2003: The year of OutKast and Astros throwbacks.
2003: The year of OutKast and Astros throwbacks.

The Class of '03

Well, another Christmas has come and gone, and by now you should have a fistful of gift certificates, not to mention more crap than Fred Sanford. But if you're lucky, the place that bread machine or Chia Pet came from will have a generous return policy -- that way you can take that sucker back, cash it in and pick up a few CDs.

We've selected 59 of the best roots music, electronica, hip-hop and R&B, Latin and "ironic" CDs and tracks of 2003, the better to help you discredit the Stones and get exactly what you want. 'Cause this is one of the things that makes America great -- as long as you keep the receipt, you can too always get what you want.

Whether your bag is Swedish techno, European R&B, romantic Cuban salsa or down-home Houston blues, we've got you covered with this kaleidoscopic look back. Hell, we've even thrown in a washed-up WWF wrestler/rocker for good measure. And if you're a headbanger, a hip-hop head that wants to see yet another list (this one sans R&B) or just a Grinch that hates everything, check our Web site.

Beyond Booties and Pimps

Well, the only thing that can be said now is that 2003 -- at least the first ten months of it -- was definitely a 50 Cent-and-Beyoncé world.

Yes, indeedy. Those two bumrushed the pop-music show, and practically no one else came close. From every car speaker to every club dance floor to every senior prom to every bar mitzvah, if it wasn't 50 going on about being "In da Club," it was Beyoncé shaking that voluminous rump of hers and singing "Crazy in Love." These two defined what kind of music ended up in a lot of black music fans' CD racks: hardcore thug rap or bootylicious soul-pop.

But amid all the commercial R&B and rap releases, there were dozens upon dozens of cult favorites and masterpieces that will probably only be unearthed in the distant future, Inspiration Information-style. So get the jump on the hipsters of the future with this roundup of the year's best revelations in black music.

1. Forget 50 and Beyoncé, OutKast is really running the show. Okay, everyone probably has Speakerboxx/The Love Below by now, it's gonna win a sackful of Grammys and it's almost a cliché to put it atop a top-ten list. So why is it here? First off, I love the album. Second, it's a melding of prescient hip-hop and beguiling R&B that shows that no matter how mainstream this duo gets, they're always ready and willing to try something different. Third, it was an artful alternative to the Dirty South rap of Lil' Jon, Bone Crusher and the Ying Yang Twins. And fourth, all the white people I know love the Love Below disc. But still, any serious OutKast fan knows that even though this solo stuff was a nice change of pace, these guys do their best work when they're together. Let's hope they don't lose sight of that.

2. The year's best hip-hop albums embraced an inviting, old-school attitude. Little Brother's The Listening is one of my new all-time favorites. Through their lyrics and samples, these three North Carolina hip-hoppers celebrate black people's collective urban nostalgia. They made black listeners proud -- if not more proud -- that they grew up black, around other black people and amid a thriving black culture. The same goes for Freeway, whose debut, Philadelphia Freeway, was more powerful both lyrically and musically than any of the albums that starred his Roc-A-Fella brethren. When Freeway uttered the lines "I came from the hood / I'm bringing the hood with me" on the poignant and provocative "Alright" (the year's most criminally ignored rap single), ol' boy made it sound like a threat, a promise and a proud declaration.

3. Good R&B singers don't have to wear wife-beaters. Although 2003 brought more music from more buff R&B pretty boys than ever, that didn't mean much of it was any good. But some of the few who kept their chests under wraps delivered more convincing love songs. With his long-awaited debut, Subject, Detroit boy Dwele turned his Motor City charisma on many a stylish soul ballad. Meanwhile, Philly DJ-turned-soul singer Vikter Duplaix laid on the jet-setting charm with his full-length singing debut, International Affairs v. 2.0. The album is aptly named -- it finds Duplaix crooning to all the global girls he loved before amid exotic rhythms and enticing synth work. When Dwele and Duplaix sing about loneliness, they're much more believable than cats like Tyrese. Guys like him are just too goddamn chiseled to be womanless for long, if ever.

4. A few established musicians released stellar jam sessions studded with eclectic lineups. With Larry Gold Presents Don Cello & Friends, the legendary Gamble & Huff session player (who has handled string arrangements for such folk as Teddy Pendergrass and Justin Timberlake) went front and center and introduced himself as a producer-for-hire. Gold's debut album had him composing a polished collection of tracks for old friends (Gerald Levert, Bunny Sigler) as well as new talents (Carol Riddick, Kameelah). Another immortal jazz trumpeter, Roy Hargrove, invited in the likes of D'Angelo, Common and Me'Shell NdegéOcello for an album-length soul-jazz chill-out session called The RH Factor: Hard Groove. Both were like a bowlful of Lucky Charms -- varied, yet musically delicious.

