Yes, I missed my "get these done before the Grammys" deadline yet again. It's starting to become a Timmy's tradition.

Without any additional delay, my favorite 25 albums released in 2003.

25. The Strokes- Room On Fire: The alt-rock critical darlings of 2001-02 (their debut Is This It? was atop my 2001 list and they managed some radio and TV time in 2002) are back, trying avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Their tactic? Stick to the formula. They repeat the sound of their debut so much that I'm sure I'm not the only armchair rock critic to dub this album Is This It Again?. Perhaps it's a further tribute to the debut that this album is so listenable. There are some new flourishes here and there, and you know they hoped "12:51", complete with it's Cars keyboards, would have broken through to Top 40 and assured a healthy retirement for the lads. So many other places you hear a lot of the same vocals, guitars and tempos as their debut. Think of this album as a leftover steak- you loved it the first time but it was just too much to eat. Reheated, it's not quite as good as the first time, but hey, it's still steak. Here's hoping they cook up something a little fresher for round three.
24.  Bent- The Everlasting Blink: Leave it to a couple of Brits to come up with this album cover- an eyeball in jar of pickled onions. A good warning of what's inside- something just a little bit off center and worth a few second glances to see if you really got it right the first time. This duo takes chilled-out electronica and blends it with clever samples, lounge music, sweeping keyboards, Hawaiian steel guitar and whatever else they can find to create a blend that's light and breezy while still being strong enough to catch your ear. Ultimately, a far tastier treat that what's advertised on the package- perhaps the martini olive in the IV bag is a more fitting image- bachelor pad music for 21st century eccentrics.
23. Brassy- Gettin Wise: I've heard three New York-based, female led rap albums this year. First up was Fannypack, whose bubblegum popping teenage b-girl style wore thin on these ears quickly. Next I heard Northern State, which upon first listen seemed pretty strong but repeat visits revealed it was a rehash of Licensed to Ill from a female perspective, complete with whiny voices to match Mike D and Adrock at their most pubescent moments. The third time was the charm, they say, and the second album by Brassy was a pleasant surprise. Not the revolutionary record that will give female rappers their day in the sun, this is a half rap/half indie rock album that's pretty solid throughout. 95% of the lyrics are rapped, but the music is a mix of indie rock and 80's old school beats. The subject matter is almost exclusively "We're the best rappers in town", but the beats and delivery are enough to make the lack of message secondary. Note to those who this will mean something to- the vocalist/leader of Brassy is Muffin Spencer, sister of Jon Spencer of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion fame. The sister has the same swagger as her big bro.
22. The Mars Volta- De-loused in the Comatorium: The creative force behind the band At The Drive In is back as The Mars Volta, and their debut LP is as ambitious and darkly powerful as anything I've heard- perhaps even a bit too much at points. This is essentially a concept album, though I must confess that I have neither the time nor patience to chat over the net and dissect lyrics to determine the full story. As I understand, a childhood friend of the band committed suicide- and before his eventual demise, spent some time in a coma. This album tells the tale of what happened to him in the coma. Heavy and far-out subject matter, and the music matches accordingly. Large chunks of psychedelic and progressive rock emerge from the fray, including help from Chili Peppers Flea and Frusciante. Musically very dense and hard hitting- imagine a blend of Yes, Bad Brains and Hendrix and I think you'll have a feeling of what this roughly sounds like. Mind you, this isn't what you put on at a party or driving around on a sunny day, but for rock albums transcending their genre and becoming artistic expressions of emotion, I'll put this one up against anything. Finding the right time and mood to soak it all it in may prove as challenging as the music itself...
21.Kings Of Leon- Youth & Young Manhood: In light of the White Stripes' fake brother and sister act, the Kings of Leon background sounds very fabricated. Allegedly, they are three sons of an traveling evangelical minister, who along with their cousin, formed a rock band. It's a tribute to the music that it really doesn't matter if this is true or not. Simply put, this sounds like the Strokes doing a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The vocals get a bit cartoon-ish at times, but the music carries this album through- several songs sound like Velvet Underground from the backwoods, and even the few that sound like the Black Crowes ain't half bad.
