2003 in Music

This page collects all my reviews for music originally released in 2003

1. Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (10/10)

This is probably my favourite album of theirs. I know, the consensus “best album” is OK Computer, but there is no “Fitter Happier” here.

They are really musically subversive on this album. Almost every song sounds like it’s going to burst out and then it fails to. That’s right up my alley, personally.

And though the concept isn’t as spelled out as on OK, it is still readily apparent. (That could be another virtue.)

2. Do Make Say Think: Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn (9/10)

I feel like it is with this album that Do Make Say Think finally emerges from the shadow of Tortoise to sound like something completely their own. There are enough other ideas that the band no longer reminds me of Tortoise at least once per track, as they usually do. And the music is as stellar as ever. At least so far, I would say I think this is their best.

3. The White Stripes: Elephant (9/10)

I think that at the turn of the century, a lot of us rock music fans were kind of desperate for something to save us from the perceived death of rock music, due to post-grunge, nu-metal and the boy band and girl pop that was dominating the radio. And, of all the “The” bands that appeared to be saving rock music, The White Stripes seemed to be the purest. That’s probably why I was so excited listening to their records, even when you could accuse them of very little artistic growth from one record to the next. (It’s funny for me to think like this now, though, as if “rock” was in danger in 2003, it’s in far more danger in 2016).

But even if I look back on their best records and think there wasn’t much difference from one to the other, I still cannot help how much I love this band. White has (had?) a knack for writing insanely catchy rock songs (sometimes power pop songs), and, of course, he dressed up those songs in such a shitty sound that you could feel good about loving the hook.s (And he also had a good ear for covers that would fit their aesthetic.)

I haven’t listened to these records as records in ages, but to me, this is close to perfect as this kind of rock music can get, decades after you would have thought it had stopped being relevant.

4. Pearl Jam: Lost Dogs (9/10)

Rarities collections are really, really hit or miss. Usually a rarity is a rarity because the band (or the label) decided it didn’t cut the mustard. And so it makes sense that rarities are often not really great, or for fans only.

There are generally two types of approaches to rarities comps: the demos/outtakes/alternate versions approach, of which the gold standard in rock music is The Beatles Anthology, wherein the band tries to show their process, warts and all. And then there’s the collected all-sorts approach, typified here.

And, honestly, this has to be one of the best ever released. The quality of the material is downright shocking, with a number of these songs being better than a number of the tracks on the albums they were left off of. And even the weaker tracks are interesting.

It also acts as like a Pearl Jam alternative history, as it contains music from their entire career up until its release. And it’s probably as good an introduction to the band as any of their proper albums.

5. Tomahawk: Mit Gas (9/10)

The first time I heard this, it felt like a retread of their debut, though it was a retread I thoroughly enjoyed, as their debut is pretty damn great.

But over the years its come to be my favourite album of theirs (though I don’t think it’s their best) – it’s weirder but it’s still immediate and contains their best songs. It’s really just an onslaught of classic after classic, and It’s hard for me to be objective about it any more.

6. Kid Koala: Some of My Best Friends Are DJs (8/10)

I think I like this record even more than the debut. It’s roughly the same kind of idea – collages of music and voice samples, created for musical or humourous effect – but this record feels more “musical” to me, more indicative of his clear musical talent. This is particularly true in how he uses samples of solo instruments to solo over his track, such as on the opening track, which is basically his version of an old jazz ballad. It’s pretty cool.

Not my thing usually, but it’s pretty cool stuff.

7. Bill Frisell: The Intercontinentals (8/10)

This is a fascinating and compelling melding of American folk music, whatever the music is that Frisell has been making that combines American folk music with certain elements of jazz, and various world musics.

He and his collaborators touch on a lot of styles so it is a little hard to categorize this properly, but I think that’s likely a waste of time. The results are pretty incredible and, to my limited knowledge of Frisell, somewhat unconventional for him, given that some tracks feature vocals. This is a really solid exploration of the overlapping sounds between traditional American folk music, and folk musics around the world; it’s incredible how it feels like it is all one style. Whatever boundaries exist have been blurred so much that it’s all just music.

8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell (8/10)

I avoided this like the plague when it came out: I didn’t like the single then, but moreover (and more importantly for me), I was getting sick of bass-less bands and I wasn’t about to hop on the garage rock band wagon (and frankly I still don’t get the deal with the Strokes). But this is a great record.

First, it’s way more diverse than I ever imagined. These guys clearly listen to interesting music beyond the obvious touchstones.

It’s also highly accomplished for this kind of music. There are lots of musical ideas in it, something you would not expect from music labeled garage (in this case, not so correctly). The band is clearly quite talented. And Karen is really charismatic (and actually a good singer, which shocked me).

And the energy level is extraordinarily high.

