Can you dig it?

Aesop Rock
Bazooka Tooth
Definitive Jux

This Manhattan underdog blasted through with a musical gem this fall. Shaking up the underground masses, Bazooka Tooth challenges critics’ notions that hip-hop is reaching its inevitable demise. With no lyrical boundaries, Aesop exudes an aura of pervasive energy in every rhyme he recites.

His statements ring loud and long after the music stops. Aesop’s album is spliced with highly unusual samples, creating songs that surpass those of most others competing in the rat race of rap music. Bazooka finely demonstrates how the fablists’ tales have powerfully stretched the limits of hip-hop music.

–Whitney Meers

Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts

Another year, another original band gone by unnoticed. M83, the latest electro-garde phenomenon to come out of France, released its debut album Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts in Europe but not in the United States. The pair echoes their marginalized status in “the industry” by naming their band after a far-off constellation near the edge of the universe. “Birds” introduces the album as a seemingly broken machine sings in monotone: “Sun is shining / Birds are singing / Flowers are growing / Clouds are raining / And I am flying.” “Run Into Flowers” is a great candidate for a single that will never get played on American radio and continues the clashing theme of the organic and the electronic. At best, Dead Cities will garner attention from esoteric DJs, another notch on the list of “who likes the best obscure album.” — Harold Valentine

The Postal Service
Give Up
Sub Pop

Mixing emo and techno must have had its cons from the very beginning. Lovely lyricist Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab For Cutie fame) and Nintendo-esque beat-maker Jimmy Tamborello created one of 2003’s most creative, textured and just plain fun albums. Over the course of 10 songs, Tamborello entrances us with the best electronic soundscape this side of Super Mario Bros., while Gibbard treats listeners to seemingly endless weavings of lyrical yarns like: “No concerns about the world getting warmer/ People thought they were just being rewarded/ For treating others as they’d like to be treated/ Obeying stop signs and curing diseases/ For mailing letters with the address of the sender/ Now we can swim any day in November.”

This stuff is so damn sweet you could get a cavity, although modern music needs a good infusion of it. — Nick Margiasso

Bad Plus
These Are the Vistas

Vistas showcases the standard jazz three-piece of piano, bass and drums, and elevates it to a relevant and decidedly post-modern force. No easy task but a feat achieved nonetheless by the Minnesota trio on their 2003 release, These are the Vistas. The album features compositions from all three members, encompassing a range of song structures from the off-time drumming and fierce piano of “Big Easter,” to the solemn bass and hauntingly quiet keys of “Everywhere You Turn.” An amazing aspect of the album is its “deconstruction,” as the band calls it, of pop songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Aphex Twin’s “Flim.” — Jared Hague

The Decemberists
Her Majesty The Decemberists
Kill Rock Stars

Everyone can use a healthy dose of shanty-dwelling, maritime-ish storytelling. Everyone. The Decemberists knew this and, thankfully, bestowed an album full of it on the music-loving public. Her Majesty sounds like it was recorded on the cobblestone roads of 19th century England, between the brothels and boweries near one of the country’s dank ports of call. Colin Meloy sings song after despairing song about lamenting sailors, aspiring thespians and ladies of the night, while his band mates provide him various musical landscapes in which to frolic. “The Gymnast, High Above The Ground” is one of the year’s best ballads, while “The Chimney Sweep” is a jangling guitar/ accordion jig of a William Blake homage. Living as an English harbor-town peasant never sounded so nostalgic. — NM

Think Tank

Somewhere, 2003’s scoreboard of British musical innovators (yeah, so I made it up) reads: Blur 1, Radiohead 0.

While Radiohead was busy being the “greatest band in the world,” recording sub-par stuff, Blur (who many thought defunct, via frontman Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project) pulled a Kid A with the release of Think Tank, which separates the band creatively from all of their contemporaries on the island of prog-pop (along with those wacky Radioheads). Albarn’s intense musical vision comes to fruition in the form of gaggling tunes like “Ambulance,” an inspirational opus equipped with weepy vocals, ray-gun synthesizers and a shouting brass section. This record is not only a testament to Blur’s staying power, but also a portrait of the innovational victors of the Brit-pop wars of the early ’90s. — NM

Shades of Blue
Blue Note

This DJ may have more side projects than George W. has grammatical hiccups, but it was his Madlib moniker’s Shades of Blue record that stood out amongst the rest in 2003.Madlib,Quasimoto, Madvillian, or whatever the hell you want to call him, didn’t just make any jazz-influenced hip-hop album, though. What he did do was get permission to freely cut, mix and sample any record in the Blue Note Records’ vault. And, yes, the result is just as amazing as one could imagine. “Slim’s Return” is a dynamic mix of scratches, xylophone and strings rolling out the red carpet to the rest of this modern hip-hop masterpiece. Sprinkled throughout are testimonials and cameos from original artists (Leon Spencer, Lou Donaldson and Steinsky just to name a few) of the tunes Madlib has his way with. With props like that, who’s going to argue this hip-hop/ Blue Note cohesion as musical gold? — NM

Songs: Ohia
Magnolia Electrc Co.
Secretly Canadien

Truly complete albums come along only a handful of times in an Indie-rock lifetime. Jason Molina, a.k.a. Songs: Ohia, combined his heart-wrenching vocals and workman guitar sounds with a handful of other musicians (in some circles this would be called a band), creating the Indie equivalent of Neil Young’s masterpiece, Harvest.

Molina yearns against a landscape of eerie-backing vocals and slow, roasted slide guitars, making each song a beautifully structured chapter within this masterpiece of a musical novel.

From open to close, MEC is a long journey, a portrait of heartache and a damn good album. — NM

A.R.E. Weapons
A.R.E. Weapons
Rough Trade

They beat up one of John Lennon’s kids, they pretend to be poor, they combine basketball shorts and blazers and they do copious amounts of drugs. Call them losers if you will (they do), but these authors of unparalleled ironic humor and bombastic personas made the best album of the year … period. Front man Brain (that’s right, Brain) McPeck’s lyrical ridiculousness is showcased with gems like: “People think you’re a loser/ A drug abuser/ ‘Cause you like to get high/ That’s alright mommy/ So do I,” and “About a hundred kids wanna kill me/ I’m a Bad News Bear and I always will be.” But Brain’s lyrics are only the walkway that leads to a musical Mecca engulfed in big beat and electroclash. In this Apocalypse Now meets West Side Story maniacal musical, the Weapons mix tongue-in-cheek with knife-in-stomach mentality delivering a record so horrible it has to be great. — NM