December 6th, 3:21 pm
As I sit in my Brooklyn bedroom watching the first snow of the Winter of ’03-’04 blow around viciously, the radio has inspired me sit down at the keyboard and start writing the introduction to the list. As a matter of fact, it’s the second list of the year. After the unlucky 13th edition that was plagued by writer’s block, the flu and various computer problems, I vowed not to take it easy this time around. “I’ll start writing the reviews in October,” I promised myself. But like the many pledges of years gone by (diets, exercise and doing the dishes every night), this promise was broken. So here I sit, enveloped in the ever-expanding curry smell from my downstairs neighbor’s cooking, behind the eight ball once again.
Wait, I mentioned something about radio in the paragraph above. Right…radio. The industry that’s been my lover, my mistress, my boss, my 4:00 a.m.-drunken-make-out-session, my betrayer, my inspiration, my dietician, my always-stab-you-in-the-back-and-let-you-down-when-you-least-expect-it-son of a bitch-rat-bastard has brought me back to my keyboard once again. I’ve been listening to WDHA, a good old-fashioned rock station out of Dover, New Jersey, and every song in this “Jersey Jam” has reminded me of a point I wanted to cover about this interesting year of music. So here’s the six songs I just heard:
Soundgarden - “The Day I Tried to Live”
This track is on the Seattle quartet’s biggest album, Superunknown, which was released in 1994. Looking back over the past nine years, I believe that might have been the last year where I loved more music than I hated. The Top 20 from that year is filled with albums that still excite me when I pop them on (Superunknown, Pavement’s Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, R.E.M.’s Monster, Neil Young’s Sleeps With Angels) and great singles (Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” Alice in Chains’ “No Excuses”) that cause me to turn up the volume on my tiny stereo at work. I guess it’s inevitable to anyone that works in music and hears it for 12 hours a day that everything starts to sound the same—very bad—after a while. And while I was one sarcastic fucker before, 1994 was the year that I started to hone those “I hate everything” skills. In 2003, I listened to at least part of about 700 new albums, and only about 150 of them were worth my time. So 550 times this year I said out loud “well this sucks” or “this blows” or “what a piece of shit” or “yes, I’d like bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel.” 2003 seemed to have a larger quality of crappy music than any year of this century. And it’s not just the usual suspects—sixth rate Nirvana knock-offs, weak voiced-teenagers, inept rappers. I heard so many bad male and female sensitive singer-songwriters worshipping at the alter of Dave Matthews and Lucinda Williams that I wanted to pick up an acoustic guitar and bash myself over the head repeatedly. Needless to say, I have a lot more coasters now for when I entertain friends. (Or when I drink a 12 pack by myself I have lots of places to set down empty bottles.)
Ozzy Osbourne - “No More Tears”
Remember when Ozzy came back with this album in 1992? I recall being excited that the guy who did “Crazy Train” had a decent comeback album. And now all I can picture is him and his extremely off key daughter Kelly on his wife’s TALK SHOW singing a revamped version of the ultimate Black Sabbath power ballad “Changes” that now is about a creepy father-daughter relationship. Nancy and Frank Sinatra singing “Something Stupid” seems positively normal compared to that unholy image. (Of course, since Ozzy was in that horrific ATV accident, I decided against running the rest of my anti-Osbourne diatribe. But Kelly is still a worthless piece of pampered humanity.)
The Smithereens - “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
I hate Christmas. I mean, I truly despise the season, the songs, the crowds, oh dear god the crowds around Rockefeller Center from November to the end of December that I have had to fight through while going to work the past eight years. I’m quite surprised that I haven’t snapped, dressed up in a Santa suit and acted like 50th street was another killing mission in Grand Theft Auto. I apologize for getting off track here—I wanted to talk about the Smithereens. I went to see them this past January with my friend Mike. He last saw them perform in 1991, which happens to be the last time we saw them together. He mentioned something about how it was the first nostalgia show he had ever gone to, which struck me as odd. I’ve been to plenty of nostalgia shows over the years. Heck, the Stones were a nostalgia trip when I saw in 1989. But that Smithereens gig was strictly nostalgia for my generation—lots of balding, overweight and glasses-wearing men in the mid-30s to their mid-40s enjoying the songs they listened to during their late teens and early-20s. I realized this is why baby boomers paid outrageous prices to see Simon and Garfunkel struggle to hit those high notes again. It’s the comfort of that music that makes the current world of terrorism, debts and a dumbass president go away. This slow descent into comfort music is what I have to look forward to over the next decade or so (along with deafness, a knee replacement and—electorate willing—a president that knows how to speak his own language).
White Stripes -“Seven Nation Army”
However, not all is lost. White Stripes mastermind Jack White takes standard music forms (punk, blues, Brill Building pop) and makes them into something exciting and new. And there are other bands (some of them on this list) that have that ability to create something new out of the most basic elements of music that have been used and reused over the past 50 years. I also like the White Stripes because it means someday I too could be a drummer in a successful band. Seriously, Meg White could soon be the most imitated drummer in rock because her playing is about as basic as it gets.
Aerosmith - “Walk this Way”
Why did Aerosmith have to sink to the level of touring with the Simmons-Stanley Corporation of America (listed on the New York Stock Exchange as KISS)? Did Steven Tyler need more money for more scarves? Did Joe Perry need to buy another gold chain to hang around his neck? Did all their kids decide to go to 50-thousand dollar a year colleges? Come on guys, Boston had to deal with Grady Little’s boneheaded moves this year—I’m surprised the city survived after the KISS army dragged their sorry ass through town. Here’s a story to prove once and for all that KISS has always been about money (and perhaps prove that the rumors that Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley haven’t played their instruments on stage in years). A colleague of mine was interviewing Simmons in a studio, with Stanley chiming in via the phone. When Stanley was answering one of the questions about the absolutely unnecessary KISS Alive 4 (recorded with a symphony?!?), Simmons took out his checkbook and started balancing it. In the middle of an interview. While he was supposed to be talking about the music he’s supposed to be so “passionate” about. While he was wearing hairpiece number four. (He’s got ones for on stage and off--and formal occasions.) It’s a story that boggles my mind, yet seems right in character for him. If I was a member of the KISS army, I would use my power for a coup de ’tat and force Gene and Paul to listen to Music From The Elder over and over again.
Audioslave - “I am the Highway”
I just listed the song because singer Chris Cornell brings the whole set of music full circle. Both Cornell and the ex-Rage Against the Machine guys have done much better work than this song. Also, I thought life was a highway.
In 2003 the musical community lost three mighty talented men--Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon and Elliott Smith. Smith’s demons finally got the best of him when he committed suicide, robbing us of a man who knew how to make pain sound so very beautiful. Zevon and Cash’s deaths were not surprising, but at least both got to go out the way they wanted—making great music.
So what else happened this year?
Oh Michael, couldn’t you keep your hands only on your children for once? Winona Ryder gets three years probation for stealing some stuff she offered to pay for and this freak could somehow get off by attacking the credibility of a 12 year old cancer patient? The Elephant Man’s bones must be spinning like a rotisserie chicken in whatever display they’re in at the Neverland Ranch.
Creed were sued by some Chicago area fans for a show that they said was subpar because singer Scott Stapp was too drunk. Alas, the suit was tossed out, breaking hearts of cynical critics around the country.
Limp Bizkit covered The Who’s “Behind Blues Eyes” on their most recent album AND Fred Durst got to make out with Halle Berry in the video. I do believe this is some sort of karma payback for something horrible I must have done in a previous life. Or perhaps it’s Keith Moon getting back at Pete Townshend for licensing songs to CSI, CSI: Miami and CSI: Hackensack. Then again, Townshend had a rough enough year without hearing this monstrosity. Hopefully no one played it for him (and he’s more careful about what websites get his credit card number).
