For the Record

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

1. Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
This duo sold a fuckload of records and will garner a sackful of Grammys. The record is a melding of prescient hip-hop and beguiling R&B that shows no matter how mainstream this act gets, it's ready and willing to push the envelope. Although the solo stuff was a nice change of pace, these guys do their best work when they're together. Let's hope they don't lose sight of that.

2. Aesop Rock, Bazooka Tooth (Definitive Jux); Atmosphere, Seven's Travels (Epitaph)

For the second year in a row, the best MCs are white -- and they don't give a fuck if you think they are the best or not. Okay, a statement like this always makes waves with rap fans who can't believe that any pale-skinned MC could be the best when cats like Jay-Z and Nas are still walking around. But those people probably haven't heard Bazooka Tooth or Seven's Travels.

3. 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Interscope)
In a nutshell, 50's story goes something like this: He gets shot up and inks a deal with Elvis -- er, Eminem; drops two brilliant singles ("Wanksta," "In Da Club"); follows up with a way-overrated debut (Get Rich or Die Tryin') and blows the fuck up; starts beefing with everybody and then rush-releases the requisite posse album (G-Unit's Beg for Mercy); and subsequently gets anointed asshole of the year. Uh, make that artist of the year.

4. Little Brother, The Listening (ABB)
Feel-good story of the year. This unheralded North Carolina trio sent a few demos to, got signed to Oakland's ABB Records, dropped an amazing debut and sparked a bidding war among several major labels, becoming the hottest underground act since Dilated Peoples in 1998, or Mos Def in 1999, or Slum Village in 2000. Makes next year worth looking forward to.

5. Freeway, Philadelphia Freeway (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Freeway's debut is more powerful -- both lyrically and musically -- than any of the albums that starred his Roc-A-Fella brethren. When he uttered the lines "I came from the 'hood /I'm bringing the 'hood with me," from the year's most criminally ignored rap single, the poignant and provocative "Alright," the old boy made it sound like a threat, a promise and a proud declaration.

6. Lil' Kim, La Bella Mafia (Atlantic)
How does a woman who is one of the most recognizable personalities in popular music garner a gold disc for her latest album (La Bella Mafia), then lose her album deal and boutique label, forcing her to look for a contract with another major label? Maybe it's because hip-hop is growing into one of the most misogynistic, anti-female cultures in recent memory, and not even a woman who calls herself "Queen Bitch" and walks around half naked is immune to its effects.

7. Jay-Z, The Black Album (Def Jam)
Jay-Z is an extremely talented rapper, but doesn't anyone remember when KRS-One rhymed, "If you were to rule or govern a certain industry/All inside this room right now would be in misery/No one would get along nor sing a song/'Cause everyone would be singing for the king, am I wrong?"

8. Various Artists, Bad Boys II soundtrack (Bad Boy)
Sometimes it seems like hip-hop is the only genre that can generate a super-wack, overproduced, predictable, monomaniacal monstrosity (except for the banging 50 Cent and Biggie's "Realest Killers," natch) like the Bad Boys II soundtrack and watch it go straight to number one on the pop charts.

9. Ja Rule, "Loose Change" single (unreleased)
We know, we know: Ja Rule has fallen off, Murder, Inc. is finished, etc. But still, it's impossible to forget Ja's lyrical outburst aimed squarely at Slim Shady on "Loose Change," which has to be one of the most cruel and mean-spirited disses ever dropped: "You claim that your mother's a crackhead/And Kim is a known slut/So what's Hailie gonna be when she grows up?"

10. David Banner, Mississippi: The Album (SRC), Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys, Kings of Krunk (TVT), YoungBloodZ Drankin Patnaz (LaFace), Bone Crusher, Attenchun! (Arista)
You know the South is running shit when strip-club anthems like "Like a Pimp" and "Get Low" gets rave reviews in such august publications as the New York Times. "To the window! To the wall!" Gotta love hip-hop.

Hot Funk, Cool Punk, Even If It's Old Junk
By Jason Heller

As styles of music cycle around the wheel of birth and death, some pop back up in the oddest places. Here are just ten examples from the past twelve months of indie-rock albums that serve as unwitting reincarnations of classic rock's hubris and majesty.

1. Joan of Arc, So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness (Jade Tree)

Tim Kinsella's loose collective of ex-emo smartasses finally throws together its masterpiece. Riddled with oblique tempos and a florid moroseness, this album resembles nothing so much as the 1974 Genesis opus The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The vital question: Will Kinsella end up as Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins?

2. British Sea Power, The Decline of British Sea Power (Rough Trade)
By 1975's Siren, Roxy Music had perfected the art of the brittle, brainy anthem. And although there's nothing quite as genius as "Love Is the Drug" on British Sea Power's amazing debut, the young group's mix of crooning and abrasion comes deliriously close.

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