Best Pop/Rock Album Year in Review 2003

Best Pop/Rock Album Year in Review 2003
1. The Constantines Shine A Light (Three Gut)
Bry Webb would like to send a shout out to Hamilton. The preciously gruff front-man says "there was something about the feeling, everybody dancing and really having a good time," of the smudgy Steeltown, where the Constantines played one of their favourite shows in recent memory. That's saying a bunch for a group whose performances are routinely referenced as expansive foot-stompin' hand-clappin' celebrations — an experience their Shine a Light disc has just begun to capture.

"I would be ecstatic if people started bringing their own noisemakers to shows and just doing their thing and it becoming more of a jam or a dance party," says Webb. "With each record we're trying to involve more people in the songs. Doug [MacGregor, drums] got a six-person horn section together and Will joined the band the year before this record so we're just gradually adding more people."

The additions are part of their evolution, but the Constantines have learned that the other part is well-placed restraint. "I think we're starting to learn to play less individually and to trust one another to carry a song — we're starting to learn to hold back a little more and leave some space for all of the instruments."

This is just one of the elements pulling Shine a Light into its glorious and fitting maturation — the same Fugazi-loving punks are still there, but this time pop ballads abound, seraphic quiet moments reach for tears and the sincerity is blatant. "That's just the kick I've been on since we started working on this record — just trying to be a lot more honest and less postured and also not being so serious all the time, letting accidents happen."

The alchemic ingredient inherent in all of the Cons' work has never been the originality of individual influences, but the unique expression of the sum of its parts and their aptitude for striking a blow just above the gut, right in the soul. And so, a rambunctious and affecting live performance comes natural to this truly different five-white-boy band.

"One thing I'd like to try for next is to record everything live, even having other instruments involved, like a brass section and backup singers and vocals. The best thing about doing music is to be involved with other people creatively, feeling like you're part of a community of creativity and expression — the more people you can involve in that, the more fulfilling it is. Our first record we were just making for friends. Same with the new one. We just have more friends."
Star DT

2. The Hidden Cameras The Smell of Our Own (Evil Evil)
A sprawling, benevolent band-as-army, the Hidden Cameras' debut The Smell of Our Own — released internationally by England's legendary Rough Trade label — confirms that this band's self-described "gay church folk music" was made for the world stage. The revolving collective's theatrical, celebratory concerts drew attention initially, but singer Joel Gibb's songs maintained it: melodic, grandly arranged, and in their lyrics' treatment of gay love as simply a matter-of-fact component of modern life, rather groundbreaking.
Michael White

3. The White Stripes Elephant (V2)
The simple blues-rock formula that Jack and Meg White stumbled upon three albums ago hasn't improved since, but it remains just as potent. As the various players in the garage revival forge ahead with their newfound careers, it's becoming more apparent that Jack White is one of the few with both the depth and flair to last. At least he's familiar with sounds that predate the ‘70s New York City scene. But how far can two chords carry them? Who cares. For now, rock'n'roll is in safe hands.
Jason Schneider

4. The New Pornographers Electric Version (Mint)
Electric Version picks up where 2001's Mass Romantic left off: with our hearts racing and our minds spinning in an entertaining study of just how many great hooks can fit into a single song. This is pop music of the finest order; accessible and immediately exhilarating while still clever enough to remain captivating a couple hundred of spins later. From the New Pornographers, with the likes of Carl Newman, Destroyer's Dan Bejar and Neko Case at its helm, we should expect no less.
Scott Reid

5. Grandaddy Sumday (V2)
This slowed down sleeper hit is a psychedelic trip using old and new styles that rides on a skateboard venturing deep into the mind, fuelled by geeky sci-fi keyboards and working class guitars. Some of the most honest lyrics lay within, which speak of isolation, escape, melting hearts and canines being tricked with chocolate shakes; somehow, Sumday sums up existence rather profoundly. Like a Northern California version of Alien — roughneck blue collar musicians in hi-tech space. Though living in advanced times, humans still haven't found ways to get over getting dumped.
Roman Sokal

