Top 20 of 2003 - Adam's Picks (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Top 20 of 2003

Adam's Picks (2003)

staff picks

I've been thinking about writing this article for months, now I find myself rushing to finish it on New Years Eve. That's pretty much how this year has gone for me, and when I think back to the events of last winter they seem a world away. This has been quite a year for us at, in a word "busy," but it's also been very gratifying. We've managed to talk to some fascinating people (see the Lawrence Arms and Less Than Jake interviews, which stand out to me as two of our best) and work with some awesome bands. This has been a surprising year to me, as quite a few of my all-time favorite bands from the past 5 years didn't even make it into my top 20, their places usurped by releases I never assumed would captivate me like they have. This isn't a discredit to those groups either, it's a credit to the amount of great records that were released in `03.

I can't end this introduction without an acknowledgement of those we lost this year, particularly the legendary Johnny Cash. The scene is also now missing singer Adam Cox, bassist Matt Fitzgerald, and drummer Jeremy Gage of the brilliant Exploding Hearts.

So here's my picks for 2003, ranked in order (or at least, in the order of my preferences last night).

Who Rocked The Casbah In 2003:

November 18 on SideOneDummy Records

This has been a pretty good year for power-pop and bands seem to be realizing there's a world to explore in that spectrum without ever having to touch the much-maligned "mall-punk" genre. Case-in-point: Maxeen's debut. This is irresistibly catchy new-wave inspired rock that will stay in your head for weeks. [ full review ]

The Bouncing Souls
Anchors Aweigh
August 26 on Epitaph Records

Underappreciated. The Bouncing Souls have always had a very down-to-earth charm about them and now they've matured their music and lyrics to a point where that they can fully realize that potential. There's something satisfyingly soulful and poignant about this release.

Cave In
March 18 on RCA Records (BMG)

I wasn't too interested in Cave In's melodic turn at first and certainly didn't think much of Antenna early on. Yet over the course of the year for whatever reason I kept finding this disc in my stereo and now I've come to love the big epic anthems here. Despite the genre, Cave In is simply a great band and that shines through.

The Artist in the Ambulance
August 12 on Island Records (UMG)

Thrice unfortunately suffers a backlash due to their overzealous fans, which is also funny considering the band's comprised of some of the most soft-spoken and low-key personalities in punk. While I enjoyed their past work I've never been one to shower Thrice with excessive accolades. However The Artist In The Ambulance amplifies the band's best qualities with far more solid and thought-out songwriting. A frequent resident of my stereo as of late.

The Slackers
Close My Eyes
September 9 on Hellcat Records (Epitaph)

The worlds best active ska band releases one of the best ska records of the year, which is really not too surprising at all. Ruggerio, Hillyard et al haven't set out to break any new ground this time around, as Close My Eyes is very much a "back to basics" approach, but their classic songwriting is as strong as ever. [full review | interview with Dave Hillyard]

The Planet Smashers
July 1 on STOMP! (Union Label Group)

The most musically interesting and mature album of the Planet Smashers career. Transcending the 'ska revival' this is a batch of surprisingly folky pop tunes that work remarkably well for a band with an already well established sound. [full review]

The Lawrence Arms
The Greatest Story Ever Told
September 23 on Fat Wreck Chords

The Larry Arms have so much going for them: well-read intelligent lyricism, a fantastic sense of wit, captivating dual vocals and the ability so switch on a dime between snotty and downtrodden. This album could have been the band's opportunity to storm the mainstream, but have instead delivered something far more smart and interesting then I was expecting.

Ted Led & the Pharmacists
Hearts of Oak
February 11 on Lookout! Records

Just what makes Mr. Ted Leo "the motherfucking man" as we so frequently proclaim? It just may be the passionate, heartfelt mix of amazing songwriting, boundless energy, wonderfully literate lyrics and an original sound that no one can touch. Ted Leo and his Pharmacists are well on their way to becoming legends.

Rise Against
Revolutions Per Minute
April 8 on Fat Wreck Chords

They're starting to become victims of their own hype, but like a few others on this list the overbearing praise is rooted in the reality of a great record. This is an honest and exciting melodic hardcore album; it's really that simple. A good mix of the personal and the political keeps the band from ever falling into the usual lyrical traps. This is a huge jump in passion and energy from their debut.

