The Class of '03

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

Nope, irony's dirt-nap ended when Bruce released The Rising. Nobody listened to it, everybody said it was the best album of all time, and the nation Moved On. The Boss gave us Closure, and we could all get back to being the same snarky assholes we were on September 10, 2001. Or so it would seem.

But deep beneath Mount Smug, a volcano of heartfelt neotraditionalism bubbles, hisses and sizzles. Tattooed and pierced city kids are rediscovering bluegrass, vintage country and depression-era blues. Southern rock found its center again. And some of the most interesting roots rock bands and a few on the country fringe are waking up and smelling the tortillas -- trad Latin sounds are reinvigorating trad Anglo sounds as never before.

1. Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day, New West. You wondered what the Heart of Dixie kids were gonna do after their 2001 capital-O opus Southern Rock Opera, and they deliver a lyrically jolting, musically overpowering masterpiece. Decoration Day often wades through the same dark Deep South kudzu but never degenerates into dreaded Southern gothic clichés, even if the album opens with a song about an incestuous couple. (It's heartfelt, we swear.) The tried-and-true Trucker songwriting team of Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood has some company this time around in newcomer Jason Isbell, whose father-son sit-down "Outfit" is a highlight not only of this album but also of the year.

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.

2. Calexico, Feast of Wire, Quarterstick. While prior Calexico records were projects of singer-guitarist Joey Burns, drummer John Convertino and a bunch of guests, this was the first Calexico band album, and it shows in the consistent accessibility of this Feast. "Close Behind" is another entry in their sounds-like-Morricone canon, while "Pepita" should be on any collection of Magic Buttons: Music to Chew Peyote To. Of the band's requisite exquisite instrumentals, standouts include the cumbia-like "El Güero Canelo" and the Mexican sci-fi anthem "Attack, El Robot, Attack!" And it wouldn't be a Calexico platter without some great psychedelic, mariachi-tinged country-rock -- and here we have "Sunken Waltz" and "Across the Wire," two songs that join "Crystal Frontier" as the tunes that define the shape-shifting band's center.

3. Los Lonely Boys, Los Lonely Boys, OR Music. Finally, a bluesy Texas roots rock band that can take the music out of Stevie Ray's shadow. The three West Texas-bred Garza brothers -- guitarist Henry, bassist JoJo and a drummer whose real name is Ringo -- that constitute Los Lonely Boys pay homage to Vaughan for sure, but also to Valens, Hendrix and Santana. Henry, at 24 the band's eldest member, varies from piercing economy to waging all-out war with the wa-wa pedal. Meanwhile, he and JoJo skillfully share the bilingual lead vocals, but it's when they're joined by Ringo that they truly shine. Their harmonies are so airtight they're positively vacuum-packed.

4. Little Joe Washington, Houston Guitar Blues, Dialtone. Of a group of neighbors and contemporaries that once included Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins and Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Washington is both the last to record and the last alive. Luckily, he's not the least among them as an artist, as this bunkerbuster of a belated debut proves. Every bit as much the character and real-deal cat as the often overhyped Fat Possum dudes, Washington packs more ferocious blues feeling in a few stinging notes than there are in many whole careers. Recorded in Austin with a crack band and on vintage gear, Houston Guitar Blues is a Texas classic, a throwback as cool and of the same vintage as a Colt .45s jersey.

5. The Mavericks, The Mavericks, Sanctuary. Nashville had a mighty miserable year. There was Toby threatening Roper proctology on the Ay-rabs. There were Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts, the smarmiest twerps on the Row since Billy Gilman. And on and on. There were also some encouraging signs that old Music City was back: A courtroom heard testimony from Lorrie Morgan that hubby Sammy Kershaw threatened to bite off her nose. (Now that's country!) And somehow, amid all that, a few good records got made, and even a great one or two, such as this one. The Mavericks' first album since 1998 mixes sunny-day Latin-infused pop with midnight glitterball slow dances, all delivered with a perfect mix of gloss and grit by the swellingly celestial voice of Raul Malo. (We'll give them a pass on the icky cover of "Air That I Breathe.")

6. Califone, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, Thrill Jockey. Former Red Red Meat-man Tim Rutilli's quartet has made another Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at a tenth of the cost and with a hundredth of the hype, on which Dock Boggs enters the laptop age. A welding of Appalachia and Silicon Valley -- guess that would be Silicon Holler -- funneled through a Chicago rock sensibility, Quicksand sneaks up on you and then kicks your ass. It's a little short on songs, but long on gorgeously narcotic electro-roots music.

7. Iguanas, Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart, Yep Roc. Long one of the finest party bands on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans' Iguanas slither out to bask in newfound maturity here with this worthy competitor of such Latin/American fusion projects as Los Super Seven's Canto. Songs like "Mexican Candy" are what the Iguanas are all about these days -- ghettodelic guitar grooves, sex-dripping sax and sizzling percussion behind dreamlike bilingual lyrics. And if that description makes them sound like post-The Neighborhood Los Lobos, that's because the Iguanas do.

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