In 2003, everyone got to pick their favorite brand of retro

It's been said that we live in an age of such instant nostalgia that people will videotape an event, watch it five minutes later, and wistfully coo things like, "Remember when I did that?"

Certainly, pop culture has never done more gazing at its own ungainly caboose than in the last few years. You truly don't know the meaning of torture until you've seen someone like LeAnn Rimes gushing on one of those VH1 "I Love the '80s" shows about her memories of Cabbage Patch dolls, as if she were recalling the invention of the steam engine.

Maybe it's pure coincidence, but so much of what passed for contemporary music in 2003 - particularly in so-called alternative rock - was really about the flavor of retro you fancied the most. Courtney Love, for one, has insisted that the fate of the Western world hinges on young record buyers (make that young downloaders) choosing the Strokes over the macho chest thumping of bands like Limp Bizkit. While it's true that Fred Durst may be rock's worst excuse for inbreeding since Kevin Dubrow stopped feeling the noize, the Strokes simply don't fit in those oversized rock savior shoes. They're a fun pastiche of Television/the Voidoids; the way Interpol is a self-important pastiche of Joy Division; the way Hot Hot Heat is a lively pastiche of the Cure; the way this year's Ryan Adams is a self-mythologizing pastiche of the Smiths and Nirvana, while last year's Ryan Adams was a self-mythologizing pastiche of every earnest '70s singer-songwriter. And while the garage-rock revival has definitely put some juice in the music scene, it's swiftly moving from nostalgic to cannibalistic, with bands like Jet cloning the imitators.

Of course, to some degree, pop music has always been like this: you start out by identifying your heroes and trying to reproduce the way they sound. At its best, though, pop has been able to absorb its past and emerge with something fresh and forward-looking - the way Brian Wilson could take the Four Freshmen and Phil Spector and concoct something groundbreaking.

It's no surprise that so many young artists are infatuated with the past. What's discouraging is the rampant willingness to settle for mimicry, without imposing any kind of original voice or sensibility. Fortunately, there were a few exceptions to this rule, and the following discs headed the class:


Outkast, The Love Below/Speakerboxx (Arista): Sure, it's an unruly mess (and that's even before you get to Big Boi's 19-song disc), but this kind of wild, unfettered inspiration rarely comes in neat, organized packages. Big Boi's Speakerboxx has its sonic pleasures, but these two solo albums reveal Andre 3000 to be a charismatic funk oddball in the spirit of Sly Stone, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Prince. Along the way, he prays to God for a "sweet bitch," takes Coltrane (and Julie Andrews) into the drum 'n' bass era with a jazzy cover of "My Favorite Things," and bests Beyoncé for ubiquitous hook of the year with "Hey Ya."


The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop): Shimmering baroque pop that defies definition, but connects anyway. More meditative and acoustic than this Portland/Albuquerque quartet's promising 2001 debut, on tracks like "So Says I" and "Kissing the Lipless," they suggest where the Zombies might have gone after Odessey and Oracle.

White Stripes, Elephant (Third Man): Jack White could probably use some anger management therapy, but his mastery of raw, blues-based rock reached a peak with this record, partly because he dared to tamper with the formula. Abrupt tempo shifts and Burt Bacharach covers are not the lifeblood of Delta blues traditionalists, but White makes it sound seamless. And his ability to crank out killer riffs on demand ("Seven Nation Army" and "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" ) rivals Jimmy Page at his double-neck peak.


Rufus Wainwright, Want (Dreamworks): The Canuck boy prince of pop makes his grandest statement with the first volume of a two-part song cycle. Like few modern records, Want had a dramatic arc, beginning with a self-destructive, self-pitying Wainwright lost in confusion, and slowly lifting itself out of the fog into some kind of self-realization. His willfully fey, operatic pretensions scare off some indie rockers, but he's got the talent and vision to match his sizable ego.


New Pornographers, Electric Version (Matador): Add alt-country chanteuse Neko Case to a collection of Canadian power-pop nerds, and the result is pure alchemy. While it can't match the element of surprise that made 2000's Mass Romantic such a left-field delight, it's more potent and confident. "The Laws Have Changed" gives Case her well-deserved showcase here, but "It's Only Divine Right" is the real highlight, a deceptively complex (like most of their songs) piece of melodic bliss that might be the most perfect pop construction of the year.


Wyclef Jean, The Preacher's Son (J): The former Fugee regains his equilibrium with a heartfelt reflection on his youth, family, and close friends. Culture-hopping from dancehall reggae to salsa to R&B balladry, he defines the whole enterprise as hip-hop, and expands the genre's boundaries. "Party to Damascus," the Missy Elliott collaboration, deftly jumped on hip-hop's flirtation with Eastern modalities, and "Take Me As I Am" (with Sharissa giving it her most convincing Lauryn Hill) shows how soulful his singing can be when the material matches up.


Junior Senior, D-D-Don't Stop the Beat (Atlantic): A campy Danish duo (one gay, one straight) who spend 32 minutes alternately taunting each other over their differing sexualities and leading absurdly simple-minded Scandinavian party exhortations. These self-proclaimed "rhythm bandits" are so besotted with American pop that it makes perfect sense for them to ape the Ramones one minute and Tom Tom Club the next. "Chicks and Dicks" is their declaration of intent, "Shake Your Coconuts" is their big political statement, and the impossibly catchy "Move Your Feet" is the sports-arena dance anthem that fufills their deepest fantasies.


Eels, Shootenanny! (Dreamworks): Mark Everett might be too prolific for his own good, which probably explains why this swift followup to the dark masterpiece Souljacker dropped like a tree in an uninhabited forest. By Everett's cynical standards, this is life-affirming stuff, with an acknowledgement that these might be "The Good Old Days," its naked pleas for the "Love of the Loveless," and its unironic assurance that "Somebody Loves You." Album highlight: the rocking "Saturday Morning," easily the best song ever written about a child's weekend suburban boredom.


Shelby Lynne, Identity Crisis (Capitol): Recovering from the bloated Glen Ballard-produced Love, Shelby, Lynne took control, and produced a low-key, front-porch classic. With "Telephone" (a song of regret about a drunken, late-night call) and "10 Rocks" (an existential gospel wailer), she delivers on her songwriting promise, and the acoustic tone of the record leads her away from the blues-mama vocal excesses that have marred some of her previous work.


Neptunes, Present ... Clones (Arista): Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have been overworked and overhyped of late, which didn't bode well for this collection of guest-star cameos. But the Neptunes' seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of off-kilter beats makes this the strongest single-disc testament to their skills. Between Kelis' bouncy "Popular Thug," Nelly's surprisingly effective "If," and Snoop Dogg's love song to the chronic ("It Blows My Mind"), they show how inventive commercial R&B and hip-hop can get in 2003. Extra points for the following Snoop couplet: "Bob Marley reincarnated/pupils dilated." •

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