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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ROY HARGROVE PRESENTS THE RH FACTOR
HardGroove
Trumpeter Roy Hargrove helped the Roots and D'Angelo fashion the neo-soul sound. But every genre has its limitations, so Hargrove headed up a wide-ranging project that takes neo-soul's retro-futurist vibe deeper into the realms of blues, jazz, and funk. A stellar cast of guest artists -- including Q-Tip, Macy Gray, and Erykah Badu -- adds to the album's buzzworthiness, while the RH Factor's well-oiled musicianship allows HardGroove to live up to its title. (Verve)

JUNIOR KELLY
Smile
One of the few contemporary reggae releases that stands up to the recent outpouring of excellent roots reissues, Smile finds the cultural dancehall artist feeling increasingly irie with his newfound star status. Kelly's versatility is evident: He mixes romantic material with Rasta meditations and ghetto youth-oriented social commentary, and even handles production duties on a few tunes. (VP)

THE ROOTS
Phrenology
In an off year for hip-hop full-lengths, this holdover from late 2002 sounded better and better as 2003 went on. Cody ChesnuTT's procreation-fixated guest vocals birthed a crossover hit with "The Seed 2.0," while Black Thought remained impeccable lyrically, even as the Roots shied away from the softer tones of neo-soul toward a hard-edged rap 'n' roll sound that fit this year's often-chaotic mood to a T. (MCA)

PANJABI MC
Beware
Coming on the heels of Lenky Marsden's effervescent Diwali riddim -- which blended Middle Eastern melodies with infectious dancehall beats -- Panjabi MC's "Beware of the Boys" (featuring Jay-Z) was one of the tastiest singles to hit the urban scene in 2003. The Jigga-fied remix and the song's original version bookend what is easily one of the year's best-produced hip-hop albums, with a global perspective that seamlessly fuses tabla and doumbek beats with James Brown basslines. (Sequence)

KING TUBBY
The Roots of Dub and
Dub from the Roots
The dub template created by Osbourne Ruddock (aka King Tubby) has been a seminal influence on every form of electronic music that came after it, from dancehall to hip-hop to house to two-step. This crucial reissue of two of Tubby's '70s dub albums proves that nobody has yet improved on that blueprint, digital editing software and high-tech samplers notwithstanding. To paraphrase one song, this is "Dub You Can Feel." (Moll-Selekta)

DR. LONNIE SMITH WITH DAVID "FATHEAD" NEWMAN
From Boogaloo to Beck
The welcome return of the Hammond B-3 organ was heralded by this magnanimous recording, which interpreted the songs of alt.pop chameleon Beck into a boogaloo framework. In the capable hands of Dr. Smith and his assistant, tenor saxophonist Newman, this translated to an album's worth of inspired jazz-funk jams, which proved both engaging and technically brilliant. (Scufflin')

JAMES BLOOD ULMER
No Escape from the Blues
There really was no escaping the blues in its official year, although the flood of reissue compilations emphasized the storied genre's past more than its present. However, Ulmer made it clear there's still a pulse in the art form, even as Scorsese and PBS were mythologizing it. A fine companion to Ulmer's acclaimed 2001 album Memphis Blood, No Escape is highlighted by outstanding modern renditions of classics such as "Ghetto Child" and "Who's Been Talkin'." (Hyena)

VARIOUS
Bay Area Funk
Compiled from rare 45s and featuring sixteen tracks previously unavailable on CD, this collection of funky blasts from the Bay Area's past allows the casual listener to benefit from crate-digging expeditions without venturing into dank basements looking for that elusive groove. Bay Area Funk forms a reissue trinity with Luv 'n' Haight's recent releases California Soul and Inner City Sounds and is easily the best of the three, thematically and musically. (Luv 'n' Haight)

VARIOUS
Drop the Debt
Paralleling last year's Red, Hot & Riot compilation, Drop the Debt collects a plethora of artists from around the African diaspora for a common cause, in this case relief from Africa's crippling foreign debt. While perhaps not as solid from top to bottom as RH&R, it offers a fascinating look into international rhythms, as eye-opening as anything in National Geographic. If you've ever wondered what West African reggae by way of South America sounds like, look no further. (World Village)

MARK KERESMAN

ELVIS COSTELLO
North
While some might bemoan the "loss" of Elvis the erudite rocker (he still rocks in concert, at least), North finds the eclectic songster staking out new territory: the serious, haunted crooner. It's as if he set out to craft a counterpart to the 1950s romantic-angst concept album Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, but with all original songs written in the poignant, hit-and-run-over-by-love style of standards such as "One for My Baby" -- and by gum, Elvis does it. (Deutsche Grammophon)

AMY RIGBY
'Til the Wheels Fall Off
Rock 'n' roll and maturity don't often mix well -- but in Amy Rigby's case, they mutually thrive. She combines a singer-songwriter's detailed introspection with the audacity, wit, and melodic hooks of a rock 'n' roller who grew up on Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, and '60s and '70s punk rock. Wheels is the sound of a woman being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood, not going gently into middle age's good (staid) night. (Signature Sounds)

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