Breaking It Down 

How to hear 2003 in 40 albums and 20 singles.

A couple of years ago, Spin cheekily proclaimed "Your Hard Drive" as Album of the Year. Perhaps it's because I'm a couple of years behind the technological curve, but 2003 was when that concept hit home. There was tons of great music this year, but I was still my own DJ savior: My favorite record of the year might be the singles mix I made in the spring, where Panjabi MC opens and closes the set while the Rapture and Electric Six go nuts, Ted Leo and the Drive-By Truckers provide definitive riffs, and Lil' Kim, Fallacy, and Killer Mike get busy on the mic. Another contender is the Timbaland's greatest-hits mix I made in the fall. And if my own 15-track, single-disc version of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below were an actual release, it would place fourth on the list below instead of the 12th place occupied by the overlong official version.

But if you still like to purchase your music in officially released order and packaging (a habit I cling to despite my mix-making prowess and one that isn't going to go away anytime soon), here are 40 albums from the past year well worth seeking out -- along with 20 singles you should download right now:

Top 40 Albums

1. Kish Kash --Basement Jaxx (Astralwerks): It seems odd in a year so desperate -- and desperately contentious -- that there was so little music that acknowledged the colossal mess the world is in, as if all of pop music colluded to deal with it by dancing our troubles away. And there was no greater house party than Kish Kash. Brit DJs Basement Jaxx decided to make one thing we could all have when it all crumbles down, and they invited a jumbled assortment of friends -- young rappers and old punks, second-tier teen-poppers and garage-rock soul belters, art-funk chanteuses and (literally) the girl next door -- to help them do it. The result: the most ecstatic and warm-hearted party record in recent memory.

2. Decoration Day --The Drive-By Truckers (New West): On his band's justifiably celebrated opus Southern Rock Opera, Trucker Patterson Hood composed musical Grit Lit on a macro level -- "The Three Great Alabama Icons," "the duality of the Southern thing," etc. On this sharper, prettier, deeper follow-up, his regional ardor is conveyed in offhand details, such as opening a song with the line "Something 'bout that wrinkle in your forehead tells me there's a fit 'bout to get thrown." Musical life partner Mike Cooley cribs his boogie riffs on "Marry Me" directly from the dread Eagles but then uses them to put across a lyric that band would never touch: "Rock-and-roll means well but it can't help telling young boys lies." And newcomer Jason Isbell proves to be the finest writer of working-class folk ballads on the planet. You don't expect an album about destroyed lives, failed marriages, and legacies of violence and regret to be invigorating. But this one is. And you don't expect modern-day trad-rock bands to make records that rival the best of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. This one did.

3. Fever To Tell --Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Interscope): On the debut full-length from the best of the current batch of New York rock bands, Nick Zinner's attention-deficit-disorder guitar spars with Karen O's Tourette's syndrome vocals in a race to finish each song -- before someone cuts off the electricity or the world ends, whichever comes first -- while drummer Brian Chase tries (successfully) to keep it all from flying apart. The result is a sad, sexy, desperate, open-hearted insta-classic and also the rare CD-age album that picks up momentum as it goes -- becoming more confident, more expansive, and more vulnerable as spontaneous noise-tunes evolve into full-fledged songs.

4. The Best of the Classic Years --King Sunny Ade (Shanachie): This master of the hypnotic, guitar-driven African dance music known as "juju" wasn't introduced to American audiences until the '80s, when he failed to become the Bob Marley-style crossover success that record-company execs imagined. But this galvanic collection, compiling choice cuts from African LPs Ade released between 1967 and 1974, suggests that American audiences had already missed out on his greatest work by then. Not too late to play catch-up.

5. Boy in Da Corner --Dizzee Rascal (XL Recordings import): This debut album from London's great hip-hop hope (who was 17 when most of it was recorded) is like a British Illmatic in its mix of high and low, hopping from tear-stained introspection to grimy gangsta rhymes. In Britain, he beat out Radiohead and Coldplay for the Mercury Prize (sort of a Grammy Album of the Year equivalent). In America? We'll find out soon. Boy in Da Corner is set for a U.S. release next month.

