There were a few new breakouts, namely Vaselined rapper 50 Cent and American I-dulls Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson. Along with independent artists like the Shins, the New Pornographers, and Brand New, they gave music fans reason to return to record stores.
The following is our look at the albums that helped to make 2003 a resurgent year in music. -- Jason Bracelin
Kentucky hippies, Dublin wastrels, and a color-coded duo from Detroit made 2003's best albums.
1. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2) -- It's tough to finger the Stripes. On the one hand, the Detroit duo represents contemporary rock and roll at its most primal -- a garage band that merrily parades its two-person setup and total lack of production values. On the other, the Stripes are blatantly aware of everything they do, from recording to marketing to image; they're an "art" project as pretentious as anything found at MOCA. Elephant is their best album -- it's modern rock that's nostalgic for dusty field recordings, antediluvian rock and roll, and even Burt Bacharach (whose "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" is duly demolished here). It's all filtered through pre-Pro Tools equipment and banged out on instruments that forge a bond between porch-swinging bluesmen, moonshine-drinking hillbillies, and British-metal dinosaurs. This is 21st-century rock and roll at its most elemental.
2. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Capitol) -- It's every bit as conceptual and complex as the monumental Kid A and Amnesiac, but with the bonus of actual tunes supporting the steely structure. It's also a grand aural sculpture, meticulously and ambitiously formed. And if this didn't quite end up being the album on which Radiohead finally returns to rocking, at the very least it solidifies the band's status as the smartest, most intriguing group making records today.
3. The Thrills, So Much for the City (Virgin) -- This debut album from a group of Dubliners confronts California, but it's not the fun-fun-fun of the Beach Boys that these boys are obsessed with; it's Neil Young's impending apocalyptic wasteland. In fact, if anything, the Thrills -- with their mandolins, acoustic guitars, and casual honk -- are sort of like Young's old band, Buffalo Springfield, with its country-flavored rock songs about girls, guitars, and desolation.
4. Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears (Lost Highway) -- After the thoughtful melancholy of 2001's Essence, Williams hauled her band into the studio, plugged in, and recorded this set of lusty, sweaty rockers that's more barroom than bedroom. At its most flippant, World Without Tears evokes a southern Stones, hell-bent for anything scattered on its dusty path. Of course, the songwriting is top-notch, but this is Williams's groove record, with the riffs piled high and the amps cranked to 11.
5. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve) -- The lovable pop-rockers from New York retain the smarm, add some charm, and make a hook-filled CD about suburbia and all the mild angst that goes with it. Their third album is a look at the lives of contemporary thirtysomethings torn between work, play, and state lines. They write pretty, sing-along songs about longing ("Hackensack"), love ("Hey Julie"), and newfangled gadgetry ("Little Red Light"). And with "Stacy's Mom," they finally got a well-deserved hit.
6. The New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador) -- Every time Chicago-based torch-and-twang siren Neko Case steps in with her big, beautiful voice, this group of Canadian power-poppers perks up and sounds like the best party band on the planet. That doesn't mean they aren't capable of great, fun music on their own, but with Case at the helm on "The Laws Have Changed" and "All for Swinging You Around," a dash of heft is added to their breezy, tossed-off appeal.
7. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA) -- They're still smug, humorless, and derivative, but on the worthy follow-up to Is This It, the Strokes are still making spare, quick-punch songs that are the essence of post-millennium rock. Throw in something that approaches a ballad, a single with guitars that sound like new-wave synths, and you've got a lively set of tunes that gets in and out of there in less than 40 minutes. So far, it still doesn't matter that the Strokes are in need of some new tricks.
8. The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music (American/Lost Highway) -- Sweet and stripped-down, this unassuming outing is the sound of folk finding comfort in the pain (made all the more resonant when leader Gary Louris was hospitalized for a heart infection weeks prior to the album's release). There's sadness here, but there's also joy. Rainy Day Music is grown-up music, played by adults who've glimpsed the light at the end of the tunnel and who are tentative but unafraid of what waits there.
9. Rufus Wainwright, Want One (DreamWorks) -- The glorious arrangements that surround Wainwright's third album are ornamental, not accessory. Musically, it's his most adventurous work; the orchestral patterns beef up the sound of Wainwright's Broadway-baby melodies. Lyrically, he's poking around the Noël Coward and Cole Porter songbooks, looking for inspiration and cribbing ideas where he can find them (he even titles songs "Oh What a World," "14th Street," and "Dinner at Eight"). This is modern pop at its most sophisticated and elegant.