6. The Notwist Neon Golden (Domino)
Easily the most tender and human tech-pop record of the year, Neon Golden sees the Notwist making a prodigious, progressive leap from 1998's Shrink. Martin Gretschmann's (aka Console) subtle live and electronic instrumentation provides a fulcrum for Martin Acher's winsomely tenuous vocals while all manner of scratchy percussion bubbles and recedes underneath. Banjos and beats never sounded as good as they do on "Trashing Days," while the tense, New Order jangle of "One With the Freaks" makes insanity sound rather appealing. Top-to-bottom beautiful.
Andrew Steenberg

7. Songs: Ohia The Magnolia Electric Company (Secretly Canadian)
A breathtaking departure and a new beginning for Jason Molina — so much so that the Songs: Ohia name is now permanently retired. Tales of menace and reckoning return, with his now-familiar demons clothed in a more muscular musical interpretation. Turning up the volume on Molina's inner crazy horse only writes the metaphors larger and bloodier, as midnight bursts forth "with the dead moon in its jaws." His most fully realised, fully alive recording yet.
Helen Spitzer

8. The Shins Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
The Shins reach into their bottomless well of melody and pull out 33 minutes of perfect pop. Using saccharine hooks and earnest acoustic bare-alls James Mercer sticks largely to the lineaments of 2001's Oh, Inverted World! But the band seems slightly more in control this time around, shoving Mercer's mellifluous vocals to the front while the uncluttered yet intricate rhythms float by so sweetly you'll have to brush your teeth afterward.
Andrew Steenberg

9. Broken Social Scene You Forgot It In People (Paper Bag)
As the centrifugal force holding together this madly talented Toronto scene, Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning founded a group home for downtown rock refugees. Growing organically, the beloved art-pop collective became an unlikely success story — winning a Juno, scoring a major label deal in the UK and earning hipster name-drop status across U.S. But it all came down to their songs, which became somehow greater with each listen, more important, more beautiful and romantic and cathartic. Whether experienced at an ecstatic club performance, on winter headphones awaiting a bus or under the stars on a midsummer's night, Broken Social Scene provided the soundtrack to our lives.
Joshua Ostroff

10. The Weakerthans Reconstruction Site (Epitaph)
The ascent from politically-charged, hometown imprint G7 Welcoming Committee to American mega-indie label Epitaph turned out to be a graceful one for Winnipeg folk-punk darlings the Weakerthans. Reconstruction Site continues to conscript new devotees to the quartet's highly literate and stylistically varied brand of gallery-friendly rock. The album represents a spreading of the band's collective songwriting wings, as the group's increasingly progressive and adventurous musical arrangements close ground on the lyrical might of John K. Samson. You'd have to be a glue sniffer to miss the disc's wealth of merits.
Chuck Molgat

11. Radiohead Hail to the Thief (Parlophone)
In our era of wilful rawk revivalism, the return of Radiohead was especially heartening. While so many pop stars trumpet each new release as a radical reinvention of their approach, Radiohead has grappled for every new foothold like a seasoned climber, gaining purchase only long enough to catch its breath for the next ascent. Hail To The Thief felt like a harvesting exercise, as the Brits settled on a welcoming plateau from which to survey their career. From the cataclysmic prog guitars of "Myxomatosis" to the motorik pulse of "Sit Down. Stand Up," Radiohead's sixth LP showcased the band in its most assured hour.
Martin Turenne

12. Broadcast Haha Sound (Warp)
Broadcast does not sound like Stereolab, but what this Birmingham quintet shares with its most exhausted point of comparison is a seemingly obsessive interest in combining music from the past and present (and romantic notions of a future music that has yet to be realised) to create a sound that belongs to no time at all. At heart Broadcast is a pop band, and if the pop world were as receptive to experimentalism as hip-hop, Haha Sound would be recognised for what it is: a brave, beautiful pop album full of should-be hits.
Michael White

