Let’s face it: no-one is really interested in what I have to say on any matter, let alone what I consider to be the finest cultural artifacts of this year or any other. However, I have my own weblog, which means that I’m duty bound to inflict my ill-formed opinions on anyone who has the misfortune to stumble across this shoddy excuse for a website. So here they are, the best and worst CDs, books and any other business of 2003. Enjoy. Or not, as the case will almost certainly be.
Yat-Kha – Tuva Rock
In 2003, the World’s best band got better. Albert Kuvezin continues to combine Tuvan folk music with Deep Purple and Sonic Youth in a way that no-one else can. That he works alone in producing this kind of crossover is largely irrelevant, and he is blessed by having one of the greatest singers in history in his band, Radik Tiuliush. Radik is also pretty handy on the Morinhuur.
Calexico – Feast Of Wire
The band’s most fully-formed statement, an eerie combination of Mariachi, Tex-Mex, jazz and lonesome desert rock from somewhere south of the border. Singer Joey Burns is one of the most imaginative lyricists around, ably demonstrated in lines like “With a head like a vulture and a heart full of hornets / He drives off the cliff into the blue.” When backed by Mariachi Luz da Luna in concert, they’re unstoppable.
Josh Rouse – 1972
Imagine it’s 1972. Josh Rouse certainly does, on this beautifully executed homage to early 1970s pop-balladry. Think Carole King, think Neil Young, even Marvin Gaye gets a nod. “Sparrows Over Birmingham” is quite possibly the song of the year. Really quite lovely indeed.
White Stripes – Elephant
Yadda yadda married blah blah divorced etc etc brother whatever sister hello Renee Zellweger goodbye bar brawl Jason Stollsteimer who cares. Oh yeah, the White Stripes also released an album this year. It did quite well, by all accounts.
M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts
A simpleton might describe M83 as ‘Mogwai meets My Bloody Valentine with swathes of lush keyboards,’ so that’s precisely what I’ll do. They’re like Mogwai meets My Bloody Valentine with swathes of lush keyboards. I saw them play a gig at London’s Royal Albert Museum as part of an event organised by the French embassy at which (unless I’m greatly mistaken) all the band members were tripping deliriously.
Daniel Johnston – Fear Yourself
Poor Daniel Johnston. The greatest songwriter of his generation, trapped in the mind of a autistic child and the body of a water buffalo. Obsessed with Paul McCartney and The Beatles to such an extent that he apparently spends much of his royalties on purchasing multiple second-hand copies of ‘Band On The Run,’ he is nonetheless the one bona-fide genius on this list. Daniel, we salute you.
The Coral – Magic & Medicine
Whether you like sea shanties or not, The Coral are to be admired for writing proper songs, like, and y’know, playing their instruments with a fair amount of ability. Sadly, they’re fronted by the least charismatic man in popular music (get your hands out of your pockets, young man), and as such are unlikely to ‘make it’ in America, the country that has so obviously inspired every aspect of their oeuvre. Learn some fucking stagecraft, sonny.
Del McCoury – It’s Just the Night
Along with the esteemed Dr Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury is proving that Bluegrass music is as vital now as it was when the Carter Family started broadcasting from Del Rio, Texas, back in the early 1930s. This record has inspired my one New Year’s resolution for 2004 (apart from the one about getting laid), which is to learn to play the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer. Not that you’ll hear one on this release, but apparently it’s quite easy to master, y’all.
Rachels – Systems/Layers
With track titles like “Moscow Is In The Telephone” and “Air Conditioning – A Closed Feeling,” Rachels burden the listener with the most pretentious song titles this side of Godspeed You Black Emperor! Yet most of what you’ll hear is deceptively simple – “the foremost purveyors of forlorn and lamentatious orchestral arrangements in the indie world” – as someone once wisely said. And no, it wasn’t me.
The Darkness – Permission To Land
While it remains unclear whether The Darkness are the genuine article or Bjorn Again with their own songs, what can’t be questioned is the brilliance of 2003’s most entertaining night out. Thrill to those twin guitar sounds! Marvel at Justin’s catsuits! And then get your head around the fact the album is actually full of great pop tunes. Will either fall apart and disappear in 2004, reduced to playing college balls for drunken students, or they’ll dominate everything, sitting proudly astride the globe like a giant metal colossus. Or perhaps they’ll end up somewhere inbetween. Lock to rock, my friends.
