One of our old columns...

A Wave of Nostalgia

It's sad when logging onto Excellent has become nostalgic in its own right.

We've let this site pretty much die, and that's pretty much sad. I don't even know what I can say on the subject while still keeping my shit together. I can't put my finger on why, almost without a word spoken between the lot of us, the admins of Excellent just sorta stopped updating things around here.

I guess I can offer some theories...


Guilty Pleasure-Zilla!

Okay, so I've gotta fess up. This is turning into a pretty awesome month for music releases. I mean, not only has this week seen the new Modest Mouse, Low, & LCD Soundsystem in stores, but also the domestic release of the brilliant I'm From Barcelona.

But that's not what's made ME happy this week, no siree.

It's the REISSUES that are making me smile. Click on "READ MORE" for the whole skinny.


It's All Gone A Bit Sad

Well, it's been a long time coming. I've even taken crap from my friends for backing the guy for as long as I have... but, quite simply, there comes a time when you've got to step away and look a situation realistically.

Pete Doherty, it's time for you to fuck off. Click READ MORE for my whole rant.


It's Been A While...

Wowsa. Yep, it's been a good long while since you've seen a column from me, folks. I realized the other day that I think the past five or six columns that I've written for Excellent begin with apologies for not writing more columns... so I'll spare you the apologies this time and just let you know what's been going on - click READ MORE and let's have a chat, shall we?


2004: The Recap


Well, here it is, almost February, and I'm coming in pretty damn late with my year-end picks. Sorry. My dog ate it, I swear. Well, okay, maybe not. Maybe it's got more to do with my wild and crazy year, I dunno. For those who don't know, I'm actually writing a weekly humor column now for the major newspaper in my town, so that's been eating up a good chunk of my time. Add to that the fact that I got a new computer for Christmas, so the past few weeks have been spent transferring files and de-bugging, so yeah. It's late. Sorry.

2004 was one hell of a year for music, though, wasn't it? There are a lot of people I've talked to who have expressed their displeasure... well, at least their boredom... with the past year in music. Me, I was in heaven for a surplus of reasons. In fact, here are 25 of those reasons now.


Six Hours, 11 Minutes and 41 Seconds of Pure Melody

I started compiling my best of list this year in what I thought was a very left-brained manner for my normally right-brained self. I imported every record of contention into my ipod (some 70 odd albums and singles), created a '2004 contenders' playlist and began systematically rating every song. My intention was to count up which records scored the highest, manipulate the information a little to account for records that worked better on the whole and not on a song-by-song basis and pronounce myself 'Done!'. Well... I did all this (weeks of listening to nothing but 2004 releases... eep), looked at the list of records, looked at the list of rated songs and quite liked the song list a bit better. Hmph. So I began to wonder... why should I be limited to the standard top 20 records of the year? Behold... my A to Y of 2004 in 99 songs (or 6 hours, 11 minutes and 41 seconds of pure melody).

madame sunshinefix stars rufus magicnumbers anniemal rendezvous
148020 - Edson, A Modern Girl - Sing-Sing, Afterglow - The Sunshine Fix, Ageless Beauty - Stars, Agnus Dei - Rufus Wainwright, Anima Sola - The Magic Numbers, Anniemal - Annie, Astronaut - Luna

148020 - Edson
These happy-go-lucky Swiss boys have provided us with one hell of a catchy jingle. This song is all harmony, simple jangley guitars and pure sugary pleasure. Sweetness and light in simultaneously throwaway and memorable pop.
A Modern Girl - Sing-Sing
I'm oh so glad that Sing-Sing's internet pleas for help to their fans were well received. With a beautiful single under their belts (Madame EP) this is a great interim song to tide us over until they can release a full length in the new year. Pure guitar pop as spacey and dreamy as Sing-Sing has ever played it.
Afterglow - The Sunshine Fix
The rhythm and blues effects of guitar slides and dirty harmonicas generally aren't my thing, but The Sunshine Fix are out to prove me wrong by combining them with such gorgeous harmonies (and a cowbell!).
Ageless Beauty - Stars
Oh Amy! I've always loved the melodies that Stars pump out by the dozens, but there's a certain something added to it with the graceful soprano of Amy Milan. Add layers upon layers of Amy's harmonies with prodding electronic beats and they've written one of the best songs of their career. Oh yes, we *will* always be in love.
Agnus Dei - Rufus Wainwright
Rufus keeps pushing himself further into dreamland with each new record, and while some people could probably claim he's out to become the new king of the show tune, none of that is showing in this haunting Asian inspired operetta. Starting slowly with one screechy violin... then a single flute... it builds into an orchestral gem the likes of which Rufus has never penned before. I will admit I have no idea what godliness he's singing about in Latin but it doesn't matter in the slightest.
Anima Sola - The Magic Numbers
These new signings to Heavenly haven't even recorded a debut record, yet. Anima Sola is a stand out on the four track limited release single. It's also the exact opposite of that last Rufus track. The Magic Numbers strip their music down to it's barest and purest form... guitar resonance and vocal bliss. The vocals of head numero Romeo outshine all else on this simple melody. You'll hear their name again... and soon.
Anniemal - Annie
I'm always (unsuccessfully) trying to explain why Scandinavia has been gripping my musical heart for the past few years. Every time I turn my head, another new artist has popped out of the Norwegian woodwork with something refreshingly honest and new. With one spin of the Annie's debut record I'm again cheering extra-loud for another Scanindie underdog. So catchy, so cute, this is electropop for the masses. Happy-go-lucky electrohouse keyboards and Annie's "ba-ba-ba" vocals are contagiously dancey as we should all "get up, stand up, wake up the anniemal inside of you".
Astronaut - Luna
One of the peppiest songs Dean Wareham has ever written and yet one of the most puzzling. I've never heard Dean (or Britta) croon with such slick contempt. It's a four-minute kick in the teeth to hero worship... but layered with some of the most dynamic guitar riffs ever to come out this guitarbliss band.



Banquet - Bloc Party, Bastardo - Charlotte Hatherley, Better Days Will Come - Tahiti 80, Better Time - The French Kicks, Bittersweet Bundle of Misery - Graham Coxon, Blue Monday - Swan Lee

Banquet - Bloc Party
They are currently one of the most talked about bands of the moment for a reason. This single has all the hip shaking energy one needs for a Friday night, even if you second guess the singer's adoration of the Cure with his Robert Smith vocal afflictions, the beat will get you going.
Bastardo - Charlotte Hatherley
I was not expecting this pop gem from the Ash guitarist's solo effort. I expected some dark metal guitar riffs ... but WOW. Her voice is gorgeous, her lyrics oh so Louise Wener and this song is fabulous. Yeah bastardo... give her back her damn guitar.
Better Days Will Come - Tahiti 80
I'm thrilled when bands finally let their beautiful 'rejects' out of the closet and onto releases of b-sides and rarities discs. Better Days Will Come is better than most of the material on Tahiti 80's last full length, 'Wallpaper for the Soul'. What's the French translation for 'gorgeous, beautiful and don't hide songs this fabulous on anymore import only singles!'? Tahiti 80 will convince even the frowniest among us that tomorrow's sun can and will shine a little brighter.
Better Time - The French Kicks
As the closing track on their full length, 'Trial of the Century', The French Kicks have created a beauty with tinkling pianos and an overanxious Figurine-like drum machine. It's stuttery and polished shiny, but breaks into well rounded sweetness through the chorus of 'oooooh, that's the sound of a better time, better time." One time pegged as garage rockers, The French Kicks have developed into so much more.
Bittersweet Bundle of Misery - Graham Coxon
This song has the best rhyme structure EVER! When Graham first threw off the guise of Blur and began recording his solo material... I found it unlistenable noise. He's finally made a return to "rhubarb and custard keyboards"... ok well rhubarb and custard guitars. This is the Graham I always wanted to hear solo... and I never want this song to end. Write em all like this Graham. Pretty please?
Blue Monday - Swan Lee
Yes, a cover song and a cover of one of the most covered songs of all time. It's a real gift to transform one of the most popular dance tracks of the past 20 years into something ethereal and altogether new. Watch out for this Danish band... they'll make another appearance in my column shortly.



C'Mon Baby, Let's Make War - Koala, Can't Stop You - The Wannadies, Carry Me - Fancey, Charmed Life - The Divine Comedy, Cherry Blossom Girl - Air, Come Home Billy Bird - The Divine Comedy, Communication - The Cardigans

C'Mon Baby, Let's Make War - Koala
Politics and music do NOT have to be separate entities. Especially not when you combine them with stomping guitar hooks, John & Paul harmonies gone vocorder and such cleverly written lyrics.
Can't Stop You - The Wannadies
Speaking of politics, this was the song reverberating in my head on November 3rd. 'We all want to change the world, or at least we all should. It's the way it's meant to be. It's a great great shame, what a beautiful day it would have been." Enough said.
Carry Me - Fancey
This song is the best introduction to a new record and artist I heard all year. Todd Fancey stole my heart with his breezy cool melody as his voice is the lullaby in my 70's pop dreams. The build up breaks through the clouds and straight into a sun dappled Wurlitzer heaven. "Melody on the airwaves... taking me out..."
Charmed Life - The Divine Comedy
Every artist eventually makes more mature music, and I bet quite a few can look at Neil Hannon through the eyes of the green-eyed monster. This simple guitar and banjo ballad of thankfulness for the life he's lead is an ode to his newborn daughter. Love and sleepiness.
Cherry Blossom Girl - Air
"Tell me why can't it be true..." How Air manage to write music that resembles an escapist fantasy is beyond me. From every warped instrumental and slightly drippy vocal, I'm constantly comforted by the seamless sound they build up and tear right back down. For goodness sake, there's flute flourishes in this song... and it only makes me fall in love with Jean-Benoît and Nicolas all over again.
Come Home Billy Bird - The Divine Comedy
The polar opposite of Charmed Life... this is the storytelling Neil Hannon of old complete with string section and the notoriously catchy chorus. I miss Lauren Laverne. Her guest vocals on this Divine Comedy duet just make my day.
Communication - The Cardigans
I owe the Cardigans an apology. When I first heard this record last year, I dismissed it as a pile of steaming Fleetwood Mac covers done by a Sheryl Crow sound alike. Harsh I know, but I was horrified by alt-country band that had taken over the souls and bank accounts of the Cardies. It wasn't until I gave in and saw them live this spring that I discovered how much the band cared for their newly developed sound, and it moved me. The album and this song took on a new light. Communication has swagger instead of jingle... but it shows how the Cardigans grew into a truly emotional entity.



Don't Sweat The Fallout - The Marlboro Chorus, Dry Your Eyes - The Streets

Don't Sweat The Fallout - The Marlboro Chorus
My favorite Iowans have made a humble yet unapologetic return to their pop vengeance... "We've got our missiles packed with love / We got the ok from the dogs / It's just 10 minutes air time from our ship to your shores / So don't sweat the fallout / There is no need to take cover /Give a loving embrace to the end that's here to stay." Even in attack mode, they're nothing but charmers.
Dry Your Eyes - The Streets
I had no idea that Mike Skinner had this in him. With his sophomore concept record he's blown me away with the depth of new songs, particularly on Dry Your Eyes. Brokenhearted and backed by a full orchestra... he's singing as if his heart depends upon it. "And I'm just standing there... I can't say a word cos everything's just gone. I've got nothing, absolutely nothing." If you haven't heard this song you must live under a rock. Crawl out and join us sobbing along with Mike.



Ewan - The Radio Dept.


Ewan - The Radio Dept.
I'm cheating a little... I picked up this record towards the end of 2003 and it did make my list, but most of it's valuable time on 'play' came during this calendar year. I can't leave Ewan out... the song is too damn good. (Besides it was *just* released as a UK single so it technically counts.) "And You Can Feel The Sunshine Fading..." The Swedes are still bowling me over with their layers of shoegazey guitars and fuzzy vocal warblings.