10. My Morning Jacket, It Still Moves (RCA/ATO) -- My Morning Jacket wields reverb like a crown and a crutch. Without it, the songs on its big-label debut would be less majestic. Still, their scope impresses. Carelessly grouped with the new breed of southern rockers, these lo-fi Kentucky hippies like to jam, sure, but they're more likely to drop acid than to swig Jack Daniel's on the way to the show. And on the band's best songs -- "Mahgeetah," "Golden" -- singer Jim James elevates his instrument to near-godliness. -- Michael Gallucci
Balls to the Wall
Clear the kids from the room; it's time for the best in metal.
1. Mars Volta, De-Loused in the Comatorium (Universal) -- A redefinition of prog rock that pries the scene from the death grip of pasty dudes in Rush shirts, De-Loused adds some swing to the most stilted of subgenres and gets it laid for the first time. Santana, King Crimson, and Fugazi all figure into this explosion of progressive hardcore's bounds. Frontman Cedric Bixler's voice positively drips emotion: The guy could tug at your heart with his Big Mac order. Backed by flame-throwing guitar, maracas, sambas, congas, and a bunch of other instruments whose names we have difficulty pronouncing, De-Loused is unabashedly ambitious. Yeah, it's pretentious. So was Zeppelin.
2. Dimmu Borgir, Death Cult Armageddon (Nuclear Blast) -- Taking its cue from that scene in Apocalypse Now where trigger-happy GIs gun down women and children to the tune of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," Death Cult Armageddon blends incredible beauty with incredible sadism. Black metal's black sheep continue to piss off the purists here, with an album that has as much in common with Genesis as Gorgoroth; its sheer breadth has never been matched in black metal. Hell, the album's first cut, "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse," contains more movements than you'll find in most bands' entire careers. The cut is a monument in misanthropy, with its hail-to-the-king horns dueling with synth, piano, frostbitten guitar, blast beats, angelic choruses, and black-metal vocals that sound like Vincent Price with a chicken bone in his windpipe.
3. Cradle of Filth, Damnation and a Day (Epic/Red Ink) -- Not since the Boredoms became the world's loudest tax write-off at Reprise has a band as over-the-top as Britain's Cradle of Filth so inexplicably landed on a major label. Cradle didn't miss the opportunity to take full advantage of the coffers that Beyoncé's backside built, hiring a 40-piece orchestra and 32-piece choir to fill Damnation with grandiose, haunted-house harmonies. The result is one of the most opulent metal albums ever, the headbanger's equivalent of 20-inch rims. At times, the band veers toward self-parody: Frontman Dani Filth's cat-in-heat shrieks occasionally sound like the cries of an angry grandma, and his Lestat-lovin' lyrics recall Anne Rice in her training-bra days. But the magnitude and majesty of this record are nothing short of breathtaking. For a band that first made its name on shock value (who could forget those "Jesus Is a Cunt" tees?), the real shock now is how great Cradle's become.
4. Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won (Atlantic) -- This live set's a must-have for longhairs. John Bonham plays like a beer-gutted cannonball, his pneumatic pounding on "Moby Dick" an inspiration to fat guys everywhere. Jimmy Page's solos never end, and you never want them to; his leads on "Heartbreaker" will make you want to pick up a guitar or never attempt to play one again. Orgasm incarnate Robert Plant sounds perpetually in the throes of a neighbor-waking climax. Capturing the band at the peak of its powers, at a pair of California gigs in 1972, this package is the best thing to happen to stoners since pizza delivery.
5. Morbid Angel, Heretic (Earache) -- Listening to Pete Sandoval's jaw-dropping drumwork on Heretic, you'd swear his heart pumps Mountain Dew. Sandoval takes his craft to new heights on Morbid Angel's latest, sounding more like a hot-wired drum machine than a rubber-armed hesher. His absurdly overdriven playing fuels Morbid Angel's most blistering, needle-in-the-red album since 1998's classic Formulas Fatal to the Flesh. The band broadens its sound a bit with an ambient interlude and dark industrial soundscapes that sound like hell's waiting room. But mostly, this is death metal's signature act, devoid of any restraint. Wear a helmet.
