Every year offers music both good and bad, but some years have a special pull. In My Favorite Music Year, A.V. Club music writers choose the years that speak to them most deeply, however fresh in memory or far in the past.
Art has a wonderful way of bringing people together, of uniting those from various spectrums of life in the appreciation and celebration of human expression. Nowhere is that more evident than in pop music, an intrinsically populist art form (it’s right in the name) that fuses individuals together in service of, say, twisting and shouting, teaching one another how to Dougie, or shaking it like a Polaroid picture.
Of course, pop is just as quick to divide as it is to unite. But in 2003, tracks like Outkast’s monster hit “Hey Ya!,” Beyoncé’s debut solo strut “Crazy In Love” (featuring then-alleged-but-pretty-much-assumed boyfriend Jay-Z), and The Darkness’ slice of throwback cock-rock cheese “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” helped music fans and casual listeners alike find a common ground. It didn’t hurt that they were great songs, “Hey Ya!” in particular.
Few songs before (and no songs since) have managed to bring people together like the opening salvo from André 3000’s half of the monolithic (and kind of hard to take in one sitting) Outkast double feature Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The song was a cross-format smash in the fall of ’03: The song’s swaggering loverman insistence, Smiths-indebted guitar jangle, and honey-sweet hook earned it play across the dial, hitting the Detroit urban, modern rock, and Top 40 stations I grew up with and listened to when visiting home during my first semester at Michigan State University. MTV—and its campus-oriented arm, the College Television Network (soon to be mtvU)—kept the video in heavy rotation, and its parody of The Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut provided a sly acknowledgement of the song’s status as pure, perfect pop. Just as 1964 belonged to the Beatles, 2003 was the property of Outkast.
“Hey Ya!” enjoyed near omnipresence in East Lansing, Michigan during the waning months of 2003, but I don’t remember hearing it until I attended a friend’s show-choir concert, which closed with a climactic, a cappella version of the song. Next, it became a staple of local coffeehouse open mics, where it was covered—unironically—by white dudes with acoustic guitars who usually performed weepy Bright Eyes imitations. So convinced am I of the awesome power of “Hey Ya!” that some seven years after its heyday, I requested that the DJ at my wedding reception use the song as the second track in a one-two, post-dinner clarion call to the dance floor (the first track being The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”). It worked like a charm. If ever there was proof of a song’s essentialness to the pop-music canon, it’s the sight of my largely hip-hop averse relatives losing their shit to “Hey Ya!”
And while this might be me writing through a rose-colored filter, in my memory of ’03, that kind of stuff happened all the time. I can’t think of a better year in which to gain access to high-speed Internet and the music collections of peers across campus and across the world, as I did when I moved into MSU’s Armstrong Hall that August. There was a sense of adventurousness and discovery to what people were listening to and talking about in ’03—a few years on from the paradoxically fragmented state of an online music community dictated by blogs and recommendation services, there were seemingly no genre barriers in 2003. Cast between a pair of mash-up touchstones—Freelance Hellraiser’s 2001 hybrid “A Stroke Of Genie-us” and Danger Mouse’s 2004 game-changer, The Grey Album—it was a time when Johnny Cash’s aching take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” sat comfortably alongside Jay-Z’s “Change Clothes” on the CTN playlist.
In 2003, I stopped worrying and learned to love the charts. I can distinctly remember watching the video for Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” before my senior prom and thinking, “Yeah, this is the kind of thing I can dance to.” That October, when Timberlake hosted Saturday Night Live and turned in a particularly Stevie Wonder-esque version of the particularly Stevie Wonder-esque “Señorita,” I wanted to take back all the unwarranted hate I heaped on ‘N Sync during those dark, Korn and Limp Bizkit-infested days of the late ’90s and early ’00s.
