Having sort of set myself up as an occasional critic, I kind of feel compelled to try to say something to sum up various pop-culture elements of 2003. This is something of a foolish task, given that my actual experience of these things is awfully idiosyncratic. I just don't listen to enough music, see enough movies, or read enough books to really be able to say anything about what the absolute best of 2003 in any category was.
I can, however, cherry-pick a few good albums off everybody else's lists and comment on them. This is a selection of records that turn up on "Best of 2003" lists that I've actually listened to enough to have an opinion about, in no particular order. All opinions are mine, but if you were smart, you'd share them.
- The Wind by Warren Zevon. Hands down, Best Album by a Dying Man. Of 2003, certainly, possibly ever. Spare, haunting, self-aware, funny-- everything you'd want from a Zevon record, let alone the last one ever.
- The Old Kit Bag, by Richard Thompson. We might as well get all the really cheery albums out of the way up front. This is about as upbeat as you'd expect from a record whose opening track it titled "Gethsemane". Still, this is an excellent album. "She Said It Was Destiny" is a really catchy song, and "Outside of the Inside" is one of the best "inside the mind of an extremist" songs ever.
- Welcome Interstate Managers by Fountains of Wayne. As I said back in June, this isn't quite as good as Utopia Parkway, but it's certainly good enough to be one of my favorite records of the year.
- Electric Version by New Pornogaphers. Like Welcome Interstate Managers, an album of slightly bent pop songs, though these guys have a bigger sound than Fountains of Wayne. I haven't listened to it quite enough to really resolve individual songs, but it's very good.
- Mary Star of the Sea by Zwan. Billy Corgan, never a man of small ego, got the idea that he was a musical genius, and people would be ecstatic to listen to any damn fool thing he felt like recording. The result was a couple of late Smashing Pumpkins albums that really sucked. With his new band, he seems to have realized that what people were really after was the soaring and crashing guitar sound of their earlier records, and he delivers that here. Time will tell if he's actually learned his lesson or not.
- Elephant by the White Stripes. While I'm praising with faint damns, and having said mean things about their last record, I feel obliged to note that this record doesn't contain any songs that are throw-it-across-the-room awful, while "Seven Nation Army" is brilliant. I'm still not sold on Jack White as a musical genius, but this is at least a good album.
- Room On Fire by the Strokes. I only picked this up yesterday, so I'll withhold detailed comments, save to note that if you're going to be anointed the Saviors of Rock, you really ought to act like you give a damn about what you're doing.
- Hail to the Thief by Radiohead. Another album that I can't get a good handle on. I've liked the "singles" I've heard off it (which is why I bought it), but the few times I've tried listening to the whole record, it's just noise. I really can't figure these guys out.
- Reconstruction Site by the Weakerthans. OK, this wasn't on anybody else's best of, but if you put a gun to my head, and asked me to name a single favorite album from 2003, this would be it. There wasn't another record this year that got welded into the CD player the way this one did (well, OK, Too Far to Care by the Old 97's, but it's not a 2003 record). Yeah, it's ostentatiously arty in places. Yeah, the singer's voice is kind of nasal. And yeah, the lyrics are really weird. But I love it. Record of the year.
That's only nine albums, instead of the ten that tradition demands, but I have trouble coming up with another one that would be in contention. The Fire Theft's self-titled record made one list, and it's good, but not quite "Year's Best" material, and the other records that have gotten heavy play in Chateau Steelypips this year either don't quite rise to the necessary level (Ryan Adams's Rock 'n' Roll, John Hiatt's Beneath This Gruff Exterior), or weren't released in 2003 (Too Far to Care, Trouble Bound by the Blasters). So we'll leave it at nine, which also gets me a cute post title...