At some point I guess you must admit defeat. I imagine that you are then asked to relinquish your “Hipster ID Card” to the hulking stud behind the velvet rope, turn yourself around and come to terms with the fact you’ll just have to get you’re cultural guidance from NPR. Well this is how it felt for a few icy moments when I realized that at least a handful of songs from bands on the below list were featured on “the hip new Fox TV show ‘The O.C.’” What makes this even scarier is that in order to have made this connection I would have had to actually watch the show myself. Admission: although I do not watch reality television I do watch ‘The O.C.” So this means one of two things: 1) I am losing my edge or 2) the music supervisor on the show has supremely good taste. I’ll stick with the latter, and hope they look me up if they ever need a replacement. In any event there was lots of good tunage this year. I guess there always is if you look hard enough, but for me most of what I had time for was good old-fashioned indie rock/pop. If you don’t have it, go buy it, burn it, or if you’re nice ask me to rip you a send of the accompanying “Bestest 2003” CD.
1. The Postal Service – Give Up (SubPop)
I’m not sure if a genuine appreciation of this record is contingent on having come of age during the 80’s with Depeche Mode, OMD, and New Order playing in your dreams, but the mail based tape exchange project (get it – Postal Service) is a wonderful album. The smart lyrics and silky vocals of Death Cab For Cutie singer Ben Gibbard, and synth doodling of Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, feel like they could have been anything from the soundtrack to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to a DJ’d retro dance party in the East Village. Either way, this record is the recording of the year. ( buy this now from amazon )
2. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow (SubPop)
The Shins 2001 release “Oh, Inverted World” was easily one of the finest pop records in years. On “Chutes,” the triumphant return to that same quirky, hooky landscape of pop, the band straddles the whimsical lyrical cleverness of a Robyn Hitchcock with the tightness of Steely Dan. The Shins are well on their way to becoming a real working rock band, leaving day jobs in the dust and a legitimate legacy of memorable music behind them. ( buy this now from amazon )
3. The Long Winters – When I Pretend To Fall (Barsuk)
When I Pretend To Fall is warm and crunchy piece of near perfect indie rock cut from the same cloth as Buffalo Tom, a kind of Replacements with PhDs. With a handful of the year’s best songs, the band not only has a knack for a chorus but also a strong gift as a writer. This is work of shimmering joy and playfulness, and one that will likely be buried under the weight of more marketing friendly bands with desire to find a demographic than to make music that matters. (buy this now from amazon )
4. Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism (Barsuk)
It has been a big year for Ben Gibbard, the prolific singer-songwriter who fronts both Death Cab and The Postal Service. Beyond Gibbard’s oddly seductive voice, he is an incredible wordsmith writing some of the most cerebral and creative songs around, kind of like an indie rock Martin Amis. On “Transatlanticism,” the band continues to evolve their unique blend of new wave guitar and folk rock into a darkly beautiful collection of curiously addictive songs. Although not exactly a collection of pop songs, the consistency and lush texture of the music is mixed with clever meditations on life, love and relationships that is worth quite a bit. (buy this now from amazon )
5. The Sleepy Jackson – Lovers (Astralwerks)
Australia’s Sleepy Jackson is the best thing to come from Australia since the Avalanches a few years back. “Lovers” is an all over the map collection of brilliant rock ‘n roll, blues pop, and good old fashioned rock balladry. Primarily the brainchild of Luke Steele, the son of a blues musician and all around student of rock history, the band delivers everything from arena rock anthems, to quiet ballads and hooky 70’s influenced pop-Beatle psychedelia. At times the lack of focus can be distracting, but upon further review it becomes hard to resist musical history on one CD. (buy this now from amazon )
6. The Decemberists – “Castaways and Cutouts” & “Her Majesty The Decemberists”
(Kill Rock Stars)
The Decemberists, aka Colin Meloy, is a kind of darkly bright singer-songwriter whose lyrics and song titles read more like chapters of a Dickens novel (“Castaway’s and Cutouts,” “Shanty For The Arethusa,” “Grace Cathedral Hill”) and whose sound is somewhat more contemporary and relevant. It was quite a prolific year for Meloy releasing two classics, even though one was more or less a reissue from late the year before, although “Castaway and Cutouts” is the better of the two, they both soar with the intelligence and creativity of PhD holed up in library recording studio! In the end The Decemberists rip a leaf from the pages of Elliot Smith and Neutral Milk Hotel proving once again that good taste begets good taste. (buy this now from amazon )
7. Josh Rouse – 1972 (Rykodisc)
On the 4th full length from the Nebraska-born singer songwriter, Rouse looks directly to the music of Carol King to find inspiration. He emerges with an album filled with elegant, orchestral songs filled in the sounds of flute and brass accompanying his almost Jackson Brownish voice. ‘1972’ is the year’s rainy day record, a stroll down a new memory lane, and ultimately a record for hipsters looking for beautiful folk-pop that they don’t have to be ashamed of. ( buy this now from amazon )
8. Super Furry Animals – Phantom Power (Beggars XL Recordings)
The wacky Welshman are back with another psychedelic masterpiece, mixing 70’s style arena rock with acid soaked pop. This time around the band seems to fluctuate between fast and slow, upbeat and downbeat, and strange and sentimental songs. A veritable roller coaster of sights and sounds, beginning with the beautiful “Hello Sunshine.” The album winds along a road paved with trippy guitars, and harder edged rock songs like “Golden Retriever.” Although ‘Phantom Power’ doesn’t touch last year’s epic ‘Rings Around The World’ it stills sits at the head of an esteemed class of UK rock. ( buy this now from amazon )
