Best CDs of 2003

Since 1996, has listed its 10 favorite ambient/electronic (and closely related) releases of the year. This time around, thanks to a bounty of great music in 2003, the annual list has been expanded to 15. With the rise of such factors as DVD releases, online music sales (iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, Wal-Mart), grey-market downloads (Kazaa, iMesh, Soulseek) and netlabels (which gladly distribute their releases for free online), 2003 may be looked back upon as one of the last years in which the “full-length album” (define it as you wish) was the primary conduit of recorded music. It’s no coincidence that the major addition to in 2003 was the Downstream section, which annotates and links to recommended free MP3 files (and, initially, but no longer, audiostreams) each weekday. In any case, here’s Disquiet’s Top 15 for 2003. And at the risk of stating the obvious, what follows is limited to that subset of music that was recorded, packaged and made available commercially on, you know, compact discs (and additionally, in some cases, cassette, vinyl, MiniDisc, etc.). Web links are provided to the sites of the record labels and, where possible, the artists (not all electronic musicians maintain web pages, as counter-intuitive as that may seem).

  1. Some of My Best Friends Are DJs Kid Koala (Ninja Tune) Most DJs mark their musical transcendence at that point when they’ve won so many turntable battles that they must retire from competition. For Koala, getting older has meant getting purposefully slower, more thoughtful, more fascinated with moment to moment textures, as is made explicit on this deeply rewarding collection of crackly, lightly swinging, jazz-inflected hip-hop.

  2. Quartets Boxhead Ensemble (Atavistic) The Boxhead Ensemble is, if it must be categorized at all, an alt-country act, emphasis on the “alt,” who might get filed along with the Tin Hat Trio or the Dirty Three. Whereas Brian Eno was trying, in the mid 1970s, to skim the aura of pop music and leave behind the song structures and the rock gestures, the Boxhead Ensemble retains the ache of folk and country, with none of the routinized chord progressions and lyrical imagery (there’s no singing at all).

  3. Three Tales (CD and DVD set) Steve Reich (Nonesuch) Three Tales is, in truth, more of an audio-visual experience than a purely audio one, as it’s a collaboration by early minimalist Reich and his wife, video artist Beryl Korot. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderully percussive and rhythmic work, which mines three three heightened technological moments (the crash of the Hindenburg, the Atom bomb tests on the Bikini atoll in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep) for its libretto and visuals.

  4. The Civil War Matmos (Matador) If Boxhead Ensemble, above, can be heard as suctioning off the elemental ether from song-based music, then Matmos can be said to do the opposite: to take elements — in the case of The Civil War, those associated with the South, such as the hurdy gurdy, the tin whistle, the acoustic guitar — and cut them into pieces, then put them back together and nudge the reconstituted whole close to song form.

  5. The Artists and The Versions Rhythm and Sound (Asphodel) Rhythm and Sound is the duo of Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, two concept-minded German producers with an abiding affection for dub music. The Artists is their collaboration with longtime associate Paul St. Hilaire (aka Tikiman) and other singers. The Versions album is the uber-minimal Artists album made even more minimal — i.e., it removes the vocals.

  6. Live Spring Heel Jack (Thirsty Ear) Once upon a time, Spring Heel Jack made loungey electronic music with a drum’n’bass pulse. As time has gone on, the jazz flavor of that sound has come to the fore. More surprisingly, the jazz that Spring Heel Jack celebrates is among the genre’s most avant-garde and hardcore. Live is a live recording of the sort of music the duo (John Coxon, Ashley Wales) concocted in the studio on its earlier Masses and Amassed albums. It teams them with the outward bound likes of Han Bennink (drums), Evan Parker (sax), Matthew Shipp (Fender Rhodes), William Parker (bass) and J Spaceman (of the band Spiritualized, on guitar).

  7. Radio Amor Tim Hecker (Mille Plateaux) Tim Hecker can turn what sounds like a broken record into a background groove, and he can make those repetitions sound less like echoes and more like premonitions — less like a reflexive mechanical effect and more like a compositional salvo.

  8. Systems/Layers Rachel’s (Quarterstick) Though the first great generation of minimalists arose, largely, out of the musical academy (Philip Glass, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich, etc.), many of the new generation are coming out of the world of rock’n’roll, as evidenced on this collection of music for dance by the ambient-minded group Rachel’s.

  9. Rumpistol Rumpistol (Rump) Rumpistol is the name under which Danish musician Jens Berents Christiansen toys with minute hip-hop motifs, touches of dub, delicate melodies and other odds and ends. It’s one of the year’s most tunefully satisfying electronic sets.

  10. January 07003: Bell Studies for the Clock of the Long Now Brian Eno (Long Now) Brian Eno recorded this album as a fundraiser for the Long Now Foundation, an organization that is prodding individuals and institutions to consider the implications of truly long-term thinking. With that in mind, the sequence of bells that rings all so slowly on January 07003 was determined by the results of numerical permutations that looked ahead five millenium.

