Original Soul

This time, it's personal: Our look back at an intimate year in music.

"Here, put this on."

Nearly everyone you met in 2003 came with a personal soundtrack. From the little middle school "sevvie" in your car pool who carried a personal mix CD in her backpack to the businessman in front of you at the ATM playing Dido just a little too loud on his iPod's headphones, people moved to their own personal soundtrack.

No one has to listen to music that isn't on their personal "favorites" list anymore. Find it, buy it (at iTunes' 99¢ Only store) and rip it to something you can take with you. At work, tune in the Internet radio station that best suits your mood. In the car, punch in that XM network that specializes in your favorite genre.

Honk your horns for Johnny Cash.
Honk your horns for Johnny Cash.
He's not going to fudging take it!
He's not going to fudging take it!
Mark Poutenis
Who knew RZA and Nancy Sinatra could mesh?
Who knew RZA and Nancy Sinatra could mesh?
Mark Poutenis
Bruce Reade

In fact, it's almost hard to listen to anything today that hasn't been filtered, somewhere, through someone's own set of preferences. Compounding that process, while record labels continue to slump badly in the face of this personalization, they're also releasing more albums by more artists than ever before. That means people wade through a pool of the awful -- which is bad -- just to get to the portion of the good music they want to hear -- which is great.

This all explains why this year, we've decided to forgo traditional top 10 lists. We'll just tell you what we liked, what we responded to most. We'll laugh and marvel at trends as we consumed them. We'll share how we and others experienced music. And the four top 10s we do offer will cover specific genres, written by some of the best and most enthusiastic critics of those genres -- they know what they're talking about, and they enjoy the hell out of it.

In the end, the personalization of music has made the sounds swirling around each of us as much a statement as the clothes we wear. Enjoy as our regular New Timescontributors share a few of their favorite things:

Jack Black teaches a teenager the value of good rock
A fortysomething dad could ask for no better gift than Jack Black's feel-good film School of Rock. It didn't take much to convince my 14-year-old son that every record before 1984 is worth hearing as long as it was featured in a millisecond of this film. Already exposed to the Beatles through Yellow Submarine, he's cut straight through to Sabbath, the Ramones and Zeppelin. That crazy tingle I'm feeling (sob) -- it's pride! – Serene Dominic

Johnny Cash and SUV trailer trashing
Well-scrubbed execs who normally wouldn't dream of affixing a bumper sticker to their Escalades let their country arses show after Johnny Cash died. Of course, the big black-and-white "CASH" promotional sticker (from the American IV compilation) didn't look out of place on many of the Lexus SUVs we saw driving around Scottsdale after Johnny met his Maker on September 12. But we delighted at one Paradise Valley man, who defaced the back window of his newly purchased black (naturally) Lincoln Navigator with a huge, cheesy hand-stenciled banner: "In Memory of Johnny Cash." Just made y'all wanna honk. -- Jimmy Magahern

Jay-Z and Panjabi MC's "Beware of the Boys (Mundian To Bach Ke)"
You'd have figured musicians would let their political flags fly this over Boy George's administration in song. Nope. One who did happened to be the disputed king of New York hip-hop. Jay-Z spit two typically smooth verses over Panjabi MC's already great bhangra-meets-Knight Rider smash "Beware of the Boys," but it's the one where he intoned "We're rebellious, we're at home/Screaming leave Iraq alone'" that made the ears percolate. If retirement comes on the heels of "Only love kills war/When will they learn?", then Jay's leaving just as he was getting ready to say something. -- Piotr Orlov

Big Boi vs. Andre 3000
Judging by the press clippings, I feel like the only white critic in America who actually prefers Big Boi's hip-hop on OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Belowto Andre 3000's freaky-deaky routine. With its Prince rip-offs, big-band goofs, junglist cover of "My Favorite Things" and one great pop tune ("Hey Ya!"), Andre's The Love Belowis something to behold. But here's the real revelation: Big Boi is pretty fucking eccentric, too. Overshadowed by his flamboyant partner for years, he steps forth on Speakerboxxxwith an ear for the psychedelic and an unhinged sense of drama. He's as concerned with Iraq as he is with being the gangster mack. -- Christopher O'Connor

