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The Class of '03

Grab your gift certificates and trade in your white elephants -- here's what you really wanted for Christmas

Perhaps it's just as well. Rock and roll thrives on the larger-than-life ethos, the outsize persona, the KISS-style theatrical absurdity. It's an act, a joke, entertainment. So as the Press brain trust (myself included) pontificates on 2003's finest albums elsewhere in this issue, let us now ruminate on the All-Irony Top Ten -- because either they don't really mean it, or you don't really like it. Or worse yet, because you secretly do.

1. Mandy Moore, Coverage, Epic. Just imagine eternally dour XTC mastermind Andy Partridge when he pops in this teen-pop cash grab and first hears his very own "Senses Working Overtime" recast as a demonic Jazzercise routine (One! Two! Three! Four! Five!) replete with turntable scratches and grandiose autotune aerobics. Dear Mandy wouldn't know half these artists if they bit her in the ass (which they might), but though her Blondie is unspeakably hideous, her Joe Jackson ain't half bad. Whoops! Just kidding! Never mind!

2. The Darkness, Permission to Land, Atlantic. They ought to set up a Betty Ford wing for rock critics who overuse Spinal Tap references (guilty!), but goodness gracious, do these English hype titans ever crank their amps to 11 and send you back to Bitch School with Stonehenge-caliber butt-rock that spontaneously combusts like a drummer choking to death on someone else's vomit in a bizarre gardening accident. You will weep openly upon hearing it, but instead of "Lick My Love Pump," the operative words are now "Get your hands off of my woman, MOTHERFUCKER!" Two words: "Shit sandwich."

2003: The year of OutKast and Astros throwbacks.
2003: The year of OutKast and Astros throwbacks.
Ohh, yeahh. We love this CD. Honestly, we do.
Ohh, yeahh. We love this CD. Honestly, we do.

3. MC Honky, I Am the Messiah, SpinArt. Indeed, that last Eels album sucked. Yes, this burrowing-merrily-under-the-radar E side project redeems it. Freed of the squirrelly Eels front man's usual cocktail of jet-black melancholy, this effervescent little instrumental adventure slaps earnest self-help gurus and cooing lovermen over goofy, ramshackle beats -- a welcome respite now that Beck is a heartbroken Serious Artist. Utterly insincere and strangely lovable.

4. Macho Man Randy Savage, Be a Man, Big 3. (Convulsing violently.)

5. Kings of Leon, Youth and Young Manhood, RCA. Listen: Rock-crit chumps who fixate on hairstyles deserve to be kicked in the taco, but the coifs here are just fucking magnificent, and far more evocative of that whole Southern-rock-as-glorious-religious-conversion jive than this bandwagoneering sub-Allman Brothers hoo-hah. More songs about having just killed a man from absurdly rail-thin, sensitive boys too squeamish to squash spiders with their dog-eared copies of The Idiot's Guide to Freedom Rock.

6. The White Stripes, Elephant, V2. Is this all starting to feel a little bizarre to anyone? Too calculated, too prefabricated, too doggedly and self-consciously weird? Could this all be a nefarious hipster marketing scheme -- ooooh, they're brother-sister/husband-wife, ooooh, they're from Detroit, ooooh, they name-check obscurist art movements and cover Dolly Parton. The real White Stripes are butt-ugly 50-year-old shoe salespeople from Eugene, Oregon, right? This is the neo-garage Milli Vanilli, right? Has the whole world been Punk'd?

7. Electric Six, Fire, Beggars/XL. To save disco, we must destroy it. Call this Saturday Night Herpes, a deliberately hideous cock-rock-with-a-drum-machine sonic atrocity that allows low-riding badasses the unique opportunity to blast tunes titled "Gay Bar," "Improper Dancing" and "Naked Pictures (of Your Mother)" with impunity. Clothespin your nostrils closed, dive in and learn why the funniest words committed to tape this year were "Stop! Continue!"

8. Turbonegro, Apocalypse Dudes, Epitaph. Sublime Swedish meatballs who look like Marilyn Manson Mouseketeers, write like giggling Blink-182 disciples ("Rendezvous with Anus") and inexplicably rock like Fugazi before old age and crippling self-righteous artiness finally set in. Song title of the year: "Don't Say Motherfucker, Motherfucker."

9. Fountains Of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, S-Curve. In which the thirtysomething über-nerds pen "Stacy's Mom," a soul-obliteratingly infectious ditty about an underage chump lusting after his classmate's maternal guardian. Get the fuck out of town. Not one second of this hyperliterate wiseass-fest doesn't drip pure smarm, but with pop this sharp the smirks feel like smiles, the elitist kicks like kisses. Verily, they got it goin' on.

10. Randy, Welfare Problems, Epitaph. If Mountain Dew finances an Animal House sequel set at an NHL playoff game on nickel-beer night, "A Man in Uniform" will blare over the PA as the inevitable brawl breaks out -- a fabulously butt-stupid fist-pumping anthem for mooks too self-medicated to ball their hands into fists. The insanely catchy "X-Ray Eyes," meanwhile, is far better a Strokes song than anything Room on Fire puked out. This is either smart people pretending to be spectacularly dumb, or vice versa.

But then again, aren't we all. -- Rob Harvilla

Weird Roots

Ah, yes, sincerity -- irony's oft-abused flip side. We were supposed to be wallowing in the stuff post-9/11, retrenching in American classics. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was supposed to have ushered in a new golden age for vintage American sounds. But it practically goes without saying now -- that "death of irony" prediction seems as off-base today as that Decca A&R guy was when he told the Beatles, in 1962 no less, that there was no future for a guitar band, or that other music genius who told Elvis to go back to driving a truck. Or that modern-day one at Atlantic who thought Hot Action Cop somehow worthy of a record deal, when in fact it's downright depressing to even know that no-talent booger-staring gobshites like them are even alive.

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