Monday, December 29, 2003

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Best of 2003, part deux

Now that I have the comics list out of the way, I'll turn my attention towards the music that I heard, and TV shows and films I saw in 2003 that impressed me the most. This can't be a real, legitimate "best of 2003" list, because I've been unable to afford to buy a lot of new CDs, don't watch a lot of prime time TV, or go to the movies all that much, and I'm not on anybody's comp lists yet, so this is gonna be kinda catch as catch can. If you see that there's some vitally important music that came out in 2003 that's not on the list, and you just can't believe that I didn't cite this or that, please feel free to send me a copy and I'll happily revise this if I see fit!

Anyway, here goes. Music first, listed alphabetically:

Beatles- Let it Be...Naked The act you've known for all these years, back with an old favorite that eschews several layers of Phil Spector production varnish, plus rearranges the song order and adds and drops tracks. Some of the tracks, like (of course, and will you now shut up, Paulie) "Long and Winding Road" and "Across The Universe" benefit while others, like John's great, loping, heavy (and heavily underrated) "Dig A Pony", hits "Get Back" (the victim of some clumsy fading at the end) and the title track, and "I Me Mine" defy you to tell the difference. Still, these are all excellent tracks, even "Road", and there were few albums released in 2003 that were as good, cut for cut. It hasn't been a good month for Spector, has it, what with the ongoing murder investigation, plus Paul McCartney and bandwagon-jumping critics slagging his contributions to the Fabs' long ago swan-song. Me, I still liked what he did (perhaps it's because I've practically grown up listening to his version), and like John said: "...he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling ever, and he made something out of it." Whoever chose the title and designed the packaging should be locked in a cell with Spector and a loaded pistol.
Maria McKee- High Dive Maria finally, after seven years, managed to release an album- and it was mostly worth the wait. Maria being Maria, there's a lot of daredevil vocalese on every track, but this album as a whole is much more restrained that 1996's sometimes brilliant, sometimes teeth-grinding Life is Sweet. Which is not to say that it plays it safe like 1994's You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, either, which can only mean that Ms. McKee's still trying to get it right. Marred only by a completely unnecessary remake of Sweet's climactic title tune and its coda "AfterLife".
Fountains of Wayne- Welcome Interstate Managers I flat out loved FoW's last album, Utopia Parkway, and this one's not that different, and although there's no drop-dead gorgeous track like Utopia's "Prom Theme", there are hooks and laffs in generous supply throughout. I have a weakness for smart-ass power pop, and these guys do it very well.
Paul Westerberg- Come Feel Me Tremble Since structure and production values just don't suit our Paul, he's given us a sequel, or continuation, of last year's ragged Stereo: basically, a collection of very loose (so loose they threaten to fall off the disc) demos that fortunately are made up of great melodies and sloppy rock and roll, sometimes at the same time, and as a result they sound pretty damn good to this old Replacements fan.
The White Stripes- Elephant I wish they'd been a bit more selective when it came to choosing the tracks to include, because there are some outstanding cuts here beside some not-so-outstanding ones. But songs like "Seven Nation Army", "Ball and Biscuit" and "The Hardest Button to Button" just flat out rock in that good old Yardbirds/Jeff Beck Group/Led Zep fashion, and this CD was stuck in my player for a solid month, unusual for me these days.
The Minus 5- Down With Wilco Oops, forgot this one! If you're a fan of Wilco's albums Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you could do worse than to check this often glum but melodically strong and sometimes even playful collaboration between Jeff Tweedy, Peter Buck and the Posies' Ken Stringfellow. There's a lot of nice Fripp-style guitar leads, harmony vocals, Beach Boys-style rhythms, and folkish touches, and the high point for me was the moody "The Old Plantation" with its gorgeous "Have you ever really tried/to peel away the sky/well, neither have I" refrain.

Some other releases of note: I gave my daughter a copy of Michelle Branch's Hotel Paper, and she's listened to it constantly since then, so I'm absorbing these songs whether I want to or not...and to be honest, some of them are pretty good. Of course, the production sound is slick as it can be, and the songs are a mile wide and an inch deep as the saying goes, but Michelle seems to be one of the few teenpop singers who aspire to be Joni rather than Madonna, and good for her. I was mostly disappointed by the Jayhawks' 2003 release Rainy Day Music, which was tuneful and nicely sung, but slight, and saddled with embarrassing, rudimentary greeting card style lyrics. Neil Young turned in his oddball Greendale, which I've only heard once and was as impressed by some tracks as I was repulsed by others, especially the sappy message pieces. In other words, pretty much par for the course for Neil these days. I liked the debut CD from Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins, recording as the The Thorns. It was nicely sung and very tuneful, just like the Jayhawks CD, but the lyrics were better. I meant to get Warren Zevon's latest, The Wind, but haven't as yet. What I have heard sounds stronger than WZ's previous effort, My Ride's Here, but I think it's the beneficiary of Zevon's tragic death, which, like John's Double Fantasy so many years ago, takes a middling record and gives it more emotional depth, sentimentality, and meaning. Until I own a copy, though, and listen to it a few times I can't really judge. I also liked what I've heard from Outkast's new one, Speakerboxx/The Love Below, but really- it's not as groundbreaking and original as some would have you believe, at least not to my ears- but to be honest, I've only heard the album once through, so I gotta believe that there is a lot of stuff there that would grow on me. Let's just give it an incomplete for now. The duo, working seperately as a team (and we know how well that works), have come up with a pretty nifty Prince or George Clinton album. And while both "Hey Ya" and "I Like The Way You Move" are catchy as hell, they go on and on and on and on... Finally, I really liked the latest from the Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day, but I lost my job before I could get around to borrowing and burning the copy of Mike Carey's cd that I had been listening to. Guess I could go out and buy one, couldn't I. I've also ordered a copy of the new Puffy Amiyumi CD, Nice, with accompaniment by old fave Andy (Jellyfish) Sturmer, and I have a feeling it would have been on the short list above if I had received it sooner. Also, I've managed to pick up a couple of the Bob Dylan SACD reissues, and they're wonderful. I'm especially enjoying John Wesley Harding, a great folk-rock-blues-country album that I hadn't heard in years and (as I've been reading lately) got a lot of folks excited back in the day. I can see why.

OK, that's all I got time for now. Later on: Movies and TV.