Best Albums 2003 (11-15)

15. Lightning Bolt — Wonderful Rainbow

Noise rools, but that hardly makes it a genre–just another element of music, its uses multifarious but hardly limitless. And my resolution thereto is unswayed by public displays of affliction that recall the candle-wax on bare skin of suburban-basement goth as well as instrumental forays that need a GPS even more desperately than “post-rock” did. But bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendale, lacking the luxury of guitar squall, fall back on a no-nonsense melodicism that hits more destinations per minute than some soloists can reach over the course of an LP. Ride the Sky was a solid punch in the gut, but when I need to get wrecked, this is where I place my skull.

14. Fannypack — So Stylistic

Maybe not every last Roxanne Shanté and L’Trimm fan is a middle-aged dude, but surely we can assume that Matt Goias and DJ Fancy did not aim Belinda, Cat, and the fabulous and barely legal Jessibel at these gals’ same-sex peers. Which isn’t to say that the men couldn’t help the little girls understand a thang or two about fame, shopping, and how to brush off aggressive creeps. As for the would-be star, Jessie’s 25 now, I believe, and I suspect that makes her closer to the age of the “middle-aged lady” they ridicule for her frontal wedgie in “Cameltoe” than any of us would like to admit.

13. Weakerthans — Reconstruction Site

John Sampson declaims like a less strident John Darnielle, his moralism so carefully reasoned I sometimes forget that his forthright melodies are constructing a song cycle about love and loss. But so long as his narrators–the cat determined to cheer up his glum owner, the Antarctic explorer lunching with Foucault, the Winnipeg native dismantling his hometown with a loving acidity that’d do Guy Madden proud–seem no more conscious of that fact, where’s the harm? Nothing inherently pretentious about love and loss, after all. Happens to simplest of us.

12. Festival in the Desert

As international trends go, I prefer the Balkan revival and its diasporan gypsy hybrids, but Saharan desert blues has been the world music industry’s great commercial find over the past decade, hands down. I’ve loved individual albums from Tartit and Tinariwen and Toumast, but none accentuates the strangeness of Tuareg traditionalism as strongly as this all-Mali round-up. Surrounded by Bamako ringers like Oumou Sangare, old pros like Ali Farka Toure, and even festival ringmaster Robert Plant and his ace guitarist Justin Adams, all that ululating and clattering and plucking hammers home its insular distance from any previously marketed musical tradition. And that most certainly includes the b-l-u-e-s.

11. Dizzee Rascal — Boy in Da Corner

In the deepest recesses of the internet, wishful rumors circulated that grime would supplant crunk, cutely reminiscent of the days when the NME warned of Gene’s impending U.S. takeover. But if the U.K. gold rush of aught-three turned up less color than advance scouts promised, this debut remains a pure nugget. At its heart is the excitement of a talented kid as he stumbles across a brand new beat: a coreless electro-funk from a series of hand claps and whip-cracks that slash across unmoored new-wave synth melodies, video-game motifs, and pseudo-classical patterns. When Dizzee decides to prove grime is hip-hop by letting Billy Squier lay his big beat down on “Fix Up Look Sharp,” the experience is as vertiginous as hearing Sonic Youth play a twelve-bar-blues.

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