Survey That Matters, 2003
much too easy not to care in this postmodern world, but I tend
to agree with whoever said that the road to heaven is heaven.
There are certain things worth caring about.
Lost and found: Sofia Copolla's 'Lost In Translation' is exceptional.
["Sofia," by Mary
One of them is music, and tripewriter traditionally
reserves March for a look at favorites from the year gone by.
Even so, and despite discovering dozens and dozens
of worthwhile songs last year, I'm most likely to remember 2003
for providing something much more rare a bunch of memorable
Of nine I saw in theaters, even the worst ("Mystic
River") wasn't bad. But the good news is that the eight others
"The Station Agent," "Bad Santa,"
"Whale Rider," "School of Rock," "A Mighty
Wind," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "The
Triplets of Belleville" and "Lost
In Translation" were all much more enjoyable and far
more rewarding than Sean Penn's look-at-me-emote fest.
But enough about that. Because what tripewriter
really cares about is the music.
And on that front, the year was typically stingy
with great albums. But great individual songs as usual
were plentiful. So when people say things like, "Oh,
there just isn't much good new music out there," it's hard
to know whether to laugh or cry. It's out there, friends, and
it isn't even that hard to find. All we've got to do is
take some care.
Anyway, for the third straight March, here's my
submission to what some friends of friends used to call The
Only Survey That Matters:
1) Broken Social Scene / You Forgot It In
People This album, by a rotating cast of congenial Canadians,
sneaks up, gets inside and stays for endless rotations. It doesn't
hurt that the live show, when it came through sleepy little Portland,
was uniquely thrilling. But the proof is in the disc, and You
Forgot It In People is an unusual trip through an inviting
universe of sounds and styles. The album somehow manages to display
a polished luster along with an off-the-cuff vibe. And there's
a gentle grace and sweetness even as they sing about bodily fluids.
It'll be fun to see what they do next.
2) Weekend Players / Pursuit of Happiness
Usually it's best to stay away from making confining comparisons,
but sometimes they serve to best make a point. And Pursuit
of Happiness comes off like Sade crossed with addictive, ear-pleasing
electronica. The album, released on Christmas Eve of 2002, is
essentially a side project of Groove Armada's Andy Cato and jazz
chanteuse Rachel Foster and combines irradiative lyrics, flowing
melodies and heady, bass-laden grooves whether upbeat for
the discotheque or ballads for the boudoir. Regardless, there's
no denying that the duo found something special here, and whether
it's a one-off lark or an enduring marriage hardly matters.
3) Cyndi Lauper / At Last Hey,
I got your American Idol right here ... Regular visitors to this
page won't be surprised to see Cyndi's flag run up the tripewriter
flagpole. But in a year that also saw new product from Midler
and Streisand, well, it was no contest. Just check out the emotive,
theatrical delivery of "La Vie En Rose" to get a hint
of what a singer should sound like. At Last is solid front
to back, with inventive, intimate treatments of the title song,
"Walk On By," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,"
and an oddly upbeat rendition of Brel and McKuen's "If You
Go Away." That a duet with Tony Bennett misfires is a small
price for 45 minutes of relative bliss.
4) Kathleen Edwards / Failer Don't
ask how someone can not care for Lucinda Williams but still
be big on Kathleen Edwards.
It doesn't make sense to me, either. But not only is the 24-year-old
Edwards' album a modest wonder, it also seems to portend a giant
new songwriting and singing talent. So what that she has a foul
mouth onstage. Big deal. That same mouth articulates artful story-songs
with old-soul wit and wisdom a rarity at any age. Just
give "Westby" or "Bellevue" a spin and try
to remain unconvinced. The songs seem casually effortless and
effortlessly casual. And the future seems unmistakably bright
for this Canadian thrush.
5) (tie) The White Stipes / Elephant
and OutKast / Speakerboxxx & The Love Below
Popular taste and the right track seem to have crossed paths in
2003, as these two unlikely but excellent albums gained wide recognition.
They finished first and second in the annual Village
Voice critics poll and won various other popular statuettes.
Some seemed to like the White Stripes' Elephant right away,
while others reported that it took several spins. Dissenters probably
didn't listen enough. Regardless, in a year that continued the
welcome recent trend of the unpolished garage-band sound, the
White Stripes simply had the best songs and a few ("One Nation
Army," "The Hardest Button to Button," "Ball
and Biscuit") that were great. As for OutKast, the double
disc might suffer from the ever-dangerous shoulda-boiled-it-down-to-one-disc
syndrome. But it's hard to complain when a song as catchy as "Hey
Ya" likely isn't even the best song on the album. Perhaps
most promising of all is that both these groups have put out strong
albums before, and are building fascinating careers.