Britney and Madonna kissed at the MTV awards. And somehow I’m still able to see. Unbelievable. The only thing Britney could do now to get more publicity is to have sex in front of a live audience, and somehow that doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Madonna? Her 2003 album American Life makes me long for the days when she wanted to be a movie star.
The fans of American Idol narrowed their choices down to a big guy that isn’t talented enough to hold Luther Vandross’s shoes and living Ken doll (I mean the ones with no genitals). With America voting like this, I can see why Bush was able to steal an election three years ago. Ruben Studdard seems like he’d be more passionate if he could sing into a burrito instead of a microphone, while Clay Aiken…well, you’ve probably made your own Clay Aiken joke by now that is better than anything I’ve got in my brain.
Rod Stewart notched two hit albums by doing covers of standards. This career move makes me want to get my stomach pumped. (Pause for drum crash) But seriously folks, do you think “Maggie May” would have slept with Stewart if she knew he’d be singing “They Can't Take That Away From Me" someday?
So what was this year really about? DVDs. How can the record industry not realize the insanity of the following purchase: I bought a two-disc Pearl Jam DVD for six dollars less than I paid for Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Each DVD offered more than two hours of material, while each C-D had just a little over an hour of music. Even though I’m obviously a hard core music fan, I’m going to think twice about shelling out dough for a 17.99 CD when the two-disc DVD of Once Upon a Time in the West is only 13 bucks. There were many nights this fall that I watched DVDs of my favorite movies and TV shows instead of popping on an album. The record industry is never going to recoup their lost sales unless they can offer product at a consistently cheaper price.
Lastly, Dixie Chicks singer (and Texas native) Natalie Maines said this at a London appearance back in March: “We're ashamed [that] the President of the United States is from Texas.” I agree with her 100%, even though I’m not from Texas. Perhaps for the first time since the Oliver North hearings in 1986, I have political beliefs that I actually care to talk about. Our freedoms are being chopped away by John Ashcroft and the rest of the Bush administration each and every day. And don’t get me started about the dangers our men and women in the armed services had to face because the commander-in-chief had to get the man that bedeviled his daddy. 2004 is a crucial year for our democracy, and I encourage everyone to think hard and long about the future before they step into a voting booth.
Of course, those folks in California shouldn’t get to vote anymore. (Just kidding.)
20) Loveless - Gift to the World (Q Division)
Loveless’s gifts to the world on Gift to the World are ten pure power-pop songs. Singer-guitarist Dave Wanamaker has a knack for writing choruses that burrow into your ear and don’t let go for days. Wanamaker’s secret weapon for planting these hooks in your brain is Jen Trynin, a fellow Boston area singer-guitarist who was run through the major label ringer in the mid-’90s. Trynin and Wanamaker’s voices blend effortlessly, especially on tracks like “Go” and “Stick to the Girl.” I often dream of a perfect radio world (in it I have a show where I only play artists from Minneapolis and Boston) and I guarantee that in it many of these songs would be Top 10 hits. Best Tracks: “She Could Be Something Good,” “You Wore Me Out,” “Go”
19) John Eddie - Who the Hell Is John Eddie? (Lost Highway)
Let me answer the question posed by this album’s title: John Eddie is a New Jersey-based singer-songwriter who was signed to a major label back in the mid-’80s. He had a buzz about him back then because Bruce Springsteen would occasionally join him onstage. He scored a minor hit in 1986 with “Jungle Boy,” released another album in 1990, and then got caught up in label hassles. Eddie’s return to a major label finds him with the best songs of his checkered career. The best two songs, “Play Some Skynyrd” (that title says it all) and “Forty” are hysterical views about getting older while trying to play your music for strangers. A few lines from “Forty” sum it up rather well: “Well I guess I’m fucking forty/I’m a petered out Peter Pan/Sometimes I feel foolish /I make my living singing in this band” and “Well I might be fucking forty/But you’re fucking forty two.” Best Tracks: “Forty,” Play Some Skynyrd,” “Let Me Down Hard”
18) Blink 182 - Blink 182 (Geffen)
Blink 182 grows up? Say it isn’t so! What happened to the guys that had album titles like Enema of the State and song titles like “Happy Holidays You Bastard?” Apparently the trio realized they had taken their jokester punk rock sound as far as it could go. I think the only appropriate comparison to Blink’s sonic change could be U2’s evolution between Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby. That’s how shocking the opener “Feeling This” is upon first listen. The punk rock basics are still there, but the guitars sound like they were lifted from a Chemical Brothers record at points, while Mark Hoppus and Tom Delonge sound serious for the first time ever while singing. Then there’s the star of the album, Travis Barker. This extremely in-demand drummer (The Transplants, Pink, various rappers) expands the band’s rhythmic foundation with not only his concise and powerful playing but by using creative overdubbing to add odd percussive sounds. His drum playing alone makes it an album worth checking out. And hopefully on their next album Hoppus and Delonge will go back to singing about shitting their pants. Best Tracks: “Feeling This,” “Easy Target,” “Go”
17) Steve Burns - Songs for Dustmites (Pias)
Point of disclosure: Steve Burns is a friend of mine. He used to work with a friend of mine, and we became friends over beers and discussing our favorite indie rock bands. One night last year at one of my favorite Brooklyn hangouts he told me he was recording an album, which intrigued me. I was even more intrigued when he told me Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips) had produced some tracks and that the Flaming Lips drummer-keyboardist Steve Drozd was playing on some of the tracks. He gave me his Ipod and I went into the bathroom to listen to one of the tracks, “Mighty Little Man.” I don’t think I’ve ever been that entertained in a bar bathroom before. The song about a little guy tackling the world has a huge sound—Burns sounds like he’s leading an army of bassists and drummers down a mountain directly into your ears. I’m happy to say that the rest of Songs for Dustmites lives up to quality of “Mighty Little Man.” I supposed if I listened to this album in my bathroom at some point this year, it might have gotten higher on the list. (And for those of you with small kids or nieces or nephews, yes, it is that Steve Burns.) Best Tracks: “Mighty Little Man,” “What I Do on Saturday,” “>1”
16) Ryan Adams - Love Is Hell Part 1 (Lost Highway)
Ryan Adams is a prick. He has this innate ability to piss off almost everyone, break hearts of plenty of women and put on concerts that drive even his most ardent fans crazy. Adams also released one of the worst albums in 2003 to come from an artist that has made this list before. That album, Rock n’ Roll, sounds like a poorly conceived, hastily recorded tribute album to Adams’ record collection. With every song on it you could play a game of “name the song he’s ripping off.” Even with all of that, Ryan Adams is a talented musician. His albums with Whiskeytown were all good; his solo debut Heartbreaker is an amazing study of life after an intense relationship and half of his commercial breakthrough Gold is of high quality. So that’s why I’m not surprised Love Is Hell is such a fine album. (Even though it’s the first of two EPs, eight songs that clock in over 30 minutes is long enough to qualify as an album in my book.) Adams originally turned in Love Is Hell as one album, which his label rejected as not being a commercial enough follow-up to Gold. And they’re certainly correct—there are no candidates for airplay on either Part 1 or Part 2. What Part 1 (the much better half of the two EPs) does have is one great song after another about heartbreak and its consequences. It also has Adams’ cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” which is perhaps even more compelling than the original. Now if he would only cover “Summer of ’69,” that could be entertaining. Best Tracks: “Love Is Hell,” “Wonderwall,” “This House Is Not For Sale”
15) Dave Derby - Even Further Behind (Badman Recording Company)