9. New Pornographers – Electric Version (Matador)
Any sucker for pure, unadulterated pop music, shouldn’t be without the similar but equally satisfying follow-up from the reigning kings of Canada and the versatile Neko Case. The Pornographers sing fast poppy songs, that make you feel like dusting off your hula-hoop and saddle shoes dancing around like one of those goons on American Bandstand. The best songs are the handful that showcase the standout vocals of Neko Case, who never ceases to mesmerize with her rich and confident range. ( buy this now from amazon )
10. The Thrills – So Much For The City (Virgin)
The Thrills are a bunch of young Irish dudes who moved to California for a time and fell deeply under the spell still lingering from the Beach Boys, Byrds and Gram Parsons. Part California travelogue (“Big Sur,” “Santa Cruz,” “Hollywood Kids”), part Neil Young notes on a bygone era (“One Horse Town” “Just Traveling Through”), this is a record that sounds like it could be old, but is instead a rather refreshing kind of nostalgia – like drinking a Nehi soda while watching the waves crash over the sun-soaked Pacific. ( buy this now from amazon )
11. Belle and Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
It is hard to believe that B&S has really only been around for seven years, a period in which the band released 5 full length records and a handful of EPs in that time while simultaneously leading the Scottish pop renaissance. Earlier records were criticized by some as being too mellow or somber, but with “Catastrophe” the band has embarked successfully in the land of pop. Like prior albums, the band has become a mini orchestra with the pretty vocals of Stuart Murdoch as the conductor. This is another strong effort from one of the most consistent bands around.( buy this now from amazon )
But by all means please do not forget …
12. The Delgados – Hate (Beggars Banquet)
Another in what has become a long list of blissful Scottish pop bands, the Delgados second full length is one of the best. Take a slice of Beatles, mixed with a little psychedelic cheer, alternate between pretty male and female vocals and you have the Delgados. I need to mention The Beatles yet again, but it is pretty clear that the bands worships at their all important alter, and this is a good thing.
13. The Essex Green – The Long Goodbye (Merge) / Ladybug Transistor – Ladybug Transistor (Merge)
In the land of “twee pop” (music with a punk mindset and an innocent and often orchestral sound) the shared members of Ladybug and The Essex Green rule. Led by the deep and oddly pretty vocals of Gary Olson, ‘The Ladybug Transistor’ continues to tow a warm chamber rock sound beneath their irreverent zest for rock. With ‘The Long Goodbye’ The Essex Green picks up where they left off with a Byrdsian – Beach Boys fusion, led primarily by the vocals of Sasha Bell, and the warm and wooly guitar and keys from the rest of the band.
14. My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves (Saddle Creek)
Louisville’s My Morning Jacket is part psychedelic rock and part gothic-county. Led by the deep and beautiful vocals of Jim James the band wanders between twangy Americana sounding classics to dark Buckleyesque rock songs. Although the album’s opener is probably the strongest track, the songs deserved to be listened to from beginning to end, and over and over again.
15. Yo La Tengo – Summer Sun (Matador)
This is the first Yo La Tengo Record in years not to make the official Top Ten. A little quieter, and even less poppy than the last, “Summer Sun” is yet another beautiful, blissful piece album to dream to from Hoboken’s finest.
16. Grandaddy – Sumday (V2)
Like the warbley, psychedelic meanderings of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, Grandaddy’s “Sumday” continues the band’s journey through that funky stratosphere of fuzzy feedback and melodic ballads. Although no longer as groundbreaking as the prior two albums, the band has set a course that will someday intersect with Pink Floydian greatness.
17. Calexico – Feast of Wire (Quarterstick)
Like dust being kicked up from the American southwest, Calexico spins what could be described as jazz-on-the-range blending a wide array of instruments with brass and strings to marimbas with an almost hushed and quiet vocal style unlike almost any other band we know. “Feast of Wire” is an incredible mood album – part soundtrack to a forgotten Western, part post punk hipnicity.
18. Rosebuds – Rosebuds Make Out (Merge)
Rosebuds are a good old-fashioned indie rock band from Chapel Hill. The trio weaves pure pop music into concise 2-3 minute portions, where faster songs alternate with ballads and what you’re left with is good old-fashioned collegiate rock.
19. Cat Power – You Are Free (Matador)
Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, has only one real point of musical comparison and that is bluesy British icon PJ Harvey. There is a raw power and energy derived from any real study and application of the blues and when Marshall funnels this through the prism of punk rock the result is a powerful album to be savored and shared. ‘You Are Free’ picks up nicely where ‘Moon Pix’ left off.
20. Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway (JetSet)
Whether he’s singing solo as Mark Kozelek, or as the Red House Painters or most recently as Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek has one of the most distinctive voices in music. His deep breathy vocals, and Neil Youngish mood and guitar soundscapes build into wonderfully emotional stories about everyone from deceased boxer Duk Koo Kim to Bobby Vinton. Kozelek will never be accused of being an upbeat musician, but his music has a dark, beautiful and literary kind of intensity that makes every album a pure joy, Sun Kil Moon being just the latest.