Family Curve - Kevin Tihista's Red Terror, First of the Gang to Die - Morrissey, Fit But You Know It - The Streets, For Your Sake - Ken Stringfellow, Freakin' Out - Graham Coxon, Freakshow - Kevin Tihista's Red Terror

Family Curse - Kevin Tihista's Red Terror
Kevin is blessed with the gift of being one of my city's most beautiful songwriters, even if he's perhaps the shyest Chicagoan to attempt to take the rock stage. This was the first standout track on Kevin's new record for me. What starts off as a slightly prodding testimonial of youthful reserve full of organs and strings... becomes a grandiose display of his own strength (albeit slightly psychotic with the overlaying harmonies and minor chords). 'Who Cares I Don't Fucking Talk /But you know I love hard / I love harder than you." Genius.
First of the Gang To Die - Morrissey
Oh Moz. What happened to your record? Seven years and all you come up with is two catchy songs? First of the Gang to Die has all the energy of the Morrissey of the yesteryear... I just wish it wasn't sandwiched between such bland material. This song shows he still has it... so bring me more tracks as well written.
Fit But You Know It - The Streets
Bounce. Bounce. Wink. Wink. Nudge. Nudge. "This night's not even begun. Yes yes, oh yay." The followup so needed to 'Original Pirate Material'. Bounce. Bounce.
For Your Sake - Ken Stringfellow
From brawn to beauty. Ken's written another ballad to fall in love to (and with). "If you fuck up / I'll come around." The layers of pristine keyboards and vocals in this song take my breathe away.
Freakin' Out - Graham Coxon
A bit of shiny guitar embellishment in a song based purely upon uninspired rock music. Only Graham could carry this one-upmanship off with such panache as his punk edge takes on a whole new sweetness.
Freakshow - Kevin Tihista's Red Terror
I read somewhere that Kevin didn't want to include this song on his 2004 record ('Wake Up Captain'); he thought it was too personal. Nothing grips my imagination more than a songwriter putting their purest, most shameful emotions to verse, chorus and dazzling verse. "Oh, I'm just not turning out like I had planned / Oh, Get away as fast as you can get away as fast you can get away as fast as you can / 'Cos here I come again." With horns a plenty, and dreamy multi-tracked vocals, there's no shame in this.



Gay Messiah - Rufus Wainwright, Get On With Your Life - Stina Nordenstam, Good Wings - Kevin Tihista's Red Terror

Gay Messiah - Rufus Wainwright
Ahh Rufus, even when he's mocking gay culture and yet claiming to take advantage of his place in it... he can do no wrong. If his voice isn't soothing enough to gloss over the bizarreness of his message on this track, the beauty and build up of vocals harkens one back to old spirituals.
Get On With Your Life - Stina Nordenstam
Her voice may burn with childlike innocence, but the depths in Stina's music show she's far from naïve. While this song starts off slightly prodding, the lush orchestration frames her captivating multi-tracked vocals, turning her youthful tone in a graceful curtsey to the world at large.
Good Wings - Kevin Tihista's Red Terror
We all lives our lives immobilized somewhat by a fear... fear of losing face, fear of being broke, fear of failure or so many more. There are things in our lives we don't undertake because of our fears and I know personally I've got a gigantic blank canvas hiding in a corner for this very reason. I get caught up in the familiar, it's safety and comfort... and sometimes don't reach for that dream that's slightly outside my grasp. Kevin Tihista takes a simple story of an alcoholic's struggle with the bottle and transforms it into an anthem of familiarity for anyone ever handcuffed by such fears.
"Oh, I should have used my good wings. / Oh, trying's not the problem / Oh, you know the failing is. / Oh, I should have used my good wings. / Oh, It's nothing more than than this. / Oh, flying's not the problem /Oh, you know the landing is." Highlighting the well-written verse of Good Wings is a precious guitar melody anchored by the most beautifully overwhelming harmonized choruses. It works so well that it overtakes my senses with every passing refrain. Good Wings is a classic in every sense of the word... and brings to mind every celebrated songwriter in the book. As a friend of mine said about Kevin, "Maybe George Harrison's found a soul."
I purposely haven't ordered these songs numerically, but I won't hesitate to tell the world that Kevin's written my song of the year.



Helen Reddy - Trembling Blue Stars, Hiccups - Darren Hanlon, Homesick - Kings of Convenience

Helen Reddy - Trembling Blue Stars
Between Beth Arzy's voice wrapping itself around me like the softest goose down blanket and Bobby Wratten's sparkling guitars, I'm not sure where to begin. This is a slight departure from the Trembling Blue Northern Picture Mice songs that Bobby's name has become synonymous with as the duo lament the 70's songstress' voice on a distant radio dial. It's an absolutely gorgeous ode.
Hiccups - Darren Hanlon
Give me a quiet, clever artist over a boisterous loudmouth any day of the week. It's been part of my mantra that life is not what's said and done but how well the message is carried out. Add to this a slightly obsessive Scrabble hobby and how could I not sing the praises of Darren Hanlon's Hiccups? How cute is this verse... "Some day without trying you'll find something that's rare / Like an eight letter word on a triple word square"?
Homesick - Kings of Convenience
Starting off their new record with the ballad Homesick finds the Kings of Convenience picking up right where they left off on their last record 'Quiet Is The New Loud,' stuck in the sticky sweetness of longing harmonized with horns and epiphones galore. They've written themselves into their song, quite obviously as the "two soft voices blended in perfection" but leaving me wondering whether they've lost more of themselves than they've gained since their initial voyage into the Manhattan Skyline.



I Believe in a Thing Called Love - Edson, I Don't Mind - Swan Lee, I Love You 'Cause I Have To - Dogs Die In Hot Cars, I'd Rather Dance With You - Kings of Convenience, Irish Blood, English Heart - Morrissey, It's A Big World - Hercules, It's The Minor Chords That Kill You - Le Concorde

I Believe in a Thing Called Love - Edson
The Darkness wrote a damn good song, too bad the ridiculous glam showmanship makes me shudder and hide. By toning town the 70's flare and bringing back the original guitar melody (oooh with bongos!), Edson show the Darkness how it should be done.
I Don't Mind - Swan Lee
There've only been a few names from the Danish music community making waves stateside in the past few years (mostly Junior Senior or The Raveonettes). Unfortunately, this Copenhagen trio has been overlooked outside of Scandinavia. This cinematic epic won the Nordic Music Award's Danish song of the year in a landslide. Maybe... hopefully... the rest of the world will start to listen to the pristine beauty that is Swan Lee.
I Love You 'Cause I Have To - Dogs Die In Hot Cars
Not every tune needs to be an introspective ballad to garner my respect. The Scottish Dogs Die Die In Hot Cars have written a fun, silly sing-along full of sharp guitars and staccato piano that catches me dancing about in my living room to their jagged pace.
I'd Rather Dance With You - Kings of Convenience
This has to be the cutest video ever to use little Norwegian ballet dancers. Ok, it's probably the only video ever to use wee Norge ballet as it's central theme but what else would have proven the point so well? Sometimes the best things are that which are unsaid... so dance along and forget the small talk.
Irish Blood, English Heart - Morrissey
From the initial high hat and guitar strum, Moz drags me into this political banger with all the gusto he's got at his disposal. The live version of Irish Blood, English Heart that was floating around the internet a few years ago didn't really give us a glimpse of how well Moz could bring this song into fruition on record. It's hard to listen to such guitar driven power floating alongside Moz's voice without making Marr comparisons, but this is perhaps the only song on Moz's new record that could stand up under such harsh standards. The guitars aren't Marr-esque in their melody but their delivery is spot on as they float round and round that triumphant Morrissey snarl.
It's A Big World - Hercules
Hercules puzzle and enthrall me. Their often-somber sound never sounds desperate or pleading... instead each song comes across as a secret glimpse into their private world. Even with lyrics as sad as "I'll never find someone who's lonely too / If I'm lost here / In this big world / It seems I'm always in the wrong place / At the wrong time," the Hercules boys (with Gordon Zacharias of Fan Modine on vocals) instill more sweetness than Willy Wonka and that will get you licking your lips for more.
It's The Minor Chords That Kill You - Le Concorde
Releasing an EP on Parasol early on this year, Stephen Becker (aka Le Concorde) has thrilled me with the depths of his one-man show. Recorded with the boys from Epicycle (see Kevin Tihista) fulfilling his artistic vision... this song is a grandiose show of melancholy and courage that leaves me eagerly anticipating his new full length record (due out early 2005 on March Records).



Jacqueline - Franz Ferdinand

Jacqueline - Franz Ferdinand
I wasn't expecting much from the early (and continual) hype of Franz Ferdinand... but one spin on the listening station of their opening track and the record was implanted in my brain for the rest of the year. Let's face it, it is always better on holiday.



Leaf House - Animal Collective, Little Boy - The Aluminum Group, Lonely As Can Be - The Concretes, Loopy Loopy Love - The Brunettes, Lost In The Plot - The Dears, Lounger - Dogs Die In Hot Cars, Love Comes Quickly - Memphis, Love For Granted - Phoenix


Leaf House - Animal Collective
What in the world is going on in with these psychotic vocal tracks and bongos? It's amazing that they've pulled such a euphoric and blissful melody out of such seemingly disconnected meanderings.
Little Boy - The Aluminum Group
This song was cemented in my top of the year when I heard someone else sing it. Strange yes, but during 'An Evening with The Aluminum Group' back in May, this was performed acapella by Los Angeles based artist Lisa Zanes. The beauty and sorrow of the song really came out when all else was stripped away.
Lonely As Can Be - The Concretes
The Polyphonic Spree pushed the envelope a few years ago when they dared to ask the question, 'How many people can fit on the average stage?'... and the Concretes are picking up where the Poly Spree left off. The sometimes 13 or 20 band members aren't there just to provide ambient vocals though. There are so many instruments and talents blending together to make some of the most pensive melodies born in modern day Sweden.
Loopy Loopy Love - The Brunettes
If you've ever had an itch for music harking us back to the days of soda fountains instead of soda cans, you should meet New Zealand's Brunettes. Slightly off-beat and always whimsical the brilliant vocal pairing of Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield form the core of the band. The Brunettes consistently push the envelope of how jangley music can be made that's simultaneously fresh and reminiscent of a bygone era.
Lost in the Plot - The Dears
Another cheat... The Dears did rate my number two record of 2003, but this single has hit the rotation of the rest of the world over the past few months. I *finally* had the opportunity this year to see The Dears plunge into this striking ballad live to my absolute and total admiration.
Lounger - Dogs Die In Hot Cars
The best of Andy Partridge, Squeeze, Madness and a whole lot of punch bowled me over when I heard this Scottish masterpiece. Such unbridled enthusiasm makes this ditty so much more than just a collection of pop music reference points and impossible not to bop along with.
Love Comes Quickly - Memphis
The last cover on my list, I promise. I won't promise that it's the last you'll hear of Memphis. This side project from Torquil Campbell of Stars is dreamy, lush, intelligent and oh-so-delicately melodic. This Pet Shop Boys classic has become a modern day lullaby.
Loves For Granted - Phoenix
It's strange that on an entire album full of funky rock and smooth disco beats, I end up loving the simple acoustic guitar love song the best. "Tonight is dying on it's own / And now I got your love for granted / It doesn't matter right or wrong / As long as you are hiding somewhere". Reflective even in their second language, French boys Phoenix build up a weepy ballad of snaps and harmonies to soothe your lonely soul.



