To my best estimation, I have heard 1,440 albums (give or take a few) this year, each symbolic of one of those minutes in the grueling day, about which your boss suddenly seems to care so much. That's only a sliver of the music released this year, as some 20,000 discs managed to find their way into some kind of market; nonetheless, it's a substantial chunk of music. Here are my memories. It's almost time to begin again.
Oddly enough, it was a year in which some of the biggest artistic triumphs found their way to an audience thanks to major labels still struggling with slumping sales, amorphous technology and a discontent public. De-Loused in the Comatorium, the first full-length effort from At The Drive-In expatriates Omar Rodriguez and Cedric Bixler as The Mars Volta, was an utter breakthrough, an intense, shaky prog-rock riot built on the collapse-and-build drumming of Jon Theodore and the scream-then-sail idiosyncrasy of Bixler's cathartic voice and pompous rants. The album was issued by Universal, though Virgin released Think Tank, the schizophrenic, concerned and animated tapestry of juxtaposition brought to life by one Damon Albarn, also known as Blur (minus Graham Coxon). Scrap the antiquated comparisons to The Who or The Stone Roses: Think Tank--characterized by the gorgeous and suspiciously tender hum of "Ambulance" and the chaotic, contorted punk/electronic aesthetic of "Crazy Beat" in two of its first three tracks--is a departure that finds Blur both borrowing notions from and brining conceptions to today's avant-garde.
For Want One, Rufus Wainwright frolicked down much the same path of lyrical and instrumental decadence he pursued for his second Dreamworks' release, 2001's Poses. This time around, though, he brings a new emotional sobriety and dependence to the table. He sings, "But I'll settle for love/Yeah, I'll settle for love," for the title track, a drastic departure from the "I'm a one man guy in the morning/Same in the afternoon" stance he espoused when he covered one of his father's tunes two years ago. Drugs and subsequent depression can do that to prodigal sons, especially those who double as precious (and precocious) bards. An elegant, lavish affair and, when all is said and sung, the album of the year.
For all the griping that followed the release of Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, it certainly contained some of the year's best moments, though it failed to explode like OK Computer or to terrify like Kid A. "Wolf at the Door" and "We Suck Young Blood" find Thom Yorke's lyrical ideas and use of simple phrasal disconnection at an all-time high; and at least the titles are terrifying.
The Drive-by Truckers just missed the major-label-for-the-major-breakthrough bandwagon with Declaration Day. The band opted away from Universal's Lost Highway imprint (which re-released their Southern Rock Opera in 2002) before settling with New West for the release of Declaration Day, the most ambitious and dynamically aware record the Truckers' have ever made. These older and wiser Georgia boys somehow manage to tear through fine, sing-along renditions of "My Sweet Annette" and "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" that showcase a nascent production sense while still clinging to the band's Crazy Horse/Skynyrd sense of wrong part, missed beat and first take abandon.
This time around, the most Southern record you may ever hear even includes some of the best songwriting you will ever experience. And with the ATO/RCA release of their monstrous It Still Moves, My Morning Jacket established itself as the only rock band in America that really knows how to end a rock song. Need evidence? Listen to "Mahgeetah" and "Golden." These days, few bands not pejoratively classified as "jam bands" head into an extended coda with teeth this sharp.
In not-so-surprising news, The White Stripes failed to make an album of the year (De Stijl remains their masterpiece), though Jack White did succeed in failing to answer his own White Blood Cells' question of how to get back to "your little room" to write the next album after you become the most talked-about band in the world.
To hear the electric blues recorded in a garage, The Black Keys' next-generation reverence as proffered by thicksoulfreaknes is is a must-have. And to hear Modey Lemon's Thunder & Lightning is to hear what The Stripes would sound like with John Bonham on the skins and a kick of Stooges' spunk stuck squarely in the ass. If, however, your take on the blues reaches down into The Delta and neither the Alan Lomax: Song Book nor Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues ... satisfies your need for that low, lonesome sound, Entrance's Honey Moan EP sounds so eerily authentic that you may actually see the ghost of Robert Johnson while listening.
In other indie action, Eric Bachmann released his best album as Crooked Fingers to date. But that was simply the beginning for nearby Merge Records, though; The Rosebuds, Pram and M. Ward all followed suit for the Triangle favorite this year. Grandaddy disappointed its faithful by trimming the proverbial fat from its adorable solar pop for the streamlined verse/chorus/bridge form of Sumday, but those still pining for a taste of the more eccentric song should find lots to love in a phenomenal sophomore release from The Broken Social Scene ("Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl" is a marvel) or Bardo Pond, who master the sublime semi-crescendo with their On The Eclipse. Death Cab for Cutie turned in its best album to date in the same year that the band's infinitely sad-eyed and cuddly frontman, Ben Gibbard, struck gold with the ultimate pen-pal ensemble for contagious electronic pop, The Postal Service. And two one-off triumvirates of noise and experimentation worth your time: William Hooker/Lee Ranaldo/Roger Miller's Out Trios Volume One and Billy Martin/G. Calvin Weston/DJ Logic's For No One in Particular. Finally, a question for Cat Power: How does a song as gorgeous as "Good Woman" find itself on an album as lackluster and monochromatic as You Are Free?