5. Similarly, a couple of DJs sought and found eclectic lineups to join in on their mix sessions. The following may sound corny as hell, but it's the truth: DJ Spinna's Here to There made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. A big part of that came from Spinna sharing his musical talents with a bevy of diverse artists including rapper Jean Grae, Soulive's Neal Evans and Eric Krasno and UK dance singer Shaun Escoffery. Slightly less warm, but still all-around fuzzy, is Here Comes the Fuzz, Mark Ronson's debut. The New York DJ who handled most of the production on Nikka Costa's Everybody's Got Their Something came with a relentless party mix tape that had everyone from Rivers Cuomo to Q-Tip to Freeway to Costa herself throwing in their two cents.

6. You want really alternative R&B? Look to Europe! Although there have been some dandy black music imports coming out of the Continent this past year, let's focus on a couple that you can actually pick up at a commercial record store. Micro-soul trio Spacek finally had a chance to shine on this side of the pond with their elegant, techno-torch song-packed U.S. debut, Vintage Hi-Tech. Georg Levin also made a sweet splash stateside with Can't Hold Back, a collection of classy and jazzy retro R&B numbers. Oh, did I forget to tell ya that Levin is a white boy from Berlin? Hey, if he's cool enough to work with Jazzanova, he's cool enough for us.

7. It just doesn't pay for a mature black soulstress to release a third album. Two onetime "it" girls of pop music released junior discs that were tragically lost amid the deluge of discs by one-named flavor-of-the-minute R&B divas. Erykah Badu's World Wide Underground found the Texan solidifying her position as the soulful, sensual revolutionary of the neo-soul movement, while Macy Gray once again reveled in her shaggy, eccentric brand of homespun R&B with the aptly titled The Trouble with Being Myself. These ladies aren't ashamed of making soulful noises for mature audiences. Too bad mature audiences are on the endangered species list.

8. A couple of DJs introduced highly evolved brands of beat science. In San Francisco, licensed mixologist J. Boogie released J. Boogie's Dubtronic Science, a burbling stream containing rivulets of lounge, dub, jazz, hip-hop and soul. Over in Detroit, John Arnold came with some knowledge of his own: Neighborhood Science, to be exact, filled with theorems and postulates derived from house, techno, broken beat and, once again, soul. Both albums showcase the music of the artists' residencies more than the artists themselves. Dubtronic is a consistent valentine to Frisco's boho beat, while Neighborhood reminds listeners that no one should count out Detroit as a potential site for an underground dance hall of fame. Who knew science could be this much fun?

9. A couple of hip-hop adventurers danced with ambitious concepts, but only Philadelphia's King Britt could release an album that's part MC showcase and part musical treatise on the decaying of Mother Earth and human civilization. And intend for it to be listened to by Martians. But that's kinda what his Adventures in Lo-Fi was all about. As guys like Dice Raw and Capitol A dropped in to rhyme and flow, hip-hop's space cowboy wove it all together for an interplanetary audience. Meanwhile, Prince Paul released another concept album, Politics of the Business. Sadly, many people -- including many critics -- didn't get Paul's multilayered joke about how rap music has become so programmed and predictable that a trailblazer like Paul could make an album full of subpar beats and have old pals like Guru, Chubb Rock and Biz Markie just slumming rhymes.

10. For the second year in a row, the best MCs are white -- and they don't give a fuck if you think they're the best or not. Okay, this always gets me in trouble with the rap fans who can't believe I could possibly call any pale-skinned MC the best when cats like Jay-Z and Nas are still walking around, but those people probably haven't heard Aesop Rock's Bazooka Tooth. If they had, they would be forced to admit that the guy is on some otherworldly shit -- Bazooka Tooth is a full-length attack on the senses, a wild, weird marvel that'll make anybody who listens to it play it again -- if only to try to figure out what the hell Aesop is talking about. And while Atmosphere did drop another gem this year with Seven's Travels, I really dug Brother Ali's sharp, ferocious debut, Shadows on the Sun. In addition to being Atmosphere's Minneapolis pal, Ali is physically the whitest rapper of them all -- he's an albino. And did we mention he's also a Muslim and a family man? That's about as far from a pimp as you can get. -- Craig D. Lindsey

Irony Loves Company

A married Muslim albino MC is a paradox. Next we turn to irony, that attitude -- or is it a sickness -- that will eventually destroy us. Of course, I don't really mean that. In these media-saturated, hopelessly self-aware end-times, we've developed a deep suspicion of sincerity. We dislike rock stars who mean what they say, which explains why most hipsters wouldn't piss on that Dashboard Confessional guy if he were on fire.