Maybe - Emma Bunton, Me Plus One - Annie, Meet Mr Marsden - Spearmint, Metal Chix vs Always On My Mind (Acapella) - Skateboard Vs Erlend Oye, Moonshot Manny - Joe Pernice, Motorcycles - The Aluminum Group

Maybe - Emma Bunton
Yes, that Emma Bunton. It may surprise you to know that the artist formerly known as Baby Spice wrote one of the most boot stomping, 60's inspired singles of the year. The Italian easy listening beats and Batman theme-esque guitar riffs are perfect with Emma's cooing. Eat your heart out Nancy Sinatra, you've been one-upped by a Spice Girl!
Me Plus One - Annie
Annie took me by complete surprise with one of the most memorable and addictive dance songs of the year. Co-written by Richard X, Annie (Berge-Strand)'s whispery thin wistful vocals are perfectly balanced by the bouncy beats and catchy-as-all-get-out deliverance.
Meet Mr Marsden - Spearmint
On one hand it's great when artists create their own label to put out their music, but when they're on another continent it's not always easy to hear the first time around. I finally caught up with UK band Spearmint in 2004 when they released an amazing compilation of singles and b-sides ('A Leopard and Other Stories'). Shirley Lee shows off his OCD in this fantastic song counting up everything of importance (and perhaps not so) in his life... "Twelve hundred bags of crisps, one near-death experience, Eight hundred and fifty tubes of tooth paste, One death experience..."
Metal Chix vs Always On My Mind (Acapella) - Skateboard Vs Erlend Oye
The self-proclaimed singing dj released one hell of a mix disc this year. It was the soundtrack for a Scandinavian holiday... and brilliance like Metal Chix vs Always On My Mind exhibits why. By overlapping his own acapella of the Pet Shop Boy's Always On My Mind with Metal Chix's Skateboard he's created a brand new electrobeat with such humor and style it makes me swoon.
Moonshot Manny - Joe Pernice
I don't really care for baseball, but 60's style sugar pop about baseball I will love til I die. Joe Pernice has never been as saccharin as in this adoring tune to his beloved Boston Red Sox. By recruiting his wife and friends for background vocals, he took his normally acoustic balladry to a new sugar-height.
Motorcycles - The Aluminum Group
A few years ago I was gagging along to the sound of Chocolates as the Aluminum Group were always dangling preciously close to a complete sugar overload. Over the past few years though the brothers Navin have developed a larger than life musical style all their own. As gracefully exhibited on Motorcycles, the Aluminum Group now create smart, sexy electronica amplified by their continually richer vocal tracks.



No One Needs To Know - The Changes

No One Needs To Know - The Changes
"With every passing moment gone / Another Up, Another Down / Completely unbelievable..." I'll tell you what's completely unbelievable, that a band as amazing as The Changes doesn't have a record deal. This song is so rich in echoey xylophones, haunting whistlings and sweet snares with tiny hints of guitar that it will push your ears further and further into ecstasy until you think it can't possibly get any better. Then they hit the GIGANTIC percussion build and frenzied chaos and I'm left shaking my head back and forth wondering what else it could possibly take to win over the hearts of the music industry's A&R reps.



Oh Sister - The Magic Numbers, Ooh La La - The Ditty Bops, On The Tower - Sondre Lerche, One More Time - The French Kicks

Oh Sister - The Magic Numbers
Kicking off this gentle ballad with the softest irregular horns, the brother and sister four part harmonies are teetering so close to the edge of indulgence with sentimental and psychedelic guitar chords. They blend so many vocal and instrumental tones that this sound becomes instantly familiar yet distinctly different from what the rest of the music world is up to. This is *the* band to watch out for in 2005.
Ooh La La - The Ditty Bops
I never expected crickets and steel guitars to make me giddy with glee but from the first time I heard this Ditty Bops song, I was addicted. A bit of bluegrass and a lot of folkish harmonies from the LA based duet of Amanda Barrett and Abby Dewald are so charming they could possibly get you digging through the vinyl bins for old albums by Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.
On The Tower - Sondre Lerche
On the whole Sondre Lerche's 2004 record was a bit of let down, but this immaculate song was heads above the rest. If this Norsk singer-songwriter can't melt you with his smooth voice, his playful lyrics and guitar licks should win you over. As perhaps the simplest song from his sophomore record the true tipping point to me was the delicate touch of xylophone that harkened me back to the beauty of Eggstone classics like Wrong Heaven or Supermeaningfectlyless.
One More Time - The French Kicks
I saw the French Kicks on an opening slot a few years ago and wasn't impressed. Their garage sound didn't sound original enough to inspire me to listen again... until I came across them at a summer festival this year. Inspired by a lot more bounce and finding their inner pop-loving hearts, One More Time is one hell of an opener to announce to the world that they've grown up and found their own sound.



People Mover - Le Concorde, People Used to Dream About the Future - A Girl Called Eddy, Please Sister - The Cardigans, Poor Leno (Silicone Soul's Hypno House Dub vs There Is A Light That Never Goes Out Acapella) - Royksopp Vs Erlend Oye, Poor Maude - Pas/Cal

People Mover - Le Concorde
I heard this song through a friend and within less than a minute had logged onto Parasol's site to get my own copy of Le Concorde's debut EP. This song is so infectiously gorgeous that I've surely sold at least half a dozen more copies of the EP on it's beauty alone. As Stephen Becker laments the apathetic world around him ("Every face is frozen stiff / Every cage contains a heart that never melts / Everybody is sleepwalking while these conveyor belts keep moving"), you'll be sucked in just as quickly as I was.
People Used to Dream About the Future - A Girl Called Eddy
I'm not sure what's the most striking aspect of Erin Moran's first full length record... her goose-bump inducing voice, the lush orchestral arrangements or her cleverly written lyrics. There's no mistaking that her words are delicately crafted ("Drinking our coffee it's a quarter to three / No one in this place, just us and our mistakes / You in the corner, that stupid smile on your face / Tell me is there a way to replace all the dreams, that didn't come true / Once we were happy / Once we were people who used to dream about the future") but it's got to be her delivery that sends shivers up my spine and pushes this song from mere orchestral ballad into top song of the year territory.
Please Sister - The Cardigans
Once upon a time the Cardigans could put a happy-go-lucky smile on the face of their harshest critic with their cutesy pop tunes... but these aren't those Cardigans anymore. They may have made a name for themselves by bringing their Swedish smiles to the world at large, but the experience left the band experimenting with the darker, bolder sides of their psyches with gorgeous string sections, full choir sounds and enough sonic reverb to prove they're no longer simply fluffpop.
Poor Leno (Silicone Soul's Hypno House Dub vs There Is A Light That Never Goes Out Acapella) - Royksopp Vs Erlend Oye,
When I first played the 'DJ Kicks' record from the Kings of Convenience's Erlend Oye I was dancing from the earliest beat of the very first song, but it wasn't until I got to nearly the end of the disc when I discovered the true ingenuity of the singing DJ. Erlend's crooning to the Smiths' classic is flawlessly executed but taken up a notch when BRILLIANTLY mixed in with his original vocal track from the Royksopp hit Poor Leno
Poor Maude - Pas/Cal
Very few bands could write a song about the oldest women in the world... and no one but Pas/Cal could do it with such charm and grace. This dynamic story of rise and fall captures the imagination with every string, hand clap and tempo change.



Radio - Pitty Sing, Rock and Roll Rhythm - Fancey

Radio - Pitty Sing
It's hard to see a one-hit wonder in the making, but that's exactly what Pitty Sing have set themselves up for with the throbbing New Order-esque basslines, distorted guitar riffs and sexy hip shaking of Radio. The words are pure drivel, but the shiny cooler-than-fuck sound is the best 80's tribute I've heard since that magical decade ended. It's too bad the joyous sound they create in Radio isn't evident in rest of their album.
Rock and Roll Rhythm - Fancey
I'm sure we all have driving records... the one album (or five) that will inevitably keep us from driving over the yellow line at 3 AM and into cornfields. As a part-time New Pornographer, Todd Fancey has obviously experienced enough late night post-show drives to the next city to discover what keeps his foot on the pedal. "Let's drive baby, let's drive on / Windshield diamonds through the dawn / Driving away a thousand miles, hitting highs that make it better / Driving into a different song." This Wurlizter induced flurry would surely keep any pop lover awake through the long night with it's gorgeously smooth harmonies and caffeine fueled guitar riffs.



Say Something Else - Spearmint, Serenade - Emiliana Torrini, Sexual D'Argent Gold - Unknown Artist, Sister Kate - The Ditty Bops, Sixten - Pipas, Something To Live For - Yann Tiersen & Shannon Wright, Sorry or Please - Kings of Convenience, Speedbumps - Luna, Sunshower - The Ocean Blue

Say Something Else - Spearmint
I'm on a crowded El train and this song comes on my ipod's shuffle. Within thirty seconds I'm laughing aloud with no end in sight to the shock and dismay of my stoic public transit partners. I can't help it; Spearmint's cunning disembowelment of popular movies is beyond hysterical and backed by a stunning build up of a guitars and keyboards.
Serenade - Emiliana Torrini
I love delicate music and Emiliana Torrini's sound could be shattered like the faintest touch through a spider web. Soft and luxurious guitars interweave the layers of barely there vocals to mystify the mind with it's grace.
Sexual D'Argent Gold - Unknown Artist
One part Fools Gold by the Stone Roses, one part Femme de'Argent by Air and one part Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye equal one hell of a mashup. It appeared on the internet to wow and fascinate me... and then left without even telling me it's author. The three songs are so tightly interwoven that anyone unfamiliar wouldn't have the slightest clue this wasn't one song to begin with... but it's not until it hits the last 30 seconds where the refrain of "Get Up Get Up Get Up" matches Air's melody, Ian's crooning and Mani's bass for an otherworldly explosion.
Sister Kate - The Ditty Bops
The Ditty Bops are something of an enigma. They successfully combine so many genres (indiepop, bluegrass, folk, swing, jazz) it's easy to get lost in the kitsch and overlook the catch. But Sister Kate illustrates how damn catchy kitch can be... the kind of catchy that makes you swing around in awe when you hear their beats and harmonies.
Sixten - Pipas
Pipas are not apologetic for their fun, energetic and to the point style of electro indiepop, nor should they be. Racing along at a frenzied pace are funky drum machine beats and the simplest of guitars all culminating in Lupe Nunez-Fernandez's bitter sultriness. Timing in at only 1:41, Sixten is sweetly irresistible.
Something To Live For - Yann Tiersen & Shannon Wright
Yann is best known for his accordion riddled soundtrack of 'Amelie'... but this song contains none of the cutesy France he built in our imaginations a few years ago. This timid and romantic ballad is the sort of classic piano tinkling and string stirrings we rarely hear these days.
Sorry or Please - Kings of Convenience
Riddled with tender strings, a piano and a banjo... this is a story of love's big confusion. "Where the stage of my old life, meets the cast of the new"... such sublime sounds aren't new to KOC, but it's refreshing honesty about the difficulty of loving someone else is touching.
Speedbumps - Luna
Dean Wareham usually has a rather hypnotic style of songwriting, but in songs like Speedbumps his normally tender vocals are positively spellbinding. The speedy guitars and pulsing rhythm can take this song to entirely new heights. It's sad to see Luna go, but I'd rather see them go out with bangers like this than slowly fade into the shadows.
Sunshower - The Ocean Blue
Oed Ronne's voice and Marr-esque guitar work are golden. This poppy song's shiny glint caught my eye the second I heard The Ocean Blue's new EP. While certainly not disappointing live the recorded track has such jangle and buoyancy, it was immediately counted as one of my favorite songs of the year.