The R. Kelly hit parade
I sometimes wonder if Chicago Sun-Times pop critic Jim DeRogatis made a back-room deal with R. Kelly before he turned the singer's infamous sex tape over to Windy City cops in February 2002. Instead of killing Kelly's career, the investigation into his alleged bedroom improprieties has jump-started his career for what must be the 10th time, with singles "Snake," "Thoia Thoing" and effervescent remixes of "Step in the Name of Love" and "Ignition" confirming his creative viability one inappropriate double entendre at a time. With all due respect to his victims, if Kelly goes to jail, can he keep making records? -- Mikael Wood

A.R.E. Weapons commit Modified Arts sacrilege
The rawking electro-trash of A.R.E. Weapons verifies there is no way to make a keyboard sound tough. But the scuzzy, raw-energy New Yorkers turned downtown Phoenix's art-rock haven Modified Arts into a bona fide dive for one night. The duo shattered the shoe-gazing sanctity of the joint and temporarily created a beer-soaked dance club. The normally alcohol-free venue this night featured drag queens spraying beer on indie kids and snotty NYC-fashion fucks dancing to preprogrammed beats. Shirtless and drinking Beam, the Weapons felt like drinking whiskey in church. -- Jonathan Bond

Jamaica crashes American pop
If you've listened closely, you've heard dub and dancehall playing just around the corner from the fashionable set for, like, ever. In 2003, the background exploded in your face. The dancehall-minded, omnipresent Diwali beat -- Sean Paul, Elephant Man and Wayne Wonder all used Stephen "Lenky" Marsden's hand-clapped creation -- turned hip-hop's xenophobic castle into a global party pad. And dub, long the secret weapon of techno, returned as a foundation for the indie post-punk revival. Ironically, the finest example of dub-as-savior landed on the hottest jungle mix of the year: Soundmurderer's Wired for Sound, 60 mashed-up drum 'n' bass classics in 70 minutes, eschewing the darkness for a sensuous throb. -- P.O.

Country music reasserts its identity
After several years of abdicating to Shania Twain, Faith Hill and other pop-minded pinups, redneck country struck back. Traditionalists climbed the charts all year with hootin' and hollerin' anthems. Alan Jackson recruited Jimmy Buffett to help him make "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" a rollicking party tune. Toby Keith, meanwhile, furthered his crusade against all anti-American baddies by letting Willie Nelson play executioner on the hill and promising to rise up against the evil forces on "Beer for My Horses." If there's any evidence that the 9/11 attacks had a tangible effect on music, this is it. -- C.O.

Parental advisory: Don't play it for your parents
"Uh-oh -- skip this track!" Parents of CD-burning tweens heard that phrase whenever little Brianna volunteered her mix CD for the family ride to the market. Why is it, then, that mom and dad never heard the entire Akineyle rap that started with the singsongy chorus "Put it in my mouth," but got to squirm through all 3 minutes and 2 seconds of Kelis' double-entendre grind fest "Milkshake," which the daughter deemed okay for adult ears? There's something odd about grown-ups having their listening experience censored by their own kids, who always, curiously, know just when to hit the fast-forward button. -- J.M.

Enjoying the video for "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself"
The White Stripes' pretty little cover of the Burt Bacharach classic "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" wouldn't surface here if it weren't for the video. No Jack. No Meg. Just Kate Moss pole dancing (better than most strippers around town can do), filmed in black and white and directed by Lost in Translationdirector Sofia Coppola. You won't see it on MTV, but the British music tabloid New Music Express has it on its Web site at www.nme.com/news/105946.htm. -- Brendan Joel Kelley

50 Cent's "In Da Club"
Remember, everyone: He's into having sex; he's not into making love. The 50 Cent persona is well-documented -- the guy who survives multiple gunshot wounds and still struts around like a peacock, daring everyone to return fire. Eminem has balls, too, but he also has a point. This guy? Well, he just has balls, which is what makes "In Da Club" so delicious. He steps into Dr. Dre's luscious strings-and-swagger beat and squeezes it like a .357. He makes my inner alpha male feel 10 feet tall whenever I hear this song; strangely, he seems to have the same effect on 8-year-old girls. -- C.O.

Twisted Sister plays Six Flags theme parks
The "We're Not Gonna Take It" boys toned down their foul language to tour Six Flags, the family-friendly chain of amusement parks. They also proved that no one -- not even Dee Snider -- can bait an audience to pump their fists with banter like "How the fudge are ya?" and "Are you ready to rock-and-flippin'-roll?" -- S.D.

