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Top Ten

The Year in Music

Jay-Z, Little Brother, OutKast, Stephen Malkmus, The White Stripes and more

Retired or Just Tired?: Jay-Z goes out on top with The Black Album.

Top Ten 2003

The Year in News O'Malley vs. Ehrlich, Public Housing Segregation Trial, Computer Voting, Baltimore's Primary Election, and More

The Year in Quotes Bon Mots by Joy Martin, Martin O'Malley, Keiffer Mitchell, Miss Maryland and Others

The Year in Film Another year, another intro essay bitching about the past 12 months of cinema...

The Year on Television So now it's official, there are two kinds of television: the kind you watch, and the kind you gawk at...

The Year in Music Jay-Z, Little Brother, OutKast, Stephen Malkmus, The White Stripes and more

The Year in Local Music Urban Ave 31, DJ Debonair, Misery Index, Lungfish, Richard Chartier and more

The Year in Art "Work Ethic" at the BMA, "Imperfect Innocence" at the Contemporary, Performance Video at UMBC, and Other Remarkable Shows

The Year in Books The Cadaver Industry; a Meditation on Race, Music, Family and Postwar America; Growing Up in the Bronx, and More

The Year on Stage Hedda Gabler, Dickens of a Carol, Misalliance, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Other Great Performances

The Year in Food Grilled Sardines, She-Crab Soup, Spicy Tuna Tartare, Pierogi and Other Memorable Morsels

Posted 12/17/2003

It's only the second song on his eighth and allegedly final joint, The Black Album, and Jay-Z's bruising verbal ballet is already combining Mick Jagger swagger and Donald Trump pomp into one cucumber-cool-jerk workout. "There's never been a nigga this good for this long/ This hood, or this pop, this hot, or this strong," he boasts in the opening salvo of "What More Can I Say?," and even as such hubris ricochets around the skull, you jaw-droppingly realize he's still got 10 more ego trips to go.

And so, yeah--Jay-Z is leaving the building. He's hanging up his microphone, and he's going out on top--as the only nonathlete ever to land a shoe deal (Reebok), as co-capo with Damon Dash in his Roc-a-Fella empire, overseeing clubs, Armadale vodka, a clothing line, and the label. He's the only guy ready for Beyoncé's jelly. And he's smack dab at the top of City Paper's annual album of the year poll. In the seven years since he debuted with 1996's Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z recast pop success in his own image.

While businessmen retiring less than a decade into their fortunes are wily geniuses, artists need a damn good reason. And Jay-Z's sounds weak: He's not feeling hip-hop anymore. He's not inspired. He's tired of the game.

Ever the hustler, Jay-Z's spinning the truth and, as usual, he got there a step or two ahead of the pack. Let's call an inspiration drought exactly what it is: boredom. Jay's checking out because he's just plain uninterested in it. And in hindsight this entire year was one long yawn to Jay-Z's cocky curtain call. Boredom prevailed over 2003, and 2004 better call for an adrenaline shot, stat.

We're not saying 2003 was a bad music year--suck years at least give you something to hate--just a bland one, a single scoop of vanilla emotion in a cup. Thug-life rapper and 2003 singles-chart heat-seeker 50 Cent mumbles words like he's mouthing text-messages to a pal. The pretty, inoffensive Norah Jones swept the Grammys with five statuettes, though you shouldn't listen to Come Away With Me without a defibrillator nearby. Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba is still the tattoo-sleeved pretty boy of emo, though telling the emo pretty boys apart is harder than guessing the ethnic makeup of the Brooklyn jailbait in Fannypack. Coldplay--the very name is beige on beige. Sting wooed the Martha Stewarts of the world while John Mayer eyed their daughters. New York unleashed its annual fashion-week soundtracks--the Strokes' Richard Hell hand-me-downs, the Yeahs Yeah Yeahs' cheeky sleaze, the Rapture's T-shirt tough. It's all so very . . . well, you know. And, boy, is Justin Timberlake's quest to make white the new black just one of the most exciting careers to watch or what?

Even the so-called scandals were as tepid as a kiddie pool. R. Kelly likes it wet, the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines wasn't nice to President Bush, Jessica Simpson is flighty, Liz Phair likes man-juice, a stoned Ryan Adams is still a prick, Courtney Love behaved poorly in public, and Madonna slipped Britney some tongue. Shocking, the lot of it. About the only thing that got mass musical audiences excited was American Idol's Clay Aiken vs. Ruben Studdard showdown, aka please-kill-me-now Tuesdays.