Take Me Out - Franz Ferdinand, Teach Me How To Fight - Junior Boys, The Irish Keep Gate-Crashing - The Thrills, The Second Summer - Memphis, They - Jem, This Heart is a Stone - Acid House Kings, This is a Souvenir - Spearmint, Those Shoes - Marlboro Chorus, Ticket to Wyoming - The Ocean Blue, Too Old - Would-Be-Goods, Troubles - The Beta Band

Take Me Out - Franz Ferdinand
It was hard to find a club in the world this year that wasn't pounding this instant classic from their PA. I heard this song in Chicago, Wales, London, Copenhagen, Oslo... pretty much to everywhere I went. Somewhere in Marakesh... someone's leaning across a bar and thinking "I won't be leaving here... with you."
Teach Me How To Fight - Junior Boys
As the IDM-lite contemporaries of the Kings of Convenience, The Junior Boys have easily matched each KOC string section with a peaceful electrobeat. Teach Me How To Fight is quietly subdued with an ethereal sound building into a tune that's far from sleepy.
The Irish Keep Gate-Crashing - The Thrills
It must be hard to produce a believable sunshiney power pop sound when you come from a city famous for it's acoustic laden folkrock. I'll assume it's harder still when you're pegged as the novelty flavor of the week. With The Irish Keep Gate-Crashing, The Thrills set out to prove their critics that they are not about to drop off the musical radar with this buzzing danceabilly track. I've no idea where the rest of the critics stand, but they've convinced me.
The Second Summer - Memphis
On first glimpse this could be mistaken for Stars-lite from the Stars and Memphis frontman Torquil Campbell, but the electronica Torq produces with Chris Dumont is much more subtle in style and substance than Stars. Despite the digital template, the sound Memphis produces is never reduced to synthetic sounding blips and bleeps but an atmospheric world of minimal and sophisticated soundscapes.
They - Jem
With an effervescent debut record, Jem (aka Jemma Giffiths) seems want to point out to the geographically challenged that Wales isn't all that far from Bristol. This isn't quite the case with her stand out track, They. Unlike the rest of the record, this song gives a tiny nod to the Trip Hop wonderland with the occasional sampled backbeat but shows quite a bit more depth and ingenuity by creating beautifully crafted studio and slick dancepop more reminiscent of the One Dove than Massive Attack.
This Heart is a Stone - Acid House Kings
This track won't technically be available until the spring on Labrador, but it can be downloaded now as a special Kissmas present to you from the Swedes. Sleigh bells and tender lyrics might be a bit much for the average rock fan, but I think it's absolutely charming.
This is a Souvenir - Spearmint
My favorite bit about Spearmint is that they don't just come across as clever musicians, but can strike a true kinship with their listeners as music fans, as is glaringly obvious in This is a Souvenir. Originally recorded for a Pavement tribute record, Shirley Lee sings his heart about the power of music to bring about memories... "I remember somebody saying that one of the things about music, is that it's got the power to make you remember exactly how you felt at a certain point in your life / And it's true / Sometimes when you hear a song coming out of a shop or on the radio and it doesn't even have to be something you particularly like / It can make you feel things, see things even taste things you'd completely forgotten about..."
Those Shoes - Marlboro Chorus
With a little bit of country twang, the Chorus boys are again forging a new path into their pop wonderland. Pushing this simple bass-driven ditty are catchy arrangements and enough "ba ba ba da da dah"s to charm a Pavement fan's pants off.
Ticket to Wyoming - The Ocean Blue
For a forlorn love song, this is toe-tapping quirkiness galore! The guitar solo on Oed Ronne's vintage Gretsch lends a tender touch to this warm and captivating country western-tinged love letter.
Too Old - Would-Be-Goods
"Oh I won't play the ingénue / If you'll quit being Peter Pan / You know we're much too old / Too old for rock 'n' roll / Too old for long straight hair / Too old to walk around in sexy underwear" Oh Jessica, it's not so dire as long as you keep writing such beautiful and smart pop songs... for that, one is never too old.
Troubles - The Beta Band
This is one of those tunes I will only listen to through headphones. I'm sure it'd sound perfectly lovely through stereo speakers but there's something so intimate about this intricate, atmospheric and delicate song that needs the tenderness of immediate contact with my ears.



Uri Geller - The Wannadies

Uri Geller - The Wannadies
This marks the second song in my record collection about spoonbending mind melders, but there will never be enough music in the world featuring the likes of Uri Geller. The Swedish poprockers are at their punchy and bizarre best on this edgy powerpop track from the 'Before' half of their last record. Yeah, they're singing about the weather but doing it with such swagger I immediately forgive them and just press 'Repeat'.



Wake Up - The Arcade Fire, Whale in the Sand - The Brunettes, When You Find Someone - Ken Stringfellow

Wake Up - The Arcade Fire
So many of my peers went gaga over The Arcade Fire when they released their debut 'Funeral'. I was not, and still am not one of the gaga-ing, with one glaring exception... Wake Up. "Now that I'm older, my heart's colder and I can't see that it's a lie..." Let's face it, I get a bit cynical when everyone around me starts asking if I've heard [insert name of it band of the moment], but in this song what starts off as a meandering caterpillar of lost innocence becomes one giant butterfly of a toe tapper.
Whale in the Sand - The Brunettes
Monkey samples and minor chords ripped straight from an unwritten Combustible Edison album lead into handclaps and enough "la la la" vocals enough to turn the tartest lemon into sugary lemonade goodness. It's so Beach Boys they even turn a Brian Wilson phrase of "picking up good vibrations".
When You Find Someone - Ken Stringfellow
This is more appropriately titled 'George W Bush caught in a lover's obsession with Saddam Hussein' but that's a bit longer and less subtle isn't it? Granted, the title is the only subtlety with this song. Complete with Sarah Shannon's backing vox, Ken has written a stupendous wink-wink, nudge-nudge that is so overwhelmed with an immense wall of sound it's sure to please your inner Phil Spector.



Xixizinho No Oceano - Mosquitos

Xixizinho No Oceano - Mosquitos
More finger snaps, poppiness and love than the Portuguese can possibly represent when babblefished... "One xixizinho in the ocean cure any homesickness." Um, what's a xixizinho? Good thing I don't give a damn what she's singing... it's got so much bossa nova dazzle, it becomes an instant gem.



You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve - Johnny Boy, You Can't Hurry Love - The Concretes, You'll Be A Maze - Marlboro Chorus, Your Cover's Blown - Belle and Sebastian

You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve - Johnny Boy
Too bad the title of the song alone is enough to drive people away in fear. The tinkle of church bells, soaring choruses, electronic twiddling, proud trumpeting and the Kenickie-esque 'Yeah Yeah... Yeah Yeah... Yeah Yeah..." are the things of any Saint Etienne fan's dreams.
You Can't Hurry Love - The Concretes
Top singles of the year can sometimes sit in a drawer for entire months at a time... but when the New Year inevitably rolls around us music nerds love to pull out songs like You Can't Hurry Love as a dazzling display of how great the year really has been. We put it on the back burner and just wait for someone to come along and declare the past 365 as complete tosh... simply so we can throw a little 7" your way and say "oh yeah?". The Concretes won me over with this adorable handclapper... and the only thing I can fault them for is making this song way too short.
You'll Be a Maze - Marlboro Chorus
This is one of the few songs on the Marlboro Chorus' follow-up record to use percussion to its full capabilities. The rest of the record isn't lacking, but the addition here of such forthright drums and tambourines having me bopping about nonstop... and they did it by writing a song about a maze made of maize (um, that's corn).
Your Cover's Blown - Belle and Sebastian
In the past two years, Belle and Sebastian have amazed me at every turn and flip of their Scottish wrists. In two short years they have broken completely away from the ridiculous twee categorization but somehow maintained their identity and charisma along the way. Your Cover's Blown is a six-minute epic and a faux disco thriller gone surf rock that only further highlights their continued musical progression.

So that was 2004... in 99 nutshells. I thought it was a fantastic year for music. Every time I turned around, some new band or artist was striking my fancy. You've made it this far... I might as well do the standard indie critic shtick and tell you my top discs of the year...

01 Kevin Tihista's Red Terror - Wake Up Captain
02 Kings of Convenience - Riot on the Empty Street/Erlend Oye - DJ Kicks
03 Air - Talkie Walkie
04 The Ditty Bops - The Ditty Bops
05 The Cardigans - Long Gone Before Daylight
06 The Wannadies - Before & After
07 Spearmint - A Leopard and Other Stories
08 Fancey - Fancey
09 Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
10 Ken Stringfellow - Soft Commands
11 Annie - Anniemal
12 Tahiti 80 - Extra Pieces
13 Graham Coxon - Happiness in Magazines
14 Marlboro Chorus - Youth Medium
15 The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free
16 The Concretes - The Concretes
17 The Brunettes - Mars Loves Venus
18 Dogs Die In Hot Cars - Please Describe Yourself
19 Hercules - In The Alleyway
20 The French Kicks - Trial of the Century

I wish you all a great New Year and an even more wonderful 2005!

My headphones are ablaze

I am so enamored with new sounds right now I can't hold my radio silence any longer... my headphones are ablaze. I know people love to pigeonhole me in my favorite self-proclaimed genre... but we (the royal) are breaking free of the eurosugarindiegirlvoxpop jello mold this autumn. Ladies and Gentlemen... (pause for dramatic effect)... this fall is officially softvoxguitarpop autumn. Let it be known far and wide that the world has been waiting for a bit of guitars and harmonies (all right, maybe it's what I've been waiting for).

Sorry, that was a bit of an overshot but my enthusiasm cannot be bridled at the moment. I am twirling about day and night to the sounds of so many pour-your-heart-out artists that I can't help but be a bit zealous. So what's got me so riled up?
Kevin Tihista's Red Terror - Wake Up Captain
"On my knees in the alleyway, crying out your name... people look at me in shame. All that I can say is that I never knew that I could ruin a life." - Damn The Weather
I know it's only October, but I am about to call this my front runner for album of the year. There, I've said it. Feel free to hold me to it. If any artist manages to change my mind I'll be absolutely shocked.
I was a fan of Kevin's music before... but he's taken this record so much further musically and emotionally than he's ever done before. The nuances and subtlety of this release are just crying out for headphones. Every time I hear Wake up Captain, I discover my new favorite song... as every track is so perfectly paired with kevin's forlorn vocals and orchestral/acoustic pop (with the occasional horn section thrown in for good measure to make you wake up and take notice).
Listen to a few tracks: Kevin Tihista's Red Terror - Good Wings | Kevin Tihista's Red Terror - Family Curse
Buy The Record at: Parasol

The Marlboro Chorus - Youth Medium
"Weird song and pictures and absolute sounds, form in your ears when you calm down. But there's no absolution, for freaks and their minds." - The Black Iron Prisoner
I know you all must think I have some sort of personal relationship with the Marlboro Chorus boys as often as I sing their praises. Really that isn't the case, I swear it. Their music, although relatively unknown, is JUST THAT GOOD. Yes, in an all caps shouty sort of way. They'0re like a pop merry-go-round that never ends... making you dizzy at every ironic slurring harmony until you're all smiles. Combine happy-go-lucky acoustic guitars, punchy drum beats, a sly banjo, slap happy tamborines, gruff yet idyllic vocals... and you might be in the vicinity of this sunny day paradise.
Listen to a track: The Marlboro Chorus - Youth Medium
Buy The Record at: Parasol or Insound

The Ocean Blue - Waterworks EP
"Orange glow, the radio reminds me that you're not here and I'm aware. Now I'm reminiscing all the things we share... staring at the leaves, talking to the trees, all of these especially sunshowers." - Sunshower
It's been far too long since we've heard new material from The Ocean Blue and this EP is only going to make the fans more antsy for a full length release. It's a simple six songs (including two instrumental)... but is all things good about the Ocean Blue, then some. A bit of jangle, a bit of celestial guitar and enough to convince the world that the Ocean Blue are far from gone.
Listen to a few tracks: The Ocean Blue - Golden Gate | The Ocean Blue - Ticket To Wyoming
Buy the record: The Ocean Blue
(If you're in California... don't hesitate to run to see them this weekend.)

Fancey - Fancey
"Melody on the airwaves taking me out." - Carry Me
Blissful... just blissful. A glorious solo effort by New Pornographer, Todd Fancey. All the greatness of synths, fuzzy guitars, male/female vocal plays and the occasional disco beat create an absolutely gorgeous record to get completely lost in. Snap along kids... Fancey's world of 70's inspired melancholy and bliss is too cool for words.
Listen to a track: Fancey - Rock n Roll Rhythm
Buy the record: FuturePopShop or Insound

Hercules - In The Alleyway
"Sometimes I look at all the brokenhearted fools and lose my mind. It's a mad world that helps you up just to knock you down another time." - Good For You
I'll be the first to admit that this record is a grower. A few listens on your standard stereo and you might miss it. This is definitely a headphones subtle record of straight-out-of-the-60's diddies. Yes, diddies. The minimalism on this record, is just the sort of thing to drive Brian Wilson mad (and by that i mean crazy excited, not psychotic). It's summer, autumn and winter rolled into one growling wurlitzer complete with strings and the occasional ethereal guitar.
Listen to a track: Hercules - Can't Go Out
Buy the record: FuturePopShop or Insound

Kings of Convenience - Riot On An Empty Street
"So I lost some sales and my boss won't be happy but there's only one thing on my mind. Searching boxes underneath the counter, on a chance that on a tape I'd find a song for... someone who need somewhere... to long for." - Homesick
A bit of a break from my otherwise American indie autumn... but it's really just a short jump to Scandinavia. There really isn't anyone doing contemplative acoustic pop better than this Norsk duo. You've got to be a little bit sappy and a lot a bit in love with the world to tackle the sticky sweetness... but it's oh so worth it. The simplicity of every chord change just pulls at my heart. Besides, I dare you to watch the video below without grinning like the village idiot.
Listen to a track: Kings of Convenience - I'd Rather Dance With You (Video)
Buy the record: Insound
(While your at it... pick up a copy of Erlend Ã~ye's DJ Kicks record... absolutely brilliant mix.)

