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A Retrospective Top 20: Best Albums Of 2003

FensePost: the Best Albums of 2003

The summer of 2003 was a hot one in eastern Washington, and my concrete bunker of an apartment contained the heat like no other. Granted, the image below wasn’t shot by yours truly until 2004, but it sure seemed hot enough to ignite even the least combustible of items. I wrapped up my undergraduate that December, which was cold as Antarctica, and upon that milestone I moved to Seattle. It was a good year for the Northwest; many of my favorite albums came from Seattle labels like Sub Pop and Barsuk. As for the list, I’ve expanded it to 20. Couldn’t help it.


Do you have an album from 2003 not included below that would have made your best of list? Feel free to add a comment and include what makes it special to you. As all of these Retrospectives go, we’re reminiscing on good times. Here is my list of favorite albums from 2003:

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Fruit Bats Mouthfuls Album Cover

20. Mouthfuls by Fruit Bats
Folk-pop tinged with a hint of back-country with high points “A Bit Of Wind” and “Seaweed”, and Mouthfuls by Fruit Bats gets the number 20 spot on my top albums of 2003. You just can’t lose with lyrics like It takes mouthfuls of Niagara Falls. It seems this album is a bit more centered around folk than their newer stuff, and these sensibilities keep the songs on the verge of subtlety; soft and subdued, they were perfect for unwinding after a long day. Grab a glass of wine, and let the good tunes flow.

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19. Hate by The Delgados
As much as I liked Emma Pollock’s 2007 solo release, Watch The Fireworks, revisiting The Delgados‘ old albums it’s easy to hear that there’s no comparing them. Hands down, The Delgados win. “All You Need Is Hate” tops the group’s library as one of their best songs, playing off The Beatles “All You Need Is Love”, giving it a super catchy chorus and packing the instrumentation with beloved strings.

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Norfolk And Western Dusk In Cold Parlours Album Cover

18. Dusk In Cold Parlours by Norfolk & Western
Dusk In Cold Parlours may not be as hard-hitting as its dual 2006 successors, A Gilded Age and The Unsung Colony, but it is good melodic orchestral folk. Looking back, yes I do miss those freak-outs, those forays into loud instrumental breakdowns (“Barrels On Fire” and “A Porch Destruction”) that really defined the persona of Norfolk & Western. Dusk In Cold Parlours just didn’t have them, at least to the extent of those which came later. Instead, we got real orchestral folk pop, and that in itself is worth of lauding.

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Belle & Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress Album Cover

17. Dear Catastrophe Waitress by Belle & Sebastian
There’s a reason I consider Belle & Sebastian one of my all-time favorite bands. Dear Catastrophe Waitress is, as a whole, one of my least favorite albums by the group, yet it’s still in the top 20. This is in part due to the fact that few songs are mainstays on my playlist. Exceptions exist, like “Stay Loose” and “If She Wants Me” and “Piazza, New York Catcher”; it’s also in part due to the fact that I haven’t listened to it in its entirely with much frequency.

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Thermals No Culture Icons Album Cover

16. No Culture Icons EP by The Thermals
Is it wrong to include EPs in lists of so-called Best Albums? I could put in More Parts Per Million but that album wasn’t quite as taking as No Culture Icons. The song, “No Culture Icons”, is my all-time favorite by The Thermals. The lyrics Hardly art, hardly starving may be what gave the Sub Pop spin-off label Hardly Art their name. True or not, it doesn’t discount the fact that the song, and album, are a stunning display of social and political commentary in the form of lyrical poetry. Backed by punk-pop noise, The Thermals’ fuzzy guitars and basement drums are the perfect accompaniment. Their more recent works seem to lose some of that crude early production, which fit so well with the topics at hand. What really set this EP apart from their debut LP was “Everything Thermals”, a self-anthem that fit their brand of wild but cohesive punk rock/pop.

