Christian Bordal on Music: Best CDs of 2003

Music Critic Picks the Top 50 Music Releases of the Year

Cover for The Innocence Mission's 'Befriended'

hide captionCover for The Innocence Mission's Befriended (Badman Recording Co.)

Samples from the 10 Best

Get a taste of Bordal's favorite sounds of 2003:

From The Innocence Mission's Befriended:
Listen 'Tomorrow on the Runway'

From Señor Coconut's Fiesta Songs:
Listen 'Smoke on the Water'

From The Strokes' Room on Fire:
Listen 'What Ever Happened?'

From Joss Stone's Soul Sessions:
Listen 'The Chokin' Kind'

From Joe Henry's Tiny Voices:
Listen 'Sold'

From My Morning Jacket's It Still Moves:
Listen 'Golden'

From Damien Rice's O:
Listen 'Volcano'

From The White Stripes' Elephant:
Listen 'Black Math'

From the New Pornographers' Electric Version:
Listen 'The Laws Have Changed'

From Phasers' Sway:
Listen 'Sway'

Available Online
Cover for Señor Coconut's 'Fiesta Songs'

hide captionCover for Señor Coconut's Fiesta Songs (Emperor Norton)

Cover for The Strokes' 'Room on Fire'

hide captionCover for The Strokes' Room on Fire (RCA)

Cover for Joss Stone's 'Soul Sessions'

hide captionCover for Joss Stone's Soul Sessions (S-Curve Records)

Cover for Joe Henry's 'Tiny Voices'

hide captionCover for Joe Henry's Tiny Voices (Anti)

Cover for My Morning Jacket's 'It Still Moves'

hide captionCover for My Morning Jacket's It Still Moves (ATO)

Cover for Damien Rice's 'O'

hide captionCover for Damien Rice's O (Vector Recordings)

Cover for The White Stripes' 'Elephant'

hide captionCover for The White Stripes' Elephant (V2)

Cover for the New Pornographers' 'Electric Version'

hide captionCover for the New Pornographers' Electric Version (Matador)

Cover for Phaser's 'Sway'

hide captionCover for Phaser's Sway (Emperor Norton)

Independent music critic Christian Bordal reviews artists for Day to Day, and wrote this report on his favorite songs and CDs of the past year:

The following is a list of the 50 CDs that most captured my attention in 2003. This list is by no means comprehensive — how could it be? I’m only one human (with just two ears), and there are thousands of new records put out every year. Nor is the list really in any sort of specific order, except I suppose the stuff I feel most strongly about will tend to migrate towards the top.

Some of us grown-up music lovers complain that the consolidation of commercial radio and record labels is making it harder to find musical voices with some depth, that don’t fit the MTV/KISS-FM/teenybopper mold. But if you were to buy all the records listed below, you would be guaranteed a whole year of listening pleasure. It equals about one new CD a week, including a two-week vacation – enough to keep you going until my 2004 list comes out.

For the Top 10, you can listen to sample tracks and get your own idea of the music. For the rest, I’ve provided a brief description.

The Top 10:

1.) The Innocence Mission, Befriended (Badman Recording Co.) — scroll to the bottom to listen to Bordal's original review

2.) Señor Coconut, Fiesta Songs (Emperor Norton) — scroll to the bottom to listen to Bordal's original review

3.) The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)

4.) Joss Stone, Soul Sessions (S-Curve Records)

5.) Joe Henry, Tiny Voices (Anti) — scroll to the bottom to listen to Bordal's original review

6.) My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (ATO) — scroll to the bottom to listen to Bordal's original review

7.) Damien Rice, O (Vector Recordings)

8.) The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)

9.) New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador)

10.) Phaser, Sway (Emperor Norton)

More great records that could easily have been in the top 10 but for the vagaries of personal taste:

11.) Super Furry Animals, Phantom Power (XL Recordings/Beggars Group) — Except for the great single “Golden Retriever,” this record is not as upbeat and fun as their last, Rings Around the World. But even the downbeat stuff is engaging and beautifully put together. These Welsh lads fit right in with some of the other English purveyors of thinking-persons’ melodic pop, like Radiohead and Coldplay.

12.) Michael Franti & Spearhead, Everyone Deserves Music (Boo Boo Wax) — Part hip-hopper, part old-style soulster, the new Michael Franti is a kinder, gentler version of his old self from the days of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But his love of life and his humanism, along with his anti-establishment sentiment, shine strongly through on this fun and danceable CD. If you get a chance to see Spearhead live, don’t miss it.

13.) Elbow, Cast of Thousands (V2) — Yet another great melodic rock band from England, in the mold of Radiohead and Coldplay. The U.K. import of this record has been available since mid-year. For some reason, V2 decided to delay the domestic release. I hope people pay attention when it comes out in January 2004, because it’s wonderful.