Point of disclosure: Dave Derby is a friend of mine (déjà vu!). We worked together a few years ago, and his last project, Brilliantine’s My Life and the Beautiful Game, made my Top 10 in 1999. Even Further Behind is an appropriate title for this disc, which I first heard songs from back in early 2002. Using a sound that is Big Star meets Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac (I’m serious when I say that) Derby writes songs that nail that feeling of getting older but still wanting to enjoy the music of one’s youth. The opening lines “Middle Class Hero” sum it up best: “30-something ennui/I look in the mirror/But who I wanted to be/Never got any clearer.” Growing up has rarely sounded better. Best Tracks: “The Dream Is Over,” “California Nervous Breakdown,” “Middle Class Hero”
14) Paul Westerberg - Come Feel Me Tremble (Vagrant)
Being a one-man band is apparently just what Paul Westerberg needed to get back on track. Only a year after releasing two solo albums he recorded all by himself at home in Minneapolis (one of them under the name Grandpaboy), Westerberg is back with two more. He used the Grandpaboy moniker again for Dead Man Shake, a blues album that sort of wears thin upon repeated listens. Come Feel Me Tremble, definitely the better of the two discs, is another collection of the catchy rock songs that Westerberg has perfected since starting out with The Replacements. The low-fi sloppy charm of these songs would probably have been lost if he recorded them in a proper studio with a band. (Although, Westerberg could really use some drum lessons once in a while.) Also worth checking out is the DVD of the same name, which looks at Westerberg’s 2002 solo tour and the recording of this album from a rather twisted perspective. Best Tracks: “Crackle & Drag (Original Take),” “Dirty Diesel,” “What a Day (For a Night)”
13) The Jayhawks - Rainy Day Music (American/Lost Highway)
After a sonic leap forward with 2000’s Smile, The Jayhawks retreat to familiar ground on Rainy Day Music. Strummed acoustic guitars, chiming electric guitars, pedal steel runs and close harmonies are all at the forefront again, with Gary Louris’s distinctive voice never sounding better. As long as this band keeps making records, they’ll always have a spot reserved on the list. Best Tracks: “Tailspin,” “Stumbling in the Dark,” “All the Right Reasons”
12) The Bottle Rockets - Blue Sky (Sanctuary)
The Bottle Rockets have made many quality country-influenced rootsy albums over the past decade, and Blue Sky is no exception. But unlike their other albums, Blue Sky doesn’t have the volume cranked at 11. It’s not as though this album is going to put you sleep like a glass of warm milk and some Internet porn. It’s just that singer-guitarist Brian Hennemann sounds comfortable with his own voice and doesn’t have to shout over the rest of the band all the time. Songs like “Baggage Claim” (a tale about relationships in a post 9/11 world) and “Mom & Dad” (about Hennemann’s parents, who passed away within a few weeks of each other) show off a lyrical depth that the band has rarely reached before. And how could I not include an album on the list that has the line, “I dig cartoons in the morning and my baby at night?” Best Tracks: “Lucky Break,” “Baggage Claim,” “Cartoon Wisdom”
11) Mike Gent - The Intake (Sodapop Records)
The Intake is The Figgs’ singer-guitarist’s proper solo debut (he released a cassette of some low-fi demos three years ago, but it was a very limited release). This album is truly a solo effort, as Gent plays all the instruments and recorded most of it at his house. Many solo albums fall victim to sounding too much like an artists main band. The Intake is nothing like that—these songs hopscotch from genre to genre and sound nothing like any Figgs or Gentlemen songs (except for “Loose Ransom,” which The Figgs have played on tour). I once said to Mike that he shits out great songs all the time, and The Intake proves that once again my theory is correct. At this rate he’ll have to start a third band to have yet another outlet for his songs. Best Tracks: “The Intake,” “Maybe Afternoon,” “Relax Honey, Tonight”
10) Radiohead - Hail to the Thief (Capitol)
Now that the hype of Kid A and Amnesiac has died down, perhaps Radiohead can get back to making albums that they enjoy, not ones that have to be big statements or far left turns for their sound. Hail to the Thief is a return to more conventional song structure, which is a relief. Of course from the mind of Thom Yorke, an opening line like “I Sucked/The Moon” on “Sail to the Moon” seems about as conventional as he’ll get, but I’ll take what I can get from the wandering eye wonder. Hail to the Thief is also a joy to listen to because Radiohead rock out again. “2+2=5” and “There There” prove that this band doesn’t have to be artsy-fartsy all the time. Best Tracks: “Sail to the Moon,” “There There,” “Go to Sleep”
9) The Darkness - Permission to Land (Atlantic)
There is no middle ground with England’s latest musical export, The Darkness. You’ll either love their seemingly spot-on parody of ’80s hair metal and Queen and Sweet inspired guitar rock, or you will absolutely hate all of those same things. Singer-guitarist Justin Hawkins sings in a falsetto that at times is like someone strangling Tiny Tim, which doesn’t sound like a compliment but is meant to be one, I think. Everything about this group is so over-the-top that it seems impossible that it’s not all one big Spinal Tap-like joke. On “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” Hawkins is singing to a guy trying to steal his lady. But when he sings “Get your hands off my woman motherfucker” in a voice just a few notes below a dog whistle, you can’t imagine him putting up a fight for any woman, or anything. Love them or hate them, I’m sure by the end of 2004 no one will care about them—Permission to Land is such a definitive debut that any second album from The Darkness is bound to be a let down. Best Tracks: “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” Growing on Me” (www.thedarknessrock.com)
8) Guster - Keep It Together (Palm Pictures/Reprise)
This choice is bound to surprise some of my co-workers and fellow music critics. Guster has long been, for me at least, a shining example of the horrible frat boy rock that should be banished from the U-S and sent away to Antarctica. Better yet, all of their fans should be shot into outer space so we don’t have to look at their backward BU hats anymore. Three years ago I had to stand in the middle of Guster crowd when The Jayhawks were opening, and it was almost worse than having to wade through a crowd of stinky neo-hippies at a Phish show. So after spewing all this hate, how did a Guster disc land in the Top 10, you ask? Well, I ended up having to listen to this album to prep for an interview during the summer. At first I begrudgingly spun it. Then I found myself enjoying a few songs. After interviewing drummer Brian Rosenworcel, who was a funny and self-effacing kind of guy, my hatred was gone completely. Guster’s sound used to be two acoustic guitars and bongos, which would drive me up a wall after two songs, at most. Keep It Together is a huge leap forward from that bare bones approach—there is a standard drum kit on almost every song, lots of electric guitars, multiple layers of harmonies, a smart use keyboards and the occasional banjo part. These tracks are all catchy, smart and at times depressing intelligent pop songs. And it’s certainly not something I would expect a 23-year-old living off his parents’ money would grasp immediately (which works great for me). I doubt that you’ll ever catch me at a Guster show again, but if I was, it’s good to know I would have some great tunes to accompany my inevitable shoving match with some guys wearing Gamecocks hats. Best Tracks: “Homecoming King,” “Amsterdam,” “Careful”
7) Rufus Wainwright - Want One (DreamWorks)
I’ve heard of suffering for your art, but Rufus Wainwright’s life before recording Want One (to be followed by Want Two next year) is just plain ridiculous. In 2002 he went on a truly legendary bender throughout the gay culture of New York—lots of anonymous sex, lots of drugs and tons of booze before he finally wised up and checked himself into rehab. Wainwright’s tales of his life throughout that time have made a series of incredibly compelling and beautiful songs. The opener “Oh What a World” uses a healthy chunk of Ravel with Wainwright’s multiple harmonies to create one of the best orchestral arrangements of a standard pop song that I’ve ever heard. I can’t wait to see what other demons Wainwright confronts of Want Two. Best Tracks: “Oh What a World,” “Vibrate,” “14th Street”
6) Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Streetcore (Hellcat/Epitaph)