6. Deliverance -- Bubba Sparxxx (Interscope): Jay-Z's the best pure rapper. Outkast has the cultural clout. And Dizzee Rascal feels like the most momentous artist. But the most compelling persona in hip-hop this year may well be that of this hunting-rifle-wielding good ol' boy from La Grange, Georgia, who not only proves to be no fluke or novelty on album number two but an almost inspirational New South symbol: instinctively populist, devoid of misogyny (by commercial rap standards, anyway), his down-home wisdom carrying no reactionary aftertaste. And then there's producer Timbaland, who hooks a beat up to mountain music and converts it into hip-hop form. Inspirational verse: "They watch me in the country like the race on Sunday/And I'll wear the crown for them 'til you take it from me." Finally: Nascar rap!

7. Seven's Travels --Atmosphere (Epitaph): Sean "Slug" Dailey built his underground reputation on being the most empathetic MC in hip-hop history, but this expansive, musically rattled tour diary suggests that the only thing keeping him from being hip-hop's Dashboard Confessional is his awareness of and ambivalence over his ability to manipulate his audience, especially the pretty young things who approach him after a show. Romantic entanglements in hip-hop have never been as funny, real, or fraught with peril as on "Reflections," "Shoes," and "Lifter Puller." But would you expect anything less from a good-hearted smooth talker who uses a pickup line like "Hello ma'am, would you be interested in some sexual positions and emotional investments?" and dedicates a song to "all the depressed women in the house"?

8. Fire --Electric Six (XL/Beggar's Banquet): With their over-the-top novelty-rock driven by fluid basslines and danceable beats that indie-rock twerps don't have the chops or abandon for, these Detroit con artists made gloriously silly dance music for people who can actually, you know, dance. (Not that I'm one of those people or anything.) If Tenacious D really were the World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band, this is what they'd probably sound like.

9. Echoes -- The Rapture (Universal): Obscure indie-rock band meets hot new dance-rock production team (the DFA) resulting in classic scream-along single ("House of Jealous Lovers") and -- finally -- an album that somehow turns emotionally tortured post-punk into bump-able jeep music. The best discovery of rhythm by New York art-rockers since the Talking Heads' Remain in Light. And the best use of cowbell since "Honky Tonk Women."

10. Electric Version -- The New Pornographers (Matador): With their relay-race vocals signifying gender utopianism and giving off sparks of agape, these seven Canadians practice old-fashioned rock-and-roll as communal pop party: clipping off riffs, diving into choruses, high-stepping through bridges, and leaning hard into hairpin hooks as if they're inventing it all on the fly.

11. The Black Album --Jay-Z (Roc-a-Fella): Honey-voiced hip-hop Sinatra Jay-Z has always balanced art and commerce, but this ostensible farewell marks the first time he's let that tension become his theme -- justifying his thug while revealing his admiration for "conscious" MCs like Talib Kweli and Common. And then there's the Rick Rubin-produced "99 Problems," which deserves this clichÇd instruction more than any other music from 2003: PLAY LOUD.

12. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below --Outkast (LaFace): With Andre 3000's musical knuckleballs fluttering around the strike zone and Big Boi's vibrant P-Funk party eventually devolving into standard-issue posse cuts, this 39-track, two-hours-plus opus is essentially Sandinista! to Stankonia's London Calling: There's a great album in here somewhere, but you'll have to search for it. If only all overambitious messes could be so funny and so beatwise.

13. Justified --Justin Timberlake (Jive '02): Super-producers Timbaland and the Neptunes play the Quincy Jones role on this blue-eyed Off the Wall, but it's the cagey vocal performance of Millington's most famous showbiz kid that makes it such a startling coming-out party.

14. Til the Wheels Fall Off -- Amy Rigby (Signature Sounds): How do you explain a world in which Ryan Adams is a star and Amy Rigby is largely unknown? Are we too juvenile? Too misogynistic? How many people are out there for whom Rigby would be their personal poet laureate if only they heard her? Rigby once asked "21 Questions" (from the album Diary of a Mod Housewife -- go buy it!) but has had the decency not to quite ask those. Here she has other problems to worry about, as illustrated by her Song of the Year candidate: "Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?"

15. Ego War --Audio Bullys (Astralwerks): Cutting their techno beats and disco rhythms with hip-hop turntable scratches and scene-setting sound effects, this Brit MC/DJ duo offer up a slackers' tour of the casually lawless side of club culture.

