It’s nearly impossible to do a list like this without generating some controversy. Last year, conducted a scientific poll of all staff contributors as to what their favorite albums were. The votes were tabulated, the results were displayed in the order of which releases got the most points, and it turned out to be just as controversial as ever. While I thought that Scarface’s “The Fix” was the appropriate choice for album of the year both then and now, a lot of the feeback read like this: “Why wasn’t Canibus included? How could you overlook GZA? Who didn’t pick ‘The Lost Tapes’ by Nas, that’s classic shit!” Et cetera. This year was no different – after originally posting this list on New Year’s Eve, my inbox was flooded with e-mail questioning both my wisdom and sanity. While I don’t kowtow to critics normally, I will admit the list did overlook some important candidates for the year’s best albums. The editor would like to personally mention the following ten 2003 albums which didn’t make the cut of the updated list, but deserve to be recognized:

* Cadence: Poisons the Minds of the Children
* David Banner: Mississippi: The Album
* G-Unit: Beg for Mercy
* Juvenile: Juve the Great
* Little Brother: The Listening
* MF Doom: Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain
* Keith Murray: He’s Keith Murray
* Obie Trice: Cheers
* Prince Paul: Politics of the Business
* Raekwon: The Lex Diamond Story

With that out of the way, here’s the revised 2003 “Year in Review” for

#15. OutKast: “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”

Not personally one of the editor’s favorite albums, this one is by admission a forced inclusion after the overwhelming amount of complaints that it wasn’t on the list. It’s not that Big Boi’s disc wasn’t some of the best hip-hop heard in 2003, or that Andre Benajamin’s disc wasn’t some of the most creative, it’s just that it didn’t really feel like a cohesive OutKast album with them each doing their own thang. I still wish both albums had been sold seperately.

#14. 50 Cent: “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”

While this album was released so early in 2003 as to almost be forgotten, it clearly established the already popular 50 Cent as an international superstar of the future. The signing and subsequent success of 50 Cent on Eminem’s Shady Records was a thorn in Benzino’s side that he couldn’t bear, as he spent the rest of the year haterizing on him in progressively weaker freestyles and songs, turning The Source into a joke and making David Mays a puppet whose strings he pulled to get revenge.

#13. KRS-One: “Kristyles”

This may be the album Kris never intended to be released, but all things considered it still came off type nice anyway. “For those who were upset at KRS-One for being too preachy on Spiritual Minded this album will be refreshing. For those who were upset at KRS-One for choosing weak beats on The Sneak Attack this album will be refreshing. For those who have been waiting for KRS-One to release an album as big as his ego, Kristyles is that album.”

#12. J-Live: “Always Will Be”

“It’s possible that the only thing which holds Live back is his self-produced beats, which are never ever the whack but sometimes leave one wondering how much more he’d score if produced by Alchemist or DJ Premier. It has happened before, but in his quest to do for delf he has eschewed their sometimes expensive beats to keep as much of the pie as he can for himself. At some point for J-Live it will become a tradeoff whether he wants a big slice of a smaller cake or a smaller piece of a much bigger pie. If he can bake up some tracks with legendary beats to go with his supreme oratorical and writing skills, the sky’s the limit.”

#11. RJD2: “The Horror”

It’s not every day that an almost entirely instrumental album can make the top 15 of a rap list, but this one is certainly worthy. RJD2 has been an underground folk hero for his work with Def Jux artists for a while now, but ever since his “Deadringer” album he’s stepped fully into his own spotlight. This album of alternate takes, unreleased tracks, and stripped bare instrumentals of previously rapped over cuts speaks volumes about his skills as a producer. In ten years time, he will be the legend that DJ Premier is today – if not sooner.

#10. Louis Logic: “Sin-A-Matic”

“As for beats, you really can’t go wrong on this album, from Memo’s internet ode ‘Fair Weather Fan’ to J.J. Brown’s lightly comical ‘The Rest’ to a darkly disturbed keyboard by Avid Record Collector on ‘The Ugly Truth.’ It’s all held together by Logic’s rhymes though, which on the latter track will deeply upset anybody who doesn’t get the joke. Save to say for that reason we won’t reprint it here, but it’s a mockery of any and all stereotypes made about various ethnic and racial groups. If you don’t get South Park, it’s not for you. That’s true of Sin-A-Matic in general, but if you appreciate rappers with no restraints you’ll be with Logic from the opener until his closer.”

#9. J-Zone: “Sick of Being Rich”

Besides having some of the funniest skits you’ll hear on any rap album this year, J-Zone is so ill you may just get nauseous off his verbals. “Zone’s been carrying the weight for so long, he doesn’t get to concentrate full time on either his beats or his rhymes. Maybe more guest appearances would help, but don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here – a J-Zone album is still funnier and fresher than 95% of the indie label shit you can cop (or as he wryly notes download for free) hands down period. It’s just not as astounding as when he first broke on the scene, but still worth that green all the same.”

