Not bad: after a couple of years of bottom-scraping (what was that about recessions creating great art?), music, like the economy, began to show some signs of life in 2003. Album sales, while down overall for the year, are up in the fourth quarter despite industry fears about online file-sharing. These were the best:
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
Hip-hop’s most consistent auteurs move the goalposts once more. Big Boi’s SpeakerboxxxM is the better and surprisingly more personal half, with raps about single fatherhood, the war in Iraq, and the joy of Sunday-morning church services set to P-Funk-style brass, minimalist electro, and New Orleans jazz. André 3000’s The Love Below is less satisfying, mostly because he strains at weirdness and fills the disc with insufferable skits. But when the risks pay off (“Spread” and “Roses”), they’re completely rewarding.
2. Bubba Sparxxx
This great second disc from Southerner Sparxxx rewarded listeners with his plainspoken, almost contemplative delivery and perhaps the most imaginative production yet from maestro Timbaland.
3. Matthew Dear
Leave Luck to Heaven (Spectral Sound/Ghostly International)
On his full-length debut, Dear creates an album of stunning electronic pop that peaks with “Dog Days,” whose churning machine funk recalls Prince’s “Erotic City” and Laid Back’s “White Horse.”
4. The Fiery Furnaces
Gallowsbird’s Bark (Rough Trade)
Fronted by Brooklyn-based siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, the Fiery Furnaces fill their debut album with archival-sounding riffs such as ragtime-style piano playing, yet avoid being stuck in the past thanks to futuristic synth-driven songs like “Leaky Tunnel.”
5. The White Stripes
Elephant (V2/Third Man)
Though Elephant was knocked out in just over a week on lo-fi recording equipment, its sound (most memorably, the bass-drum thump of “Seven Nation Army”) is much more expansive than that of its predecessors. And with a voice alternating between a girlish trill and a scratchy, almost prepubescent shout, Jack White becomes on record the eccentric vocalist we always knew him to be.
6. Ricardo Villalobos
In Berlin producer Ricardo Villalobos’s hands, minimal techno’s stripped-down sounds become bluesy, even emotional. And on “Easy Lee,” he single-handedly rescues the vocoder, making the usually shticky, staticky vocal trick feel sad and ruminative.
7. Richard Thompson
The Old Kit Bag (Cooking Vinyl)
Though they’re framed in portentous “acts” like “The Haunted Keepsake,” the spare love songs and taut solos of The Old Kit Bag offer more evidence that Richard Thompson is rock’s most economic songwriter and guitarist.
8. Michael Mayer
Speicher (Kompakt Extra)
Rock’s closest techno kin is schaffel, a subgenre bred at Cologne, Germany, label Kompakt that combines the stadium thump of Gary Glitter and T. Rex with the back-and-forth tipsiness of rock-steady reggae. On the mix CD Speicher, Kompakt’s star D.J., Michael Mayer, captures schaffel at its most feverish; you can nearly imagine sweat dripping from the walls.
9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Fever to Tell (Interscope)
Its too-sparse production prevented Fever to Tell from being revelatory, but lead singer Karen O marched through the songs like the “50Ft Queenie” of PJ Harvey’s imagination, imbuing nearly every track with a “rar-rar-rar” or a “yeah-yeah-yeah.” And, simply put, “Maps” is the most beautiful (“They don’t love you like I love you”) love song of 2003.
Up in Flames (Domino USA)
Rounds (Domino USA)
Two producers (Manitoba is Dan Snaith; Four Tet, Kieran Hebden) whose new records for smart indie Domino reveal a far more complex vision than that of the “laptop techno” genre ascribed to them. Manitoba makes psychedelia (sweeping harpsichords, pastoral sound effects like croaking frogs) as gigantic as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Four Tet takes the opposite approach, but the result is just as memorable: Hebden’s intimate, music-box-style melodies are as affecting as Matmos’s vulnerable, personal production for Björk’s Vespertine.
For more of 2003's best, see Peter Rainer's favorite flicks of the year.