This is the time of year when critics of all persuasions post their lists of the year’s best stuff. This is a noble pursuit. But let’s be real: 2023 isn’t even over yet. Do we really have enough distance to appreciate what was good and less good about the last 11 and a half months?
What if we actually need 20 years? If we do need 20 years, then the time has finally come to write about the best albums of 2003.
Now, as always, I want to lay out my methodology in advance so there is no confusion about how we got here. How did I determine these rankings? Let’s break it down into percentages:
- Personal favoritism (Do I like the album? Do I play it a lot? Am I personally invested in how well it does on this list?) — 65 percent
- General consensus (What do other people think? How well is it regarded now? How annoyed will I be by people complaining if it doesn’t make the list?) — 35 percent
Now, let’s rank!
30. Longwave, The Strangest Things
At the same time that I worked on this column, I was also writing my year-end list for 2023. Thinking about albums from two different years separated by two decades inevitably informed how I approached each list. For instance, as I pondered 2023, I constantly reminded myself that many of the records I have come to love over time were not considered classics (or even thought to be great) the year they came out. I understood that many of the records I consider great right now will probably slip from my mind in the future, and they will be replaced by albums I haven’t even heard yet.
There are many reasons why an album might be overlooked in the moment. But I want to focus for now on one particular reason: Because it seems (to use very 2023 terminology) “basic” or (to apply very 2003 slang) “meh.” But in retrospect, it becomes special because it’s the sort of record that no longer exists.
For example, let’s talk about Longwave.
In 2003, Longwave was a punchline. They were best known for having a connection to The Strokes — they were fellow NYC scenesters, they toured together, they presumably partied in the same bars and wore the same brand of skinny jeans. This was a short-term advantage (in that it surely helped Longwave land a record deal with RCA) and a long-term liability (since every single music critic compared The Strangest Things unfavorably to Is This It). Pitchfork summed them up thusly: “Longwave formed in 1999, ostensibly to carry a pale, whimpering torch for men with Brooklyn perms the world over.” This was back when Pitchfork was capable of authentic meanness. They hated bands like Longwave. They wanted us to listen instead to The Lemon Of Pink by The Books or whatever. And they were not alone. Another music writer started their review of The Strangest Things like this: “They look like the Strokes. They’re friends with the Strokes. They’re on the same label as the Strokes. They’re from New York like the Strokes. If it looks like the Strokes and walks like the Strokes, does it sound as good as the Strokes? In the case of Longwave, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’”
You get the idea. Over time, these dismissals calcified into common knowledge. Longwave stopped being a band and starting being a signifier of shitty post-Strokes rock. In Lizzy Goodman’s aughts-era NYC music oral history Meet Me In The Bathroom, the critic Andy Greenwald likens Longwave to Candlebox, the go-to signifier of shitty post-Nirvana rock. This is the verdict on Longwave. History has banged its gavel. Case closed.
As you have likely ascertained by now, I don’t exactly agree with this verdict. Longwave is a signifier in my mind, but they represent something more romantic. When I listen to The Strangest Things, I think about buying it for seven or eight bucks from my local Best Buy in the spring of 2003. Room On Fire wasn’t coming out for another seven months. (I don’t think it was even announced yet.) The very same music scribes who loved to drag Longwave were also proclaiming The Strokes the saviors of rock. They were going to topple nü-metal! Just like Nirvana defeated hair metal! This was all ahead of us. The exclamation points, at that time, were not yet ironic.
Of course, none of that happened. And we all know that such a thing was never going to happen. My point is that the day The Strangest Things dropped, we didn’t know that yet. Yeah, “indie” had a moment in the 2000s. If you resided in certain neighborhoods, it might have seemed huge. But it was never “Nirvana huge.” Not even close. When I listen to this record, I’m reminded of the final moment in human history when a rock band like this was considered not only commercial, but a potential blockbuster proposition. The Strangest Things sounds innocent to me — only the innocence is mine (and maybe yours). And that gives me a certain feeling now that I didn’t have then, like looking at a photo of a smiling person snapped just moments before he received his divorce papers or was smashed by a falling anvil.
29. The Stills, Logic Will Break Your Heart
The Canadian Longwave, which as I have established is a compliment in the context of this column.