(You want to talk shocking? How about New York marathoner Sean "P. Diddy" Combs? Not because he raised $2 million for charity by finishing, but that P. Diddy ran anywhere.)

Sure, a few signs o f life bubbled up from the tedium, primarily from hip-hop singles and OutKast and Missy Elliott, who continue to defy every convention by daring to have fun. Still, what else can you say about a year in which the most personal and movingly political album came from a dead man (Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros' Streetcore), or a year during which June Carter and Johnny Cash and Barry White left the planet, the Stooges re-entered it, and the terribly terrestrial travails of Michael Jackson garner more rock-writing ink? Yawn.

Whether or not Jay's retirement proves to be an Air Jordan bounce or a truly Duchampian adieu remains to be seen, but bet the cash money on one thing: It won't quite be the same without him. (Bret McCabe)

(The following list was determined by a rigorous voting process featuring ballots from CP staffers and contributors Tom Breihan, Ryan Boddy, Raymond Cummings, Michael Alan Goldberg, Geoffrey Himes, Bret McCabe, Felicia Pride, Craig Smith, Tony Ware, Felicia Wilks, and Mikael Wood. See the individual ballots below.)


Jay-Z The Black Album (Def Jam) While Jay-Z's retirement is as guaranteed as Too Short or Master P's short-lived rap exoduses, his "final" album was almost as rousing as any he's crafted. Treating things like a swan song, Jigga's candid commentary finds him secretly wanting to slang couplets like Common and finding forgiving words for his troubled and deceased pops on the Eminem-produced "Moment of Clarity." Jay enlisted beatmaker faves like Just Blaze and Kanye West with unsurprisingly stirring results, but also invited newcomers like Little Brother's 9th Wonder to helm tracks. Toss in Rick Rubin's glorious rap return with "99 Problems" and it's another Hova hit. (Craig Smith)


Little Brother The Listening (ABB) Bling free and sample heavy, this year's choicest long player came from North Carolina hip-hop trio Little Brother. With fluid tag-team rhymers Phonte and Big Pooh, along with budding beat superstar 9th Wonder, The Listening was crafted for only a couple grand and big upped by ?uestlove and even MTV. The group takes hip-hop to heart with introspective verses and impassioned, soulful soundscapes. On the title track, Little Brother wonders aloud about its prospects in a world where crunk is king, "They say the shit we talk about ain't interestin'." Giving hip-hop hope, they're among music's most engaging new acts. (CS)


OutKast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (La Face) When OutKast's fifth album finally dropped after months of delays, debate ensued about which of the two discs was more the continuation of the group's pinnacle, the eclectric clatter of 2000's Stankonia, though all agreed neither disc stank. Capable of being both seismic and sublime, Big Boi and Andre3000 produced another set of anthems for hip-hop's undiluted iconoclasts; a sign o' the times, crunked up, never backing down, drawing influences from all around. (Tony Ware)


Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks Pig Lib (Matador) Like competitors in a Special Olympics 200-yard dash, everyone involved with Pig Lib emerged as a winner. Stephen Malkmus' faithful, talented Jicks--Joanna Bohme, John Moen, and Mike Clark--got to join him on the marquee; fans who bought the first 25,000 copies scored a bonus disc of halcyon, nonalbum wizardry; and Malk himself began to indulge a well-documented obsession with prog rock. The snark is tempered, the jams take center stage, and the journey, we pray, can only get weirder. (Raymond Cummings)


The White Stripes Elephant (V2) Celebrate the creeping bass lines, the glorious multitracked vocals, and the wobbly-ass organ parts all you want; the real thrill of the White Stripes' fourth album was hearing Jack and Meg White move out of their little room into a bigger, even weirder one: movie-star girlfriend, mysterious car accident, a video on MTV with Kate Moss pole dancing in "arty" black-and-white, and surreal, paranoid, occasionally heartbreaking tunes to reflect them all. Not to mention the greatest recorded instance of the word "Wichita" since Glen Campbell needed a small vacation. (Mikael Wood)


Sean Paul Dutty Rock (Atlantic) Even if you can't understand a lick of what Sean Paul says, Dutty Rock's exceptionally diverse production and Paul's delivery translates to universal appeal. Without risking his dancehall king stature, Paul offers one of the year's hottest R&B duets with Beyoncé on "Baby Boy." Dutty's most impressive feature, however, is Paul's ability to reunite hip-hop with its older cousin, dancehall. On songs such as "Shout," "Like Glue," and "Bubble" Paul finds a modern intersection where the two genres blend easily without sounding like flat crossover attempts. (Felicia Wilks)


