'03, Oh My!

Our critics weigh in on a questionable yearís best music

3. Rodney Crowell, Fate's Right Hand: Crowell isn't the first country artist to register Dylan's influence; he's just the most convincing. Even if the title track didn't spew a lyrical chain of subterranean homesick blues, the band, which slices and riddles Crowell's wine-and-vinegar voice, would clarify what's at stake: reading fate's palm and not flinching.

4. Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears: The title suggests self-importance, and Williams indeed goes there on the awkward statement song "American Dream." The rest of the album, sung with nerve, sex and vivid dreaming, is a feverish purging of more than tears. "Take the glory any day over the fame," Williams moans on opener "Fruits of My Labor." She got both.

5. June Carter Cash, Wildwood Flower: This year June left, then Johnny, but it's her final record that expresses what their absence and, at the same time, their presence feels like. Produced by her son John Carter and featuring her husband, daughter Carlene and ex-son-in-law Marty Stuart, as well as cousins, grandchildren and Norman and Nancy Blake, the album is not an old-time downer. June's voice, as eroded and deep as a canyon, echoes with life.

Dean Ween
Dean Ween
My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket

6. Jay Farrar, Terroir Blues: The slide guitars are voices, the voice is a slide, the words are gestures: "May days of mercy," "target practice at the heart," "storied ghosts." Sure, someone should have talked Farrar out of including four alternate takes (that's what Web sites are for), but listen to the piano, the pedal steel and Farrar's singing on "Dent County," a song for his father. He has never sounded this close to the truth.

7. Ray Wylie Hubbard, Growl: The blues were pronounced dead decades ago, but Hubbard hasn't been reading the papers. He's been too busy making up for lost time, digging deep for the mojo, shredding the Texas singer-songwriter rules, letting guitarists Gurf Morlix and Buddy Miller prove just why God (or was it Lucifer?) gave us electricity. To rock, of course.

8. Tim Easton, Break Your Mother's Heart: This Ohio kid has always been too obscure, too unassuming, too self-reliant to get the "New Dylan" curse, though few of his generation have taken up Dylan's challenge like Easton: "You can learn to make something real that comes from the heel of your life." Exactly.

9. Townes Van Zandt, In the Beginning...: There's a photo in the booklet to these ten early songs, all of which were thought lost, that shows a twentysomething Townes cradling a guitar, looking away from the microphones and toward a future. He seems about to wink in that direction. "Do you think you know my name?" he growls in one of the many weird, electrified blues songs here. No, we don't, but the luminous romance of these love songs and highway reveries sketch the contours of the legend.

10. The Bottle Rockets, Blue Sky: Relaxed and confident, but still willing to snarl and kick when rock comes to shove, the band's sixth album (let's just forget Leftovers) is sometimes sly, sometimes poppy, and mostly tough and smart while steering clear of pretension and driving straight to the heart of a few good songs. The Bottle Rockets make it sound easy; it isn't.

Top Ten Drug Substitutes

If you have to be high to enjoy an album, that album sucks. Witness the witless crap that satisfies most neo-hippies. The best psychedelic records do more than use wanky solos to amaze stupefied stoners (about as hard as mystifying a dog with a card trick). The best drug-inspired music clouds the minds of sober people: These artists take drugs so you don't have to.

1. Ween, Quebec: "It's a bong record," Dean Ween told the RFT before the release of his and Gene's eighth LP, Quebec, and he wasn't kidding. Parts of Quebec are as sodden with hemp as a bongwater-soaked ferret. But beyond the Pink Floyd-style dirges and cosmic weirdness that is one of Ween's trademarks lies the brothers' true gift: inspired songwriting. The folk-rock of "Chocolate Town" and "Tried and True" reveals Ween's pop chops, and the barn-burner "Transdermal Celebration" shows that the band can compete with Queens of the Stone Age as the kings of stoner rock. The album is Dean and Gene's first minor-label album after ten years on Elektra, and it's gratifying to see them still growing.

2. Various Artists, Uncut 06/2003: Acid Daze: Britain's Uncut magazine always includes a mixed CD with each issue, and the June issue had a dilly: eighteen psychedelic tracks from the genre's late-'60s heyday. From the gentle bizarreness of Kevin Ayer's "Clarence in Wonderland" to the epic musings of Donovan's "Atlantis," Uncut created a trippy time capsule with this disc.

3. Andre 3000, The Love Below: It's anyone's guess what chemicals are flowing through Andre's brain these days: One half of a double-disc set from OutKast, The Love Below suggests drug consumption both varied and prolific, although rumor has it that Andre was stone sober, even when creating the drum & bass cover "A Few of My Favorite Things" that stands as Love's strangest moment. But song of the year "Hey Ya" is music-as-drug at its best: an endorphin-pumping track that will plaster a smile on your face.

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