Dogs Die In Hot Cars - Please Describe Yourself
"I get up when I like. Wear anything I like. Don't keep up with the cool. I make up my own rules." - Lounger
Ok this isn't quite softvoxguitarpop... in fact delete every word in that except "pop". This Scottish foursome hasn't even released their record domestically yet... and I know the hype machine is quickly taking hold but for good reason. Were you an XTC fan? How about Aztec Camera or Squeeze? You'll quickly recognize all the same enthusiasm of a band not-yet-jaded and playing their instruments the only way they know how... however they damn well please. It's all attitude, ska beats and dueling piano/guitar riffs.
Listen to a track: Dogs Die in Hot Cars - Lounger
(Click media... then audio and you'll find a link)

There are so many more records I could talk about... Stars, Mosquitos, The Brunettes, The Thrills, Le Concorde, Charlotte Hatherley, The Dears (although thank goodness the world has finally taken notice to the brilliance that is No Cities Lost)... oh I could go on and on... but let's leave a bit of the enthusiam for another day. So throw on some headphones and click a few of the links above for the perfect soundtrack to the falling leaves.

Spring Ahead or Fall Back?

So I'm taking the plunge at writing a new column for Excellent. Hopefully I can make this bit of my indiepop world a regular addition to the website.

Let's face it, it may be April but this spring's indiepop releases are looking a little bleak thus far. There is something ridiculously mundane about watching a pile of dirt bloom into beautiful daffodils that makes me want to hear jangley guitars. My attempts at finding THE janglepop release of this spring have been fruitless so far. There have been numerous rock or electronic albums to perk up my ears, but my headphones are severely lacking jangle. Because of this I'm going to glance back to last fall for inspiration. There were two grossly undervalued discs that came out this past autumn that offer us a glimpse into the seemingly happy world of indiepop...


2003: The Recap

Well, so here we are. Another year gone by, another excuse to roll out a column.

And once again, another year where you'd hear it again and again and again - "THIS YEAR SUCKS FOR MUSIC!"

Such stupid, stupid people.

2003 was one of the best years for music that I can possibly remember. While no one album swept the world away (except, maybe, for 50 Cent or Outkast), tons of small records and scenes sprung up across the globe that shot out some of the best tunes of the past decade. You just had to look for 'em.

Hell, speaking of small records... the REAL biggest news story of 2003 was how one small little record label, Future Appletree, could arrive out of nowhere and have ALL FIVE of their debut 2003 releases make my list. That's just unheard of. But it's talent the likes of the FAT artists that have made this year VERY worthwhile for music. Sure, the good music of the year didn't just stroll up to you at Best Buy and hand you a business card... but it was there if you dug hard enough. The following represents MY look back at the 25 records that defined 2003.
#25 - AL GREEN - I Can't Stop

Al Green? Who'da thunk it? Not me, that's for damn sure. See, whenever the big magazines put out their year-end lists (and by big magazines, what I really mean to say is "Rolling Stone and Rolling Stone only), it's peppered with at least 5 titles belonging to old fogies who really don't deserve the accolade. It's almost as if they give Van Morrison kudos just for being alive and continuing to make music. Name ONE Van Morrison album of the past decade that DIDN'T make Rolling Stone's list of The Best Records Of The Year. I can't, because NO ONE ON EARTH knows the name of any album Van Morrison's released in the past decade... yet it doesn't stop the Stone from calling it a masterpiece. In a way, I suppose, that's fine -- there are some artists who at least seem to have a sense of, err, "artistry" about them, and Van Morrison's one of 'em. The Good Rev. Al Green is another. Al was The Man when it came to early 70's soul, but at the height of his fame, he chucked it all in to devote his life to his spiritual side - you can still find Al to this day on most weekends preaching at his church - The Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis. But a few years ago, the right reverend decided to re-enter the world of secular music... and this year, he got it right. Reuniting with Willie Mitchell, the producer who made him a legend, the two set about to recreate the magic. "I Can't Stop" was recorded in the same vintage studio where Green crafted his greatest albums of the 70's, on refurbished vintage analog equipment, and bringing in as many of Green's original session musicians as they could. And it frikkin' WORKED. Not only does "I Can't Stop" aesthetically sound like it stepped outta 1974, the hooks are JUST as blazing, the vocals JUST as breathtaking. It's not like a nostalgia trip, it's the SAME DAMN TRIP. Give it a chance, you'll be amazed...

#24 - SETH KNAPPEN - Leaving Sound

One little label, so much talent. I suppose part of this year-end review is going to read like my personal little salute to Future Appletree Records... and I suppose you'd be right. Not often -- hell, not EVER in my history -- has one record label had EVERY ONE OF THEIR RELEASES make an impact like this. There's lots to say about this wee label, and it starts right here with the debut solo recording from former Darling frontman Seth Knappen. Darling was sort of the emo godfathers of the midwest, catching the eyes and ears of everybody from Mark Kozelek to Alan Sparhawk of Low. When Darling split, the rest of the band signed to Sparhawk's label and became The Winter Blanket... Seth, meanwhile, recorded his solo debut in Minneapolis with Sparhawk at the helm, and the resulting record is nothing shy of a triumph. Loose harmonics yielding tight, stick-in-yer-head tearjerker anthems for the indie sect. Impressive still are the vocal tricks on "Leaving Sound" - Knappen's already ethereal warble is upped a few notches by layering and multi-tracking, leaving you with this unreferential beast of an album that's part aching, part joyous, and all rapture. And the best part is that the album's only the launching pad, it seems - a pair of new Knappen tracks turned up on Future Appletree's December-released compilation, "Songs for Trips, Fits, and Kisses" that show him shedding the ambient veil and heading into a more electro-glam direction (he's gonna WINCE if he ever reads that, but it's true, swear.)

#23 - FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE - Welcome Interstate Managers

I'm not a huge fan of power pop. In a pinch, it'll always do for good driving music. A little Squeeze here, some Crowded House there, Einstein's Sister in the corner, and maybe even the occasional droplet of Cheap Trick. But, in terms of "best album of all time ever," the power pop genre usually falls by the wayside in favor of something a little more... well... artsy. Maybe it's just 'cause the pretentious voice in my brain wants to dismiss power pop as being fluff. Maybe I only tend to respect "important" music and let the sugary-hook stuff take a backseat. Well, this ain't no fluff album, folks. Fountains of Wayne have finally lived up to their potential, and the album's even wielded the most unlikely of Top 40 hits in "Stacy's Mom." Good on them. It's a hook-filled record with scores of little character studies. Again, this is something I have a hard time dealing with, to a small degree. I like albums I can connect with... songwriters I can connect with. I like listening to an album and hearing the songwriter's inner voice and conscience in their lyrics - it's the ONLY reason why I absolutely adore Martin Carr and the Boo Radleys/Brave Captain world - because Martin writes straight out of his own brain and emotions. When songwriters escape into a world of fiction - where the songs tell tales of far-off worlds and situations - I have a substantially harder time validating it. It's the only reason why I DON'T consider "Sgt. Pepper" to be the greatest Beatles album. But every once in a while, one of these character albums shines out, dismissing my entire argument above as complete and utter nonsense. "Parklife"... "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society"... "The Gay Parade"... and now, "Welcome Interstate Managers." Does this album move me in a way like the Boo Radleys could? Hardly. Is it the most inescapably catchy album of the year? Yup.

#22 - DRIVER OF THE YEAR - Some Girls Might Say...

So if nothing else, 2003 was the Year of Cheeky Rock Revivalism. Everywhere you turned, some random critic was standing atop some random soapbox preaching about how the only band to really "get" rock music in 2003 was ______________. And invariably, they would all SUCK. Whether it's the neo-disco rock and roll nightmare of Electric Six (I liked them better the first time when they were called My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult... and those guys sucked, too)... or the rock pastiche of Jet (who assembled their pastiche meticulously from a surplus of bands who, yep, sucked)... or the absolute bottom-feeders of the bunch, The Darkness, who were like Sweet without the knowing wink, AC/DC without the attitude, and Guns 'n' Roses without Slash OR Buckethead... all wrapped up in the incredibly unexciting Saran Wrap of Indefinite Suckitude. All in all, it was a pretty disenchanting year for the Rock, let alone the roll. With one exception. I am, after all, a random critic. This is, after all, my random soapbox. Ladies and gents, the only band to really "get" rock music in 2003 was Driver of the Year. Throw shit at me if you want, I only speak the truth. This unassuming Iowa band has figured out the Formula of Rock -- beer, babes, a couple curse words, one hand throwing up the devil sign while the other's pounding a shrill chord on a less-than-respectful Moog. When I was in high school, I convinced myself that I hated rock and roll, for the sole reason that Rock And Roll Types Could Easily Kick My Ass. After all, what the hell did I have in common with Kip Winger or Don Dokken or Paul Stanley? Absolutely nothing. I was a short-haired drama geek with a penchant for computer games and Sting's "Dream of the Blue Turtles." So why couldn't I rock out? Why couldn't I join this club? Driver of the Year have latched onto the ultimate essence of rock and roll: that it's for EVERYONE. DOTY are geeky kids making geeky music that rocks the shit out of anything else that's come out this year. Fronted by the Parris brothers -- bespectacled Jason on keys and vocals and Justin on drums -- DOTY provide the much-needed soundtrack for the nerdy sect to finally step up to the kegger they were always denied entry to in college. Imagine if Kiss (a) had no make-up, (b) Ace decided that a Rhodes was far cooler than a Les Paul, and (c) Gene and Paul listened to Wire, Roxy, and a lot of Krautrock. You might be close. Rock and roll is about rebellion, pure and simple... cutting loose, putting a few beers back, finally getting up the nerve to ask the cute girl for a few minutes in the backseat. It shouldn't matter if you're a mulleted auto mechanic or a clean cut computer programmer. Driver's an equal opportunity rockfest. Just turn em up to 11.

#21 - MARTINA TOPLEY-BIRD - Quixotic

This album makes me smile. Which it probably shouldn't, seeing as how it's kind of dark, creepy, and depressing. But it makes me smile. Because I missed this music soooooo much. When Tricky put out "Maxinquaye," I was absolutely fucking floored. Go back and read my review, I think it was the first year I wrote a year-end write-up on this site that I declared "Maxinquaye" to be the album of the year. While it was true that Tricky was simply expanding on the Bristol sound already laid out by Soul II Soul and Massive Attack, it still sounded to me like something wholly different and not of human origin. Sadly, "Maxinquaye" also represented the jumpoff point for Tricky. No Tricky record since has been as coherent or as majestic (or, for the most part, SANE.) Let's face it -- Tricky's lost the plot. His most recent album was a bit of a return to form, but for the most part, he's now just a freaky stoner guy who babbles somewhat incoherently behind weird noises. Martina Topley-Bird was the female half of "Maxinquaye," with her enchanting, rolling voice -- and after far too long of an absence from the fray, she returns with her first proper solo album, "Quixotic." Yep, it's over-produced and a tad formulaic at times. But I'll take formulaic over insane any day of the week. I havent figured out if I like this album because it's authetically start-to-finish good... or if it just reminds me of the heyday of what I so dearly loved about "Maxinquaye"... but I'll take what I can get. And what you get with "Quixotic" is a cleanly produced album of varying styles - Martina does trip-hop, Martina does soul, Martina does rock, etc., etc. - but it's all wrapped up in her smoky, slinky, motherfucking SEXY voice. And I love that she's back.

