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Best Albums

The 40 Best Albums of 2003

The 40 best albums of 2003, as ranked by the SPIN editors. [This list was originally published in the January 2004 issue of SPIN.]

40. Electric Six, Fire (XL Beggars Group)

Led by a Kelsey Grammer lookalike who calls himself Dick Valentine, these Detroit scuzzballs update the Tubes’ PVC-clad disco metal for our sleazy century with a timely, ferocious concept album about nuclear war, fire, and — what else? — dancing. Boasting about having naked pictures of your mother, paraphrasing Romeo Void, and enlisting the yelp of a pseudonymous Jack White will take a novelty act only so far. But this album still rocks harder than Rain Man on a hobby horse. 

Doug Brod

39. The Jealous Sound, Kill Them With Kindness (Better Looking)

Los Angeles indie vets, late of Knapsack and Shudder to Think, plow through the emo encyclopedia (deception, sleepless nights, lost hope), funneling disappointments and anxieties into a 12-song program that’ll beat the tears out of you like a fistful of Zoloft. Constantly churning toward what sounds like unattainable resolution, they seldom whine and never hit a soaring chorus that doesn’t sound like they’ve paid for it in blood.

Caryn Ganz

38. Basement Jaxx, Kish Kash (Astralwerks)

Pretending it’s all about songs got their electronica-crossover peers only so far, so on the duo’s third album, Basement Jaxx foreground their groove wizardry and pile on the sound effects. But for a record so riddim-driven, Kish Kash builds its trickiest tracks around human guest voices — whooping Middle Eastern synths for Dizzee Rascal’s liquid snap, cranked-up disco bombast for punk-soul shouter Lisa Kekaula. Even ‘N Sync’s JC Chasez turns up, lending his disposable dirty-pop gusto to “Plug It In.” 


37. The Raveonettes, Chain Gang of Love (Columbia)

Cover of Chain Gang of Love by The Raveonettes

In an era when “garage rock” almost always means mannish boys in Iggy leather trying to fake it real, these Danish sophisticates have the guts to hit the prom in red chiffon. Their debut revisits the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy by way of the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” by way of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, on the way to the tinseled gates of noise-pop heaven. Only a country with a 100 percent literacy rate could produce such theoretical brilliance. 


36. The Thrills, So Much for the City (Virgin)

Cover of So Much for the City by The Thrills

Out-of-towners make the best New Yorkers; this debut proves that they often make the best Californians, too. After getting an early leg up from a fellow outsider (Morrissey, who invited the band to open a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall), these Dubliners made a sun-dappled pop record with songs called “Big Sur” and “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far),” flush with sugary Beach Boys harmonies that make you want to skinny-dip in your neighbors pool at midnight. 


35. Brand New, Deja Entendu (Triple Crown/Razor & Tie)

Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey may have the most anxious voice in emo-land, and his crew’s second album matches his squawk with jaggedly incisive grooves (“Sic Transit Gloria … Glory Fades”) and quiet melancholy (“The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot”). These are refreshingly naked songs, swirling with doubt and resentment. “Ask me what it’s like to have myself so figured out,” Lacey sings, and then jabs: “Wish I knew.” 


34. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (ATO/RCA)

Even on these Kentucky boys’ hushed indie records, you could sense the redneck rockers lurking within; here, they unite their Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd sides for a conciliatory round of beer bongs. Leader Jim James is a guitar hero who hangs out in grain silos and sings prettily about wine, highways, hot skin, and why his mom is like a motorcycle. He keeps the reverb cranked up to ten but always knows precisely when to stop spacing out and kick them jams. 


33. Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears (Lost Highway)

The theme is right there in the title of the best Paul Westerberg song Westerberg never wrote: “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.” Just two years after her last album (that’s about six months in non-Lucinda time), Williams returned with her rawest batch of songs, which are played with a looseness that perfectly complements their depiction of a woman on the verge — of happiness, heartbreak, or some combination of the two. 