Honorable Mention: Summer Sun --Yo La Tengo (Matador); Elephant -- The White Stripes (V2); Later That Day -- Lyrics Born (Quannum Projects); Liz Phair -- Liz Phair (Capitol); Failer -- Kathleen Edwards (Zoâ/Rounder); The Music in My Head 2 -- Various Artists (Stern's Africa '02); D-D-D-Don't Stop the Beat --Junior Senior (Atlantic); Spirit in Stone --Lifesavas (Quannum Projects); Ragga Ragga Ragga! 2003 --Various Artists (Greensleeves); Red Dirt Road --Brooks & Dunn (Arista Nashville); Monster --Killer Mike (Columbia); Indestructible -- Rancid (Hellcat); This Is Not a Test --Missy Elliott (Elektra); Mississippi: The Album --David Banner (Universal); So Stylistic --Fannypack (Tommy Boy); Love & Distortion -- Stratford 4 (Jetset); Soft Spot -- Clem Snide (spinART); Hearts of Oak -- Ted Leo & Pharmacists (Lookout!); The Rough Guide to Highlife --Various Artists (Rough Guide); Up the Bracket -- Libertines (Rough Guide); Room on Fire -- The Strokes (RCA); You Forgot It in People -- Broken Social Scene (Paper Bag); Atmosphere -- The Quails (Inconvenient); Band Red -- Kaito U.K. (spinART); Welcome Interstate Managers -- Fountains of Wayne (S-Curve/Virgin).

Top 20 Singles

1. "Danger! High Voltage" --Electric Six: Sounding like the very best parts of lots of radically different songs crammed together (disco basslines, AOR guitars, indie-punk vocals, Germfree Adolescents sax), this Frankenstein's monster of a record could well be the greatest mash-up ever made.

2. "Hey Ya!" -- Outkast: Hip-hop's most charismatic oddball concocts the sexiest rock song of the year and coins more catchphrases than an entire season of vintage Saturday Night Live.

3. "Beware of the Boys (Mundian to Bach Ke)" -- Panjabi MC featuring Jay-Z: The World's Greatest MC introduces thrilling bhangra riddim to a grateful nation.

4. "Move Your Feet" --Junior Senior: Irony collapses as sexually opportunistic Danish duo declares nuclear war on the dance floor.

5. "So Gone" -- Monica featuring Missy Elliott: Can't figure what's better: Missy exclaiming "New Monica!" at the outset as if she's opening a long-anticipated Christmas present or the star of the show threatening to drive past my house in her unmarked car (?!?). Though I guess that dense, beautiful vocal arrangement and that turntable crackle are really the best.

6. "Crazy in Love" -- Beyonce featuring Jay-Z: That Chi-lites horn sample! That syncopated vocal hook! Jay-Z as personal hype man! This is how the truly blessed make their solo move.

7. "Get Low" --Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz featuring the Ying Yang Twins: I denied this chaotic Dirty South anthem at first -- until I watched people dance to it and thus illustrate its phenomenal rhythmic complexity.

8. "Telephone" --The Stratford 4: Seven minutes of drone-pop bliss in which a mother and son exchange notes on life and mom drops the following indispensable advice: "I'll say it again though I've said it before/There's more to this life than the Stratford 4."

9. "Rock Your Body" -- Justin Timberlake: After the sonic and emotional maelstrom that was "Cry Me a River," Timberlake lightens up, riding the year's most insistent groove into disco-pop heaven.

10. "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" --Ted Leo & Pharmacists: A passionate tribute to British ska and punk done with Thin Lizzy guitars? Whatever works.

Honorable Mention: "Gay Bar" --Electric Six; "The Jump Off" --Lil' Kim; "All the Things She Said" --t.a.T.u.; "A.D.I.D.A.S." -- Killer Mike; "All You Need Is Hate" --Delgados; "Pass That Dutch" -- Missy Elliott; "Right Thurr" --Chingy; "Like Glue" --Sean Paul; "Big 'N' Bashy" --Fallacy; "Red Dirt Road" --Brooks & Dunn.

E-mail: herrington@memphisflyer.com

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