6. Superjoint Ritual, A Lethal Dose of American Hatred (Sanctuary) -- With an ego rivaled in size only by his long-suffering liver, Phil Anselmo has finally dropped an album worthy of his incessant chest-pounding. Viking Crown, his lame, black-metal side project, and his brief tenure in Necrophagia offered more comedy than horror. But with Pantera officially over and Down on hold, Anselmo concentrated all his energy on Superjoint's sophomore LP, and the results at times are overpowering. Revisiting the halcyon days of crossover, when such bands as D.R.I., Cryptic Slaughter, and the Cro-Mags wed speed metal's buffet of riffs with hardcore's lack of pretension, Dose is a bar fight set to wax. Anselmo rants and hollers like a drunk at last call, over power chords that aren't played so much as sweated out. Metalcore as it was meant to be.
7. Vital Remains, Dechristianize (Olympic) -- On Deicide's last album, Messiah-mockin' frontman Glen Benton sounded like Satan on a smoke break. He was allegedly so cheesed off at Roadrunner, Deicide's label, that he pocketed the album's recording budget and cut the disc for two grand. The outcome was the muddy, half-assed Incineratehymn. But on Dechristianize, Benton teamed up with the underrated New Jersey death squad Vital Remains for a tasty hunk o' goat cheese. Blending NASCAR velocity with melodic riffing that sounds like Iron Maiden rocking out at a church burning, the album serves epic death metal with hammed-up hellfire. Best of all, Benton is in top form, growling like a grizzly with a groin pull.
8. Children of Bodom, Hate Crew Deathroll (Century Media) -- Heavy metal can be surprisingly stone-faced, considering all its codpieces and loincloths. But the happy hair farmers in Children of Bodom add levity to the metal while still bringing enough brute force to drop a rhino. These Fins spike high-octane Euro thrash with ostentatious keyboards: Janne Warman's rousing solos get Bics in the air, and songs like "Lil' Bloodred Ridin' Hood" and "Triple Corpse Hammerblow" demonstrate Bodom's equal prowess at cracking skulls and cracking wise.
9. Pestilence, Consuming Impulse/Testimony of the Ancients (Roadrunner) -- You can almost feel your brow thicken and chest hair grow while spinning this pair of overlooked death-metal classics, reissued on a single disc. Bursting with devolved, old-school masochist metal, these records rival Death's one-two punch of Leprosy and Spiritual Healing as the finest blend of primal death and technical thrash. On Consuming Impulse, singer-bassist Martin Van Drunen comes with an incredibly dry, hoarse roar -- someone get the dude a Sucrets already. Van Drunen left the band after Consuming (he'd later be heard on Asphyx and Comecon LPs), replaced by Cynic bassist Tony Choy -- a far superior musician. Guitarist Patrick Mameli took over the vocal chores, sounding like a gene splice between Death's Chuck Schuldiner and Obituary's Donald Tardy. The ensuing LP, Testimony of the Ancients, was among the most forward-thinking albums of its time. One of the first bands of such a brutal, unrelenting nature to incorporate keyboards and lush instrumental passages into its paint-peeling charge, Pestilence struck a near-perfect balance between violence and virtuosity.
10. Skinless, From Sacrifice to Survival (Relapse) -- Despite their being the only death-metal band ever to thank the George Foreman Grill and Quaker Oats in the liner notes of an album, Skinless's sophomore effort is no joke. After establishing itself as a band prone to getting all Mickey Rourke on your ass in concert, Skinless has far exceeded expectations on Sacrifice. A sociopolitical slam dance that combines anti-war activism with dexterous, polyrhythmic savagery and vocal spewings, the album rips and snorts like Paul Krugman in a bullet belt. -- Jason Bracelin
Nashville churned out a boatload of crap. Thank God these acts picked up the slack.
1. Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day (New West) -- You wondered what the Truckers were gonna do after Southern Rock Opera, their 2001 capital-O Opus, and they delivered a lyrically jolting, musically overpowering masterpiece. Decoration Day often wades through the same dark Deep South kudzu, but never degenerates into dreaded Dixie gothic clichés, even if the album opens with a song about an incestuous couple. The tried-and-true Trucker songwriting team of Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood has some company this time around in newcomer Jason Isbell, whose father-son sit-down "Outfit" is a highlight not only of this album, but also of this year.