28. Metallica, St. Anger
There’s something about years that end with “3” that (musically speaking) make them feel like pivot points. These are years where it feels like the previous decade is finally coming to a close, though it still is not completely gone. In 2003, this was compounded by the ongoing transition to a new century and the emotional, cultural, and political fallout from 9/11. People gravitated to curly-haired, leather-jacketed rockers from New York City because it reminded them of the 20th century. This wasn’t just nostalgia. It was a natural response to seeing the world you once knew being erased before your eyes. It made you want to hold on to those things while you still could.
One of those things was mainstream rock. You could literally see (and hear) it disappear in real time in 2003. It’s not just that would-be up-and-comers like Longwave already seemed like anachronisms. You could also detect this erasure from the new album by the best-selling metal act of the ’90s. Metallica did not set out to end nü-metal with St. Anger. They tried to learn from it. They committed themselves to becoming a post-guitar solo band. They adopted the most problematic snare sound in rock history. They wrote about lifestyles turning into deathstyles. It was their attempt to re-imagine rock’s future. But did rock actually have a future?
27. Zwan, Mary Star Of The Sea
It did. But after 2003, that idea Nirvana reinforced about an outsider taking over the mainstream and transforming it no longer seemed plausible. At least not if that outsider was a rock band. The stakes were lowered. Though, again, this wasn’t an incontrovertible fact of life at the start of the year. When Mary Star Of The Sea dropped in January, corporations were willing to sink millions of dollars into a post-Smashing Pumpkins band fronted by Billy Corgan that sounded a lot like Smashing Pumpkins, even though Billy was nearly a decade past his commercial prime. Why not? It’s not like anyone who had any better ideas. Why not make a video for the song “Lyric” in which Billy parades through the streets of Chicago while leading a group of adoring fans? Not Smashing Pumpkins fans, but Zwan fans. Because it was only a matter of time until this fantasy was a reality. How could Zwan possibly fail?
26. Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, Pig Lib
The same day Longwave put out The Strangest Things, Billy Corgan’s old nemesis Stephen Malkmus released this record. A smart aleck in the moment might have noted that the former was an ascendent act and the latter was an indie-rock has-been. After all, Malkmus had tried to make the most commercial album of his life two years prior with his self-titled debut, the one where he kind of looks like Julian Casablancas on the cover. But we now know that Stephen was actually ahead of the curve. Let the Longwaves of the world reach for the brass ring, hover too close to the sun, and then go crashing back down to Earth. With Pig Lib, the ex-Pavementer was back in the business of making Pavement-like jams. Not Pavement-like jams of the “Cut Your Hair” variety. This was him reverting to Wowee Zowee mode. It was a good move. He was in his lane. And this pointed a way forward. For the rock bands of the future, aspiring to make Pig Lib will make more sense than trying to make The Strangest Things.
Not-so-fun fact: The Strangest Things and Pig Lib came out two days before the Iraq War started. I’m pretty sure I bought Pig Lib that week, and I listened to it the day the war started as I drove up to an Indian casino located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I remember drinking Jack and Cokes while watching news footage and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on the casino bar’s televisions. I think it was Fox News. They hate pig libs.
25. The National, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers
The National were also ahead of the curve. Their second-rate status in the early aughts has been well-documented in pretty much every significant profile ever written about them. When I profiled The National 10 years after Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, Matt Berninger was frank about his self-consciousness over feeling uncool in relation to other NYC bands back then. His comments in that regard always circled back to The Strokes; in our 75-minute conversation, he brought up The Strokes unprompted six times.
The National’s fatal flaw in 2003 was that they (unlike the local scene’s heavy hitters) had no visual aesthetic. They didn’t look awesome (like The Strokes) or colorful (like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) or like Patrick Bateman’s co-workers (like Interpol). They looked like a bunch of dudes who moved to the big city from Cincinnati. And they sort of sounded like an alt-country band. In time, as we all know, this perception changed. Now, The National are BFFs with Time‘s Person Of The Year, and they are more famous than all the bands they came up with (other than The Strokes). But going back to Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers: I wish The National would make a record like this again! Give me more progressions like “It Never Happened” to “Murder Me Rachael”! I want the “jammy folk-rock that devolves into screaming breakdowns” version of this band! I’m a dirty lover who needs more sad songs!
24. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever To Tell
It anybody “won” Meet Me In The Ballroom, it was Karen O. Out of all of the semi-scuzzy and semi-famous rock stars in that book — and the scores of not-famous individuals whose only notoriety stems from farting into the same barstool as Carlos D — Karen O is the only person I would want to share a cup of coffee with. When it comes to Yeah Yeah Yeah albums, I feel like Fever To Tell ranks as one of the weaker efforts. The realization in the wake of “Maps” that they could write pop songs didn’t fully pay off until, say, It’s Blitz. But out of respect for Karen O, I’m putting their debut studio record on this list anyway.
23. Ween, Quebec
To be clear: I did not fart into the same barstool as Carlos D in the early aughts or at any other time. I did not fart into any barstools used by members of the NYC rock community. I was living in Appleton, Wisconsin in 2003. I was living with a woman who left me the following year for another woman. But that’s another story. I was having a good time in 2003. I was smoking a ton of weed and listening to a ton of Ween. That’s living! These habits eventually turned against me when I went through my break-up. What was once recreational would come to envelop me in fear and dread. But in 2003, the bad vibes of Quebec did not infect me. Quebec is obviously informed by the dissolution of Gene Ween’s marriage, and just as obviously by the extreme self-inflicted chemical damage experienced by both Gene and Dean. This was the era where if you saw Ween in concert, Gene might be alarmingly overweight on one tour and alarmingly skinny on the next tour. Meanwhile, guys with dead-looking eyes would walk up to you in the audience and offer every drug under the sun. But not in a fun way. It was dark and also kind of hilarious, like a Mad magazine parody of Altamont.
Anyway: Whenever I feel like romanticizing the year I turned 26, I put this album on and that feeling instantly goes away.
22. The Postal Service, Give Up
Another album that seemed fun in 2003 and then extremely depressing in 2004 after I was dumped and sleeping on my mom’s floor. Back then, I would just listen to the first two songs on repeat, over and over. I did this when the album was fun, and I did this when it was extremely depressing. Those songs are, of course, the most famous numbers from Give Up, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and “Such Great Heights.” To be honest, I still mostly experience the album that way. If I had attended the 20th anniversary tour for Give Up this year, I probably would have hit the bathroom the moment they cued up “Sleeping In,” even though I think that’s a very good song.
Anyway: Whenever I feel like romanticizing the year I turned 26, and I don’t feel like listening to Ween, I put this album on and that feeling instantly goes away.
21. Cat Power, You Are Free
The album of Chan Marshall originals that came out after her most acclaimed record (1996’s Moon Pix) and before her most popular record (2006’s The Greatest). On most days, it’s my favorite thing she has ever done, though I acknowledge that You Are Free is very 2003 in ways that seem borderline inconceivable for a Cat Power record. Pairing the most painfully introspective singer-songwriter of her era with the producer of Soundgarden’s Down On The Upside, and then inviting Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl to back her up does not seem like a recipe for a great Cat Power album. It seems more like a recipe to get Cat Power in the rotation on KROQ. But You Are Free is a great Cat Power album, even though it did not (I suspect) get her KROQ.
20. The Fiery Furnaces, Gallowsbird’s Bark
This brother-sister duo from Chicago is best remembered for their second album, 2004’s Blueberry Boat, which begins with an interminable 10-minute song that seemed designed to prompt countless nervous breakdowns in the minds of those persuaded to buy the album by Pitchfork’s effusive 9.6 review. (As a fan of Blueberry Boat, I say “interminable” with extreme fondness and admiration.) In comparison, their debut LP from the previous year sounds relatively conventional, though strictly in a Fiery Furnaces sense. Because of their superficial, brunette-boy-girl-tandem-from-the-Midwest resemblance to the White Stripes, they were sometimes plopped in the era’s “garage rock” bucket. Though their touchstones had less to do with the Stooges and Son House than Genesis and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Nor did they have much use for Jack White’s “simple is better” ideology. Instead, they favored a 22-car pile-up approach to songwriting, cramming as many ideas and melodies and tempo changes and bizarro genre mash-ups into one song as most bands on this list compiled into a single album. If this isn’t the best record of 2003, then it must be considered the densest.
