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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

8. Albert Lee, Heartbreak Hill, Sugar Hill. Albert Lee is, bar none, the finest lead guitarist in country music today. Many can shred, but few can be said to bubble like Lee, who positively percolates alongside Vince Gill and Brad Paisley on a cover of Gram Parsons's "Luxury Liner." Lee's a workmanlike singer, but he's got a good ear for covers ("If I Needed You," "'Til I Gain Control Again," "Two More Bottles of Wine") as well as duet partners and harmony singers (Emmylou Harris, Maura O'Connell, Patty Loveless), not to mention bandmates (Buddy Emmons, Mickey Raphael, Earl Scruggs). This is the kind of gorgeous album Nashville can make when there's no concession to the bottom line.

9. William Elliott Whitmore, Hymns for the Hopeless, Southern. A concept record of sorts about the deaths of his parents, Hymns heralds the arrival of a huge young talent. A tattooed former punk from rural Iowa, Whitmore delivers gruff mountain laments in a raspy bass-baritone that sounds like a singing pack of Camel shorties, while his banjo and guitar licks sound like they come from a guy born 80 years before his birth in 1978. Somehow, none of it sounds like mere homage -- Whitmore comes across more like a peer of Ralph Stanley's than a follower.

10. The Allman Brothers Band, Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival, Epic/Legacy. A worthy companion to Fillmore East, Atlanta Pop captures the Allmans near their home turf six months before they made perhaps the finest live rock album of all time. Whatever stimulants the band ingested to get them through the wee hours set captured on disc two were well chosen. Duane's guitar playing teeters on the edge of being out of control but remains as precise, scorching and incisive as a laser beam, and overall, the band sounds like what heroin feels like. They should hand these things out at methadone clinics. -- John Nova Lomax

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.

Fuck Electroclash

Rootsy folk weren't the only backward-looking musos on the scene this past year, at least in America. The rest of the world was another story. While stateside electronic music fans stopped, dropped and fell in love with the cocaine- and leg warmer-fueled nostalgia of the electroclash scene, the homeboy tribal techno revolution raged globally, a pair of Brits created a Latin Project that inexplicably made my deep house-hatin' ears perk up, a Scumfrog hopped to the top, and Underworld offered up the best of their best (which is to say, pretty much the best period) on a two-CD set. Hey now.

On top of all that, though, there were the Swedes.

You know how every so often you walk into a club or a warehouse or your friend's apartment and you hear a track or style you've never heard before but you immediately have that holy-shit-my-mind-is-being-blown-and-it's-not-the-blotter-paper-talking feeling? Get ready for another one. Swedish techno may bring one of those this-was-made-for-my-ears moments into your life in the very new future. While America's electronic music hopes are crammed in a fanny pack, techno producers in Sweden are sampling, pointing and clicking their way toward a brighter tomorrow for electronic music.

So what does this stuff sound like? Well, if Detroit techno ventured over to a B-boy battle, cut the noise on the treble end, beat on a djembe, threw in some crazy breakbeats every now and again and did a back flip into a reverb tank -- bam! you'd have Swedish techno. Well, all that plus superclean production, whirling dub effects, hip-hop style breakbeats mixed with pounding four-to-the-floor madness, tribal hand-percussion polyrhythms and minimal melodies.

Like their better-known producing peers in America and abroad, the Swedes are building on pre-existing styles, but they're doing more: They're producing future music that will blow your mind. Bjorn Borg. IKEA. ABBA. The Swedes have given us so much. You're about to hear a lot more.

Check out these tracks and releases to start:

1. Robert Leiner, "Breath," off the H. Productions EP Combination Style.

2. Samuel L. Session, "Off the Wall," SLS

3. Robert Leiner, "Rastaman," off the H. Productions EP Combination Style

4. Samuel L. Session, Core EP, SLS

Meanwhile, an American named Michaelangelo and two Brits have crafted superlative tribal techno tracks with styles that are distinctly their own yet evocative of the Swedish techno sound. And unless you're out digging through crates every week or ordering up some platters online, it might be tough to find tracks from these cats. But you can hear some of their tracks on readily available mix CDs from Adam Beyer and John Kelley. M'kay?

5. Tony Rohr, Purists Kill Techno, Hidden Agenda

6. Michaelangelo, Eminyea, Labrynth

7. Oliver Ho, Sand Dune/Oliver Ho Mix, Meta

The rest of the best

8. Underworld, 1992-2002, V2. Celebrating ten years of bringing light in, this two-CD set of electronic perfection has almost everything you need from their oeuvre: "Cowgirl," "Born Slippy," "Two Months Off," "Dark and Long," "Rez" and many more. Their live act might be the best there is (electronic or not), their artistry is unparalleled, and even without Darren Emerson they're still banging.

9. The Latin Project, Nueva Musica, Electric Monkey Records. Nothing will send me sprinting off a dance floor faster than the slightest hint of a Kenny G-esque sax riff in a house track. Until the Latin Project came along, that is. Combining live recordings of Latin vocals and instrumentation with programmed beats and synths -- and without sampling any vinyl -- the Latin Project has created a compulsively danceable new sound that accents the strengths of its roots without diluting them. And yes, there are horns aplenty on this album, but somehow it won a steady slot in my changer.

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