On the Wings of Song
2003 was certainly an awfully eventful year and it’s probably fair to say it has more to condemn it than not, but at the very least, Britney Spears is losing popularity, for which we can all be thankful.
So with the year winding down, and me bored and having nothing better to do, I decided to write about 2003. As a reasonably and averagely intelligent – if hopelessly immature – person, I thought I could perhaps say something enlightening and entertaining about the year that was, war(t)s and all, but I was wrong. I wrote this piece instead, for you to peruse, should you be so inclined. (Funny, isn’t it, how I actually think anybody actually reads this?) This list, like all such lists, has about as much to do with my life in 2003 as it does with music. Quel surpris. Or quelle. Whatever. You have been warned.
Anyway, dear (non-)reader, I dutifully sat down and went through my CD collection to pick and choose, but since I’ve been pretty much broke the whole damn year, there wasn’t really too much to pick from. Of the tiny handful of albums I bought, I found only a few from 2003. Thankfully, they were all pretty good. Easiest list I ever made.
(If you are from New Brunswick, NJ, and happy about that fact, you may want to skip the first paragraph, the last one and the ones in between.)
The Best Albums of 2003, In My Humble Opinion
Welcome Interstate Managers | Fountains of Wayne
The finest two popsmiths currently working in the US, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, do it again. After two sublime efforts, their eponymous debut and the follow-up, Utopia Parkway, comes this wonder. Both a love song and a lament to New Jersey, it deals with lives being lived in all their grey and dreary glory. I remember sitting alone in a mostly empty room in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, drinking beer and listening to this, recognizing myself in too many of the scenarios. The Fountains are always being referred to as smug and ironic, but I never found that in their music: Adding humour and/or a twist doesn’t in fact mean youre taking the piss out of anything, it just means you’re adding humour and/or a twist. Some would even call it colour. Creating characters and telling stories is becoming a lost art in contemporary music, and I can relate a lot more to the lovelorn losers and desolate deadbeats slouching in the grooves of this disc, than to the impotent fury and immaculate angst you find on most introspective modern rock albums. On Welcome…, you realize both that you know some of these people, and also that you are some of these people. This is almost tantamount to the blues: To think, just to think, that anything this sweet-sounding can be so heartbreaking. It’s like love: It might be designed for pleasure, but it can break your heart so terribly bad if and when you let it. I’ve rarely felt sadder or more lost than when I listened to this, but at least I didn’t feel so alone. Whoever would have thought New Jersey is the place the blues lives? (Well…). The Fountains are not virtuosi, but thanks to some clever orchestration, their sound is fresh and snappy; it may also help that these timeless tunes all stand out in your head. But songs without lyrics are just songs without lyrics, and these puppies are abetted by some truly well-spun lines: Not one single word is out of place and I can happily claim that almost every rhyme is sublime. (To wit: Valley Winter Song’s downright Scandinavian description of winterish melancholy: “And Late December/Can drag a man down/You feel it deep in your gut/Short days and afternoons/Spent puttering around/In a dark house with the windows painted shut”) New Jersey is a state of mind, it seems, and I dig this a lot more than I ever did Bruce Springsteen. Also, this album was one of the things that made me leave the US (New Jersey being generally helpful in that respect): I just woke up one day and realized that, frankly, I didn’t want to end up as a Fountains of Wayne B-side. (New Brunswick Nobody, anyone?) Can I just repeat how much I dig this CD? Granted, there are a few duds here and there, but considering that neither The Beatles, The Stones, or even the Bay City Rollers ever managed to release a completely dross-free album, I can cope.
Poetry & Airplanes | Teitur
Danish singer-songwriter, sounding as sweet and sad as Elliot Smith (R.I.P.), although his melancholy bent is of a more Scandinavian nature. Not quite as druggy as Smith, and with fewer self-inflicted scars, this is oftentimes lonely and fragile music from a cold place where winter nights are long and attempted suicide is an option when there’s nothing on TV and you have nothing better to do. It’s also often sweetly orchestrated and performed, lush and warm, like a kiss before a fireplace when the snow lays heavy outside. Poetry & Airplanes contains one of the most intimate and plaintive childhood portraits set to music in Sweet Josephine (imagine Nick Drake channeling Ray Bradbury, circaa Dandelion Vine); furthermore, one of the loneliest musical postcards I’ve heard in a while is quietly strummed out on I Was Just Thinking. (I had that song on repeat for a week or so and it still breaks my heart to the tiniest fractions of atoms.) Being the soft sounds of a sensitive soul, Lester Bangs would really, truly, absolutely, completely, utterly and indiscriminately hate this album with a total, furious passion and complete conviction. But then again, Lester’s dead.
Scandinavian Leather | Turbonegro
Announcing the triumphant return of the world’s greatest homoerotic death punk band, this effort sees the Norwegian yahoos take to the airwaves yet again with ditties like Fuck the World, Sell Your Body (To The Night) and Wipe It ‘Till It Bleeds. Losing vocalist Hank von Helvete to mental instability and heroin addiction in Italy a few years back, they regrouped after he was released from the psych ward (I swear I’m not even making this up) and invoked the Denim Demon once again. Scandinavian Leather may lack an insta-anthem like Erection, but makes up for it with a fuller, beefier sound and better songs overall. The sound of chunder in the distance.
