2. Feast of Wire. Calexico (Quarterstick/Touch and Go). Largely abandoning the "garage mariachi" M.O. of their two previous outings, Joey Burns, John Convertino and company instead explore just about everything else under the hot desert sun: flamenco, jazz, pop, you name it--it's all here, and it's all nearly flawless. The finest album in a canon already populated by great ones, Feast of Wire makes me proud to be a Tucsonan.
3. Don't Ask. The Postal Service (Sub Pop). Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello supplies the synth blips and electro bleeps and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard provides the warmth via his earthy vocals and crafty lyrics, which are too damn smart to be called emo, even if they're awfully damn emotional. Just try not to succumb to the sap when Gibbard, on "Such Great Heights," croons, "I am thinking it's a sign / that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images / and when we kiss they're perfectly aligned." Dance music for the romantic dork who pays attention to lyrics.
4. Transfiguration of Vincent. M. Ward (Merge). A love letter to a lost friend that actually sounds inhabited by his ghost. Matt Ward's guitar playing is a fine tribute to his hero, John Fahey, and his voice betrays sorrow without devolving into the maudlin. Rooted in folk but fearless in the liberties it takes, Transfiguration of Vincent is heartbreakingly beautiful and absolutely timeless.
5. Yoko. Beulah (Velocette). The sunny Californian pop band's breakup album is a bit more grown up, with fewer sonic flourishes to get in the way of what leader Miles Kurosky calls "the blood on the tape." Less instantly ear-catching than previous releases, the more you listen to it, the more intricacies it reveals. Here's hoping the disbanding rumors are just that.
6. Weather Systems. Andrew Bird (Righteous Babe). A former sideman for Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bird has created a minor masterpiece of chamber pop that utilizes sounds rarely heard on any sort of pop album, and if you believe the liner notes, he did it with only guitar, drums, violin (which he plucks like a guitar as often as he saws) and his gorgeous voice. It's music with no precedent.
7. Chutes Too Narrow. The Shins (Sub Pop). Forsaking the mash note to The Kinks that was Oh, Inverted World for a series of genre exercises masking as pop songs, Chutes Too Narrow reveals that The Shins are even smarter than we thought they were.
8. The Knockout Pills. The Knockout Pills (Dead Beat). On their debut album, one of Tucson's best live bands come damn close to capturing their always incendiary performances. The group merges '60s rock songwriting with '70s punk energy, and the result approximates what Guided by Voices would sound like if Robert Pollard grew up on Stiff Little Fingers and The Buzzcocks instead of The Who.
9. Speakerboxxx / The Love Below. OutKast (Arista). Quite simply, one of the most refreshingly inventive acts in music today, reminding here that hip-hop has the potential to encompass so much more than just rap. Whoda thunk Big Boi's Speakerboxxx disc would have outfunked (outcrunked?) Andre 3000's The Love Below? Still, Dre did offer up the best single of the year in "Hey Ya!" With any luck, they'll actually work together again next time.
10. TIE: Shine a Light. Constantines (Sub Pop) /Yours, Mine and Ours. Pernice Brothers (Ashmont). Previously dismissed as sounding like Bruce Springsteen fronting Fugazi, the Constantines break out here, combining Jawbox-like churn and grind with the passion of Joe Strummer, and applying it to memorable tunes (something their 2001 self-titled debut lacked) that are reminiscent of Spoon, minus the Beatles reverence. The Pernice Brothers contribution to 2003 ditches their lushly orchestrated pop arrangements to tap into the zeitgeist of moody, atmospheric '80s bands like The Cure and The Smiths.
1. American IV: The Man Comes Around. Johnny Cash (American/Lost Highway). Even if it were possible to listen to this late-2002 album outside of the context of the legendary singer's passing (which followed that of his wife, June Carter Cash, by just a few months), it would still be a brilliant example of the spirited, Rick Rubin-produced late-career work of one of the pivotal figures of folk, country and rock music. Cash brings deeper meaning to covers of songs by Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, and he rediscovers what originally was so great in "Desperado," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." But his original songs--the title track and "Give My Love to Rose"--are especially poignant ruminations on the nearness of death.