Behold the sampler hybrid revolution
Whether they were cutting up and manipulating millions of live-instrument bits inside their laptops or jamming with traditional musicians onstage, a school of instrumental producers operating in between jazz, techno, hip-hop and rock shone a light at the future. The synthesis of technology and old shit -- in Four Tet and Matmos' folktronica, Manitoba's psychedelia, Prefuse 73 and Madlib's hip-hop jazz, and Matthew Herbert's fitting a big band inside his sampler -- may have had uneven results, but it undoubtedly pointed in a direction where man and machine can co-exist -- and thrive. -- P.O.

Bubba Sparxxx's Deliverance
It's quite ironic that after practically reinventing the black-music landscape, a white hillbilly from rural Georgia would inspire the brilliant producer Timbaland's best work. Bubba Sparxxx's Deliverance is thrilling because the rapper's and producer's differences force them to carve a mutual respect into the music. Sparxxx's rhymes about his country living dazzle in their hip-hop authenticity, while Timbaland effectively invents country and western hip-hop. The producer combines his trademark spacy percussion, bass distortions and stuttering rhythms with "hee-haw" backing vocals, fiddles and, on "Jimmy Mathis," a funky and hilarious harmonica loop. -- C.O.

A New Pornographers moment: strumming Neko Case's guitar
Lazily playing broken chords on one of Neko Case's many guitars while waiting for the rest of the New Pornographers to finish a photo shoot, I almost drifted into an alternative country reverie. But the boom box blasting '70s rock in the next room wouldn't let me. Like her bandmates, Case is too restless to stick to one sound -- or one band. That's why the superb The Electric Version bursts at the seams. Bandleader Carl Newman piles on details like a hyperactive decorator, but songs like the scrumptious "The Laws Have Changed" will still pry your ass from the sofa. -- Charlie Bertsch

David Banner's screwed and chopped Mississippi
"Screwed and chopped" is a remixing style perfected by Houston's late DJ Screw, by which music receives the codeine cough syrup treatment -- slowed, stretched, darkened, distorted, unsettled. The result is supposed to be frightening. And yet the "screwed and chopped" version of David Banner's Mississippi: The Album is gorgeous. I love it. The harmonies grow more resonant; the horns melt like butter; the acoustic guitar tones sound more beautiful; and the rapper's alternating sociopathic misogyny ("Fuck you! Suck a dick, die, bitch!") and poignant discussion of racism's legacy sting with stunning power now that you understand what the growling MC is saying. -- C.O.

Broken Social Scene's "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl"
Since Lou Barlow lost his heartstring-tugging je ne sais quoi, indie anthems about love that aren't heavy-handed or ironically detached have been rare. Here's one by Canada's amoebic collective Broken Social Scene, a character study that stands out among the art-rock sing-alongs on the band's You Forgot It in People. Electronically altered singer Emily Haines whispers demands and disgusts cribbed from a high schooler's diary, repeating them over and over, as the band builds from a hush to an epic swoon. Chris Carraba only wishes he could write a soul song this good. -- P.O.

The decay of electroclash
Electroclash's coffin got its hotly anticipated nail this year when Rufus Wainwright sang about it on his Want One; "karaoke too," he called it. I'm not sure I agree, but it rhymes with "phone's on vibrate for you" anyway. Isn't the whole concept behind electroclash that not everybody can do it? That it requires lots of patience and a flair for the sadomasochistic? I admit to totally digging Fischerspooner the first time I saw them, but I also admit to not buying their CD. And also to preferring it to anything on Peaches' Fatherfucker. -- M.W.

Britney gets around, now, doesn't she?
Fred and Britney play he said, she said. Madonna and Britney kiss. Britney re-creates a famed Angie Dickinson shot -- but with a better ass -- for Esquire. Her new album In the Zonemoans like an orgy. From virgin to (almost) like a virgin, Britney let it all hang out this year. Actually, we'll take the Esquire photos for future enjoyment; the other shit is just amusing ephemera. The cover shot alone is worth the price of the magazine. Now, if only Britney had some 10-gauge barbells skewering her private parts. -- B.J.K.

Lost in Translation: The Soundtrack
Downcast movie eyes owe Sophia Coppola a Twizzler for provoking My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields out of retirement. Shields returns with four nimble-footed tracks on the year's best soundtrack. Soundtrack producer Brian Reitzell makes Shields, Death in Vegas, Squarepusher, and Air all sound like members of the same collective. But the standout song, amid all the atmospherica, is Happy End's "Kaze Wo Atsumete," which deftly punctures cultural stereotypes by proving the Japanese language beautifully suited to acoustic guitar and '60s organ. -- C.B.