20. Bell x1- Music in Mouth: No one will every accuse Bell x! of being an American band- everything about them, from their album cover to their lyrics to sound smacks of the UK. Although from Ireland, they recorded much of this album in London and sound wise, they could just as easily be from Australia- guest spots from the former bassist of Crowded House isn't the only thing the two bands share. Their lyrics are smart and witty ("You say love children/But you couldn't eat a whole one") and the music is well crafted, with banjo, horns and strings popping up here and there. Like a poppier Mull Historical Society or a less out there Super Furry Animals, this album surpasses efforts released in 2003 by both of those bands. There's definitely some room for improvement, but this is a band worth looking through the import bins for.
19. Ed Harcourt- From Every Sphere: While on the subject of British music, there's more than a few bands on that side of the pond cranking out orchestral pop that has it's roots in Pet Sounds. Ed Harcourt's first effort put his name out there as a disciple of Brian Wilson, and this follow-up album builds on those roots and fleshes out the sound further . Some of the instrumentation (pump organ, anyone?) shows a willingness to experiment, albeit within the context of some pretty punchy songs. Reminiscent of both Michael Penn's first album (remember "No Myth" anyone?) and Badly Drawn Boy, here's hoping that Ed stays around long enough to hone his already sharp songwriting skills even further.
18. The Dirtbombs- Dangerous Magical Noise: Detroit seems to be a hotbed of retro garage sounds these days, with the most notable export being The White Stripes. Dirtbombs frontman Mick Collins was making music while Jack White was still in the upholstery racket. The two guitar/drums/no bass sound of Collins' old band The Gories has been heralded as influential by many of today's revivalists. Collins moved from that line-up to the guitar/two bassist/drummer format of The Dirtbombs. While still garage through and through, this music is by no means one dimensional. T. Rex and Hendrix are clear influences on different tracks, and elsewhere every conceivable flavor of garage rock surfaces. Imaginative covers of Brian Eno and Robyn Hitchcock as bonus tracks show that while you can be a part of a "scene" or a "genre", the limitations of a particular sound are only what you allow them to be.
17. The Darkness- Permission to Land: Is the world ready for a band that recalls the, ahem, glory days of stadium metal? I say, yes...or should that be an extended "Yeah....Yeah!" in my best falsetto? At times this album reminds me of Def Leppard, Judas Priest, Queen and any of a number of bands I've laughed off as being cheesy. But with tongues firmly in cheek, the Darkness evoke the chart topping arena rock of the 70s and 80s with a collection of songs that rock (both sincerely and mockingly) and are humorous (without becoming a novelty act). Singer Justin Hawkins' falsetto has to be heard to believe, and the hooks abound on this album. A smart, funny and downright enjoyable record. Note to classic rock stations- you always say "it doesn't have to be old be classic"- play The Darkness and prove it.
16. Cosmic Rough Riders- Too Close To See Far: I first discovered this band in 2001, when I heard their Enjoy the Melodic Sunshine CD (and ranked it #9 in that year's Timmys). The album grew on my since, the hooks from it's very sixties influenced Beatles/Byrds sound getting under my skin more with each listen. I wondered if they'd ever release another, and I got my answer this past spring when I stumbled upon this at the record store. The first listen didn't impress me much, but my fondness for Sunshine kept me coming back. I'm glad I did- the songs have a more homogenized feel at first, eschewing many of the sixties touches that made the previous album such an oddity in favor of more studio polish. This probably has to do with their leader and primary songwriter leaving the band before this one was recorded, but the band still has what it takes to catch your ear- the exception being that they now sound more like other power pop groups like Teenage Fanclub and less like the source material.  But if you're unfamiliar with Teenage Fanclub, understand this is truly high praise. Here's hoping there's at least another album in them...