Absolution | Muse
Queen meets Metallica. Bombastic and histrionic, bordering on hysterical, but never over the top. Absolution may best be described as a Punk Metal Opera, all jagged guitars and high-pitched vocals, but that would be selling it short. Is to 2003 what Songs For the Deaf was to 2002, but better.
So Much For The City | The Thrills
Dublin band makes Wish-This-Were-California album. Warm and timeless; think Teenage Fanclub, the Byrds (country years) and the Wondermints.
Let It Be…Naked | The Beatles
Not really sure why I put this on here: It’s not that great. Paul McCartney finally –Finally!– gets to redo Let It Be in his image and thus show the world what a good songwriter he is. This sounds a bit like the Let It Be outtakes on the Anthology 3 set. No huge surprises, then. To be honest, Let It Be was always a bit of a clunker and changing arrangements on the songs doesn’t change that too much. If Margaret Cho took her clothes off, she would still be funny, but she’d also be stark naked, and I’m not sure there’s really much call for that.
Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon| Warren Zevon
Having been a passionate Zevon fan for at least several months since he was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, this should be on here. His last release, the posthumous The Wind, may be more appropriate, but I haven’t had the guts to listen to it yet: A friend described that album with tears in his eyes, and I don’t think I can deal with it yet. It’s stupid to let oneself be so easily manipulated by music, but since it took me months to listen to Queen’s The Show Must Go On without hiding in a cupboard and covering my ears with bagels, I figure I may as well be on the safe side. Still, I really do want to send a shout-out to Warren, but I’ll do it by putting down Genius, Rhino’s 2002 compilation instead. A good career overview of the laconic smart-ass, it mixes oddness, beauty and wit in equal doses. Affectionate farewells like Hasten Down the Wind or weird war tale Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, stand side by side, making Genius consistently entertaining. To me, though, it’s the sound of going from New fucking Brunswick, NJ, to Cooperstown, NY, to visit my close friend Kris. It will be the sound of that for a long time, and it’s a pretty good sound to me.
Songs That Meant A Lot
Valley Winter Song | Fountains of Wayne
Warm, wistful and wonderful, like candy canes for your ears, and unbearably sad, like getting a toothache from a kiss. Sounds like being lost at sea, sinking, and hearing something in the distance that can maybe –and maybe not– save you. It’s not much, it’s everything, but at the very least, there”s a brief comfort to be had there. Perhaps I’m trying too hard to be clever here. Either way, it’s my favourite track from my favourite album this year.
Fuglen | DeLillos
This number got me through the odd bad day. Frankly, the world needs more songs with bears (that aren’t Vinnie the Pooh or Fozzie) and sparrows in them. And fish. (Dave McKean could do the cover.) Pepe the Rabbit approves of this song.
American Jesus | Bad Religion
“I don’t need to be a global citizen/’cuz I got my nationality/I’m a member of a growing populace/We enforce our popularity” American Jesus was written in 1993, but you’d never know it. Sounds pretty relevant right about now.
Don’t Let It Bring You Down | Annie Lennox
The album itself, Medusa, isn’t up to much, but I kept cranking this song during my not-nearly-brief-enough stint in New fucking Brunswick, NJ.
I left My Heart In San Francisco | Tony Bennett
…and my liver in New Jersey. Not entirely sure which side of the Bay; I may even have lost it on the BART somewhere. Stupidly, I tend to carry it on my sleeve. If you see it, please try not to step on it.
Ain’t That Enough | Teenage Fanclub
“Here is a sunrise” goes the chorus of this charmer, in harmonies almost too sweet for words, “ain’t that enough?” Not if you live in New Brunswick, no.
Album Most Needed To be Reborn In 2003
Never Mind The Bollocks | Sex Pistols
Nevermind Y2K: Set your clocks to 1984! In a few paltry years, George Bush steals an election, fucks the environment gleefully, pisses on the concept of privacy and invades Iraq, causing Rage Against The Machine to go into sulk overload and BREAK UP, reforming as Audioslave with the former Soundgarden vocalist and a hitherto unknown Grand Funk fetish. As for Bollocks; back in ’77, Queen Elisabeth got this for her anniversary: I could honestly give a shit about the Brit class system, but no matter: Despite the protestations of Korn and Limp Bizkit fans, this is what angry music sounds like. (It’s also a total pose, but that’s besides the point. Or maybe it is the point.) That nobody has recorded anything that even attempts a sociopopcultural catharrsis like Bollocks in this day and age, is almost too sad a thought to contemplate. Michael Moore’s everlasting crusade against the Republicans can frankly get grating at times, but I think it’s high time he put the camera down and bought himself a guitar and a Marshall stack. If Tom Morello can’t get time out from remaking Vanishing Point for MTV, I’ll even show Mike a few chords myself. Then all he’ll need is a shocking name, like The Gay Socialists and The Limited Oil Supply (too psychedelic?) or maybe something really outrageous like The Welfare State.
