The Best of 2003

Cross-legged and painless: Heatseekers always come out on top. Read about it in our massive year-end blowout section.
Colby Katz

Was 2003 a good year for South Florida music? Sort of hard to tell, innit, when we're always worked into a self-flagellating lather over how tough we have it down here? Well, buck up, lil campers! Sure, the radio sucks wet, musky, pachyderm balls, our big concert venue is named after an ink-jet printer, and most of our enjoyable indigenous acts leave home for better luck elsewhere, but take heart. What we don't lack are rich veins of musical talent and ambition, mostly mined by those with enough of a sense of humor to realize that this place is only as bogus as we allow it to become. We may not have as much of an astounding in-your-face culture as a hipper-than-thou college town might offer, but with all the extra time on our hands, we can, and should, build us a new society.

Before we begin, though, don't forget that 2003 was the slightly melancholy year in which we lost such greats as June Carter and Johnny Cash, Celia Cruz, Elliott Smith, Warren Zevon, and Wesley Willis.

To divert attention from those losses, we're laying out a smorgasbord of lists for those who appreciate order, organization, opinion, and smarmy self-absorption all in one handy, easy-to-reach location. Instead of hitting readers over the head with endless reams of inventory, this year we're divvying up items a bit differently. Of course, there are a few items you should hear from 2003 if you haven't: Bandwidth will gratuitously name Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below), Sun Kil Moon (Ghosts of the Great Highway), the Shins (Chutes Too Narrow), Death Cab for Cutie (Transatlanticism), the Postal Service (Give Up), and the Electric Six (Fire) as albums not to be missed.

Oh yeah -- those local releases we teased you with. We selected a nice, even number (in this case, since the pickings were so slim, the number nine), and this is what we came up with (we being Tom Bowker, Audra Schroeder, and Jeff Stratton).

1. Psycho Daisies, Snowflakes Falling on the International Dateline

With a touch of sci-fi psychedelia and a near-overdose of mood swings, the second Psycho Daisies album sounds like a timeless classic. The toothsome guitar work of Johnny Salton is prophetic yet rooted in the good dope/good fun heydays of the '60s and '70s. A trio of well-chosen covers (The Drones' "I'm Down Today," Bevis Frond's "Lights Are Changing," and the Gun Club's "She's Like Heroin to Me") mix perfectly with Salton's lengthy, liquid originals. The sound of Salton's demons chasing him down dark hallways manifests itself in some rather harrowing music. The needle and the damage done? Some good damage, then. -- JS

2. Billy Boloby, The Revival

Their mission: to create "rock and roll absurdist theatre." Billy Boloby incorporates jumper cables, fake mustaches, and gay priest jokes into its stage show and still easily delivers infectious, '60s-inspired rock 'n' roll. The Revival is six tracks of jerky, frenetic lunacy, and rather than try to literally revive a certain genre of music, it puts you in a headlock and makes you realize music can be fun again, whether you like it or not. Mission accomplished. -- AS

3. Panda Bite, Doom Box

If you've shopped at Guitar Center's Hallandale Beach location, you've bought strings and drumsticks from the monsters responsible for Panda Bite, who will, if asked, test-drive the CD over the house PA system. Once you've heard Panda Bite's catchy-yet-satanic blast (like Guided by Voices and Slayer sitting side by side) and soaked up the band's decimation of Aphex Twin's electro-anthem "Come to Daddy," you'll succumb. About the only place you won't hear the best recorded output to come out of South Florida this year is in a record store. But that's to your benefit. After all, why pay for it when the band will gladly burn it in exchange for a promise that you show up at the next gig? -- TB

4. Whirlaway, Pompano

How often do you come across an album where every song is good, an album that urges you to tear off your clothes and run through a sprinkler? Whirlaway's third release explodes with song after song of perfectly crafted indie rock -- songs that are at once beautiful and gritty, ethereal and cinematic, and, yes, sonically sexual. It could easily be the soundtrack for a passionate love affair, a beer-soaked bar fight, or both, if you're feeling adventurous. -- AS

5. The Holy Terrors, This Is What It Sounds Like When You're Dead

Sure, Fort Lauderdale legends the Holy Terrors are completely cask-conditioned, trotting out material that's been cellared and aged for this "new" release. No matter. This Is What It Sounds Like When You're Dead still sounds as fresh today as it did when it was recorded back in '98, '92, and '91. Rob Elba's blistering scream and undeniable pop sensibility shine through. The earlier tracks also showcase Sam Fogarino's brilliantly angular percussive attack -- long before he put on a suit and tie and became a member of Interpol. Listen to their beautiful musical marriage on "Cigaretello," among the catchiest tunes ever to come out of these parts. -- TB  

6. Trapped by Mormons, Go Go Go

Any South Floridian who has left the house in the past couple years has probably run away screaming from TBM frontman Todd Nolan. Fortunately, Go Go Go allows you to enjoy TBM's evil blues without having to deal with Nolan spitting beer in your face, jumping in your lap, and otherwise proving that he should be locked away for crimes against sobriety. But Nolan still runs free, and his bandmates are there to make sure Nolan doesn't get them banned from the handful of clubs that still let them play. -- TB

