Today, I’m continuing on my path of counting down the top 20 albums turning 20 in 2023. For the first ten on the list, visit Part 1 where I cover 20 to 11. Today, I’ll be focusing on the top 10. As always, this list is a roundup of my personal selections, so there’s a definite subjective nature to it, but I also tried to inject at least some objectivity into it. Compiling this list has been filled with nostalgic memories of my college days.
Here’s the video of me counting down if you’d rather watch:
While the list is relatively comprehensive, there are some definite omissions that probably should be on the list but aren’t. Why? I’m only featuring items that are in my collection. I’ll touch on a few of the more notable ones at the end.
10 | Give Up by The Postal Service
Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service are hitting the road this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Transatlanticism, which I just covered, and this album, Give Up. The Postal Service, is, of course, Ben Gibbard from Death Cab and Jimmy Tamborello from Dntl.
Give Up was a monumental shift for Gibbard, not just entering into electro pop for the first time, but doing so with such power that elevated him — and you could argue even Death Cab — as a true force to be reckoned with in indie rock.
Original pressings of the LP, like mine, came on red wax. Reissues exist, like this cool looking blue with metallic silver, and the price is currently pretty damn good on Amazon as well!
Check out the music video for “Such Great Heights” below:
9 | Her Majesty by The Decemberists
I remember first hearing “Shanty for the Arethusa” the week Her Majesty came out in 2003. The song is the opening track off The Decemberists sophomore LP, and I recall being blown away by the song. I know what drew me to it, too. It was the orchestration and the theatrics of it all. It took the historical references and book-nerdery of Castaways And Cutouts to a whole new level, and I was — and still am — here for it.
The rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to that opener, but it is packed with great tracks. “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” and “The Soldiering Life” and “The Bachelor and the Bride.” Like so many on this list, the songs within are packed with favorites.
While my #1 pick on the album goes to “Shanty for the Arethusa,” “The Bachelor and the Bride” comes in at a close second:
8 | Underachievers Please Try Harder by Camera Obscura
Underachievers Please Try Harder is the second album by Scottish indie-pop band Camera Obscura. Charming and infectious, the release blended elements of twee-pop, folk, and indie pop into a sound that was both beautifully endearing and cleverly sophisticated.
The album’s witty lyrics, jangly guitars, and Tracyanne Campbell’s sweetly melancholic vocals are instantaneously nostalgic, bittersweet, and captivating. Underachievers Please Try Harder propelled Camera Obscura well beyond whatever acclaim they received with Bigger Bluer Hi-Fi, their debut.
This is the album that really got me excited about the band. Here’s “Teenager,” one of my personal favorites from the LP:
Camera Obscura teased a hopeful reissue of their debut LP a while back, but we haven’t heard a peep since. That pressing only had 1,000 copies and now goes for upwards of $300 before shipping. Underachievers hasn’t hit those prices, but even the 5th Anniversary pressing, which is the one I have, has increased a bit over the years. Here’s to hoping Merge puts out an official 20th Anniversary pressing this year. In the meantime, if you’d rather not wait, you can pick up Underachievers on Discogs.
7 | Chutes Too Narrow by The Shins
Chutes Too Narrow, the second album by The Shins, saw the band altering and advancing the sounds they gave us with Oh, Inverted World. Though both maintain a similar overall aesthetic, Chutes Too Narrow moved away from the dreamier, lo-fi qualities of their debut, giving us an LP with crisper production, a wider range of instrumentation, and slightly more structured songs. Still, James Mercer continued to deliver clever wordplay and infectious melodies.
I’d typically drop a link to Amazon, but prices on Discogs for Chutes Too Narrow are much more reasonable at the moment.
“Kissing the Lipless” gets my pick as the album’s top track:
6 | The Magnolia Electric Co. by Songs: Ohia
The Magnolia Electric Co. was Jason Molina’s seventh and final release under the moniker Songs: Ohia before transitioning to using the name of this release. It’s no surprise that the LP saw Molina and company in a bit of a transition, infusing more country rock into their existing Americana and folk sounds. That said, the album is just as hauntingly beautiful with Molina’s distinctive and captivating vocals as anything else by him.
The Magnolia Electric Co. has since become a cult classic of indie rock, a testament to Molina’s artistry and enduring influence on Americana.