  11. Momemtum Monolake (Monolake / Imbalance Computer Music) As its title suggests, the latest from German solo artist Monolake is less ambient, more driven, than his earlier Cinemascope album. It’s also suprisingly rhythmically playful.

  12. Whale Rider (soundtrack) Lisa Gerrard (4AD) Lisa Gerrard helped lay the groundwork for pop ambient music as a member of Dead Can Dance, and she subsequently made remarkable achievements in film music with work on the scores to, among other films, the Michael Mann-directed Heat, The Insider and Ali, the latter two with Pieter Bourke. On Whale Rider, the story of a young Maori woman who fights for recognition as her tribe’s spiritual heir, Gerrard not only paints a minimalist background score, she also blends the tribe’s songs into the mix.

  13. Rounds Four Tet (Domino) Four Tet made a name for itself (if not for the man behind the pseudonym, Kieran Hebden) in 2003 with 10 disarmingly subtle tracks that seem designed to be set on repeat and get lost in, each one a hodgepodge construction of straightforward sounds (plunked piano, plucked strings, strummed guitar) and unassuming beats.

  14. So So (Thrill Jockey) The band called So is a duo comprised of Markus Popp (best known for his groundbreaking glitchy work with Oval and Microstoria) and Japanese vocalist Eriko Toyada. It artfully applies Oval’s familiar, dessicated digital sound to music vaguely reminiscent of what history books often refer to as “songs.”

  15. Draft 7.30 / Iss: Sa Autechre / Gescom (Warp) / (Skam) Specifics of technology and software aside, Draft 7.30 is really more of the same from the duo that’s gone the distance with glitchy computer noise and refined abstraction, but no one complains to their local Mexican restaurant that the guacamole recipe hasn’t changed much. If anything, it’s hard not to read that album title as an attempt to ward off complaints of recidivism. All of which said, Autechre’s Iss: Sa EP, released in 2003 under the Gescom pseudonym, is a more adventurous and rewarding listen. THE YEAR IN REVIEW, BRIEFLY: Some of the best ambient/electronic music filtered up through other genres, often those — classical, jazz, alt-country, indie rock — that seem most inherently un-digital, and even those that are most obedient to the unforgiving demands of song structure. Of course, hip-hop had its share of under-the-radar electronica — strip away the vocals from Fam-Lay‘s “Rock & Roll” or Fabolous‘ “Make U Mine” and you have fine downtempo tracks. (When it comes down to rapping, Missy Elliott‘s This Is Not a Test! takes top honors.)

But the most welcome news came from other quarters. Just a few tips of the many-peaked iceberg: In classical, we had Steve Reich digging deeper into the Information Age with his Three Tales (Nonesuch, number 3 above); the Sony Classical label hiring Alva Noto to remix Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s collaboration with Morelenbaum2 and Christopher O’Riley to transcribe Radiohead for piano; and independently of each other, the new music ensembles Alarm Will Sound (in New York) and the London Sinfonietta (in London) adopting the work of Warp Records artists Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Boards of Canada for classically trained musicians (both were live events, and neither has yet been released commercially).

In jazz, the Bad Plus followed suit, covering Aphex’s “Flim” on its These Are the Vistas (Columbia); Dave Douglas (on Freak In, Bluebird), Ben Neill (on Automotive, Six Degrees), Nicholas Payton (he most notably, being a former Marsalis acolyte, on Sonic Trance, Warner Bros.) and others dug into Miles Davis‘ early electric period (a period that got a canonical boost this year, thanks to the reissue of The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, on Columbia); Galactic got Dan the Automator to produce its latest, Ruckus (Sanctuary); and DJ Logic gladly lent his textural turntablism to any acoustic ensemble that rang him up.

In alt-country, the Boxhead Ensemble stripped the music of its song form and reveled in the genre’s quiet tonality on Quartets (Atavistic, number 2 above). And in indie rock, the Postal Service got much press for ditching a traditional band format in favor of the pulse and whir of gadgets, though the songs were still cloying and mopish, and made me want to dig out my old Howard Jones LPs. (And speaking of singer-songwriters, way far afield of ambient/electronic music, David Dondero‘s punk folk album The Transient, on Future Farmer, is a great way to clear the microchips out of your ears.)

Key electronic reissues this year included James Tenney‘s Selected Works 1961-1969 (on New World) and Aphex Twin‘s 26 Remixes for Cash (Warp). The year’s most significant disappointments were Luke Vibert‘s YosepH (Warp), which appeared to be retro but still managed to miss the glory of his early work (as Wagon Christ), and, to a lesser degree, Plastikman‘s Closer (Mute), which suffers from the rare situation of not being as sonically blank as some fans might have wished

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