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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IRON & WINE
The Sea and the Rhythm
Sam Beam is a Southern-fried, lovelorn Nick Drake. On The Sea and the Rhythm, his second Sub Pop offering, Beam focuses his softly spoken, golden-eyed lyrical acumen away from the melancholy politics of love for love's sake, and toward religious imagery (largely for love's sake). Sure, it's only a five-song EP, but they're five of the best songs put to tape this year. (Sub Pop)

THE JOHN PAUL JONES
Reach Out to X
The title and album art are abstruse, but the music inside (mostly by a guy really named John Paul Jones, late of the Lynnfield Pioneers) is simple and heartfelt. The JPJ forms sparse, hooky indie pop with a Big Star heart, great vocabulary ("You seem to haunt all the old haunts/In this ghost town/And my demons/Have no feelings/They remind me/Love's behind me"), and cleanly sung sentiments of love and love lost. (The Sea Isle)

CHRIS LEE
Cool Rock
Independent music's best pop crooner drops the overt sexuality of previous releases and celebrates his new marriage with fervor. Along the way he pays rapturous, orchestral tribute to pop music and takes on folks who might say he has no right to sing so soulfully. If you like your voices expressive and unique (think Jeff Buckley without the melisma and melancholy), and your pop rich and irony-free, this is for you. (Misra)

OUTKAST
Speakerboxx/The Love Below
I don't claim to know hip-hop. But judging by the parties I've been to lately, this double album is hip-hop that all narrow-assed indie rockers can understand. I hate pop radio, yet every time "Hey Ya" comes on, I want to dance, no matter where I am or what I'm doing. Whether you're down with Big Boi's straight-up (as if they could be) Outkast disc, or Andre 3000's Princely experiments, both of these records are among the year's best. (Arista)

RACHEL'S
Systems/Layers
This is the score to a theater piece created through two years of improvisations based on field recordings donated to, and discussions between, the Saratoga International Theater Institute and the post-chamber music group Rachel's. The result is incidental music woven from the sounds of clothes drying, nails being clipped, overheard conversations, and public transit clatter from Boston, Belgium, and beyond -- the soundtrack to your most brilliant, reflective life. (Quarterstick)

Rollerball
Real Hair
The Portland band's songs are now a bit shorter, and the music is a bit brighter. But Rollerball still plays fast and loose with the structures, and you'll still find elements of everything from underground hip-hop to post-ragas, classical piano figures to gothic psychedelia and Krautrock gallops, muffled disco rhythms to prog-rock, cabaret vocals, and the self-conscious kitchen sink. It's scary. It's funny. It's a circus tent put up in a record-store parking lot, and every open mind is invited. (Silber)

DUCK BAKER

TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI
Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss
This big-band masterpiece was conceived as a celebration of the ability of the people of Hiroshima to build a new life after the nuclear holocaust. In many ways it represents the summit of Akiyoshi's art, and indeed, within months of its release she announced plans to disband her orchestra to focus on working in smaller settings -- talk about going out on a high note. (True Life Jazz)

REVEREND GARY DAVIS
If I Had My Way
Davis was a blind street singer from North Carolina who made a few recordings early in his career, but came into his own during the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s, when he became mentor to a whole generation of young hotshot guitarists. These previously unissued performances from 1954 predate his "rediscovery" and include many pieces the Rev never recorded again. (Smithsonian Folkways)

FRIFOT
Sluring
This Swedish trio keeps refining its cutting-edge approach to traditional music: Lena Willemark is a great lead vocalist, fiddler Per Gudmundson a top-notch lead instrumentalist, and Ale Moller a perfect accompanist. Add the ability of all three to play various instruments, brilliant three-part vocals, and an ongoing commitment to excellence, and you have one of the best outfits in the entire acoustic music world. (NorthSide)

ANDREW HILL
Passing Ships
Jazz pianist and composer Andrew Hill seems to make my list every year, and in 2003 he did it without even having to book rehearsals, because of the first release of this spectacular 1969 recording. Hill is heard at the helm of a great nine-piece outfit featuring the likes of Woody Shaw, Dizzy Reece, Julian Priester, and Joe Farrell. The soloing is sensational and the writing brilliant on a date that merits comparison with Hill's best work. (Blue Note)

RONU MAJUMDAR
Ronu Majumdar
Majumdar is a master of the ancient flute known as the bansuri, which was given a prominent place in Indian music by the late, great Pannalal Ghosh. Like Ghosh, Majumdar concentrates on the ravishingly beautiful sound of the instrument, and the way he embarks on adventurous melodic side trips without ever compromising the flow of the music is breathtaking. This is just a stunning record. (India Archive Music)

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