After months of President George W. Bush beating the war drums, bearing false evidence that Iraq had a hand in the 9/11 attacks on The Pentagon and World Trade Center, the U.S. and U.K. launched war on the Middle Eastern nation March 19, 2003. Thus began an ill-advised, misguided military action that cost us many years and billions of dollars. Meanwhile, California recalled Gov. Gray Davis in an October vote, replacing him with action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Actor Johnny Depp essentially played Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in his role of Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. And as the RIAA cracked down on the rash of illegal downloading plaguing the music business, in one case going after a 12-year-old girl, Apple Computers made MP3s safe, legal and affordable with its new iTunes Music Store, selling individual tracks for 99 cents apiece.
Simply put, there was a need for punk rock in 2003. After all, doesn’t wartime call for new rebel rock to counterbalance the bloodshed and hypocrisy? The loudest punk voice decrying the offensive against Iraq was Pittsburgh’s Anti-Flag. The Terror State was one of the year’s strongest LPs. The White Stripes further preserved the 21st century commercial ascendance of garage-punk with their most definitive album, Elephant. The Brody Dalle-led Distillers ascended into the mainstream, making a Joan Jett-like feminist punk icon out of their leader. The Exploding Hearts became the next underground sensation with their first album, before tragedy blunted their rise within three months of its release. Meanwhile, veterans such as the Clash’s Joe Strummer, Buzzcocks and Rancid all kept the faith with strong new efforts. Plus, newer voices such as Alkaline Trio, Against Me! and AFI all aided in the war against the jive.
Welcome to Alternative Press’ pick of the 15 best punk albums of 2003. As always, please enjoy our custom Spotify playlist as a soundtrack to your reading.
The White Stripes – Elephant
Detroit’s dynamic garage/blues/punk duo the White Stripes had conquered the world over the previous two years with their breakout album, White Blood Cells. This two-record set, recorded over late April and early May 2002 in East London’s famed Toe Rag Studios, both preserved their established musical values and displayed great ambition. For one thing, Toe Rag was an eight-track analog tape facility, mostly used by British garage outfits, especially Billy Childish’s various bands.
Somehow, amid the glowing tubes and vintage microphones, Jack and Meg White continued their fuzz-laden bash-and-crash. But new wrinkles got woven into the tuneful chaos. The most notable: Jack impersonating a bass guitar with his octave pedal on parts of “Seven Nation Army.” Whether that, or the massive five-note riff, is responsible for that track now resounding through every sports stadium in the world as often as “Blitzkrieg Bop” is open for debate. But it is only one of 14 reasons that Elephant is the definitive White Stripes album.
The Exploding Hearts – Guitar Romantic
The Exploding Hearts’ Guitar Romantic was as perfect a debut album as you’ll ever find. Recorded a full year before its release in April for Northwestern garage powerhouse Dirtnap Records, it was 10 slices of perfect power-pop-fueled punk (as opposed to pop punk) given a demo-like production. But it’s the best demo you’ve ever heard, the quality of such hook-infested anthems as “Modern Kicks” and “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades” blasting through the two-dimensional, fuzzy recording. The LP was an instant sensation, attracting the attention of Lookout! Records. The band, unfortunately, didn’t survive the van accident, which took the lives of three of its four members, just three months later.
The Distillers – Coral Fang
In the year since second album Sing Sing Death House, much had changed in the Distillers’ camp. For starters, the lineup had changed completely, with only singer/songwriter/guitarist Brody Dalle remaining. Oh yeah, and she’d reverted to her maiden name after leaving husband Tim Armstrong of Rancid. And the band were now on Sire Records, since Hellcat was owned by her ex. With a bigger recording budget, the Distillers brought in producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Echo And The Bunnymen, Foo Fighters) to give Coral Fang a newfound sheen. Which meant such bloodcurdling originals as “Drain The Blood” and “Die On A Rope” gained a detailed cleanliness, bringing out the grain in the guitars and Dalle’s vocals, and the slam in the rhythm section. Which brought them to No. 97 on the Billboard 200, neart-saturation MTV2 airplay, a Lollapalooza slot and arguably made Dalle the most iconic rock figure of the day.