2. Calexico, Feast of Wire (Quarterstick) -- While earlier Calexico records were the projects of singer-guitarist Joey Burns, drummer John Convertino, and a bunch of guests, this was the first Calexico band album, and it shows in the consistent accessibility of this Feast. "Close Behind" is another entry in the band's sounds-like-Morricone canon, while "Pepita" should be on any collection of Magic Buttons: Music to Chew Peyote To. Of Calexico's requisite exquisite instrumentals, standouts include the cumbia-like "Güero Canelo" and the Mexican sci-fi anthem "Attack, El Robot, Attack!" And it wouldn't be a Calexico platter without some great psychedelic, mariachi-tinged country-rock: Here we have "Sunken Waltz" and "Across the Wire," two great songs that join "Crystal Frontier" among the tunes that define the shape-shifting band's center.
3. Los Lonely Boys, Los Lonely Boys (OR Music) -- Finally, a bluesy Texas roots-rock band that can take the music out of Stevie Ray's shadow. The three West Texas-bred Garza brothers -- guitarist Henry, bassist Jojo, and a drummer whose real name is Ringo -- who compose Los Lonely Boys pay homage to Vaughan for sure, but also to Valens, Hendrix, and Santana. Henry, at 24 the band's eldest member, varies from a piercing economy to waging all-out war with the wah-wah pedal. Meanwhile, he and Jojo skillfully share the bilingual lead vocals, but it's when they are joined by Ringo that they truly shine. Their harmonies are so airtight, they're positively vacuum-packed.
4. Little Joe Washington, Houston Guitar Blues (Dialtone) -- Of a group of neighbors and contemporaries that once included Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins, and Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Washington is both the last to record and the last alive. Luckily, he's not the least among them as an artist, as this bunkerbuster of a belated debut proves. Every bit as much the character and real-deal cat as the often-overhyped Fat Possum dudes, Washington packs more ferocious blues feeling in a few stinging notes than there are in many whole careers. Recorded in Austin with a crack band using vintage gear, Houston Guitar Blues is a Texas classic, a throwback of the same vintage as a Colt 45's jersey and just as cool.
5. The Mavericks, The Mavericks (Sanctuary) -- Nashville had a mighty miserable year. There was Toby threatening Roper proctology on the Ay-rabs. There were Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts, the smarmiest twerps on the Row since Billy Gilman. And on and on. There were also some encouraging signs that old Music City was back: A courtroom heard testimony from Lorrie Morgan that hubby Sammy Kershaw threatened to bite off her nose. (Now that's country!) And somehow, amid all that, a few good records got made, and even a great one or two, such as this one. The Mavericks' first album since 1998 mixes sunny-day, Latin-infused pop with midnight-glitterball slow dances, all delivered with a perfect mix of gloss and grit by the swelling celestial voice of Raul Malo. (We'll give them a pass on the icky cover of "Air That I Breathe.")
6. Califone, Quicksand/ Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey) -- Former Red Red Meat-man Tim Rutilli's quartet has made another Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at a tenth of the cost and with a hundredth of the hype -- one on which Dock Boggs enters the laptop age. A welding of Appalachia and Silicon Valley funneled through a Chicago rock sensibility, Quicksand sneaks up on you and then kicks your ass. It's a little short on songs, but long on gorgeously narcotic electro-roots music.
7. The Iguanas, Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart (Yep Roc) -- Long one of the finest party bands on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans's Iguanas slither out to bask in newfound maturity here with this worthy competitor of such Latin/American fusion projects as Los Super Seven's Canto. Songs like "Mexican Candy" are what the Iguanas are all about these days -- ghettodelic guitar grooves, sex-dripping sax, and sizzling percussion behind dreamlike bilingual lyrics. And if that description makes them sound like post-The Neighborhood Los Lobos, that's because they do.
8. Albert Lee, Heartbreak Hill (Sugar Hill) -- Albert Lee is, bar none, the finest lead guitarist in country music today. Many can shred, but few can be said to bubble like Lee, who positively percolates alongside Vince Gill and Brad Paisley on a cover of Gram Parsons' "Luxury Liner." Lee's a workmanlike singer, but he's got a good ear for covers as well as duet partners and harmony singers (Emmylou Harris, Maura O'Connell, Patty Loveless), not to mention bandmates (Buddy Emmons, Mickey Raphael, Earl Scruggs). This is the kind of gorgeous album Nashville can make when there's no concession to the bottom line.
9. William Elliott Whitmore, Hymns for the Hopeless (Southern) -- A concept record of sorts about the deaths of his parents, Hymns heralds the arrival of a huge young talent. A tattooed former punk from rural Iowa, Whitmore delivers gruff mountain laments in a raspy bass-baritone that sounds like a singing pack of Camel shorties, while his banjo and guitar licks sound as if they come from a guy born 80 years before Whitmore's birth in 1978. Somehow, none of it sounds like mere homage -- Whitmore comes across more like a peer of Ralph Stanley than a follower.