2. Everyone Deserves Music. Michael Franti & Spearhead (Artist Direct/BMG). Some Tucson concertgoers already fell in love with these funky political, protest and peace tunes--inflected with hip-hop, jazz, Latin and rock dialects--when Franti and his band played the Rialto Theatre on Valentine's Day 2002. Now we hear them in their fully produced studio versions, and "What I Be," "Feelin' Free," "Bomb the World" and the nurturing lilt of the title track make positivity hip.
3. Rainy Day Music. The Jayhawks (American/Lost Highway). The Minneapolis-based country-rock band has been embracing sweet, gentle melodies and undeniable pop hooks for the last couple of albums, and that combination works best here. Track after winning track, there's not one misstep on Rainy Day Music--even the album-closing reprise of "Stumbling Through the Dark," co-written with Matthew Sweet, avoids redundancy. Pure and simple: catchy, bittersweet and gorgeous twangy pop-rock.
4. The Evening of My Best Day. Rickie Lee Jones (V2/BMG Music). I wish I had said so first, but I must agree that the melancholy jazz-pop-folk chanteuse's latest is her best recording since her sophomore album Pirates in 1981. Of course, if you don't agree with Jones' overtly left-leaning political lyrics--"Ugly Man" is about who you think it is, and "Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act)" is pretty self-explanatory--you may have some issues with this CD full of liberté, egalité and fraternité. Then again, you may not notice while listening to the luminous music provided by a cast of amazing musicians, including Bill Frisell, David Hidalgo, Syd Straw, Eric Benet, Rob Wasserman, Nels Cline, Grant Lee Phillips and Mike Watt.
5. Lost in Space. Aimee Mann (Superego). Aimee, we almost forgot about you--which would have been a severe injustice. But at the turn of the millennium, you re-emerged on the soundtrack to Magnolia and your self-released Bachelor No. 2, winning a place back in our hearts. Even that comeback couldn't prepare us for the unqualified genius of this power-pop masterpiece full of grown-up ruminations on the subtleties of human relationships. Producer Michael Lockwood adds delicious guitar leads, as well as all manner of stringed instruments and synthesizers. Look for the "special edition," which comes complete with an elegant booklet full of black-and-white art by underground cartoonist Seth and an extra disc of live cuts, B-sides, previously unreleased tracks and a music video.
6. De-Loused in the Comatorium. The Mars Volta (GSL/Strummer/Universal). Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala, formerly of the mighty post-hardcore band At the Drive-In, formed this new outfit to explore their more mind-bending progressive tendencies, heavily leavening the recipe with funky beats, jazz time changes, Latin rhythms and electro-noise art-rock. Imagine Fugazi and King Crimson conjoined to play a song cycle about an artist friend in a coma (in particular) and madness and sorrow (in general). It ranges from the delicate beauty of "Tira Me a Las Arañas" and "Eriataka" to the terrifying psychodrama of "Drunkship of Lanterns." Love it or hate it, you won't soon forget this music.
7. Raining on the Moon. William Parker Quartet (Thirsty Ear). Parker has been one of the busiest, most prolific and creative bassists on the avant-garde jazz map for more than two decades, having worked with stellar players from David S. Ware to Peter Brötzmann, Cecil Taylor to Matthew Shipp. This recording, released in 2002, features elegant post-bop compositions by Parker, knotty melodies and chunky solos expertly played by saxophonist Rob Brown and trumpeter Louis Barnes and Hamid Drake's energetic, artful drumming. "Hunk Pappa Blues" and "Old Tears" are two of the finest jazz tunes of the new millennium. A special treat is vocalist Leena Conquest, who contributes her limber, robust alto to several cuts. Her showcase is the lovely "Song of Hope," which never sacrifices its out-there meditations just because it includes a singer and lyrics.
