It’s not easy to pick the best album of a particular year. Music is the soundtrack to our lives, and it means different things to individuals depending on where they’re at when an album is released. Over the next few months I’m gonna tell you what albums we liked each year over the past ten years and I’ll also talk about your collective choice for best album each year. Anytime you narrow down entire years music down to 10 choices, you’re gonna miss some great music, and I know some of you think these types of articles are a waste of time. To you I say this:
Get over it. It’s my time I’m wasting. If you don’t wanna waste your time, don’t read.
PMA will still cover the latest music as it comes out, so you’re not missing anything there.
We see value in remembering great music from the past. Some of our readers may have missed these albums the first time around, so it’s still exposure to new music, even if it’s from 10 years ago.
I hope you enjoy this segment while it lasts, and get into the dialogue. We’ll probably nail some of your favorites and dreadfully miss others. Let us know what you think of the choices in the comments, and tell us what changes you’d make.
In the meantime, here are the picks for The Best Album of 2003. Enjoy!
Reader's Choice: OutKast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
I think collectively PMA fans are going to look at this pick and be happy with it. Saying that, I think some will think it’s completely idiotic. The funny thing about those guys, are those are the OutKast fans. The fans are the ones that seem to have written off the album as the least legit of any of OutKast catalogue. In our poll’s comments one of our readers, Purple Hulk (a "Kast" fan), says, “How is Kast winning? Any real Kast fan knows that Speakerboxxx/Love Below was Kast’s weakest album… it was garbage compared to the classics they had released previously.” You know what Purple Hulk? You're right (and a tad dramatic). This wasn’t the greatest OutKast album. Period. But it was still a top 10 release for 2003. Those two ideas can coexist because it Speakerboxxx/The Love Below wasn’tan OutKast release... well, not REALLY.
Southernplayalisticadilacmuzik, OutKast’s debut was one of the founding fathers of southern hip hop. Its thematic treatment of life as a black man in the south jarred the hip hop community with it's wit, style and candor. It was infused with political themes, and truly laid the groundwork for the southern hip hop submovement. Two years later OutKast followed up with similarly themed (and similarly awesome) ATLiens which at a base level served primarily to broaden the duo’s growing fan base. To that point, hip hop enthusiasts knew the band and considered their work groundbreaking, but OutKast hadn’t truly arrived… yet. Aquemini marked the first substantial mainstream break for the group. It climbed the Billboard 200 to #2 in the U.S.; a trend that continued with much hyped, much loved, and UBER hyped Stankonia. Suddenly (2000) the band was recognized internationally as a success: not just as southern hip hop artists, but as cross-genre hit makers. “Ms. Jackson” transcended the rappers from the solidarity of the hip hop world into pop superstardom. They rocketed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and OutKast won two Grammys. One for “Ms. Jackson” and one for Stakonia as a whole.
So here's where Purple Hulk was right. OutKast had built an empire based on southern hip hop that was completely original. It was experimental, a true development in the genre, and a badge of honor for up and coming hip hop artists everywhere. At this point, OutKast could do no wrong. They were a duo that had received every accolade a group could hope for. Where do you go from there? Well, you just change everything and break the duo up.
This is why Purple Hulk was wrong. While it’s true that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was not as powerful, political, or as catchy front to back as the duo’s previous albums (including their greatest hits album that I skipped), it should NOT be considered an actual OutKast release. In its true sense, the album is a double album… two solo albums slapped together and sold under the OutKast name. One of those albums was a Big Boi release and one was from Andre 3000. For marketing reasons they were packaged together and sold as a single album, which was initially viewed as a horrible mistake. They had dueling singles (“The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya!”), and people felt if they were going to brand themselves as solo artists, they should really do it... well... solo. But the OutKast boys weren’t interested in what everyone thought and it turned out to be a brilliant move. The dueling singles both saw #1 status on the Billboard Hot 100 and won Album of the Year from the Grammys.