1) "When Mac Was Swimming," The Innocence
Mission If number of listens is any indication, then "When
Mac was Swimming" was easily my favorite song of 2003. Countless
times I cued it up and warbled along in the car or around the
house. Karen Peris's quirky, understated singing is a thing of
rare beauty and the song's delicate arrangement is perfection.
Much of the rest of the album, befriended, is relatively
unremarkable although "Tomorrow on the Runway"
is worth a listen. But sometimes all you need is the one song,
and this is one of those sometimes.
2) "Blues Tango," Paolo Conte I
first heard Paolo Conte several years back on a Starbucks sampler.
And while it's easy to think of him as the Italian Leonard Cohen,
that's not really doing justice to either man. Conte, a painter
and poet, was born in 1937, started recording in the '60s, but
didn't have his first U.S. release until a greatest-hits collection
in 1998. The 2003 release, Reveries, explores a variety
of styles and displays Conte's strangely consummate cool. But
"Blues Tango" stands out as a mad scientist's examination
of love and transcends all semblance of categorization.
3) "Something to Believe In," Pretenders
Tribute albums are dime-a-dozen any more, but every so often a
great song pops out. Here, on a Ramones tribute, Chrissie Hynde
and her mates find utter beauty in "Something to Believe
In," a song from the back end of a grim 1986 album. Vibrato
guitar, insistent bassline and rich, emotive singing transform
what seems like a throwaway in its original form into a sense
of uplift that clearly escaped the Ramones. And when Hynde sings
"I don't feel that it's hopeless, I don't feel that I'm useless,"
we're made to believe by way of simple, humbling grace.
4) "Let's Get Retarded," The Black
Eyed Peas Hip-hop is certainly still happening and 2003 saw
several strong entries into the field. But considering that even
the folks at McDonald's have latched onto the genre by way of
cloying, crass commercials, the warning bell of middle-age has
seemingly sounded. Regardless, "Let's Get Retarded,"
although not particularly correct in the political sense, is a
joyous romp that oughta be echoing off walls at basketball arenas
throughout the land. Perhaps it is (the basketball arena hasn't
been the most popular place in Portland for the last several years).
But above all else, the song is fun, catchy and almost begs you
to dance. Exactly what else do you need to know?
5) (tie) "Miss You," Jacqui Naylor
& "Keep Me in Your Heart," Warren Zevon.
Jacqui Naylor's jazzy take on Mick and Keith is an odd stroke
of brilliance but only because it's done so well. Naylor's
voice carries a slight trill at the endings of couplets to make
her sound somewhere between voluptuous and vulnerable. The piano
break is slinky and sly. But she picks up steam as the song nears
its end, and there's an aura of irony that completes the picture.
As for Warren Zevon,
his death in 2003 gained him more recognition than ever before
and only now is he starting to get his widespread due (he won
his first-ever not-quite-so-frumpy-anymore Grammys last month).
A VH-1 documentary, put on tape as the cancer-stricken Zevon made
his painful march toward his maker, displays layer after layer
of songwriting genius. But "Keep Me in Your Heart" is
an instant standard that will outlive us all. Good album, great
And what about those aforementioned dozens of songs?
Well, it ain't no joke. For nearly two decades we've compiled
favorites from the just-ended year onto CD (or cassette), and
here's the contents of six
discs for 2003. Still not enough, you say? Two more discs
of 2003's excellent leftovers are in the works approaching
the neighborhood of 200 worthy songs by 200 different artists
from last year alone!
The music industry needs to admit that people want
to purchase the individual songs, and the record companies ought
to quit dragging their feet and open up the vaults to their entire
catalogs. They could charge a reasonable flat monthly rate for
non-burnable versions of individual songs. Maybe $10 or $15 a
month. Then charge a reasonable per-song rate for burnable versions,
maybe 50 cents a song a price where even seasoned downloaders
might climb aboard. End of problem. Because as is, it seems the
college kids are always a step or two ahead.
And finally, it's time to give downloaders their
due. If it wasn't for these brave agents of change, we'd probably
be paying somewhere near $25 per disc.
Meanwhile, it's on to another year. For one thing,
I'm not nearly as afraid to lay down seven or eight bucks to enter
a movie theater. And already there are all kinds of promising
albums and songs for 2004.
Like it said here a year ago, the only survey that
really matters is the survey of self. Just remember to listen,
don't be afraid to share and never forget to take care.