Best Albums 2003 (1-5)

5. Fiery Furnaces — Gallowsbird’s Bark

I admired Blueberry Boat and Rehearsing My Choir so much I convinced myself I enjoyed them; now I’m just sorry if I helped encourage Matt and Eleanor Friedberger to corkscrew inward toward pop-prog insularity. Even their latter-day returns to form are stiff convolutions up against this debut, a veritable Taking Tiger Mountain (By Roots Rock) that jumbles together “Waiting for My Man” piano, guitar flutter and comic synths, with Eleanor’s playful yet prim voice reciting lyrics that glance off narrative. Maybe the Friedberger sibs think singing a simple song comes too easy for them. They’re wrong.

4. Buck 65 — Talkin’ Honky Blues

Nova Scotian Rich Terfry is the honky talker, everyman drawl hicker than Bubba’s, nose for personae slicker than Slim’s. After close to a decade of straightforward beats-and-rhymes, his folked funk is less outright bluesy than plain rural and lonesome. He intersperses clipped character sketches with autobiographical narratives, though “Roses and Bluejays,” about his dad, and “Tired Out” about cheating on his girlfriend, are no more personal than “Craftsmanship,” about shining shoes. If he’s a bit of a crank, his orneriness never clouds his perspective. And if his relationship with hip-hop grew increasingly vexed as the decade progressed, yours didn’t?

3. Gaby Kerpel — Carnabailito

What can I say–it was a good year for Argentine electronica. This avant-theater composer records performances (of his own and of others) on various traditional instruments–the Brazilian cavaquinho and the Argentinean charango, flutes and kalimbas, a toy accordion and a Chinese violin. These he samples and filters into sonic constructions too homely yet masterful for crit-clichés like “soundscape” or “sonic tapestry.” I’d expected to hear this trick more often the decade dragged on. Expected to hear more from Kerpel too, but only a few tracks and remixes have surfaced–if anyone knows of a genuine follow-up, I’d love to hear about it.

2. Drive-By Truckers — Decoration Day

Grand concepts behind them, Patterson Hood and his boys zero in on family affairs, including incest, as though to show just how many messy details country music excises from its blissful domestic visions. These narrators are usually self-destructive and often well-meaning and always unwilling to romanticize either aspect. Say hello to show-stealer Jason Isbell, who conveys fatherly advice on “Outfit” and tracks a blood feud through the generations on the title cut. And wish luck to Mike Cooley, who questions the real-life applicability of “Freebird” and, on “Marry Me,” starts a family on goddam purpose.

1. Liz Phair — Liz Phair

So you’re not excited when a middle-aging critic’s darling combines pop tunes thicker than three wads of Bubblicious with meta-commentary on her fans’ expectations? Have you ever thought it’s you that’s boring? Say her Matrix pop lacked fizz–I’m still not wholly sold on “Why Can’t I?” myself (though I hope it puts her kid through college). But 90% of the misgivings expressed were couched in received sexism and ageism (sadly, often by her female contemporaries), or simple-minded anti-pop snobbery dressed up in possessive chatter of “betrayal.” Poor Liz–she was cougar when cougar wasn’t cool. You want to hear a sell-out? Listen up to the middling 2005 AAA follow-up Somebody’s Miracle, where Liz behaves just as a middle-aged woman “ought.”

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  • richard Cobeen  On June 7, 2010 at 1:53 am

    Ok, the Weakerthans is a definite find, although my frame of reference for John Sampson is Eef Barzelay. Same vocal timbre, perhaps not quite as impressed with himself as Barzelay and therefore more willing to put effort into the music. Or maybe it’s just a great one-off or the band is better than Clem Snide’s.

    Lightening Bolts also new to me and intriguing, although I have to be in the right mood for the noise.

    So now you’re telling me I have to go back and rethink how I feel about Fiery Furnaces. Blueberry Boat’s prog-ness turned me off so much I haven’t listened to another thing by them, but you have yet to steer me too wrong. Rhapsody here I come.

    A little sad to see missing one of my four albums of the decade, Welcome Interstate Managers. Loved seeing Bottle Rockets, Lyrics Born and Liz Phair.

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