Postal Service Give Up (Sub Pop)The sound of sunlight bending, fog refracting, leaves falling upward, the Postal Service is that rare side project that improves on its members' main projects (Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and DNTEL's Jimmy Tamborello). Give Up is what all emo should be but never is: sharp, woozy, clever, gut-wrenching, hopeful, gorgeous, unafraid to have a fucking beat. This very moment, that little chump from Saves the Day is scratching his head and trying to figure out Pro-Tools. (Tom Breihan)


Drive-By Truckers Decoration Day (New West)On 2001's Southern Rock Opera, the Drive-By Truckers meditated on their two main influences, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young and Crazy Horse; on this year's Decoration Day, the Alabama quintet comes up with an album either of those role models would be proud to claim. Ignoring the trends of New York, London, and L.A., the Truckers focus on the sounds and stories of their own turf and, paradoxically, create something universal. Every musician would be wise to absorb the advice of the album's best song, "Outfit": "Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/ Don't ever say your car is broke/ Don't sing with a fake British accent/ Don't act like your family's a joke." (Geoffrey Himes)


Twilight Singers Blackberry Belle (One Little Indian) Is former Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli on track to be America's Serge Gainsbourg? A soused, red-nosed rambler live, Dulli occupies a dusky sepia-toned vignette he so perfectly captures on Twilight Singers' swooning sophomore album, Blackberry Belle. You can practically feel the groove's grain and the neck's pulsing vein as Dulli belts delirious, darkly erotic tales of decadence and desperation over his amorphous assemblage's devilish harmonic swagger. At least a Leonard Cohen on his way to being a Dirty Old Man, national-treasure status as a prowling balladeer may just be in store for Dulli if he continues at this rate. (TW)


R. Kelly Chocolate Factory (Jive) How did he do it? In the face of allegations of sexual misconduct, R. Kelly released one of the year's most successful and overtly sexual albums. Even when he's not pushing boundaries both creative and ethical, Kelly soars above his peers with his impressive ballads ("Forever," "I'll Never Leave") and the thinly veiled sexual innuendo of songs like "Ignition" and "Chocolate Factory," largely because of his lyric's simple genius, his extraordinary vocal command, and his solid songwriting and production. (FW)

The Complete Ballots:

Ryan Boddy
1. Califone Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey)
2. TV On the Radio Young Liars (Touch and Go)
3. Graham Lindsey Famous Anonymous Wilderness (Catamount)
4. Pleasure Forever Alter (Sub Pop)
5. Japanther Leather Wings (Leather Wings)
6. Mars Volta Deloused in the Comatorium (GSL)
7. Dead Meadow Shivering King and Others (Matador)
8. Subtitle I'm Always Recovering from Tomorrow (GSL)
9. Year Future self-titled (GSL)
10. Frog Eyes The Golden River (Animal World)

Tom Breihan
1. Postal Service Give Up (Sub Pop)
2. Grand Buffet Pittsburgh Hearts (Grand Buffet)
3. Jay-Z The Black Album (Roc-a-Fella)
4. The Rapture Echoes (Universal)
5. Rancid Indestructible (Warner)
6. Spiritualized Amazing Grace (Arista)
7. Atmosphere Seven's Travels (Rhymesayers)
8. Bubba Sparxxx Deliverance (Universal)
9. Richard X Presents His X-Factor (Astralwerks)
10. Fannypack So Stylistic (Tommy Bouy)

Raymond Cummings
1. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks Pig Lib (Matador)
2. Sightings Absolutes (Load)
3. The Microphones Mount Eerie
4. Lightning Bolt Wonderful Rainbow (Load)
5. Belle & Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
6. Neil Michael Hagerty The Howling Hex (Drag City)
7. Skullflower Exquisite Fucking Boredom (Tumult)
8. Jeff Hanson Son (KRS)
9. Cursive The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek)
10. Radiohead Hail to the Thief (Capitol)

Michael Alan Goldberg
1. Four Tet Rounds (Domino)
2. Damien Jurado Where Shall You Take Me? (Secretly Canadian)
3. Adult. Anxiety Always (Ersatz Audio)
4. Lyrics Born Later That Day . (Quannum Projects)
5. Various Artists Desert Sessions Volume 9 & 10 (Ipecac)
6. Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham L'Avventura (Jetset)
7. DJ Krush The Message at the Depth (Red Ink)
8. Manitoba Up in Flames (Domino)
9. The Robot Ate Me They Ate Themselves (Standard Recording)
10 Essential Logic Fanfare in the Garden (Kill Rock Stars)

