'03, Oh My!

Our critics weigh in on a questionable yearís best music

3. Best New Artist
Head of Femur: Not that I want the Riverfront Times to become Campaign Headquarters for Head of Femur '04, but this Chicago-based octet deserves every column inch they get. Their meld of well-made pop and fusion freak-outs is adequately captured on their debut, Ringodom or Proctor, but it was the pair of shows at the Way Out Club this fall that put Head of Femur at the front of the pack.

4. Best Concert
Yo La Tengo, September 26 at the Pageant: This year's Summer Sun may have been a slow burner, but there was nothing but flares of brilliance from Georgia, Ira and James when Yo La Tengo returned to town this fall. The concert gave context to the more understated new songs and proved that the days of guitar-swinging histrionics are not over. If this is Yo La Tengo for the next millennium, let the golden age begin.

5. Best Indie Rock Club
The Gargoyle: Indie rock is often synonymous with college rock, so it's fitting that Washington University's Gargoyle is the best place in St. Louis to see quality new music. Solid performances from the Anniversary, Grand Champeen, the Raveonettes, the Sea and Cake, the Walkmen and Broken Social Scene turned the tiny basement space into a temporary haven of cool. Plus, it's a great place to pick up some well-heeled coeds.

Joe Rocco
Gillian Welch
Gillian Welch

6. Best Indie Rock Resource
Pitchforkmedia.com: Snotty, sarcastic and usually spot-on, Pitchforkmedia.com is essential for keeping up with the minutiae of independent music, and the on-line 'zine covers all the bases. The newswire is updated daily, album release dates are kept (mostly) up to date, and each weekday brings an impressive five album reviews, all given a super-scientific 0.0 to 10.0 rating. Unlike most online publications (and several "real" magazines), the writing on Pitchfork is sharp, creative and well supported.

7. Best Label
Undertow Records: To be fair, there is a bit of civic pride in this choice. After starting in St. Louis, then moving to Chicago and, as of last month, moving back to St. Louis, Undertow has been releasing some of the finest music made in the Midwest for six years now. 2003 saw the release of Welcome, Convalescence by Centro-Matic offshoot South San Gabriel and a beautiful (albeit Web-only) album of duets by Dolly Varden's Stephen Dawson and Diane Christiansen, plus some gems from newcomers Magnolia Summer, Glossary, The Redwalls and American Minor. Welcome home, Undertow.

8. Best Move to the Majors
My Morning Jacket: These Kentucky headhunters have been mixing southern rock and shoegaze for a few years, but this year's It Still Moves is a great synthesis of styles and proves that moving to a major record label (in this case the RCA subsidiary ATO Records) doesn't always mean selling out.

9. Best Gimmick
One-man bands: If two-piece bands were all the rage in 2002, then it only makes sense that one-man bands were de rigueur this year. Both the organ-pounding Quintron and jumpsuited guitarist Bob Log III had good showings in 2003, but it was the Lonesome Organist who won the most hearts. His ability to play drums, harmonica, organ and melodica simultaneously is quite impressive, but it's the childlike glee with which he does it all that steals the show.

10. Best Reason to Weep
Elliott Smith, 1969-2003: Argue all you want, but there hasn't been a more talented singer-songwriter in the past ten years. It's just a shame it had to end this way.

Best Music for the Winter of Our Discothèque

It has been a long year, full of hardship and woe and death. Same as every other year, but this span of misery was somehow different. Johnny Cash is gone; Justin Timberlake still lives. The RIAA began to devour its audience, Clay Aiken's album debuted at Number One, and René Spencer Saller left the Riverfront Times. In this flickering season of twilight, 2003 stumbles and collapses towards its End, trailing the acrid perfume of decay. Now the trees are denuded, the Western Hemisphere grows ever colder and more silent, and the days are shorter. Night looms upon the horizon, crows circle the woods with terrible purpose and there are strange rumblings beneath the hard, black soil. Head to ground; secure your doors; it's going to get worse before it gets better.

1. Hidden Hand, Divine Propaganda: Doom-legend Wino (formerly of the Obsessed, Saint Vitus and Spirit Caravan) turns his massive guitar loose on conspiracy theories and government cover-ups, crafting an intelligent album that rocks with wicked metal purpose and East Coast hardcore conviction. Wino's best album since Jug Fulla Sun.

2. Ephel Duath, The Painter's Palette: Italian black metal band (black like Mayhem, not Black like Living Colour) decide they're Mr. Bungle as filtered through either Yes or Sigh (even they are not sure which). Dizzying time changes, maniacal blast-beats, dual vocalists (a death-metal growler and a "skimming vocalist" who can actually sing) and the piercing shriek of a trumpet make for an invigorating, challenging cacophony.

3. Khanate, Things Viral: Dirge-metal supergroup contracts the universe through sheer force of will. Four tracks plod and scrape and trudge and stagger toward oblivion across sere plains of mesmerizing D-O-O-M. Alan Dubin's vocals peel the flesh from your back in long wet strips, while James Plotkin's bass is a teetering pillar of basalt that falls with agonizing slowness. Eight beats per hour is four too many, apparently.

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