Still, with Saddam’s capture by US troops, the somewhat surreal thought of US gunships in the Baghdad sunset, blasting We Are The Champions or possibly The Yellow Rose Of Texas is oddly amusing, in a Stanley Kubrick sort of way.
Best Live Performance
A tie, sorta: It’s either Justin taking me to see M. Ward in San Francisco this August, or walking into the Court Tavern in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, for a beer or six to anaesthesise the pain of living in New fucking Brunswick, NJ and then finding Jonathan Richman playing a gig downstairs. Both gigs were great, but as Richman alleviated the trauma of having to wake up for two consecutive months in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, he wins this one hands down. Neil Finn at the Warfield and Richard Thompson at the Fillmore were both pretty damn good too. Tom Paxton, that old fixture from the Gaslight and Cafe Wha?, is still going strong, and dropped by the Freight & Salvage in late January. Suffering under the yoke of a Republican administration must obviously agree with him: He was funny as hell, warm and wise in the way we want our elders to be and put on a really smoking show, but since I also missed out on Jessica’s birthday and seeing Oakland Raiders fans torch cars because of him, I am forced to subtract some points. Still, I got to pretend I was in the 60s and that the Man was still a force that could be opposed, or even that the Man actually gave two shits about us. I’d also say Ween put on a pretty awesome show in Oslo in early December, but as I was seeing double by the time they got around to performing, I’m not entirely certain.
Best Live Performance featuring Yours Truly
After enjoying the Starry Plough Irish Session most Sundays of the year, Christina held me to my cocksure promise of singing before BRT’s 2002-03 season was over. I held my word as the good boy I mostly am, and, after a feeble, near inaudible intro that had the MC looking worried (“He’ll be goin’ down in flames”, said his eyes), I belted out a Norwegian folk tune that they could most likely hear well across the street. (Thanks to the Speech and Voice class at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre: You rock, Domenique!) The tune was short and sweet and also a far more personal choice than I let on to my friends. For my troubles, I received a big round of applause and was actually asked to sing again the week after. (I declined) Much to everybody’s surprise, I didn’t touch a drop before singing.
Best Compilation Album 0f 2003
Again, like the best gig, it’s sort of a tie: It’s either the freebie that came with the November ish of Q, which has Thoughts of A Dying Atheist by Muse (“It scares the hell out of meeeee/The end is all I can seeeee”), or the birthday disc somone burned for us spring chickens. I’d probably go with the latter, as much for sentimental reasons as for containing the punk version of Cabaret, but since I lost the damn thing in New fucking Brunswick, NJ, it doesn’t much matter.
Best Music Writing
Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste | Lester Bangs
Since Bangs died in in 1982, before MTV ruled the Earth, this is hardly current stuff. Still, the re-release of Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung a few years ago found enough interest to justify yet another anthology. Like Reactions, Mainlines is chock full of acerbic wit and opinionated bile, funny as all hell. Some of it rings true, even if it’s a joke, such as his claim that I Will Survive will hold up better than anything by Throbbing Gristle, which is true (Unless Fatboy Slim gets around to some remixing), and some is so wrong it’s funny anyway. Some longer pieces, like his travelogue from Jamaica, shows what a fine writer he really was. It’s not as good as Reactions, which has more of his mature writing, and more Lou Reed rants, thus making it better, but it’s still a hell of a read. Like for most amateur critics and writers, Bangs holds a special place in my heart. He’s not the best American writer of the century by far, no matter what Greil Marcus might claim, (My money’s on V.A. Andrews) but he’s damn good and often even great, and should have done far more than just music reviews (Frankly, his writing is better than the subject often deserves), had he gotten his act together. And those are words to live by, aren’t they?
Most Useless Single To Get Needlessly Pissed Off About
Changes | Kelly & Ozzy Osbourne
I don’t much like Christina Aguilera, but at least she can sing. And when an annoying, no-talent brat like Kelly Osbourne disses her, well, I must concede Ms. Aguilera some grudging kudos. Changes is an old Black Sabbath number, from Vol. 4, a monster album (just listen to opener Wheels Of Confusion) in its own right. I never thought Changes quite fit in on it, but many people think it’s a rather loveley piece of fluff. However twee the original Changes seemed, it doesn’t hold a candle to this insipid remake. Kelly (Kellie? Who gives a shit anyway?) warbles away in her tuneless moan, Ozzy following suit, his vocals echoing the guitar/piano lines as they have since the dawn of time. The difference is that Ozzy’s vocals, limited that they may be, still have soul. Now that Ozzy lies in the hospital, banged up after pulling a Zimmermann 66 on his motorcycle, this has become his very first number one single in the UK. If anyone deserves one of those, it’s him. But what price, Ozzy, what price? If this single were a place, it’d be New Brunswick, NJ