The Best Albums of 2003

Welcome back! We've been expecting you. The last year has been devoid of any prevalent trend, so expect to see many different genres represented with some great albums on this list. This past year has been a record breaker, as I have purchased or burned almost 80 CDs, many of them very good. Enjoy and write me back!
40. Sarah McLachlan - Afterglow
After taking six years off between albums to rest, bury her mother, bear a child and search her soul in the wake of 9/11, McLachlan returns with this simmering album that sadly doesn't push her boundaries further, but instead settles as background music. Thankfully, it's some gorgeous music to relax to.
39. The Strokes - Room on Fire
Either reinvent the wheel, or stick true to a winning formula. The Strokes, after their unfairly hyped debut, decided to stick to its winning formula and virtually made the same album. Itís never much better the second time around, but the Cars-like riff on ď12:51Ē is undeniably brilliant.
38. 50 Cent - Get Rich or Die Tryin'
Unavoidable thanks to massive sales (the highest of the year) and that club song that was past ubiquity. 50 is hardly the greatest thing to happen to rap, but his hyped debut contains solid beats thanks to Dr. Dre and Eminem, and is relatively free of filler, which is a rare thing in this day and age.
37. The Black Keys - Thickfreakness
The Akron duo brings the heat like the White Stripes wish they could: raw, stripped-down blues that brings the hot sauce and stomps all over your speakers with its heavy precision. Argue about White Stripian similiarities: they are much more blues than Jack and Meg are. When thereís smoke, thereís fire, and this album is smoking.
36. Four Tet - Rounds
Seamlessly blending electronic experimentation and gentle folk acoustics, this album gets stronger with every listen. A rare electronic album that emphasizes melody over mood, and all the better for it.
35. Zwan - Mary Star of the Sea
It was a sad day when Billy Corgan disbanded the Smashing Pumpkins, and just as sad when Zwan called it a day after releasing this, their only album. Terrible cover art to be sure, but the discís grooves were filled with the classic rock songs that the Pumpkins used to play before getting artsy. A thick, three-guitar attack, and some great tunes are what Billy left for us before his next project.
34. Sam Roberts - We Were Born in a Flame
Canadaís less experimental division is headed by this bearded pop artist who rose from humble fame on the strenght of his EP to national prominence thanks to constant touring, a high-profile set at the summerís SARS-stock in Toronto, and this rock-solid album of pop tunes. Itís nice to see Canada put forward such good albums this year, and Roberts is a marvel to see live.
33. The Raveonettes - Chain Gang of Love
This album's enormous wall of feedback scared many people off, which is a shame, especially since there are some geniunely strong pop hooks within the album. These Danish strumpets turn up the sass with the static and invite you to a leather orgy, 1950's style. The music and cover art are brilliant throwbacks to 50s pop culture, with motorcycle and bad-boy leather jackets, not to mention surf-rock and doo-wop melodies. Of course, all wrapped in that grating feedback. Don't be scared.
32. Dream Theater - Train of Thought
You can be forgiven for not knowing who these guys are. You can also be forgiven if you would hate this album. But if you bought Metallicaís St. Anger and were enraged about itís horrible quality, you need to pick this album and breathe a sigh in smart, truly heavy metalís continuing existence. Mike Portnoy still spews percussive diarrhea every ten seconds, but John Petrucci can shred like no other.
31. Alicia Keys - The Diary of Alicia Keys
It is not sub-standard quality that places this anticipated sophomore album so low on the list: rather, it is a late release in the year and not enough time to let it soak in. Nevertheless, on first listen it is a solid R&B album by a very talented woman, and will grow on you.
30. Super Furry Animals - Phantom Power
For too long over-looked as the geniuses they are, this album is but another golden stone in their respectable career, a rock solid disc with wildy catchy music and lyrics that reflect the dark times we live in. Gas prices, birds falling to earth: theyíre all images to strike fear in your hearts while the melodies sooth your worries.
29. Ellen Allien - Berlinette
Another CD I illegally downloaded (but will purchase when I find it, I swear) was German DJ Allien's album. This disc is a masterpiece of electroclash: compact digital iciness, dadaist collage and magnificent New Order-like hooks. Berlinette is truly a smorgasbord of brilliance and if you track it down, purchase it; you will not regret it.
28. Manitoba - Up in Flames
If you knew Manitoba's Dan Snaith as the creator of a pastoral IDM debut album, prepare to be surprised. With this new offering, he ditches the Boards of Canada comparisons and creates a psychedelic, pop-structured album that sounds straight out of some twisted, day-glo colored 60s retro nightmare, with blue grass and orange people floating above the ground. There is something scary about the images conjured up, but in the right mood, it's all blissful sunshine.
27. Annie Lennox - Bare
Her first album of original material in 11 years, Bare showcases the pain in Lennoxís life, set to above-average adult contemporary music. It is great to see that after so many years, her truly wonderful voice can still melt steel and your heart.
26. AFI - Sing The Sorrow
The major label debut for these gloomy punks who take as much Cure as Clash into their style and create a lush album full of pogo-bouncing punk anthems and gloomy, epic suicide music.
25. The Thrills - So Much for the City
