Through the Past, Starkly: The Best of 2003 Pop

When Bob Dylan joined Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the stage at Shea Stadium for an encore late on Oct. 4, the cheers and stomps shook the stands like an X-Box game controller. There in the same venue where the Beatles had made rock ‘n’ roll history, two of the most charismatic and influential artists of the last 40 years were about to play together and maybe go down in the annals, too.

But that’s not what happened. Mr. Dylan tore through “Highway 61 Revisited” as if he were determined to catch the first bus back to the Port Authority terminal, and though Mr. Springsteen introduced Mr. Dylan as “my great friend and inspiration,” he behaved as if his buddy’s lawyer had slapped him with a restraining order before the song.

The year in pop music was a lot like that: Whether your tastes ran to the White Stripes or Britney Spears, expectations of their new work often ran ridiculously high, inflated to risky levels by record labels desperate to stem sagging sales, a media hell-bent on hyping the new and listeners looking for that sound to take them higher.

That the disappointments outweighed the pleasant surprises suggests that we are in a moment of both exhaustion and transition in pop music. The album as a format is withering, the producer has eclipsed the artist and, as you’ll see from a number of Manhattan Music critics’ choices for the best pop-music-related releases of 2003, the past was infinitely preferable to the present.

1. “Hey Ya,” André 3000, the song/the video/the live performances from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista) : It’s a dance song. It’s a sex song. It’s an existential lament (“If they say ‘nothing is forever’ …. Then what makes love the exception?”)-and with its propellant of hand claps, acoustic guitar, shimmery percolating synth sounds and André 3000 (né Benjamin)’s Ronald Isley–meets–Larry Blackmon vocals, it’s the most giddy, uninhibited song of the year. Watching Mr. Benjamin and his band of hoochie-coochie girls shake it like a Polaroid picture on The Late Show with David Letterman was as exciting and exotic as seeing Michael Jackson moonwalk on the Motown 25 Special in 1983.

2. Warren Zevon, The Wind (Artemis) : “There’s a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done / Keep me in your heart for a while,” the terminally ill Zevon sang on the last song of his last album, The Wind. On Sept. 7, Zevon caught that train, and the media moved on too, but The Wind holds up as a great album. Redolent of the Spanish-inflected California sound that he helped father, The Wind is driven by Mr. Zevon’s distinct piano-playing, a passel of great guitarists (David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Mr. Springsteen) and 11 visceral, unsentimental but often darkly funny songs, including the rock rave-up “Disorder in the House,” the gritty blues “Rub Me Raw” and “Keep Me In Your Heart,” an unforgettable tune about a man’s wish to not fade away.

3. Matthew Ryan, Regret Over The Wires (Hybrid) : Mr. Ryan’s characters may frequent the same neon-bathed bars and dead-end relationships found in the work of Springsteen, Waits and U2, but they’re anything but carbon copies. Like the guy in “Return to Me” with “a sorrowed heart and a cluttered mind,” Mr. Ryan’s characters talk and think like people struggling to keep their bearings in a world that sure sounds like New York circa late 2003. But rendered in the Pennsylvania native’s tender rasp and rousing rock arrangements, the songs become “Souvenirs, of little hopes / Underground and between thieves.” Now, after turning out four worthy albums with hardly a misstep, it’s finally time for Mr. Ryan to surface.

4. Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ benefit concert for LIFEbeat at Roseland, Aug. 27: There wasn’t a whiff of nostalgia to be inhaled at Mr. Pop’s first New York performance with the Stooges since the 70’s. Just the funk of hundreds of sweaty misfits thrashing blindly along with the shirtless, fat-free Mr. Pop-his hip-huggers halfway off his ass-and the Stooges’ angry methamphetamine rock, including “1969,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “TV Eye.” It was as scary and funny as Alphabet City used to be, especially when Mr. Pop told the crew to cut the lights, then screamed in the darkness: “Blackout! Blackout! Fuck you! Fuck me! Satan! Schwarzenegger!” Booga-booga!

5. D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat (Atlantic) : This is the album that will make you rethink every label you’ve ever affixed to your favorite music: dance vs. rock, gay vs. straight, 60’s vs. 70’s vs. 80’s. D-D-Don’t Stop sounds like Junior and Senior threw their favorite Beatles, Phil Spector, Culture Club, B-52’s, Soft Cell and Wham! records into a blender, added a case of Red Bull and a little schnoof-schnoof and hit the frappe button. The result? The year’s best party CD.

-Frank DiGiacomo

This was the year we split the rock ‘n’ roll atom: Between the throwback bands and the Super Audio CD reissues, we could relive the past forever and ever until we puked. But did we want to? You bet your five-hour Led Zeppelin DVD we did.