32. Kings of Leon Youth & Young Manhood (RCA)

There’s Southern like Flannery O’Connor, then there’s Southern like the sheriff in Walking Tall. The former knows life isn’t necessarily pronounced “laugh” and the latter struts around in tight pants sucking down doughnuts for the camera. Kings of Leon are a little bit of both — four Pentecostal kids named Followill who seem to have borrowed both jeans and genes from the Allman clan and are fronted by a guy who sings like a Stroke with a mouthful of hash cookies. 


31. Spiritualized, Amazing Grace (Sanctuary)

After drifting between galaxies for a few years, Jason Pierce falls to Earth, lands on his Telecaster, dials up some blues and gospel on the ol’ iPod, and remembers that brevity is the soul of rock. Casting off the elaborate orchestral arrangements of Spiritualized’s last few records — without dropping an ounce of bombast — Pierce spikes his narcotic nod with snarling piano boogie and fuzzy garage grit. 


30. Cat Power, You Are Free (Matador)

Dr. Phil would be proud. Lithium-rock hipster pinup Chan Marshall follows the beautiful wreck that was 2000’s The Covers Record with this rivetingly spooky declaration of self-acceptance. After defiantly imagining small-scale liberation on the bony butt shaker “Free” and leveling bouncy accusations on “He War,” she signs off with the mumbled Eddie Vedder duet “Evolution,” which dares her indie-rock constituency to consider the idea that growing up is cool. 


29. Joe Budden, Joe Budden (Def Jam)

A Def Jam rapper with a Def Jux soul, Joe Budden is wise beyond his throwback. And like all good recovering addicts, he makes methadone music: dense, demanding, and charged with the familiar rush of a good hit. Through it all, there’s pain — youth gone wild on “Calm Down,” women of traitorous repute on “Walk With Me” — and hot detail, like when he reminisces about the days when “white kids got high off of Magic Markers.” 


28. Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day (New West)

On 2001’s Southern Flock Opera these Alabama ass whuppers made fiery peace with lingering rebel ghosts. Now, storyteller/poet Patterson Hood, roadhouse rocker Mike Cooley, and new Southern-gothic balladeer Jason Isbell take on more personal demons. From the false bravado of Hood’s “Heathens” to the bittersweet father’s lament in Isbell’s “Outfit,” the three guitarist/songwriters deliver blistering tales of child abuse, tour-strained relationships, farm foreclosure, and the elusiveness of “home.” 


27. Bubba Sparxxx, Deliverance (Beat-Club)

Maybe it’s just the sound of co-producer Timbaland out-Timbalanding himself again. But Georgia tight end-turned-rapper Warren Mathis calls it “hick-hop” — front-porch knee-slappin’ as drum’n’bass, with fiddles poised midway between Appalachia and Shaolin. Bubba loves him some Jimmy Carter and Eminem, though his drawled flow — wry, mournful, a bit humble even — owes more to the former. He’s nobody’s redneck cartoon — except his own. 


26. The Postal Service, “Give Up” (Sub Pop)

Intelligent Dance music (or IDM) is, more often than not, a European term for “boring.” But on their debut collaboration, Death Cab for Cutie frontguy Ben Gibbard and laptop noodle Jimmy Tamborello (a.k.a. Dntel) craft crystalline tunes that live up to both halves of the name. Over rhythmic whirs and clicks, Gibbard narrates tales of high hopes, old romances, and better tomorrows. With a computer brain and a human heart, Give Up is essentially — sign up, sigh along. 


25. The Darkness, Permission to Land (Atlantic)

With the possible exception of Devo, no band has ever walked the line between absolute brilliance and absolute jokedom as skillfully as the Darkness. Contrary to popular belief, Permission to Land isn’t a throwback to late-’80s hair metal; it’s more like a hydroelectric fusion of Queen, Sweet, and the first two AC/DC albums. So does that make it ridiculous? Well, probably. But if the Darkness are so damn ridiculous, why do all of the songs sound better than everything else on the radio? 


