It was a year of acronyms: non-existent WMD, PR-stunt POWs, 99-cent MP3s, a 50-cent P.I.M.P. (okay, so we’re reaching here), and both the U.S.A. and the RIAA went from victims to villains. Just as Bush dropped his B.O.B., the music biz dropped a bomb of its own, continuing to wage war against P2P file-sharing by suing its own customers. Sales were down for the fourth straight year, so what better way to encourage kids to buy your low-quality, high-priced product, right? Universal Music did drop their CD prices by 25%, a smart move for a corporate monster that dominates over 30% of the market, but few others have followed suit…yet. Liz Phair and Jewel sold out (with good-to-excellent results), while Madonna, the queen of commerce herself, made her most self-lacerating, least accessible album to date. Oh, how the times (and the rules) have changed. Divas who once ruled the charts were nowhere to be found: Mariah’s shoulda-been comeback single, a bombastic cover of Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” didn’t break any hearts (or charts), and, sadly, the Annie Lennox revival produced no music videos. There were no visible trends, unless you count hip-hop’s ongoing dominance of the singles charts (music might be the only industry where you’re more likely to reach the top if you’re black) and big music stars with penchants for small children (sorry, we couldn’t resist). Last year’s teen pop starlets seem to be faring better on the small screen (Jessica Simpson) and the silver screen (Mandy Moore), or, if you’re Hilary Duff, the small screen, the big screen, and the Billboard charts. Turns out “garage rock” and “electroclash” are great buzz terms for magazine covers but they’ve yet to live up to their respective hypes. So what was good about 2003? What follows is our, um, 50 cents. Remember: Tuna is fish, not chicken.
1. Damien Rice, O
When a rather nondescript promotional copy of Ireland-born singer-songwriter Damien Rice’s debut, O, arrived in my mailbox sometime during the first half of 2003, I felt instantly compelled to place it in my 5-disc changer rather than on top of my leaning tower of To Be Listened To. It had been years since I’d had an all-out physical response to an album, and O delivered the goods. The album plays out like a Shakespearean love tragedy (though its title is presumably culled from Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, and not the bard’s own Othello). Rice and angelic guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan duet as lovers, at first singing of a love that isn’t bashful, but private and intimate and filled with discovery. While the first half of O bristles with the anticipation of newfound love, its latter half finds that love crumbling and even calls its very existence into question. Rice houses his Grecian drama in tidy, form-fitting folk structures reminiscent of the great singer-songwriters of the 1970s. His melodies are timeless and familiar, yet they land where you least expect them to.
2. Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man, Out of Season
It’s been several years since the one-two punch of Portishead’s Dummy and the group’s equally astonishing self-titled follow-up, so it’s difficult to imagine what a new record by the Bristol natives might sound like after all this time. Perhaps the answer lies in Out of Season, the solo album from the trip-hop trio’s head mistress Beth Gibbons. Geoff Barrow may have been Portishead’s sonic backbone, but Gibbons provided the humanity, the heart, the soul and the softly wrenching sorrow. As versatile as Gibbons’s vocal is, you won’t find her wailing in the sinister Portishead style, and she rarely draws on the killer-kitten coquettishness of Dummy. Instead, Gibbons’s folk and jazz influences float skillfully to the surface. With the help of Paul Webb, bassist of ’80s band Talk Talk, and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, Gibbons has created an album as subtly rich and rewarding as any Portishead release.
3. Kenna, New Sacred Cow
Kenna’s debut album, New Sacred Cow, landed on the desks of music journalists across the country way back in early 2002. Then signed to Fred Durst’s Flawless imprint, Kenna, who hails from Virginia Beach by way of Cleveland and Ethiopia, struggled to get the album in stores after its dark lead single, “Hell Bent,” arrived and exited quietly. Eventually the album was released in 2003 via Columbia Records. Recorded in 1999 with Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, New Sacred Cow still sounds as fresh as ever in ’03. The album has a decidedly retro quality, drawing on the ’80s synth-pop/new wave of bands like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, but it never imitates any one artist in particular. Instead, it captures the essence of an era while remaining firmly planted in the present and, more importantly, residing somewhere in the future.
4. Goldfrapp, Black Cherry
In the early ’80s, disco splintered off into dance-pop and house, but the newest incarnations of electronic music seem to have forgotten one vital element: the hook. On her second album with Will Gregory, Allison Goldfrapp made the seamless transition from trip-hop lounge chanteuse to disco siren. Just as the duo’s debut, Felt Mountain, was a masterful concoction of elegant melodies and spooky theatrics, Black Cherry combines the belching electronic synth chords and dramatic strings of Disco with bursts of melodic color and simple yet ominous lyrics. Goldfrapp have successfully channeled Blondie and Donna Summer (as well as their former dewy selves) to create a collection of soothing techno ballads and custom-made club tracks that draw you in and, more importantly, hook you.
5. André 3000, The Love Below
To Big Boi’s socially-charged yin is Dre’s horny yang. If Speakerboxxx hints at the pop-friendly funkadelic stylings of Prince, Dre’s The Love Below fully channels his purple majesty’s libido, not to mention his sometimes-sexy, sometimes-irksome falsetto. “Love in War” is Dre’s response to Big Boi’s “War,” while “Vibrate,” a sly ode to masturbation disguised as a pro-environmental ditty (“Mother Earth is dying and we continue to fuck her to death…The future is in your hand”), suggests that the cure for loneliness and despair can be found in the battery-operated self-massager in your top drawer. Whether he’s imagining his two-timing girlfriend crashing into a ditch while applying make-up in the car or re-imagining Cupid as a gun-toting thug on “Happy Valentine’s Day,” humor is key to the success of Dre’s half of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. While the album probably should have been whittled down to the best of both discs, Dre not only trumped his pal, he made the most subversive and inventive hip-hop album of the year.
6. Carla Werner, Departure
It’s truly startling how much of an impact the late Jeff Buckley’s music has had on an entire generation of musicians, most of whom are still scribbling song lyrics in science notebooks and building fresh calluses on their fingertips. Even more impressive is his widespread geographic appeal; his music has reached the ears of European followers like Travis, Coldplay and Starsailor as well as a growing number of female singer-songwriters like New Zealand’s Carla Werner. Werner’s debut, Departure, draws on a multitude of influences that range from Zepplin to Kate Bush to, of course, Buckley, and even hints at her country music roots. Werner, though, is not a mime. Departure resounds with the purity and ingenuity of a seasoned original, with just a touch of earnest self-deprecation. It’s not unusual for artists to be expert spectators, but Werner is a remarkable kind of sponge: what she absorbs seems to drip out in strikingly unique forms.