1. The Old Grey Whistle Test DVD (BBC Video) : Culled from 16 years of archival footage from the Beeb’s legendary TV show (1971 to 1987), this is the most revelatory and essential release of the year. A Rosetta Stone for the history-lifting retro-kids, its 28 performances include stunners by XTC, Talking Heads, John Lennon (singing Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”), the Specials, R.E.M., Blondie, Randy Newman, Curtis Mayfield, Emmylou Harris and Bruce Springsteen. Proof that not all periods in musical history are equal, no matter what the relativists say: In the Wailers slow-cooked “Stir It Up,” from 1971, Bob Marley-pre-dreadlocks-evokes a depth of soul that doesn’t seem possible today. And in the opening guitar riff to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ snake-bitten “American Girl,” we hear the blueprint for the entire Strokes oeuvre. But it’s the terrifying performance by Captain Beefheart that really separates the men from the boys, the past from the present. Like a bullfighter pacing the floor, the sinister-looking Don Van Vliet faces down the devil himself: “Tell me good Captain / How does it feel / To be driven away / From your own steering wheel / Upon the My Oh My?” Oh, my.

2. “Ignition Remix” by R. Kelly (Jive) : With his chocolate-and-cheese soul delivery, tumbling keyboard melody and shameless booty-centric lyricism (“I’m about to take my key and stick it in the ignition … Can I get a toot-toot? Can I get beep-beep?”), Mr. Kelly found a groove so crunked-out and sticky-sweet it practically teleported ass to dance floor. He also offered a how-to for getting down: “And after the show / It’s the after-party / And after the party / It’s the hotel lobby / Yeah, around about four / You gotta clear the lobby / Then take it to your room and freak somebody.” Any future remixes will probably tack on the phrase “of legal age.”

3. Björk: Greatest Hits–Volumen 1993-2003 DVD (One Little Indian) : In a year in which Matthew Barney turned the Guggenheim into Dante’s Inferno, this collection of music videos by girlfriend Björk showcases an equally potent shape-shifter who can de- and re-sexualize her persona at will. A matron of the video high arts, she’s a cat-eyed protagonist for the truly advanced and jarring imaginations of such film wizards as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. And the pop? Shipped in from the 23rd century.

4. The guitar solo on “Ball and Biscuit,” from the White Stripes’ Elephant album (V2/BMG) : With the bluesy swagger of Stagger Lee, Jack White seems to dust his hands on the crossroads before going to bat: “Tell everybody in the place to get out and we’ll get cleeean together,” he declares, “and I’ll find a soap box where I can shout it.”

And then you hear it: a heeeav-y, swamp-thick, mutant strain of Hendrix that smolders like a cigarette burn and screams like a torture victim. By the time Mr. White comes back for the next verse, you’re sold: This is rock ‘n’ roll.

5. My Morning Jacket: Live at Bowery Ballroom: You had to be there. But then again, you have to be there: This band of craggy, Skynyrd-stung rockers can’t be truly appreciated in a recorded format. Wielding a flying-V and sporting flip-flops, mammoth-haired singer Jim James bathed the room in the warm, rust-flecked After the Gold Rush glow of 70’s rock, his preternaturally soulful voice like an alien feed from Planet Neil itself. But with restrained, slow-building jam-stomps whipping the crowd into triumphant, Metallica-sized frenzies, the arc-weld was their own, and it was impressive.

-Joe Hagan

I dunno, it all sounded kind of old to me this year. Elephant, by reputation the best album since sliced bread, sounds like the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. (Hey, they cover a Burt Bacharach tune. Where’d they ever get that idea?) The new Strokes sounds an awful lot like that fun party band from a couple years back-what were they called? Oh, right, the Strokes. The White Stripes, Strokes, Shins, New Pornographers, Joe Henry, Califone, Cat Power, Decemberists and, yes, Evan Dando all made creditable records in ’03. But where was the gusto? The one new release of the year I played until it cloyed, then played some more, was Yours, Mine and Ours by the Pernice Brothers. So here is my Band Santa mantra: If you’re going to Feel Old, Be Old. And with that, my favorite resurrections of the year.

1. Gerry Mulligan, The Complete Verve Concert Band Sessions (Mosaic) : In the early 60’s, Mulligan wanted a band that could be both nimble and intimate, like the cool-jazz ensembles he helped pioneer with Miles Davis, and big and lush, like the swing bands that had largely gone out of style. (Mulligan himself embodied the dichotomy: He played the baritone sax, a cumbersome and slow-to-warm instrument that swung deliriously, and occasionally even purred, when he got it going.) With the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, he put together a large small group, or a small big band, depending on how you look at it; either way, they made some of the finest music of Mulligan’s outrageously varied and prolific career. As always, Mosaic’s reissue is lovingly presented, but available only from Mosaic (www.mosaicrecords.com).

2. The Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane (Beggars Banquet) : Every rock snob’s favorite also-rans, the Go-Betweens made six albums over the course of the 80’s and one, the lovely Friends of Rachel Worth, when they resurfaced in 2000. All fell somewhat awkwardly between Top 40 and testy, insular indie rock. Sixteen Lovers Lane was the Gobees’ last and finest before they broke up in ’89, and it’s been remastered and re-released. With knottier melodies and no clear front man to shill for it, the album never broke as big as The Queen Is Dead or Boys Don’t Cry. But this is as good as 80’s alt-pop ever got.