All things combine to make me like it a lot.

My only quibble – and its a minor one – is with the bonus track, where Karen tells us she actually wrote the whole song, by humming the guitar and drum parts before the song properly begins. Like fans and critics needed another reason to blame everything on the vocalist; most do that already. Ego is a fascinating thing.

9. Virgil Shaw: Still Falling (8/10)

I still haven’t heard Shaw’s first album, but his second album is a stronger set of songs (with some choice covers) than any of his songs I’ve heard by Dieselhed.

The idiosyncratic arrangements really add to the appeal of his voice and his – how should we call it? – impressionistic lyrics.

It’s one of my favourite alt-country records, really.

10. Dirty Three: She Has No Strings Apollo (8/10)

Though this was the album that really got me into Post Rock, I have somehow never managed to hear another record of theirs and so I can’t comment on how it fits in with their other records.

But as “chamber” Post Rock it’s fantastic stuff, with compelling melodies, spirited performances and a rather immense sound for a trio.

This is a band that perhaps doesn’t quite get their due (especially here in Canada, where we have multiple post rock groups making relatively similar music) but they are among the very best post rock bands, and I say that based solely on this record (and I’d say that’s a statement made in ignorance if I didn’t listen to so much post rock…).

Pretty fantastic stuff and worth getting into if you only know Ellis from The Bad Seeds.

11. Janet Bean and the Concertina Wire: Dragging Wonder Lake (8/10)

The debut solo (and only?) album by the drummer/occasional songwriter of Eleventh Dream Day is better than I ever would have imagined. This is a really solid set of songs – including two good cover choices – draped in a classic Americana/country rock sound – shockingly produced by the leader of Tortoise?!?!

Though the covers maybe reveal Bean as not quite on the same level as Neil Young or Randy Newman, I am quite impressed by her writing, as I was never 100% sold on her songs in Eleventh Dream Day – as compared to Rizzo’s songs, or their collaborations.

And the music works that wonderful magic where it evokes various sounds from American roots genres without sounding too much like any one of them, or reminding you too much of someone else’s work.

Great stuff.

12. Fantomas: Delirium Cordia (8/10)

Making it all one track seems really arbitrary but this is the second best of Patton’s albums under this moniker. It sounds a lot like a soundtrack.

13. The Creaking Tree String Quartet (8/10)

In some ways I like this more than their 2007 album Sound Track – for example they have left off the found-sound stuff, which I couldn’t really figure out the artistic reasons for including it – though at least after three listens I feel like maybe the songs were, on the whole, slightly stronger on that other album.

But again we have an energetic and highly accomplished progressive bluegrass unit that transcends its own genre and makes life interesting.

14. Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander: Abaton (8/10)

So to make this super confusing, apparently the idea here was to actually credit this trio as Abaton, despite the fact that there are at least three other bands in the world with that name. It’s a popular idea, I guess, sleeping in temples…

Read the full review.

15. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: Streetcore (8/10)

This is what I said in 2005:

Strummer’s final album is a great end to his career.  It is fittingly eclectic, combining a variety of styles but sounding like it all belongs together.  Incidentally two of the best tracks are covers.  His cover of Marley’s “Redemption Song” is one of the best versions of said song I’ve ever heard.  “Silver and Gold” (I don’t remember the original name) is definitely one of the saddest closers of a career ever.

Further thoughts: Whatever resonance I got from Strummer’s lyrics when he was in The Clash, I absolutely do not from his solo records. I generally like a lot of the music he and the Mescaleros produced, but I find his lyrics bizarre.

Anyway, to my ears this is the last and best of those records. The least sprawling – it feels like an editor was present this time – and it feels a little more of a piece.

And, of course, it feels prophetic. It sure is eerie.

Anyway, if you’re going to listen to one Mescaleros record, it should be this one.

16. The Dresden Dolls (7/10)

This is some pretty good stuff.

I can understand why some people don’t love it, as Palmer’s delivery is often extremely affected. But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? I mean, this is cabaret rock, it should be at least a little bit theatrical, right?

Palmer’s songs are mostly great, even when they (often) borrow lyrics from famous songs from the past. She does an excellent job of combining a theatrical side with confessional songwriting that feels honest and, in its best moments, revealing.

Pretty good, pretty good.

17. Jim Guthrie: Now, More than Ever (7/10)

When I was younger, I had a fear of catchy melodies. I felt oppressed by the omnipresent pop on the radio and I felt like most of that pop was trying to sell me something. (Sell me on the idea that these model-looking pop singers were “musicians” I guess.) And so I would react rather coarsely to anything catchy, no matter how artfully crafted. I wanted everything to be proggy or loud or both.

Anyway, when I first heard this record I dismissed it. After a few listens I granted that, yes, it was immaculately produced, but so what? It wasn’t my thing.

