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.

Page 5 of 7

SEVEN HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
No Edge-Ups in South Africa
Seven Heads are sometimes a little too pretty for my taste; I'm not always grooving with Unspoken Heard's jazzy hooks or Djinji Brown's swank blactronica beats. But the East Coast clique has me pinned on this one. On the joint "Trackrunners," Asheru spits my favorite hip-hop rejoinder of the year: "Yo, don't hate me cuz I'm beautiful/Hate me cuz my lyrics sound smarter than yours." And it's true. (7 Heads)

KEAK DA SNEAK
Counting Other People's Money
It's scary that I consider myself a feminist while two of my favorite rappers are Ice Cube and Keak da Sneak. Perhaps I'm confusing their misogyny with their charisma. Keak, who announces at the beginning of this album that "They call me Keak da Sneak, but my real name is Kunte Kinte," sounds as if he's spent a lifetime eating nails and pebbles. But damned if his beats ain't the funkiest. (Mo Doe)

T-LOVE
The Long Way Back
Although this record recalls the smoky jazz tones of T-Love's Return of the B Girl EP, this album sounds more sleek, urbane, and groove-driven. Fans of the EP won't be disappointed: T-Love still sounds like a cross between a B-girl and a '40s noir heroine. The splashiest tracks are "Swing Malindy" -- on which she scats in French -- and "Oh So Suite," which includes two percussive versions of the throwback joint "What's My Name?" (Astralwerks)

THE LAST POETS
This Is Madness
In 1970, the Last Poets were well aware that popular discussions about race and class were out of step with the national reality. So they began incorporating art and agitprop, overlaying bongo beats with spoken lyrics and building fervor for the Black Panther movement. Laced with such classics as "Gashman," "When the Revolution Comes," and "This Is Madness," this two-CD box set will appeal to poetry buffs and rabble-rousers alike. (Light in the Attic)

RJD2
The Horror
From the blaring horns and scraggy bass lines in the title track, it sounds as if RJD2 is striving for a lurid, cinematic steez. Even the funk numbers on this extended single have a gothic undertow. Still, a lot of songs feel cocoonish -- I like listening to this on headphones while smoking and reading Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. My favorite track for buggin' out is the "Final Frontier" remix, which has the swankiest beat. (Def Jux)

ROOSEVELT FRANKLIN
Something's Gotta Give
This group has the twelve-year-old girl audience on lock. Not only are they named after the first black Muppet on Sesame Street, but MC and producer Kimani Rogers is a TOTAL HUNK!!!! (HipHopHunks.com/kimani.html) Rogers and Mr. Len (of Company Flow fame) lace up this album with crusty bass lines (illest on "SNM") and pithy, self-deprecating accounts ("A Meditation on Why Love Sucks"). (Third Earth Music)

MEDUSA
Undaground Crewed
In my book, Medusa, T Nutty, and Hollow Tip all tie for the gangsta artist of the year award. I like Medusa best because she belts arias about her gangsta pussy and bucks the gender politics of mainstream rap, which are generally wack and retarded, anyway. The opening joint "Cold Piece of Work" is pure grit. You probably can't find this album in stores, so visit Medusa's Web site, OneBadSista.com (self-released)

STEFANIE KALEM

ELLEN ALLIEN
Berlinette
This may very well be the coldest album I've ever loved; it's sure as silicon the one with the most repetitive beats. But it moves like a natural thing -- Allien's cut-up, über-processed vocals, guitar samples, synths, and battalion of glitches and complex machines swim in and out of one another like particles of light. The German producer and label maven makes minimalist techno sound sensual, badass, and wise. (Bpitch Control)

CALEXICO
Feast of Wire
Joey Burns has always had a satiny voice, subtly evocative of all the little emotions that bandits try to hide; John Convertino arranges percussion like a dowager does her perfect desert garden. But with this fourth studio album proper the duo has finally made the Southwest an honest woman, plying it with just enough horns, pedal steel, haunting imagery (what is it with Burns and dead children?), and adventurous electronic touches. (Quarterstick)

NICOLAI DUNGER
Tranquil Isolation
You don't have to like Van Morrison's music to like Nicolai Dunger, but liking the former's voice will help. Because although Dunger's recent stuff follows a far more rural, bluesy road than his more experimental early work did, he still somehow has Morrison's pipes in his chest. With some help from the brothers Oldham (Will and Paul), the sixth full-length by this Swede presents a bewitching, marble-mouthed, slacker update on the Band. (Overcoat Recordings)

HOLLY GOLIGHTLY
Truly She Is None Other
The hippest gal in all of retroland gets soft, showing her weary, vulnerable side on "Walk a Mile" and her lovelorn girl-group face on the Kinksian "Without You Here" (followed shortly thereafter by "Time Will Tell," one of two actual Kinks covers on the disc). Golightly may hang with the White Stripes these days, but Truly She proves that she's truly no flash in the garage-rock pan. (Damaged Goods)

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