Caustic Eye from a Straight Guy

The Year 2003 In Review

In reviewing what I spent the majority of time enjoying during 2003, I discovered that most of it has no place on a year-end, best of list, simply because it wasn’t released this year – or this decade. I listened to a lion’s share of bluegrass, old time and blues music, the majority of which was written and recorded 30 or 40 years ago. Tells you something about how mundane today’s popular culture is when the most compelling moment I had all year was listening to Dock Boggs do “Country Blues,” originally recorded in the 1920’s, and still more terrifying and real than most anything recorded since.

That said, this year wasn’t without its highlights. And to no ones surprise, the majority of it wasn’t on a major label. Imagine that.

• •

1: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: Streetcore (Epitaph)

Still hard to accept the fact that Joe is gone, but we have his art, which will remain vital and timeless. This final work is a grand amalgamation of styles and attitude, more rock-based than his previous solo work, and better for it.


2: Cat Power: You Are Free (Matador)

This record is so good, and personal, that listening to it feels like eavesdropping. Chan Marshall might not be all there in a live performance, but in a studio, she’s a master.

3: The White Stripes: Elephant (V2)

For once the kids are right. This combination of Hound Dog Taylor and The Monks has an alluring brashness that swaggers past most of the dross surrounding it, and while they might not be the future of rock, at least they prove the genre isn’t totally dead.


4: Swimming Pool Q’s: Royal Academy of Reality (Bar/None)

This was an unexpected (and far too delayed) surprise. If remembered at all, the Q’s are thought of as a witty and somewhat twisted pop band, based on their original material. After a decade away, Jeff Calder and his cohorts unleash a record, that in time, will achieve the masterpiece status afforded works such as Neutral Milk Hotel’s In An Aeroplane Over The Sea and REM’s Murmur. Yeah, it’s that good.

5: My Morning Jacket: It Still Moves (RCA)

Operatic twang garage rock. Epic, driving and just plain strange.

6: Daniel Lanois: Shine (Anti)

Lanois has a signature sound, which echoes in his production work (U2, Willie Nelson) as well as his own material. It’s the sound of isolation and space, and he creates work that continues to grow with repeated listening. He just doesn’t do it often enough.

7: Mark Lanegan Band: Here Comes That Weird Chill (Beggars Banquet) / Desert Sessions 9 & 10 (Ipecac)

Josh Homme, via his work in Queens of the Stone Age and various side efforts, has essentially made hard rock listenable again for adults. With Desert Sessions, he reins in an eclectic cast (this time including PJ Harvey and Dean Ween) to create a sort of Elephant 6-vibe of musical anarchy. Mark Lanegan, sometime QOSTA vocalist, has gathered many of the same cast on this teaser EP, which is chilling and creepy, and even includes a brill cover of Beefheart’s “Clear Spot”. Essential listening, all.

8: Mike Marshall & Chris Thile: Into The Cauldron (Sugarhill)

Two masters of the mandolin advance both the instrument, and the acoustic music genre, light years ahead. Twenty-something Thile is so talented it’s scary.


9: Magic Band: Back to the Front (ATP)

The music of Captain Beefheart, decades after its creation, is still so far advanced that is impossible to compare it to anything else. Part of the reason is the songs; the other, the people talented – and brave enough – to play it. This grouping of various members of the Magic Band (including Denny Walley and Gary Lucas) perform the big throwdown, and the result (particularly the vocals of John French) is staggering. This music is not of this planet.

10: George Orwell: 1984 (Signet)

Yeah, it was written in 1946, but since the chimps in charge seem to have made it their playbook, it qualifies. Read this, then read the paper. One or the other will drive you mad. ◼

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