But now that I have somewhat come to terms with hooks, I find that this is more than pleasant: the songs are all strong and the arrangements are not only inventive but nuanced – i.e. sometimes you don’t realize how playful/interesting they are, because they are subtle or because the song is strong enough to distract you.

Anyway, this is a pretty good record and I’m sorry I was so hard on it when I was younger.

18. Joel Harrison: Free Country (7/10)

I don’t know Harrison, and coming at him in the middle of his career is probably a mistake.

This is a strong, varied collection of very radical takes on American roots classics – check out that track listing, you’ll know 80% of the songs – featuring a fantastic group of guest stars too. The problem I am having with this is that Bill Frissell did all of this at least ten years earlier albeit without the singing – and has been doing it since. And though Harrison’s approach is much more obviously jazz than Frissell’s music has been in recent years, I cannot help but feel like Harrison is living in Frissell’s shadow (at least on this record). Harrison is a totally different player than Frissell, and it’s not anything about the ensemble that reminds me of the latter – it’s just the concept.

And so I find myself liking this less than I’d like to. But you should really check it out – some of these covers are so, so different, they make the songs exciting again.

19. Clovis Pereira: Concertino for Cello and String Orchestra (7/10)

The Pereira “Concertino” is very pleasant albeit traditional. The composer apparently tried to combine some traditional Brazilian folk melodies with at least some baroque influences that the Portuguese would have brought to Brazil when they were colonizing it. I don’t know enough about Brazilian music to know if the folk part is true, but this is certainly a Neo Baroque attitude, not Baroque. (To be fair, he calls it “Quasi Baroque” which still seems to me quite a stretch.) The second movement is gorgeous. The third reminds me of a melody from a film soundtrack.

20. The RH Factor: Hard Groove (7/10)

Despite the huge number of collaborators, I feel like this is Hargrove’s most personal album. He admits that this emerged from home recordings and it doesn’t surprise me. The man was suffocated by what he was told he had to be, and then, in his spare time, he fiddled around with some contemporary (and not so contemporary) sounds and came up with something utterly unique is discography.

It’s interesting to note that even the older genres dabbled in appeared well after Hargrove’s supposed beloved era of bop. It’s unfortunate that the mainstream jazz establishment takes talented players like Hargrove and forces them into these old boxes that are no longer relevant. But for once he has taken a risk, broken away from those strictures that made him seem like just another talented trumpet player content living in the shadow of previous greats, merely keeping tradition alive.

Now this is not my type of music – I would be barely aware of the existence of hip hop if it weren’t a cultural phenomenon, for example – but I respect the integrity of this and the desire of Hargrove to push himself into totally unexplored areas (for him). I am not enough of an authority on any of this to know how innovative it is, but it’s innovative for Hargrove, anyway.

21. Crooked Fingers: Red Devil Dawn (7/10)

One of the most frustrating things for music snobs is when the primary songwriter of a band you really like branches out on is own… only to make virtually the exact same music.

So this project is definitely a breath of fresh air. Though Bachmann can’t help sounding like himself, he surrounds himself with enough of a different aesthetic to make you think “how did this guy have anything to do with Archers of Loaf?” Honestly that’s a good thing.

The one quibble is that the aesthetic is king and I’m not sure that the songs are quite there to back it up. But that’s a minor quibble and on the whole this is pretty great.

And, like I said, it’s great to see someone embrace variety rather than changing bands and names and pumping out the same shit album after album.

22. Pearl Jam: Riot Act (7/10)

When I first heard this, I thought it was their worst album since Yield (it is!). I’ve always found that when they try to get creative with their record production it appears to be to be an attempt to hide their lack of strong songs.

But more than a decade on I definitely like it more than I used to. I guess that’s because I’ve gotten used to the songs (hearing them, at random, on my iPod) and so I am less annoyed by the weird choices they make in presenting those songs.

I think, at this remove, I’m willing to lift it out of that unholy trinity of their least good albums, leaving Yield, Backspacer and Lightning Bolt as the Pearl Jam albums you absolutely never need to listen to. It’s their 4th weakest studio album. And for that, it’s not bad.

23. Guided by Voices: Earthquake Glue (6/10)

It’s competent. He can certainly turn out the songs. They haven’t really caught on with me, though.

24. Metric: Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (5/10)

I can’t really write anything positive about this because…there’s nothing to write home about.

Haines has a good voice – not a great voice but a good voice. She is not a particularly great keyboardist, relying on some pretty straight forward synth lines and using effects more than her actual playing to do anything. I don’t particularly like her lyrics (I hear a line I don’t quite get and start trying to figure out the song and then get more confused) and she doesn’t have the strongest sense of melody. Neither of these would be problems if the backing band (because it certainly sounds like a backing band) were anything more than competent.