8. Lost in Translation soundtrack (Emperor Norton). Writer-director Sofia Coppola's second film spun an intoxicating spell about two lost American souls finding unlikely friendship in Tokyo, and the music played a big part. Not only does this electronica-meets-drone-rock soundtrack contain a passel of excellent, previously-released songs by The Jesus & Mary Chain, Squarepusher, Phoenix, Death in Vegas and Air, but four new compositions by Kevin Shields of the long-AWOL group My Bloody Valentine. Don't miss the hidden bonus track: actor Bill Murray's brief karaoke version of Roxy Music's "More Than This," from a pivotal scene in the movie. Visions may dance in your head of his reptilian Nick the Lounge Singer from Saturday Night Live before he surprises you with his weary sensitivity.
9. Soul Journey. Gillian Welch (Acony). An about-face from 2001's roots-rockin' Time (The Revelator), this release finds country-rock-folk-gospel singer-songwriter Welch--accompanied as usual by longtime collaborator David Rawlings--in a minimalist, almost-unplugged folk mode. Melancholy never strays over the line into moroseness when Welch lends her beautiful, dark voice to striking originals such as "Look at Miss Ohio," "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father" and the soulful "One Monkey." As evidenced by these tunes and their lonesome cover of the blues traditional "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor," Welch and Rawlings prove restraint can be as emotionally moving as catharsis.
10. Mary Star of the Sea. Zwan (Reprise). The best album Billy Corgan has made since the first Smashing Pumpkins record. Thrilling guitar symphonies such as "Baby Let's Rock," "Yeah" and "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea," immediately won over this listener with an ironic, post-modern take on anthemic arena-rock that put Boston to shame. Speaking of shame, mere months after the release of this sterling CD, Corgan announced he was dismantling the group. The band that could've helped redefine mainstream rock now becomes an asterisk in his career bio. What up?
2. 1972. Josh Rouse (Rykodisc). Not only was 1972 the year of Rouse's birth, but it's also his favorite year in music. Rouse doesn't just make records; he makes albums. They always have some sort of theme or concept, and 1972 tells stories circa 1972 through Rouse's exemplary songwriting skills and knack for artful pop.
3. The Summer of the Shark. Portastatic (Merge). Mac McCaughan can do no wrong these days, unless you count releasing Autumn Was a Lark, a disappointingly boring rehash of most of the songs on Summer of the Shark. Portastatic pulled out all the plugs on Shark, and the record swirls and whirlpools and may just bite off your arm and ruin your budding professional surfing career if you don't watch out.
4. Sumday. Grandaddy (V2). Any year that sees a new Grandaddy record is a good year. Take all the best moments on The Sophtware Slump, turn the pop levels a little more toward perfection, and you get Sumday. No song can quite compare to "The Crystal Lake" on The Sophtware Slump, but several songs on Sumday come close.
5. Promise of Love. American Analog Set (Tiger Style). This record also draws blood, in a healthy, steady, analog-loop sort of way, leaving you wondering throughout the day: Who is Julie? Why doesn't she just go home already?
6. Feast of Wire. Calexico (Quarterstick/Touch and Go). Nick Urata of DeVotchKa put it rather well when he told me that Calexico is not only one of the best bands in Tucson, but one of the best bands anywhere. Feast of Wire is technically, creatively and thematically brilliant, swollen with mariachi and rock and jazz, like South Tucson on the Fourth of July.
7. Weather Systems. Andrew Bird (Righteous Babe). Imagine Rufus Wainwright without the drama and drugs, and with better songs, and you have Andrew Bird. This record rains and shines and snows and sleets, but it's always, always beautiful.
8. TIE: The Ladybug Transistor. The Ladybug Transistor (Merge). Una Volta. DeVotchKa (Cicero). Both recorded here in Tucson but full of scenes from elsewhere, these records are like traveling through the idyllic roads of America and Europe with the windows down so that fresh and foreign air can really get inside your head.
9. Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Belle and Sebastian (Rough Trade). Belle and Sebastian only get better, and what's impressive is how much better they get with each record. The songs on Dear Catastrophe Waitress are smoother, stronger, poppier and sound strangely less Scottish. Whether that's a good or bad thing remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: As long as there's Stuart Murdoch singing, I'm happy.
10. Chutes Too Narrow. The Shins (Sub Pop). While not quite as awe-inspiring as Oh, Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow is still a Shins record and still has James Mercer doing that thing with his voice that makes me wanna bob my ironed-hair head to the beat while slicing cucumbers on my orange Formica countertop next to my avocado green refrigerator.
2. Burn, Piano Island, Burn. Blood Brothers (Artist Direct). Mannerist hardcore with all the youthful trappings, this is anti-metal, heavy music for light people.
3. Feast of Wire. Calexico (Quarterstick/Touch and Go). "Mariachi Death Rock" indeed. Homeboys Burns and Convertino (along with Wenk, Zander, Valenzuela and many others) never disappoint. The more they develop as a group, the less they sound like anything else. The "single," "Quattro," is jarring in its atmospheric, forlorn uniqueness, especially when placed alongside any single by so-called peers. The band's most formidable effort yet.
4. Echoes. The Rapture (Universal). What sort of fad rock is this? Sure, there's Gang of Four and Wire influence here, and the too-fashionable-by-half production of the DFA team, but midway through, the album mellows out in a way that recalls Freddie Mercury's tender moments (think Flash Gordon soundtrack's "Dale's Theme"). Much is made of the danceability of Echoes, but it's just like white people to forget that rock music is dance music. Gimme back my 808!
5. Clones. The Neptunes (Star Trak). Jesus H, do Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams have the Midas touch or what? They deserve the MVP Grammy. Let's just list some hits they've produced for other people this year that aren't on Clones, shall we? "Rock Your Body," Justin Timberlake; "Beautiful," Snoop Dogg; "Milkshake," Kelis. Ooof. Clones itself isn't so much of an album as a fat-ass hit machine. And even if you don't like Pharrell's falsetto (I'm a sucka fo' it), admit that "Frontin'" is the second-best single of the year (behind, what else, "Hey Ya!" by Outkast, surely the single of the millennium so far).
6. The Ugly Organ. Cursive (Saddle Creek). Cursive hits its stride on The Ugly Organ. Where once they sounded like somewhat shrill Fugazi knockoffs, they now demonstrate their mastery of angular guitar rock (despite the organ "theme" which runs through this album). It's the songs, dammit. Just ask our next entrantsÉ
7. Yoko. Beulah (Velocette). The perfectionist tendencies of leader Miles Kurosky have clearly had an impact on Yoko, making it both precisely realized and somewhat overwrought, a minor complaint given the pop grandeur of this, Beulah's "breakup" album. (Both the band and the individual members have undergone relationship crises.) Here's hopin' they'll take Al Green's advice and stay together.
8. quebec. Ween (Sanctuary). "Where'd the cheese go?" is the musical question Ween asked the world in their ill-fated venture into Pizza Hut jingle writing earlier this year. But the question was, and always will be, rhetorical when it comes to the clown princes of drugrock. They know where the cheese went. It's on quebec. Hell, they've even invented a way to describe the depth of their wackiness--the more demented and absurd (and wildly funny) their songs, the more "brown" they are, in their parlance. Brownest album since Chocolate and Cheese. Give me that Z-O-L-O-F-T.
9. Get Rich or Die Tryin'. 50 Cent (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope). 50 Cent gets critically disrespected by those who are suspicious of his "act," that of the thug who took nine bullets and lived to rap about it. But one cannot escape the outright lyrical brilliance of Get Rich, even if the subject matter goes far afield from the experience of most of those who made 50 Cent the best-selling rap artist of the year.
10. Electric Version. New Pornographers (Matador). Pop confectioners extraordinaire. With principal songwriters Carl Newman and Dan Bejar complementing each other's styles (oblique yet serious-minded vs. direct and goofy) and Neko Case as the icing on the cake, they're the "Death by Chocolate" of indie rock.