Californian, sun-drenched, harmony-rich rock that is filled with the simple joys of life. The Beach Boys would be proud of this album and would call it their own. The catch? The Thrills are from Dublin. Strong proof that good songs will always over-shadow faux-posing.
24. The Mars Volta - De-Loused in the Comatorium
It stands as a testament of new punkís shitty quality that At The Drive In - one of the most vital and important late bands of this decade and true punks - members Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez created this prog-rock beast, when prog was the dinosaur slayed by punk in the Seventies. A concept album about a manís coma nightmares after a drug overdose designed to kill, only to wake up and kill himself for good, this is definitely not mainstream material, but one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding albums made in a long time, an hour-long fever dream of nightmarish soundscapes. Donít listen to it in the dark.
23. The Neptunes - Present...Clones
Perhaps the greatest mixtape by todayís greatest producers: Hugo Williams bring incalculable heat and let rappers famous and hungry spit all over these tracks. Although you are always tempted to skip the two mediocre alt-rock numbers in the middle of the album, thereís no shortage of brilliant moments; however, ďBlaze of GloryĒ and Dirt McGirtís eagerly awaited song ďPop ShitĒ are arguably the cream of the crop.
22. The Libertines - Up the Bracket
The Libertines have a very powerful friend behind the mixing board for this album: the Clashís Mick Jones. It is no surprise that their debut sounds suspiciously like it was recorded in punkís golden era in 1977: the guitars are jagged, the drums thin, and the singing is pure classic angst.
21. M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts
Coming like a revelation in a year that saw the purchase of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, this French duo's album was the synth equivalent of that classic: layers and layers of synths and voices of a beatbox and sublime melodies. The band was named after an unspeakably beautiful spiral galaxy in the Hydra constellation, and it's highly fitting the music they make is of the same beauty. I cannot wait until I can finally find it and purchase it legitimately.
20. Seal - Seal IV
After he disappeared after Ď98s disappointing Human Being, Seal returned to the scene with long-time producer Trevor Horn by his side and made one of the best adult contemporary albums of the year. The production is immaculate, yet organic, and Seal still has the smoothest voice of all male singers out there.
19. The Darkness - Permission to Land
The second best novelty band in the world after those lovable Danes, these Britons strut their cock-rock AC/DC-Queen hybrid, fronted by the wild spirit Freddie Mercury on his most flamboyant behaviour, and sing songs about a rabid one-eyed dog who stalks priests. Dead serious. In an era when rock has lost its sense of danger, itís nice to see young kids give back at least its fun.
18. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Take Them On, On Your Own
Trading in their debutís inconsistency for a sleek, jet-powered rock assault, these bored California rockers set your speakers ablaze with furious guitars, propulsive drums and jaded vocals about govermentís bullshit. Set it to 11 and take a ride on the wild side.
17. Basement Jaxx - Kish Kash
The sound of a heart attack on the dancefloor. Realizing subtlety is not their strongest point, Felix and Simon stuff this album like a Thanksgiving turkey, all the while never losing touch with the human voices (including Dizzee Rascal and JC Chasez) powering the songs. Overwhelmingly great.
16. Hot Hot Heat - Make Up the Breakdown
Oh Canada! How I love you for some of the great albums you have produced for us this year. Victoriaís Hot Hot Heat is just another band that made the grade this year with this energetic, post-punk album that sounds like the old Cure. Except the old Cure never rocked out this hard.
15. Radiohead - Hail to the Thief
It is now official: Radioheadís prime was the mid-to-late Nineties. After three undisputed masterpieces with the Bends, OK Computer (in hindsight replacing Nevermind as the 90s best) and Kid A, they have found a comfortable ground, in between old and new. The music is still very good, and the lyrics are for the most part still concerned with technology and the world outside. But really, how many time-stopping masterpieces can one band create?
14. The Stills - Logic Will Break Your Heart
Of all the albums that deal with the 9/11 event, this one by Montreal's finest band is possibly the best one. Though people might be quick to dismiss them as another "The ____s" band, they go much deeper than the Strokes or Hives ever would: these songs are about heartbreak, redemption and a sense of yearning, with a strong lyric sheet and music that is a throwback to 1979-era Joy Division, with more cheery choruses. Very promising debut album.
13. Jay-Z - The Black Album
A rather bland and unfortunate title for such a brilliant final salvo. After ruling the rap landscape for possibly the longest time, Shawn Carter finally decided to step aside (but for how long??) with his third masterpiece, saving some brilliant rhymes and a solid beat selection from the finest hitmakers for last. The best since Biggie? He just may be. His comeback from retirement? I estimate in three years. There's no way a final album can be so good as to leave for good.
12. Blur - Think Tank
Embroiled in a constant war with Oasis during the Britpop era (and constantly losing), Blur emerged as the true winners over the following years. While Oasis imploded in their grandiosity and cocaine use, Blur started branching out with more fulfilling efforts. Now, with guitarist Graham Coxonís departure, Damon Albarn picked up on Moroccan influences from Gorillaz and wrote Blurís best album to date, an understated and rich album that gets better with every listen. Weíre still waiting, Noel.