19. Loose Fur, Loose Fur
The end of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s long tail. Also, the beginning of the “Jeff Tweedy is the best guitarist in Wilco or Wilco-adjacent bands” era, which peaked the following year with A Ghost Is Born. For those too young to remember: Loose Fur is like Boygenius if they were made up of 30-something-year-old guys who used to hang out at Lounge Ax. Ryley Walker once described this record as “sitting at the end of the bar” prog rock, and I won’t bother trying to top that.
18. The Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantic
If you want to see a 46-year-old power-pop fan cry, you should do one or more of the following things: 1) Scratch his vinyl copy of Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos; 2) Aggressively argue that Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque is “pretty mid”; 3) Feed him too many beers and then ask him to recount the tragic story of the Exploding Hearts.
Three months after releasing Guitar Romantic — their debut album instantly acclaimed as a charmingly scruffy amalgam of every great punk-pop record released in the late ’70s on the Stiff label — three-fourths of the band was killed in a van accident. The victims were between the ages of 20 and 23. If that is not the most horribly depressing backstory for a record ever, it’s pretty damn close. And yet, in spite of this horribly depressing backstory, Guitar Romantic is one of the least depressing records of this year or any year. These guys wrote rock songs like their lives were about to end. And they did such a good job that you can forget how that proved to be literally true whenever you put it on.
17. Constantines, Shine A Light
If you want to see a 46-year-old Canadian rock fan cry, you should do one or more of the following things: 1) Say the words “Gord Downie”; 2) Bring up the last five years of Arcade Fire’s career; 3) Feed him too many Molsons and then ask him to explain the failure of Constantines to take over the world.
I am strenuously attempting to not apply the overused term “under*ted” here, so I’ll just say that Constantines are the best rock band of the early aughts that inspires the least amount of conversation. Their excellent self-titled debut came out in 2001 right when the music press was fixated on the NYC rock revival scene. And their blue-collar sensibility was out-of-step at a time when critics couldn’t get enough of bands engaging in CBGB’s cosplay. By the mid-aughts, when everyone from The Hold Steady to The Killers to The National made Bruce Springsteen a relevant reference point again for hip rock bands, Constantines was sliding past their prime. If they had put out Shine A Light just two or three years later, we might be hearing “Young Lions” at football games today.
16. Songs: Ohia, The Magnolia Electric Co.
If I had made this list in 2013, I would have put this album at No. 26. If I make this list again in 2033, I suspect it will be at No. 6. My point is clear: The Magnolia Electric Co. feels more momentous with each passing year. Particularly in 2023, it’s the album from 2003 that sounds the most like it could have come out this year. While Jason Molina was oft-overlooked in his time as a sad-sack Midwestern country-rocker with a penchant for mid-tempo tearjerkers, he now can be credibly regarded as a modern-day Gram Parsons. And by that I mean his influence as a songwriter and roots-music stylist has extended well beyond his tragically short life. So many up-and-coming bands and artists who once were likened to 1970s Neil Young actually came up listening to 2000s-era Jason Molina. This record practically feels like its own genre now.
Top five albums I regret not including on this list
5. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People
My biggest 2003-era indie rock blind spot. This album has just never connected with me. Peace to the reply guys complaining about this in my mentions.
4. Death Cab For Cutie, Transatlanticism
3. Pete Yorn, Day I Forgot
The most “I bought this CD for $8.99 at Best Buy” album of 2003.
2. The Mars Volta, De-Loused in the Comatorium
My favorite “I can’t believe how ridiculous this album is” album of 2003.
1. Jet, Get Born
All of the things I wrote about Longwave also apply to this record.
Back to the list!