7. Remember the Ocean, Tomorrow After Dark

Although guitarist Earl Coraluzzo is one of those old Margate punks, his band Remember the Ocean is all about grown-up refinement. The most nonthreatening entry on our list, RTO's subtle pleasures revolve around the interplay of Coraluzzo's gorgeously warm and shimmering acoustic/electric six- and 12-string arsenal and the sincerity of Kristin Larkin's lovely vocals. Tomorrow After Dark's shimmering folk-rock twang and unapologetic professionalism make RTO's lighter-than-air sweetness easy to swallow. Your cookie-baking grandma would approve. -- JS

8. Lansing-Dreiden, The Incomplete Triangle

The mysterious Lansing-Dreiden (local art-terrorists? NYC fashion designers? Is it even a band at all?) has left this piece of its puzzle for us to decipher. The Incomplete Triangle sounds like Thin Lizzy re-creating Brian Wilson's Smile with Modern English at the controls. Is it art-rock? Post-punk dilettantism? Edgy post-modern eclectic experimentalism with a maraschino cherry on top? Lansing-Dreiden describes itself as "a closely-knit collaborative of like-minded people and computers." Whatever -- it's weird. And good. -- JS

9. Heatseekers, In Praise of...

The 'Seekers took the rock out of the garage this year and drove it drunkenly, doing donuts on your lawn. Musically speaking, of course. They're loud, they're fast, they cover an Otis Redding song, and they have a "Top 10 Rock Crotches" list on their website. Amen! -- AS

New Times writers from across the country were asked to name the best discs in several categories: wack (which we're calling "Wonka"), ironic, Latin, hip-hop, and hard rock and metal. Here are their choices:

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 nor'easter's worth of self-indulgent, blurb-a-licious critics' top-ten 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..."

Fuck that. Let's do something different.

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 were 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 -- November 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 Warfield 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, or 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

Since I suspect that a lot of New Times readers don't know squat about country music, let me just tell you that Toby Keith's chart-topping Shock'n Y'all (it's a play 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 ten weeks at the top of the charts. -- Garrett Kamps

Irony 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 'n' 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 New Times brain trust (myself included) pontificates on 2003's finest albums, 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

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

They oughta 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

Indeed, that last Eels album sucked. Yes, this burrowing-merrily-under-the-radar E side project redeems it. Freed of the squirrelly Eels frontman'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

(convulsing violently)

5. Kings of Leon, Youth and Young Manhood

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

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 reference 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

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)" without impunity or apology. Clothespin your nostrils closed, dive in, and learn why the funniest words committed to tape this year were Stop! Continue!

8. Turbonegro, Apocalypse Dudes

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

In which the 30-something 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

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

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, 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 five choice recordings well worth making an investment in.

1. Café Tacuba, Cuatro Caminos

Mexico City's avant-rock quartet Café Tacuba continues to explore the far reaches of the electronic ether without ever 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 trite confessions of love. There is no more complete -- or more satisfying -- road map for living in the digital age.

2. Chucho Valdes, New Conceptions

One of the best albums yet by one of the all-time greats of Latin jazz, New Conceptions gives yet another twist to the longstanding fusion of African-American and Afro-Cuban traditions. Valdes opens with Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona and closes with a homage to Duke Ellington, revisiting Miles along the way -- but it is 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

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 set to sophisticated salsa arrangements that will thrill your soul and feed your mind.

4. Kevin Johansen & the Nada, Sur o No Sur

It's a long way from CBGBs to Buenos Aires, but Kevin Johansen knows the journey well. The onetime leader of the weekend 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. 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

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. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

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). As Missy Elliott put it, hip-hop better wake up.

1. 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin'

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.

2. Lil' Kim, "Magic Stick"

How does one of the most recognizable personalities in popular music garner only 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 because hip-hop is growing into one of the most misogynistic, antifemale cultures in recent memory, and not even a woman that calls herself "Queen Bitch" and walks around half-naked is immune to its effects.

3. Jay-Z, "Excuse Me Miss," "Change Clothes," The Black Album; Panjabi MC, "Beware"

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?"

4. Various artists, Bad Boys II soundtrack

Sometimes it seems like hip-hop is the only genre that can generate a superwack, 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.

5. Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

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 says is, "Andre's getting kind of androgynous, isn't he?" -- Mosi Reeves  

1. Mars Volta, De-Loused in the Comatorium

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 hard core. Frontman 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 and pretentious.

2. Dimmu Borgir, Death Cult Armageddon

Taking its cue from the scene in Apocalypse Now where trigger-happy G.I.s 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 continue 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.

3. Cradle of Filth, Damnation and a Day

Not since Japanese Dada core extremists the Boredoms became the world's loudest tax writeoff 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 Beyonce'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.

4. Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won

This live set is as essential to longhairs as oxygen and Old Milwaukee. John Bonham plays like a cannonball with a beer gut. 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 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 the advent of pizza delivery.

5. Morbid Angel, Heretic

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. 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. -- Jason Bracelin

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