Posthumous albums are always tricky to judge—do I like it too much because the artist is dead, or am I dismissing it too quickly because someone just put together a collection of leftovers? Streetcore is the bulk of the album that Strummer and his band the Mescaleros were working on before his untimely passing last December. It’s fleshed out with two songs Strummer recorded with Rick Rubin as demos for Johnny Cash and a track Strummer recorded a while back with producer Danny Saber. It’s apparent after the two opening tracks, “Come Girl” and “Get Down Moses,” that Strummer’s artistic comeback (which started in earnest with his last album Global a Go-Go) would have been complete with this album. These songs strike the perfect mix between the world beat fixation of Strummer’s first two albums with the Mescaleros and the classic Clash vibe that he would show off on stage. The two songs that Strummer did for Cash with producer Rick Rubin, the original “Long Shadow” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” are stunning acoustic tracks that are nothing sort of moving. “Long Shadow” is a Woody Guthrie-type ballad where Strummer captures Cash’s essence (and a bit of his own) perfectly, while “Redemption Song” is easily the best Bob Marley cover ever recorded. Strummer sings Marley’s words with a conviction that would sound completely fake coming out of anyone else’s mouth. Streetcore is a fitting testament to a great career. Best Tracks: “Coma Girl,” “Redemption Song,” “All in a Day”
5) Electric Six - Fire (XLS/Beggars Banquet)
The Electric Six are the best thing to come out of Detroit since perhaps the automobile. Seriously, this band is that good. They have stumbled upon some sort of intoxicating mix of disco and punk rock that at one moment has you shaking your ass and the next pumping your fist. It seems that all of their lyrics are meant to be a joke, but singer Dick Valentine sings with such authority that when he croons “I Invented the Night” I’m inclined to believe him. There are no serious messages in any Electric Six song. All of them are either about fire (the word appears 28 times on the album) dancing or discos, and in one song (“Electric Demons in Love”) all three ideas at once—“I was born a dancer in your disco of fire.” This is not an album for anyone who doesn’t like a healthy dose of humor along with his or her music. But if you like discos, dancing, punk rock and fires, you’ll be right at home. Best Tracks: “Gay Bar,” “She’s White,” “Danger! High Voltage”
4) Outkast - Speakerboxx/The Love Below (LaFace/Arista)
Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi have somehow always made their divergent styles work together. This time around they decided to go for more continuity by separating their songs onto different discs. On Speakerboxx Big Boi keeps up Outkast’s traditional funk-inflected rap sound on tracks like “The Way You Move” and “Flip Flop Rock.” It’s a solid effort, but not much different than Stankonia. Andre 3000 more than makes up the difference on The Love Below. The first five songs move from a lounge-like piano ballad to a jazz track with scatting to a spoken word piece backed by an acoustic guitar to two songs that sound leftover from Prince’s Lovesexy album. Andre leaves rapping almost completely behind on almost the entire disc, but he pretty much use every other form of music available to him to make one amazing song after another. And as good as the unlikely hit “Hey Ya” is, there are plenty of other songs (“Spread,” “Roses,” “Vibrate”) that also sound instantly familiar yet like nothing else. The gap between these two discs makes it apparent to me that Andre has outstripped Big Boi in talent and ambition and that a solo career is the only way he’ll be able to continue to grow as an artist. Best Tracks: “Hey Ya,” “Spread,” “Roses,” “The Way You Move” “Pink and Blue,” “Flip Flop Rock”
3) Fountains of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve/EMI)
Fountains of Wayne’s first two albums are chock full of great power pop songs, but their third album is the best because it’s their most diverse. Sure the pop gems you come to expect are here (“Stacy’s Mom,” “No Better Place”) but songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger expand their witty tunes into country (“Hung Up on You”), hard rock (“Little Red light,” “Bought for a Song”) and trippy ballads (“Halley’s Waitress”). The key to what makes their songs work is that they stick to one viewpoint—that of the urban/suburban white collar worker. “Best Future in Sales” is perfect portrait of a guy stuck wearing a suit just trying to get by, while “Little Red Light” is the one of the ultimate stuck-in-traffic-during-my-commute songs. Actually, it’s only the second stuck-in-traffic-during-my-commute song. (The first being James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam.”) And how could one deny the smile-inducing power of “Stacy’s Mom?” It’s a well-deserved hit that hopefully allows them to keep making records as fine as this one. Best Tracks: “Bright Future in Sales, “Stacy’s Mom,” “Valley Winter Song”
2) The Minus 5 - Down With Wilco (Yeproc)
Wilco have had an unlucky touch the past few years. Their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was delayed almost a year because of record company battles. Then they record an album with Minus 5 mastermind Scott McCaughey in 2001. McCaughey’s label gets slashed down to nothing in 2002 and then he has to go through some tricky negotiations just to get the rights to his own album back. So more than a year after its completion the album finally hit stores. Fortunately it was well worth the wait—Down With Wilco is a perfect match of McCaughey’s masterful pop sensibility and Wilco’s ability to seemingly create compelling music every time they enter the recording studio. I’m going out on a limb here, but I think this is perhaps the best album Wilco have ever been involved with. It seems that whenever they’re presented with someone to collaborate with (McCaughey, Billy Bragg) the results are even better than their own albums. And Down With Wilco is by far the best album McCaughey has produced under the Minus 5 name. Having a steady band backing him (as opposed to the usual rotating cast of musicians) gives it a sense of continuity that the previous Minus 5 discs have lacked. Every time I listen to Down With Wilco I catch something new, whether it’s an interesting keyboard line or guitar part or a combination of words. That’s a sign of great album, and one that will continue to get better as time goes by. Best Tracks: “The Town That Lost Its Groove Supply,” “I’m Not Bitter,” “”Days of Wine and Booze”
1) The White Stripes - Elephant (Third Man/V2)
I am probably critic number-847 that has listed this album as their favorite of the year. Normally I hate putting what will likely be the critical consensus choice at the top of my list, but this year there was a huge gap between the best album of the year and the rest of the list. Elephant is a tour de force for singer-guitarist Jack White. His guitar squeals, roars, hums, buzzes, crunches and soars to the heavens in all the right spots. He even makes it sound like a bass on lead off track “Seven Nation Army” as if to say to those questioning the lack of a bass player, “Really, I can do it all at once.” What’s even more amazing is that Jack does all this with an obviously limited talent at the drum stool. Meg White’s playing is passable at best, and perhaps that’s what makes it all work. Jack know that he’s going to be limited rhythmically, so he’s forced to come up inventive uses of his guitar (and at times, piano) to make these songs come off. At least with Meg behind the kit we know there’s no chance of a prog rock track (even though “There’s No Home For You Here” dives into Queen territory), just good old-fashioned rock basics, even down to recording on an old eight track tape machine. White’s lyric writing has also improved, as songs like “In the Cold, Cold Night” and “I Want to be the Boy to Warm You Mother’s Heart” are a huge improvement over “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl).” And the take on Burt Bacharch and Hal David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” continues the duo’s tradition of intriguing covers. The only misstep on the disc is the closer “Well It’s True That We Love Each One Another” with guest vocalist Holly Golightly. This odd duet sounds like it should have been destined for the B-side of a single. Each time I hear it I feel like I’m being forced to listened to someone’s bad inside joke over and over. But that’s a small matter to deal with when it’s been preceded by 13 great tunes. I think it will be interesting to see if Jack can continue to improve on this basic yet very interesting musical premise with a bigger audience and higher expectations awaiting him on their next album. Maybe he’ll be inspired by dating a movie star. But beware—just look at what happened to Dave Pirner… Best Tracks: “I Want to Be The Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart,” “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” “Seven Nation Army”
My brain is a fascinating object—I can’t remember people I’ve been introduced to four times, but I can recall the chart debuts of albums from five years ago. Almost every week of my adult life I have focused on one song and play it over and over again until I finally get it out of my system. So here is a list of those songs so you too, dear reader, can see what makes my brain tick.
