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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With an open, assured attitude fueled by producer Fat Jon's on-point experimental production, this Cincinnati crew brings a baker's dozen of soulful tunes that meld classic hip-hop with the funkiest aspects of electronic music. Putting aside the playa/hustla norms of today's rap game, Kinkynasti includes a great clutch of de-machofied, playfully sexy songs, including one about an extraterrestrial romance. You know you're feeling Deez cuts. (!K7)

Many in High Places Are Not Well
Indie drummer/producer Doug Scharin and his merry revue of players deliver a post-rock milestone with this perceptively titled sixth album. For years, HiM has merged the best aspects of Afrobeat, post-bop jazz, and dub into a potent sonic stew. But Many sees Scharin add the gorgeous kora harp of Abdou M'Boup and the minimalist vocals of Christian Daustreme and múm's Kristin Anna Valtysdottir to create an emotive energy rarely found in a rock-derived album that doesn't emphasize lyrics. (Bubblecore)

Fabric Vol. 11 (Swayzak)
British DJ/producers James Taylor and David Brown (collectively known as Swayzak) remember when house music had a brain, infusing its 4/4 beat with elements of synth pop, dub reggae, techno, and jazz. Their mix of current and past artists -- including Akufen, Herbert, and Thomas Dolby -- sonically chronicles a hipster's night out, from driving to the club, wading through a freaky crowd, and emerging into the dawn. Veterans that they are, Swayzak bring an unmatched natural flow to their flawless selection. (Fabric)

Original Blue Recordings 1970-1979
In reggae, there are three kinds of singers: those who try to sing, those who can sing, and Cornell Campbell. As this German-released anthology shows, Campbell's smooth, grainy falsetto found no better host in '70s Jamaica than producer Bunny Lee. With his groovy arrangements, Lee showcased the crooner's range via relevant, self-penned street anthems, as well as covers of both island hits and love tunes by US soulsters like Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke. (Moll-Selekta)

Radio Blackout
Much as techno and punk have both served as music to annoy your parents, few artists have merged the two genres like Berlin-based drummer/producer Marco Haas, who records as T. Raumschmiere. But Haas doesn't just create a stomping, distorted new brand of digital garage rock. He clutters up the oft-sterile subgenre of minimalist techno with buzzing broken-toy noise, and even brandishes some android hip-hop with rhymer MC Soom T. As Haas himself likes to say, "You make me sick, I make MuSick." (Novamute)

In the hands of Jamaican producers who've absorbed everything from flamenco to bhangra, dancehall reggae has experimented its way onto America's pop charts. But as the Bug, British noisemaster Kevin Martin takes the genre to artful extremes, lacing his dubby mix of crunchy drum programs and pounding bass lines with vocals from MCs such as Daddy Freddy and spoken-word artist Roger Robinson. Taking you from dancehall to dance hell, the Bug is the bad bwoy in town. (Tigerbeat6)

Vintage Hi-Tech
On their second album, singer/producer Steve Spacek and his producer buds Edmund Cavill and Morgan Zarate continue their subtle zig-zaggings across the R&B-electronica border. Like the Neptunes, Spacek places high value on snappy, minimalist funk that highlights the wonders of both sampling and silence. Unlike its American counterparts, however, Spacek also relies on its namesake's understated lyrics and sensual high-pitched cooings, which make Vintage both a standout in the pop sphere and a perfect soundtrack for doin' the nasty. (!K7)

Never Trust a Hippy
After 25 years of dragging dub reggae and dance music into the 21st century with his On-U Sound label, UK producer Adrian Sherwood makes his first solo statement, and what a transglobal one it is. Vocalists from Jamaica (Ghetto Priest) and Pakistan (Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali), along with legendary rhythm section Sly & Robbie, help Sherwood blend African, Caribbean, South Asian, Middle Eastern, ambient, and jazz flavors into what the producer terms "world-music-sci-fi-dub dancehall." You'll just call it a serious head-charge. (Real World)

One Word Extinguisher
Producer Scott Herren's second album of tweaked-out breakbeats and melodic techno-driven melodies finds him strolling right over Hip-Hop Lane's cliff arm in arm with both Aphex Twin and Timbaland. Featuring guests such as Bay Area mavens Mr. Lif and Tommy Guerrero, One Word Extinguisher offers a funkdafied digital blueprint for what's next in both glitchy electronica and underground rap. You won't hear Prefuse 73 on urban radio next year, but you will hear his innovations. (Warp)

Tour de France Soundtracks
Germany's techno forefathers calmly reassert their vaunted status on their first album in fifteen years. Expanding on the concept of its 1983 hit single saluting France's famous bike race, Kraftwerk's precisely percussive electro jams chronicle the bike racer's training program, integrating everything from bleeping cardiograms to whirring gears into their propulsive, man-machine sound. A generation of bedroom producers have aimed their synths and drum machines at these guys, but no one will unseat the 'Werk. (Astralwerks)


World and electronic music have been on a collision course for some time, but few albums made this ironic juxtaposition work better. Mixing 21st-century soul vocals with ancient chants while incorporating African and Brazilian rhythms into dub soundscapes and making it all sound highly groovalistic, Serious represents a fruitful marriage of technology and tradition. (Palm Pictures)


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