14.) Jem, Finally Woken EP (ATO) — This new, young English singer-songwriter got her first toehold in the American market when Nic Harcourt, host of member station KCRW’s flagship music show Morning Becomes Eclectic, started playing her demo on the air. Soon after, ATO, Dave Matthews’ label, released the demo as an EP. Jem worked as a D.J. to help pay her way through law school, and on her first release, she uses the hip-hop and electronica vernacular to back up some really strong and imaginative songwriting with fun and a great melodic sense. This EP is indeed a gem and the full-length CD comes out in the spring of 2004.

15.) Robinella & the CC String Band, Robinella & the CC String Band (Columbia) — Really good bluegrass players who stretch the idiom into jazz and blues territory. Robinella has a sweet, sophisticated approach that never pushes or strains, just glides Billie Holiday-like over the fiddle, mandolin, upright bass and drums.

16.) Alfredo Rodriguez y Los Acerekó, Cuban Jazz (Naxos World) — Another great Cuban player who has made some inroads in the American market after the door was opened by Ry Cooder, Wim Wenders and the watershed CD and documentary Buena Vista Social Club. This is a more jazzy band that puts a Latin touch on standards such as Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.”

17.) Stephin Merritt, Pieces of April(Nonesuch) — This is the soundtrack to the movie — but these little pop curios, written by wonderful pop songwriter Stephin Merritt and performed by his rotating bandmates in The Magnetic Fields, stand on their own.

18.) Ryan Adams, Rock ‘n Roll and Life Is Hell (Lost Highway) — Ryan Adams is well-known for being prolific. This year, his Lost Highway label not only released the full-length Rock ‘n Roll, but also a two-EP set called Love Is Hell parts 1 and 2. The Love Is Hell tracks are a pretty somber batch of tunes, and Lost Highway felt they were too much of a downer. So Adams turned around and tossed off the upbeat Rock ‘n Roll. Both projects have plenty of good songs on them, and Adams is one of today’s best pop songwriters. But if you’re new to Ryan Adams, I would start you out on his last album, Gold, before either of these.

19.) Rickie Lee Jones, The Evening of My Best Day (V2) — The complex arrangements and unusual melodies hearken back to her best, jazz-inspired work on records like Magazine and Girl at Her Volcano. Some very pretty songs, and, if you listen close, some surprisingly political lyrics.

20.) Gillian Welch, Soul Journey (Acony) — Gillian Welch is creating her own space — there’s no one else like her. Part Appalachian folk, part country, part alternative rock, she’s one of the best songwriters around. If you don’t have any of her music, start with her first record, Revival — it’s a stunner.

21.) The Streets, All Got Our Runnins (Vice) – This CD is only available online — more wacky, smart humorous hip-hop from The Streets.

22.) Matmos, The Civil War (Matador) – This electronica duo was Bjork’s back-up band — or at least, the foundation of it — on her last tour. But they also make really cool sounds on their own.

23.) Rufus Wainwright, Want One (Dreamworks) — scroll to the bottom to listen to Bordal's original review

24.) Lyrics Born, Later That Day (Quannum) – Thoughtful hip-hop in the vein of Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious.

25.) Mamani Keita & Marc Minelli, Electro Bamako (Palm Pictures) – Marc Minelli’s jazzy electronica arrangements match well with the beautiful traditional West African vocal stylings of Mamani Keita.

26.) Missy Elliott, This Is Not a Test (Electra) – Missy and beatmeister Timbaland let fly with another phat, old-school rap record, with Missy’s trademark sass over Timbaland’s deconstructed dance grooves. — scroll to the bottom to listen to Bordal's original review

27.) The Black Keys, Thickfreakness (Fat Possum Records) – The White Stripes without a girl and with even more emphasis on hard electric blues attitude. Some really rocking, gut-bucket stuff here.

28.) The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop) – There seems to be so many of these smart pop/rock bands around these days (Rilo Kiley, Death Cab for Cutie, The Weakerthans, Grandaddy…this list could go on a long time). I think these guys made the best record of any of them this year.

29.) Guided By Voices, Earthquake Glue (Matador) – see The Shins.

30.) Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Capitol) – None of the records these guys have put out since OK Computer live up that CD's amazing blend of soaring, off-kilter rock melodies and electro-pop underpinnings. But there’s just such a unique and impassioned sound created by this band that all their records are worth the effort.

31.) Pepe Deluxe, BEATitude (Emperor Norton) – Sophisticated Finnish electronica DJs. Great fun, good tunes, guaranteed to get your dinner party started and make you look like you really know what’s going on.

