2003: Year of the Wonka Record

For the year's 10 best records, go somewhere else. For the year's 10 best "Wonka Records," you've come to the right place.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Tim Allen and Billy Bob Thornton dressed up like Santa Claus -- that's right people, the holidays are in full swing! And along with all the other gifts bestowed upon you this year, get ready for a Colorado blizzard's worth of self-indulgent, blurb-a-licious critics' Top 10 lists. That's where we critics remind you of our stunning, encyclopedic knowledge of the past year's musical highlights; where we subtly say, "Shame on you for not buying, loving, and proliferating this obscure band." And, "Shame on you for not sending us bouquets of posies when first we revealed the genius of OutKast, the Rapture, the Postal Service ...."

Bah, HerbietheLoveBug. Instead:

Top 10 "Wonka Records" of 2003This was the year of what I call the "Wonka record." A Wonka record is not merely a bad record, but a bad record that sounds as if it was made Gobstopper-like in an eerie factory by elves with pointy ears and graphing calculators. Wonka records seem invented by marketing teams that know way more about what you want than you do. They are sometimes disguised as "artistic triumphs," but this is just part of their spin. Here are my favorite Wonka records this year. Sadly, this is only a partial list.

1) OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Yes, it was an interesting album, and entertaining. But did you notice how the duo's high-concept approach kept a lot of people from admitting that you can't sit all the way through it, and that a lot of the songs on it are really just crappy, meandering sketches? Mainly, though, this record is Wonka because of its insidious marketing angle: One single, André 3000's "Hey Ya," got playlisted on altrock radio, while the other, Big Boi's "The Way You Move," topped the charts on hip hop and R&B stations. That's a great ploy. OutKast's strategy scored the group a two-for-one deal. You know who else did this in 2003? It's --

2) Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll/Love Is Hell. The titles say it all. One is the gritty, altrock radio staple, the other the wounded, lite-rock radio staple. The two records are utterly different and clearly marketed to two distinct audiences. Listening to them, it's hard to imagine they came from the same artist. Strange, and very Wonka.

3) The Strokes, Room on Fire. Wonka because it's the exact same record the band put out two years ago, yet fans and critics ate it up anyway. That makes it more like a McDonald's combo meal than an album: You know it's processed and reheated junk, you know it's bad for you, but you eat it anyway because, hey, at least it's consistent. Also, the group's live show sucked big hairy moose balls.

4) Any Tupac release. The guy put out four records when he was alive, and eight (!) after he died. As many before me have pointed out, if it had been good enough to be released, someone would have done so while Tupac was still breathing. Profiteering from someone's tragic death is totally Wonka.

5) Michael Jackson, Number Ones. Because reports that Jackson faces allegations of child molestation were unveiled worldwide on news programs and front pages on the same fucking day -- Nov. 18 -- that Number Ones was released. Disturbingly, conspiratorially Wonka.

6) Any emo CD. Because you cannot be that distraught if your band is selling out the Warfield or performing alongside Jane's Addiction.

7) Any punk CD. Because "commercial punk" is an oxymoron. Rebellion, priced to move at $16.95, is all kinds of Wonka.

8) P.O.D.'s Payable on Death, Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown, and any other album by a Christian rock band that subverted its religious undertones just enough to break into a larger market. Look, I have nothing against Christians (Mormons yes, Christians no), but if you're gonna stand for something, stand for something. Put Jesus on your album cover, a picture of Abraham getting ready to knife his son on the insert. Those Bible stories, with their whales and giants and miracles, are kind of cool anyway, sort of Dungeons & Dragons, no? But don't try to turn your music into some brand of propagandizing, we-can-sneak-this-on-the-airwaves bullshit. That's so utterly Wonka.

9) Any country music CD that used patriotism to move units. Since I suspect that a lot of SF Weekly readers don't know squat about country music, let me just tell you that Toby Keith's chart-topping Shock'n Y'all (it's a pun on "shock and awe," get it?) includes "The Taliban Song" and "American Soldier." Sample lyrics: "Now they attacked New York City/ 'Cause they thought they could win/ Said they would stand and fight until the very bloody end/ Mr. Bush got on the phone with Iraq and Iran and said/ Now you sons of bitches you better not be doing any business/ With that Taliban." Yee-haw!

10) Any American Idol CD. People, please! These CDs going quintuple platinum is one degree removed from a band called Coca-Cola or Sprint PCS spending 10 weeks at the top of the charts.

Alas, this list is a little dispiriting, I admit. There were lots of good things that happened in music this year, but I'm kind of an asshole that way: If you want the "good news" go read the Bible, or listen to Switchfoot, or check out one of the hundreds of other Top 10 lists currently hitting newsstands near you. That said, before you go comparing me to great Ebenezer's ghost, let me offer this, an honest-to-goodness, straight-from-my-dark-heart token of thanks for reading and listening:

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