#20 - BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE - You Forgot It In People

Wherein the Canadians show us how to be artsy AND carry a tune at the same time. Broken Social Scene are, as one of our list members so perfectly put it, The Doves as performed by an indie rock band from THIS side of the pond. And that's about spot-on, too. Take the Doves... add a sprinkling of Godspeed guitar fetishes... then layer in a bit of the old shoegaze vibe... and *poof* you're the new critic's darling band. Broken Social Scene hail from Canada, and occasionally tour with/steal-members-from Metric and Stars for their layered sound. Sometimes aggressive in tone, sometimes dark, sometimes floaty... but ALL brilliant. And their edge-pushing sonics are backed up with some fantastic songwriting. Shoegazing with HOOKS - when was the last time you heard THAT? (I'll give you a hint, it was 1992 and the band was called Ride.) But while many of Broken Social Scene's new-gazing cohorts simply re-checked out their library copy of "The Idiot's Guide to Kevin Shields," BSS take things in a slightly different direction, drawing from both the emo scene as well as the experimental weliketobequiet-NOWEREALLYDONT-yesisupposewedo sonic lashings of bands like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Maserati. The result is a sort of catchy, dischordant haze that unwraps itself to be one the most provocative albums of the year. And something tells me this band has just begun to discover their full potential.

#19 - THE THRILLS - So Much for the City

So there's been a definite "love-em-or-hate-em" vibe going with the Thrills in these parts this year. I'm a card-carrying member of the "love em" side, but it didn't come without some serious reservations. The simple fact is this: The Thrills are con artists. Here we have a band... as pasty-faced and ragamuffin looking as any proper Irish band should look... trying their damnedest to rip off a distinctly American sound. Their singer is from Dublin... yet miraculously sings with an undeniably Californian accent. They live in an environment that's more grey than blue, yet nearly every song on the album is a paeon to surf, sun, and fun. And yeah, that's hard to get over, it really is. If there's one thing I want out of a band, it's honesty... and that's something The Thrills simply don't offer. That said... it's one hell of a good con. Because this is an album that's as musically solid and cohesive as any of the 12 bands they perpetually rip off. When I sat down to think of my favorite songs of 2003... the ones that get stuck in your head and simply don't leave, the two that IMMEDIATELY come to mind are "Santa Cruz" and "Big Sur," the two lead singles from "So Much for the City." The hooks are inescapable. You can't shake 'em even when you want to. So as far as I'm concerned, let 'em rip off whoever they want. Maybe there truly IS an outside chance that The Thrills are just a group of guys who know no other way to sound... it just sounds too natural to be THAT much of a pre-conceived style grab. All I can say to the people out there whose brains scream, "SHENANIGANS!" when thinking of The Thrills -- Have you actually listened to the record? Because it's completely genius.

#18 - MY MORNING JACKET - It Still Moves

My Morning Jacket made the leap in 2003 from acclaimed indie band on Darla that noone ever got a chance to hear... to Official Major Label Recording Artists. And they do it with grace, style, and maybe the most well-rounded album of their fledgling career. Lots of critics make a big fuss about how MMJ are this "country revivalist" band. Well, kids, you're not gonna put this disc on and hear Dwight Yoakam or songs about honkytonks. What you ARE going to hear is an indie rock band towing a unique fine line between being outright twee and outright Americana. Imagine if the Magnetic Fields had a serious fetish for Tim Buckley, The Band, and the Beach Boys, and you'll be somewhat close. It's decidedly more indie rock than "country revivalist," and the merge of the two genres plays out not unlike their shoegazing predecessors, Moose. The happily lo-fi production lends a strange sense of honesty to the record, and the band's simple down-home melodies create a kind of distorted whirling dervish of a record that tries to be the Byrds and Galaxie 500 at the same time. Strangely, it WORKS. Yes, it's a retro sort of Americana sound, but not in the way that, say, The Ladybug Transistor or Essex Green are. It's more of a modernized, gorgeous, dark layering of distorted pop -- dare I even dub the phrase "country garage rock"? Sure, what the hell. It's country garage rock. And it's great. And it's low priced at most of yer major corporate conglomerate record stores, so you can't really go wrong. I'm really hoping that the band simply uses this album as a jump-off point to a really interesting career.

#17 - THE RAVEONETTES - Chain Gang of Love

So as you may have weaned from reading my Thrills review a couple records ago, I tend to hate rip-off artists. Or at least if I don't outright HATE em, I sure have reservations about the record going into it. I'm a firm believer that a band needs to define their OWN sound -- USE your influences, don't just wear 'em on your sleeve. But every once in a great while, just like The Thrills, a band comes along that, while they may be a tad bit pre-conceived in their style, still manage to put out a stellar fucking record. The Raveonettes get the award for Best Rip-Off Band of the year. Their influences come from ONLY two sources as far as I can hear: The Velvet Underground... and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Listening to the album, it's all but unquestionable. Walls of feedbacked guitars, breathy far-away vocals... and I'm hopelessly in adoration of the entire scandalous affair. This Danish band has managed to take everything ever good about the Jesus and Mary Chain (feedback, attitude, and a penchant for great fucking songs), take out everything BAD (the nasty habit for devolving into surf rock, the irritating in-fighting), and mesh it all with a Velvets-inspired lo-fi production. I dunno. I guess there's not much for me to say about The Raveonettes, because they spell everything out so black-and-white for you. Loud, loud, loud... and catchy as hell. Oh, and without doubt the best single of the year in "That Great Love Sound."

#16 - CHRASH - The Party

So what do you guys think of when you think of seminal Midwestern alternative rock music? Do you think of the Minneapolis sound of Husker Du or the Replacements? Or do you think of the Chicago-bred sonics of the Smashing Pumpkins? Cheap Trick? Slipknot? When I think of seminal Midwestern alterna-music, I think of the bands that were at the height of their game when I was in college. There was the irritating sonic dirge of House of Large Sizes out of Cedar Falls, IA -- they were signed to Columbia for a couple albums... then there was the ultimate irritation of Iowa City's Head Candy, who were always the last-minute fill-in opener at Metro in Chicago whenever a band phoned in sick... But for me, there was really only ONE Midwest band that mattered: Tripmaster Monkey. Some of you guys might be shaking your head because you've never heard of 'em; hopefully more of you are nodding your heads in agreement because you remember. For the uninitiated, Tripmaster Monkey hailed from Iowa, put out a few killer singles (one of which was tabbed as a Single of the Week in Melody Maker and an arguable "hit" in the UK,) released 2 albums on Sire/Warner Bros. in the mid-90's, and then promptly disappeared off the Earth. Some of you guys might have forgotten all about Tripmaster, but not me. Their earthy sound stole more from Athens, GA than Chicago, IL... but took that kind of natural Athens vibe and muscled some Replacements-esque tight melodies into the mix. The result was impressive to say the least... the first album was loaded with power hooks, while their second, "Practice Changes," was lo-fi before lo-fi was cool (and, if there's a God, will someday be heralded as one of the greatest records of our time.) Apart from a couple of one-off reunion gigs, us Midwesterners have been stuck without a successor to Tripmaster's brand of lo-fi wonderment... which is why it was SUCH a surprising treat to hear Chrash's "The Party" this year. Chrash is, at its core, Chris Bernat - the former lead vocalist of Tripmaster, and the album's players reads like a who's who of Tripmaster's former scene, including other former members of the band and their original producers. Good things take time, and it took almost a freakin' decade for Bernat to lay down the album -- the result showcases a mixture of tongue-in-cheek experimentation heartily steeped in a traditional Midwest vibe... tunes that on the surface might need an accompanying essay or two to fully appreciate the meaning, yet you still end up singing them in the shower regardless. From the album's opener, "I'll Turn Off All the Lights," with back-and-forth vocals from Bernat and former Tripmaster bassist Wes Haas, I knew this record was a welcome return to the sound and spirit that used to make me routinely smile almost a decade ago. That's not to say that "The Party" is mere Tripmaster re-hash, because it's definitely not. Bernat's developing sense of style and subtle humor brings to mind everything from Ray Davies to Zappa, yet it's all done in a sort of familiar, carefree roll-along that makes the whole thing intensely listenable. The Midwest rides again...

#15 - KELIS - Tasty

I can't believe this record made my Top 25. When we in the States last heard Kelis, she was screaming through our TV's and radios, "I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!" Which, in turn, caused ME to hate that song so much I never wanted to see her big 'fro ever again. Sadly, I almost got my wish. Kelis' debut album, while critically revered, played MUCH better overseas than in the States, turning her into such an overseas hottie that when it came time to release her sophomore album, her US label turned it down and it only came out in Europe. One thing's for sure - Kelis would no nowhere today were it not for the Neptunes, who handled the boards for Kelis' first records... almost to the point where you felt you were listening to a Neptunes record that just happened to have some chick singing on it. Ergo it was a bit of a shock to find out that "Tasty" would not be a Neptunes-only affair. Yes, they're on it. And yes, the album's out on their new label, Star Trak. But Pharrell and Chad are only on a handful of tracks; the rest have been divvied up by Timbaland, Dallas Austin, Rockwilder, and a slew of other acclaimed producers. This usually equals an incohesive record (different styles, different sonics, etc.), but somehow on "Tasty" it all gels. It's almost as if all of these different producers saved up their most difficult, artsy, and heck, just plain weird-ass beats that they'd ever come up with and threw 'em at Kelis to use at her discretion. Her versatile voice lends itself fabulously to the different cuts, uniting them all together under the umbrella of her flawless delivery. And there's only one or two times a year when a song goes Top 40 that damn well SHOULD HAVE gone Top 40... and Kelis' "Milkshake" is probably the most well-deserved hit of the year. With a beat so weird it'll be remembered for years to come and a vocal line that's simple, sexy, and fun as hell, it's THE best tune of 2003 to actually make it on the charts.

#14 - THE JAYHAWKS - Rainy Day Music

So it is just because I'm getting older that I've decided that the Jayhawks (even the late day model Jayhawks sans founding songwriter Mark Olson) are one of the world's best bands? I distinctly remember the first time I heard the Jayhawks... and I HATED 'em. I was fresh out of college and working in a record store... and the guy who I often worked with was one of the those middle-aged fellas who was hopelessly addicted to what I used to refer to as "adult alternative syndrome" -- you know the type - the folks who are semi-cool because they know more about XTC and Elvis Costello than you ever will, but their coolness factor is tempered directly by the amount of their time spent drooling over John Hiatt, Bruce Cockburn, etc., etc. So anyways, this guy (who, I must say, remains a wonderful human and a good friend to this day) tries to sell me on "Hollywood Town Hall" and I freakin' HATED that record... which of course meant it was played in-store incessantly in our horrid game of Record Store Chess - he plays The Jayhawks in a fruitless attempt to get me to like it; I counter with My Bloody Valentine; and on and on. I was perfectly fine hating The Jayhawks with no problem whatsoever... until I happened to be wandering about the local Borders a couple years ago and heard them playing what struck me at the time as The Greatest Song Ever Recorded On Earth Ever (and those who know me can attest that I make this declaration roughly every 17 minutes I'm alive)... but this time, the tune ended up being "Smile" by the Jayhawks. "Dammit!" my inside voice cried, as I knew that I was about to buy that album. "Dammit!" I again cried upon realizing that the album was really strong. So "Super Double Dammit!" was my official response this year upon hearing "Rainy Day Music," as I now officially had to swallow my pride and tell my friend that, upon careful consideration, The Jayhawks do NOT, in fact, suck donkey balls. Truth be told, they're one of the best bands recording, and "Rainy Day Music" is a solid one hour explanation as to why. A far moodier and organic work than their last over-produced nightmare (which was, in fact, nightmarishly GOOD,) "Rainy Day Music" is just that - an album of really, really impressive melancholia. Pop songs don't get written this well -- it's like the band summoned up the ghosts of Buffalo Springfield Past to oversee the recording. There simply isn't a better written song this year than "All the Right Reasons," which is a tune that ALL OF YOU should be ear-marking for future mixtapes for the internet girl/boyfriends of your choice. A couple years ago, I used to begrudgingly tell people through clenched teeth that the Jayhawks were fantastic... now I'll write random essays about how great they are and post 'em on the internet.

