Best Albums 2003 (21-25)

25. Boban Markovic Orkestar — Boban I Marko Balkan Brass Fest

If an art form as culturally absorbent as gypsy music can be said to have a single essence, it’s straight-up Balkan brass. Impure spirit that I am, though, I prefer my Roma folked up (Taraf de Haidouks), punked up (Gogol Bordello), or all-over eclectic (Mahala Rai Banda). So trust that my go-to Serbs are hardly for flugelhorn fans only. Over the course of the decade, their top-shelf releases with Piranha have seen upstart prodigy Marko gradually assert control over his respected pa Boban’s band. But I prefer the precarious balance between their two horn styles here. Keep in mind, though, that Marko, just fifteen years old here, has gotten even better since.

24. Belle & Sebastian — Dear Catastrophe Waitress

The once crisp wimpery of Stuart Murdoch’s fookin’ styoodents had long since wilted to languid affectation. So while new headmaster Trevor Horn’s fuzzy guitars and bright brass might have sent twenty-something librarians of vintage erotica snuffling into their cardigans, Murdoch’s melodic facility hadn’t been showcased so smashingly since If You’re Feeling Sinister. Sure Murdoch isn’t above playing dress-up on his incongruous turn as skirt-chasing business exec, “Step Into My Office Baby.” But on “If She Wants Me” he rejects accomplishing “just one near perfect thing” in favor of quality time with a sweetie who just might actually exist.

23. Fruit Bats — Mouthfuls

Nothing quite confuses indie kids like an acoustic guitar. Rather than accepting the instrument’s traditional role as a simple melodic prop for lyrical ingenuity, too many impressionable young things prefer the tuneless outlay of stoic heartbreak as drab mood music. Eric Johnson’s no new Dylan–stringing a mnemonic phrase or two along a mild hook, he crafts the brighter, simpler soft rock that yacht rockers were too glib and fussy to settle for. A folkie, yes, a freak, no. and in a happier world, he’d be a bigger man on campus than Bon Iver. And that, in turn, would make this an even happier world.

22. The Bottle Rockets — Blue Sky

After easing up on the throttle with an overlooked Doug Sahm tribute, Brian Henneman’s boys settled into a folksier groove that sent some former fans flocking toward the Drive-By Truckers’ brawnier guitar thickets. But the grand Americana of Patterson Hood was never these Missourians’ thing–Henneman is my kind of everyman, or, more to the point, his kind of everyman is mine too. He never lets his work ethic spoil a worker’s comp-funded vacation (“Lucky Break”). He waxes nostalgic for stuff people his age can actually remember, like the days you could wait for your baby at the airline gate (“Baggage Claim”). And when he laughs about the diff between the sexes (“Men & Women”), he knows the joke’s on him.

21. Brother Ali — Shadows on the Sun

Ali Newman is a Midwestern Muslim albino who swaggers like “a cross between John Gotti and Mahatma Gandhi,” paints the grit of North Minneapolis like an “urban Norman Rockwell,” and envelops his battle rhymes in a warm bear hug of a delivery. In other words, his rhymes practically write his reviews–in Minnesota, even our rappers are great music critics. Rather than playing up his contradictions like Slug, Ali just accepts them as a part of being human, and, suitably, Ant’s beats here swing with more soul than those he whips up for his day job with Atmosphere.

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