13. The Deadly Snakes Ode to Joy (In the Red)
The Snakes' third record is a tall musical accomplishment. The band's double-edged talents at composing full-tilt rockers and sombre ballads are finely honed on Ode to Joy. After two strong full-length releases, the Snakes now show even more pronounced abilities as songwriters. The group's galvanising rock'n'soul draws from deep wells of influence and manages to constitute brave sounds. From the first to the last song on their third disc, the Snakes show they can robustly quicken pulses and rumble dance floors. Ode to Joy is a remarkably rousing album.
Rob Nay

14. Metric Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Last Gang)
After the electronic media massage that accompanied the invasion of Iraq, it fell to a well-travelled, world-weary Canadian band to provide swift deconstruction. Foreign policy and capitalist critique with a disco sheen — but underneath Emily Haines' angelic voice and electronic gloss was a tight collection of solid pop songs. Also on the chopping block: starfucker vapidity and manipulative new-age guys, the latter set to hooks irresistibly lifted from "My Sharona." A soundtrack for bookish girls who also wanna get down.
Helen Spitzer

15. My Morning Jacket It Still Moves (RCA)
I'm amazed at how seductive this band is. Their mix of classic rock bombast and bedroom balladry isn't particularly original, but the way Jim James and company bind these two contrasts with a heavy dose of Southern Gothic mystery makes the sound irresistible. And like any great band, it's clear that there's the indefinable chemistry that occurs among them when they simply pick up their instruments. This is truly music made on an epic scale, without any shred of self-consciousness, and, as a result, is endlessly revealing.
Jason Schneider

16. Jim Guthrie Morning Noon Night (Three Gut)
Where Guthrie's One Thousand Songs put effort in pushing through stream-of-consciousness immediacy, Morning Noon Night found a collected, cool-headed space to pronounce its syllables more clearly. An awesome adeptness of songwriting sits beside these charmingly introspective peeks into Jim's hugged naiveté and maintains a closeness of character whether he's recounting Aesop fables with a rock'n'roll spin or timidly admitting romantic nervousness. An appealing last hopefulness for a world full of grown-up children.
Star DT

17. Belle and Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
The patron saints of twee make an outstanding return with a little help from stalwart ‘80s producer Trevor Horn. Stuart Murdoch thankfully handles the bulk of the vocals this time, and the catchy arrangements that made their first three records so magnificent are here in all their glory. This is a tight, bright and thoroughly enjoyable collection of songs, cementing the group's status as one of Scotland's finest musical exports.
Rob Bolton

18. Stars Heart (Paper Bag)
Not since Madonna's Music has an album's title been so overtly indicative of its content; all of Stars' Heart is amatory by design. A conflation of classical elements and subtle retro smatterings, these Montrealers manage to present a familiar theme in a unique, contemporary and wholly beautiful way. The use of Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell's innocently doting vocal interplay and the subtle synth and string cadences make Heart a soundtrack for loves past, future and present.
Andrew Steenberg

19. The Dears No Cities Left (Maple Music)
The Dears are a band whose boundless ambition has struggled to triumph against their limited budget. No Cities Left redresses that tug-of-war, and then some. Written and recorded (and scrapped and re-recorded) amidst a year of personal, professional and global turbulence, its near-relentless air of high drama reflects front-man Murray Lightburn's reportedly infuriating perfectionism, but, more importantly, his widescreen vision. No Cities Left unashamedly insists that love is all that can save us. Listening to this staggeringly confident music, who dares argue?
Michael White

20. The Strokes Room On Fire (RCA)
Room On Fire proved that the Strokes weren't some one trick pony. Though it lacks a radio-friendly hit like "Last Nite," it is much more consistent than their debut, even with preposterous ideas like including a ballad and traces of reggae to spruce up a chorus. Of course they pull it off, too, because these guys don't make mistakes. And before you think that's just another load of hype to throw on the steaming pile, turn off your jealousy and listen up. You'll see that these guys are the real deal.
Cam Lindsay