15. Joss Stone- The Soul Sessions: Question- how do you get me to seek out an album? Answer- put an unusual cover version on it. Finding out Joss Stone's debut had a soulful remake of the White Stripes' "Fell in Love With A Girl" drew me into this one. Her take on that song (with The Roots providing backup, no less) is a brilliant cover, and thankfully the material is well selected throughout this collection of covers. An unlikely star of a collection of 70s southern soul covers, Stone is a 16 year old from the English countryside who was signed as the result of a BBC talent show. Unlike many other talent show contestants, the man who signed Stone to a record contract surrounded her with great musicians (mostly veterans of the very era she covers here) and saw to it that the record sounded as good as the originals- if not better. A voice more soulful than her years, Stone's delivery is effortless and far funkier than you would expect from any 16 year old. Her next album is already being recorded and will allegedly be "more contemporary"- as a big fan of the soul sound of this album (and not so much of the "contemporary" sound of other 16 year old singers), I'm a little scared...
14. Joe Henry- Tiny Voices: Ever wonder what Tom Waits would sound like without the cigarettes and whiskey? Meet Joe Henry. Chance are you may have heard of him- he's Madonna's brother-in-law and this is his ninth album. If you haven't heard of him, it's because his music is hard to pigeonhole and won't win any popularity contests. Like Waits, his songs are more like short stories of an underworld that's usually reserved for the printed page or the big screen. The music- tinkling piano, somber horns, gentle cymbals- serves as an appropriate canvas for these late night tales of loss and longing- hints of lounge, jazz, rock and folk mix together in a very cinematic way. That's not to say these songs belong on a movie soundtrack- they're all their own little movies already (in limited run at the local art theatre, of course)- the listener provides the visuals. Like Tom Waits, it requires patience (and headphones) to get through to many of the treasures contained here, but those interested in quiet intelligent music will find this album worthy of their time.
13. The Shins- Chutes Too Narrow: A good word to describe the Shins' sound is "collegiate". Not only are college rock stations the best chance for this band to be played on the radio, their obtuse titles ("Kissing The Lipless", "Mine's Not A High Horse") and matching lyrics are perfect fodder for graduate lit students. There's a base coat of sixties-influenced power pop here, but they use several more brush strokes of guitar, keyboards, etc. to render the end result a lot more complicated than many of their peers' records. If Guided By Voices spent the same amount of time recording as they do drinking beer,  and released only one album rather than dozens, the end result may sound a lot like this- a carefully crafted pop record that's simultaneously new and familiar. The stuff indie-rock nerds hear in their dreams.
12. Rufus Wainwright- Want One: I'd like to think that a lot of the albums that make it to the Timmys are unique, but I do get into a Pet Sounds influenced rut from time to time. Enter Rufus Wainright, a true individual. The son of two successful... I mean, critically acclaimed, folk music artists, Wainright's music owes more to Cole Porter and Gershwin than the Beatles or Beach Boys. Orchestral, lush, with literate and clever lyrics, Wainwright takes cues form the world of opera and musical theatre but makes music that is very contemporary in a way that I can't recall anyone else doing before. At times a bit over the top, but overall, a very unique album, and highly recommended to anyone who doesn't get scared by seeing the word "musical theatre" and "Cole Porter" in the Timmy Awards.
11. The Thrills- So Much For The City: Popular music has a history of "creative borrowing"- one culture taking another's music and making it themselves. So it should come as no surprise that Dublin's Thrills should adopt the sunny Californian pop of later period Beach Boys and early Eagles and make it their own. Bits of Byrds and early 70's pop radio also surface more than once- and contemporaries such as Travis are also a reference point. The vocals can wear a bit thin at times- I've heard them compared to Neil Young, but I hear more Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. The songs overshadow the voice throughout, with well placed bits of harmonica, banjo and organ rounding out the sound nicely. Once the novelty of these Irish lads singing about Big Sur and Santa Cruz wears out, it's the tunes that will seal The Thrills fate. They're off to a great start- adding new influences and mixing up the vocals would help as they move forward.