The Blood Brothers
…Burn, Piano Island, Burn
March 18 on ARTIST Direct Records (BMG)

Sure, The Blood Brothers come off as spasmodic and maniacal (and they are…) but hiding under all that chaos is the band's real quality of incredible songwriting. Sure, we've had our share of driven, pissed-off hardcore this year, but none of it is as undeniably infectious as this. Without a doubt this is one of the more important and original hardcore records in recent memory.

Every Time I Die
Hot Damn!
July 1 on Ferret Records

It's not too hard to see that my tastes don't usually extend far into the metalcore universe. Every Time I Die won me over with the underlying thread of irresistible dirty rock `n roll in their sound. Combined with brilliantly sarcastic and well-written lyrics, Hot Damn! has demanded my attention and will not let go.

Clann Zú
September 16 on G7 Welcoming Committee Records

A low-key overseas release from 2001 gets revamped by a Winnipeg political label and emerges as one of the year's most surprising sleeper releases. Songs of cultural reclamation put to a mixture of haunting violins, electronic house percussion and dark gothic rock. If that sounds strange and different, it's because it is. [ full review ]

The Weakerthans
Reconstruction Site
September 26 on Epitaph Records

John K. Samson and company release an incredibly literate and touching batch of songs. Lyrically The Weakerthans convey ideas of urban alienation like none other and deliver messages of sorrow and hope with a depth and maturity that simply isn't found in most punk rock. The Weakerthans continue to eloquently convey tensions between forces urban & rural, traditional & progressive, east & west.

Against Me!
as The Eternal Cowboy
November 4 on Fat Wreck Chords

Against Me! Is really everything I want in a band. They move from soulful to furious in a heartbeat and write fresh punk rock without ever losing tough of their roots rock origins. Against Me! has the distinction of being one of those rare bands that continuously makes it's own path, regardless of trends or the opinions of fickle punk rock commentators. This is 25 of the sweetest minutes recorded this year.

The Bronx
The Bronx
August 26 on White Drugs (Ferret)

I'd been waiting with bated breath for this record ever since this band's red-hot demos showed up online last year. Raw, scathing punk rock recorded with flaws intact. It makes for one of the most exhilarating and genuine records of the year that easily lives up to and surpasses its hype. [full review ]

March 18 on Merge Records

The reviewers in the major publications would have you believe this is nothing more than average, and while I don't deny my own opinion is likely affected by this group's legendary past, I maintain that this is an awesome punk rock record. Few bands could pull off such a revitalization of sound as their members push 50, but the fact remains that no one writes a hook like Shelley and Diggle. [full review ]

Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
October 21 on Hellcat Records (Epitaph)

With Streetcore Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros finally meshed together into a solid, driven band, giving up world music experimentation for fantastic roots-rock songwriting. The real success of this record is not that it ends Joe's career on a positive note, but that totally isolated from that context it still holds up as a great record. A fitting epitaph… [ full review]

The Exploding Hearts
Guitar Romantic
March 24 on Dirtnap Records

The Exploding Hearts, in both recording and songwriting, sound like the reincarnation of everything exciting, charming and hopeful about the pioneering 70s punk bands. Guitar Romantic exists in a time warp, unaffected by everything that went wrong since this time that I'm struggling to idealize. Through shockingly effective and straightforward songwriting the Exploding Hearts could never be mislabeled as one of today's garage revivalists, from their recordings alone you could tell they had too much charisma and passion to get caught up in that petty cycle of hype, backlash and irony. Three members of the Exploding Hearts died tragically in an automotive accident this past July. What we lost is immeasurable.

The New Pornographers
Electric Version
May 6 on Mint Records & Matador Records

I'll make the bold assertion that the New Pornographers are indeed one of the best pop bands on the planet, indie or otherwise. Touring has bonded this one time side-project supergroup into a full fledged band. This takes Carl Newman's songwriting and Neko Case's captivating vocal presence to an entirely different level than their debut. What results is a dynamic comparable to the Pixies, only filtered through the New Pornographers' proven ability to layer more hooks in a single song than some bands do in entire albums. [ full review]

The Constantines
Shine a Light
August 19 on Three Gut Records & Sub Pop Records

The Constantines deliver on the promise shown in their Fugazi influenced debut with one of the years most stunningly complete and visionary albums. Shine A Light simultaneously embraces traditional roots-rock elements and pushes the boundaries of its genre. This is punk music with soul, which in a year of purportedly "emotional" records has been sorely lacking. [ full review]