Perhaps it's just as well. Rock and roll thrives on the larger-than-life ethos, the outsize persona, the KISS-style theatrical absurdity. It's an act, a joke, entertainment. So as the Press brain trust (myself included) pontificates on 2003's finest albums elsewhere in this issue, let us now ruminate on the All-Irony Top Ten -- because either they don't really mean it, or you don't really like it. Or worse yet, because you secretly do.

1. Mandy Moore, Coverage, Epic. Just imagine eternally dour XTC mastermind Andy Partridge when he pops in this teen-pop cash grab and first hears his very own "Senses Working Overtime" recast as a demonic Jazzercise routine (One! Two! Three! Four! Five!) replete with turntable scratches and grandiose autotune aerobics. Dear Mandy wouldn't know half these artists if they bit her in the ass (which they might), but though her Blondie is unspeakably hideous, her Joe Jackson ain't half bad. Whoops! Just kidding! Never mind!

2. The Darkness, Permission to Land, Atlantic. They ought to set up a Betty Ford wing for rock critics who overuse Spinal Tap references (guilty!), but goodness gracious, do these English hype titans ever crank their amps to 11 and send you back to Bitch School with Stonehenge-caliber butt-rock that spontaneously combusts like a drummer choking to death on someone else's vomit in a bizarre gardening accident. You will weep openly upon hearing it, but instead of "Lick My Love Pump," the operative words are now "Get your hands off of my woman, MOTHERFUCKER!" Two words: "Shit sandwich."

3. MC Honky, I Am the Messiah, SpinArt. Indeed, that last Eels album sucked. Yes, this burrowing-merrily-under-the-radar E side project redeems it. Freed of the squirrelly Eels front man's usual cocktail of jet-black melancholy, this effervescent little instrumental adventure slaps earnest self-help gurus and cooing lovermen over goofy, ramshackle beats -- a welcome respite now that Beck is a heartbroken Serious Artist. Utterly insincere and strangely lovable.

4. Macho Man Randy Savage, Be a Man, Big 3. (Convulsing violently.)

5. Kings of Leon, Youth and Young Manhood, RCA. Listen: Rock-crit chumps who fixate on hairstyles deserve to be kicked in the taco, but the coifs here are just fucking magnificent, and far more evocative of that whole Southern-rock-as-glorious-religious-conversion jive than this bandwagoneering sub-Allman Brothers hoo-hah. More songs about having just killed a man from absurdly rail-thin, sensitive boys too squeamish to squash spiders with their dog-eared copies of The Idiot's Guide to Freedom Rock.

6. The White Stripes, Elephant, V2. Is this all starting to feel a little bizarre to anyone? Too calculated, too prefabricated, too doggedly and self-consciously weird? Could this all be a nefarious hipster marketing scheme -- ooooh, they're brother-sister/husband-wife, ooooh, they're from Detroit, ooooh, they name-check obscurist art movements and cover Dolly Parton. The real White Stripes are butt-ugly 50-year-old shoe salespeople from Eugene, Oregon, right? This is the neo-garage Milli Vanilli, right? Has the whole world been Punk'd?

7. Electric Six, Fire, Beggars/XL. To save disco, we must destroy it. Call this Saturday Night Herpes, a deliberately hideous cock-rock-with-a-drum-machine sonic atrocity that allows low-riding badasses the unique opportunity to blast tunes titled "Gay Bar," "Improper Dancing" and "Naked Pictures (of Your Mother)" with impunity. Clothespin your nostrils closed, dive in and learn why the funniest words committed to tape this year were "Stop! Continue!"

8. Turbonegro, Apocalypse Dudes, Epitaph. Sublime Swedish meatballs who look like Marilyn Manson Mouseketeers, write like giggling Blink-182 disciples ("Rendezvous with Anus") and inexplicably rock like Fugazi before old age and crippling self-righteous artiness finally set in. Song title of the year: "Don't Say Motherfucker, Motherfucker."

9. Fountains Of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, S-Curve. In which the thirtysomething über-nerds pen "Stacy's Mom," a soul-obliteratingly infectious ditty about an underage chump lusting after his classmate's maternal guardian. Get the fuck out of town. Not one second of this hyperliterate wiseass-fest doesn't drip pure smarm, but with pop this sharp the smirks feel like smiles, the elitist kicks like kisses. Verily, they got it goin' on.