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The Minus 5 Down With Wilco Album Cover

15. Down With Wilco by The Minus 5
I never could tell whether this album was titled sarcastically or not, at least from the songs held within. Knowing that the album actually included contributions from Wilco (something not entirely unheard of from The Minus 5) made complete sense as Down With Wilco has a very Wilco-esque nature to it. It also includes collaborations with Ken Stringfellow (The Posies) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.).

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The Concretes Album Cover

14. The Concretes by The Concretes
There’s something truly special about that Swedish accent, namely the accent sung in a female voice; it’s enough to make you wonder if the sirens from Greek Mythology hailed from Scandinavia. In my world, they do. Former lead singer Victoria Bergsman coos like no other on “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Lonely As Can Be”. Revisiting this album, as well as others by The Concretes, it’s easy to hear why this band deserves inclusion in these lists; their music is romantic and sad and heartfelt, yet not overly sappy. It’s pop music at its finest.

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13. Son by Jeff Hanson
I met Jeff Hanson a few years after this album was released, shortly after the release of his self-titled follow-up. And what I remember of him is contrast. His music was that of mystery; the pleasant falsetto vocals and acoustic guitar was surprising coming from a burly man with thick stubble. But this man was gentle and kind, and his songs were true to his nature. We lost a great musician this year (he passed a few months back), but he won’t be forgotten. Nor will his music.

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The Radio Dept Lesser Matters

12. Lesser Matters by The Radio Dept.
“Where Damage Isn’t Already Done” by The Radio Dept. is one of my favorite songs of 2003. It contains a rapid percussion that doesn’t quite rival that of The Walkmen‘s “The Rat” which would come soon hereafter, but the concept is similar. Backed by fuzzy, jangly guitar pop and an up-close-and-personal vocal style, Lesser Matters remains among The Radio Dept.’s best work yet. Many would side on the newer, more electronic side the band is taking on, but this early stuff totally takes the cake for me.

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11. Naturaliste by The Lucksmiths
The Lucksmiths have always written song lyrics as though they were poems with plots. Staring At The Sky neared perfection for the band and that trait lent much to the EP’s greatness. Still, one of their most admired songs, a cross-section of falling in love, is “Camera Shy”, the opening track off Naturaliste. The album doesn’t stop there, going on to give us greats like “Midweek Morning” and “There Is A Boy That Never Goes Out” (a play off The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, which the band covers on the Romantic & Square Is Hip & Aware comp).

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The Essex Green The Long Goodbye Album Cover

10. The Long Goodbye by The Essex Green
The Essex Green have always put out great pop records, from the Kindercore release Everything Is Green (on wonderful green vinyl nonetheless) to The Long Goodbye. Where other artists rely on sad stories and homeless romanticism, The Essex Green always seemed to contain more purity. Those other things may have been there, but songs like “The Late Great Cassanova” and “Our Lady In Havana” just don’t sound like it. They’re upbeat and joyful.

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The Decemberists Her Majesty Album Cover

9. Her Majesty The Decemberists by The Decemberists
For a very long time, “Shanty For The Arethusa” remained my favorite song by The Decemberists. Castaways & Cutouts was great, but this new theatrical element the group added in Her Majesty The Decemberists allowed their music to expand to new heights. As a whole, C&C may have been stronger, but Her Majesty had a few tracks that trumped their debut, like “The Bachelor & The Bride” and “The Soldering Life”.

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The Unicorns: Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone Album Cover

8. Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone by The Unicorns
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone was an album ahead of its time. Case in point is the popularity of post-The Unicorns group Islands. The songwriting style is no more mature than found here, and only a hair more produced and refined. The Unicorns were truly unique when it came to wacko tracks like “I Don’t Want To Die” and “Jellybones”. Odd as they were, you couldn’t help falling in love with each and every one of them.