Obie Trice – Cheers
Bonnie Prince Billy – Master and Everyone
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Nocturama
Cracker – Countrysides
Go-Betweens – Bright Yellow Bright Orange
Jayhawks – Rainy Day Music
Loose Fur – Loose Fur
The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Comatorium
Mogwai – Happy Songs for Happy People
Gillian Welch – Soul Journey
Compilation of the year
Various Artists – Le Festival Au Desert
Ahhh, those Tuareg campfires, those rolling dunes, those camel-skin tents. God forbid I should come over all Damon Albarn on you, but this collection of songs recorded at last year’s Festival in the Desert in Mali is probably the best introduction to African music you could ever
wish for. Those who remain unconvinced may be interested to learn that the CD also features Robert Plant backed by French outfit Lo?Jo, performing one of his Eastern-style rock mantras, and it doesn’t sound particularly out of place.
Box Set Of The Year
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will the Circle Be Unbroken: The Trilogy
Long before ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ re-introduced old-time bluegrass music to the mainstream, The Nittys (as I like to call ’em) were getting together with musicians both young and old to produce compilations of genuine mountain music. Volume one is to be especially treasured, featuring as it does real legends of the genre like Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff and Mother Maybelle Carter, but all three ‘Circle’ albums are worth hearing. Now where did I put that dulcimer?
Reissue of the Year
Gene Clark – No Other
One of the great lost albums of the 1970’s, No Other is a work of vast ambition, a fully realised vision of the ‘Cosmic American Music’ that Gram Parsons strived to produce and never quite managed. Truly God-like. Now all we need is for someone to re-release Dennis Wilson’s ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ on CD and I’ll be happy.
Not nearly as good as you’ve been led to believe awards.
Dizzie Rascal – Boy In Da Corner
Let’s face it – Boy In Da Corner is this year’s ‘OK Computer,’ ‘Dummy,’ ‘Moon Safari’ or ‘Play’ – the coffee table album bought by folks on the way back from IKEA to impress their people-carrier driving colleagues at dinner parties over canapes and cocaine. Unlike those albums, it’s not that great. In fact, I’m convinced that a good proportion of the people praising this album have NOT ACTUALLY HEARD IT. Don’t believe the hype!
Kings Of Leon – Youth and Young Manhood
What annoys me most about this band are the continual comparisons to Creedence Clearwater Revival. I realise that’s not their fault, but let’s examine the evidence, shall we? In John Fogerty CCR had three things – one of the best singers in rock ‘n roll, one of the greatest guitarists of any genre, and a song-writer of almost unparalleled talent (seriously – at his peak he was punting out the hit songs at a rate that would embarrass The Beatles). And what do we have in KOL? A great story, some quite outstanding facial hair, and… well, that’s about it. ‘Molly?s Chambers’ is a a good song, but elsewhere you’ll only find Emperors New Clothes. Don’t believe the hype!
Book Of The Year
Gary Wolf – Wired: A Romance
While the tale of the rise and sale of Wired magazine and its related businesses (the HotBot search engine, a TV show, a publishing house) might not be an obvious choice for book of the year, this story is a doozy, recounting one man’s extraordinary vision of the future and the lunacy involved in the creation of a company to support it. Magnificent, 100%, grade-A bonkers.
Shite Book of the Year
Stephen Miller – Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon
Tragic. Johnny Cash tumbles off this mortal coil, and the best biography we’re left with is this sorry effort, clumsily written and leaving as many questions unanswered as it poorly attempts to answer. Read this side by side with Hellfire, the utterly compelling biography of Jerry Lee Lewis by Nick Tosches, and then try and tell me that the man doesn’t deserve better. A travesty.
Website of the year: B3ta. No explanation necessary.
Technological retreat of the year: Copy-protected CDs. In an attempt to stop people sharing files on the Internet, the music industry begins to release CDs that skip and sound terrible when played on computers. Bravo! That’ll get everyone on your side!
Band to watch in 2004: Do Me Bad Things
Newspaper article of the year: Delta Force by Richard Grant, from November’s Observer Music Monthly. Quite possibly the most amazing story ever told.
Film of the Year: Lord of the Rings – Return of the King. The acting is wooden. Not one of the players appears to generate even the smallest spark of charisma. The story is palpable nonsense. The last fifteen minutes of smaltz almost ruin the previous three hours… but the simple truth of the matter is that the bulk of this films looks jaw-droppingly more magnificent on screen than any other in motion picture history. And that’s why you should see it.
Er…. and that’s probably about it. I could mention TV shows (The Office Christmas special), Sport (Ronaldo’s Old Trafford hat-trick) and Science (the discovery of a singing black hole producing music 57 octaves below middle C), but I doubt that you’re interested.
And to be honest, neither am I..