#13 - ELEKIBASS - Mystic Brothers, Magick Sister

Sometimes being a music nerd means you've got to go the extra mile to get the music that's worth it. Sometimes being a music nerd means you've got to go, in fact, 6,302 miles... all the way to the island of Japan, to find a small lo-fi indie outfit capable of out-popping anyone else on this list. Elekibass are one of the world's best-kept secrets... discovered on accident by Of Montreal during their Asian tour some years ago, which is a pretty interesting coincidence, since Elekibass pretty much ARE the Japanese Of Montreal. Our favorite Athenians brought the 'Bass over to America a few years back for a series of shows, whereupon the shell-shocked Eleki won over the Of Montreal crowds with their mix of Kinks-inspired sugar-pop and wide-eyed grins of amusement. A couple years later and Elekibass have finally released their first full length album... shame of it is, it's only available in Japan for the time being. (We're hoping Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, who put out the band's debut EP in America, will eventually follow suit with this one, too.) And for those of you too scared to navigate the treacherous seas of, you're missing one of the most hook-laden funfests of the year. Yes, Elekibass often sound like they're still learning their instruments (but in a fun, They Might Be Giants kinda way.) Yes, they sing in horribly brutalized English... but it's part of their charm. Check out some of the lyrics: "Hello how are you? Well just come here/Do you have any idea, what it takes to rock!!/This is the show begin we are the band/You don't have to leave town cause we'll go your town/And we all live happily together do get together/We've been living in the city long time/Maybe we should live there/Peoplepack!! into the rock/hope you enjoyed the show". That's the whole song. THAT'S what Elekibass is all about. Once you hear the music, you'll quickly not care that they sing in badly broken English, and frankly, it makes 'em all the cuter that they do. The back of the album cover even says, "You are our partner for playing the record." Awww. And the best part was that in 2003, I didn't have to leave town cause they come my town. I actually got 'em booked at MY hometown club this year, as part of their 2 week long whirlwind US tour, and the show was completely brilliant. As is "Mystic Brothers," which steps away from the band's earlier releases by (a) being substantially better produced, and (b) having side two be a concept record based on Yuko Chigira's story, "Baby Woo and Little Zaraf." All the while, the music comes across like Blur trying to soundtrack a Pokemon movie. Listen, I'm just as much a fan of the art-obsessed, angst-ridden Radioheads and Bloody Valentines of the world as you are, but sometimes music just comes down to sheer fun, and Elekibass are the kings of sheer fun. Their music is like a carnival in your speakers, and you can't catch a moment that they're not smiling through life and music. And you've just gotta respect that. Be brave. Take the step and order this CD. You will NOT be disappointed. I'll even do the dirty work for ya and find it online. Just go to and buy the damn thing already.

#12 - ATHLETE - Vehicles and Animals

Well what a pleasant little jaunt of an album THIS turned out to be. I really hate that I can safely say that I approach new British bands with a bit of trepidation these days. A decade ago, I would have smote myself for saying such things, as I was a card-carrying member of the Anglophile sect. But hey, that was when British music didn't overall SUCK as a rule. I'm sorry... I said it. You can blame the Oasis backlash, you can blame NME, you can blame me for being wrong if it's still your thang... but British music of late has been really, really less than good. Sure, there are a few bands that are decent -- The Doves, South, and the others on this list... and a few old friends that never altogether disappoint -- Blur, The Charlatans, The Beautiful South... but many, many, MANY of the hottest tipped bands by the NME and such this year have been no-nonsense crap. The Darkness? Please. Cooper Temple Clause? I don't think so. Ergo, any time the NME warms up to a new UK band, my new stance is "Yep, probably sucks." That's why this Athlete record reeeally surprised me. There's a universal style of music that never seems to sound dated or redundant -- and it's that kind of music that Athlete prevails in: gentle, cleanly-produced rock and roll. And not the kind of "gentle" rock that bands like Travis and Coldplay revel in; I'm talking the kind of gentle rock that brings to mind bands like the Trash Can Sinatras, Moose, Stone Roses, Smiths, etc., etc. And for no good reason, this album turns around and becomes one of the best produced records I've heard all year -- the clean production makes it literally sound like the band is popping amiably along in your backseat when you're driving around listening to it. The perfect soundtrack to a lazy Sunday afternoon. Not too loud, not too soft, not too hooky, not too bland. It DOES beg the question, though: Are Athlete really this good? Or are they simply good when compared to the other schlock pumping out of the UK right now? I guess time will tell, but for now, this album's shining out of my 2003 collection like a beacon of hope.

#11 - JUNIOR SENIOR - D-d-don't Don't Stop the Beat

Hmm. So here's where I'm supposed to tell you that this album sucks. Let's take a look at the evidence. Junior Senior are trashy and shallow. They make lo-fi guitar driven disco tunes... badly. They sound as though they've been practicing for approximately 3.5 days since forming. They're about as musically evolved as a B-52's record. They're kitsch, they're novelty, and they rode to fame on the coattails of a poorly animated video. There ya go, your Honor, guilty as charged. Junior Senior are reprehensible, and their mere existence brings down the state of modern music. I know this first-hand, as the state of modern music has spent the past year in a Case Logic bag in the backseat of my car, sentenced to a life of solitary automotive confinement, because for some damn reason, I can't seem to get this CD out of the player to make room for anything else. Because it's addictive as hell. It's such a catchy album it should be a crime. 2003 has definitely been a year of surprises, and perhaps the biggest surprise of them all is that I've been finding great pleasure in listening to a chubby gay man tell me to shake my coconuts. If there ever was such a thing as a "party band," Junior Senior have re-defined the term in 2003. Loud clunky guitars meet even louder and clunkier drum machines, and they hit it off fairly well together on this record. I dare ya to find a more fun album this year.

#10 - JAY-Z - The Black Album

So in the comment section of my picks for 2002, some nimrod decided it would be prudent to point out that there's an unwritten rule when it comes to uppity music critic year end polls that you have to include at least one hip hop album, as though I need to maintain my street cred or something. The truth is that I listen to a LOT of hip hop... probably more than any of the other records on this list, due to my DJ gig on the weekends. But it DOES merit a bit of thinking, because realistically, it IS a little hard to judge hip hop against indie rock, just as its hard to compare a techno album with a folk album. Year-end list controversy aside, though, the one fact that remains is that "The Black Album" deserves to be on this list. Unless you've been living in some kind of twee cocoon, you probably know that "The Black Album" is Jay-Z's much touted final album - that he's hanging up the mic after this one to a sort of self-imposed semi-retirement (if you can count co-running a record label, a night club, a clothing line, a Vodka brand, a shoe line, and making a bid to buy the New Jersey Nets retirement.) But as opposed to the 2 or 3 other times that Jigga's hinted at the close of his rap career, this one seems a bit permanent. From the opening line of the record, "They say they never really miss you til you dead or you gone/So on that note I'm leavin' after this song," it becomes painfully clear that this really IS the farewell of Young Hov. And that really is kind of a sad thing. Jay-Z has NEVER put out a crap album. And that's something that most rappers can't say about themselves. More impressive yet is that "The Black Album" is arguably Jigga's best yet. Without a single guest vocalist or rapper, but featuring damn near every top name producer in the game (hell, when you have both the Neptunes AND Timbaland on one record, you don't need anybody else), Hov is going out his own way on this record. Take your usual Jay-Z braggadocio and add a sense of finality to it... and it actually sounds pretty legit. It's one thing to say that you're the world's best rapper time and time again. It's another value altogether to say it for the last time, as in "What More Can I Say" where the song ends cold with, "The real shit you get when you bust down my lines/Add that to the fact I went plat a buncha times/Times that by my influence on pop culture/I'm supposed to be Number One on everybody's list/Let's see what happens when I no longer exist." Despite a few loose hints on the album that we might not have seen the last of Shawn Carter, it still rings with a sense of finality that really DOES take you back a bit. You can't listen to "The Black Album" without thinking back on Jigga's entire body of work... and maybe that's the greatest gift of "The Black Album" -- to remind us that a serious talent is stepping out of the limelight. I'm raising an Armadale to you this New Year, Hov. You'll be missed on the dance floors of the world.

#9 - ROBIN GUTHRIE - Imperial

Man, can Robin Guthrie do ANYTHING wrong? Like I said last year when I put his Violet Indiana record into my Top 20 of 2002, it bummed me out because this guy -- who's one of my all-time HEROES in life -- was a complete jackass to me during an unpublishable interview we did for this very website a couple years ago. Do I hold a grudge? Hell YES I do. Call it childish if you want, I don't give a shit. So I'll be honest with you - I'd love for the man to screw up. I'd love to tell you this album is a disgrace and that Guthrie is now a washed-up old has-been who needs to piss promptly off. Sadly, I instead get to tell you that Guthrie remains the musical genius that he's always been, and that this, his first ever solo instrumental full-length, is the real deal. Atmospherics that even Eno would be impressed by. But here's the truly insane part. Guthrie's not really, err, DOING anything much on this record, yet it's still PURE BEAUTY. Take a guitar, plug it into about a million effect pedals, then just sort of strum it absent-mindedly. THAT'S what this album is. And somehow it's still GORGEOUS. It's the sound of sex... the sound of sleep... and the sound of life, all swirling together in a minimalist symphony. It's like a new age album for people who hate all the life-affirming spirituality crap that comes with the label of "new age."

#8 - SPRITES - Starling, Spiders, Tiger, & Sprites

When Barcelona called it quits last year, I was super bummed. It wasn't as if Barcelona really broke any kinds of new ground - they were just a bunch of kids who wrote what sounded like love odes to video games using the sort of keyboard sounds that even Gary Numan might find antiquated these days. But Barcelona were damn charming. One of those bands that you couldn't listen to without a smile on your face, a band that reveled in writing simple songs for simple people. So yeah, when they broke up, I was subtly devastated... a band like that should NEVER break up, I tell myself, they just seem so damn happy in their music that you can't even wrap your head around knowing that they had ANY kind of internal strife in their camp. But what I wasn't expecting was for Jason Korzen to turn around and bounce back with a new outfit that might even be BETTER than Barcelona. Hallo, Sprites. The retro keyboards may be gone, but the cheery disposition and the knack for writing the world's greatest pop songs this side of Of Montreal remains. "I Wish I Sang a Little Better" might be THE most charming song of the year... and gets double bonus points for name-dropping both Bernard Sumner AND Feargal Sharkey within seconds of one another. My only complaint is that the tonality of the record is a bit one-dimensional - every song doesn't necessarily sound the same (the songwriting is still poptastic), but the production on the record DOES get pretty old pretty quick, and a more diverse sound platter would do this band great improvement. Regardless, ya still can't discount Korzen's ability to write one hell of a hook, and in limited doses, this album is pure pop magic.

#7 - PAULA KELLEY - The Trouble With Success (or How You Fit Into the World)

You have to love Paula Kelley. That's not a whimsical observation; it's an order. I will forcibly make you love Paula Kelley, even if my typing fingers turn to stubs in the process. For years I've been touting my love for the former Drop Nineteens vocalist, and now more than ever, I've got concrete proof to back it up. "The Trouble With Success" is plain and simply the most breathtaking pop album of the year. Since turning the solo leaf a few years ago, Kelley has been practicing her Boston-baked pop euphoria in the traditional indiepop format - guitar, bass, drums, with only the occasional flourish. "The Trouble With Success", on the other hand, is all about the flourish, coming complete with the "Paula Kelley Orchestra." Yep, that's right, the tunes on this album are augmented with heavenly orchestration -- the kind of stuff that your Bacharachs and Wilsons of the world would give approving nods to. And all of this ornate orchestration centers and swirls around the kewpie doll vocals of Kelley herself, a woman whose voice redefines "cute." When we interviewed Kelley a few years back, she told us basically that she hates being pigeonholed as the one with the "cute voice," but I'll tell you what, there's a lot worse pigeonholes to be stuck in. But the thing that makes Paula special isn't her innocent voice; it's the message behind that voice... make no mistake about it, this girl is one hell of a songwriter. Lyrics that waver between self-doubt and self-confidence, music that's uniquely empowering. The real Trouble With Success is that Paula Kelley doesn't have it by the truckloads by now. This album proves that Paula's got what it takes to play with the big boys... she might even bite their heads off. Don't believe me? Check out her website and listen to the multitudes of sound bytes for yourself.