Bright Eyes calls out Clear Channel
At the 3rd Annual Shortlist Awards at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles on October 6, fo-mo hero (that's folk-emo, kids) Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes complained about Clear Channel, effectively calling the world's largest concert promoter of live entertainment out to the woodshed. "The only bummer about tonight is that we're helping to earn money for Clear Channel," Oberst spat. "If there's anyone who cares about music as an art form, now's the time to make a change. There will be no more real music anymore if we keep letting people shove it down our fucking throats." Later in Oberst's set, a young man jumped onstage and spit on Oberst's shoes. No telling if it was related to the nasty comment. -- B.J.K.

The commercial rise of crunk
A Southern club phenomenon for years, crunk music -- made with loud clapping drums, faint bass lines, spooky keys and little else -- is beginning to spread like cell phones thanks to the pop chart success of Lil Jon's absurdly catchy "Get Low." The next year, as a result, promises to be fruitful for artists like the Ying Yang Twins, Bonecrusher, and David Banner -- Banner's planning two new records for early in the year. Capitalizing on the trend, TVT, Jon's label, recently released Crunk & Disorderly, a comp that's part Christmas themed and part crudely horny filler. For holiday joy true to the booty-obsessed genre, I'll gladly take the Ying Yang Twins' "Ho! Ho!" -- C.O.

The Recording Industry Association of America. Need we say more?
The RIAA can congratulate itself for conducting the worst public relations campaign since the Spanish Inquisition. The major labels' chief muscle filed 261 lawsuits this year against people who download music off the Internet. And who were the first people they nabbed? A 12-year-old honors student and a 71-year-old man named Durwood Pickle, who was subpoenaed because his grandkids downloaded songs on his computer. Now, Durwood is vowing not to buy another Rudy Vallee shellac until this whole thing blows over. More recently, the RIAA was forced to drop a lawsuit against a 66-year-old woman, agreeing no sexagenarian could possibly download Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug." -- S.D.

Matthew Dear and Ricardo Villalobos advance glitch-techno
Even if you thought The Matrix addendums were crap, the feeling that the software kept on winning remained. Even Ann Arbor resident Matthew Dear's Detroit techno is on a funky-soul glitch trip. How his Leave Luck to Heaven stays so warm around all these metallic timbres is a mystery. Whereas for Berliner Ricardo Villalobos, an associate of Dear's from the microhouse/techno (micro-techno?) crossroads, warmth isn't on the agenda. He generally sets a dark minor-chord spell on Alcachofa Mimalistas Agonistes, maxing the tension, like an ornery medicine man DJing a packed bomb shelter. -- Piotr Orlov

Madonna's humongous miscalculation
Coming off a sweep of the Razzies, a withdrawn music video and a showdown with Kazaa downloaders that played like a Revenge of the Nerds finale, Madonna had a terrible year. Critics savaged her for repeating herself and, worse, for speeding up her voice and dumbing down her lyrics to compete with Britney. Offered as Exhibit A and B: the self-explanatory "I'm So Stupid" and "Mother and Father," which contains the worst white rapping since Brian Wilson tried it on "Smart Girls." My prediction for Madonna 2004? Her move to England will make the gap in her teeth wide enough to run a vocoder through. -- S.D.

Paris Hilton gets caught on tape
So it's not really music-related, but she did date that putz from Sum 41, and this bootleg-quality, night-vision video (was this filmed in Iraq?) is really one of the best things to surface period in 2003. That Rick Solomon is quite a lucky fellow; here's hoping that his next cinematic endeavor features his current girlfriend (and ex-wife) Shannen Doherty. -- B.J.K.

Dizzy Rascal's Boy in Da Corner
Hip-hop needs hope, and the one who might teach it is a 19-year-old from the East London projects who has one foot in the crunk nation, another in the U.K. garage underground and a head in the old school. Dizzy Rascal's debut Boy in Da Corner was the most futuristic-sounding album of the year by a long shot; that it had commercial legs in Britain made it even weirder. The self-produced beats staggered, when they weren't getting shook by slabs of grime, rock guitar and PlayStation noises; and Dizzy's desperate squeak of a voice chattered on a message for Britannia like he was Sir Melle Mel with a 21st-century teenager's outlook. -- P.O.