1/3 The Wallflowers - “If You Never Got Sick”
1/10 The Figgs - “Sit and Shake”
1/17 The Transplants - “Diamonds and Guns”
1/24 The Wallflowers - “How Good It Can Get”
1/31 Nickel Creek - “Spit on a Stranger”
2/7 Men at Work - “Overkill”
2/14 Eminem - “8 Mile”
2/21 T.Rex - “Cosmic Dancer”
2/28 George Harrison - “Isn’t It a Pity”
3/7 Merle Haggard - “The Bottle Let Me Down”
3/14 Elvis Costello & the Attractions - “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”
3/21 Uncle Tupelo - “Give Back the Key to My Heart”
3/28 Lucinda Williams - “Right in Time”
4/4 Fountains of Wayne - “Stacy’s Mom”
4/11 The White Stripes - “Seven Nation Army”
4/18 Uncle Tupelo - “Gun”
4/25 Pete Townshend - “Secondhand Love”
5/2 Pete Yorn - “Come Back Home”
5/9 Yes - “It Can Happen”
5/16 Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - “Kitty’s Back (Live)”
5/23 Soundtrack of Our Lives - “Sister Surround”
5/30 All - “Million Bucks”
6/6 Electric Six - “Gay Bar”
6/13 The Figgs - “A Fuse About to Blow”
6/20 Fountains of Wayne - “Bright Future in Sales”
6/27 The Jayhawks - “Trouble”
7/4 Radiohead - “There There”
7/11 Pearl Jam - “Alive (Live from MSG 7/9/03)”
7/18 The White Stripes - “I Want to be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart”
7/25 Jane’s Addiction - “Just Because”
8/1 Supertramp - “Goodbye Stranger”
8/8 Guster - “Amsterdam”
8/15 Soul Asylum - “New York Blackout”
8/22 Elvis Costello & the Attractions - “Everyday I Write the Book (Alternate Version)”
8/29 Hall & Oates - “Private Eyes”
9/5 Johnny Cash - “Wichita Lineman”
9/12 Warren Zevon - “Disorder in the House”
9/19 Outkast -“Hey Ya”
9/26 Outkast - “The Way You Move”
10/3 R.E.M. - “Bad Day”
10/10 The Mavericks -“The Air That I Breathe”
10/17 ZZ Top -“Sleeping Bag”
10/24 Elliott Smith - “Son of Sam”
10/31 The Darkness - “Get Your Hands Off My Woman”
11/7 The Darkness - “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
11/14 Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - “Trapped”
11/21 Tommy Stinson and The Figgs - “Hateful”
11/28 Alan Parsons Project -“Eye in the Sky”
12/6 Eric Clapton/Paul McCartney - “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
12/13 Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - “Redemption Song”
12/20 The Figgs - “New Car No Rent”
1) Another Hilton Sex Tape: This Time It’s Paris and Fred Durst. Thousands of ‘Net Surfers Go Blind.
2) Too Much Shaking: Thousands of Polaroid Camera Users Cut Their Corneas When They Shake Their Pictures Like Andre 3000 Told Them To.
3) Democracy Arrives in China: People Credit Guns n’ Roses New Album.
4) Michael Jackson and R. Kelly Open a Series of Day Care Centers Called Never-Touched-Them-Land.
5) Neil Young Releases Another Concept Album. (Did you hear Greendale? Awful. Dreadful. Ugh.)
6) Creed Singer Scott Stapp’s Solo Album Is a Triple Disc.
7) Ted Nugent Runs for Governor of Michigan. Promises Deer Skinning Jobs For All Unemployed Workers.
8) Celine Dion and Seabiscuit Make Out at VH1’s Big in ’04 Awards. People Can’t Tell Them Apart.
9) Not Too Sexy for the Queen: Welcome Sir Right Said Fred.
10) Courtney Love Releases Her Debut Solo Album, America’s Sweetheart. (Crap, this REALLY is happening.)
20) Black Eyed Peas feat. Justin Timberlake - “Where Is the Love?” (Interscope)
It’s sort of a shame that it took the addition of the hot male pop star of the year to bring this great rap group to the mainstream. However, hearing a song with semi-political lyrics on car radios across the country is a damn fine thing in these times.
19) Nappy Roots - “Roun’ the Globe” (Atlantic)
Kentucky’s finest rappers come up with another tune that sticks out from much of today’s rap. I’m not sure if “the whole damn world is country” like they say, but it’s a nice optimistic viewpoint, which makes it even more amazing that I would like this song. (I must be going soft.)
18) R.E.M. - “Bad Day” (WB)
R.E.M. rescued this song from their ’80s scrap heap for their new best of album. If they threw away this song, I can only imagine what other great stuff is hiding in the vaults. And yes, it does a passing resemblance to “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” but this song came first, so there, Mr. Smarty Pants.
17) The Transplants - “Diamonds and Guns” (Hellcat/Epitaph)
I almost removed this track from the list because it popped up in Garnier Shampoo commercial (several of them actually), and selling out is not what I expect from a side project of Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. Rancid shunned the major label dollars back in the mid-’90s when every label had to get their hands on a punk band. But this isn’t Rancid—it’s an interesting mishmash of punk rock, rapping (provided by Rob Aston) and driving rhythms (supplied by Blink 182 drummer extraordinaire Travis Barker). And this track, with its Blur-like “woo-hoo” was hard to escape when watching hockey games last winter.
16) Nickel Creek - “Spit on a Stranger” (Sugar Hill)
I’m pretty sure this is the most unlikely Pavement cover you’ll ever hear—mandolin, acoustic guitar and fiddle making Stephen Malkmus’ twisted tale sound like a hoedown from Kentucky.
15) 50 Cent - “In Da Club” (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)
“Go shorty/It’s your birthday.” I have seen those two opening lines to this song turn a crowd from sedate drinkers to dancing idiots in no time at all. By the time the chorus comes around (“You’ll find me in da club”) everyone in that same bar thinks they are the greatest hip-hop groove dancer of all time. The power of this song to stop normal people in their tracks is one to behold. But I can’t help think—doesn’t it seem like it’s ripe to be the lead single on “Weird Al” Yankovic’s next album? Can’t you just imagine “In Da Shrub?”
14) Kelis - “Milkshake” (Star Trak/Arista)
Never before has a drink staple of my youth sounded so inviting and so dirty and sexy—all in the same moment. Producers The Neptunes have a knack for creating catchy tracks that have the barest of essentials (in this case, a bongo loop and a chiming bell). And I have no doubt that her milkshake is better than mine, and most likely yours as well.
13) Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell and Uncle Charlie Wilson - “Beautiful” (Priority/Capitol)
Oh you crazy Neptunes, you’ve done it again. The hook of Pharrell Williams singing “beautiful” could have made anyone’s rapping a hit.
11) Blur - “Out of Time” (Virgin)
Blur have always had a talent for creating simple and beautiful down-tempo songs, and “Out of Time” is no exception.
10) Justin Timberlake - “Rock Your Body” (Jive)
Yes, there are two Justin Timberlake songs in the singles list. Do not be scared or throw away this handful of paper in disgust. I have not been on a bender before writing this. I hate to admit this, but I watched part of Timberlake’s NBC special that ran the day after Thanksgiving. Seeing him actually play competent keyboards and guitar and sing very well (as well as leading a top notch soulful band) made me rethink my blatant disregard for his talent. The Neptunes wrote “Rock Your Body” for Michael Jackson’s last album, but fortunately for us Jacko didn’t give it his white glove touch. Timberlake’s beat-boxing at the end of the track, which drove me nuts in his N ‘Sync days, is quite effective here. Really, I was stone cold sober writing this entry, I swear.
9) Soundtrack of Our Lives - “Sister Surround” (Universal)
Where the heck is the next Hives album? I need more Swedish old-school rock. Until that arrives, I’ll take this gem, yet another fine import from the land of the world’s hottest ski team.
8) Beyonce featuring Jay-Z - “Crazy in Love” (Music World/Columbia)
The funkiest song of the year that didn’t involve the Neptunes Using a bangin’ drum loop from an obscure Chi-Lites tune was a stroke of genius. And if this track is any indication, Beyonce and Jay-Z must have some fun getting crazy in bed.