Buzzcocks – Buzzcocks
The previous Buzzcocks album, 1999’s Modern, was what leader Pete Shelley declared an attempt to “not make a rock album,” going for a more studio-centric approach filled with electronic layers. Three years later, they were signed to Superchunk’s Merge Records, that bastion of song-based U.S. indie-dom. And they were back to making rock albums, or at least Buzzcocks albums as we traditionally think of them. With bassist Tony Barber fully lodged in the producer’s chair, Buzzcocks’ guitars are more distorted than ever, close enough in your face to shave it. Shelley’s longtime Buzzcocks partner Steve Diggle writes the most inspired songs here, “Sick City Sometimes” becoming an instant entry to the Singles Going Steady update surely on the horizon.
Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros – Streetcore
Joe Strummer — the Clash’s ferocious, soulful frontman — died of a congenital heart defect Dec. 22, 2002. He’d just returned home from walking his dogs. For the three previous years, he’d actively returned to music-making following a lengthy absence, leading a young band called the Mescaleros. The music they made seemed more descended from the expansiveness of later Clash albums such as Sandinista! This posthumous release of the tapes worked on prior to Strummer’s death indicates world-music rhythms continued to be a fuel. But some of the granite-hard punk of the Clash’s early days seemed to be filtering back into his consciousness, as witnessed on such guitar-driven tracks as “Coma Girl” and “Arms Aloft.” Sadly, Streetcore is the sound of a crucial artist yet to hit his peak. Strummer had a lot more great music in him.
Rancid – Indestructible
Last we’d heard from the world’s bestselling street-punk band three years back, Rancid entered the new century with their second self-titled album, a strictly hardcore affair. Indestructible was more a classic Rancid record, filled with widescreen Clash city rockers such as “Fall Back Down” and solid ska-punk. “Red Hot Moon” alone was the most killer Jamaican-flavored tune they’d unleashed since 1995’s “Time Bomb.” But the end of Armstrong and Dalle’s marriage weighed heavily. Such tracks as “Fall Back Down,” with its theme of friends uplifting one another in times of crisis, and especially “Tropical London,” served as balm for the Rancid leader’s wounded heart.
Alkaline Trio – Good Mourning
The album that fully delivered Chicago horror-punks Alkaline Trio from the underground to the mainstream did not have an easy genesis. Derek Grant was their third drummer in as many albums, and Matt Skiba’s personal issues colored the darkness of the songs he was writing. The blackness then fueled bouts of self-medication, which triggered acid reflux. It ate his voice as he was about to track his vocals. Somehow, co-producers Joe McGrath and Jerry Finn pushed them through, and Good Mourning’s smooth yet explosive sonics enabled it to debut at No. 20 on the Billboard 200, selling 258,000 copies by 2008.
Against Me! – Against Me! As The Eternal Cowboy
For their second studio full-length, Against Me! moved operations to Fat Wreck Chords, NOFX leader Fat Mike’s label. They retained Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose producer Rob McGregor, cutting at Memphis’ famed Ardent Studios for an analog recording with scant overdubs. The band had already demoed Against Me! As The Eternal Cowboy extensively with McGregor at his Goldentone Studios in their hometown of Gainesville, Florida. Those early takes saw 2009 release by Fat Wreck as The Original Cowboy. The production was cleaner than Reinventing, with the folk elements taking a backseat to big rock riffs. Singles of alternate takes of “Cavalier Eternal” and “Sink, Florida, Sink” brought outside attention to Against Me!, taking the album to No. 36 on Billboard’s Top Independent Albums chart.
Anti-Flag – The Terror State
“Turncoat, killer, liar, thief,” leftist punk gang Anti-Flag announced between acoustic strums on their fifth studio LP’s opening track, “Turncoat.” “Criminal with protection of the law,” Justin Sane finishes before the electric guitars and drums kick in with a shrill “Go!” Yep, Sane and crew were taking on President Bush and the war in Iraq. Rage Against The Machine’s guitar genius Tom Morello gave The Terror State a sonic sheen that surely aided its reach beyond the band’s core audience. Among the highlights: the previously unused Woody Guthrie lyric “Post-War Breakout,” given a crackling punky reggae musical bed by Anti-Flag.
