Landmarks: The Year 2003
Almost any other year, Over the Rhine‘s Ohio would have been my #1 album– by a longshot.
Everything about the album bears witness to its standing as a full-fledged masterpiece: Its epic, 2-disc and 90-minute length indicates its grand scope and vision, while its astonishing consistency testifies to the duo‘s mastery of the form. And the form, in this case, is a deeply-rooted American songcraft that doesn’t distinguish between folk, country, gospel, rock, and blues. It’s a spectacular showcase for Karin Bergquist’s powerhouse vocals– truly, this album represents her full flourishing as a singer– but more than that, it’s an incredible feat of songwriting, a spiritual travelogue filled with devastating heartache and prayerful reflection, its concerns political and personal both at once. Few albums released this decade were as ambitious in their artistry, and fewer still were as effective.
Unfortunately– for Over the Rhine, anyway– they happened to release their opus right around the same time Joe Henry released his. Tiny Voices was, in many ways, Henry‘s big step forward: Scar signaled that he was moving his art into an entirely new realm, but it did nothing to prepare listeners for the follow-up, an edgy and adventurous jazz-rock combo that ushered Henry into the rarefied company of songwriters like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Sonically, it’s as bold as anything released this decade, its inspired improvisations seeming to recreate themselves every time the album is played. The songs themselves are elusive, embodying mystery and exuding grace. Henry would go on to make albums that were probably just as good, maybe even better in some respects, but Tiny Voices remains my favorite, and my top album of 2003 without question.
Nothing else released in that year comes close to matching the profundity or vision of those two twin peaks– a pair of honest-to-goodness modern-day classics– but that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of other exceptional and noteworthy albums that came out in 2003. The White Stripes released Elephant that year, their darkest and possibly their weirdest album. It might also be their most complex, and, depending on which day you ask me, it’s either my favorite of their records or a close second to the more primitive and ragged White Blood Cells.
Radiohead, of course, is, for many, the defining band of the 00s, and in 2003 they released Hail to the Thief, a record that’s noteworthy less for the material on it than for its signaling their return to more rock-oriented recording after the trips into the out-there with Kid A and Amnesiac. I think it’s the weakest album they made in the 00s, but, this being Radiohead, that hardly means it’s a dud: Yes, it may be a little bloated, but, as the angrier and more aggressive sequel to OK Computer, it’s as smartly political as any album released this decade, and it boasts numerous Radiohead classics.
Then, of course, there’s Outkast. If any group embodied the spirit of the decade, or set the tone for its music, as effectively as Radiohead, it was this duo. That said, the split double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below— featuring one solo disc by Big Boi and one by Andre– threw listeners for a loop when it arrived in 2003, and continues to do so even today. Despite its massive sales and Grammy-winning success, the album hasn’t necessarily aged well in the minds of many critics, which is no great surprise: After the disappointment of the Idlewild album, many began to understand it as the beginning of the end for hip-hop’s most visionary groups. That may be so, but the simple facts of the music itself remain unchanged: Speakerboxx is a blindingly ambitious and lively hip-hop album that would have been close to a five-star classic on its own. Couple it with the unerringly eccentric, often flat-out bizarre Love Below— inconsistent, but mostly brilliant– and you’ve got more than two hours of wildly entertaining, funny, insightful, and endlessly creative music. Few albums can make such a massive claim.
Two of the most singular talents in country music released records in 2003, and, not surprisingly, they stand as two of the best country albums of the decade. Lucinda Williams‘ World Without Tears is a nasty, hard-rocking album that surveys heartache and romantic peril; the music is alive with blood and tears and plenty of sex, and, for my money, it’s the sharpest thing Williams ever cut. Meanwhile, in a very different sphere of country music, Emmylou Harris made an almost impossibly elegant, meditative reflection on love, grace, God, and redemption, called Stumble Into Grace.
Other landmarks from the year 2003: The Weakerthans made a punkish pop/rock album called Reconsturction Site that was catchy, funny, and profound. The Shins released their terrific, classicist indie pop album, Chutes Too Narrow. Drive-by Truckers made one of their strongest sets– possibly my favorite of their albums– in the earthy, literate Decoration Day. The Innocence Mission created one of their strongest works, a beautiful reflection on companionship and sacrificial love called Befriended. Daniel Lanois‘ Shine is an album that I was quite taken with back in 2003, though it hasn’t held up so well– the vocal cuts are all wonderful, but the atmospheric instrumentals quickly become tedious. And, bizarrely enough, the soundtrack to the so-so TV series Crossing Jordan proved to have some of the finest music released all year. Artists like Joe Henry, Sam Phillips, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and the Holmes Brothers cover songs by the likes of Tom Waits, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, and the Beatles. How could that possibly not be great?
That was 2003 for me. What were your favorites?