Paul McCartney pooh-poohs Phil Spector's handiwork
Okay, so he had to outlive two other selections before becoming "the smart Beatle," but look at all the eye for an eye he's extracted in 2003. Forget about Phil Spector's allegedly murdering Lana Clarkson -- Macca's been trying to avenge Spector's senseless killing of "The Long and Winding Road" for the past 33 years. He finally got his wish when Let It Be . . . Naked was issued in December, stripped of any Spector involvement, and guaranteeing that no infusion of Apple cash would go to his legal dream team anytime soon. If only we could say the same for Michael Jackson. -- S.D.

Björk live
Live grandeur, in full effect -- between the five-CD Live Box featuring a decade of concerts (including '94's Unplugged session, which ranks as one of the MTV program's finest hours) and last summer's tour, with its stadium crowds, fireworks, Matmos' micro-crunch techno and a rocked-up string octet, no one else imagines live performance like Icelandic genius Björk, the finest future-folk poet in the land. Long may she reign. -- P.O.

The Internet meme of "Gay Bar"
An ironic mix of the worst disco and '80s music, the Electric Six's "Gay Bar" features the commanding main line "You! I wanna take you to a gay bar!" repeated over an equally repetitive Devo-style guitar. Much like last year's "The Ketchup Song" or "Cameltoe" earlier in 2003 by Fannypack, the song was rescued, with no involvement from the band, by surreal flash animation. Last spring, British animator Joel Veitch used the song as the soundtrack for his Flying Viking Kittens. The kittens, dressed as Vikings, shred flying V's and wield axes while flying around the clouds singing the song in thought bubbles. (See for yourself: www.rathergood.com/gaybar/) -- J.B.

RZA and Kill Bill mate
Most critics of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 1 focused on the film's startling mix of cinematic styles. But the music makes the picture. Scenes acquire their rhythm from the interplay of sound and image. Musical motifs smooth the contrast between segments. Tarantino-picked tunes, like Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," blossom in the sampling, remixing hands of Wu-Tang Clan maestro RZA. Sadly, choice snippets of zany flute riffs and reverberating spaghetti Western guitar were either left off the CD soundtrack or included in awkwardly long form. -- C.B.

Mötley Crüe conveniently forgets about Razzle
The Crüe rereleased their first four albums as a four-CD set called Music to Crash Your Car To, Volume One. Its title has already infuriated members of Hanoi Rocks, who lost their drummer Razzle thanks to Vince Neil driving drunk behind the wheel. If you can believe Nikki Sixx, he actually admits that he never made that connection. Perhaps the band can plan four more CDs for the spring: Music to Make Insincere Public Service Announcements and Continue to Drink and Drive To. -- S.D.

Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism
After 2002's precious Give Up, from Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard's side band the Postal Service, garnered a warm reception, hopes were high that the next Death Cab album would shine brighter than its last, 2001's The Photo Album. Gibbard and crew delivered with Transatlanticism, an epic work that deserves to be absorbed through thousand-dollar headphones. From the crashing opening chords of "New Year" to the delicate acoustic finger-picking of the final track, "A Lack of Color," Transatlanticism is Death Cab's crowning achievement. It's also the best album to make love to from this year. -- B.J.K.

Jay-Z's The Black Album
The first time through Jay-Z's 2001 hit "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," I misheard Shawn Carter's boast "Hova's back" as "hope is back"; over Kanye West's crackling Jackson 5 sample, the line was the hip-hop equivalent of a feel-good-movie climax -- Roy Hobbs pinch-hitting in the ninth. It's impossible to mishear Jay's hubris on The Black Album, since nearly every song surveys a personal or professional history. But that sense of hope is there for real, too, in blasts of sonic triumphalism like Just Blaze's string-swirled "December 4th," and Rick Rubin's head-banging "99 Problems," where Jay fights the law and Jay wins. -- M.W.

Michael Jackson. Yeah, him.
Michael Jackson should borrow his pal R. Kelly's luck: "One More Chance," his humdrum Kelly-produced slow jam, hasn't burned up the charts the way its inclusion on Jackson's new greatest-hits set Number Ones would suggest. And at least Kelly doesn't look like the bastard child of Liza Minnelli and Roy Horn in his mug shots. What's the bad mojo mean for Michael? Probably nothing, since if the guy has proved anything over the last couple of decades, it's that he can take a licking and keep on . . . licking? I kid. -- M.W.

Matmos' The Civil War
Most electronic artists are content to watch shadows on the wall of their underground lairs. Matmos, though, struts down the sun-drenched road less traveled. This time, MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel sport puffy-sleeved Renaissance shirts and patchwork pants by Charles Ives. Scoring "Stars and Stripes Forever" for emergency alarm system, smoothie and leather coat is my kind of Patriot Act. But it's the sound of the hurdy-gurdy, underrated for half a millennium, that best defines The Civil War. Early Mod, delightfully odd. -- C.B.

