2003's best: I'll take it on the Shins

I'm a dork, a dweeb, a nerd, sorely in need of a dose of cool, but fairly happy with my profound love of the unhip, the lame, the unvarnished side of life. Yeah, I like pop music. A lot.

The indie-pop group The Shins' 2003 release, Chutes Too Narrow, was my favorite album of last year, and as I'm in control of the next few paragraphs, I'm going to regale you with reasons why it should be yours too.

Chutes Too Narrow, the Albuquerque group's sophomore release, is about as far from a slump as one can get. 2001's Know Your Onion garnered indie acclaim. Its pop-laced-with-mildly-'60s psychedelia sound seemed utterly different from anything else on the musical radar, but to me it seemed suffused with a layer of haze. On Chutes Too Narrow, the smog has been removed, revealing a glorious veneer of intelligent pop.

"Kissing the Lipless" is the album's opener, and few track 1's/side 1's I have heard pull back the curtain better. A tale of love lost, it's immediately apparent that Mercer is a lyricist whose ability to combine strong melodies with turns of phrase puts him far ahead of the rest of the "love you/me too" pack.

"Called to see, if your back was still aligned, and your sheets were growing grass all over the corner of your bed" he sings, backed by nylon stringed strumming for the song's first verse. Quickly ringing electric and drums make their grand appearance, and Mercer's vocals soar high over the fray, going up an octave for the second part of the verse. Choruses, bridges, and all the other pieces of great pop songwriting whirl by, until by the end when we're simply left with the nylon and the impression of being bowled over by greatness.

Though the first part of Chutes Too Narrow is pretty damn brilliant, for me both the music and the lyrical intricacy increase on the album's second half. Starting with the pop nugget "Fighting in a Sack," a dance-worthy two-minutes-20-seconds of songwriting lessons, the second half includes the Nuggets-esque lead driven "Turn a Square," where perfect melody combines with lyrics like "Just a glimpse of an ankle and I react like it's 1805," and "It gets worse every time that we talk, can't afford to be just one in a flock/but that's your lot, when you're after such a well-made lock." "Gone for Good" continues the album's mild Americana vibe, a country-ish indie tune with more lyrics to make Frost proud.

The Shins' Chutes Too Narrow has that wonderful quality of being both easily accessible and challenging to what's considered the standard for rock music at our present cultural impasse. Best album of last year? Of all the music I was privileged to enjoy, Chutes Too Narrow remained #1.

Chutes Too Narrow