#8. Lexicon: “Youth is Yours”

“Lexicon’s approach to rap is a bit old-fashioned, in a good way. Instead of overzealously trying to punch a punchline into every line, Nick and Oak concentrate on telling stories and providing interesting scenarios. The experience is like watching a movie called ‘A Day in the Life of Hip-Hop’ unfold before your eyes, as you picture the information being fed through your ears. That’s not to say they aren’t clever, because they can certainly flip the script, but Lexicn rely more on their lexicon of words to draw you in and put you in the song. That’s why from ‘Gotta Believe’ at the start to ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ at the end, you’ll be vibing off the fresh tracks, sly humor, and precise rap diction and narration.”

#7. Royce Da 5’9: “Build and Destroy”

Please don’t ask – the double disc version of this album is out of print, and I don’t know where you can cop it. It’s still worth hunting down though: “It’s pretty clear listening to songs like these why no record label would touch publishing it officially – they’d probably have to fear Shady Records running up in some A&R’s office with gats and shooting at whoever signed Royce to release this album in the first place. With this second disc Royce threatens to “do you like EPMD did to the heads when they broke up” but there’s no reason to be depressed with tracks like the Rush produced “Running,” the DJ JS-1 produced “Lights Out,” and the Alchemist produced “You Don’t Know Me.” Why haven’t these songs been heard before? Maybe there really is a conspiracy to keep Royce out of hip-hop’s spotlight, or maybe he really does have a beef with Eminem and Dre. Whatever the case, snatch yourself a copy of Build and Destroy before some label snatches up all the copies and has them destroyed.”

#6. Ugly Duckling: “Taste the Secret”

Matt Jost’s review impressed me so much, I had to go out and get this one for myself. He was right: “Naturally, a lot of people are put off by Ugly Duckling’s happy-go-lucky vibe. Even those who can appreciate the lighter side of hip-hop will miss a lot of what we used to find in acts like De La Soul, The Pharcyde, Black Sheep or Biz Markie. But at this very moment, on hip-hop’s very own playground Andy C, Dizzy Dustin and Young Einstein are the undisputed kings of comedy, showing and proving that you can be wacky without being whack.”

#5. Aceyalone: “Love & Hate”

Nothing can sum up this album better than these words from the review: “An Aceyalone album is always worth copping on the strength of his writing and flows alone, since his timing is timeless, his pitch is perfect, and his verbosity ambidexterous. It’s a rare treat then to hear his songs matched to producers who understand his eccentricity and versatility and can go blow for blow with his writtens.”

#4. Immortal Technique: “Revolutionary Vol. 2”

He gives Canibus a run for his money as hip-hop’s top conspiracy theorist, and he might give Woody Allen a run for entertainment’s most paranoid neurotic. What’s the result? “Like the early days of Public Enemy and Ice Cube, these are raps which are powerfully intoxicating in that they get you drunk off both the power of information and the way it’s presented. Immortal can put on Vol. 3 and Vol. 4 and continue to find an audience, as long as he keeps using the power of his mental to combine with dope instrumentals. It will be interesting to see if he lives up to his threat of being the Patriot Act’s worst nightmare.”

#3. GangStarr: “The Ownerz”

Like a bottle of Aquefina in the Sahara, a new GangStarr album is not only refreshing, it just might save your life. At the very least, it will remind you what you love about hip-hop: ” DJ Premier has an uncanny knack for making tracks for any MC, but when working with long time partner Guru he pulls out all the stops. All the elements fuse to perfection – jazzy samples, crispy beats, hard knocking bass and some of the swiftest and cleverest scratching of hooks you’ll hear ANYWHERE. This would mean nothing if Guru didn’t spit his hardcore raps.” And spit them he does – proving he still ranks as one of rap’s best orators.

#2. Jay-Z: “The Black Album”

“Whether this release will settle the debate about his rank in hip-hop or just fuel the discussion further is ultimately not as important as whether or not this is a good album. It’s not a good album – it’s a GREAT album. Shawn Carter has had the tools he needs for a long time – great breath control, clever wordplay, a commanding presence vocally and on stage, and an uncanny knack for giving people what they want to hear.” There’s nothing that sums up why this album nailed the #2 spot on the list better than that, other than the REST of the review!

#1: Canibus: “Rip the Jacker”

LL Cool J may claim the title “Greatest of All Time,” but his rival Canibus holds an equally impressive title – Greatest COMEBACK. After nearly derailing his career on albums like “‘C’ True Hollywood Stories,” hip-hop’s own sunwalker finally found a producer equal to his verbal heat – Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind. Check what the review says about it and see if you don’t think it’s the “must have” album of 2003. Here’s a snippet: “Rip the Jacker may be the first album of perfection Canibus has seen in his half decade career, and it showcases to an unparalleled degree why early on he was compared to greats like Rakim. If he continues to work with Stoupe and release albums like this, there’s no limits to where ‘Bis can take rap.”