Radiohead's Hail to the Thief
Equal parts Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead got spacy without spacing out this time 'round with Hail to the Thief. Thom Yorke's paranoia shines through all the bleeps and blips, sounding scared honestly shitless on "A Wolf at the Door" and convincingly diseased on "Myxomatosis." The best moments, though, come during "A Punch Up at a Wedding," an uncharacteristically funky number tempered by Yorke's wry British humor. -- B.J.K.

Kid cyberpunks know their snot
Every other Saturday, middle school PC gamers take over the back room of EJoy Café in Tempe and download the music they need for their 12-hour Counterstrike marathon (which the staff deletes later). Naturally, a lot of Blink-182 songs end up in the recycle bin. On a recent Saturday, though, one of the 13-year-old cyberpunks, wearing a Sex Pistols tee shirt, loaded his MusicMatch Jukebox with something more old-school: classic snot anthems from The Clash's London Calling, mixed with cuts from Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros' posthumous 2003 release Streetcore. Fire in the hole! -- J.M.

The liberal Welsh come through in the protest clutch
American wimps, take note: The best anti-Bush song all year came from the Super Furry Animals, the eclectic Welsh pop leftists. How pathetic is that? We should still all be thankful for Super Furry front man Gruff Rhys, who penned the beautifully literate, deceptively jaunty "Liberty Belle," in which America becomes the Jezebel who ruins lives for sport -- and deserves her comeuppance. -- C.O.

Neil Young reissues On the Beach
How in the world did On the Beach stay out of print for almost 30 years? Thankfully included among four reissues of long-lost Neil Young records for Reprise, the 1974 album is a masterpiece of reflection and loneliness, of creepy vocals and weepy guitar licks. "I hear the mountains are doing fine/Morning glory is on the vine," sings Young in a tired voice on the acoustic ballad "Motion Pictures." It's the perfect stewing-in-your-dreams-in-bed-on-a-Sunday-morning kind of sentiment. -- C.O.

A child and her real "Satisfaction"
Walking toward the dairy aisle in Wild Oats Market with my 4-year-old daughter, I was surprised to hear the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" piped in for ecologically conscious shoppers. I was even more surprised to hear Skylar singing along. I knew she'd never heard that recording. Then I realized that she'd learned the words from Cat Power's spooky chorus-free cover from a few years back. The spirit of classic rock, then, seems more likely to live on in Chan Marshall's splintered voice than in Sir Mick's ermine-draped stroll. Coincidentally, Cat Power's melancholy You Are Free is on Skylar's Top 10 list. -- C.B.

Enon's Hocus Pocus
Hocus Pocus is the perfect college radio station packed onto one disc, a Cadillac Seville flattened to the width of a candy bar. I love how the angular outbursts of John Schmersal (Brainiac) play off the tick-tock honey of Toko Yasuda (Blonde Redhead). And just when you worry that the record is reeling out of control, Matt Schulz's drumming fuses with the warm and fuzzy sampled beats to steady the helm. I can listen for hours without getting bored. The single that wasn't, "Daughter in the House of Fools," is sticky enough to score a foreign car commercial. -- C.B.

Bob Dylan goes Masked and Anonymous
If you can forgive the sophomoric drivel for dialogue and take it as a two-hour Bob Dylan "song," then Bob's cult flick Masked and Anonymous becomes instantly enjoyable. It's sprinkled with moments of absurdity, intentional or otherwise. Witness Dylan as Christ/Leader of the Revolution back phrase some great one-liners, imbued with resonance because he stays silent through most of the film. Watch famous actors call each other silly names (John Goodman's character is "Uncle Sweetheart" and Dylan's is -- are you ready? -- Jack Fate!). Or rent the movie when it comes out and buy the soundtrack, which features world-music takes on Dylan classics. -- J.B.

Cursive's The Ugly Organ
Cursive front man Tim Kasher wrote what basically is a first-person rock opera about the turmoil between himself and his organs (heart, cock, etc.). He called the album The Ugly Organ. Not only is it the best rock album -- make that hard-rock album -- I heard all year, but it's also an evolutionary leap forward for Cursive, which added a cellist, Gretta Cohn, to its lineup for this record. Listen to Cursive's last full-length, Domestica, and The Ugly Organ consecutively and you'll hear a story of true love lost, the hunt to replace it with superficial pleasures, the subsequent self-loathing, and weary resignation to the fact that none of it is supposed to make sense. -- B.J.K.