Despite Molina’s tragic passing in 2013, his music continues to be celebrated to this day. “Farewell Transmission” opens the LP and remains on of my favorites:
5 | Lesser Matters by The Radio Dept.
Lesser Matters is the debut album by Swedish band The Radio Dept. and it’s among the most-played LPs in my collection. In the early days, The Radio Dept. was a bit more lo-fi than electronic, and it married indie pop with shoegaze, helping spark a resurgence in the latter that kind of blew up in the mid 2000s.
The album’s dreamy, atmospheric instrumentation and hushed vocals, combined with its use of samples and electronics, created a sound that was ethereal yet grounded. Lesser Matters was a critical success, praised for its sonic experimentation and emotional depth. It it my pick for the #1 album of 2003.
The song that originally hooked me was “Where Damage Isn’t Already Done.” I’ve included the music video below:
Out of the four pressings that exist, none are recent enough to be widely available. You can grab a copy of Lesser Matters on Discogs for a bit over $100 USD. I share my version and discuss the assorted variants in my coverage of the LP on YouTube.
4 | You Forgot It In People by Broken Social Scene
I struggled with putting You Forgot it in People by Broken Social Scene on this list. After all, Wikipedia and Discogs highlight that technically it was released in 2002. Contrarily, Spotify lists it as a 2003 release and Pitchfork dropped it in at #9 on their best of 2003 list.
You Forgot it in People saw Broken Social Scene honing their sound, mastering it, and injecting their catchiest most memorable songs up until that point — and frankly — since. “Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl,” “Cause = Time,” “Lovers Spit,” “Stars and Sons.” I mean, the list just doesn’t end!
It’s hard not to put this album higher on my list, but in terms of impact over time, there are three others that top it.
3 | Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie
Transatlanticism is the fourth studio album by Death Cab For Cutie, and it was pivotal in the band’s transformation into spotlighting more dreamy soundscapes with layered instrumentation and melodic hooks. Yet Ben Gibbard and company stayed true to their signature emotive songwriting style they gave us with their earlier releases.
This is another that has increased in price over time. While it still appears to be in print, it’ll still run you a pretty penny. I’m somewhat surprised that Barsuk hasn’t given us a 20th Anniversary on it yet, but maybe one is in the works…
2 | Dear Catastrophe Waitress by Belle & Sebastian
If you count 2002’s Storytelling, which to be honest is a bit of a tossup, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is Belle And Sebastian’s sixth studio album. The album marked a stunning departure from their earlier, more reclusive sound.
The prior few albums saw frontman Stuart Murdock stepping out of the spotlight and other members incorporating songs into the band’s albums that, frankly, left them a bit disjointed.
With Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle And Sebastian sought outside production, which allowed them more time to focus on the creative process. The result was better orchestral arrangements, catchier hooks, and wittier lyrics that signaled a newfound sense of confidence and ambition for the band.
Songs like title track “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” “Piazza, New York Catcher,” “Step Into My Office, Baby,” and “I’m A Cuckoo” remain favorites from the band to this day. Easy top 3, more than deserving of the #2 spot.
While you’re at it, if you dig Belle And Sebastian, you might want to check out my 5 Interesting Facts about Dear Catastrophe Waitress post from earlier this year.
1 Up Against the Legends by The Legends
This may be an odd one to see at the top of a best of list, but Up Against the Legends truly is one of my all time favorite albums. Packed with incredible pop hooks yet inundated with fuzz and distortion, I’ve been a huge fan of The Legends debut LP since I discovered it around 2004 or 2005.
Similar to Broken Social Scene, this sometimes ends up on best of lists for 2004. And no physical releases hit until that year. However, Labrador calls it a 2003 release. Little Teddy Recordings didn’t release this on vinyl until November 2004.
There are just two vinyl variants available, one being a black vinyl version and the other (which I have) a silver one. You can check them out on Discogs.
Conclusion & Notable Omissions
2003 was a pretty remarkable year in music, and a few items that should be present aren’t. Why? Because I don’t have them in my collection.
Albums like Elephant by The White Stripes. Maybe, though it probably wouldn’t have cracked the top 15.
Again, if you missed it, check out the first half of the list over in Part 1.
What would you add to the list above? Let me know down in the comments and call out your #1 album of 2003.