7) Coldplay - “The Scientist” (Capitol)
Coldplay know how to make drop-dead purr-tee ballads, that’s for certain. I can only imagine what kind of love songs Chris Martin will cook up now that he’s married to Gwenyth Paltrow and has child on the way. Perhaps a piano ballad called “The Actress?” (Also my pick for second best video of the year.)
6) Guster - “Amsterdam” (Palm Pictures/Reprise)
I heard this song for the first time while I was driving up to a wedding in my old stomping grounds of Utica. I was puzzled why I hadn’t heard a song this catchy and smart (the opening lines “I threw away your greatest hits” and “Your bass guitar and Shaggs CD/They don’t mean that much to me” grabbed me immediately) on the radio before. Then the DJ said it was the new single from Guster, and I almost swerved into a car next to me. I couldn’t believe this gem was that crappy frat-boy band I disliked intensely. I heard it three more times during my eight hours behind the wheel on that trip. By the time I was home in Brooklyn, I was hooked.
5) Electric Six - “Danger: High Voltage!” (XLS/Beggars Banquet)
“Fire in the disco/Fire in the Taco Bell.” A song with those opening lines, sung by a demented sounding disco lounge singer, riding on a truly funky backbeat and heavy guitar licks would be, in any other band’s hands, a perfect disaster. Somehow the Six make it work. And Jack White does a great impression of strung out woman supplying background vocals.
4) Outkast -“Hey Ya” (LaFace/Arista)
How did this song become a number-one hit? I’m still stunned that a song that seems so weird upon first listen could sweep across the U-S as quickly as the Paris Hilton video. How does a song with the line “Gimmie some sugar/I am your neighbor” get to occupy the same playlists as Kelly Clarkson and Sean Paul? Songs like this, the ones that I immediately can’t wait to hear again, are always massive failures (see singles number-five and number-three for shining examples of my theory in action). Sometimes America surprises me (see single number-two, the 2000 election and Pirates of the Caribbean) with its choices.
3) Electric Six - “Gay Bar” (XLS/Beggars Banquet)
“Girl/I wanna take you to a gay bar.” Could this be the pickup line of the future for straight guys?
2) Fountains of Wayne - “Stacy’s Mom” (S-Curve/EMI)
An old Cars riff + thoughts about a milf + Rachel Hunter = one of the most memorable songs of the year. (And yet another track that I liked so much that I thought it could never be popular.)
1) Johnny Cash - “Hurt” (American/Lost Highway)
I saw Nine Inch Nails a few days after Woodstock ’94, and their version of this song was perhaps one of the greatest performances of a single song I have ever seen. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine someone covering that song and improving upon it. When I first listened to Cash’s The Man Comes Around, I knew that this was better than the original. Could Trent Reznor ever have imagined that a song he wrote could be taken to such heights? I doubt it. Obviously it’s hard to separate this song from the clip directed by Mark Romanek. It’s a rare feat when a video matches the artistic level of a song, and its rarer still when a video combines with a song to make a perfect four minute piece of art. “Hurt” is that perfect meeting, and fine bookend to Cash’s career starting song, “I Walk the Line.” (By the way, it’s definitely the video of the year, and easily one of the best videos ever.)
COMPILATIONS, REISSUES, TRIBUTES, ETC.
10) Billy Bragg - Must I Paint You a Picture? The Essential Billy Bragg (Elektra/Rhino)
These 40 Bragg classics spread over two discs are a treat to listen to and bring back memories of my college years. But the best part of this collection is the bonus third disc of rarities. Bragg had already released a disc of B-sides and previously unreleased material a few years ago, so it’s surprising that he could have 10 more great gems in the vaults. The covers of “When Will I See You Again?” and Love’s “Seven and Seven Is” are a load of fun, as is the mash-up version of “Take Down the Union Jack” with Bragg’s vocals laid over The Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So.” It’s also had to resist any album with a song—“Dry Bed”—about not wetting yourself while you sleep.
9) No Thanks! The ’70s Punk Rebellion (Rhino)
Point of disclosure: I work with the two writers that composed the track notes for this four-disc compilation. But they didn’t select the songs, so I think I’m in the clear. 100 great songs from an outstanding era of music is almost too much to digest. Every big name from the punk era (except the Sex Pistols) is represented—Ramones, The Clash, The Jam, Dead Boys, New York Dolls are all here, along with bands I had never heard of (The Ruts, Skids, Penetration, Subway Sect) that had at least one great song under their belts. For their next trick, Rhino needs to do a box of ’80s music that’s this good (and isn’t new wave and Top 40 hits).
8) Jay Bennett & Edward Burch - Palace 1919 (Big Mono/Undertow Music)
Bennett and Burch released their debut album, The Palace at 4am (Part 1) last year. This collection could be called Palace Part 2, as it reproduces that album in demo and acoustic form. It’s a fascinating listen, seeing how all of the songs mutated from bare bones songs into their multi-layered, big production forms. I’m not sure why, but the duo decided to pay tribute to John Cale’s 1973 album Paris 1919 with the cover and even threw in a couple of Cale covers. It’s probably just another bizarre joke from two guys that have a strange sense of humor, which they display at all of their shows.
7) Uncle Tupelo - No Depression (Legacy/Columbia)
After being out of print for a few years, it’s a welcome return for that album that launched hundreds of alt-country bands. Like most Legacy reissues, this package has everything a fan could want. The original album sounds crisper than it’s first release on CD back in 1990. The three previously unreleased tracks and three rarities expand upon the country and punk hybrid the band was perfecting. Best of all are the liner notes by Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn. His essay on the band’s beginnings is a great read. A must have for any disc collection.
6) Pearl Jam - Lost Dogs (Epic)
I enjoyed Pearl Jam’s music when their debut album was released in 1991, but I never considered myself a huge fan until I discovered their penchant for releasing lots of singles with interesting B-sides. I started collecting these singles and joined their fan club so I would receive their annual Christmas 45. The band has so much non-album material that even with two discs and 31 songs, Lost Dogs still leaves off some great tracks. 11 of these songs are previously unreleased, which raises some questions about the band’s selections in the past. “All Night” from the No Code sessions is definitely better than most of the songs on that album. The same is true for “Sad” from the Riot Act sessions. Having songs like “Leaving Here,” "Last Kiss,” “U,” “Drifting” and “Dead Man” all on one disc is certainly easier than shuffling back and forth between vinyl and a bunch of different CD’s. Needless to say, I’m already hoping a Lost Dogs 2 in the future.
5) Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Get Happy! (Rhino)
Rhino’s two-year-old Elvis Costello reissue series has revealed numerous gems in the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s catalog that have never seen the light of day. Get Happy takes this to a higher level with 30 extra tracks on the bonus disc, with many revealing alternate takes of songs on the original album. Most surprising out of these tracks is slow and powerful alternate version of “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” that closely mirrors the Sam and Dave original. Costello comes off a bit pompous in the liner notes (surprise, surprise) but I’ll forgive him because this album has “Girls Talk,” and that’s worth the price of admission alone.
4) Masked and Anonymous Soundtrack (Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)
This film stars and was co-written by Bob Dylan, and made many critics lists as the worst film to be released in the summer of 2003. I liked the film—I thought it was like one long Dylan song such as “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” or “Desolation Row.” Characters speak in rhythms similar to the way Dylan sings his older material, and the dialogue is just as dense and hard to comprehend as songs on Blonde on Blonde. No matter what anyone thought of the film, no one would disagree about the quality of the soundtrack. Dylan and his crack touring band rip through hot versions of “Down in the Flood” and “Cold Irons Bound” while showing off a softer touch on the standards “Diamond Joe” and “Dixie.” The rest of the disc is perhaps the finest Dylan tribute ever. Los Lobos (“On a Night Like This”) and Shirley Caesar (“Gotta Serve Somebody”) turn in two of the best Dylan covers of the past decade. The covers in other languages (“My Back Pages” in Japanese, “Like a Rolling Stone” sampled for an Italian rap song) add a great touch.