The genius of the double album was that it showed where OutKast came from, what they had become, and where they were going. Big Boi maintained the formula that had worked in the past for OutKast and Andre married that style with jazz, funk, and classical elements to develop a more experimental sound. It wasn’t supposed to be an OutKast album, and that's why fans like Purple Hulk never felt it for this release like they had for previous records. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was the marriage of the old and new and although it felt completely different, that is also what made it so powerful and so successful. Ultimately you’ve gotta look at it like two solo releases, and on that merit, it was a raging success. Ultimately becoming the best selling rap album of all time and going platinum 11 times.
PMA's Choice: Sun Kil Moon: Ghosts of the GreatHighway.
Those of you that are on top of things know that this wasn’t an album featured in the Best of 2003 Poll. To those of you that care (and I won’t flatter myself and think there are many that do), I say three things: 1) I’m sorry. It doesn’t change anything, but I’m sorry. Those other albums are great… The YYYs? The Shins? I mean… I love those band’s records and they win without contest any other year. Still, I feel like I have an obligation to write about the album that I actually think is the best album of the year, so I think it’s justifiable to go rogue agent this time ‘round. 2) I promise I won’t do it again. From now on I’ll choose PMA’s album from our preselected top 10. Scout’s honor. 3) You guys had your pick and you chose OutKast. ;)
Ghosts of the Great Highway is Sun Kil Moon’s official debut record, but that's not entirely accurate. SKM’s frontman, Mark Kozelek, was a seasoned musician with plenty of experience making first-rate records long before this record came out. In the early to mid 90’s Kozelek was the lead man of critically acclaimed Red House Painters. He was known in the music world for his lyric and sweeping style. He created broad autobiographical pieces that was overtly personal... songs that were characterized by pain, heartache, and desperation. As the Red House Painters, the band released several highly regarded albums and gained a respectable amount of fame within the independent /slowcore scene.
Throughout his career, Kozelek never seemed to find peace with the music he had previously recorded, so he continually pushed the music forward. Sometimes that meant getting painfully personal, sometimes it meant covering abstract artists (AC/DC, John Denver, and KISS). Ultimately it meant doing solo work. Kozelek temporarily left the band to pursue a solo album. He returned to work on material for two more records to be released under the Red House Painters name, but his solo work was the beginning of the end. During this time RHP left their original label (which had never been all that great of a relationship), and the band released the first of the final two albums under the financially shaky Island Records. Ultimately, Island got purchased by Universal Music Group leaving Red House Painters and Kozelek without a proper home. The band released their final album under Sub Pop then dissolved and went their separate ways. Separate ways didn't last all that long, and in 2003 Kozelek and Koutsos (another original member of RHP) joined up with Geoff Stanfield and Tim Mooney to form a new and improved version of the Red House Painters: Sun Kil Moon.
Towards the end of Red House Painters' playing days, they began to get critiques of being emotionally flat. It seemed as if the critics were so used to Kozelek's consistency, they no longer knew what to critique. Kozelek, as he always did, progressed the music (with his new named band) and emphatically responded by releasing Ghosts of the Great Highway. This album, wholly written by Kozelek, turned out to be musically and lyrically brilliant. The songs were a tapestry of experimental tones and blatantly obscure name-checks, ranging from Judas Priest guitarists to failing boxers (including a mind blowing 14 minute tribute to Ray Mancini-Duk Koo Kim). It's an emotionally complex deeply personal display that wouldn't be complete without each of its 10 organic pieces.
The album was the most commercially viable of Kozelek's career, but also one of the most critically accepted album of the year. In 2003, Pitchfork's Hartley Goldstein said, "Sun Kil Moon... can be understood as a miraculous unforeseen godsend for (Kozelek's) listening audience. Instead of the album simply serving as a coda to all of Kozelek's previous incarnations, this new batch of material displays him putting to use a variety of wondrous subtle sonic touches that mark unbelievable artistic growth, unraveling unexplored harmonic territory while staying faithful to his trademark brand of languid folk-rock introspection." Interestingly enough, Kozelek himself said the formation of Sun Kil Moon was nothing more than a name change to regain critical interest in the music of Red House Painters, which worked stunningly well. In the end we're left with the music, and I don't care what the name is. What matters is that Mark Kozelek's Ghosts of the Great Highway remains one of the finest, deepest, and most complex records of the decade, and PMA's choice for Best Album of 2003... whether it's on a poll or not.
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