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Best overlooked CDs of past year provide some of 2003's top music

As music years go, 2003 was one of those solid, but not spectacular years.

In other words, with the possible exception of the White Stripes' "Elephant," it didn't produce a CD that felt like an instant classic. But there were at least two dozen CDs that were contenders for my year-end top 10 list.

So maybe it's no surprise that there also were plenty of compelling choices for my annual list of the best overlooked CDs — those excellent efforts that failed to receive anywhere near the attention they deserved. So here are 10 CDs from the past year that were underexposed, even though they stood out for containing some of 2003's best music:

1) Kings of Leon: "Youth & Young Manhood" (RCA Records) — Released in late summer, this CD perhaps hasn't had enough time to be called overlooked. But this group's earthy brand of rock should have opened more ears and eyes than it has so far.

The Kings of Leon sound evokes some pretty odd reference points. "Red Morning Light" recalls the bluesy swagger of "Exile on Main Street"-era Rolling Stones ("Red Morning Light"). Other songs ("Happy Alone" or "Wasted Time") suggest a messy merger of the Velvet Underground and frat rock. There's some hootenanny stomp to "Spiral Staircase" and a bit of mellow Southern rock on "Joe's Head." It all comes together to form a sound that's as intriguing as it is explosive.

2) Cobra Verde: "Easy Listening" (Muscle Tone Records) — The White Stripes and Strokes got the glory for bringing garage rock back to the forefront, but one band whose latest CD was just as impressive was Cobra Verde's "Easy Listening."

With none of the mellowness its title suggests, "Easy Listening" raises the roof with boisterous and hooky rockers like "'Til Sunrise," and "My Name Is Nobody." In this case "Easy Listening" actually is essential listening.

3) White Light Motorcade: "Thank You, Goodnight!" (Octone Records) — Here's the other CD by the best garage-influenced rock band most people didn't hear in 2003.

Although this band's glam-tinged debut has a few lackluster songs, something that's excusable for a debut act, the strong songs on "Thank You, Goodnight!" — such as "It's Happening," "Semi Precious" and "All Gone Again" — more than make up for any inconsistency.

4) Over the Rhine: "Ohio" (Back Porch/Virgin Records) — For more than a decade, Over the Rhine has been releasing solid CDs filled with graceful and literate folk-tinged pop songs — and getting nowhere near the attention the group deserves.

Unfortunately, that hasn't changed with "Ohio," a double CD that is the group's finest work to date. Such tunes as "Remind Us," "What I'll Remember Most" and "Fool" are among the most achingly beautiful songs released in 2003.

5) Sense Field: "Living Outside" (Nettwerk America Records) — The name Sense Field may suggest a band that plays ethereal ballads, but as songs like "On Your Own" and "No Medicine" prove, Sense Field actually specializes in expansive pop-rock anthems.

Though hardly groundbreaking, the Sense Field's music seems sturdy enough to sound as potent and current years down the road as it does today.

6) Dressy Bessy: "Dressy Bessy" (Kindercore Records) — With this self-titled fourth CD — if one counts last year's compilation, "Little Music" — Denver's Dressy Bessy consistently fulfills the promise the group had shown on the earlier CDs.

Such songs as "This May Hurt (a Little)," "Georgie Blue" and "The Things That You Say That You Do" simply were among the catchiest pure pop songs committed to disc this year.

If you're a fan of sugar-sweet pop — with enough of a rocking edge to keep the songs from becoming vapid — this was the CD for you in 2003.

7) Bleu: "Redhead" (Columbia/Aware Records) — Bleu McCauley's affection for drama and grand arrangements — Queen sounds like an obvious influence — may bother those who bristle at the excesses of progressive rock.

But Bleu's impressive vocal range and his obvious talent for mighty melodies seem well suited to his rather flamboyant brand of pop. Songs like "I Won't Go Hollywood," "We'll Do It All Again" and "Could Be Worse" simply demand attention with their spectacular pop hooks.

8) Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: "Take Them On, On Your Own" (Virgin Records) — the BRMC's 2001 self-titled debut made the group stars in England.

"Take Them On Your Own," a CD that is notably stronger than the debut, should have caused American fans to wake up to this Bay area band whose serrated guitar-drenched songs — many of which carry a moody British rock accent — makes quite an impact.

9) Vue: "Down for Whatever" (RCA Records) — This San Francisco band parlayed two previous CDs on the respected indy label, Sub Pop Records, into a major label deal with RCA.

And "Down for Whatever," shows why RCA wanted to sign the group. Blending punk, pop and garage rock — there's that popular genre — Vue delivers plenty of first-rate rockers on "Down for Whatever."

10) The Black Keys: "Thickfreakness" (Anti/Fat Possum Records) — This duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of Ak-ron, Ohio, garnered rave reviews with their 2002 debut CD, "The Big Come Up."

The follow-up, "Thickfreakness," continues to play to the strength of the Black Keys — an ability to play raw, blues-in-fused rock that captures the spark of first-take recording.

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