3. Lost in Translation soundtrack (Emperor Norton) : The greatest of post-punk bands and the original shoe-gazers, My Bloody Valentine managed to combine a grinding electric din with strangely ingratiating melodies. They produced two masterpieces-1988’s Isn’t Anything and 1991’s Loveless-before disappearing. For several years, rumors circulated that the group’s guiding genius, Kevin Shields, was tinkering away in a home studio. Apparently, the rumors were true. Only four Shields songs-lovely revenants, all-appear on the Lost in Translation soundtrack, but they are welcome news from the ether.

4. Neil Young, On the Beach (Warner Bros) : You couldn’t own this 1974 record from Mr. Young’s golden age until this year. What more do you need to know? He was emerging from the despair of Tonight’s the Night, with plenty left over to give On the Beach its required savagery. Barbs are directed at Laurel Canyon softies, Lynyrd Skynyrd (who had twitted him previously in “Sweet Home Alabama”) and various unnamed critics. Not the first record you think of from this period, but easily among his harrowing best.

5.JohnFahey,RedCross (Revenant Records) : Fahey spent a lifetime trying to bury himself under a layer of dust and neglect. In an effort to tap into the mystique of his beloved Charley Patton, on whom he wrote a graduate thesis, and Bukka White, whom he helped to rediscover in 1963, Fahey started out in the late 50’s recording under the pseudonym Blind Joe Death. He played a crappy Sears six-string, pressed only 95 copies of his debut album and refused to perform live until the mid-60’s.

In spite of himself, he changed forever the way people play the acoustic guitar; and as a composer, he found the crossroads where Patton, White, Debussy and Erik Satie could all come together. Fahey died in 2001, and Red Cross is his last album. The playing might not be what it once was; but like almost everything he ever recorded, Red Cross captures the sound of hair still growing on a corpse’s head.

-Stephen Metcalf

Am I becoming a curmudgeon before my time? Or is pop music just not as good as it used to be? Whatever the answer, this year I enjoyed listening to Sly Stone, Coltrane and Bartók’s Mikrokosmos more than any current release. Which explains why several of my favorite “new” musical moments are actually old ideas reconfigured, recontextualized and revitalized. I suspect it’s the most we can hope for at this point.

1. Pink, “Feel Good Time,” on the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle soundtrack (Sony) : Calling Pink a rock ‘n’ roller is about as sensible as calling Avril Lavigne a punk. Still, she’s made some of the decade’s catchiest singles. And when it comes to wholesale appropriation of other’s work, the former Alecia Moore has excellent taste. Take this tune, which grabs its main riff from a forgotten 60’s classic, Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage,” while smartly excising the old song’s noodly piano-waltz interlude. O.K., co-writers Beck and William Orbit are the principal architects here, but Pink’s smoldering vocal is what makes the thing jump.

2. Randy Newman, “Political Science,” on The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 (Nonesuch) : With its castigation of ungrateful Old Europe and its hearty endorsement of the ultimate in pre-emptive war (“Let’s drop the big one and see what happens”), is there a more apt theme song for 2003-even if it was written over 30 years ago? This new solo version cuts deep, as the happy-go-lucky bounce of Newman’s piano renders the America-first-last-and-only sentiments all the more disturbing.

3. Miles Davis, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Columbia/Legacy) , disc one: On which Sonny Sharrock and John McLaughlin offer a clinic in distressful guitar tone. Free-jazzer Sharrock appeared only briefly (and without credit) on the original 1970 A Tribute to Jack Johnson album, but his performance on these February-June 1970 outtakes is shockingly dominant. Armed with slide and Arp Echoplex unit, he fires off backwards tornado licks that shriek and crash with the force of windows collapsing or roof beams splitting. McLaughlin responds with a grotesquerie of fuzzed-out bent notes. More than three decades later, their playing still sounds like the future.

4. Rufus Wainwright, Want One (DreamWorks) : His drug problems got major press in ’03, but this is no harrowing addict’s confession-it’s an ornate, whimsical testament to music’s limitless capacity for both beauty and bombast. Moving from strength to strength, Wainwright has now established himself as the greatest living composer of nonexistent (so far) Broadway shows.

5. eX-Girl, live at Elysium in Austin, Tex., March 14: This Japanese all-female trio claims to be from the planet Kero!Kero!, and they dress accordingly, in Star Trek–reject neon wigs and silver tunic/cape ensembles. But their performance at Austin’s South by Southwest festival transcended sci-fi gimmickry. In eX-Girl’s universe, Metallica, Toots and the Maytals and Yoko Ono are all involved in the same musical traffic accident. The virtuosic, genre-busting onslaught paused only briefly when bassist Kirilo announced in a tiny voice straight out of Mothra, “We are looking for a new record label.” If there’s any justice in the world, they’ve found one.

-Mac Randall