The 2003 Mixtape

Side A: Side B:
1 "Don't Look Back Into The Sun" by The Libertines
^ Pitchfork called fun little song vapid, so you know it's good.
2 "Love Pretender" by The Exploding Hearts
3 "Explosive" by Planet Smashers & Neville Staple
^ Soon to be classic song from an awesome record [ review]
4 "X Ray Eyes" by Randy
5 "Start Now" by Rancid
^ Tim writes great pop songs [ review]
6 "Love Goes A Long Way" by Maxeen
7 "Plea From A Cat Named Virtue" by The Weakerthans
8 "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" by Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
^ One of the year's best songs, and a sentiment I'll gladly agree with
9 "Vampires & Failures" by Grandpaboy (Paul Westerberg)
10 "Tears Don't Matter Much" by Lucero
11 "Its Only Devine Right" by the New Pornographers
12 "Burnin' Streets" by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
13 "Sub Domestic" by The Constantines
1 "Ambulance Vs. Ambulance" by The Blood Brothers
2 "I Been Gone A Long Time" by Every Time I Die
3 "Inspire" by Cave In
4 "Your Silence" by The Suicide Machines
^ From an album I love [ review] that just barely missed the list
5 "Sweating Blood" by F-Minus
6 "Sick City Sometimes" by Buzzcocks
7 "You Look Like I Need a Drink" by Against Me
8 "They Will Kill Us All (Without Mercy)" by The Bronx
9 "Blood Red, White, & Blue" by Rise Against
10 "Cut Me Dead" by Fifth Hour Hero
^ From another great 2003 release [ review]
11 "Infrared" by Strike Anywhere
12 "The Artist In The Ambulance" by Thrice
13,14 "We Got Two Jealous Agains" & "13 Stiches" by NOFX
^ Love songs to the scene Fat Mike grew up in, absolutely charming.

Top Compilation / Reissue Of 2003

Sticks & Stones
The Strife & Times
September 16 on Chunksaah Records

Such an underappreciated band is eulogized in a fantastic two disc set. Anyone interested in the roots of the current East Coast punk scene needs to pick this up. [ full review]

Honourable mention goes out to the New Wave for the Next Generation compilation from the newly resurrected Sire Records. It's all old and familiar songs, but damn is it a great mix.

Thoughts on Other Releases

I thought it would be best to offer some justification for various popular or noteworthy releases that I've left off my list this year. The most glaring to most here will be Strike Anywhere's Exit English. While that album had some great tunes it failed to hold my interest like their previous. Don't get me wrong, I still think quite highly of the band, but their new record just didn't hook me. Other records I liked quite a bit were simply pushed off the list as more and more albums became contenders. I'd like to mention my affection for The Suicide Machines' A Match and some Gasoline, Less Than Jake's underrated album Anthem [ review], Tangiers' breakthrough Hot New Spirits, Fifth Hour Hero's Scattered Sentences, Andrew W.K.'s unbelievably fun The Wolf and NOFX's unfairly maligned War On Errorism.

Now the big two: Rancid and AFI. I liked Indestructible, as you can see in the above linked review, however it lacks something that the band's previous two albums had. Although different in style and execution Live Won't Wait and Rancid (2000) are two of my favorite records. What was the new one lacking? It's hard for me to say. Call it ambition if nothing else. It doesn't help that my faith in Rancid's sincerity is much weaker after their unnecessarily shadowy and bewildering Warner deal.

On the other hand I have no doubts that AFI is sincere in what they're doing. In fact I think they're taking a more honest approach to their music now then when they were trying to hold the balance between their intended direction and the opinions of their old-school fans. Does their current sound bother me? Not one bit. I've always been more of a Cure fan anyways, so the influences shown on the new material are fine by me. In fact, despite some over-production issues, I really like Sing The Sorrow.

Finally a note on The Mars Volta. I can appreciate the band's instrumental ability and ambition to make challenging music. However De-Loused In The Comatorium is dreadfully uninteresting. I find the songs repetitive and some of the band's art-noise rather irritating. Like most prog the music is rather alienating; Music to me is more about fun and passion then it is about high-art. Anyone who praises this band as a savior has their priorities mixed up.

Anticipated for 2004:

2003 was a really great year, but 2004 promises new records from such classic bands as Bad Religion, Descendents and Social Distortion (for real this time). On top of that we'll have new stuff from Green Day, Tiger Army, Avoid One Thing, Bedouin Soundclash, The Frenetics and (likely) Planes Mistaken For Stars. Look out for the new Cave In record, as that band's sudden rediscovery of their metal period is sure to provide fodder for a more aggressive release.
...and there you go. All the best in the new year.