Best Albums 2003 (16-20)

20. Electric Six — Fire

The early ’00s was the golden age of the indie novelty–a category that mos def takes in electroclashers channeling the transgressive spirit of Spencer’s Gifts and post-punks rounding the Gang of Four down to math-rock, regardless of each camp’s pretensions to substance. But “Dancefloor Commander” Dick Valentine had something to say: policing the scene with a militarist vengeance, he barks orders at improper dancers, declares guerre nucléaire on the dancefloor, and shouts fire in a crowded Taco Bell ages before the joint became a combination Pizza Hut. I prefer my glam gags swishier, but I understand that someone’s gotta make the disco run on time.

19. OutKast — Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Andre 3000 and Big Boi consign themselves to separate-but-equal discs; predictably, each MC’s range contracts rather than expands. (I do believe there’s a lesson for us all in there.) Dre’s fantasia wafts along on novelty and personality–this is surely the only rap record to feature impersonations of both Dracula and Cupid, and both are welcome. But Boi’s funkier disc is also weightier lyrically, as he continues to pull apart his distrustful devotion toward women. Does it help that he’s less willing to go it alone, slotting guest verses from Jay and Luda, Cee-Lo and Lil Jon, Kiler Mike and Slimm Calhoun? Lesson #2.

18. Gogol Bordello vs. Tamir Muskat — J.U.F.

Eugene Hutz is foremost a conceptual impresario. His physical and verbal exuberance are plenty sufficient to realize his world-punk dreams, but these even more broad-ranging worldbeat experiments required not just improvisational sound effects from former GoBo saxophonist Ori Kaplan, but lab assistance from Israeli-born Muskat, drummer for post-rock instrumentalists Big Lazy and, more importantly, the brawn behind Balkan Beat Box. Title stands for Jewish-Ukrainishe Freundschaft; album stands as the blueprint for the decade’s global gypsy dance fusion, the most forward-thinking rhythms no matter how soothing you find electronic minimalism.

17. Lyrics Born — Later That Day . . .

Lyrics Born is figuring shit out, processing, venting, stressing like he made a wrong turn on his way out of Public Enemy’s Terrordome, muttering like he dozed off on the couch last night watching The Public Enemy‘s James Cagney. No prophet of rage, LB just wants to ask Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab how he quit smoking, without being pestered by funktoon telemarketers. His fears may be more mundane than press-sponsored crucifixion, but I’ll bet that most days, Chuck D’s are too. “Stop com-plai-ning,” singer Joyo Velarde advises, and if her hook makes it sound like she’s heard this all before, well, being Mrs. Born, she probably has.

16. Thermals — More Parts Per Million

Two-chord punk, lo-fi by default not design, its message all in the yelp and the forward tumble of its aphoristic snippets, the outrage elbowing aside skepticism, the ingrained humor that never pauses for laughs, the faith that so much of what energizes us is “hardly art, hardly garbage.” Once Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster started expressing opinions about the outside world on The Body, the Blood, the Machine, their prophesies of homegrown Christian dystopia seemed a less effective way of battling its possibility than the hectic bash here, and they’d lost a valuable ally in drummer Jordan Hudson.

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