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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

6. Superjoint Ritual, A Lethal Dose of American Hatred (Sanctuary)

With an ego rivaled in size only by his longsuffering liver, Phil Anselmo has finally dropped an album worthy of his near incessant chest-pounding of late. Anselmo's lame black metal side project Viking Crown and brief tenure in Necrophagia offered more comedy than horror, like Beezlebub lighting farts. But with Pantera officially over and Down on hold, Anselmo concentrates all his energy on Superjoint's sophomore LP, and the results are overpowering at times. Revisiting the halcyon days of crossover, when bands like D.R.I., Cryptic Slaughter, and the Cro-Mags wed speed metal's buffet of riffs with hardcore's lack of pretension, Dose is a barfight set to wax. Anselmo rants and hollers like a drunk at last call over power chords that aren't played so much as sweated out. Metal core like it was meant to be.

7. Vital Remains, Dechristianize (Olympic)

On Deicide's last LP, the band's Messiah mockin' front man Glen Benton sounded like Satan on a smoke break. Benton was allegedly so cheesed off at Deicide's label, Roadrunner, that he pocketed the album's recording budget and cut the disc on the cheap for two grand. The outcome was the muddy, half-assed Incineratehymn, where Lucifer was clearly out to lunch. But on Dechristianize, Benton teams up with underrated New Jersey death squad Vital Remains for a tasty hunk o' goat cheese. Blending NASCAR velocity with melodic riffing that sounds like Iron Maiden rocking out at a church burning, the album comes with dynamic, epic death and hammed-up hellfire. Best of all, Benton is in top form, letting loose with inhuman growls like a Grizzly with a groin pull.

8. Children of Bodom, Hate Crew Deathroll (Century Media)

Heavy metal can be surprisingly stone-faced considering that it's a genre where the codpiece is king and grown men have been known to rock loin cloths. Leave it to the happy hair farmers in Children of Bodom though, to add some levity to metal while still bringing enough brute force to KO a rhino. These Fins spike high octane Euro thrash with keyboards as ostentatious as Elton John's stage garb. Janne Warman's anthemic keyboard solos will get your Bic in the air, while songs like "Lil' Bloodred Ridin' Hood" and "Triple Corpse Hammerblow" demonstrate that Bodom is equally adept at cracking skulls and cracking wise.

9. Pestilence, Consuming Impulse/Testimony of the Ancients (Roadrunner)

You can almost feel your brow thicken and chest hair grow while spinning this pair of overlooked death metal classics re-issued on a single disc. Bursting with devolved, old school masochist metal, these records rival Death's one-two punch of Leprosy and Spiritual Healing as the finest blend of primal death and technical thrash. On Consuming Impulse, singer/bassist Martin Van Drunen comes with an incredibly dry, hoarse roar that's enough to make your larynx shrivel. Someone get the dude a Sucrets already. Van Drunen left the band after Consuming (he'd later be heard on Asphyx and Comecon LPs) to be replaced by Cynic bassist Tony Choy, a far superior musician. Guitarist Patrick Mameli took over the vocal chores, sounding like a gene splice between Death's Chuck Schuldiner and Obituary's Donald Tardy. The ensuing LP, Testimony of the Ancients, was among the most forward-thinking albums of its time. One of the first bands of such a brutal, unrelenting nature to incorporate keyboards and lush instrumental passages in its paint-peeling charge, Pestilence struck a near perfect balance between violence and virtuosity.

10. Skinless, From Sacrifice to Survival (Relapse)

Despite being the only death metal band ever to thank the George Foreman Grill and Quaker Oats in the liner notes of an album, Skinless' sophomore effort is no joke. After establishing itself as a solid, if unspectacular death metal troupe that got all Mickey Rourke on your ass live, Skinless has far exceeded expectations on Sacrifice. A sociopolitical slam dance that combines anti-war activism with dexterous, polyrhythmic savagery and vocal vomits, Sacrifice rips and snorts like Paul Krugman in a bullet belt. -- Jason Bracelin

Wake Up!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. While rap music all but dominated the pop charts in 2003, it also led to one of the lamest record crops (barring OutKast, God bless them) in recent memory. Even the ever-lovable Snoop Dogg was cranking out hip-pop bullshit like "Beautiful" to satisfy the suburban kids lapping up his gangsta fantasies. Meanwhile the much-maligned underground had little to offer besides quixotic musings (Aesop Rock's controversial Bazooka Tooth, Beans' inscrutable Tomorrow Right Now) and criminally ignored flights of fancy (Lyrics Born's unique Later That Day). Like Missy Elliott put it, hip-hop better wake up.

50 Cent, "In Da Club," Get Rich or Die Tryin'(Interscope)

50 Cent gets shot up, gets signed by Elvis…I mean Eminem, drops two brilliant singles ("Wanksta," "In Da Club"), follows up with a way-overrated debut (Get Rich or Die Tryin'), blows the fuck up, starts beefing with everybody, rush-releases the requisite posse album (G-Unit's Beg for Mercy), gets anointed asshole…I mean artist of the year.

Lil Kim, "Magic Stick" (Atlantic)

How does a woman who is one of the most recognizable personalities in popular music only garner a gold disc for her latest album (La Bella Mafia), then summarily lose her album deal and boutique label, forcing her to look for a contract with another major label? Maybe it's because hip-hop is growing into one of the most misogynistic, anti-female cultures in recent memory, and not even a woman that calls herself "Queen Bitch" and walks around half-naked is immune to its effects.

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