Geoffrey Himes
1. The Carla Bley Big Band Looking for America (WATT/ECM)
2. Drive-By Truckers Decoration Day (New West)
3. Jason Moran Bandwagon (Blue Note)
4. The Bottle Rockets Blue Sky (Sanctuary)
5. Don Rigsby The Midnight Call (Sugar Hill)
6. Matthew Shipp Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear)
7. Bettie Serveert Log 22 (Palomine/Hidden Agenda)
8. Anthony Hamilton Comin' from Where I Am (Arista)
9. The Del McCoury Band It's Just the Night (McCoury/Sugar Hill)
10. Smashmouth Get the Picture (Interscope)

Bret McCabe
1. Twilight Singers Blackberry Belle (One Little Indian)
2. Ted Leo/ Pharmacists Hearts of Oak (Lookout!)
3. U.S. Maple Purple on Time (Drag City)
4. Menomena I am the Fun Blame Monster (Muuuhahaha!)
5. Khanate Things Viral (Southern Lord)
6. Brother Ali Shadows of the Sun (Rhymesayers)
7. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros Streetcore (Hellcat)
8. The Bug Pressure (Meow)
9. Quasi Hot Shit (Touch and Go)
10. Need New Body UFO (File 13)

Felicia Pride
1. Outkast Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below (La Face)
2. R.Kelly Chocolate Factory (Jive)
3. Jean Grae The Botleg of the Bootleg EP (Babygrande)
4. Me'shell Ndegeocello Comfort Woman (Maverick)
5. Jay-Z The Black Album (Def Jam)
6. Anthony Hamilton Comin From Where I'm From (Arista)
7. Little Brother Listening (ABB)
8. Prince Paul Politics of the Business (Razor and Tie)
9. Dwele Subject (Virgin)
10. 50 Cent Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Interscope)

Craig Smith
1. Little Brother The Listening (ABB)
2. Styles Of Beyond Megadef (Spytech/Ill Boogie)
3. Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf Big Shots (Stones Throw)
4. Outkast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (LaFace)
5. The White Stripes Elephant (V2)
6. Jay-Z The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella)
7. Juggaknots Clear Blue Skies (Third Earth Music)
8. Bubba Sparxxx Deliverance(Beat Club/Interscope)
9. Lifesavas Spirit In Stone (Quannum)
10. Pete Rock Hip-Hop Underground Soul Classics (BBE)

Tony Ware
1. M83 Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (Gooom/Labels)
2. Sun Kil Moon Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jetset)
3. Danger Mouse & Jemini Ghetto Pop Life (Lex)
4. Wrens Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)
5. Barbara Morgenstern Nichts Muss (Monika/Labels)
6. The Darkness Permission to Land (Atlantic)
7. Manitoba Up In Flames (Domino)
8. Four Tet Rounds (Domino)
9. Twilight Singers Blackberry Belle (One Little Indian)
10. New Pornographers Electric Version (Matador)

Felicia Wilks
1. Sean Paul Dutty Rock (Atlantic)
2. Erykah Badu Worldwide Underground (Motown)
3. R. Kelly Chocolate Factory (Jive Records)
4. Black Eyed Peas Elephunk (Interscope)
5. Gang Starr The Ownerz (Virgin)
6. Outkast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (LaFace)
7. Neptunes The Neptunes Presents (Star Trak/ Arista)
8. The White Stripes Elephant (V2)
9. 50 Cent Get Rich or Die Tryn' (Aftermath Records)
10. Jay-Z The Black Album (Def Jam)

Mikael Wood
1. Madonna American Life (Maverick)
2. Jay-Z The Black Album (Roc-a-Fella)
3. Junior Senior D-D-Don't Don't Stop the Beat (Atlantic)
4. Black Eyed Peas Elephunk (A&M)
5. The White Stripes Elephant (V2)
6. Brad Paisley Mud on the Tires (Arista Nashville)
7. Belle & Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
8. Liz Phair Liz Phair (Capitol)
9. Drive-By Truckers Decoration Day (New West)
10. T.A.T.U. 200 Km/H in the Wrong Lane (Interscope)

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Top Ten archives

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The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.

The Year in News (12/9/2009)

The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)

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