It’s funny (to me, at least): whenever I’m at a political event, I’ll inevitably catch one or two folks eyeballing me. Not smiling, not frowning, just staring. Being more paranoid than smart, I usually start calculating if they were sent there to kill me (by Arab terrorists irritated by my first book, by neo-Nazis named in my second, by a certain Liberal politician gently ribbed in my third, or by Stockwell Day aficionados enraged by my fourth). But nobody has killed me – yet. Usually, they just want to say that they are one of the year’s million-plus visitors to www.warrenkinsella.com. And that they think my Top Ten rock’n’roll lists suck. Says they: “Why don’t you have ‘Trout Mask Replica’ on there?” (Good question, actually.) Or: “You are an elitist Central Canadian snob for your unwillingness to put Led Zep’s fourth on your top ten list.” (True enough.) Or: “Why don’t you have anything on there after 1989, you old fart?” (Because the world ended when the Pixies released ‘Doolittle,’ that’s why.)
Relieved that they don’t want to kill me (yet), I usually tell them to piss off, get their own bloody web site, and make up their own Top Ten lists. And quit bugging me.
Anecdote-relating responsibilities now discharged, here’s 2003’s Top Ten list. If you don’t like it, piss off. Get your own web site, okay? Quit bugging me.
1. Kings of Leon ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’ – They are called (by some) the Southern Strokes. Their dad is named Leon. He was a traveling United Pentecostal minister. They’re the brothers Followill – Caleb, Nathan, Jared and Matthew. (Well, the other three are brothers; Matthew is their teenaged cousin.) And this EP – it ain’t really an album – is the best rock’n’roll record of 2003. Even if you are an effete intellectual snob who thinks Europop is culturally relevant, the five tunes crammed onto this disk will have you clambering into a pickup, complete with rifle rack, and looking for gophers to run over. Jesus, I love these guys: they bring out my inner Calgarian. The Kings’ LP, ‘Youth and Young Manhood,’ has all of the songs found here, but I’m not fussy about the production on that disk. Ethan Johns twiddles the knobs better here, and the Followills play better, too. “You’ll get down on your knees for just another taste,” the Followills warn, and they’re right.
2. Johnny Cash ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ – I didn’t put him on here because he shuffled off this mortal coil in September, following his beloved June Carter Cash – or because his take on Trent Reznor’s ‘Hurt’ is the best video in the history of the world. Or because he recorded more than 1,500 songs on more than 500 different albums. Or because he was the first artist ever to be inducted into both the Rock’n’Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame. Or because of ‘At Folsom Prison’ (although that should be enough). I put him on here because this album is tender, and raw, and harrowing – the sound of man making preparations, gladly, to meet his maker. It’s mainly covers, but he does ’em better than the originals. Ask Trent Reznor: he says Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ is a damn sight better than the version he recorded with Nine Inch Nails.
3. Guided by Voices ‘Human Amusement at Hourly Rates’ – Matador bills it as a greatest hits package, but – in typical Robert Pollard fashion – GBV’s frontman messes with the formula, and ends up with something measurably better. There’s great stuff here (‘Tractor Rape Chain,’ ‘I Am A Scientist’) going back to the genius of ‘Bee Thousand,’ and there’s a lot of post-Tobin-Sprout pop here that is catchier than a drawer full of fish hooks (a non-Ric Ocasek version of ‘Teenage FBI,’ along with ‘Chasing Heather Crazy’). I won’t soon forgive Pollard for his ridiculous, shambolic cock-rock show at the Opera House a couple years back, but nor will I forget the forever smile on my daughter’s beautiful face, as the two of us danced away to ‘Glad Girls’ whilst my wife looked on and laughed. Gems in the deliberate rough, is GBV. Get this.
4. The Beatles ‘Let It Be…Naked’ – A lot of pop music revisionists have suddenly (and inexplicably) decided that Phil Spector’s treatment of the Twickenham tapes, as found on 1970’s original ‘Let It Be,’ is somehow worth defending. The revisionists are full of shit. Spector is, and always was, a nutcase. He wrecked a perfectly good Ramones album, just as he previously wrecked what the Beatles did in the ‘Get Back’ sessions – with fluttery strings and choruses and lots of glossy dross and dreck. Blecch. No fan am I of anything Paul McCartney did post-Fabs – but he was right to release this album, in this way. I don’t know if took the deaths of George and John to get it to happen, as some have conjectured. But I have a hunch that John would strongly approve of the astonishing ‘Across the Universe’ found here, and not the cluttered one released 23 years ago.
5. The Strokes ‘Room On Fire’ – I wanted to hate this album, just like I have come to dislike what The White Stripes have become: a movie-starlet-dating, obscurantist, out-of-touch super group. But it’s just too rockin’, Drew Barrymore notwithstanding. Like the flip side of ‘Is This It,’ truly. This Summer, when I was in London to interview Rough Trade founder (and Strokes’ discoverer) Geoff Travis for my punk rock book, he was readying to jet to NYC to hear this album. He hadn’t been played any of it, yet, but he told me he thought it was going to be really good. He was right. It is.
6. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s ‘Fever to Tell’ – Fronting what is effectively a two-piece (drums and guitar), as Karen O. does, requires some pipes and some ingenuity. Karen O has both. Just as good as last year’s ‘Master,’ the Brooklynite trio kick out the jams with throbbing, screaming tunes about sex and, well, sex. ‘Modern Romance,’ indeed. Hottest rock and roll chick for two years in a row. Not bad.
7. The New Pornographers ‘ The Electric Version’ – The best pop band in the world – I shit you not. Give a spin to ‘The Laws Have Changed,’ and explain to me why the Pornos’ waxings aren’t blaring out of every teenage car radio in the known Summer universe. You can’t, can you? No, you can’t. Neko Case is so flippin’ cool, she makes Canada better by simply living here. Saw them with Charlie at the sweltering and smoky Phoenix this past Summer, and they recalled Badfinger, the Mammas and the Pappas, and their fellow Vancouverites, the Pointed Sticks. Without the suicides, ham sandwiches, or lack of purpose.
8. The Libertines ‘Up the Bracket’ – It’s always a good thing to be suspicious about anything the New Musical Express is lionizing before you even get a chance to hear it. After all, the NME delights in showering forgettable Brit pop combos with adjectival excess – and then ripping them to ribbons when the next fresh young face pops by their London offices. Thus the NME’s latest fave, the Libertines: drug-gobbling, booze-chugging, headline-hogging trouble makers – Hell, one of them even spent some time in jail this year. But Mick Jones’ involvement in ‘Up the Bracket’ persuaded me to give it a listen – and you should, too. It’s chock-full of a lot of anglophilisms, sure, but it’s so delightfully messy and fun, it reminded me of what punk once was. Not punk, is ‘Up the Bracket.’ Is drunk. How else to explain a hit with the following lyrics? “What a waster/ What a waster, what a ****ing waster/ You pissed it all up the wall/ Round the corner where they chased her/ There’s tears coming out from everywhere/ The city’s hard, the city’s fair/ Get back inside you’ve got nothing on/ No you mind yer bleedin own you two bob c***” That’s rock’n’roll, baby!
9. Paul Westerberg ‘Come Feel Me Tremble’ – The Mats’ brain (and heart) continues to do precisely what he wants, and commercial success (deserved and overdue as it is) be damned. ‘Meet Me Down the Alley’ recalls ‘Here Comes A Regular,’ the best drinkin’ song ever, without Westerberg’s earlier willingness to look the other way. I worship this miscreant – for his distrust of technology, and for his contempt for phoniness, and for his refusal to trade his soul for a few gold records. (But he deserves a few, just the same.) The only actual poet working in rock’n’roll today.
10. Pearl Jam ‘Riot Act’ – Best rock’n’roll moment of 2003: watching the Buzzcocks leap about a Toronto stage, hollering ‘What Do I Get?’ while a tiny roadie in a Ramones shirt crouches two feet away from where I was standing. Said roadie running out to supply Diggle and Shelley with water, making sure their leads and mike stands aren’t getting in the way. And, then, catching the roadie’s face in profile, singing along with the Buzzcocks: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Seeing that, I changed my plans and stayed to watch him and his band play. Nice to see the gods recall from whence they came, eh?