#6 - DELGADOS - Hate

The one where our Scottish folk-pop heroes expand their horizons from their breaththrough album, "The Great Northern," and appear to lend themselves over entirely to their highly touted American producer in hopes for greatness, which IS indeed achieved, but at what cost? Make sense? The Delgados are one of the most important bands of our time, if not for their music then for their record label, Chemikal Underground, which spawned the likes of Bis and Arab Strap. The Delgados, meanwhile, had put out a couple of critically acclaimed yet universally ignored records. Until the third album, where legend tells that the band spent a year in the studio to produce some pretty uneven, incohesive tapes -- which were then sent to American uber-producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, etc.) -- resulting in the highly touted "Great Eastern" album of a couple years back. "Hate" is the band's official follow-up, and once again, they've chosen to work with Fridmann. Or, as the album's sound may indicate, let Fridmann work through them. It's impossible to miss a Dave Fridmann-recorded record. Unique acoustics, massive orchestration, raw vocals. It's the sonic formula that the Flaming Lips have been using to their advantage for the better part of the past decade. And now the Delgados appear to be ape-ing that sound full throttle on "Hate," almost to the point that you don't really know quite where the band stops and the production starts. But at the end of the day, is that so wrong? Not from where I'm standing... I don't care who was responsible for the crux of the album, the band or Fridmann... all I know is that it's a STELLAR fucking record, every song a mini-epic unto itself. The kind of album that's impossible to listen to as background noise -- it pulls you in, until, just as it did me, I found myself sitting up in bed, closing my eyes, and letting this beast of a record pull me into its dark, baroque world.

#5 - NEW PORNOGRAPHERS - Electric Version

So, every year when I do one of these lists, there's one review I put off later and later and later to do, because I invariably have no idea what I want to say about the album. "Electric Version" is admittedly this year's fiasco. Don't you guys have albums that you absolutely LOVE, but can't really pinpoint a reason as to why, other than you just know that it's Good. Well, this album's more than Good... it's Great -- but in a no-frills, nothing really interesting or specific to point out about it kind of way. It's just a simple powerpop album done RIGHT, as I suppose a Canadian indie rock supergroup SHOULD be done. Take the smarts behind Destroyer -- add the frontman of Zumpano (the best damn band ever on the post-grunge Sub Pop), then throw Neko Case in for fun... viola. There's no way it could suck. And it doesn't. Confident melodies hidden behind a lo-fi powerpop production. Every track's a hum-along. Just a damn good album -- no more, no less. I'd be more prolific, but fuck it - this is the kind of record you just need to go out and buy. So do so. Now.


So what is this album that's sending a smattering of music critics across the country apeshit? You sure don't glean much information from the packaging - let's face it, the album cover's pretty awful... and the liner notes just tell you it's the brainchild of a certain "B. Patric," and immediately you think of some turtleneck wearing enigma, writing songs by himself in the back corner of a coffeeshop, listening to "Meat is Murder" on his headphones and chain smoking clove cigarettes. Well, throw that image right out the damn window, because "B. Patric" is more than what he's cracked up to be. None of the press packets with this album let people in on the secret, but right here in this Top 10, I'll let the Cat out of the bag. In fact, I'll let Multiple Cats out of the bag... because the mysterious B. Patric sounds a little TOO much like Pat Stolley from The Multiple Cat. Remember The Multiple Cat? They had a few albums out in the mid-90's on Zero Hour, Restless, and Plow City... not to mention their collaborative remix album with Mark Robinson of Unrest/Air Miami fame. The Marlboro Chorus is Stolley's attempt to shed the skin of the 'Cat (where the Cat was a revolving door of session musicians and friends around Stolley as the only static member, the Chorus is a set 4-piece, including former Tripmaster Monkey and Einstein's Sister drummer Marty Reyhons)... but the end result is still the same -- pop gems that outshine their lo-fi production by miles and miles. It's like... hell, I'll be honest, I have NO idea what's it's like, because the Chorus is impossible to pigeonhole. One song may sound a little like Home, the next may sound a little like Stereolab, the next may sound a little like My Morning Jacket... And that's the greatest part about the Marlboro Chorus -- they soak up their influences like a sponge, but then spit them back out on record in wholly different ways than what you'd expect. The album's best cut, "Clock Puncher's Carousel," is a pristine example. The song, arguably the best damn disgruntled worker tune since "Take This Job and Shove It," uses a Phil Spector-esque chord progression that would be more at home on a Ronettes track than anything else, throws in some country guitar flourishes, then a solo that echoes early Beatles -- all bound via Stolley's grit-tooth vocals. It's an unholy musical mish-mash, and it WORKS in indescribable ways. In a normal release year, this would have been my album of the year hands down.

#3 - TENKI - View of an Orbiting Man

Wow. In a year when my favorite unheralded Chicago band [Turnerjoy] sadly decides to call it a day, another rising Chicago band takes their place in my heart. The two bands, while sounding entirely different, do share a similar sense of artistic ignorance... an ignorance to all other influential music that's roaming around, corrupting the minds of earnest musicians worldwide. Tenki ride their own wave, and it's a wave of intense emotion, theatrical arrangements, epic scope, dark lyrics, and a couple of horn players thrown in for good measure. The damn thing's even a bit of a concept album to boot -- the album's loose theme of despair and resolution is written through frontman J. Toal's eyes as an "orbiting man" -- a look at his life and recent divorce as though he were a satellite -- miles away, all-seeing, a calm vessel in the dark to broadcast his deepest emotions. The arrangements are breathtaking - keyboardist/trumpet player Dexter Gold is a pro koto player by day, for which he spent much time in Japan to learn -- and perhaps it's these classically trained sensibilities that help translate Tenki's music from the normal to the otherworldly. Yes, it's a heavy-handed record, but still more affecting and ultimately more redeeming than your average Radiohead record, mostly because Tenki's music is grounded by fantastic hooks and memorable choruses, as opposed to the dreary on-and-on's of your Cures and Radioheads. The album packs a punch, but the fun part is figuring out where the punch is gonna come from - sometimes it's a guitar, sometimes it's a keyboard, sometimes a trumpet... and sometimes from the acrid lyrics of Toal himself. But just as the orbiting man finds a sort of hazy, Polyphonic Spree-esque redemption towards the end of the record, so do we as listeners, and we realize that Toal isn't living these demons as much as he is excising them on this record. When you're done with a listen, you feel like you've run a mile - you're emotionally and sonically exhausted. And that's how I've always liked my music. This is the best of the 5 albums from the Future Appletree camp, and it's easily one of the grandest albums of our day. Long live Future Appletree, and long live Tenki.


And now we get to the story of how two guys from two different bands do a side project through the post for fun and come up with an album MILES above anything either of their day jobs have produced. And the whole affair STILL leaves me open-jawed at how good it came out. I mean, really, if all you heard was, "Yeah, the guy from Dntel and the singer from Death Cab are getting together and doing an electronic album," wouldn't you just SHUDDER? I imagine some ambient atrocity with an assortment of plinks and plonks that are somehow supposed to symbolize the pain of the binds of love or something like that. Man, was I surprised. "Give Up" might just be the most HUMAN record I've heard in years. Death Cab's never been quite my niche -- Ben Gibbard's lyrics seem perfect for a starry-eyed, discontent 16-year-old emo-girl and not so much for an aging, cynical music nerd of a guy as myself... but with this record, I gotta give props where props are due. It's genuine emotion is staggering -- it's full of the kind of perfection that I've wanted/needed to say to every girl I've ever dated in the history of time. Two guys, one with no experience in electronic music whatsoever, have made a glorified dance album that packs the sort of emotional wallop that one Martin L. Gore dreams of achieving... which harkens to another interesting development of 2003: When did indie rock go and decide that synthesizers were cool again? From Electric Six to The Rapture to these guys, suddenly drum machines and keyboards are allowed back into the indie rock schizm WITHOUT trying to be kitschy? Amen to that, it's about damn time.

#1 - BELLE & SEBASTIAN - Dear Catastrophe Waitress

So I know there are a few of you out there who're gonna read this and go, "But wait, doesn't he HATE Belle and Sebastian?" I guess I never really HATED them, but it's certainly true that no band has suffered more my wrath of endless jokes and anti-twee rants. But it was as if... how to put this... the OLD Belle and Sebastian was almost a caricature of what the band tried so desperately hard to be -- a precious collective of precious people who make precious music. I guess the conundrum I had with Belle and Sebastian was this: you had Murdoch's fantastic -- and yeah, it's fair to use the word FANTASTIC here -- lyrics. Even at the height of his tweeness, Murdoch's muse was no less than that of Morrissey or even Dylan -- I used to take sooo much more pleasure from READING Belle and Sebastian than LISTENING to them. And that's because the music of early Belle and Sebastian was insufferably awful, and I'll fight anyone to the teeth who disagrees with me on this one. It was schticky, one-dimensional acoustic art-wank. But yet you had these life-affirming lyrics attached to this musical drivel... and the whole thing incensed me somewhat. How could Stuart Murdoch PURPOSELY put his lyrics to this banal, soulless music? And the fact that he DID over and over again led me to believe that maybe he's NOT that good of a writer as I'd thought... that since the MUSIC was sooo contrived to be this sort of faux Nick Drake tweefest, shouldn't that mean that the lyrics were EQUALLY contrived? And THAT'S when all communication between me and Camp Jeepster shut down - there reached a point where I simply couldn't listen to a Belle and Sebastian song without laughing. And that's about when Belle and Sebastian rounded a corner and put out the "Fold Your Hands" album. Ooh, I suddenly just heard a collective gasp from the Twee Nation when I mentioned that record - as most of you freakin' HATE it. Was it a mistake for Murdoch to hand over the songwriting reigns on that record and let multiple band members write the songs? Yes and no. Yes, it was occasionally painful to hear the band working within the confines of someone else's lyrics... but at the same time, there was musical redemption going on with that record. Suddenly the band was capable of melodies... harmonies... ANYTHING other than falsetto vocals and mildly orchestrated acoustic guitar drapings. "Fold Your Hands" was, at the end of the day, a bit of a mis-step (though I still liked the album enough to put it in my Top 10 of that year.) BUT... if a mis-step is what is took for the band to reach the heights of "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," so be it. And yeah, I know there are a lot of you out there who "just don't get" this record. And you're probably the same people who barricade yourself in your room and listen to "Tigermilk" while clutching your Nick Drake box set for comfort. Just as the fans of OLD Belle and Sebastian think that "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" is the sound of a band becoming mockeries of their former selves, fans of NEW Belle and Sebastian think that "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" is the sound of a band FINALLY coming to terms with their greatness. Producer Trevor Horn -- who is, admittedly, a master at helping bands become mockeries of themselves (see: Frankie Goes to Hollywood, TATU, etc.) -- balances light production with the occasional over-the-top flair, which is something that Murdoch's lyrics have so desperately needed. And lyrically, he's just as on-point as ever with this record. From theorizing about Mike Piazza's sexuality to glamorizing the office romance of the common man, Murdoch's voice has seldom been so enchanting. Add to that the year's best lyric: "If I could do just one near perfect thing I'd be happy/They'd write it on my grave or when they scatter my ashes/On second thoughts I'd rather hang around and be there for my best friend if she wants me." Even the obligatory Belle & Sebastian "Yes-we're-artsy-strange-because-we-love-Jesus-which-you-don't-get-from-your-average-indie-band" song turns into one of the most poignant anti-war lyrics of the year. Hell, the lyrical impact of this album is so great that the guy can get away with a rhyme like, "I'd rather be in Tokyo/I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy-oh" and STILL make it sound like art. Belle and Sebastian now have the magical ability to take a pastiche of 60's revivalist music and somehow make it sound VITAL... make it sound alive. "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" isn't just the best Belle and Sebastian album ever made, it's THE best album of 2003, and the *perfect* way to remember this year.

My Best 20 of 2003

When the little hand meets the big hand in a round of 2004 kisses and jubilation... I will be a little sad to see it go. This was musically one of the best years I've heard since the late 90s. Week after week, month after month I was enthralled with new artists and brilliant records from some old favorites.

I've been an anglophile for over a decade now and I'm a little perturbed by the lack of Brits on my top 20. There are some, but not those that should be expected. The lack of a true British music scene just isn't interesting me anymore. Keeping-up-with-the-NME hasn't been my style in years but I think this is the first year where not a single one of the British bands of the moment has stayed within my radar for very long. So what's taking their places? A LOT of Americans, some Canadians, a few Danes, Swedes etc.

No more time for the pomp and circumstance, we've got some music to hear so let's get on with it...