32.) Jane’s Addiction, Strays (Capitol) – After 13 years, they’ve still got it.

33.) Mogwai, Happy Songs for Happy People (Matador) – Melodic, electronica-inspired semi-instrumental soundscapes with a kinder, gentler approach than some of the Scottish band’s previous discordant CDs.

34.) Sidestepper, 3am (in beats we trust) (Palm Pictures) – Blending Latin and electronica. Laid-back groovyness that will make all your friends think you are the coolest musical cat around.

35.) Yerba Buena, President Alien (Razor & Tie) – Blending hip-hop and Latin elements. Really fun and funky.

36.) Ben Decter & Dave Nachmanoff, Another Big Day (Naked Goose Records) – A great kids’ music record that doesn’t pander and won’t drive the adults in the household crazy.

37.) Dan Zanes, House Party Time (Festival Five Records) – Number four in the cannon of ex-Del Fuegos front-man Dan Zanes’ all-ages music. My kids listen to at least one of Dan’s records every day. — scroll to the bottom to listen to Bordal's original profile of Zanes

38.) Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve Records) – Really good old-fashioned pop-rock. One of the few things on this list that you might hear on a commercial radio station.

39.) Boo Yaa Tribe, West Koasta Nostra (Sarinjay Entertainment) – Gangsta rap that meanders a little and has the usual large cast of visitors (including Eminem). But the first track is just great.

40.) Warren Zevon, The Wind (Artemis Records) – Warren Zevon’s last album. He died soon after the record was released, and you can hear the weakness caused by his lung cancer in his quavering voice. The CD includes a beautiful and poignant version of Dylan’s classic “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

41.) Azure Ray, Hold On Love (Saddle Creek) – Warm, sonically sophisticated, slightly drony goth folk. Good lyrics, too.

42.) Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day (New West Records) – A straight-ahead redneck rock sound, but the songs owe as much to the spirit of William Faulkner as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lyrically ambitious, great musicianship. The early hard-rocking tracks give way to some slower ballads with pretty solo work.

43.) East River Pipe, Garbage Heads on Endless Stun (Merge Records) – Very musical, quirky pop songwriting. This guy somehow manages to do all this by himself on his eight-track!

44.) Edie Brickell, Volcano (Universal) – Edie’s first CD in 9 years — her kids are all in school now — is a low-key affair that’s reminiscent of the work of the Joneses (Norah and Rickie Lee). The writing feels very complete, and her lyrics, as usual, are a real pleasure. In all, this record feels more satisfying than some of her earlier solo work, which came across as more slight and hit-and-miss. It’s beautifully produced by Charlie Sexton.

45.) Lyle Lovett, My Baby Don’t Tolerate (Lost Highway) – Lyle Lovett is a great arranger and a very good singer with a wonderful band. This is his first CD of original material since the 1996 album The Road to Ensenada. On this outing, as on many of his previous, the songs are often kind of cute or slight, but he and the band sure make the most of them. I don’t understand why there are no background vocals on the title track, though. It seems to beg for them.

46.) Emmylou Harris, Stumble Into Grace (Nonesuch) – I have to say that Nonesuch is a great label these days. Maybe they’re a little high-minded at times, but it seems like everything they put out has depth and quality. Emmylou Harris has been similarly consistent over her last three releases, starting with Wrecking Ball (1995), (one of the best albums of the 1990s with inspired production by Daniel Lanois), Red Dirt Girl (2000) and this year’s Stumble Into Grace. Harris has done most of her own songwriting on the last two releases, and the songs feel deeply personal.

47.) OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista) – This pair of solo efforts by Andre 3000 and Big Boi have been getting a lot of critical kudos. They don’t turn me on as much, but there are enough good tunes to make one really good hip-hop record.

48.) Rancid, Indestructible (Epitaph) – More (at 19 songs maybe even too much) of the kind of stuff that Rancid does best: very simple pop songs, played aggressively and with the great delivery of frontman and punk guru Tim Armstrong.

49.) Vic Chesnutt, SilverLake (New West) – If you’re into quirky singer-songwriting, Vic’s your man. Adjectives like “odd” and “idiosyncratic” always seem to accompany him wherever he goes. A unique voice for those who appreciate that kind of thing.

50.) Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, Streetcore (Hellcat) – Imagine being Rancid frontman and Hellcat CEO Tim Armstrong and getting to put out the last (and posthumous) record made by one of your all-time heroes. I don’t know all Joe Strummer’s post-Clash solo work. But judging from what I have heard, this is the strongest solo record he put out.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end of the list, I salute you. Feel free to let me know about great records you feel I’ve overlooked by sending an e-mail to daytoday@npr.org with the subject: Bordal’s Best of 2003.

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