List 2003: Ben Varkentine on music

A few things you should know before we begin:

1) Ordering a list like this is difficult because it is arbitrary. What I mean is that I would not want anyone to think that I’m saying Joe Jackson Band’s Volume 4 is necessarily a “better” album than Cowboy’s International’s Revisited. Though one appears higher on my list than the other, both are collections of merit and very different listening experiences. You can’t really compare one to the other.

2) It’s very roughly in bottom to top order. But as you read this list, please keep in mind that the order is essentially unimportant. You could just as easily read it top to bottom or throw all the pieces into the air to see where they come down. In fact, I’ve decided to remove the numbers from it. But the mathematically inclined among you will notice that:

3) A couple of these picks were originally released, technically, in 2002, but either they were not released in the US, or I just did not hear them, until 2003, and I want to single them out for special attention.

And now, on with the countdown…

• •

Cowboys International, Revisited (Pnuma)

Last years’ winner of The Vivabeat Memorial Award For Best Anthology From A Band Almost Everybody’s Forgotten (If They Knew About Them In The First Place). M’learned colleague Gail Worley said “Revisited kinda feels like discovering a pre-_Let’s Dance_-era Bowie album” in her review, and I’ll go along. It’s just like that… only better.

Hybrid, Morning Sci-Fi (Distinct’ive Breaks)

Quick, somebody give this band a lot of money to score the next Bond flick.

Black Box Recorder, Passionoia (One Little Indian)

Any band with a sense of the ridiculousness and pomposity of pop, but who love it anyway, is one that I’m quite happy to embrace. Lyric like “Destroy your record collection/ for your own protection” and a song both called and about “Andrew Ridgely” is cake.

Tora! Tora! Torrance!, A Cynic’s Nightmare (The Militia Group) / Hurry-Up Offense, The Labor Day EP

These hard rock/punk/pop revivalist groups are lumped together because they are the albums I was most surprised to find myself liking.

Breaking Laces, Sohcahtoa (Sidewinder/Meeka Salise)

My new singer/songwriter hero, Willem Hartog.

Junior Senior, D-D-Don’t Stop The Beat (Atlantic)

Contains the greatest summer song since “Walking on Sunshine,” “Move Your Feet.”

Keoki, Kill The DJ (Hypnotic/Cleopatra)/Chicken Lips, DJ-Kicks (!K7)

Keoki puts on Sigue Sigue Sputnik and takes a Walk to Kiss Gary Numan. Raisa Spins Nancy right Round, baby right round, like a record baby right round round round! Rod Stewart chases the Ramones and looks very beautiful doing it, too, until he hits the wall into which Ladytron carved the truth, at 17. Yeah. In other words, this is one kickass mix CD. And Chicken Lips has “Bubble Bunch.” What more do you want out of life?

Finding Nemo (Original Soundtrack by Thomas Newman) (Disney-Pixar)

Finding Nemo was Thomas Newman’s first score for an animated film and he took to it like a fish to… uh, you know. Finding Nemo was also the biggest hit of the summer, the top-grossing animated film of all time – $339,666,356 at the time of this writing – and the fastest selling DVD of all time. It and its score would be perfectly within their rights not to be as beautiful as they are, but they are, and I thank them.

Aaron Neville, Orchid In The Storm (Hyena)

What would one of my year-end lists be without at least one reissue on Joel Dorn’s Hyena Records? This compilation of exquisitely sung, sometimes multi-tracked vocal arrangements sets a romantic and intimate tone that is irresistible.

My Favorite, The Happiest Days of Our Lives (Double Agent)/Stars, Heart (Arts & Crafts)

My Favorite is a band for time unraveling aliens that lets you escape from the shadow of the bomb or somebody’s shade of eye shadow. Caught unaware, some of these songs could kill you. Similarly not of this era, Stars are a four-piece band currently based in Montreal who make lovely, ethereal electronic pop. Both should have gone platinum in a better world.

Naked Eyes, Everything and More (One Way)

Naked Eyes are best remembered for their 1983 synth pop hits “Always Something There To Remind Me” and “Promises, Promises.” This collection of rarities and remixes is for confirmed fans of both that duo and their genre; fortunately, I’m both.

Nick Drake, Way To Blue (Island)

When I reviewed this record I said I found my estimation of Drake growing every single time I played it, and that has only increased in the months since. Drake’s gentle, reflective vocals and the intimate, autumnal settings of his songs got to me. It has been suggested that I am cynical. It is not without truth. But not when I listen to this record.

Colin Hay, Going Somewhere (Mgm) / Man @ Work (Compass/Lazy Eye)

Artistically if not commercially, Colin Hay has long tested the “Best New Artist Grammy® curse” theory, which holds that those who win the award soon go away never to return. Man @ Work, released in part to tie in with Hay’s spot in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band (not too bad, is it?), reviews his career to date. The songs from Hay’s solo career here should act as a calling card for his skills, the performances only suffering when compared to his all-acoustic Going Somewhere. The latter CD gives Hay’s driven, haunting songs an added layer of wistfulness. Taken together, the two make for a double CD set that would receive my highest recommendation.

Robin Guthrie, Imperial (Bella Union)

Violet Indiana/Cocteau Twins guitarist Guthrie lets the music do the talking, and casts a thoughtful spell that deeper enchants the heart the more times the record spins. This is one I knew from first listen would be finding a place on my list of Music Of The Year.

Joe Jackson Band, Volume 4 (Restless/Ryko)

Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp stands as one of the most accomplished debuts in music history. For the 25th anniversary of the album’s recording, Jackson reunited the band with whom he made it (and the remainder of his first three albums) to record the charmingly if obviously titled Volume 4. Most of the material is perfectly suited to this band’s spare sound. Not for nothing did the combination of Jackson’s songwriting, vocals and often exquisite keyboard playing, Graham Maby’s fluid, clear bass, Gary Sanford’s impressive guitar playing and Dave Houghton’s strong drumming launch Jackson to success. Maby in particular remains the second most extraordinary weapon in Jackson’s arsenal (after himself), something the songwriter knows; Jackson has only rarely worked without the bassist.

A couple of the songs, namely “Awkward Age,” and “Chrome” require a few plays before really taking hold. When they do – the latter particularly worth paying special attention to – they make good examples of how the band sounds as though they went into the studio 25 weeks after the Beat Crazy tour rather than 25 years. “Still Alive” should have gotten Jackson on the singles charts for the first time since ‘91 and “Blue Flame” is, quite simply, a haunting, classic Jackson ballad. It’s worthy of joining “It’s Different For Girls” on the list of testaments to his genius.

A worthy comeback. ◼

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