Assembling songs: Ohia and the Palm Springs windmills
Driving back from Los Angeles in February, I approached Palm Springs in the blanched gold of a winter sundown. The fearsome windmills pulsed with light. I picked up my mini-DV and started filming out the passenger window, eyes on the road ahead. The self-conscious proletarianism of songs: Ohia on the stereo, incongruous in the land of roads named for Bob Hope, kept pace with each blade, making for a strangely perfect soundtrack. The tape plays like a country music video on another, better planet. -- C.B.

The video for "Crazy in Love"
After years of thinking I was a leg man or a jugger nut, I may now have to renew my passport to reflect the change to "butt aficionado," thanks to Beyoncé's ass-idious video for "Crazy in Love." You'd have to go back to Dana Carvey's spoof of George Michael to see so many "cut-to-the-butt" shots. But after reading about her diet secrets, I'm losing sleep worrying she might do something crazy, you know, like eat a box of raisins or something. And you'll note I haven't even used the word "booty-licious" once! D'oh! -- S.D.

Creed and limpbizkit get sued by their fans
Perhaps this was the healthiest trend of 2003: fans suing bands for subpar performances. Though we suppose non-Creed fans should also be allowed to file suit for all the mental anguish they've suffered over the years. While that case was dismissed (Scott Stapp covered his ass by heaving "one last breath" before passing out), limpbizkit got served for ducking out of a show early. If a judge grants the case class-action status, it would allow Metallica fans who heckled Fred Durst to receive cash compensation. Here's the real question we're left with: Can people sue right-to-die crusaders Hell on Earth if they perform a show and someone doesn't commit suicide? -- S.D.

The Coup reissues Steal This Double Album
The reissues we really need are for the desaparecidos like this 1998 masterpiece from Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress. "Cars and Shoes" is still hilarious, "Underdogs" still the best social realism ballad in hip-hop. New material makes the second coming better than the first; the show in Eugene, Oregon, on the second disc proves the Coup can thrive onstage when most of their brethren can't. Best of all is the extra studio track "Swervin'," anchored by stutter-step percussion and Boots' dissection of American hypocrisy: "Is this a War on Drugs or just my community?" -- C.B.

The Clean's Anthology
A teenage New Zealand trio launched in 1979, The Clean rode the first wave of international pop underground, beat Sonic Youth to the live psychedelic drone 10K relays and, despite a quarter-century of underappreciation and break-ups-to-make-ups, seem philosophically unaffected by indie's sense of secondhand self-defeatism. Merge's two-CD comp bests the '86 Homestead collection by including 16 more years of reverberating lo-fi majesty, catchy yelps, and the promises that anything could happen, any time, and that the choice is yours. Om! -- P.O.

Calling Shelby Lynne?
Three years ago, I couldn't have called Nashville refugee Shelby Lynne without weed-whacking my way through a thicket of handlers determined to keep an air of mystery about a singer who finally won an audience with the ironically titled I Am Shelby Lynne. This year, I just called her up one day at her house -- and she told me she wished I hadn't. There's not much mystery to Lynne's 2003 volley Identity Crisis -- just stripped-down country and gospel and a production number that Lynne bets Patsy Cline would've loved. Recorded at home, it might be the year's most guileless record. Why does no one seem to care? -- M.W.

Belle & Sebastian taunts its audience
Scottish smart alecks Belle & Sebastian probably won't ever alienate their entire cult of admirers, unless front man Stuart Murdoch starts rapping, or the whole band stops reading. But what's great about Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the first proper B&S album in three years, is how much it sounds like they're trying: sparkling production from chart-pop maven Trevor Horn, a Thin Lizzy name-drop to go with Thin Lizzy guitar trills, even weird electroclash about the moral repercussions of choking on a corn flake. Can a move to Brooklyn be far behind? -- M.W.

This band was a critical favorite?
You know critics are aging when they give props to new young bands because they just can't find any more synonyms for "these guys suck." But what was one to make of Jersey band and critical darling Thursday? The band's performance of "War All the Time" on Late Night With Conan O'Brien made me wish war could be declared on vocalist Geoff Rickly's tonsils. I've heard people who can't sing with something more to say. Lou Reed. Leonard Cohen. Tom Verlaine. Dylan in various stages of congestion. This guy, though, couldn't find a pitch if you nailed him to home plate. -- S.D.

