'03, Oh My!

Our critics weigh in on a questionable yearís best music

4. Sweet Trip, Velocity: Design: Comfort: The dream-pop collective Sweet Trip threatened to disappear after its audaciously formless 2000 single "Fish" failed to make the waves it deserved. Fortunately, the group didn't quit and chose instead to hone its chops (do ambient bands have chops?) and wait until 2003 to release its great record. While still clinging to the electronic rhythms and effects of its earlier work, Sweet Trip is more shoegazey and poppy than ever on this release. This collective actually earns the comparison to My Bloody Valentine that far too many bands garner.

5. Various Artists, Party Monster: A great soundtrack to a shitty movie, Party Monster uses modern electro masters like Felix da Housecat to cram all the decadent, coke-fueled hubris of the club scene onto one disc. The insistent beats and tingling keyboard lines run their fingers up your spine as well as any stimulant, and the chants of "Being famous is so nice" and "Money, success, fame, glamour" can intoxicate you with one listen. And you'll still have a complete, unbloodied septum in the morning!

6. Longwave, The Strangest Things: It was a slow year for genius producer Dave Fridmann, who didn't do any major albums with the psychedelic pop artists who are his bread and butter: the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, the Delgados and Elf Power all sat this year out, leaving Dave to twiddle knobs for lesser beings. Not too much lesser, though; the Strokes-on-acid sounds of Longwave prove a good fit for Fridmann. He has a way of centering the beat in the middle of your head, bringing it to the front without overshadowing the melody. It's a clean, overwhelming sound, a stereo wall of sound, and it lends heft to the most atmospheric of Longwave's tunes.

Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow
Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow
Magnus Unnar

7. Morphine, The Best of Morphine: 1992-1995: This disc isn't the best Best-of-Morphine disc that will ever be released; one day licensing issues will be cleared up and a disc that spans from '92 to '99, the year of lead singer Mark Sandman's death, will come out. But this will do: seventeen smoky, lubricated tracks from the greatest dive bar band in the world. It's always three a.m. in Sandman's world; you can tell the time by his smooth but weathered voice. The best end-of-the-party music since Leonard Cohen.

8. The Decemberists, Her Majesty: "What did he say?" "What's going on?" "Who is this guy?" These are questions often asked by both those in the midst of drug frenzy and those listening to the Decemberists. Apparently eager to seize the crown of "Most Non Sequitur Song Lines" now that Neutral Milk Hotel has hung it up, singer Colin Meloy sings songs about being someone, anyone else. It's a foggy mishmash of folk and odd pop, a mélange of historical fiction and ballads. It's a great album.

9. Timbaland & Magoo, Under Construction Pt. II: The reason to listen to Timbaland's solo work isn't for lyrics: Timba gets by on attitude alone, and as the poor man's Snoop Dogg, Magoo's lyrics are just on the bizarre side of wack. But, as has been noted before, Timbaland's beats seem to feed off idiotic verses, and Timba's solo work stands as a chance to see what goes on in his head. It may not have any of the heroin-catchy hooks of the stuff he dreams up for Missy, but Pt. II is the real deal: the sparse beats and echoes of an artist stuck in a bling-bling world.

10. The Stratford 4, Love & Distortion: A ten-minute song with clever wordplay, a storyline and waves of guitars, "Telephone," the centerpiece of Love & Distortion, looks on paper to be a remnant of '70s prog. But the Stratford 4 pull their influences from the late '80s and early '90s, making the song a gauze-draped wall of sound. It's a killer track, one that pushes the otherwise only "pretty good" album into the stratosphere.

Top Ten Bests of Indie Rock

I could have bored you with a scraggly list of the best independent rock records from 2003, but I respect you too much. Instead, here are the ten best happenings from in and around the indie rock scene. Incomplete? Maybe. Boring? Never!

1. Best Album
The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow: Sophomore slump be damned! The Shins' second record is able to fulfill all the promises made on 2001's pristine Oh, Inverted World without rehashing too much old ground. James Mercer's oft-loopy lyrics have never been more pointed as on the opener "Kissing the Lipless," and from there, Chutes Too Narrow doesn't let up. The sound is at once sharper, softer, more delicate and more brutal, all within an action-packed 33 minutes.

2. Best Single
The New Pornographers, "All for Swinging You Around": Even for a band that seems to write every song as if it were destined to be a hit single, this was the best cut from this year's Electric Version. "All for Swinging You Around" perfects the formula: buzzing synth leads, chug-a-lug guitar chords and Neko Case's tempest-tossed vocals steering the ship into port. When these Canadians sing that they "can't tell if this is fantasy or culture shock," we can't either: Such pop prowess may turn the New Pornographers into Ministers of Canuck Culture.

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