15. The Wrens, The Meadowlands
In case you haven’t organically picked up on this running theme, allow me to spell it out: 2003 was a year of rockets that did not fully survive their launch pads. So many of 2003’s best albums were made by bands who looked like all-timers in the moment, and then something happened that prevented them from extending that greatness beyond their moment. Which should not at all diminish their moment, because most bands would never dream of hitting a peak like The Meadowlands. And when I say “peak,” I mean [dramatically rising vocal as the guitars swell into the red] peeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaak! Like their fellow New Jersey countryman Bruce Springsteen, The Wrens excelled on The Meadowlands at building their songs to near-unbearable crescendoes of voluminous feeling, like they were having mind-blowing orgasms while also ugly-crying their heads off. They pull this trick over and over, and it somehow works every single time. The Meadowlands is exhausting, but this is by design. It’s like an emotional StairMaster. It’s no wonder they were never able to make a follow-up album. As a listener, I feel spent every time I’m done listening to The Meadowlands. I can’t imagine what it was like to be the people producing those wondrous musical ‘gasms.
14. The Darkness, Permission To Land
Since we’re on the subject of wondrous musical ‘gasms — I already regret using this phrase — I must bring up 2003’s finest pop-metal album, as well as 2003’s finest parody of pop-metal conventions. At the time, this duality made Permission To Land a difficult proposition for some critics. Was this band stupid or “ironically” stupid, and therefore stupid in a more annoying way? The answer, it turns out, was “neither.” In 2003, there were a lot of bands attempting to replicate the sound and feel of late 20th-century rock music because the future already seemed scary and untenable (and also, paradoxically, dull and not terribly different from the present or the past). But a lot of those bands made the mistake of taking those sounds and feels at face value. They didn’t understand — like The Darkness did — that only by leaning into the ridiculousness of undead arena rock can you fully harness its power and make it your own. (Richard Linklater, Mike White, and Jack Black were on the same wavelength in 2003 with School Of Rock.)
The Darkness nailed this approach on Permission To Land. This record works as a collection of hooky pop-metal favorites, and it also works as a goof on hooky pop-metal favorites. These flavors do not work in conflict; they achieve a perfect peanut-butter-and-jelly alchemy. This is a real achievement. So real it couldn’t be replicated. On their next record, The Darkness spent about 10 gazillion dollars on hiring producer Roy Thomas Baker and acquiring a Roy Thomas Baker-sized pile of cocaine. The alchemy was gone. But, again, this shouldn’t diminish the original moment.
13. Warren Zevon, The Wind
After so much discussion of dying careers, let’s put it all in perspective by talking about a guy who actually died after putting out his 2003 masterwork. Though for Warren Zevon, the demise of his health made his career more robust than it had been since the late ’70s, which makes The Wind the ultimate example of “death as a good career move” in modern show-business history.
If my tone comes off as overly sardonic, I’m only trying to pay proper tribute to one of my musical heroes, whose final record is leavened with heavy doses of gallows humor. Of course, the most famous song from this record is “Keep Me In Your Heart,” the most emotional example of a Warren Zevon “remorse” ballad — shoutout to “Accidentally Like A Martyr,” “Reconsider Me,” “Searching For A Heart,” etc. — where the king of blackout Saturday nights re-emerges on one last Sunday morning to plead for his sins to be forgiven once he is gone. But when I play The Wind, I’m inevitably drawn to the cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” which starts out as tasteless black comedy and evolves into a performance as violent and moving as the Slim Pickens’ death scene it soundtracks in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid.
12. 50 Cent, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’
Unlike Warren Zevon, 50 figured out how to do the former without messing with the latter. And that’s because the man had singles. So many amazing singles! As we have established, I was in the middle of my barfly period in 2003. And if you were in the middle of your barfly period in 2003, you simply could not go out that year without spending serious time with Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. At the pre-party, it was “P.I.M.P.” At the bar, it was “In Da Club.” (I was never at “Da Club” in 2003. But that song made “Da Bar” I frequented in Northeastern Wisconsin feel like “Da Club.”) At the after-party, it was more “In Da Club” and “P.I.M.P” (and possibly the crappy MP3 of “How To Rob” I downloaded from Limewire). Were there other songs on this record? Possibly? (Checks notes) Yes. Yes there were.