11. The Unicorns - Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?
A sublime indie rock future masterpiece written by French Canadian nerds. Score another point for Canada, as these quirky intellectuals sing songs about death, unicorns and ghosts, all wrapped in shiny, non-linear pop arrangements that stick to you more intensely than industrial-strength glue. If you've slept on this album, shame on you: go and get it right now.
10. The New Pornographers - Electric Version
2003 will be remembered for some as the year Canada spawned some brilliant music: Broken Social Scene, Constantines, Hot Hot Heat, and this dandy from the Vancouver super-group. If you loved their debut Mass Romantic, you will doubly admire Electric Version. Taking the best elements of the Kinks, the Cars, Cheap Trick and the Beatles, this album is a modern pop masterpiece and a thoroughly enjoyable listen. People may have made more forward-thinking and further-reaching albums this year, but none of them made it sound so good.
9. Damien Rice - O
Stunning the music industry, Irish troubadour Riceís tender folk album picked up the coveted Shortlist Prize over last yearís heavyweights Interpol and The Streets. On second inspection, itís perhaps not so surprising: his songs are wonderful, and the touches of orchestral work add a welcome dimension to this promising debut. We will have to see if Rice can top this well-produced and emotional collection.
8. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow
After their stunning pop genius debut in 2001, the Albuquerque band returned this year with this meticulously produced gem that collected brilliant musical arrangements and witty lyrics in an indie-pop mix that is simply irresistible. Only 29 minutes long, but what a great 29 minutes they are.
7. The Rapture - Echoes
The most fully realized dancepunk album of the year. Donít let this throw you off: in a year when the major news stories were economic misery, pedophilia, and a pointless war overseas, it was the most innovative and fun rock album, and one that has the potential to stand as the genesis of the decadeís musical tidal wave. Is this the music weíll be hailing in 2009? You can count on it.
6. Junior Senior - D-D-Don't Don't Stop the Beat
Sure, they come off like a novelty band, but in terms of genuinely likeable pop songs, Junior Senior hit the mark with a jackhammer. Half-gay, half-straight Danish pop duo whose album sounds like a lost gem from the poppiest, sleaziest roller-skating rink in the decadent 1970s. Trust me, the stupid grin it puts on your face upon hearing it is priceless. The only album whose title you will be screaming during the album's rotation.
5. The White Stripes - Elephant
It was Rolling Stone magazineís jumping-the-gun 5 star review that immediately made this album an initial disappointment. Expectations were unfairly high on Jack and Meg White to make the album that defines this decade and its generation, and they can be forgiven if Elephant isnít quite the masterpiece they expected. A very solid, rocking album made on a skeleton budget, but itís no Nevermind.
4. Broken Social Scene - You Forgot it in People
After singing the praises of Canada for a while, this album is the cherry on the cake, a superbly produced masterpiece that is the cafeteria version of Ziggy Stardust for those with ADD. Can't concentrate on this Air-like intro? Skip to the Trail of Dead-like rocker on the next track. Don't like the brilliant bassline on "Stars and Stripes"? Go to the swirling atmosphere of "Lover's Spit". The brilliance within could only come as a result of many members of wildly experimental bands coming together to form a supergroup and write the perfect pop song. Mission accomplished, several times over. Special mention goes to the immaculate production that does justice to all 15 of the members.
3. Dizzee Rascal - Boy in Da Corner
Hailed as the future of British rap, this 18 year old poet from South London raps in a twisted, scary voice much older than his years over the most abrasive musical landscape created on the earth. Not quite rap, not quite garage, not quite drum-n-bass, this album sounds like an import from another planet. What is scarier than the sounds and Dizzee's manic rapping style (check out "Jus a Rascal" where he raps so hard and mad that he speaks in tongues) is just how high he could go.
2. Notwist - Neon Golden
Alright, it was made over two years ago and was technically released last year. Sue me: it was released in late-April here, and thus is on my list. I had waited ages for this albumís release, and I was most satisfied with the product. Your search for that rare album that merges experimentation and pop sensibilities has ended. Submerge yourself in this albumís warm golden light.
1. Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
The most obvious choice of album of the year, and one of the most creative albums of the new decade. Riding high in a banner year that saw deafining critical acclaim and commercial success, many people forgot OutKast had done the mixing of their two disparate personalities together before, and on a single disc (Aquemini) to boot. Nevertheless, the Lennon and McCartney of rap music shows off why they are so acclaimed: a huge, 2 hours plus double disc of the most innovative, challenging and risk-taking music out today. While Big Boi sticks on the path Outkast blazed on Stankonia (and promply loses track in the middle thanks to horrible skits and weak songs), Andre 3000 takes off into outer space altogether on his sex-drenched lost Prince album. Love them or hate them, there was no way you could ignore them. Not this year. Brilliant.