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Explosions In The Sky The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place

7. The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place by Explosions In The Sky
The name Explosions In The Sky bears is so undoubtedly fitting; they always live up to the moniker and The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place is no exception. From the breathtaking gradual build in “First Breath After Coma”, continuing with “The Only Moment We Were Alone” and on through “Your Hand In Mine”, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place remains EITS’ best album to date.

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Shins Chutes Too Narrow

6. Chutes Too Narrow by The Shins
Oh, Inverted World was pretty damn great. No question about it. But boy Chutes Too Narrow came close to being just as powerful and noteworthy as its predecessor. I’d forgotten just how great an album it was until just now, revisiting songs like “Kissing The Lipless” and “Pink Bullets” and “So Says I”. This is an album that really should never be forgotten, and its a travesty I haven’t listened to it, or anything by The Shins for that matter, in well over a year. Seriously.

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The Long Winters When I Pretend To Fall Album Cover

5. When I Pretend To Fall by The Long Winters
Such a straightforward pop record, When I Pretend To Fall was The Long Winters‘ second album and it matched their debut stride for stride. The Long Winters have always succeeded in creating unambiguous pop-rock music entirely accessible yet just escaping the dreaded “contemporary” label. John Roderick is a rocker with a soft side, an educated songwriter with a sense of humor and whit. And it shows throughout When I Pretend To Fall.

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The Postal Service Give Up Album Cover

4. Give Up by The Postal Service
I’d say 2007 was the last time I really gave Give Up by The Postal Service a good listen, maybe even 2006. In the time between its release and my last listen, I overplayed the album extensively. The hiatus in the time that followed is the curse of incessant repeat listens. Revisiting the album now, it’s easy to hear why it became such a regular for so long. Give Up really was a great album, and it is more than worthy of both praise and a high spot on any best of 2003 list.

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The New Pornographers: Electric Version [Album Cover]

3. Electric Version by The New Pornographers
The New Pornographers really outdid themselves on Electric Version. The album is jam-packed with solid tracks, from the awkward-ish, title-track opener to the Dan Bejar-fronted “Testament To Youth In Verse”. Many would credit Mass Romantic, the group’s debut, as an all-time favorite; in my opinion Electric Version trumps them all. “Ballad Of A Comeback Kid” and “From Blown Speakers” round out some of my favorite tunes by the supergroup (yes, I called it that, despite knowing they frown on the association). Really, they are. Not because their members make up some of today’s most appreciated artists, but because they pack their albums with stellar tracks and because each member’s contribution refuses to go unseen.

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2. Echoes by The Rapture
When greatness occurs early on, it’s tough to live up to it in that which follows. That’s the curse of having a stellar debut. Echoes may not have been The Rapture‘s debut, but it was definitely great. Songs like “Olio” and “Sister Savior” were instant favorites, easily followed by “House Of Jealous Lovers”, “Heaven” and “I Need Your Love”. The inclusion of DFA, in hindsight, demonstrates perfectly the intricacies and influence this album possesses; and, in a way, you could almost say that early LCD Soundsystem gives Echoes a few healthy nods.

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The Legends: Up Against The Legends [Album Cover]

1. Up Against The Legends by The Legends
Few records have had more impact on me as a person than that of Up Against The Legends by The Legends. Coincidentally, another such album is Sing Along With The Acid House Kings by Acid House Kings, also of Johan Angergård‘s collection of groups. With Up Against The Legends, The Legends debuted with a gritty, raw album of distorted fuzzy garage pop well ahead of its time. To this day, this remains one of my all-time favorite albums, and one 2009’s garage-y fuzz-pop obsessives should get to know.

2 thoughts on “A Retrospective Top 20: Best Albums Of 2003”

  1. Very nice – you have added to my ‘need to listen to’ list. I was stuck in the Navy in 2003, so I wasn’t able to keep as current on music as I wanted. This gives me a great list to go down.

    My favorite album from 2003 was The Dandy Warhols’ ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’

    Listen to a sample song at this YouTube link

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