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Halftime Report

Ten Albums Worth Mentioning From the First Half of 2003

Archived Report(s): Best of 2000-2004 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002

Posted: July 7, 2003

Well, the first half of 2003 has passed into our rearview mirror, leaving us to look back on a time of war, uncertainty and ever-present dread. Yes, the Recording Industry Association of America has taken up arms against music downloaders, Metallica has returned from hibernation with an absolute stinker of an album, and as yet there's no reason to believe that Madonna will shut up and go away (although to most of us, it certainly seems as if she already has). But there's a lot to appreciate about the year so far, as well. Our crack team of historians here at Shaking Through -- okay, so it's really just Laurence Station and myself -- have combed over the significant music releases of the last twelve fortnights or so, and we've come up with a list of albums that give us hope for the future of the music industry. We've left out some higher-profile albums (Hail to the Thief, for instance) that don't need our help, focusing instead on ten discs you may not have heard but that we feel are deserving of your attention. So go out and buy (that's right, buy) one or two (or ten) of 'em, and let us know what you think, or send us your own list of the year's best so far. In the meantime, here's wishing you a happy second half. -- Kevin Moreau, Head Coach

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Master and Everyone (Drag City)

Will Oldham, performing as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, doesn't make music for the 21st century. His songs come from a much older period, a time of rural isolation and violent encounters, where love and death are inextricably intertwined and blood is the primary currency. Master and Everyone transports the listener to a place that Cormac McCarthy's characters would find grave confederacy with.

Calexico: Feast of Wire (Quarterstick)

Building on the sonic blueprint first conceived by composer Ennio Morricone, Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino add a social conscience into the mix. Feast of Wire is the Tucson, AZ-based band's best achievement to date.

Califone: Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey)

Bizarre Americana blazes to life courtesy of one of Chicago's most interesting and musically inventive bands. Quicksand/Cradlesnakes is at its best hinting at loss and regret, teasing the listener with odd percussive bursts and strange carnival sounds as it presents a travelogue of the oddly beautiful freaks decorating America's heartland.

Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West)

Proving that the much-acclaimed Southern Rock Opera was no fluke, the Athens-based Truckers deliver a tighter, more consistent collection that touches on love, death, blood and regret with impressive depth and clarity. The classic three-guitar Southern Rock sound lays a blue-collar blueprint for tunes both pissed-off and poignant.

Eels: Shootenanny! (Dreamworks)

The musical structures are more subdued than on past Eels efforts, the better to match frontman E's deadpan, often droll meditations on the unbearable darkness of being. "Somebody Loves You" aside, E's too smart to sugarcoat these depressing tales with fairy dust, although the record rings with a stoic, almost hopeful resignation to keep going.

Guster: Keep It Together (Palm/Reprise)

The Massachusetts-based trio delivers a platter of indelible melodies more contagious than the common cold. Together lacks the occasional sparks of artistry that distinguished 1999's Lost and Gone Forever, but its tuneful charms are no less difficult to resist.

The Microphones: Mount Eerie (K)

Main Microphone Phil Elvrum goes on a cosmically contemplative expedition, and what he finds at the top of the summit may be a little too head-trippy for most. Still, his brazen willingness to venture where other artists don't is refreshing.

Mull Historical Society: Us (Blanco y Negro/Beggars Banquet)

One-man band Colin MacIntyre builds on the promises inherent in his bedroom-pop debut Loss. Us doesn't quite deliver on MacIntyre's promise as a songwriter and singer, but its breezy tunes set the stage for a pure-pop masterpiece that suggests the unholy union of Brian Wilson and Badly Drawn Boy.

Songs: Ohia: Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian)

If Didn't It Rain was Jason Molina's Nebraska -- a stretch, we know, but go with us on this one -- then Magnolia Electric Co. is his Born in the U.S.A.: a powerful, rocking ramble through the Midwest. The sound is bigger, the hooks more memorable, the rock-band vibe accentuated. The result is his best album to date.

The Thorns: The Thorns (Aware/Columbia)

Three overlooked singer-songwriters -- Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins and Matthew Sweet -- combine their strengths to create an oh-so-slightly-guilty pleasure. If the songs ultimately prove less important than the crystalline three-part harmonies they're written to support, they still add up to an imminently enjoyable (and hummable) summer pop record.

Albums We're Looking Forward To:

Enon: Hocus Pocus (Touch and Go) (September)

Last year's excellent High Society raised the bar for this New York-based outfit. We're curious to hear whether or not Hocus Pocus blasts them beyond the critical and popular stratosphere.

The Fire Theft (Rykodisc) (September)

Three of the four former members of Sunny Day Real Estate reunite. Will the new album continue in the progressive vein of SDRE's last album (The Rising Tide), or veer off into an entirely new direction?

Modest Mouse (Sony) (September)

Following-up the excellent Moon and Antarctica has to be intimidating enough. Throw in a new drummer and you've got a recipe for a stumble. But Isaac Brock's track record so far has us hedging our bets that Modest Mouse will still deliver the goods.

OutKast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (LaFace) (August)

The idea of twin solo albums from Andre 3000 and Big Boi (and let's face it, that's what this double-disc set amounts to) could prove disastrous, but we're still interested in hearing where hip-hop's brightest innovators are headed, alone or together.

Josh Rouse: 1972 (Rykodisc) (August)

The critically respected singer-songwriter ruminates on the year of his birth. Song samples from Rykodisc's website confirm a seriously retro vibe.

Super Furry Animals: Phantom Power (XL) (July)

Will the Welsh quintet return to the offbeat pop experiments that dominated their pre-Rings Around the World work, or further refine a more conventional pop approach?

Ween: Quebec (Sanctuary) (August)

Early signs indicate that this long-awaited follow-up to 2000's polished White Pepper may return to the overtly lysergic antics for which this duo is best known.

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