Best Impulse Buys
1. My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
Itís hard to believe that I have not had this album before. I still remember that August day when I was at the CD store and all of a sudden, I see this album, its pink cover beckoning me to it. I still donít remember if Iíve seen it before at other CD stores, but needless to say, after a minuteís thinking, I immediately bought it and I still havenít regretted it. Iíve seen it for cheaper since, but Iíll never regret the price I paid for it. Genius defined.
2. Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures/Closer
It has been too long, and after being a huge fan of Interpolís album last year, I decided to check out the originators. What wonderful albums, two ridiculously brilliant, flawless albums that speak of an untainted career both as Joy Division and as New Order after Ian Curtisí suicide.
3. Love - Forever Changes
One of the 60s most over-looked masterpieces, Loveís 1967 album is a crystalline snapshot of that defining year, showcasing all that was not well with the world: bad trips, international paranoia and Arthur Leeís persistent visions of an early death. Pretty heady stuff, but itís set to some wonderful orchestral folk and psychedelic arrangements to create a truly unique album that is all but lost.

Best Re-issue
Led Zeppelin - How the West Was Won
After years of their hype and worth being dissected and analyzed endlessly, this two-night stand in California in 1972 spread over three discs will shut you right up. Their curiously sparse live collection has been salvaged with this monstrous demonstration of their sheer brute force: furiously focused, but not enough to give up an opportunity to turn ďWhole Lotta LoveĒ into a 23-minute jam. Essential.