Go Home Productions' mash-ups
Home computing is killing music. The return of the mash is being deviously planned at gohomeproductions.co.uk, where an enterprising unidentifiable has continued pasting together pop classics into culturally literate sound clashes that set dance floors off lickety-pronto. Among the Web site's 2003 high points: "Ray of Gob," where Madonna's vocal shares spit with a re-chopped "Anarchy in the U.K.," and "Jacko Under Pressure," on which MJ's "Rock With You" molests the Queen/Bowie classic. -- P.O.

Daniel Johnston's The Early Recordings Volume 1: Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain
A gold mine for Daniel Johnston fans and a great introduction for the curious, The Early Recordings Volume 1 gives Johnston material previously only available on cassette or download a proper remastered release -- not that remastering really does much for something recorded live on a mono tape deck mounted on top of a basement piano. This sampling of songs, especially the ones on Songs of Pain, presents a calmer, less unstable performer, writing songs for a girl who "would not accept my call." -- J.B.

Hangin' with Hitchcock at Club Congress
It was a treat to see iconic Soft Boys maestro Robyn Hitchcock play to a large, receptive audience at Club Congress in Tucson. His past few, criminally ignored solo passes through Phoenix have reminded me why under-the-radar artists often skip these parts. Hitchcock, with a grateful crowd before him now, told his stories and charmed everyone as always. Music wank bonus: I wound up at the after-party, hosted by Dave Slutes of Sidewinders and Sand Rubies fame. Robyn and his wife, Michelle, talked with a small group of us for hours about politics, the appearance of the moon in England and the beauty of the desert. -- J.B.

Jack Johnson celebrates his own liquid
Closing out a primo year for surf films -- highlighted by the wide release of Step Into Liquid, a documentary by Endless Summer heir Dana Brown -- flip-flop rocker Jack Johnson saw his 2000 indie travelogue Thicker Than Water released on DVD. The wet dream visuals, backed by a mellow soundtrack of beach-blanket crash-out tunes by artists ranging from '60s folk-rockers Harper's Bizarre to Johnson himself, made this an even more pacifying "virtual aquarium" than the looped fish tank animation on the Finding Nemo DVD. -- J.M.

Beth Gibbons' Out of Season
Beth Gibbons, known to trip-hop fans as the female lead from Portishead, stepped out on her own in astonishing fashion last year with Out of Season, an album of torch songs and fluttering confessionals. The album, which she recorded along with producer and multi-instrumentalist Paul "Rustin Man" Webb, received its proper U.S. release just this fall, which means folks less ambitious around the import bin than me will be feeling Gibbons' magic soon. When Gibbons croons like Billie Holiday on "Romance," her spell is powerful. Perfect for intimate dates, lonely nights and epiphanies. -- C.O.

The Rapture does albums pretty well, too
In retrospect, "House of Jealous Lovers," New York City dance-punk heartthrobs the Rapture's hit single from last year, was a no-brainer: Astroturf guitar fuzz, unintelligible yelps, a hilarious count-to-eight bit, and the most enthusiastic cowbell playing by a heartthrob in ages. Yet as inevitable as the tune now sounds, Echoes, the Rapture's major-label debut, still plays like a revelation -- sonically involved, emotionally captivating, totally songful. And if they're stuck in the '70s (or whenever), well, so are the White Stripes. -- M.W.

I write about Bacharach -- and Burt approves
I wrote my first book this year, Burt Bacharach: Song By Song (shameless plug: It's available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com). I never fully realized how writing about one artist for a long stretch of time makes you an expert based on the sheer stick-to-it-iveness of it all. Not only do I get calls from the BBC and CBS Morning News on where they can find this or that Bacharach record, but friends who had no interest in Bacharach before call me up and ask me if he wrote "Feelings." Weirder still was hearing that Burt himself ordered a case of the book to give to friends as Christmas presents. That's like mom asking youfor a recipe. -- S.D.

The return of Southern rock
"Don't worry 'bout losing your accent/A Southern man tells better jokes," Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell's dad reassures him in "Outfit," a heart-rending tale from Decoration Day, the Alabama group's tremendous fifth album. This year, Southern men did more than just joke -- they wore their hair more bravely (Kings of Leon), used reverb more extravagantly (My Morning Jacket) and remembered Vietnam more thoroughly (Brooks & Dunn) than anyone else, too. The scene has so far proved resistant to opportunistic trucker-hat dilution. Don't hold your breath for 2004, though. -- M.W.

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