mayer's breathy vocal tack now suggests a detached, conflicted, and significantly less precious incarnation of Michael Franks.
But the way he weds fluid pop hooks to lyrical concerns whose self-obsessions are undercut by telling dollops of self-deprecation should clearly draw listeners in, from the my-spirit's-too-big/smart-for-my-body laments of "Clarity," upbeat single "Bigger Than My Body," and bluesy plea "Come Back to Bed" to the cautionary, melodically-rich "Daughters" and even the anti-materialist agitprop of "Something's Missing." Mayer focused more on electric guitar rather than acoustic for his sophomore cd and showed a whole new side of his music. Just like "Room For Squares", all the lyrics on this CD are witty, intelligent and original.
Although we would have enjoyed a few more tracks (we found the cd a little short) we really enjoyed "Heavier Things". Our favorite track is "Only Heart", a fun, fast tempo song. "Heaver Things" is a great album that we would recommend to everyone we know. Oh, and check out the CD jacket, it's filled with fun little charts and pictures!
25. Ryan Adams
Rock N Roll
The story of Ryan Adams' artistic decline is currently approaching epic, a long, complicated tale of public cockiness, big mouth bravado, and exasperated recordings: his churlish, fuck-off swagger was silly from the start, but Adams' self-satisfied smirk has got nothing on his newfound capacity to eschew every last one of his songwriter's instincts. Now, with a discography that's wiggling towards infamy, Adams shoots up one last middle finger to the slowly dispersing crowd.
Adams' latest, Rock N Roll, feels sloppy and stupidly rushed; recorded in less than two weeks, the record is so blatantly dismissive of both itself and its audience that it insults nearly everyone who attempts to interact with it. Adams' original scheduled-for-2003 release, the largely anticipated Love Is Hell, was clumsily manhandled by Lost Highway labelheads before finally being split into two separate EPs (respectively subtitled Part I and Part II.
Here, Adams stuffs the contemporary radio-rock cannon with more overblown, riff-heavy regurgitation, most of which is either painfully generic or preposterously derivative (the buoyant "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home" cops loosely from The Smiths; "So Alive" is karaoke U2; "1974" is an uncomfortable Bon-Jovi-meets-The-Stooges homage.
The entire record reeks of late new-wave/80s rock cribbing, and consequently, it's difficult to write about without duly repeating a laundry list of influences: Adams' muses range from predictable (see Joy Division, Paul Westerberg) to bizarre (Adams quasi-mimics the prog diddlings of Rush on the forensically titled "Luminol", and ends up with a song that sounds a lot like rehashed Oasis). Suddenly, the record's opening couplet - "Let me sing a song for you/ That's never been sung before" - seems vaguely humiliating.
There are some curious guest turns (Billie Joe Armstrong inexplicably pops up, and Melissa Auf Der Maur provides background vocals on a handful of tracks, as does Posey), but Adams is almost always at his best when he's on his own and thinks no one else is looking: the album's title track is a sweet piano ballad, his plaintive wail layered nicely over fuzzy snippets of found sound. Lasting less than two minutes, "Rock N Roll" is (check the glaring irony!) also the record's least self-conscious song, a flash of earnestness that disappears almost before you notice its arrival.
You have to angle Rock N Roll up to a mirror in order to read the cover text properly, and, in a way, the inherent fallacy of a mirror image is also the very best metaphor for this record: Rock N Roll is backwards Ryan Adams, one-dimensional, vain, and entirely lifeless.
26. Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash is really astounding. We found many of these songs to be more diverse and impressive than much of what was found on the last two American Recordings releases.
The Re-Recordings: There are quite a few legendary Cash gems given new life and intensity in this set. Among them is the classic mourner "Long Black Veil," the endearing "Flesh And Blood," and twin mining/coal town songs of "Dark As Dungeon" and "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore." There are others and, honestly, each one is as good (if not more straight-forward and hard-hitting) as the originals.
The Covers: While we felt that American Recordings IV: When The Man Comes Around contained too many covers of uber-popular songs ("In My Life," "Desperado," etc.), here we find a few numbers from songwriters like Kris Kristofferson ("Just The Other Side Of Nowhere" and "Casey's Last Ride"), Neil Young ("Pocahontas" and "Heart of Gold"), Jimmie Rodgers ("'T' For Texas" and "Waiting For a Train") ...and the list goes on and on. Again, we're left wondering why hadn't some of these made the cut before?
The Duets: Why "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" was chosen over the charming "Cindy" (both with gloom-crooner Nick Cave) for American IV we'll never know. While we love Hank Williams, Sr. this traditional track is simply perfect. The same for the Fiona Apple duet of Cat Steven's "Father And Son." A vast improvement over "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" where Miss Apple's voice seems to interfere more than harmonize. But hands down the best duets are with veteran rockabilly king, Carl Perkins ("Brown-Eyed Handsome Man"), and the late Joe Strummer of The Clash ("Redemption Song").