It helped that the charts were paying attention to stuff that the burgeoning music snob inside me deemed “worthy,” too: Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief is hardly the band’s best record, but it made a sizeable dent in the Billboard rankings, debuting at No. 3. More surprising was when Fountains Of Wayne scored a hit that summer with “Stacy’s Mom.” It’s unfortunate that the band’s big moment came on the back of the weakest song from its extraordinarily winning Welcome Interstate Managers, but whip-smart power-pop paeans to the middle class were one of the few things mass audiences weren’t interested in 2003. However, in a year when 50 Cent declared he was into having sex, not making love, an ode to a MILF couched inside a Cars homage still found success.
The underground bubbled up in another, even more unexpected way in the case of Ben Gibbard’s boffo ’03. Having toiled away on the indie circuit with Death Cab For Cutie for six years—releasing a trio of albums ranging from fine to great—Gibbard found himself the voice of a sleeper hit when The Postal Service’s Give Up rode the waning tide of ’80s nostalgia to become Sub Pop’s hottest-selling record since Nirvana’s Bleach. What happened next was probably enough for a couple of spins from Kurt Cobain’s corpse: Death Cab earned a few shout-outs from the characters of the then-hip teen soap The O.C., which gave an extra sales boost to its late-’03 effort Transatlanticism.
Despite the renewed interest in the independent underground that kicked into high gear in ’03, Death Cab and The Shins—the latter of which had a decent year thanks to its buoyant sophomore disc, Chutes Too Narrow—would prove to be exceptions to the highly hyped rule. And why wouldn’t they be? These were acts that were but a higher production budget and a bigger promotional push away from being the biggest rock acts in the world. In some ways, the bands, albums, and songs that didn’t survive past ’03 endear the year to me as much as the stuff that sounds as fresh today as it did coming out of my old Discman. (Hey, it was ’03—anyone who was rocking an iPod at that point just complained how often the thing crashed. Plus I had a bunch of self-righteous, ill-informed views about the sanctity of the album.) Jack White’s work on The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” is a thing of timeless, mountainous rock ’n’ classicism; his pseudonymous contributions to Electric Six’s “Danger! High Voltage,” meanwhile, sound like ’03—a description not intended as an insult.
So, what, exactly, does ’03 sound like? It sounds self-contained. To some degree, it sounds like crazes and trends that would never be more than crazes or trends. It sounds like useless descriptions being knocked down and daring stylistic exercises being taken up. It sounds less epic than it did in the moment. (Have you tried to bump “In Da Club” lately? Don’t—for some reason, the menacing verve of the track’s low end only sounds good in headphones these days.) It sounds like flicking on a dorm-room TV on a fall morning and watching the John Hughes extras of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” shimmy and shake with the foxy mechanics of “The Way You Move.” Oh, and it sounds like “Hey Ya!,” a song with obvious ties to the past that tied together the masses in 2003.
ERIK ADAMS’ TOP 5 RECORDS OF 2003
1. The White Stripes, Elephant
With the sneers washing off the faces of bands swimming in their wake—and the hometown following that catapulted them to fame now their biggest adversary—the former Mr. and Mrs. Meg White issued 15 tracks of minimal Rust Belt grit that included a Burt Bacharach cover, a cameo by retired news anchor Mort Crim, and the single greatest use of the word “acetaminophen” in rock history.
2. Death Cab For Cutie, Transatlanticism/The Postal Service, Give Up
Products of separate sets of musicians, yes, but records forever united by proximity and the warm push-plead of Ben Gibbard’s vocals. Plus, if you view Transatlanticism and Give Up as companion pieces, the straight, white guy-ness of the former and the occasionally lame lyrics of the latter cancel each other out to form one unimpeachable document of indie’s quiet, mid-’00s revolution. (R.I.P. Seth Cohen.)
3. Jay-Z, The Black Album
It’s tempting to argue that The Grey Album eventually improved on Jay-Z's shoulda-been curtain call, but suggesting that “Helter Skelter” has more block-leveling impact than Rick Rubin’s minimalist production on “99 Problems” sounds as blasphemous now as some unknown DJ mixing The Beatles and Hova sounded in ’04.