10. The Allman Brothers Band, Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival (Epic/Legacy) -- A worthy companion to Fillmore East, Atlanta Pop captured the Allmans near their home turf six months before they made perhaps the finest live rock album of all time. Whatever stimulants they ingested to get them through the wee-hours set captured on disc 2 were well chosen. Duane's guitar-playing teeters on the edge of being out of control, but remains as precise, scorching, and incisive as a laser beam, and overall, the band sounds like what heroin feels like. They should hand these things out at methadone clinics. -- John Nova Lomax
Digging for Beats
Aside from OutKast, the best hip-hop and R&B bubbled underground.
1. OutKast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below (Arista) -- Forget 50 and Beyoncé; it's OutKast that's really running the show. Speakerboxx/The Love Below sold a lot of records, will end up on a lot of top-10 critics' lists, and is likely to win a sackful of Grammys. So why is this mainstream success atop our list? First off, we love the album. It's a melding of prescient hip-hop and beguiling R&B that shows that no matter how mainstream this duo gets, they're always ready and willing to try something different. It was an artful alternative to the Dirty South rap of Lil' Jon, Bone Crusher, and the Ying Yang Twins. And white people love The Love Below. But still, any serious OutKast fan knows that, even though this solo stuff was a nice change of pace, these guys do their best work when they're together. Let's hope they don't lose sight of that.
2. Little Brother, The Listening (ABB)/Freeway, Philadelphia Freeway (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) -- The year's best hip-hop albums embraced an inviting, old-school attitude. Little Brother's The Listening is one of our new all-time favorite albums, because this trio of North Carolina hip-hoppers celebrates black people's collective urban nostalgia through its lyrics and samples. Little Brother basically made black listeners proud that they grew up black, around other black people, and amid a thriving black culture. The same goes for Freeway, whose debut, Philadelphia Freeway, was more powerful, both lyrically and musically, than any of the albums that starred his Roc-A-Fella brethren. When Freeway uttered the lines, "I came from the 'hood/I'm bringing the 'hood with me," from the year's most criminally ignored rap single, the poignant and provocative "Alright," ol' boy made it sound like a threat, a promise, and a proud declaration.
3. Dwele, Subject (Virgin)/Vikter Duplaix, International Affairs v. 2.0 (Hollywood) -- Good R&B singers don't have to wear wife-beaters, and though 2003 gave us more music from more buff R&B pretty boys than any previous year, not much of it was any good. The ones that kept their chests covered were also the ones who could carry a more convincing love song. On Dwele's debut, the Detroit boy turned his charisma on many a stylish soul ballad. Meanwhile, Philly DJ-turned-soul singer Vikter Duplaix laid on the jet-setting charm with his full-length singing debut. International Affairs is aptly named -- it finds Duplaix crooning to all the global girls he loved before, amid exotic rhythms and enticing synth work. When Dwele and Duplaix sing about loneliness, they're much more believable than cats like Tyrese. They're just too goddamn chiseled to be womanless.
4. Larry Gold, Larry Gold Presents Don Cello & Friends (BBE/Rapster)/Roy Hargrove, The RH Factor: Hard Groove (Verve) -- A few established musicians released stellar jam sessions studded with eclectic lineups. With Larry Gold Presents Don Cello & Friends, the legendary Gamble & Huff session player (who's handled string arrangements for such folk as Teddy Pendergrass and Justin Timberlake) went front and center, and introduced himself as a producer for hire. Gold's debut album had him composing a polished collection of tracks for old friends (Gerald Levert, Bunny Sigler) as well as new talents (Carol Riddick, Kameelah). Another immortal, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, invited the likes of D'Angelo, Common, and Me'Shell NdegeOcello for an album-length, soul-jazz chill-out session called The RH Factor: Hard Groove. Both were like a bowlful of Lucky Charms -- musically delicious.
5. DJ Spinna, Here to There (BBE/Rapster)/Mark Ronson, Here Comes the Fuzz (Elektra) -- Similarly, a couple of DJs sought and found eclectic lineups to join in on their mix sessions. And DJ Spinna's Here to There made us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. A big part of that came from Spinna inviting a bevy of artists (rapper Jean Grae, Soulive's Neal Evans and Eric Krasno, U.K. dance-singer Shaun Escoffery) to play along. Slightly less warm, but still all-around fuzzy, is Mark Ronson's debut, Here Comes the Fuzz. The New York DJ, who handled most of the production on Nikka Costa's Everybody's Got Their Something, came with a relentless party mix tape that had everyone from Rivers Cuomo to Q-Tip to Freeway to Costa herself throwing in their two cents.
