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The overlooked CDs from 2003

From the Decemberists to Josh Ritter, these CDs deserve a second look
/ Source: The Associated Press

Each year, thousands of CDs are released — and plenty of worthwhile CDs get overlooked. Here’s the AP’s look at some CDs from 2003 that deserve some closer attention:

“When the Sun Goes Down — The Secret History of Rock & Roll,” Various ArtistsFor the music industry, 2003 was the year of the blues, and not just because of slumping record sales. Congress issued a proclamation honoring the century-old genre that provided the genesis for much of today’s popular music.

Amid a flurry of blues compilations released this year, some of the best came from “When the Sun Goes Down — The Secret History of Rock & Roll.” BMG Heritage dug into the catalogs of RCA Victor and Bluebird and unearthed early blues treasures that show the music to be much more than just a guitar, a harmonica and 12-bar verses.

The first discs in the series were released last year, and some of the best recent volumes feature Leadbelly, Sonny Boy Williamson and Blind Willie McTell. The series also includes creatively conceived sets such as “Poor Man’s Heaven,” which focuses on mostly forgotten bluesmen performing songs inspired by the Depression.

The sound quality is remarkable considering the material dates back as far as the 1920s, and excellent liner notes accompany each disc. While the series is far from comprehensive, it will enrich any rock or blues library.—Steven Wine

“Hello Starling,” Josh Ritter
With the poetic grace of James Taylor and the troubadour prowess of Bob Dylan, Josh Ritter should have been 2003’s big star. Instead, John Mayer, to whom he’s frequently compared, cornered the market on sensitive-New Age-guy singer-songwriters.

Pity.

Ritter’s “Hello Starling” is a feast for the ears. His slightly twangy voice is accompanied by his own guitar and violin playing. His bandmates, with lap steel guitar, mandolin and Hammond organ, among other instruments, never overwhelm Ritter’s voice or his storytelling ability. Sweet, simple love ballads such as “Kathleen” dominate. Despite its opening line: “All the other girls here are stars, you are the Northern Lights,” Ritter manages deftly to keep the track out of the syrup jar.

He’s especially powerful when he cranks it up a notch, as Ritter does on “Snow Is Gone.” His guitar playing is a potent partner to a rousing organ. The song may be an ode to a starling after the winter snows melt or to a lover. Either works. But the best line is Ritter’s proclamation: “I’m singing for the love of it/ Have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” Don’t bother with the overhyped Mayer as he sings about wanting to “run through the halls of my high school.” Ritter’s already working on his Ph.D.—Kim Curtis

 “Her Majesty The Decemberists,” The Decemberists
The Decemberists released two albums in 2003. The first was the reissue of their critically lauded debut, “Castaways and Cutouts,” which established them as one of the more promising, if not unusual, American bands. The second was “Her Majesty The Decemberists,” which builds on the literate rock of their earlier releases.

It’s easy to imagine these songs performed as theater or acts in a play. The Kinks-on-a-sugar-high of “Billy Liar” is the first of many memorable moments. It’s a song about a mischievous lad who sports an insanely catchy chorus. Xylophone plinks lead the outgoing procession ending in a rouse of saccharine chanting and marching band drums. “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” follows with a call to ladies “pleasant and demure/ sallow cheeked and sure.”

The true standout, though, is “Red Right Ankle.” The final verse is one of the more touching of last year with lines such as: “Some had crawled their way into your heart, to rend its ventricles apart.” Meloy illustrates the path he has chosen on the sweeping “I Was Meant for the Stage.” And really, for all the theatrics and dramatic twists, these are just great songs, songs that, like Meloy, were meant for the stage.—Jake O’Connell

“Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions,” Stan GetzHerb Alpert’s A&M label inexplicably chose not to release this sublime mainstream acoustic quartet session by tenor sax legend Stan Getz in 1989, focusing instead on putting out Getz’s overdone orchestral album “Apasionado” with its synthesizers and electric pianos.

All the pity that it took 14 years for these “lost sessions” to surface on Verve because they rank among the best recordings from the final phase of Getz’s career, when he had overcome his addictions (and was playing sober), but was recovering from a heart attack and battling the liver cancer that would kill him in 1991.

Perhaps this intimation of his own mortality heightened the depth of expression Getz was able to coax out of his saxophone, which always could express a full range of human emotions from sorrow to ecstasy. Getz’s relaxed lyrical mastery shines through on the ballads, particularly Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” Thad Jones’ “Yours and Mine” and Russ Freeman’s “The Wind.” The bossa nova tracks, such as Kenny Barron’s “Feijoada,” gently swing, but the compositions pale in comparison with those of Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose tunes Getz featured on his highly popular yet influential 1960s “Jazz Samba” and “Getz/Gilberto” albums.

