It’s about that time: my Top Ten of last year (2003, not 2004). It was a pretty good year, but mostly because there were a lot of pretty good albums released. There were none that really blew me away, but I had a hard time narrowing my list down to ten (much less putting it in some kind of order that I’m satisfied with) because there were so many great-but-not-transcendent releases. In any case, here’s my stab at it.
- Alamaailman Vasarat - Käärmelautakunta
While this album didn’t initially strike me as a huge step forward from AV’s debut album, it has steadily grown on me to the point that it’s easily my favorite from 2003. The band mixes moods and tempos to wonderful effect, and really hammers out a unique niche. What other band blends klezmer, metal, jazz, folk, and rock? What other band makes that not only seem natural, but fun?
- A Perfect Circle - Thirteenth Step
This was a real pleasant surprise. I like this one better than any Tool album - it’s dark, well-paced, heavy when heavy is called for, and very much a unified whole that’s greater than any of its parts. A great alternative rock album (with its fair share of proggy touches) at a time when “alternative” is a synonym for “stale.”
- Anti-Pop Consortium - Anti-Pop Consortium Vs. Matthew Shipp
A more effective meshing of jazz and hip-hop does not yet exist. And it’s just our luck that two of the most cutting-edge artists in either genre chose to work together. The only negative is that this was Anti-Pop’s last recorded output - making it little more than a teasing glance at what could have been.
- The Postal Service - Give Up
Probably the most purely poppy album we’ve reviewed here, but damn is it good. This duo of electronica wizard and emo vocalist has become the indie-rock darling of the moment, achieving success and even a deal with the real U.S. Postal Service. Heart-wrenching melodies and masterful production.
- Spring Heel Jack - Live
Another electronica duo, but of an entirely different stripe; on this album, Spring Heel Jack collaborate with a free-jazz band featuring Matthew Shipp among others. The result is alternately a relaxing ambient soundscape and a monstrous beast on a violent rampage. One of the best - and certainly the most raw - electronica/jazz meshings I’ve yet heard.
- Explosions in the Sky - The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place
With this album, Texas’ premiere post-rock band finds peace. This is a surprisingly upbeat, pleasant, quietly hopeful work that offers the first glimpse at a brand of post-rock that isn’t all doom and gloom. Melodic and enchanting.
- Outkast - Speakerboxxx
The first half of Outkast’s double album is utter brilliance - innovative and fun hip-hop. The second half, The Love Below, is more experimental but far less coherent, to the point of seemingly kind of stiffly stupid at times. But the whole thing is well worth it for Speakerboxxx’s irrepressible energy.
- Do Make Say Think - Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn
These guys just keep getting better. Probably the loosest and jazziest of the big-name post-rock bands, DMST are close to transcending the genre altogether. Their latest effort is lovely and entrancing, but not afraid to go for the jugular when the time is right.
- Sufjan Stevens - Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State
Perhaps the most purely beautiful album on this list. This album is a heartfelt paean to Stevens’ home state of Michigan and runs the musical gamut from twisted Glassian minimalism to folksy solo banjo strumming, all of it anchored by Stevens’ arresting vocals.
- The Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra… - “This is Our Punk Rock”…
I have been getting skeptical of these guys, especially as Godspeed You Black Emperor! seems to be running in place, but they really came through with this one. It’s still the same melodramatically bleak, gloomy, spacious post-rock as before, but so well done that it can’t be faulted.
So what missed the cut? A bunch of albums that could have been swapped in pretty easily, depending on my mood, for the last few on the list above: Mogwai’s Happy Songs for Happy People, The Decemberists‘ Her Majesty the Decemberists, Azigza’s Kriya, Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism, Sunn O)))’s White1, the Non-Prophets‘ Hope, Dissection’s Live Legacy, Matmos‘ The Civil War, Bone Structure by Bendian/Liebig/Gunther/Stinson… the list goes on and on. It was a good year, but again, nothing that really seemed absolutely timeless.
One thing that jumps out at me is how little of my list would be considered “prog” by most folks. I do have a fair amount of albums from 2003 that are prog, but few of them really hit me. I’ve known for a while that my tastes are shifting, but it’s interesting to see it happen so dramatically. Although, interestingly enough, quite a few of my favorite albums from 2004 thus far would fall under the prog category, so who knows.