3) ZZ Top - Chrome, Smoke & BBQ: The ZZ Top Box (WB/Rhino)
This is ZZ Top’s second box set. Their first, the ZZ Top Six Pack, saw the band remix all their older albums to make the drums sound just like they did on Eliminator. It was horrible revisionist history. Classics like “La Grange” and “Tush” sounded like they were recorded in big hockey arenas, with the symbols and snares echoing for what seemed to be an eternity. Thankfully that’s been rectified with this set. The gritty blues influenced Texas twang of the trio’s older albums aren’t buried in a wash of reverb. Alas, the songs from 1986’s Afterburner (with sequencers and tons of electronic drums) sound so incredibly dated at this point you have to wonder if the band is embarrassed by that album (and especially “Velcro Fly” and the stupid dance they did in the video for it). However, I must admit that the Afterburner part of the set somehow really appeals to me. It sounds so different than any other rock music currently on this planet that I wonder if it was aliens that replaced ZZ Top just for that album, and that’s why they used a spaceship in all those videos. In any case, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ is four discs of rock that deserves to be called classic.
2) The Figgs - Ready Steady Stoned: Deluxe Edition (Sodapop Records)
Let me take you back on a trip through time, a time I like to call Pre-Figgs. Yes dear readers, there was a time that I did not know that The Figgs existed, and that was in the spring of 1994. Before the release of Lo-Fi at Society High, Saratoga Springs, New York’s finest export issued two cassettes, 1992’s Ginger and 1993’s Ready Steady Stoned. This reissue brings that album into the digital age with a treasure trove of goodies. On this deluxe edition, the band used their original mixes and sequence (as opposed to the released version which included tracks from older sessions), added an entire scrapped version of the album, some live versions and six demos to create a thorough package. Many of the songs on this album were re-recorded for Lo-Fi (“Bus,” “Jumpstart,” “Favorite Shirt, “Chevy Nova,” “Cherry Blow Pop,” “Stood Up!”) but these versions capture the songs at their rawest and most energetic. And the liner notes by the band offer a nice look into their minds around the time of the album. So when does the Ginger reissue happen?
1) Jeff Buckley - Live at Sin-é (Legacy/Columbia)
Jeff Buckley was one of the most talented interpreters of other people’s material before his death in 1997. This expanded edition (from the original four songs to three discs!) of Live at Sin-é shows Buckley at his best. His reworking of songs by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Led Zeppelin are tremendous, with the cover of Zep’s “Night Flight” being nothing short of revelatory. An added bonus comes from all the between songs monologues. Buckley jokes about The Doors, The Hollies and Guinness, and then delivers heart-wrenching songs without missing a beat. This is easily the best of the Buckley material to come out since his death, and shows yet another reason why his talent is greatly missed.
5) R.E.M. Jones Beach, Wantagh, NY 10/3
October on the Atlantic Ocean can be a chilly time. October on the Atlantic Ocean when the temperature in New York is in the mid-40s can be downright suicidal. It was easily the coldest concert I have ever been at—the crowd’s applause was muted much of the time because of the gloves and layers of clothing everyone wore. Somehow Stipe, Mills, Buck and company played like it was a beautiful 60 degree night. The new songs rocked, the mid-90s tunes (I still love New Adventures in Hi-Fi) were great and ’80s favorites like “Begin the Begin” and “Little America” sounded as fresh as the day they were released.
4) Jay Bennett & Edward Burch, Mercury Lounge, New York, NY 2/24
Jay Bennett used to be the guitarist in Wilco. After he was axed from the band in 2001 he joined forces with his longtime friend Edward Burch. After this show, it made me think that these two should have a sitcom. Their songs, sure, they were great. And the covers of George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a Pity” (on the Beatle’s birthday) and Warren Zevon’s “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado” were beautiful and respectful tributes. But the stuff these guys talk about in between songs is, as a character once said on Seinfeld, “It’s gold Jerry! Gold!” Everything from being hassled by government employees in Washington to bizarre eating habits were fair game this night. Hopefully someone will put together a live album for them with one disc of music and one of between-song banter. Hey, it worked for Elvis...
3) Bob Dylan, Hammerstein Ballroom, New York, NY 8/12
After seeing Masked and Anonymous in the theater, I felt compelled to see Mr. Zimmerman once again. The last time I saw him (1998) it was a revelation—his voice and guitar playing were top notch, as were the band and song selections. I couldn’t imagine another Dylan show living up to that standard, and I was right for the first four songs. Dylan, who strictly plays piano now for some reason, seemed unfocused and distracted, and his voice was straining more than usual. Then during the fifth song “Things Have Changed” a third guitarist slipped on stage just a few feet from Dylan. After his first solo, it was obvious this guy was good. After a couple more, it was obvious this mystery man was an excellent guitar player. It took about five or six songs to figure out the guitarist’s identity—Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band. The change in Dylan’s attitude when Lofgren joined the group was obvious; he sang with gusto, smiled a lot and even did a little jig during a Lofgren’s solo on “Honest With Me.” (Alas, Dylan didn’t keep up his end of the bargain when he joined Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on stage at Shea Stadium in October. Rough barely describes that night’s version of “Highway 61 Revisited.”)
2) The Figgs, Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY 2/28
One Figgs show always makes this list, but this gig just a quick bus ride from my house was out of this world wild. Loads of drunk people singing along to every old song; girls dancing suggestively up front; a guy jumping on stage to crush a beer can with his forehead (and that wasn’t me, I swear) and some smoking new songs added up to one great night of rock.
1) Pearl Jam, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 7/9
How many highlights should I mention from this concert, the best I’ve seen at Madison Square Garden and the best Pearl Jam show I’ve ever seen. Let’s go for three: 1) The unusual opening cover of “Crazy Mary” that rattled to the end with a blazing guitar and organ battle. 2) Eddie Vedder calling Johnny Ramone before “I Believe in Miracles” but getting the answering machine. 3) An incredible “Alive.” As soon as Mike McCready hit the solo, the entire arena started pumping their fists, simultaneously yelling "yeah" for the duration of the song. Buy the official bootleg and be amazed yourself. Combine it with the night before (released on DVD) and you have one of the best concert stands in New York of the past decade.
REDISCOVERY OF THE YEAR (tie)
Hall and Oates/Supertramp
Whooa-o here they come—yes, that Hall and Oates, the guys that perfected “blue-eyed soul” in the ’70s and became steady hitmakers in the ’80s. 1982’s H2O was the second piece of vinyl I ever bought and I still own it. But once I hit college their albums became the bastard children of my record collection, never to be played again. As for Supertramp, they were the third concert I ever saw (from the second row!), but after working at two different classic rock stations, I was ready to never hear “It was an early morning yesterday/I was up before the dawn” ever again. Somehow in 2003 each act worked their way back into my good graces. The oldies station here in New York kept dropping in more and more Hall and Oates songs, so much so that when “Private Eyes” would come on, one half of my office would clap along in the appropriate spots. And four different times this year people brought up Supertramp in conversation, which is just plain weird. But now I find myself turning up the radio whenever “Kiss on My List” or “Take the Long Way Home” comes on the radio. What the heck is wrong with me?
10) House of 1000 Corpses (Universal)
Do you remember a time when horror films weren’t jokey and self-referential? Rob Zombie does, and he filled his film directorial debut with all the elements of a great horror flick from the ’70s. Lots of blood and gore? Check. Wiseass kids being butchered to death? Yup. An over the top performance from the ageless Karen Black? You bet. Zombie also selected some great period music (I’ll never think of Slim Whitman in the same way again) to round out a film that bodes well for his non-music career.