10. Randy, Welfare Problems, Epitaph. If Mountain Dew finances an Animal House sequel set at an NHL playoff game on nickel-beer night, "A Man in Uniform" will blare over the PA as the inevitable brawl breaks out -- a fabulously butt-stupid fist-pumping anthem for mooks too self-medicated to ball their hands into fists. The insanely catchy "X-Ray Eyes," meanwhile, is far better a Strokes song than anything Room on Fire puked out. This is either smart people pretending to be spectacularly dumb, or vice versa.

But then again, aren't we all. -- Rob Harvilla

Weird Roots

Ah, yes, sincerity -- irony's oft-abused flip side. We were supposed to be wallowing in the stuff post-9/11, retrenching in American classics. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was supposed to have ushered in a new golden age for vintage American sounds. But it practically goes without saying now -- that "death of irony" prediction seems as off-base today as that Decca A&R guy was when he told the Beatles, in 1962 no less, that there was no future for a guitar band, or that other music genius who told Elvis to go back to driving a truck. Or that modern-day one at Atlantic who thought Hot Action Cop somehow worthy of a record deal, when in fact it's downright depressing to even know that no-talent booger-staring gobshites like them are even alive.

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.

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.

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

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.

10. The Scumfrog, Extended Engagement, Effin. Until this double-disc set landed in my mailbox, I'd never heard of Jesse Houk, a.k.a. Scumfrog. The aptly titled Extended Engagement features both original material and wildly imaginative remixes of other artists' tracks, and soon I came to love to hear the Scumfrog croaking in my headphones. For dancing, for listening, for chilling out on your lily pad of choice, these vaguely house-y cuts are damn good. -- Andrew John Ignatius Vontz

The New Classics

It's been an anxious year for the Latin music industry, as it has for the industry in general. The good news in a time of crisis: The crassest pop acts fade away; the acts that survive are fired up by a personal vision. While some of the best albums of the year have received massive commercial success, notably Molotov's Dance and Dense Denso, most of these gems come from artists who would surely be making the same great music even if there were no one out there listening. Take a listen. Here are ten top recordings well worth the money.

1. Café Tacuba, Cuatro Caminos, MCA. Mexico City's avant-rock quartet Café Tacuba continues to explore the far reaches of the electronic ether while never losing sight of what it means to rock out. Cuatro Caminos ("Four Paths") veers from the raw energy of a street party to the interior murmur of private anguish, from the heady cacophony of a video arcade to heartfelt but never clichéd confessions of love. There is no more complete -- or more satisfying -- road map for living in the digital age.

2. Chucho Valdes, New Conceptions, Blue Note. One of the best albums yet by one of the all-time greats of Latin jazz, New Conceptions gives yet another twist to the long-standing fusion of African-American and Afro-Cuban traditions. Valdes opens with Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona and closes with an homage to Duke Ellington, revisiting Miles along the way -- but it's the pianist's own reinvention of all that has gone before him that makes New Conceptions so breathtaking. His own compositions included here, especially the achingly beautiful piano-cello duo "Nanu" and the experiment in rhythm that is "Sin Clave Pero con Swing" ("Without Clave But with Swing") prove that Chucho's name belongs in the company of those composers to whom he pays tribute. This is as good as music gets.

3. Issac Delgado, Versos en el Cielo, 33rd Street Records. This is what romantic salsa could have sounded like had anyone bothered to make it well: inspired lyrics, creative arrangements, stunning musicianship and the unsurpassed voice of Cuban singer Issac Delgado. Politically untouchable on Latin radio in the United States, Versos en el Cielo ("Verses in Heaven") is a collection of love songs by the greats of the island's Nueva Trova era -- most notably Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes -- set to sophisticated salsa arrangements that will thrill your soul and feed your mind.

4. Kevin Johansen & The Nada, Sur o No Sur, Sony Intenational. It's a long way from CBGBs to Buenos Aires, but Kevin Johansen knows the journey well. The onetime leader of the Saturday-night house band in the acoustic gallery at the legendary punk club, Johansen returned to his mother's homeland during Argentina's economic meltdown in 2001. Sur o No Sur ("South or Not South") is the sonic boom set off by that crazy trip: equal parts James Brown and bandoneon, Tom Waits and El Polaco -- with a Serge Gainsbourg cover thrown in for good measure. More a series of vignettes than a collection of songs, Sur o No Sur takes listeners on a tour from blues through bossa nova to milonga fueled by quirky humor and astonishing insight.

5. Kinky, Atlas, Nettwerk. It's not enough for Monterrey quintet Kinky to make noise. They want to know what noise is made of. What color is sound? What does it taste like? What is the shape of silence? Kinky takes nothing for granted, whether programming beats or coming up with hard-rockin' riffs. If all of that sounds a little too philosophical, don't worry: Atlas is all about fun. It's just not any kind of fun you've had before.

6. Molotov, Dance and Dense Denso, Universal Latino. If "Frijolero," Molotov's out-of-my-face-pinche-gringo norteño anthem, were the only song on Dance and Dense Denso, that would be enough to make this album one of the year's best. But the Mexican foursome's take-no-prisoners approach to rap-rock never lets up, unleashing enough attitude and bass on a single disc to flip off the whole world.

7. Natalia Lafourcade, Natalia Lafourcade, Sony International. Imagine for a moment that Britney Spears had a voice and a brain. Then she might have come up with the fresh, compelling take on growing into womanhood offered by 19-year-old Mexico City girl Natalia Lafourcade. Her self-titled debut offers a dorm room full of self-discovery so charmingly delivered in her silky purr with sophisticated bossa nova and R&B flourishes that it appeals to grown-ups, too.

8. Obie Bermudez, Confesiones, EMI Internacional. Apparently there are second chapters in Puerto Rican life, which makes Obie Bermudez's reinvention as a singer-songwriter after his first outing as a salsero all the more poignant. The aptly titled Confesiones is a kind of diary of the lives of regular people written by the singer while he worked in a washateria and hoped for a second chance to be a big star. Here it is: Bermudez's loving treatment of his subjects and down-to-earth use of his powerful voice make Confesiones a refreshing break from the bombastic overemoting of so many pretty Latino poseurs.

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

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.

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.

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)

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 --

2. Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll/Love Is Hell. The titles say it all. One is the gritty, alt-rock radio staple, the other the wounded, lite-rock radio staple. The two records are utterly different and clearly marketed to two distinct audiences. Listening to them, it's hard to imagine they came from the same artist. Strange, and very Wonka.

3. The Strokes, Room on Fire. Wonka because it's the exact same record the band put out two years ago, yet fans and critics ate it up anyway. That makes it more like a McDonald's combo meal than an album: You know it's processed and reheated junk, you know it's bad for you, but you eat it anyway because, hey, at least it's consistent. Also, the group's live show sucked big hairy moose balls.

4. Any Tupac release. The guy put out four records when he was alive, and eight (!) after he died. As many before me have pointed out, if it had been good enough to be released, someone would have done so while Tupac was still breathing. Profiteering from someone's tragic death is totally Wonka.

5. Michael Jackson, Number Ones. Because reports that Jackson faces allegations of child molestation were unveiled worldwide on news programs and front pages on the same fucking day -- Nov. 18 -- that Number Ones was released. Disturbingly, conspiratorially Wonka.

6. Any emo CD. Because you cannot be that distraught if your band is selling out the Verizon or performing alongside Jane's Addiction.

7. Any punk CD. Because "commercial punk" is an oxymoron. Rebellion, priced to move at $16.95, is all kinds of Wonka.

8. P.O.D.'s Payable on Death, Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown, and any other album by a Christian rock band that subverted its religious undertones just enough to break into a larger market. Look, I have nothing against Christians (Mormons yes, Christians no), but if you're gonna stand for something, stand for something. Put Jesus on your album cover, a picture of Abraham getting ready to knife his son on the insert. Those Bible stories, with their whales and giants and miracles, are kind of cool anyway, sort of Dungeons & Dragons, no? But don't try to turn your music into some sort of propagandizing, we-can-sneak-this-on-the-airwaves bullshit. That's so utterly Wonka.

9. Any country music CD that used patriotism to move units. Toby Keith's chart-topping Shock'n Y'all (it's a pun on "shock and awe," get it?) includes "The Taliban Song" and "American Soldier." Sample lyrics: "Now they attacked New York City/ 'Cause they thought they could win/ Said they would stand and fight until the very bloody end/ Mr. Bush got on the phone with Iraq and Iran and said/ Now you sons of bitches you better not be doing any business/ With that Taliban." Yee-haw!

10. Any American Idol CD. People, please! These CDs going quintuple platinum is one degree removed from a band called Coca-Cola or Sprint PCS spending 10 weeks at the top of the charts.

Alas, this list is a little dispiriting, I admit. There were lots of good things that happened in music this year, but I'm kind of an asshole that way: If you want the "good news" go read the Bible, or listen to Switchfoot, or check out one of the hundreds of other Top 10 lists currently hitting newsstands near you. -- Garrett Kamps


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