But that’s the problem. Haines is just okay and the band is just okay. It’s like that guitarist is barely there.


Oh yeah, and if you’re going to write a song called “Succexy” I think maybe you should write it about something other than the US invasion of Iraq…just saying.

PS: “Dead Disco” bemoans how everything sounds like old stuff while sounding like old stuff. Is that intentional?

25. Marilyn Manson: The Golden Age of the Grotesque (5/10)

When an artist resorts to cheerleaders its hard to know what to think. Occasionally it can work and be funny. Most of the time it is ridiculous.

The same might be said for nonsense lyrics. If you are going to scat, you should be able to sing. Singing was never Manson’s strength but he used to be able to overcome that with a least somewhat interesting music. I have seen “Freaks” too, but I don’t feel the need to sing about it.

Not ranked: 

Compilations and new performances of old music.

Aldo Ciccolini: Satie: Piano Works (10/10)

Read the review.

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely: The Day the Earth Stood Still by Bernard Herrmann (10/10)

Though Herrmann definitely set the bar high for himself with Citizen Kane, this is the first time, to my knowledge, that he really stretched outside his comfort zone. (Herrmann had been doing radio music for years before Kane.)

Though the theremin had been used on a few scores in the ’40s by other composers, I’m not sure anyone had yet used it so distinctively, and this has to qualify as one of the most “electronic” of Hollywood film scores to date.

The opening is utterly fantastic, conjuring up another world in a way that a traditional orchestra never could. And that mood is maintained throughout the rather brief score. And this sound has become so much part of our movie DNA that it sounds utterly cliche at this point, but, honestly, I can’t think of too many movies before this one that featured such an otherworldly sound.

A true landmark in film score composition. Essential.

James Brown: the 50th Anniversary Collection (9/10)

James Brown’s importance can not be understated. He is on The List of the most important musical figures of the twentieth century – along with Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Miles Davis, Dylan, Duke Ellington, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Frank Zappa and maybe a few others. This compilation of his hit singles gives a very good idea of his progression and how he turned gritty soul and R and B into funk and thus got sampled more than any other band leader ever.

The one downside is that this compilation of his hit singles is missing one of his biggest hits. Hard to understand that one.

Friedhelm Flamme: Complete Organ Works by Maurice Durufle

The pipe organ must be one of the seriously neglected instruments of 20th century “classical” music, at least from the perspective of us musical naifs. I mean, even though there are plenty of notable organ and organ-centric compositions, very few of those have actually made it into mass awareness. The little bit of organ music we know is baroque.

Read the rest of the review.

Miles Davis: In Person, Saturday Night at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, Volume 2 [1961] (9/10)

Very solid performance by one of his lesser lineups – I say this because he has had better than Mobley and Kelly on piano. Kelly in particular is kind of surprising; some of this stuff I didn’t know he had it in him.

Ridiculously confusing title.

Elmore James: Blues Kingpins (8/10)

This is a compilation of James’ recordings from the 1950s. It presents a relative variety of styles of blues and some of the music features a horn section.

Listening to this, it’s easy to understand why James was dubbed “King of the Slide Guitar.” He shows off some pretty impressive traditional guitar playing as well and you can hear the reverberations of his style through so much rock and blues guitar playing since.

The energy is also notable, comparable to the rock and roll and R and B of the time, which is a bit of a surprise.

Because I got this from the library, and they didn’t include the notes, I have no idea about the details of these recordings, how many were issued versus how many were rarities, etc. I have no idea how complete a summary of his work for these labels it is. But it’s likely a good summary.

Alexandre Tharaud: Mauricio Kagel (7/10)

Read the review.

Various Artists: Vedic Hymns, Four Songs for Voice and Violin, Humbert Wolfe Songs, etc. [English Song Series 6] by Gustav Holst (6/10)

Read the review.

Various Artists: Peer Gynt Suites; Karelia Suite; The Swan of Tuonela (7/10)

Read the review.

No Doubt: The Singles 1992-2003 (6/10)

Yes, No Doubt are a singles band. I must assume that since the only studio album I have heard by them, Tragic Kindgom, is one of the best examples of a ’90s album where the singles are uniformly better than anything else.

This is a good compilation in that sense, but personally I can’t say more than it is above average because honestly I find No Doubt to have gotten less and less musically interesting as their career progressed (or at least less appealing to me). Tragic Kingdom has always been a borderline guilty pleasure for me (some days I like it alright, some days I’m really embarrassed that I have listened to it so many times) but I don’t really like their extremely poppy dalliances with rock steady and dance-hall (and I don’t like those styles anyway). And frankly I’ve never liked their lyrics much.

But this is what it says it is and if you like No Doubt that’s a good thing.