11. The New Pornographers, Electric Version
In case you haven’t organically picked up on this running theme, allow me to spell it out: Canadians were killing it in 2003. And these particular Canadians were killing it the hardest. And writing this column reminded me just how hard they killed it. The New Pornographers were one of my favorite bands from 2000 to ’05, the period that encompasses their first three albums: 2000’s Mass Romantic, 2003’s Electric Version, and 2005’s Twin Cinema. For reasons I can’t recall now, I fell off after the fourth record from ’07, Challengers. And then I stopped listening to this band for the entirety of the 2010s. Flash forward to my decision to rank the albums of 2003: I put Electric Version on and I immediately wonder why the New Pornos aren’t still one of my favorite bands. I remember that Carl Newman was in his “New Wave Genius” phase in the early aughts. I recall the magnetism of Neko Case in her power-pop guise. I realize that a compilation of Dan Bejar tracks from the early New Pornographers albums would be my favorite EP of the 2000s. I know now that the laws of CanRock greatness have not changed. It was never about them. It was on me, always. Thank you for this lesson, Electric Version.
10. Beyoncé, Dangerously In Love
There are a lot of bands on this list. There are a lot of bands on this list because I like bands. But there were also just a lot of bands in 2003. And many of those bands were “The” bands. Three-letter grammatical articles were sexy as hell in ’03. It’s another part of the past that no longer exists in the present, and like I already said this makes me feel wistful. Which is another reason why there a lot of bands on this list. I’m working through something here.
One band (or group) that no longer exists is Destiny’s Child. They performed their final show (to date?) at the 2006 NBA All-Star Game, the one where LeBron James became the youngest All-Star Game MVP in NBA history. But Destiny’s Child was unofficially finished the second Dangerously In Love was released. When this record went six-times platinum, Kelly Rowland’s fate was sealed. Now, I’m not blaming Beyoncé for the decline of groups in all corners of the pop world since the early 2000s. (The blame goes to Justin Timberlake, who went solo from NSYNC the previous year with his first solo LP, Justified.) But for all the ways that Beyoncé has influenced culture in the past 20 years, pointing out that a superstar frontwoman does not need to pretend that she is collaborating with less famous band members is one of the most decisive and the least discussed. And this album was the start of that.
9. Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day
More bands! Along with The Magnolia Electric Co., this album has influenced more music from 2023 that I love than any other record on this list. Jason Isbell set forth on becoming the Jason Isbell when he wrote the title track and “Outfit,” but those contributions shouldn’t overshadow the worlds of southern grime and petty crime created by co-leaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley on this record and beyond. On the back cover photo, they present themselves as a humble bar band that plays on the weekend for beer money. And then you play the songs and it’s like someone finally had the brilliant idea to combine Charles Portis, Tom T. Hall, and If You Want Blood You’ve Got It. Drive-By Truckers have reasserted that formula on numerous wonderful albums, but this one belongs near the top of that wonderful pile.
8. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow
As we get closer to the end of this column, we will be playing a recurring game called “Is The Album They Put Out In 2003 Better Than The Album They Put In 2001?” Let’s start with The Shins. Is Chutes Too Narrow better than Oh, Inverted World? To answer this properly, I’m afraid I have to use weaselly, lawyerly language. Oh, Inverted World is the one I love the most, for musical and nostalgic reasons, and it’s the one I reach for most often. But if I’m forced to be pedantic, I have to concede that Chutes Too Narrow is probably “better.” The songs are more consistent, the musicianship is greater, and the production is sharper.
Whatever Alvvays represents in the early 2020s, The Shins represented in the early 2000s. Just incredibly well-executed indie rock, with a level of craftsmanship only witnessed in Amish furniture.
7. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves
Is it better than At Dawn? Yes. As well as every other MMJ record. I still remember getting a promo CD. I remember it because I was working for a small-town daily newspaper and I didn’t get promo CDs all that often. And also because the cover of It Still Moves is very memorable. You don’t usually see a grizzly bear growling at you from behind a CD jewel case. (Not even when the band is literally called Grizzly Bear.) Bands refrain from putting bears on their album covers because a bear signifies a rare amount of majesty and power, and you don’t want to implicitly promise that your music also possesses a rare amount of majesty and power if you can’t back it up. But this, obviously, was not a problem for My Morning Jacket.