10. Blur- Think Tank: There's something just too British about Blur for them to ever get too popular in the U.S.- I think having "Song 2" being played at hockey games is about all the popularity they can hope for. It's America's loss, as Blur continually creates music that is as listenable as it is interesting, while avoiding sounding like their previous efforts. I'd compare their career path to those of R.E.M. and U2 minus a lot of the commercial appeal and success. But the musical growth over the years is quite similar, as well as the tendency to sometimes become overly ambitious. With the willingness to expand their sounds and take risks comes the opportunity for failure- although I disagree with others that Think Tank is a weak album. I see it more as a step towards a major artistic statement, and a good album on the way to a great one. Now, a little background. Guitarist Graham Coxon leaves the band before the recording of this CD, which occurred shortly after singer Damon Albarn's side project albums with Gorillaz and Mali Music. So with diversions into world music and electronic dance, it's no wonder Fatboy Slim was called in to produce a few tracks- and that much of this was recorded in Morocco with guest appearances from traditional Moroccan musicians. Not surprisingly, the result is a bit different than any Blur album before it, but the risks paid off in most cases, as the influx of new sounds keep the sound fresh, while much of Blur's catchiness remain. If you don't own any Blur CDs, I'd say stay away from this and rush out to get the Best Of released a few years back. I wouldn't be surprised if you arrived at this album eventually.
9. Radiohead- Hail To The Thief: Music plays. Writer scratches head (how to write about this music?). Sounds continue, guitars- piano sometimes, then synthesizers (more and more- then none- then many more). But what to write, thinks the writer (they all know about OK Computer, and if the don't how can I explain that- compare it to the great concept albums of all time? Could- Should I?) The percussion increases (no, that's the baby's swing) [SECTION ERASED BY WRITER-NOTHING TO SEE HERE] Writer searches for ways to describe that which is unlike anything else but somehow familiar (I should fold the laundry now) Track 5 plays, writer thinks he hears a single- a feeling he gets again at Track 9 (this is the commercial sound THEY Radiohead to get back to, and it is good, but YOU{me} wouldn't want them all to sound like this). In between, writer hears tracks 6 through 8 (should be ringing, should be ringing). Track 10, then 11 (baby's swinging, baby's swinging) Writer feels an end is in sight (if these are my thoughts, then who are you?) Never mind that, wrap this up, will you? (Radiohead's Hail To The Thief available in finer stores near you).
8. Calexico- Feast of Wire: I've heard of Calexico, but never made a purchase until this album. Influenced by film music- especially Morricone's Western scores- Calexico also takes Mexican and Country influences and blends them together in a way that sets them apart from the numerous alt-country acts out there. From sweeping strings to pedal steel to mariachi horns, they use their broad musical palette very efficiently- some of the quiet songs are very sparsely arranged, and others reach large crescendos that wouldn't sound out of place at a 19th century fiesta. The perfect soundtrack for a spaghetti western where they substitute motorcycles for horses.
7. The Weakerthans- Reconstruction Site: So what happens to punks when they grow up? John Samson, formerly of political punkers Propaghandi (clever, eh? That reminds me, he's Canadian) formed The Weakerthans. More about personal issues than political ones, the songs have traces of country and even (gulp!) mellow Adult Alternative (there's moments where I'm reminded of John Mayer, except these songs don't suck). Half of what makes this work are the lyrics- much like The Shins, they're written by lit majors for lit majors ("Plea from A Cat Named Virtue" is sung from the cat's perspective, scolding his owner's self-defeating attitude). The other half is the fact that with a punk rock background, the music can accelerate to a nice level when it suits the songs- the sound is a nice healthy mix- a little Husker Du, a little Death Cab For Cutie, a little bit emo and even a little bit country.