With World Without Tears, Lucinda Williams perhaps wrote the album of the year, although a number of other records staked a heavy claim to that title this time through. Five exceptional albums from the most promising young writers: the Ryan Adams-produced Jesse Malin debut, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction; Teitur's pale-skinned excursion into the lonely heart, Poetry and Aeroplanes; Rocky Votalato's cathartic, forceful Suicide Medicine; Josh Ritter's inviting song cycle, Hello Starling; and the second solo effort from Nickel Creek's eclectic Sean Watkins, 26 Miles.
With jaw-dropping servings of both egotism and vulnerability, Jay-Z said goodbye with one of the best parting shots in the history of hip-hop, the presumptuously titled The Black Album, though the Providence, Rhode Island tandem of the venomous Sage Francis and producer Joe Beats provided some of the year's most interesting (and, for that matter, nihilistic) rhymes. Atmosphere scored a deserving underground hit with Seven's Journey as Slug extolled the virtues of Minnesota in an epic, sometimes aloof hip-hop picture show, though on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the very aboveground hip-hop duo out of ATL-GEORGIA, known as Outkast, asked the most interesting question in a song that is--hands down--better than anything else anyone even considered recording this year: "What's cooler than being cool?"
I, at least, am convinced that the answer can never be The Strokes. See you in 2004.
P.S. Add these to your shopping lists: Chris Whitley's Hotel Vast Horizon, Johnny Cash's Unearthed, Cursive's The Ugly Organ, Randy Newman's Songbook and Lexaunculpt's The Blurring of Trees.
From the Studio: Call it whatever you like: country, honky-tonk, alt.country or Southern collegiate radio rock. But perfect by any other name is simply the employment of unnecessary, redundant synonyms for saying one thing: Thad Cockrell has made the local album of the year. With his first proper release, Warmth & Beauty, Cockrell insists less and less that there is no alt in his country, focusing more on the utter perfection of the dozen gems that comprise the compilation. He pens contagious melodies one after the other, gracing the songs with a certain familiarity on more straightforward rock tunes like "Taking the View" or the devastatingly lonesome "Some Tears," while managing to come across as altogether fresh and inspired for one of the most consummate, tender and downright gorgeous country records made in a long time. And I dare WQDR (or any other mainstream local radio station for that matter) to play it.
The same man that produced Cockrell's disc, Chris Stamey, not only controlled the boards for the sessions behind Chatham County Line's high-powered eponymous debut, but he was also responsible for convincing the band (composed of sidemen and best friends from the almost famous Carbines) to take itself seriously. Tift Merritt guests for a magical, melting take on Dylan's "I Will Be Delivered," but it's the combination of Dave Wilson's oft-lauded songwriting and John Teer's mandolin/fiddle heroics that prove to be the life force of the record. With a catalogue that shamelessly comments on subjects from big-time heartbreak to old-time nostalgia, Chatham County Line is semi-traditional bluegrass sound for the non-traditional crowd.
Speaking of non-traditional, Utah! somehow managed to make the best indie rock record within the Beltline this year by pitting a climactic cello, an amorphous beat and a jangly guitar against the rawhide, unbridled vocals of Eddie Pellino. With a hoarse roar that recalls '80s hair bands instead of late-'90s math rock heroes, Pellino makes you believe every note he sings and every lick the band plays throughout the course of Plays Well with Others. Greg Elkins' production manages to keep even the biggest hooks and progressions of the effort slightly mysterious, making the band's best work to date even better. Soaring, thundering and reaffirming--hey babe, it's all right.
Though Mr. Elkins did work with The Rosebuds for some of their early recordings, Brian Paulson manned the production behind their Merge Records' debut, Make Out. Full of melodic tricks pulled almost note-for-note from an imaginary rock n' roll Handbook written by three Beatles, one Morissey and one Costello, Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp render delightful, accessible and immediate pop built on Howard's intelligent, studied songwriting and a shitload of bah-bah's and whoa-whoa's. Line of the year: "I believe in rock n' roll/Moving fast to save my soul."
On the Stage: Former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty played a memorable solo set at The Brewery in March, twisting "Circles" into an abandoned sing-along before turning it into an anti-Urkel, Family Matters topical song. The release party for the first CD from Pidgeon English Records was a sweaty good time that saw The Weather rip the stage apart moments before The Cherry Valence rebuilt it with an explosive set; The Cherry Valence's date with the New Jersey rap trio Dalek in the fall at Kings was a riotous dichotomy of no-frills noise rap and no-frills rock n' roll. At The Lincoln Theatre, Sound Tribe Sector 9 provided one of the most awe-inspiring studies in musicianship to be seen in The Triangle this year, The Jazz Mandolin Project covered "Powderfinger" to phenomenal effect and Seven Mary Three demonstrated that there is life after "Cumbersome" and Mammoth. Anyone who forgets November's Alejandro Escovedo Benefit at The Retail Bar in any less than a decade just forgot to go--an exhausting, thrilling spectacle for the music lover.