The Class of '03

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

9. Vico C, En Honor a la Verdad, EMI Internacional. An audio letter from jail, En Honor a la Verdad ("In Honor of the Truth") is a 15-track document of outrage set to reggaeton beats by Puerto Rico's rap pioneer. Always verbose, Vico C unleashes his penitentiary philosophy on targets from Ricky Martin to copycat rappers to his own record label, taking a breath only to give his daughter, in a touching acoustic turn, what advice he can as a man struggling to live right. That tender moment only makes the rest of the album more intense. En Honor a la Verdad bangs to some of the same rump-shaking producers (Noriega, Looney Tune, Ekko) who helped make fellow boricua Tego Calderon the reggaeton story of the year (and Tego himself shows up as a guest here), but Vico's righteous rage pushes this album over the edge of greatness. Consider En Honor a la Verdad Puerto Rican for "keepin' it real."

10. Yerba Buena, President Alien, Razor & Tie. Dancers of the world, unite! You've got nothing to lose but your shoes! Yerba Buena retraces the steps of African music back from the New World to the source, reuniting hip-hop and salsa with Afro-pop and rai, making the rhythm whole again under the savvy direction of producer-bandleader Andre Levin. But when the music is this hot, who cares where it comes from? -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Web Extra -- More Top Tens

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.

Balls to the Wall

1. Mars Volta, De-Loused in the Comatorium (Universal)

A redefinition of prog rock that pries the scene from the death grip of pasty dudes in Rush shirts, De-Loused adds some swing to the most stilted of subgenres and gets it laid for the first time. Santana, King Crimson and Fugazi all figure into this explosion of the bounds of progressive hardcore. Front man Cedric Bixler's voice positively drips emotion -- the guy could sound heartfelt ordering a Big Mac. Backed by flame-throwing guitar, maracas, sambas, congos and a bunch of other instruments whose names we have difficulty pronouncing, De-Loused is unabashedly ambitious. Yeah, it's pretentious. So was Led Zeppelin, bitch.

2. Dimmu Borgir, Death Cult Armageddon (Nuclear Blast)

Taking its cue from the scene in Apocalypse Now where trigger-happy GIs gun down women and children to the tune of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkryies," Death Cult Armageddon blends incredible beauty with incredible sadism. Black metal's black sheep continues to piss off the purists here with an album that has as much in common with Genesis as Gorgoroth. The sheer breadth of this record has never been matched in black metal. Hell, the album's first cut, "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse," contains more movements than most of Dimmu's peers partake in over the course of an entire career. With hail-to-the-king horns dueling with synth, piano, frostbitten guitar, blast beats, an angelic, cleanly sung chorus and black metal vox that sound like Vincent Price trying to dislodge a chicken bone from his windpipe, the cut is a monument to misanthropy -- as is the heavy metal high mark from which it's culled.

3. Cradle of Filth, Damnation and a Day (Epic/Red Ink)

Not since Japanese Dada core extremists the Boredoms became the world's loudest tax write-off at Reprise has a band as over-the-top as Cradle of Filth inexplicably found itself on a major label. Cradle didn't miss the opportunity to fully indulge in the coffers that Beyoncé's backside built, hiring a 40-piece orchestra and a 32-piece choir to fill Damnation with grandiose haunted-house harmonies. The result is one of the most opulent metal albums ever -- the headbanger's equivalent of 20-inch rims. At times the band veers toward self-parody: Front man Dani Filth occasionally sounds like an angry grandma with his cat-in-heat shrieks, and Anne Rice could have bested the dude's Lestat-lovin' lyrics when she was still in a training bra. But the magnitude and majesty of this record is nothing short of breathtaking. For a band that first made its name on shock value (who could forget Cradle's infamous "Jesus Is a Cunt" tee), the real shock is how great these Brits have become.

4. Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won (Atlantic)

This live set is as essential to longhairs as oxygen and Old Milwaukee. John Bonham plays like a cannonball with a beer gut. His pneumatic pounding on "Moby Dick" is an inspiration to fat guys everywhere. Jimmy Page's solos never end and you never want them to. His leads on "Heartbreaker" will either make you want to pick up a guitar or never attempt to play one again. Robert Plant is an orgasm incarnate who wants to make love to you 25 hours a day. He sounds perpetually in the throes of the kind of climax that wakes the neighbors. Captured at the peak of their powers at a pair of California gigs in 1972, this package is the best thing to happen to stoners since pizza delivery.

5. Morbid Angel, Heretic (Earache)

Listening to Pete Sandoval's jaw-dropping drum work on Heretic, you'd swear Mountain Dew courses through his veins. Sandoval takes his craft to new heights on Morbid Angel's latest, sounding more like a hot-wired drum machine than a rubber-armed hesher. Sandoval's absurdly overdriven playing fuels Morbid Angel's most blistering, needle-in-the-red album since 1998's classic Formulas Fatal to the Flesh. The band broadens its sound a bit with an ambient interlude and dark industrial soundscapes that sound like hell's waiting room, but for the most part, this is death metal's signature act devoid of any restraint. Wear a helmet.

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