  6. Grandaddy- Sumday: So I'm throwing the word "unique" around a lot, but how do you form a band some 50 years after the creation of rock and roll and create something that hasn't been done before? Modesto, California's Grandaddy makes it look easy- take two genres that have been worn down by imitators and mash 'em together. So what we have here is equal parts Neil Young guitar-rock and Cars-influenced New Wave pop. These guys are reminiscent of Weezer if you substitute their angst and caffeine with whatever they use in California to make themselves mellow. The intelligent keyboard pop is there throughout holding the proceedings together. This music won't start a new revolution in sound, but it manages to make a few old things seem new again when they put them together.
5. British Sea Power- The Decline of British Sea Power: I guess the gimmick that got these guys noticed is performing in WWI uniforms while surrounded by taxidermy. Thankfully, they didn't use all of their creativity on the stage show- the music is worth listening to. This is hard charging British guitar rock- Echo and The Bunnymen is the clearest reference I hear, and certainly there's more than a touch of a Joy Division influence. On the slower tunes, they remind me of Orange Juice vocally, and some of their song structures remind me of Pavement's more accessible moments. Very catchy at times, this band may fade into obscurity as I doubt fame and fortune are in the cards. I hope I'm wrong, as this could be a great start to a very interesting recording career. Not to mention to potential for additional stage gimmicks.
4. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros- Streetcore: I was very hesitant to pick this one up, as it was compiled and released after Strummer's tragic death in late 2002. I saw one too many glowing review that I felt I owed it to myself to check this out. What a good move that was. Either these songs were pretty much ready to be released, or much credit should be given to Mescaleros Martin Slattery and Scott Shields, as this doesn't sound anything like an unfinished album. 10 songs in 40 minutes- this is Strummer at the top of his game- including his days in The Clash. Don't get me wrong, this isn't London Calling, but it never aspires to such lofty heights. This is latter-day Strummer at his finest- weather beaten and wiser from his days in The Clash but refusing to rest on his laurels. He can pick up the pace when he needs to, use world music influences without sounding gimmicky or patronizing, and he can be incredibly moving when want to be. I'm a big fan of cover versions, and Joe's version of  Bob Marley "Redemption Song" here sends chills up my spine. He sings it as if he wrote it himself, and in an alternate universe, he could have. Like Marley, Joe Strummer was an original and will always be missed- this record serves as a fitting tribute to a career that ended too soon.
3. The White Stripes- Elephant: So I became aware of The White Stripes in 2001, and their White Blood Cells album made it to the Timmys list as an honorable mention. It was good, but something seemed missing (Was it bass? I don't know). This album takes the same elements- Jack's guitar and vocals, Meg's drum- and doesn't mess with it too much, but the sound from song to song varies more, and is far more developed in the first place. "Seven Nation Army" already ranks as one of the best album opening songs in my book, and the album proceeds along with an amazing head of steam, right through the joke-that-works closer "Well It's True That We Love Another". They even cover "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself", a great Burt Bacharach tune. That White Stripes can do so much with so few instruments and the most basic recording technology bodes well for their future efforts as well as the future of straight-ahead rock with roots in the blues. This album shows there's still a lot that can be done with guitars and drums- an instant classic.
2. Outkast- Speakerboxxx/The Love Below: After Stankonia, I looked forward to this release, but it seemed to doomed to fail on paper. First, its release date was delayed more than once- never a good sign. Second, it's a Double CD- the last great rap double CD was what again? (Hint: Don't bother trying to remember). Finally, I heard it was really two solo albums being released together. Remember those Kiss solo albums with each of their faces on them? Exactly. So as talented as Outkast is, the odds were certainly against this release being an artistic success (it was bound to sell well, at least initially). Well, paint me yellow and call me a cab- this album blows all my skepticism away and sets the new standard for rap- not only will other rap albums be measured against this, but it throws down the gauntlet to all commercial music acts in terms of creativity- "try and top this". How and why, do you ask? Let me break it down for ya one time (alright, I will refrain from any further attempts to sound "street").