24. The Rapture, Echoes (DFA/Strummer/Universal)

New York disco punks rip through the open bar at rock history’s after-party — Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four, Bowie beat-box rockers, and synth-blues lullabies — and it all goes down like high-grade bad medicine. At times, their “House of Jealous Lovers” resembles a hipster House of Blues, but with DFA producer/scenester James Murphy manning the guest list and dropping drink tickets like fin de siècle confetti, this ridiculously anticipated debut is a meta-jam worth waiting for. 


23. Ms. Dynamite, A Little Deeper (Interscope)

With Lauryn Hill missing in action and Mary J. avoiding drama like monkey pox, there’s room for this classy yet brassy British soul slinger to make her mark. Deeper generated few ripples commercially, but Dynamite deserved Oprah props for straight-up anthems like “Put Him Out”: She takes aim at materialism, no account men, and ghetto hardship, all with a subtle confessionalism that wouldn’t look too shabby on your Hummer’s dashboard. 


22. Pretty Girls Make Graves, The New Romance (Matador)

On their incredibly assured second album, the Seattle quintet mate the Who’s bighearted anthems with Fugazi’s choppy aggression. Singer Andrea Zollo is upfront about being a mess (“Hello, I’m neurotic”), but her empathy and punk Pat Benatar pipes drive the band. Songs like the stomping “The Grandmother Wolf” play as if they were letters to a young anarcho activist, extolling the virtues of DIY creativity and burning your youth for fuel. 


21. The Mars Volta, De-Loused in the Comatorium (GSL/Universal)

Volta principals Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have the melodic chops to blow holes in commercial radio’s firewall. Instead, they made a knotty concept album that shifts gears like a tweaker learning to drive standard. It jump-cuts between emo howls, prog-metal herky jerk, dub space-outs, gnarly Santana jams, and tender balladry in extended “songs” whose beginnings and endings can be determined only by watching your CD player readout. 

W. H.

20. The Libertines, Up the Bracket (Rough Trade)

Shaggy-haired and shagable, the Libertines demonstrate that mess is more. On their debut album, they trip, stumble, rock, and skiffle their way through 13 beautiful disasters moonlighting as songs. While often compared to ‘cross-the-pond doppelgängers the Strokes, the Libertines remain defiantly British, channeling the charm of the Faces and the bite of the Ham into music that celebrates a life lived fast, cheap, and out of control. 


19. Atmosphere, Seven’s Travels (Epitaph/Rhymesayers)

Last year, Minneapolis MC Slug’s group Atmosphere hit the road harder than a Phish-head armed with Mom’s Exxon card, then kicked it tour-diary style over some increasingly shiny beats by producer Ant. Slug’s acerbic meditations on our fast-food nation bespeak real growth, but he’s still “got a thing for women who don’t love themselves,” and his bluntly honest songs about said ladies — and why he keeps falling for them — reveal the soft heart inside the album’s hard core. 


18. Ryan Adam, Rock N Roll (Lost Highway)

He was drunk — I guess we all were. He kept banging the table, rattling his ever-growing collection of empties, talking loud and long about his next record: how it wasn’t going to be even a little bit country; how it was going to sound like Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers at the same time; how it was going to make all those skinny-tie bands want to put ads in the Village Voice, sell their equipment, and beg for their video-store jobs back. We didn’t realize he was serious. 


17. Dashboard Confessional, A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar (Vagrant/Interscope)

On his third album, the Jim Jones of LiveJournal America goes Hollywood with grace and conviction, spiking the ol’ emo Kool-Aid with modern-rock vitamins, proving that snazzy production and the deployment of background singers who aren’t members of your fan club cannot contaminate the bottomless soul of one so pure. He still writes like he’s being paid by the word, but by stepping up to the Interscope challenge, he’s shown he can take his gospel to the big tent.

J. D.

16. Blur, Think Tank (Virgin)

Just when you thought they were fading into the Britpop sunset, Blur make their best album in years — a dubbed-out, Afro-punk, Beatle-quoting requiem for a world out of time. Recorded in West Africa with Fatboy Slim and an Andalusian orchestra, Think Tank sent Damon Albarn into the heart of darkness — lager in one hand, sampler in the other — singing, “My eyes aren’t blue / There’s nothing I can do” and praying the natives might spare his imperial soul. Tony Blair, this Bud’s for you. 