On these “lost sessions,” Getz is surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast: bassist George Mraz, drummer Victor Lewis and most notably pianist Kenny Barron, who is both a superb accompanist and soloist. In Barron, who contributed five of the nine tunes, Getz found a real soul mate for his romantic sensitivity. This is smooth jazz at its finest with real passion and emotional depth.—Charles J. Gans

“Passing Ships,” Andrew Hill
After not recording for almost a decade, pianist Andrew Hill has established himself as one of the top composers in jazz with recent releases such as the sextet CD “Dusk” (2000) and the big band CD “A Beautiful Day” (2002).

“Passing Ships” was recorded in 1969 but not released by a then-financially strapped Blue Note label because it was considered “noncommercial.” The tape languished in the vaults until it was discovered by producer Michael Cuscuna, but the music sounds totally contemporary and reflects Hill’s strengths as a composer of straight-ahead jazz that is accessible but full of complexity.

On this nonet session, Hill crafts intricate arrangements, using innovative horn backgrounds mixing high brass (trumpets) and low brass (tuba, bass clarinet), call-and-response patterns and colorful orchestrations featuring instruments rarely heard in jazz such as French horn and English horn. Hill’s melodic ideas are intriguing, whether on the funky “Plantation Bag,” the more intimate but exotic “Passing Ships,” or the waltz-like “Yesterday’s Tomorrow.”

Hill’s seven original compositions provide a launching pad for some strong solo flights by trumpeters Dizzy Reece and Woody Shaw; trombonist Julian Priester; reedman Joe Farrell, who plays five different instrument on this session (soprano and tenor saxophone, alto flute, bass clarinet and English horn); and the pianist himself. The top-notch rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lenny White keeps things swinging.

Despite some rough edges, this is a long-lost gem worth discovering.—Charles J. Gans

“Falling Water,” Lisa MiskovskyAvailable as an import-only outside of Scandinavia, Lisa Miskovsky’s sophomore effort, “Falling Water,” is a nice example of a singer-songwriter showing signs of maturation.

The album’s 12 tracks feature Miskovsky’s smooth vocals that ebb and flow in time with the songs. The leadoff track, “Lady Stardust,” has already shown signs of some success in her native Sweden, and it has the potential to spill into the rest of the Europe and onto college radio in the United States.

The music and lyrics were written by Miskovsky and Joakim Berg, known as the architect of Swedish pop group Kent. The lyrics are in English, and they bear a striking similarity to the pop sensibility found in Canadian Sarah McLachlan and American Shawn Colvin.

Miskovsky’s LP is a definite sign that she has the talent to make her a breakout success globally, but, at the same time, it’s also hemmed in by its routine, often patronizing, lyrical content about unrequited love and feel-good anthems.—Matt Moore

“Deep Dish Global Underground No. 25: Toronto,” Deep Dish
“Deep Dish Toronto No. 25” is a delectable double album of dance tracks mixed by Sharam Tayebi and Ali Shirazinia. While today’s club scene tends to be dominated by drum ’n bass tracks, the Deep Dish duo puts house solidly back on the map.

Disc one begins with “Diamond Life,” the flat-out best dance groove of 2003 from Louie Vega and Jay “Sinister” Sealee, featuring stunning house vocalist Julie McKnight. That’s a lot of folks for one track, but the blend is superb. Killer bass line, funky melody and McKnight’s crisp soul vocals made me wear out the repeat button.

Other highlights from disc one include Sultan & The Greek’s “Rezin,” a cool, down-tempo track layered with sounds that seem almost like digital cicadas.

Disc two doesn’t let up, leading off with some tightly wound bass-heavy tracks such as Elisa’s “Time” and Sander Kleinenberg’s “Work to Do.”

“Deep Dish Toronto No. 25” isn’t simply a great double album, it’s a fine homage to what house music still retains over other antiseptic electronic genres — true soul. Tayebi and Shirazinia should be commended for doing house proud.-- Ron Harris

“You Gotta Go There to Come Back,” Stereophonics
Some of the purest rock ’n’ roll on the planet continues to emanate from one band, Stereophonics. These deep thinkers from Wales gave us more of their best in 2003 with “You Gotta Go There to Come Back,” less experimental than their previous releases, but perhaps more mature than ever.

The big hit off this one, and rightfully so, is “Maybe Tomorrow.” On this beautiful track, sweet soul backup vocals support lead singer Kelly Jones. The frontman and deft songwriter is looking to slow things down — tempo and life — and perhaps repair his psyche by leaving a darker existence behind. There’s great reverb and guitar work on this track that shows flourishes of genius by the man on the Meletron, Tony Kirkham.

On “Nothing Precious at All,” Jones’ gravelly voice sings, “Gonna drink herself to sleep tonight and that’s nothing new.” Someone is drowning their sorrows and crooning Jones cares too much to ignore.

Stereophonics packs a big emotional wallop into each track they lay down. I pity the bands at massive British stadium shows that have to follow Stereophonics and Jones’ beautifully heart-wrenching voice. He’s tough to match and this band now demands more attention than ever.

Their previous work, “Just Enough Education to Perform,” was more electric and fast-paced, and is a must have as well. But “You Gotta Go There to Come Back,” with its slower gait, gives us more time to look into the band’s soul. What’s there is good music with a mind.-- Ron Harris