9) School of Rock (Paramount)
People keep telling me I remind them of Jack Black, or Jack Black reminds them of me, or that me, Jack Black and director Kevin Smith (Clerks) should form a supergroup of fat wiseass guys with bad haircuts. I’m not saying that I couldn’t have taken on the role of a substitute teacher that shows kids how to rock. I’m just saying that I could have done it better. And thanks for the supergroup idea, our agents are working on it now.
8) The Cooler (Lions Gate Films)
William H. Macy has always been the great supporting actor in many fine films (Magnolia, Fargo, Boogie Nights), but he’s never had a traditional lead role in a film until The Cooler. It’s a compelling tale about a loser who makes a living by making other people lose in a Las Vegas casino. Macy makes his character totally believable just with his body language alone—his slumped shoulder look each and every time he gets stiffed out of cream for his cup of coffee is stunning to watch. Maria Bello shines as the cocktail waitress that shows Macy how life can be worth living (and has some rather graphic sex scenes with Macy). Alec Baldwin probably deserves a supporting actor nomination for his portrayal of a complex mobster that runs the casino.
7) The Station Agent (Miramax)
I have a saying, a mantra even: midgets are funny. The Station Agent goes against the grain (and my politcally incorrect thoughts) by using a short person as a dramatic lead, and using the characters around him for the comedy. Peter Dinklage plays a man who inherits an abandoned train station in the wilds of New Jersey, and while he doesn’t speak as half as much as the other actors in the film, his facial expressions and reactions to other characters say more than words ever could. Bobby Carnavale is hysterical as a nosy food truck operator, and Patricia Clarkson’s interaction with Dinklage when she almost runs him over is easily the funniest 3 minutes on screen this year.
6) Homicide: Life on the Street Season 3 (A&E Video)
Criminally overlooked when it was buried by NBC on Friday nights, Homicide: Life on the Street will hopefully get its due now that it’s being released on DVD. Seasons one and two are incredible (and paired together in one box set), but season three is when the show was easily the best program on television. Andre Braugher’s portrayal of “Frank Pembleton” is so intense that it’s hard to believe this guy won only one Emmy during the show’s run.
5) Concert for George (WSM)
The CD version of this tremendous George Harrison tribute concert is good, but performances this great by Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and one of the best bands ever assembled on one stage deserves to be watched with awe. Just when I think Clapton, McCartney and Starr couldn’t slip further into irrelevancy, they perform a version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that is one of the most transcendent music moments I’ve ever seen. It’s obvious that even a year after Harrison’s deaths that these three guys truly miss their friend, and all that emotion comes pouring out in their performances. Ringo’s bashing of the drums, McCartney’s spot on harmony vocals and Clapton’s two minute blazing guitar solo are pretty much as good as rock music gets.
4) The O.C. (FOX)
Remember Beverly Hills 90210? Then think of that show, but better written, smarter, funnier and with infinitely cooler music, and you have The O.C. If not for the blackout this summer, I might have never been exposed to this guiltiest of pleasures. Since I was stuck in my apartment because the subways weren’t running yet on the day after the blackout, I ended up watching a rebroadcast of the pilot episode. I was hooked immediately. How can you not enjoy a show that usually ends with some sort of fist fight and major property damage?
3) Lost in Translation (American Zoetrope)
Will someone please nominate Bill Murray for an Oscar already? He was overlooked for Groundhog Day and totally robbed when he didn’t get nominated for Rushmore. Murray proves yet again he’s one of the best actors around in his scenes with Scarlett Johansson as they travel through Tokyo. He also proves that he’s still one of the funniest physical comedians in a scene where he battles a jogging machine.
2) The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season (Fox Home Video)
The Simpsons third season was pretty much perfect. Here’s a brief list of incredible episodes aired that year: The appearance of “Krusty the Clown”’s father (as played by Jackie Mason); Michael Jackson playing a mental patient who believe he’s Michael Jackson; “Homer” as the manager of country singer “Lureen Lumpkin”; Lisa’s uncanny ability to pick football games; and “Sideshow Bob” plots revenge against the Simpson family. Add in audio commentary for the first time from the actors themselves, and you have perfection. To paraphrase “Comic Book Guy,” “Best box set ever.” (At least until seasons four and five are released)
The fourth season of Angel unfurled like one long 24-hour film. I won’t even attempt to explain all the plot intricacies built up over the year, but each episode was filled with enough dramatic tension to cause more than a few hairs in my goatee to turn gray pretty quickly. Who knew that a spinoff show about a vampire detective could be so compelling?
The Worst Lyrics of 2003
The Reynolds Top 20 is always looking for new ground to cover. This year, there was one song so bad that this entirely new feature had to be created for it. One listen to this piece of jingoistic claptrap is enough to make me wish for another plane crash. Enjoy.
“Red White and Blue”
Written by Van Zant/VanZant/Warren/Warren
As recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd
We don't have no plastic L.A. friends,
Ain't on the edge of no popular trend
Ain't never seen the inside of that magazine GQ.
We don't care if you 're a lawyer, or a Texas oil man,
Or some waitress busting ass in some liquor stand.
If you got soul
We hang out with people just like you
My hair's turning white,
My neck's always been red,
My collar's still blue,
We've always been here
Just trying to sing the truth to you.
Yes you could say
We've always been,
Red, White, and Blue
Ride our own bikes To Sturgis
We pay our own dues,
Smoking camels, drinking domestic brews
You want to know where I have been
Just look at my hands
Yeah, I've driven by the White House,
Spent some time in jail.
Momma cried but she still wouldn't pay my bail.
I ain't been no angel,
But even God, he understands.
My hair's turning white,
My neck's always been red,
My collar's still blue,
We've always been here
Just trying to sing the truth to you.
Yes you could say
We've always been,
Red, White, and Blue
Yeah that's right!
My Daddy worked hard, and so have I,
Paid our taxes and gave our lives
To serve this great country
So what are they complaining about
Yeah we love our families, we love our kids
You know it is love that makes us all so rich
That's where we’re at,
If they don't like it they can just
Get the HELL out!
My hair's turning white,
My neck's always been red,
My collar's still blue,
We've always been here
Just trying to sing the truth to you.
Yes you could say
We've always been,
Red, White, and Blue
oh..oh..Red, White, and Blue....
Red, White, and Blue
oh..oh....Red, White, and Blue
This year’s list took 16 rides on the F Train, 25 20 oz. bottles of Diet Coke, four pitchers of iced tea, two toasted sesame bagels, one extremely-well done steak, two packages of Birdseye frozen corn, four chicken cutlets, five piece of sugarless peppermint Bubble Yum, two 1.5 liter bottles of Poland Spring water, one bag of Stella Doro Margherite cookies, one 2 liter bottle of Diet Coke, five Popeye’s spicy chicken strips, three steak burritos from Burrito Box, one bag of chips and a container of salsa from Burrito Box, two Starbucks Iced Venti Chai Lattes, one pack of Starburst original fruits chew, one ham and cheese sub, eight Grandma’s Homestyle oatmeal raisin cookies, one bag of Lays Kettle Chips and four Red Stripes.
The section to thank people without whom...
No thanks to: Myself, Steve Reynolds. I’m a horrible editor, and this year’s grammatical and punctuation disaster proves it. Next year, I’ll get another real editor, I promise.
Things that made this year better: The Justice League/X-Men/Futurama/Family Guy block on Cartoon Network, Quench at 5 am, The Minus 5/Wilco show at Bowery Ballroom, Freak Talks About Sex on DVD, Ameba Records on Sunset Blvd., the Double Down in Las Vegas, VH1 Classic, Jet Blue, fantasy baseball, swimming, Game Boy Advance SP and Donkey Kong Country, Jagermeister, Margon's $4 Cuban sandwich, the crowd on the Rush in Rio D-V-D, Abbey Road in Vegas on Thanksgiving and Burrito Box steak burritos.