Speakerboxxx: Big Boi's album is the more "rap" of the two, but that's only in comparison to how out there Andre 3000's album is. There's a lot of singing going on here, excellent use of horns, and a lot of different styles. Each song is catchy and many take rap further into R & B funk and away from the rhymes over samples rut many rappers can't break out of. There are a lot of guests here, but Big Boi remains in control throughout. "The Way You Move" may have even been one of the catchiest songs of the year, but the winner of that honor clearly belongs to the other half of this duo...
The Love Below: While I really enjoy Big Boi's half, Andre 3000's disc is what really gets me. The album is all over the place, and in a good way. Tied together in that they're all about love (and, well, doing it) the music contains elements of jazz, soul, rock and every flavor of funk that you could think of. Humor is used very effectively throughout- from Andre's plea to God for a woman to love to a mock vaudeville skit. True, this is just one record, but with his mastery of funk and creativity, Andre appears to be their heir apparent to Prince, who in turn was the heir to George Clinton. Oh, and "Hey Ya!" was a very welcome (and somewhat surprise) radio hit this year- an original song that I never tired of, and I heard it a TON. Lend Andre 3000 your ears- he IS your neighbor...
1. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists- Hearts of Oak: 2003 was a great year for music (witness the number of honorable mentions below, and any of the top seven here are worthy of this top spot in my mind). But ultimately this is a list of my favorites, and no single album got as many repeated listens or struck me as much as Hearts of Oak. So who is Ted Leo? I didn't know myself until the middle of this past year. Apparently, he was a fixture of the NYC hardcore scene in the 80s, leaving that style of music in the early 90s for Washington, D.C., where he started a band called Chisel. Like I said, I knew none of that- and I became aware of this only by hearing it in a record store. The opener is a mini-slice of Irish folk played by a rock band- think the Pogues fronted by a sober American for a minute and a half. The next song is what really caught my attention. "Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?" sound like a post-punk Thin Lizzy- catchy and rocking, powerful but not dumb. Lyrically, it's a tribute to UK Ska scene that produced Madness and The Specials, two bands dear to my heart when I was in high school/college. If that weren't enough, the chorus is actually sung in rounds at the end of the song- and it works! "I'm a Ghost" recalls The Jam in terms of sound and the protagonist is ...well, a ghost. "The High Party" reminds me of Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson both musically and lyrically- "Hearts of Oak" throws some percussion and some jangly guitars into the new-wave influenced mix. "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" is a five minute journey through Europe- the American abroad realizing what Europeans think of him (or what he stands for) as he hops from place to place like Dylan in "Tangled Up in Blue". Rather than going through the remaining songs one by one, let me just say that the lyrics are smart and the music combines elements of punk, British power pop, ska and folk in a way that's very melodic and catchy. Ultimately, I think I like Hearts Of Oak appeals to me so much as it's an album I would've liked to make myself, if I only had the talent. I think Ted and I are about the same age and share a lot of the same influences (I would've omitted the Irish folk bits, but they definitely work for him and are in no way among the main flavors on this album- just a little bit of seasoning). I wouldn't recommend this to everyone, but if you thought any of the descriptions above were appealing or you want to know what Tim Vasil's debut album would sound like, check it out.

Honorable mentions:
Death Cab For Cutie- Transatlanticism
The Sleepy Jackson- Lovers
Belle & Sebastian- Dear Catastrophe Waitress
My Morning Jacket- It Still Moves
The Deathray Davies- Midnight At The Black Nail Polish Factory
The Postal Service- Give Up
Beulah- Yoko
Captain Soul- Jetstream Lovers
Fountains of Wayne- Welcome Interstate Managers
MC Honky- I Am The Messiah

Note: I've used the images of album covers on this site so that if anyone reads this and is inspired to buy these albums, they know what they look like. Anyone from these record labels who would like me to add copyright information or remove any of these images, let me know. Thanks.

Back to Timmy Awards main page