Top 10 Albums of 2003
A significant year in rock history by any measure, 2003 marked the nominal dawn of the digital music age with the launch of the iTunes music store, while simultaneously yielding a rich crop of soon-to-be classic long playing albums, primed and ready to wage battle against the forces of individual downloads. Just take a look at our impressively diverse selection comprising the Top 10 Albums of 2003 and we’re pretty sure you’ll agreed full-length albums, as a format and state of mind, will never be entirely dethroned.
Narrowly edging out a very fine debut from the shortlived supergroup that was Brides of Destruction comes The Darkness’ picture-perfect resurrection of beloved classic rock values on their 2003 debut, ‘Permission to Land.’ Yes, Justin Hawkins’ falsettos take some getting used to, and less discerning observers erroneously lumped the band into a “glam metal” category, based on wardrobe choices alone, but anyone who listened immediately recognized The Darkness’ bombastic but pure amalgam of Queen, AC/DC, Van Halen and Thin Lizzy.
After nearly a decade of personal recriminations and diminishing musical returns, Iron Maiden welcomed back long estranged vocalist Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith and pulled off one of the most triumphant returns-to-form in rock history, with 2000’s stunning ‘Brave New World’ album. But perhaps even more impressive was how the hallowed heavy metal institution made it two-for-two, just three years later, with the nearly-as-excellent ‘Dance of Death,’ boasting an all-time classic in the epic ‘Paschendale,’ and easily qualifying for our list of Top 10 Albums of 2003.
Though their record label astutely positioned them as “The Southern Strokes,” easing their adoption by droves of easily hoodwinked indie rock fans, Kings of Leon were really essentially channeling the ghosts of deep-fried southern rock on their 2003 debut, ‘Youth & Young Manhood.’ And while they would duly accept the commercial blessings of the hipster world, while continually experimenting with new styles on subsequent LPs, the precocious Followill foursome radiated nothing but raw, unfettered enthusiasm here, spiked by the holy-roller fervor inherited from their preaching father.
After taking a twenty-year hiatus assumed, by everyone including themselves, to be a de facto retirement, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen resurrected Steely Dan in all it’s pristine jazz-rock glory on 2000’s ‘Two Against Nature,’ then hit the road for the first time in 30 years! Just three years later, the dynamic duo were back with another sterling offering in ‘Everything Must Go,’ and while both title and songs suggested a relatively rushed completion of ideas leftover from their previous album sessions, Steely Dan, even short of full-strength, is still Steely Dan!
King Crimson’s 13th and, as of this writing, most recent studio album found Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew and company in fighting form, exuding every ounce of the restless invention and ruthless attack that qualified their most influential albums and made them the most unpredictable cornerstone in progressive rock’s first generation. Indeed, ‘tis often said there are progressive rock bands and then there is King Crimson, and we believe ‘The Power to Believe’ is a great reminder of said distinction.
Until he was forced into semi-retirement himself by a mid-tour heart attack, David Bowie had been churning out reliably eclectic albums at a fair clip throughout the 1990s, culminating in his 23rd and final (until 2013’s ‘The Next Day’), ‘Reality.’ Aptly named for its surprisingly compact and under-embellished songcraft, ‘Reality,’ paired Bowie with his one-time producer of choice, Tony Visconti, and, at its best, successfully harked back to their greatest collaboration of yesteryear, ‘Scary Monsters’ – minus the paranoid fog of substance abuse.
You could safely say that the elder statesmen of Southern rock were effectively reborn on this, their 12th studio album, where they welcomed guitar wunderkind Derek Trucks – son of founding drummer Butch – into the “family,” and wowed even the biggest cynics. Simply put, ‘Hittin’ the Note’ is arguably the most impressive and authentic-sounding Allmans LP since the tellingly named ‘Brothers and Sisters,’ 30 years earlier - showing that, in some bands, family ties really do make all the difference.
This may be the most controversial choice amongst our Top 10 Albums of 2003, but, as with The Strokes, we can’t really help it if the White Stripes’ obviously classist blues-rock primitivism was coopted as indie rock for the benefit of listeners too young to experience the real thing, first time around. The bottom line is Jack and Meg White owe the bulk of their sonic influences to classic rock sources (by way of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and, with ‘Elephant,’ they probably introduced more kids to their parents’ music than, well, their parents managed to.
An album that doubled as both obituary and bittersweet victory lap for a songwriter’s songwriter, ‘The Wind’ was recorded under the shroud of Warren Zevon’s terminal cancer diagnosis, with the aid of a veritable parade of superstar friends including Don Henley, Ry Cooder and Bruce Springsteen. And was it remotely surprising that the inevitability of Warren’s demise only seemed to fuel the master of observational black humor to creative heights not witnessed since is late ‘70s career peak? Not at all…rest in peace, Mr. Zevon.
Now, we don’t typically consider live albums when compiling these lists, but when it came to the Top Albums of 2003, we found it hard to ignore the billboard-sized magnitude represented by Led Zeppelin. Especially since ‘How the West was Won’ delivered such a definitive document of the Zep live experience (supplanting the perhaps unfairly critiqued ‘The Song Remains the Same’) and, by extension, the classic rock era as a whole, that there was no place other than at the top of this list.