6. Fountains Of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers
My thinking on Fountains Of Wayne was forever transformed after reading Glenn Kenny’s review of this album in The Village Voice, in which he compared the New Jersey power-pop band to Steely Dan. The comparison, of course, makes no sense musically. But it makes all the sense in the world when you consider that both bands are led by brilliant songwriting duos preoccupied by characters that are (in Kenny’s words) “white guys who can’t get what they want or what they need, or if they ever do get something along those lines, can’t hold on to it.” If I can extend the comparison further, I consider Welcome Interstate Managers to be FOW’s “Deacon Blues” record. The songs are populated by losers who dream about drinking scotch whiskey all night long and then dying romantically behind the wheel. They just need to get their shit together, because they can’t live like this forever. (Also, “Stacy’s Mom” is “Hey Nineteen” in this analogy.)
5. OutKast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below
Should I extend the comparison even further and classify Andre 3000 and Big Boi the Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of hip-hop? Surely not. It’s hard to imagine Fagen and Becker making an album as sprawling (and occasionally unfocused) as Speakerboxx/The Love Below. (A better analogy is packaging Kamakiriad with 11 Tracks Of Whack and calling it a mid-’90s Steely LP.) This is easily the most flawed “great” album of 2003. But as bloated as Speakerboxx/The Love Below is, it can’t really be overstated how much of a unifying force OutKast was at the time. Everybody loved them. Everybody. Their approval rating was higher than George W. Bush’s after 9/11. Even after “Hey Ya” and “The Way You Move” became inescapable smashes, they were impossible to hate. When they won the Grammy for Album Of The Year, it was tempting to point out that the honor was for OutKast’s weakest record. But only if you were a petty crank. Out of all the culturally ubiquitous musical acts of the last 20 years, OutKast is by far the coolest and the easiest to root for.
4. Radiohead, Hail To The Thief
It’s four songs too long. It’s probably the least great Radiohead album of the 2000s. (You can never use the word “worst” in relation to this band.) And the title feels a touch too obvious as early aughts political commentary. I concede all of these points. Here is my retort: Listen to the final 117 seconds of “There There.”
3. Jay-Z, The Black Album
What is it about NYC-based musicians who announce their intentions to retire, prompting them to stage a “final” show at Madison Square Garden only to un-retire a few years later? Before LCD Soundsystem did this in the 2010s, Jay-Z did it in the 2000s. In both instances, the un-retirees lost some of their status in the process. For Jay-Z, the early aughts run from The Blueprint to the MTV Unplugged with The Roots to The Black Album to the concert film Fade To Black was one of the greatest of the 21st century. (You could also add The Grey Album in there — remember being excited about new Danger Mouse music??) If Jay could have had the fortitude to just stay gone, he would be more myth than man right now. Then again, he’s a billionaire who’s married to Beyoncé so who am I to question his judgment?
2. The White Stripes, Elephant
Let’s resume our game of “Is The Album They Put Out In 2003 Better Than The Album They Put In 2001?” Is Elephant better than White Blood Cells? I say no. I think I’m in the minority on that one, but I shouldn’t be. Elephant put The White Stripes on the map as a mainstream juggernaut, and “Seven Nation Army” made Jack and Meg immortal Jock Jams icons. But the record loses focus between “There’s No Home For You Here” and “Ball And Biscuit,” and you’ll never convince me otherwise. Nevertheless, the Hail To The Thief rule also applies here. Yes, it’s four songs too long and it’s not quite as good as the three albums that precede it. But it’s still Elephant by The White Stripes. You can’t not put it at the 2003 mountaintop.
1. The Strokes, Room On Fire
Is it better than Is This It? The conventional wisdom has taken a weird turn lately. I was one of the people who for years pushed the “Room On Fire is greater than Is This It” argument. And now I’m seeing more and more Strokes heads take up the cause, to the point where I’m having second thoughts. Is This It has the hits and it stands as a definitive moment. But Room On Fire is the one I hold closer to my heart, for both musical and extra-musical reasons. On the former count, The Strokes play their asses off on this record. “Reptilia” is the hardest they have ever rocked, and “Under Control” is the sexiest they have ever swung. On the latter count, Room On Fire didn’t get the love that it deserved in ’03. “It sounds just like the first record,” we said. What in the hell did we want from these guys? Were people expecting them to make Kid A? They made a prime-era Strokes record! It was awesome! We just didn’t know how good we had it.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.