The Best Records of 2003 

From world fusion to gangsta hip-hop to Broadway-bound folk princesses, our critics sift through the year's finest.

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AMY ALLISON
No Frills Friend
For the time being, NYC's Amy Allison sets aside the old-school honky-tonk country of her previous albums and instead applies her unique nasal warble to bittersweet, layered folk-rock. Thankfully, it's a real charmer, from the snappy girl-group evocation "Baby, You're the One" to the jangle of "Hell to Pay" and the poignant, autumnal "Pretty Things to Buy." (Diesel Only)

THE LADYBUG TRANSISTOR
The Ladybug Transistor
The older I get, the more I want to listen to music that's harmonious without being bland, and these Brooklynites fit the bill beautifully. Recalling the bygone days of winsome, pretty popsters like the Association and the Hollies -- not to mention the elegant songcraft of Burt Bacharach -- the Transistor is America's answer to Belle and Sebastian: melancholy music full of baroque detail, but touched with wry humor and channeled into tunes that linger in your mind long after the disc is over. (Merge)

JAMES BLOOD ULMER
No Escape from the Blues
If you think the blues have been homogenized like punk rock has, then this disc is a must. Ulmer started out in jazz (most notably with Ornette Coleman), but in recent years he has reinvented himself as a bluesman linking the country blues and electric urban blues eras, and No Escape may be his Ultimate Statement: smoldering, raw (but never sloppy), and spiced with atypical elements like Hendrix-esque feedback and Spiritualized-style space-drone. (Hyena)

BARBARA SFRAGA
Under the Moon
Many jazz singers seem curiously out of time, mired in hackneyed, morose, emotionally dysfunctional standards-land. Not Ms. Sfraga. A singularly eclectic interpreter, she mines a variety of songs from sources as seemingly disparate as Duke Ellington, Angela Bofill, and Bob Dylan with masterful control of a remarkable voice slightly reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's. In any event, it soars like a saxophone. (A440)

DAVE DOUGLAS
Freak In
On one hand you have the reactionary re-boppers -- the players who seem to think jazz stopped developing in 1964 (with nothing before 1945, either). Then you have the avant-garde camp -- the self-indulgent types to whom melody, rhythm, and harmony are anathema. Both camps view "fusion" as a mistake. But trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas brooks none of it: He can swing and play "out," and he's recorded tribute albums to Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell. Freak In combines the best of all factions in a manner comparable to (not "sounds like," but is like) Miles Davis' watershed albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. (Bluebird)

VARIOUS
Fado -- Exquisite Passion
Fado is a kind of Portuguese counterpart to American country blues, an acoustic form that reflects subtly the haunting strains of Spanish flamenco and the sinuous Arabic influences of North Africa. Like the blues, fado tells stories of angst felt by people down and out and shattered by love, played with a deceptive simplicity on guitars and sung with sultry, heartrending passion. This compilation presents one established figure (Amalia Rodrigues) and three flourishing younger talents she inspired (Mariza, Cristina Branco, Mafalda Arnauth) -- superb and unique singers all. A wonderful introduction to the music. (Narada World)

JEFF BUCKLEY
Live at Sin-é -- Legacy Edition
This set is technically not a reissue, as about 75 percent is previously unreleased. Far from being a cash-in move to exploit a dead artist, Live stands as a powerful testament to Buckley's protean abilities as both an original talent and an interpretive singer -- maybe one of the best since Sinatra. He takes on Van Morrison, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan ("my Elvis," Jeff said), Bob Dylan, Johnny Mathis, and Billie Holliday in a without-a-net solo context that is alternately captivating and harrowing, with a voice as distinctive and elemental as a change of season. (Columbia/Legacy)

MERLE HAGGARD
Like Never Before
He's not getting older; he's getting better. Whereas most rockers and many jazzers understandably mellow with age, Merle Haggard seems invigorated by the scary times we live in. While his style is essentially unchanged -- soulful Bakersfield snap-and-twang country with swing-jazz undertones -- Haggard, far from being that "Okie from Muskogee" reactionary some thought he was, confronts media manipulation in W's post-9/11 America with the topical, discerning "That's the News." (Hag)

RACHEL SWAN

CANIBUS
Rip the Jacker
You either love or revile Canibus' rough-as-sandpaper voice, his surliness, and his penchant for cribbing four-syllable words from science textbooks. But few would debate that the beats on this album are off the chain. Producer Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind blends flamenco guitar and gypsy melodies, which sound outright gothic -- especially when juxtaposed with the MC's scabrous rhymes. "Poet Laureate II" is a virtuoso performance: seven minutes long, no hooks, no chorus. (Babygrande)

VIKTOR VAUGHN
Vaudeville Villain
Fans may want to check out cult rapper MF Doom's more sample-driven album, Take Me to Your Leader, which he released under the alias King Geedorah. In terms of quality, it's almost a toss-up. Geedorah is the three-headed flying lizard who battles Godzilla; Viktor Vaughn is the Marvel villain who fights the Fantastic Four. Vaudeville Villain is a better pick for diehards -- the tone is darker overall, and the rhymes are grimier. (Sound Ink)

PREFUSE 73
Extinguished: Outtakes
If you were to metabolize Prefuse 73's music, you'd come out with a thousand bleeps and blips that, individually, sound like simple robot grunts. But by some weird alchemy, he weaves them into complex musical phrases. In fact, he makes machines sound as though they had personalities: melancholy ("Whisper in My Ear and Tell Me You Hate Me"), tense ("Dubs That Don't Match"), or smarmy ("Diarrhea Takes Over Your Life"). (Warp)

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