Eyes are still watering from the mushroom cloud Metallica unleashed with St. Anger. An overwrought stab at recapturing lost glory days, the big-budget bomb was only one of many this year. It's enough to send music fans scurrying underground to avoid the fallout. That's fine: Digging through the major-label topsoil to find the buried gems can be half the thrill anyway, and the year's best albums have come from bands and labels far removed from the mainstream. So shovel aside the Godsmack, Staind, and Hillary Duff, and try a spin with these top discoveries of 2003:
The Black-Eyed Snakes, Rise Up! (Chairkickers' Music)
At gigs by Minnesota slowcore combo Low, you'll get dirty looks for breathing too loud. This must have taken its toll on Low guitarist-vocalist Alan Sparhawk, who's since rechristened himself Chicken-Bone George, formed the side project Black-Eyed Snakes, and set out to make a racket as loud and heedless as Low is quiet and contemplative. The Snakes' second effort, Rise Up!, is a blast of raw acid blues and backwoods boogie. From harmonica hysterics ("Shine-ola") to juke-joint foot-stompers ("Cornbread") to psychedelic fuzzbox fireworks ("Foresight"), the Snakes are always good for a Rise.
Harvey Milk, The Singles (Relapse)
From the early to late '90s, this Athens, Georgia three-piece showed that "thinking man's stoner rock" need not be an oxymoron. With guitars as thick as asphalt, absurdly overdriven bass, and vocals that sounded like Satan with a hangover, the Milk men's black doom was a sonic experience somewhere between heavy metal and Amtrak derailment. They alternated drowsy, tortoise-paced dirges and revved-up riffs with rhythmic dexterity. Their three albums, beginning with 1996's My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of My Love, are all nearly impossible to find. The band broke up in 1998, but Relapse has reissued all the singles on this comp, a must-have for metalheads and misanthropes.
Sole, Selling Live Water (Anticon)
Selling Live Water succumbs to many indie hip-hop conceits: It's overserious and self-righteous, and when Sole drops such lines as "Green balloons carry your cars away to plant in Egypt to be a plant in the sidewalk of a wheelchair race-car driver," you can be pretty sure even he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. The Anticon antagonist's flow is so breathless and elaborate, deciphering the abstruse rhymes becomes a futile effort. But that's what keeps us coming back to this impossibly dense disc: In an era of Chingy and dubious enunciation, we love a rhymer who puts brains above backsides.
The Hookers, The Hookers (Cold Crush)
"We're not the kind of hookers that come and give you what you want, we're the kind of hookers that give you what you need, and you need rock and roll!" Hookers frontman Spencer Moody slurs at the outset of his band's lone LP. The Hookers brought a raw-lunged blitz, the soundtrack for bar fights and emergency-room visits. Together for six months, the group penned but eight songs, and is much better known for the bands it spawned -- the Murder City Devils and Pretty Girls Make Graves. But that should change with the reissue of the Hookers' self-titled debut. The sound quality is terrible -- Spencer's boozy braying completely drowns out the bass and drums at times -- and the band's rough-and-tumble sound was hardly unprecedented. But the Hookers were all about breaking bones, not ground.
Suzukiton, Suzukiton (P.O. Box 5361, Richmond, VA 23220)
With subject matter that tends toward blood, guts, and wizards, heavy metal is sometimes better off without lyrics. Enter Suzukiton, a Virginia-based instrumental four-piece that's dropped a thrash throwback heavy enough to chip concrete. The band's self-titled debut/demo is only available at shows or through the group directly, but it's more than worth the trip to the post office or the local rock dive. It's a mix of dual dive-bombing guitars, powder-keg drums, and steamroller rhythms, equally indebted to the Melvins and Megadeth. The highlight: "Meatal," a neck-spraining buffet of riffs that makes you want to start a war.