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Pundit picks best releases of 2003


Initial impressions can be misleading.

Just consider the year in music for 2003.

At first blush, it seemed pretty unexceptional. But then came a realization.

The past year had brought new CDs by Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt and Richard Thompson — three artists who are among today's very best songwriters and have been frequent occupants of my previous year-end top 10 lists.

But none of those artists made my top 10 list for 2003 — even though all three released solid CDs this past year. And in a sense, those three CDs were a microcosm for the year in music.

While there weren't many CDs that stood head and shoulders above the crowd, there were plenty of high-quality releases. In fact, there wasn't a lot separating many of the CDs that only made honorable mention from those that ranked in the bottom half of the top 10.

With those thoughts in mind, it's clear that 2003 was a better year for music than I initially suspected.

Here are 25 CDs that rocked my world this year.

1) The White Stripes: "Elephant" (V2 Records) — "Elephant" affirmed the status of the Detroit duo of Jack and Meg White as leaders of today's garage-rock revival, while also racking up impressive sales behind the hit singles "Seven Man Army" and "The Hardest Button to Button." These jagged, yet tuneful rockers were among the freshest tunes to hit modern rock radio, while there were plenty of other strong songs where those hits came from on "Elephant."

2) OutKast: "Speakerboxxx/the Love Below" (Arista Records) — With this sprawling double-CD, OutKast's Big Boi and Andre 3000 may be slightly guilty of overkill. But no group packed as much musical quality, creativity and innovation as this duo did into "Speakerboxxx/the Love Below."

3) Rosanne Cash: "Rules of Travel" (Columbia Records) — Before making "Rules of Travel," Cash lost her voice, and for a long time, she wasn't sure she would ever be able to perform again. But not only did Cash's voice return in all its tender glory, so did her songwriting skills on this collection of sharply drawn, emotionally potent songs framed by elegant country-tinged melodies.

4) 50 Cent: "Get Rich Or Die Trying" (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope Records) — The year's most hyped debut, "Get Rich Or Die Trying" lived up to the buzz with its no-holds-barred tales of mayhem and survival on the streets set to a soundtrack that married 50 Cent's tough-toned raps to spare, bass-heavy beats and a dark, almost-symphonic sense of melody.

5) Radiohead: "Hail to the Thief" (Capitol Records) — By combining the potent, yet abstract melodicism of the 1997 CD "OK Computer" with the deconstructive experimentation of 2000's "Kid A," Radiohead on "Hail to the Thief" took its music into warmer, less imposing territory without compromising the inventiveness that has marked the band's career.

6) Ryan Adams: "Rock 'N' Roll" (Lost Highway Records) — After being cast as one of the leading lights for alternative country, Adams cranks the amps, gets in touch with his inner Rolling Stone and rocks out on this rowdy, yet well-crafted CD.

7) Belle and Sebastian: "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" (Rough Trade Records) — Longtime cult favorites, Belle and Sebastian made one of their most accessible CDs with "Dear Catastrophe Waitress." But even with its pop appeal, "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," retains plenty of smart, offbeat charm — note the hurdy gurdy pop of "Step Into My Office, Baby" or the multi-dimensional feel of "Stay Loose.''

8) Warren Zevon: "The Wind" (Artemis Records) — Zevon's death earlier this year from cancer was a major loss for anyone who appreciates literate, sometimes acerbic and funny rock songwriting. But with "The Wind," Zevon left one last gift — a CD that's nearly as good as his best albums, "Excitable Boy" and his 1976 self-titled debut.

*9) Kings of Leon: "Youth & Young Manhood" (RCA Records) —The songs on "Youth & Young Manhood" evoke some pretty odd reference points — including the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, frat rock and Southern rock. But it all comes together to form a sound that's as intriguing as it is explosive.

10) The Strokes: "Room on Fire" (RCA Records) — Critics usually trash bands that repeat a successful formula with a new CD. But the Strokes have caught little flak even though "Room on Fire" sticks closely to the grainy, propulsive sound of the band's much-lauded debut, "Is This It." Of course, most bands that follow a formula never sounded as unique as the Strokes. And "Room on Fire," like the first CD, is packed with sharply crafted, compelling songs.

Honorable mention: The Allman Brothers, "Hittin' The Note" (Peach/Sanctuary Records); *Bleu: "Redhead" (Columbia/Aware Records); David Bowie: "Reality" (ISO/Columbia Records); Brand New, "Deja Entendu" (Triple Crown/Razor and Tie Records); *Cobra Verde: "Easy Listening" (Muscle Tone Records); Rodney Croell, "Fate's Right Hand" (DMZ/Columbia Records); Missy Elliott: "This Is Not a Test!" (Elektra Records); Fountains of Wayne: "Welcome Interstate Managers" (S-Curve/Virgin Records); the Jayhawks: "Rainy Day Music" (Lost Highway Records); *Over the Rhine: "Ohio" (Back Porch Records); The Raveonettes, "Chain Gang of Love" (Columbia Records); *Sense Field: "Living Outside" (Nettwerk America Records); Bubba Sparxxx, "Deliverance" (Beatclub/Interscope Records); *White Light Motorcade: "Thank You, Goodnight!" (Octone Records); Lucinda Williams, "World Without Tears" (Lost Highway Records)

* These CDs also made my list for 2003's best overlooked CDs, which will be featured in next week's Call.

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