Look No Further

Every so often, I get asked to DJ parties in the neighborhood--not because I'm the guy with the best taste, but because I've got the biggest CD collection in a 20-block radius (on rare occasion, size does matter). At first I gladly accepted the invitations for two reasons: It meant I could lord my exceptional, rarefied musical taste over a gathering of people content to hear "Play That Funky Music" or the latest Sean Paul CD all night, and being stuck behind the decks and mixing boards all night would save me from an evening of drunken small talk. Ah, to be a DJ--the dance-floor dictator, safe from the mewling masses behind Philips headphones and stacks of tracks waiting for their turn to turn this mother out. I had mad visions of introducing the suburbs to all manner of imported exotica, downloaded ephemera and underground riches. Good Lord, it would be Ibiza in the 214, an orgiastic git-down in the land of the middle-class hoedown.

Yeah, unh-hunh. Not exactly.

As it turns out, most people do not want to hear their Salt-N-Pepa seasoned with Iggy Pop, their Madonna loaded into the Sex Pistols, their Britney Spears backstabbed by the O'Jays. They do not want their familiar fucked with, their expectations rendered unexpected, their memories remixed by some sneering British DJ with an 80-gig hard drive and editing software that allows him to turn a song inside out and backward-front and then upload it for mass consumption by anxious fetishists for whom the familiar is just not enough. You've not been properly told off till a former beauty queen comes up to you halfway through this awesome Public Enemy-Herb Alpert mash-up and tells you to "play something good, like Shaggy, or let someone else do the DJ'ing." So, after several attempts at being Cool Guy in the neighborhood, I've retired the wheels of steel and taken to social drinking again. My first book will be called How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Justin Timberlake.

So I'm left only with this space to show off the cool shit of 2003--the downloads on the down-low and the imports worth the exorbitant price of shipping and handling (and playing, go figure). Turns out that despite the wealth of primo rockpopasoulhop (and Steely Dan) in the bins this past annum, you could actually fill an entire year with keepers by avoiding the domestics. Much as I love Fountains of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers, which may be the best Weezer record of the year, the best thing I heard the band do in 2003 was a charmingly straight and sincere cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's 1964 "Trains and Boats and Planes," available on the "Stacy's Mom" British CD single--which also comes with the Oasis-y "Elevator Up," originally on the Japanese release of Welcome.

Best import single(s) of the year goes, hands down and then up in surrender, to "Rock 'n' Roll Lies" and "Rip It Up," both from Razor Light--who, says the new British GQ, is destined to be the next White Stripes. I don't think that was supposed to be literal--the next Strokes or Vines or OK Go or Knack, maybe--but if we're talking about potential to be huge, absolutely. The first time through, "Rock 'n' Roll Lies" was decent enough--power-pop catchy and full of more riffs than a Friar's Club luncheon. But it's one of those songs that you want to hear again, then hear it again louder and louder till the guy two cars behind you in traffic can sing along with the chorus, which somehow manages to sound like "Rock and Roll Eyes," which seems to fit the '80s vibe. The "R'n'R" single contains two tracks even better than the title song, and the "Rip It Up" single tops them all. The band's been together less than a year; not many newborns can walk, much less run all the way to the bank. Razor Light's gonna be big in 2004. You read it here first. Or maybe second.

Album of the year honors go to another Brit import: Athlete's Vehicles & Animals, which ranks among the most celebrated albums of the year overseas--it was up for a coveted Mercury Prize--yet has no American distribution, and the band's received next to no coverage in the American rock press. You will not find a more glorious pop compendium this or any other year; every song contains that rare, inexplicable, unexplainable bit of magic that turns a good album into a great one that never gets old no matter how many times you listen to it (several, every single day). It makes you smile and even makes you cry; the title song, seemingly about a little boy who's withdrawn into his own world for reasons never quite revealed, rivals Badly Drawn Boy's "A Minor Incident" for sheer weep value. The band began not long ago wanting to sound like Oasis, then realized Flaming Lips and Grandaddy were preferable influences and now sounds nothing like any of them. Rather, it reminds you of music made for a British TV show made in the '60s but set in the '90s--the sound of the future made in the distant past.

Athlete is such a British darling it has three different songs on three different made-in-the-U.K. compilations, among them the Q magazine Best of 03 disc and the Panasonic Mercury Music Prize collection--both of which suggest there's a wealth of primo pop across the Atlantic to which we're being woefully deprived. Consider this: Most of the best albums of 2003 in the U.K. won't even be released here till 2004, among them discs from dizzying rapper Dizzee Rascal, prog-popsters Muse, moody Elbow, velvety John Cale, prefab sprout Paddy McAloon and a surprisingly awesome Starsailor, whose debut was so awful I wouldn't even give it to former pageant queens with bad attitudes.

And God knows she'd hate the best of the boots downloaded off the Web, from such still-hanging-in-there sites as www.ultra396.co.uk, www.gohomeproductions.co.uk and the assorted few that still believe in the power of the cut-and-paste. The fervor of 2001 has waned, and the flood of mash-ups has been rendered a comparative trickle--though that hasn't stopped true believers at Get Yer Bootleg On (http://gybo.proboards4.com/index.cgi) from competing in regular cutting contests, ahem. The best of the year's boots is, easily, one resulting from the Slow and Beautiful Challenge: the music from Soundgarden's "Like Suicide" and the vocals from Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" combined to make something seething and delirious and wholly unexpected, a moody metal masterpiece from a woman who probably doesn't give a folk.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky