In January it seemed likely that 2003 would, like every year does in January, be a terrible year for music. Summing up a year’s worth by its musical contributions is common enough—enough to make certain years synonymous with the music produced during the time. Years start out meaning nothing, with no events yet attached to them, and no music. Only in looking back do we see the value, musical and otherwise, that the year gave us. These are the 10 albums that were the very best from 2003.
And, as it also seems every December, it proved to be a wonderful year for music.
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10. Colder, Again
A pastiche of Factory Records influences, with an updated flair. This is as good as the Post Punk retro movement is going to get, and so probably even signals the end of the rehashing of the era. Despite the Movement-era impression, and because of it, this album’s significance is both that it’s so good, and that it’s the final nail in the coffin of 1981.
9. Stars, Heart
Moody, catchy, and the best music to ride subways to, Heart came seemingly out of nowhere to rekindle a long-hibernating love of sweet, precious ditties with ‘What the Snowman Learned About Love’ and ‘Elevator Love Letter.’ Makes unbearable situations a little better.
8. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow
The Shins follow up Oh, Inverted World, upping an ante that was already pretty untouchable, and do so almost entirely on the strength of the finest song they’ve recorded to date, ‘Saint Simon.’ Though the album draws from the same general well of inspiration, it shows the band adding a more loving application of arrangement and complexity.
7. Sterling, Sterling
Instrumental-rock majesty, through and through, and the finest, most welcome of that ilk for a long, long time, Sterling’s debut is nothing short of a powerful journey of the senses. The woven piano-guitar riffs and sharply accented rhythms leave the listener in sheer awe, song after song. This album is a defining moment for something far greater; it may just take some time to determine exactly what.
6. The Thermals, More Parts Per Million
Reportedly recorded for a mere $60, More Parts Per Million is a stripped-down, straightforward rock album with production values that reside in some uninhabitable area below lo-fi. The offhanded lyrical genius, the band’s ability to tear through the material with bravado and unabashed feeling, and the hook-laden melodies make us say we’re kind of in love with this budget-minded trio.
5. TV on the Radio, Young Liars EP
The first offering from the Brooklyn band makes an indelible impact: powerful, beautiful, and soaring beyond belief. Music like this doesn’t come around very often, and when it does you have to cherish what little of it you’re allowed. What makes it succeed is the focus—simple, spare music that lets the grand vocal work shine. In this case, five songs (including a memorably jazzy cover of the Pixies’ ‘Mr. Grives’). But what a stunning debut that handful makes.
4. Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Though the massive public favor is behind Andre3000’s half of the affair, The Love Below, as being the more impressive of the double offer here, it’s really in tandem that the full breadth of the release has to be enjoyed. Yes, the brilliance of Andre’s ‘Pink & Blue,’ ‘Spread,’ and of course ‘Hey Ya!’ is undeniable; but you’re really only cheating yourself out of the perfection that is ‘GhettoMusick,’ ‘Unhappy,’ and ‘Flip Flop Rock.’ This album is the change we’ve all been waiting for in Top 40 music, and what you’re flipping the dial looking for whenever you’re stuck in a car that doesn’t have a CD player.
3. The Decemberists, Her Majesty The Decemberists
Strange men in fur coats and opium dens; toasty fires and annotated versions of your favorite books. And now: the Decemberists, whose music evokes all the eccentric things you’ve loved as long as you can remember. With as much catharsis as they ever want to muster, as shown in such anthems as ‘The Gymnast, High Above the Ground’ and ‘I Was Meant for the Stage,’ their songs are at once involved and lovely. Life-affirming, this is.
2. Calla, Televise
The most persuasively moody album released this year, winning you over with its total, bare earnestness. Indeed, such songs as ‘Strangler’ and ‘Don’t Hold Your Breath’ swell at the seams with strength and intensity. With its wasted, weary atmosphere, it’s almost hard to believe how riveting the whole thing is. And they make it all sound so effortless, like they’ve been waiting for us to finally catch up to them.
Album of the Year: British Sea Power, The Decline of British Sea Power
With a stage presence that regularly includes World War I-era clothing, a parliament of plastic owls, and foliage strewn about and pinned to the band, British Sea Power could easily be relegated to a kitsch act. And then it all turned out so unexpectedly different…
Wild abandon tempered with dead-honest emotion was, as it turns out, at the heart of it all. And then their look became so believable, so right – because the music was so extraordinary and uncompromising that we were all made certain they really didn’t much care what we thought in the first place, costumes or not.
And in all of this wonderful, wonderful music there’s so much to chew on: in their unorthodox, yet overtly listenable approach to songwriting; in their unique use of a hundred different influences from Echo & the Bunnymen to Sonic Youth to Verve to Joy Division; in their remarkably controlled chaos; in their way of sounding more fresh and incredibly new than anything else at this very moment. Yes, this is that important, yes, this is that totally meaningful, yes, this is everything you want to and need to hear right now, yes, this is really it.