The Hymns: While we love many of Cash's own Christian inspired songs we found that many of the traditional hymns lacked, pardon the expression, spirit. They were faithful renderings, but seemed to lack the interpretation that Cash usually lends to any song. Or perhaps it was just our impression. Regardless, we won't say that these songs aren't good... they certainly are... they just don't all quite match the glory of the rest of the set. The live, orchestral version of Leonard Cohen's "Bird On A Wire" is simply one of the finest pieces of music we've ever heard.
If you only buy one box set ever in your life, trust us, this is the one you want! Johnny Cash must be smiling in heaven rite now.Rick Rubin (producer) has really done the man in black proud... It's glorious. Enjoy!
27. Van Morrison
What's Wrong With This Picture?
The Man has a Golden Voice. Is there another singer over 55 who sounds this ebullient? If compared with other singer/songwriters we admire, like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, Van shows hardly any wear from his inarticulate days. And that was 20-some years ago.
But let's not dwell on the past. Some reviewers argue he complains too much in his lyrics about fame. Well, we don't necessarily see him talking about himself. The whole music industry, by peddling PERSONA instead of music, is the culprit. That fact that Van isn't as big as other "celebrities" just proves the point. Why are all those other shells on the cover of Rolling Stone? What's wrong with this picture?
Hearing this album through headphones - a new-found joy for us - we don't care if Van sings the alphabet, his voice is spine-tingling. And that chuckle in the title song, a slip of some kind, just shows that others take Van more seriously than he ever would.
We believe it: this is the hangover album of the year 2003! Van the Man builds on the breakthrough of last year's surprisingly rejuvenated Down the Road here - he sounds warm, mellow, sentimental. The music goes easy on your nerves, digging deep into jazz, country, big-band swing and the old-school blues and soul that he's been worshiping for his whole career.
While 2002's Down the Road was one of the best Van Morrison release in ages - with its autobiographical allusions, cultural critiques, and new band - it could not have prepared listeners for the jolt of this, his Blue Note Records debut What's Wrong With This Picture? The album is hardly a straight jazz record, it does take the territory he explored on Down the Road another step further into the classic pop music of the 20th century filtered through his own Celtic swing, R&B, vocal jazz, and blue-eyed soul.
There are 13 tracks here, and virtually all of them would be standouts on any of his other records. But the title track along with "Meaning of Loneliness" and "Once in a Blue Moon," are among the finest tunes he's ever written, let alone recorded.
This is the sound of an artist who is comfortable making a break with his past because it is not a break; he understands it as the next part of a continuum that goes deeper and wider than anyone else ever expected.
Van takes the opportunity presented by recording for a jazz label 'Blue Note' to record a couple of New Orleans standards, Whinin' Boy Moan and Saint James Infirmary. He also come up with some nice ballads, Once in a Blue Moon and Somerset mine the confessional singer-songwriter genre as well as anyone could hope to do. At his best, Van can still pull the heartstrings without sentiment or sappiness. The band sounds great as well - excellent arrangements and (thank goodness) he lays off the strings! While there may not be a jaw dropper like "Ballerina" or "Cleaning Windows" on this disc, it marks a good return to form for a musician who is not going to go quietly into the night on the radio or your mp3 player!
28. James Blood Ulmer
No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions
This is far and away James Blood Ulmer's best blues record to date, and it only further solidifies his 21st century re-invention as one of the blues most authentic voices. He's joined by a stellar cast of New York City players, including Vernon Reid, Charlie Burnham, David Barnes and Olu Dara. The first thing that comes to our minds is that this is what the band would sound like at a cosmic roadhouse (and you know there is such a thing). Saddled-up and belly to the bar on a Friday night would be Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Jerry Garcia, Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Robert Johnson, Ernest Hemmingway, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Rosetta Tharpe ...and they'd all be hollerin', shouting out amens, tipping big and diggin' Ulmer's blues.
Check out Jimmy Reed's "Goin' To New York," interpreted in 2003 jug band style or how about "Bright Lights, Big City," as a 'round midnight blues complete with a tap dancer and Olu Dara blowing that slow drawl Mississippi trumpet. You can envision the smoke hanging heavy in the air. Ulmer's own tunes "Are You Glad To Be In America" and "Satisfy" are brilliant, performed completely solo. Put these next to any other classic acoustic blues and tell us his approach isn't as authentic in its singular identity.
