The Onion AV Club put out a strong Best Albums of 2003 list, with 6 different music writers contributing their own lists, as well as commentary, lists of best songs/singles etc. Though predictably it went a little too much into hipper-than-thou territory (the Rapture et al) there was a lot I liked about it. I especially liked the multiple mentions of the Fire, by Electric Six. I'd thought I was the only one who liked this or that it was only acceptable to see it as a guilty pleasure or something. Now, I have genuine rock critics backing me up, so there! If you haven't heard the album, it's a bizarre combination of cheese-metal and cheese-dance-music that's pitched at the exact perfect point between affectionate parody and the real thing done with such sincerity that it sounds like a parody. In other words, it's more sincere than The Darkness but less sincere than Andrew W. K., but even catchier and even more expertly done. Stephen Thompson describes it as follows:
It's not the best album of 2003, but damned if it isn't the awesomest: Electric Six's auspicious debut pieces together a shockingly consistent disco-metal contraption that combines over-the-top punchlines with thrills and hooks that dole out smiles long after the jokes have worn off.
That's a pretty accurate description. If I had to do a best singles of the year list, "Danger, High Voltage!" by Electric Six would be right up there. It also had my unequivocal pick for best video of the year. If you weren't luck enough to see it on its brief heavy-rotation run on MTV 2, find a way to steal it off the internet or something. It's simply indescribable. If I had to choose a song for the year, whether or not it was a single, it would be a hard choice between "Dance Commander" and "Improper Dancing" (for the brilliant moment of "stop . . . .continue!" alone). One of the reviewers for the Onion did choose "Improper Dancing" as one of the songs of the year I believe.
On a totally different note I was also glad to see that Keith Phipps included Soul Journey by Gillian Welch on his top ten. This was the best album in this sub-genre of women with beautiful voices singing traditional, roots-based music I've heard since "Red Dirt Girl" by Emmylou Harris. This is the real deal. The arrangements and instrumentation are spare and rough but the melodies are haunting and beautiful, and Welch's voice has an austere beauty. The lyrics tackle classic folk music themes - down on their luck characters, the open road - without seeming in the least bit corny. It sounds like music that the characters on HBO's Carnivale could listen to and relate to and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.
So, any omissions or bizarre choices? After putting both the Clipse Lord Willin' and the NERD album on previous years' top ten lists, I was surprised that there was no mention of The Neptunes Present . . . Clones, or at least some of its individual tracks. After all, this is the closest thing to a solo album by the Neptunes we yet have, and The Clipse (in my opinion) overrated album was praised almost entirely because of its being more of a Neptunes album. Well, this is even more of a Neptunes album and, though the weak tracks are extremely weak, the high points are some of the high points of mainstream hip-hop/r&b this year. I was surprised that the Pharrell/Busta Rhymes collaboration "Light Your Ass on Fire" wasn't one of the hot singles of the year. The 80's-Minneapolis-influenced drum track is crack-like in its addictive powers and outdoes Timbaland in the futuristic sounding funk arena. The Nelly song is probably the best thing he's ever done. It has a great funk/soul arrangement and Nelly alternates between his best rapid-fire rapping and some surprisingly soulful singing. It's also one of those rare attempts by someone who buys into the thug image of hip-hop to show a bit of "softness" which doesn't come off as laughable. "Rock n' Roll" by Fam-Lay is one of those nihilistic odes to ghetto drug dealing which normally disgust me so much I can't enjoy the track regardless of its production virtues, but the harpsichord riff and the constant forward motion of the production are simply irresistible.
(Editor's Note: This was just the beginning of a much longer and more amibitious post, that asked such probing questions as, "Am I simply lacking some hipster gene that would allow to appreciate the transcendent brilliance of The New Pornographers?", but was lost due to rare (not being sarcastic) problems with Typepad. Sorry. I hope it still coheres without the conclusion.)