Honorable Mentions

The Coral - Magic and Medicine
After making one of the best debut albums of last year (and which was released this year), the Coral continue their fast pace of recording with this second helping of a 60s psychedelic aural buffet where anything goes and always tastes good. Expect to see it in 2004.

Massive Attack - 100th Window
Bristol's genius trip-hop residents return with this solid, if unremarkable follow-up to 1998's very much remarkable Mezzanine. Too bland and undynamic to make a huge impact, but a relaxing CD nonetheless.

Constantines - Shine a Light
Another Canadian album that was superb, these post-punk rockers aren't content to fit into that narrow genre and bring welcome experimentation to their sound to create a full-formed album that will be discovered in future years.

Musiq - Soulstar
Philly's soul star (get it?) returns with another solid soul album that sounds great as background for a romantic dinner. Smooth.

Mu - Afro Finger & Gel
I put this up here to show my trust in Pitchfork, which has rarely let me down with wild choices in music. Should I purchase this album in 2004, I will add a review for it. As far as I can say now, I highly anticipate hearing it.

Tiesto - Nyana
Widely considered the world's premier DJ, this two-disc compilation is divided into the daytime and nighttime activities, and fits well for either. A solid two-and-a-half hour trance mix you can dance endlessly to.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever To Tell
Perhaps when I buy this album, I can fully appreciate its power. The bits I've heard aren't highly impressive and the top 10 placing of this album on many lists intrigues me. One day I will understand the mystery, but it is not this day.

Muse - Absolution
Downloading unavailable albums has its perks: you get to hear brilliant music like this. Arguably the best British album not released in North America, this album looks to have a big impact on next year's list when released here. Get it if you can.

Soundtrack - The Return of the King
If movies are as good as their music, The Lord of the Rings has been a sheer masterpiece through and through. Howard Shore's cinematically perfect score ends on a triumphant note with this deep, moving and masterful musical adaptation of Peter Jackson's masterwork. An Oscar-worthy score if ever there was such a thing.

Beyonce - Dangerously in Love
Not as great as its lead-off single would have you believe, Beyonce's solo debut was weighed down by too many ballads to live up to the hype. Nevertheless, in terms of sounds that were up to date with today's trends, this album almost effortlessly captures them.

Johnny Cash -
A generous box set which chronicles Cash's resurgence in the 1990s thanks to the American Records recordings done with hip-hop pioneer Rick Rubin. While most box sets seem satisfied with re-releasing old songs, this five-disc collection is jam-packed with unreleased goodies, almost all of them very good. Old church hymns, unreleased gems, a highly informative booklet featuring insight into every song in the box: this is a definitive Cash collection and a fitting epitaph to the legend we lost this year.

That's all she wrote, folks. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed most of my choices. As always, please let me know if you disagree (or perhaps even agree) with what I've written. Keep on buying those CDs, and we'll see you all in 2005. Peace out!