15. AFI, Sing the Sorrow (DreamWorks)

Only a band with this much punk cred (five albums on Offspring frontman Dexter Holland’s Nitro label) could sell out so exquisitely. Squealing singer Davey Havok may take tonsorial cues from Danzig, but epic bummers like “Girl’s Not Grey” get their broken heart from the Cure and their pummeling beats from NOFX. Guitarist Jade Puget’s metal-edged attack helps Sorrow plumb depths most goth rockers couldn’t reach without a diving bell. 


14. Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Heart of Oak (Lookout!)

The David Mamet of indie rock, Ted Leo packs his taut punk songs with words, words, words. Words that, strictly speaking, don’t belong in rock, like abjure and ossify. Words that hurt, like when he explains why, despite your Howard Dean button, you look like just another ugly American to the rest of the world. Words that make you feel pretty good, like his ode to 2-Tone ska, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” And despite all these words, he rocks — a skill Mamet has never mastered. 


13. Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)

Perhaps the California recall helped recovering collectivists Belle and Sebastian recognize that total democracy isn’t always a good thing. Perhaps producer Trevor Horn convinced them that singer Stuart Murdoch ought to do most of the, y’know, singing. Whatever. While the ’60s-pastiche arrangements here are dreamier than ever, Murdoch’s lyrics cut the fog, and when he riffs on the sexuality of the Mets’ most enigmatic starter, the only baseball writer who can touch him is Roger Angell. 


12. Dizzee Rascal, Boy in Da Corner (XL)

This album will test you. Is it techno? Hip-hop? A dude on a cell phone arguing with his PlayStation? Check the InterWeb for daily answers. It’s 19-year-old Londoner Dizzee’s voice that really sets him apart from the U.K. garage scene that birthed him. Sounding like he’s about to cry, scream, or swallow his tongue, Dr. Rascal parses love, the meaning of the screwface, and turf issues both literal and symbolic, all over beats so unapologetic they demand a seventh-inning stretch. 


11. Metallica, St. Anger (Elektra)

It lives! On their skull crushing, eyeball-melting return to Himalaya-decapitating neutron-bomb-dropping glory, Metallica put all that short-haired Napster-crybaby shit behind them and prove that at the end of the day it is in fact the mighty who shall inherit the earth, pillage its football stadiums, ruin its eardrums, etc. “I need to set my anger free,” James Hetfield yowls on the title track. St. Anger proves that his was a beast of burden worth waiting for. 


10. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Capitol)

Radiohead records aren’t truly avant-garde; however, they’re as close to experimental as albums by major rock bands get. Radiohead records aren’t really commercial, either; however, they’re accessible as deconstructed, unconventional pop music can possibly be. Basically, Hail to the Thief is the kind of album that forces you to say “however” a lot: It’s political, but not overly so; it’s clever, but it’s not funny; it’s not unfathomable, but it’s also not for people who don’t like to think about the music they buy. 


9. Missy Elliot, This Is Not a Test (Goldmind/Elektra)

Hip-hop’s grand dame has taught us how to flip it and reverse it; now, on her fifth album, she wants to yell “Wake up!” at a hip-hop nation headin’ for self-destruction. But it’s not all KRS 101 up in here: Timbaland laces Elliot’s commanding yet sultry raps into minimal stutter-stop loops, then fills every available space with menacing electro-synth stabs, jittery dancehall breaks, and bass lines that bounce like a souped-up Cutlass. 


8. The New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador)

Dear Other Rock Bands,

We’re sorry we kicked your ass this year. Here are some tips for next year:

(1) Get Neko Case to sing.
(2) Write bridges, verses, and choruses.
(3) Write sneaky lyrics about the Bush family.
(4) Keep the tempos up.
(5) Study the Cars’ Candy-O.
(6) Be from Vancouver (optional).
(7) Get Neko Case to sing some more.

