Another late December, another List of Big Faves. The ten pop discs below represent 2003’s pop-rock cream according to the admitted tilted tastes of this writer: just one more middle-aged white guy about twenty years behind on rhythm-&-blues and largely disinterested in what passes for weighty (lyrically or musically) rock these days. In brief, these are the new CDs I’ve played most over the year – and can see myself playing in the years ahead. So, hey ho, let’s go:
- The Bangles, Doll Revolution (Koch): Forget Fleetwood Mac’s middling reunion disc (Lindsey is the mad pop genius, but absent Christine is the soul of the band!) – this is the comeback that’s been getting all the replay in our house. Rueful, pop-rock with hooks a-plenty and lyrics which speak of experience that few of us expected ’em to stick around long enough to share. A small gem.
- Dandy Warhols, Welcome to the Monkey House (Capitol): This ‘un kicked in quickly for me – midway into the first chorus of “We Used to Be Friends.” In a lotta ways it’s the roving pop-rock album the revamped Blur wishes it’d made: catchy and dancefloor-friendly, simultaneously glam (love the Flo & Eddie voices in the back of “Rock Bottom”) and post-new wavey. Plus: with “Scientist,” Courtney Taylor-Taylor got one more song out of Bowie than Bowie got out of Bowie this year. . .
- Dressy Bessy (Kindercore): “Just Once More” is the kick-ass opener, but I suspect if Tammy Ealon and the boys’d decided to lead with something else (“Better Luck,” say) than that would’ve been the kick-ass opener. Proof that pop-punk is not just for adenoidal losers and Avril wannabes.
- Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (Virgin): I’ve raved about this Jersey pop classic too many times in the past year to have this ‘un be a surprise to them-what-knows-me. Yeah, I know “Stacy’s Mom” has been over-hyped by pop-nerds, but can you blame us? When not tracking the semi-thought processes of horny young teens, Adam Schlesinger & Chris Collinswood show witty and winning empathy for self-destructive desk jockeys and kids who wind up working for their jobs. You could almost call it a middle class answer to Bruce Springsteen – with glistening hooks and sighs in place of bellowing Steinbeckian romanticism – but the comparison wouldn’t take ya far.
- Grandaddy, Sumday (V2): Caught by the hippie tunefulness of this songs-over-studio group, I went back to their earlier releases. Found a lot of stretchy stuff and more lyrics depicting Neil Youngish singer Jason Lytle’s love/hate relationship with technology – but nuthin’ as well-delivered as “The Group Who Couldn’t Say.” So this is the disc to begin with. . .
- The Libertines, Up the Bracket (Rough Trade): What a mess, baby, what a mess. Fly-apart rock ‘n’ roll can be a deal breaker for some folks (earlier exemplars of the form: Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, the Slits and Trout Mask Replica), and I can understand that response. But when I wanted to hear the sound of breaking glass, this is the release I went to this year. Greatest moment: “I Get Along,” which was also sent out into the world as a get-acquainted EP/single.
- New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador): Like most fans captivated by debut release Mass Romantic, I wish this had more of alt-country chanteuse Neko Case. But, that aside, Version holds up the art-pop promise of this studio group’s debut (no sophomore slump here). Main vocalist Carl Newman may be the most opaque lyricist since Van Dyke Parks, but he and the other Pornographers produce addictive old/new rock jangle (cool cheesy keyboards, too). The laws may’ve changed, but great pop sounds remain eternal. . .
- Liz Phair (Capitol): Love the pure/impure pop songs (Phair’s the poet laureate of the zipless fuck) and the smaller honest tracks, too. Who’d have known the promise of Exile in Guyville would’ve been fulfilled in the hands of studio hacks like the Matrix? Just one of the great mysteries of the Pop Universe.
- The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop): Another band whose first release flew under my sporadically functional radar. Lead Shin James Mercer’s primary voice is as the tunefully messed-up young romantic. You need at least one of these in any good pop list (last year’s was Rhett Miller), and it’s a treat to hear one just as comfortable referencing Scott MacKenzie as he is Nick Drake. Helps that Mercer’s a wicked tunesmith, of course.
- Warren Zevon, The Wind (Artemis): A sentimental pick – and why the hell not? Unlike Johnny Cash (whose Elder Folkman records I respect without completely enjoying), Zevon kept his unflinching hardnosed lyricism wedded to the sound that brought him into the recording world. Track for track this may not hold up against the truly great Zevon albums (Excitable Boy, Sentimental Hygiene), but I sure as heck played it a lot this year. And know that it’ll go into rotation with the other A-grade Zevons whenever I’m in need of his elegantly sardonic humanism.
And, because I couldn’t not mention it, A Beyond The Realm of Top Ten Lists Addendum:
- The Cramps, Fiends of Dope Island (Vengeance): Sounds like every other album these psychobilly garage-istes have ever released: exploitation pic lyrics and low-life fantasies, Lux Interior’s barely on-key ranting and Poison Ivy’s divinely trashy guitarwork. Only thing missing is an inspired cover like “Goo Goo Muck” or “Hardworkin’ Man,” though the Count Five and Link Wray swipes are still there for rock archeologists, of course. Me, I’m just glad to see this crew holding onto its single-mindedly sleazy sound. As long as the Cramps get allowed to release another batch of ee-vil psychotronic riffery every few years, the world of rock ‘n’ roll will remain safe for armchair degenerates like yours truly. . .
There you have it: one of the few Top Ten Pop-Rock Lists this year that doesn’t include Elephant.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Marshal Crenshaw, What’s in the Bag? (almost as redundant as the Raveonettes – but way more human); The Go-Betweens, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange (second best folk-rock album of the year); Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (personally wish it was more pissed off, but mebbe this is as far as these choirboy depressives can go); Rooney (the Spirit of Pezband lives!); Travis, 13 Memories (political peevishness doesn’t excuse dopey lyrics – but it can prod you out of excess solipsism) and, yes, White Stripes, Elephant (Jack White’s a screechy dork, but he can sure do the sputtery blues-rock thing – wish all the tracks were as full as “Seven Nation Army,” tho ).