6. Spacek, Vintage Hi-Tech (!K7)/Georg Levin, Can't Hold Back (Sonar Kollektiv) -- You want really alternative R&B? Look to Europe! Although there have been a number of dandy black-music imports coming out of that continent, let's focus on a couple that you can actually pick up at a commercial record store. Micro-soul trio Spacek finally had a chance to shine on this side of the pond with its elegant, techno-torch-song-packed U.S. debut. Georg Levin also made a sweet splash Stateside with Can't Hold Back, a collection of classy, jazzy, retro R&B numbers. Oh, did we forget to tell ya that Levin is a white boy from Berlin? Hey, if he's cool enough to executive-produce Jazzanova, he's cool enough for us.
7. Erykah Badu, World Wide Underground (Motown)/Macy Gray, The Trouble With Being Myself (Epic) -- It just doesn't pay for a mature black soulstress to release a third album. Two onetime It Girls of pop music released junior discs that were tragically lost amid the deluge of albums by one-named flavor-of-the-minute R&B divas. Erykah Badu's World Wide Underground found the Texan solidifying her position as the soulful, sensual revolutionary of the neosoul movement, while Macy Gray once again reveled in her shaggy, eccentric brand of homespun R&B with the aptly titled The Trouble With Being Myself. These ladies aren't ashamed to be making soulful noises for mature audiences.
8. J. Boogie, J. Boogie's Dubtronic Science (OM)/John Arnold, Neighborhood Science (Ubiquity) -- A couple of DJs introduced highly evolved brands of beat science. In San Francisco, licensed mixologist J. Boogie released J. Boogie's Dubtronic Science, a stream containing rivulets of lounge, dub, jazz, hip-hop, and soul. Over in Detroit, John Arnold came with some knowledge of his own -- Neighborhood Science, to be exact, filled with theorems and postulates derived from house, techno, broken beat, and once again, soul. Both albums showcase the music of the artists' residencies more than the artists themselves. Dubtronic is a consistent valentine to Frisco's boho beat, while Neighborhood reminds listeners that no one should count out Detroit if someone ever decides to build an underground dance hall of fame. Who knew science could be this much fun?
9. King Britt, Adventures in Lo-Fi (BBE/Rapster)/Prince Paul, Politics of the Business (Razor & Tie) -- A couple of hip-hop adventurers danced with ambitious concepts, but only Philadelphia's King Britt released an album that's part MC showcase and part musical treatise on the decay of Mother Earth and human civilization -- and intends it to be listened to by Martians. But that's kinda what his Adventures in Lo-Fi was all about. As guys like Dice Raw and Capitol A dropped in to rhyme and flow, hip-hop's space cowboy wove it all together for an intergalactic audience. Meanwhile, Prince Paul released another concept album, Politics of the Business. Sadly, many people didn't get Paul's multilayered joke about how rap music has become so programmed and predictable that a trailblazer like Paul could make an album full of subpar beats and old pals like Guru, Chubb Rock, and Biz Markie just slumming rhymes. It may have been too ambitious a concept for audiences to grasp, but we all should know by now that this is what a guy like Prince Paul is best known for.
10. Aesop Rock, Bazooka Tooth (Definitive Jux)/Atmosphere, Seven's Travels (Epitaph)/Brother Ali, Shadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers) -- For the second year in a row, the best MCs are white -- and they don't give a fuck whether you think they're the best or not. Okay, this always gets us in trouble with the rap fans who can't believe that we could possibly call any pale-skinned MC the best, when cats like Jay-Z and Nas are still walking around. Those people probably haven't heard Aesop Rock's Bazooka Tooth, 'cause if they had, even they would have to admit that the guy is on some otherworldly shit. Basically a full-length attack on the senses, Bazooka Tooth is a wild, weird marvel that'll make anybody who listens to it play it again -- if only to try to figure out what the hell Aesop is talking about. And while Atmosphere did drop another gem this year with Seven's Travels, we really dug fellow Minneapolis hip-hopper (and albino Muslim, if there is such a thing) Brother Ali and his sharp, ferocious debut, Shadows on the Sun. -- Craig D. Lindsey