Your songwriting daddy,
Carl Newman 


7. Thursday, War All the Time (Island)

Awash in a sea of self-indulgent tears, Thursday manage to be emo and eloquent. The New Jersey natives’ ambitious third record — their first on a major label — stretches the canvas, tackling politics, faith, and love with the same vigor that their peers use to tear through ex-girlfriends’ diaries. Singer Geoff Rickly approaches his band’s ferocious songs like a film editor flexing skills in Final Cut Pro — constantly rewinding, zooming, nipping and tucking, desperate to quiet the tortured fears in his head. 


6. Jay-Z, The Black Album (Roc-a-Fella)

On what he swears is his final album, Jay-Z forgoes a victory lap to let it all hang out, on a record full of anger, anxiety, nostalgia, and dark humor. There are Cristal-clear memories of his Crooklyn youth (“December 4th”), scathing indictments of the hip-hop biz (the Slim Shady-produced “Moment of Clarity”), and playful club jams (“Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and “Change Clothes,” produced by those Virginian up-and-comers Timbaland and the Neptunes, respectively). It’s a fitting farewell to the king. 


5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell (Interscope)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs don’t want to save rock’n’roll — they just want to play it from the hip really hard. The Brooklyn trio aren’t shy about anything, even their own flaws, which makes them even sexier — Fever to Tell is 38 minutes of naked shake-and-shimmy, complete with scars, moles, and tattoos. Brian Chase’s high-tension drumming is their secret weapon, and lead squealer Karen O is such a tough guy that when she fesses up to vulnerability on “Maps,” it’s a revelation. 


4. 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (Interscope)

Why do we love Fiddy? Is it the voice — a goopy triangulation of gangsta lean, Midwestern thurrr, and Southern mush mouth? The bulletproof pecs? The broke-ass half-smile that creeps into even his darkest rhymes? Maybe it’s just the shady aftermath of our yearlong affair with “In Da Club,” in which our man got the nation’s mack on over 2003’s most empirically perfect beat. 


3. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)

It’s as if, like Sinatra, they’re covering standards that have become their own (the Velvet Underground, and Guided by Voices echoes are fading). Guitarist Nick Valensi gets quirkier over Albert Hammond Jr.’s steadying strum, while Julian Casablancas settles into his seen-it-all, saloon-singer guise. On the stunning, soulful ballad “Under Control,” Casablancas proves he’s no longer a hipster brat, but a grown-ass man who doesn’t wanna be reminded. 


2. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Artista)

Stankonia meets Sandinista! as Big Boi and André 3000 step to every small-minded assumption about what hip-hop can or should be. At two hours plus, this double CD is nearly half rapless and forgoes obvious singles in favor of aberrant crooning, second-line horn charts, drum’n’jazz fusion, and Siamese-twin song mutations. It is simply the most adventurous “rap” record ever made. To paraphrase Big Boi, they bring food for thought to the table and make you eat. And if real rappers can’t play Cupid and sling pink firearms, then realness is seriously overrated. 


1. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2)

Jack White makes picking “Album of the Year” stupidly simple — for the third time in three years, he and his fake sister have unleashed the best record on earth. Countless moments on Elephant provide opportunities for hyperkinetic gushing: You could argue that it’s “totally haunting” (your example being “Seven Nation Army”) or claim it’s “totally heartbreaking” (“You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket”). You could pretend it’s hair metal (if you played only the ax solo on “Hypnotize”) or pretend it’s the best Electric Light Orchestra since Discovery (if you played only the first six seconds of “There’s No Home for You Here”). You could also insist that Meg’s vocals on “In the Cold, Cold Night” are simultaneously charming, atrocious, and perfect (and you’d be right). However, these theories are all misguided, and the comparisons doubletalk. White is simply the best derivative songwriter of his generation (and maybe its most innovative blues guitarist), and — when the dust of downtown Detroit finally settles on the garage-rock revival — that’s how you thread the hardest button to button.