4. The Rapture, Echoes
Disco-punk burned itself out because nobody could dance to “House Of Jealous Lovers” night after night after night, but eight years on, the bass and beats on Echoes remain as intoxicating as the other reasons everyone had to quit on dance-punk. (P.S. This is the record that sounds the most like ’03.)
5. Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Don’t call it a comeback, but do call it proof that the band’s hi-fi charms weren’t always best served by lo-fi trappings. It’s not like Stuart Murdoch threw his songwriting skills out the window the moment he was introduced to Trevor Horn; Horn’s production simply gives Murdoch’s character sketches bigger canvases on which to frolic. “I’m A Cuckoo” isn’t the year’s best Thin Lizzy lift, though—that title goes to Ted Leo & The Pharmacists’ “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?”
The road to success for Death Cab and The Shins was lined with the bodies of riskier acts like The Darkness and The Unicorns—both of which burned too brightly, too druggy, too ego-fueled, too quickly. With two volatile types—Nick Thorburn (a.k.a. Nick “Neil” Diamonds) and Alden Penner (a.k.a. Alden Ginger)—wrestling over creative control of the band, The Unicorns weren’t built to last, and the death-obsessed, ramshackle indie-pop of Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone merely prefaced the self-destructive rock-star posturing that would eventually do the band in.
According to Casablancas’ law of diminishing returns, The Strokes never sounded better than on 2001’s Is This It?—but several tracks on their 2003 effort, Room On Fire, improve upon the sharp elbows and Lower East Side cool of that debut LP. The barn-burner “Reptilia” deserves a mention in the canon of the ’00s’ doomed “return of rock.” You can place it right next to Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” whose barreling, hijacked “Town Called Malice”/“Lust For Life”/“Can’t Hurry Love” riff is one of the decade’s biggest moments of dumb guitar-rock fun.
The Rapture’s place as dance-floor godhead was quickly usurped by the LCD Soundsystem juggernaut piloted by The Rapture’s producer/label boss, James Murphy. As if to show that 2003 was a great year for music that was terrible at seeing past itself, LCD Soundsystem’s only 2003 output was the single “Give It Up,” a lightweight garage-rocker backed with the galvanizing, though disposable, “Tired.”
Further indications that 2003 wasn’t a great bellwether of things to come: Though The New Pornographers and The Decemberists garnered notices in 2003 for records that made good on promising debuts, no one seemed to care (myself included) that Animal Collective released two albums that year. Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan was similarly heralded in hindsight, though it’s really just a dress rehearsal for the grand majesty of Illinois. Speaking of inauspicious debuts: Kanye West snuck onto playlists with “Through The Wire” at the end of 2003, all apologies about jaw surgeries and sped-up Chaka Khan samples. This coming from a dude who now spits through diamond encrusted veneers.
A case of a “warning” indicating bad things to come: The Black Eyed Peas marked its first step toward becoming the hit-manufacturing firm of Hologram Man, Meth Lady, The Other Guy, and The Other Other Guy with Elephunk, unleashed upon an unsuspecting public on June 24, 2003. The Justin Timberlake-enhanced “Where Is The Love” looked to the Peas’ socially conscious, sub-Native Tongues past; “Let’s Get Retarded” (later refashioned for mass consumption and maximum soundtrack potential as “Let’s Get It Started”) showed the first grating signs of “My Humps,” “Boom Boom Pow,” and “I Gotta Feeling.” Mazel tov.
1967 was the hippie-dippie “Summer Of Love,” but also the year of a darker psychedelia marked by The Velvet Underground & Nico and The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night).” Meanwhile, the classic Motown sound settled into a groove, James Brown invented funk by breaking into a “Cold Sweat,” and Aretha Franklin found her calling card in Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Johnny Cash and June Carter went to “Jackson” and covered “It Ain’t Me Babe,” while their friend Bob Dylan snuck off to Nashville to record the earthy John Wesley Harding. It’s nearly all overshadowed by the year’s most daring experiment, a concept album by four mop-topped Brits that capably injects classic songcraft with mind-expanding production techniques, topical themes, and a dose of countercultural humor: The Who Sell Out. (Oh, also, The Beatles put out Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that year.)