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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

Jay-Z, "Excuse Me Miss," "Change Clothes," The Black Album (Def Jam), Panjabi MC, "Beware" (Sequence)

I like Jay-Z. I think he's an extremely talented rapper. But doesn't anyone remember when KRS-One rhymed, "If you were to rule or govern a certain industry/All inside this room right now would be in misery/No one would get along nor sing a song/'Cause everyone would be singing for the king, am I wrong?"

Various Artists, Bad Boys II soundtrack (Bad Boy)

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.

Sometimes it seems like hip-hop is the only genre that can generate a super-wack, overproduced, predictable, monomaniacal monstrosity (except for the banging 50 Cent and Biggie's "Realest Killers," natch) like the Bad Boys II soundtrack and still watch it go straight to number one on the pop charts.

OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, "Hey Ya!" (Arista)

I love my sister. She has an ability to see beyond the analytical cliches critics tend to use. Forget about all the homilies, all the sonnets writers across the land have penned to this talented duo. All she wants to know is, "Andre's getting kind of androgynous, isn't he?"

S.A. Smash, Smashy Trashy (Definitive Jux)

Despite gallant challenges from Anticon, Stones Throw, Quannum, and too many lesser labels to mention, the Definitive Jux fam has pretty much ruled the hip-hop underground for the past two years. It took this universally loathed (and, in some ways, unfairly maligned) would-be tribute to the "I like to party and act thugged out, but I'm cool peoples, too" formula pioneered by the Alkaholiks marked by such lovely tracks as "Love to Fuck" and "Gangsta" for the label to finally lose its crown. Who's got next? Maybe it's…

Atmosphere, Seven's Travels (Epitaph)

White kids love 'em, black kids respect 'em, critics tolerate 'em…it seems like nothing can go wrong for Slug and Ant. So why haven't they produced a masterpiece worth buying yet?

Ja Rule, "Loose Change" (unreleased)

I know, I know, Ja Rule fell off, Murder, Inc. is finished, et cetera. But I can't forget his lyric on "Loose Change," which has to be one of the most cruel and mean-spirited disses I've ever heard: "You claim that your mother's a crackhead/And Kim is a known slut/So what's Hailie gonna be when she grows up?"

Little Brother, The Listening (ABB)

Feel-good story of the year. This unheralded North Carolina trio sent a few demos to okayplayer.com, got signed to Oakland's ABB Records, dropped an amazing debut, and sparked a bidding war among several major labels, becoming the hottest underground act since Dilated Peoples in 1998, or Mos Def in 1999, or Slum Village in 2000… Makes next year worth looking forward to.

David Banner, Mississippi: The Album (SRC), Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys, "Get Low," "Put Your Hood Up" (TVT); YoungBloodZ, "Damn!" (LaFace); Bone Crusher, "Never Scared" (LaFace)

You know the South is running shit when strip club anthems like "Like A Pimp" and "Get Low" gets rave reviews in such august publications as The New York Times. "To the window! To the wall!" I love hip-hop. -- Mosi Reeves

Bah, Humbug

Chestnuts roasting over an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Tim Allen and Billy Bob Thornton dressed up like Santa Claus -- that's right people, the holidays are in full swing! And along with all the other gifts bestowed upon you this year, get ready for a Colorado blizzard's worth of self-indulgent, blurb-a-licious critics' Top 10 lists. That's where we critics remind you of our stunning, encyclopedic knowledge of the past year's musical highlights; where we subtly say, "Shame on you for not buying, loving, and proliferating this obscure band." And, "Shame on you for not sending us bouquets of posies when first we revealed the genius of OutKast, the Rapture, the Postal Service …."

Bah. Fuck that. Let's do something different:

Top 10 "Wonka Records" of 2003

This was the year of what I call the "Wonka record." A Wonka record is not merely a bad record, but a bad record that sounds as if it was made Gobstopper-like in an eerie factory by elves with pointy ears and graphing calculators. Wonka records seem invented by marketing teams that know way more about what you want than you do. They are sometimes disguised as "artistic triumphs," but this is just part of their spin. Here are my favorite Wonka records this year. Sadly, this is only a partial list.

1. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Yes, it was an interesting album, and entertaining. But did you notice how the duo's high-concept approach kept a lot of people from admitting that you can't sit all the way through it, and that a lot of the songs on it are really just crappy, meandering sketches? Mainly, though, this record is Wonka because of its insidious marketing angle: One single, André 3000's "Hey Ya," got playlisted on alt-rock radio, while the other, Big Boi's "The Way You Move," topped the charts on hip hop and R&B stations. That's a great ploy. OutKast's strategy scored the group a two-for-one deal. You know who else did this in 2003? It's --

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