Iggy Pop – Skull Ring
For Iggy Pop’s 14th studio album, he teamed up with a number of collaborators, besides his permanent backing unit since the early ‘90s, the Trolls. Among those aiding punk rock’s father: Green Day (“Private Hell,” “Supermarket”), Sum 41 (the single “Little Know It All”) and Peaches (on two furious electro-punk tracks, “Rock Show” and “Motor Inn”).
But the big news was Pop reconvening the band which made his name for four songs. Yes, the Stooges were back. Ron Asheton’s trademark wall-of-fuzz guitars and brother Scott Asheton’s tribal stomp drumming were goosing Pop to stage-diving, chest-slashing mania for the first time since 1974 on “Little Electric Chair,” “Loser,” “Dead Rock Star” and the title track. A few months later, Pop and the Ashetons recruited Minutemen/Firehose bass virtuoso Mike Watt, adding another 10 years of mind-searing Stooges live performances and recordings to the legend. The band who invented punk rock walked among us once more.
The Living End – MODERN ARTillery
Since landing an opening slot on Green Day’s 1995 Australian tour after sending Billie Joe Armstrong a T-shirt and demo tape, Melbourne-based punkabilly outfit the Living End surfed an upward trajectory. Their third studio full-length, MODERN ARTillery, saw the rockabilly almost totally bled away, leaving more of the late-‘70s U.K. punk influences prominent. In fact, such numbers as the opening Buzzcocks-alike “What Would You Do?” and Green Day-ish “One Said To The Other” suggest the Living End were now fully a punk band with a stand-up bass and Gretsch guitars. Recorded in Los Angeles by blink-182 producer Mark Trombino.
Backyard Babies – Stockholm Syndrome
For their fourth studio LP, Swedish sleaze-rockers Backyard Babies brought in American punk/hard-rock/metal megaproducer Joe Barresi. The man who’s helmed everyone from Judas Priest to L7 to Queens Of The Stone Age restored the raw energy that characterized breakthrough album Total 13 without losing high fidelity. Hence, Nicke Borg and Dregen’s guitars were Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols huge, while the Johan Blomqvist/Peder Carlsson rhythm section was fat and slamming. Such singles as “Minus Celsius,” “A Song For The Outcast” and “Friends” — featuring a slew of special guest vocalists, including the entirety of L7, plus Joey Ramone and members of Hanoi Rocks, Turbonegro, the Dictators, even the Cardigans’ Nina Persson — kept Backyard Babies in the Swedish pop charts.
Turbonegro – Scandinavian Leather
Lock up your sons and your Levis — those Norwegian denim delinquents Turbonegro were back! After being coaxed to reunite in 2002 for a festival in their native land, Happy Tom and crew realized they were bigger in death than they had been in life. Not long after, they reconvened in Oslo’s Crystal Canyon Studio and let their guitar genius Euroboy sit behind the mixing desk. The resultant Scandinavian Leather was the second of their Apocalypse trilogy and continued the honing of their “deathpunk” sound. Now they claimed they’d advanced to “rainbow rock,” adding pop sensibilities to their already hooky yet hard sonics.
Holly Golightly – Truly She Is None Other
Holly Golightly was a key member of Thee Headcoatees, the girl group adjunct to Billy Childish’s ‘90s-slaying Thee Headcoats. That made her a key figure in the Medway punk scene, that peculiar geographical intersection of punk, garage and ‘60s British Invasion sensibilities Childish seemingly willed into existence. Since 1995, Golightly (named by her mother for the character in the Truman Capote novella Breakfast At Tiffany’s) has maintained a wonderful solo career, bringing a singer-songwriter sensibility and a dash of blues and rockabilly to the ragged early Kinks–flavored punk of the Medway.
AFI – Sing The Sorrow
Sing The Sorrow was the point at which California horror-punks AFI officially stormed the mainstream. Their sixth studio album sold 96,000 copies in the U.S. alone in its first week of release in March. It peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, charted in the U.K. and Canada and went platinum in 2006. With Finn and Butch Vig at the control board, Davey Havok, Jade Puget and company had a rich sonic environment in which to expand and experiment on their usual horror/hardcore sound. The results? Three hit singles — “Girl’s Not Grey,” “The Leaving Song Pt. II” and “Silver And Cold” — and a newly ascendant career.