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.

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