For the Record

For national releases, 2003 wonked as much as it rocked.

Music got downright deadly in 2003. Some of the great ones went up to that big gig in the sky -- icons and legends like Johnny Cash, Barry White, Warren Zevon, Elliott Smith and Wesley Willis -- while the RIAA took off after grandmas and single moms around the country. There's nothing like getting sucker-punched with a $2,000 fine -- especially when this year's albums didn't offer much in the way of a warm hug. While some were worthy, a lot were dead on arrival. So while the following is by no means a definitive review of the year's releases, it includes the albums that flipped our wigs -- as well as those we just plain flipped off.

Top Ten "Wonka Records" of 2003
By Garrett Kamps

This was the year of the "Wonka record." A Wonka record is not merely a bad record, but a bad record that sounds as if it were made Gobstopper-like in an eerie factory by elves with pointy ears and graphing calculators. They are sometimes disguised as "artistic triumphs," but this is just part of their spin. Here are a few Wonka efforts released this year. Sadly, this is only a partial list.

1. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below (Arista)
Yes, it was an interesting album, and entertaining. But did you notice how the duo's high-concept approach kept a lot of people from admitting that you can't sit all the way through it, and that a lot of the songs on it are really just crappy, meandering sketches? Mainly, though, this record is Wonka because of its insidious marketing angle: One single, André 3000's "Hey Ya," got playlisted on alt-rock radio, while the other, Big Boi's "The Way You Move," topped the charts on hip-hop and R&B stations. That's a great ploy. OutKast's strategy scored the group a two-for-one deal.

2. Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll/Love Is Hell (Lost Highway)
The titles say it all. One is the gritty, alt-rock radio staple, the other the wounded, lite-rock-radio staple. The two records are utterly different and clearly marketed to two distinct audiences. Listening to them, it's hard to imagine they came from the same artist. Strange, and very Wonka.

3. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)
Wonka because it's the exact same record the band put out two years ago, yet fans and critics ate it up, anyway. That makes it more like a McDonald's combo meal than an album: You know it's processed and reheated junk, you know it's bad for you, but you eat it anyway, because, hey, at least it's consistent. Also, the group's live show sucked big, hairy moose balls.

4. Any posthumous Tupac release
The guy put out four records when he was alive -- and eight (!) after he died. As many have pointed out, if the material had been good enough to be released, someone would have done so while Tupac was still breathing. Profiteering from someone's tragic death is totally Wonka.

5. Michael Jackson, Number Ones (Sony)
Reports of Jackson facing allegations of child molestation being revealed worldwide on the same fucking day that Number Ones was released is disturbingly and conspiratorially Wonka!

6. Any emo CD
Because you cannot be that distraught if your band is selling out the Fillmore or performing alongside Jane's Addiction.

7. Any punk CD
Because "commercial punk" is an oxymoron. Rebellion, priced to move at $16.95, is all kinds of Wonka.

8. P.O.D., Payable on Death (Atlantic)
Also, Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown and any other album by a Christian rock band that subverted its religious undertones just enough to break into a larger market. Look, I have nothing against Christians (Mormons, yes; Christians, no), but if you're gonna stand for something, stand for something. Put Jesus on your album cover, a picture of Abraham getting ready to knife his son on the insert. Those Bible stories, with their whales and giants and miracles, are kind of cool, sort of Dungeons & Dragons, no? But don't try to turn your music into some sort of propagandizing, we-can-sneak-this-on-the-airwaves bullshit. That's utterly Wonka.

9. Any country music CD that used patriotism to move units
For instance, Toby Keith's chart-topping Shock'n Y'all (it's a pun on "shock and awe," get it?) includes "The Taliban Song" and "American Soldier." Sample lyrics: "Now they attacked New York City/'Cause they thought they could win/Said they would stand and fight until the very bloody end/Mr. Bush got on the phone with Iraq and Iran and said/Now you sons of bitches you better not be doing any business/With that Taliban." Yee-haw!

10. Any American Idol CD
People, please! These CDs going quintuple platinum is one degree removed from a band called Coca-Cola or Sprint PCS spending ten weeks at the top of the charts.

Sure, this list is a little dispiriting, and there were lots of good things that happened in music in 2003. But if you want the "good news," go read the Bible -- or listen to Switchfoot.

By Mosi Reeves and Craig D. Lindsey

Rap music dominated the pop charts in 2003, even though this was one of the lamest record crops (barring Outkast, God bless them) in recent memory. Even the ever-lovable Snoop Dogg was cranking out hip-pop bullshit like "Beautiful" to satisfy the suburban kids lapping up his gangsta fantasies. But amid all the commercial shlock, there were dozens of cult favorites and masterpieces that will probably only be unearthed in the distant future, Inspiration Information style. So get the jump on the hipsters of 2023 with this roundup of the best revelations in urban music during 2003.

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