What we are trying to say is that he doesn't sound like Leadbelly, Son House or Lightnin' Hopkins, but he sounds like James Blood Ulmer. His sound is as pure and completely unique as any of the masters. It wasn't influenced by any of the aforementioned because Blood is one of those aforementioned. From the same land, the same headspace, the same values, the same struggle, but on his own individual journey and path.
Other tunes like "Come On," "You Know, I Know" and "The Hustle Is On," swing in a loose, heady rockin' style that will get the room jumping. The two highlights that make this disc an absolutely essential recording for 2003 are "Ghetto Child" and "Trouble In Mind." Any description would fall short from doing them justice. All we'll say is buy the disc and dig for yourself. That there is the real deal. As deep, as soulful and as blue as the blues get! No Escape From the Blues for sure...
29. Dashboard Confessional
A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar
Chris Carrabba is now a bona-fide superstar after his MTV Unplugged session last year. Chris this year was coming around with another studio Dashboard Confessional CD which was called it A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar.
On Dashboard Confession's fourth album, Christopher Carraba welcomes listeners back into his emotionally claustrophobic world, where relationships are minefields, women are brittle and self-absorbed, and every cloud has a pewter lining. But all this is only fodder for his runaway id, as he deconstructs every encounter, giving us evidence of the pain and betrayal that lurks behind every corner. Finding a home somewhere between the positive punk of Green Day, circa "Time of Your Life," and the stream-of-consciousness poetry of the early Counting Crows, this collection is more musically coherent than Dashboard Confessional's earlier albums. Gil Norton's production has taken the band to new heights, allowing the music to have as much grit, substance, and dynamics as the lyrics. The anxious expectorated sputum of "Am I Missing," is an existential assault on your very sanity, with its fretful drumming and spectral chorus, but this album doesn't sound just that one apprehensive note; Carraba is equally at home with the sparse, acoustic ballad "Ghost of a Good Thing" and the folksy rocker "Carve Your Heart Out Yourself," which could have been lifted from a Buffalo Springfield album. By giving voice to the thoughts that go bump in the night, Carraba gives vulnerability and sincerity a good name again.
However, Chris is as gentle a singer as you could want (try on "Morning Calls") but he always has a bit of an edge to his vocals. "Carve Your Heart" could put the Goo Goo Dolls to rest, finally. Again, the music is fairly upbeat until you get down into the depths of the lyrics. This is where you get into issues of reaching beyond his teenage audience. He is going to have to reach out beyond his heart and start writing about real-world issues and events. Chris, look to folkies like Steve Earle or Paul Simon for some influence here.
This is a great album but if you are going to look for mass acceptance, this is the only change that you will have to make. Chris has taken a step forward bravely and rightfully and his new sound attracts more and more mainstreamers!
The Black Album
As you all surely know Jay-Z's long-awaited Black Album was leaked on MP3, sparking the biggest downloading frenzy since the great "Hail to the Thief" Radiohead's epidemic of March 30th 2003. "The Black Album" came with 14 tracks done by a who's who of different producers, and even though Jay always claimed that this record would be pre-"Reasonable Doubt", it's not: it's everything.
9th Wonder's "Threats" goes back to '95, Kanye West's "Lucifer" is 2003 and beyond, and Rick Rubin's "99 Problems" is probably before '92. Anyways: What Hova himself does is always state of the art. You can blame the guy for always being ego-centric, but then you gotta blame each and every man in this game. You can blame for Hova for always being about his drug-selling past etc., but how can you blame the only guy with nine albums under his belt (except for LL) for repeating himself (while sales keep rocking)? There's no question about Hova's lyrical ability: The Eminem-produced "Moment of Clarity" is just one good example, the anthem-inspired "What More Can I Say" is another one. From the explanation for trying to get rich with the rap game to an analysis of his own position in the rap game, Jay-Z practically does everything. And, yes, the subjects aren't new, but the way he talks about them is new with each and every song he writes. The personal matter of taste is deciding whether there are lame and short-falling tracks on this one - to us, it's the redo of Madonna's "Justify My Love": "Justify My Thug" comes with a lame beat and stays lame. "Change Clothes", the Neptunes-produced radiosingle, is just another Neptunes episode, and quite frankly, we know that type of track already...
We can't help ourselves, we like each and every record of this guy. After listening to this album 10 times plus, we desperately want more of Jay-Z's musical legacy. You think different? Fine. We don't. The production is sick on this album + the lyrics are just as great. Every Jay-Z fan & every hip-hop/rap fans should cop this album as soon as possible. Even the Jay-Z haters should cop this to see how great this rapper is and just give him his credit to the legacy he left behind.
Rap without Jay-Z will never be the same again...
The best of the best for 2003 without music frontiers:
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