If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.
For it is not easy to find by search or by trail.
Songs of the Year: “Sha Sha,” Ben Kweller; “Such Great Heights,” The Postal Service
Runners Up: “We Used to Be Friends,” The Dandy Warhols; “Jesus on the Radio,” Guster
Honorable Mentions: “Hurt,” Johnny Cash; “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” The Darkness
I watched this clip 10K times the day Johnny Cash died
In 2003, Garage rock was still sputtering (Jet’s “Are you going to be my girl”); former group members were dominating in their solo acts (Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake); fun and musicality almost made it back into the pop vernacular (The Darkness and Outkast’s “Hey Ya”); and Dr. Dre’s latest protégé proved a success (50 Cent). But despite all of these good developments (well, apart from “Where’s the Love” by the Black-eyed Peas), the charts started to be dominated by American Idol contestants (Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken).
Yes, thanks to the synergy of television, the internet and radio waves dominated by national conglomerates, popular music was soon to be driven by made-to-order stars whose success their voters took a personal interest in. When American Idol first debuted I couldn’t believe that anyone on it would go on to be a star. But, then again, there were many things I couldn’t believe in 2003: that the Red Sox would ever win the world series, that we would elect Bush to a second term, that Clay Aiken was an actual human being…
I spent a month in Italy. This song was in my head the entire time. I don’t know why.
In 2003, radio was almost dead, so the internet was no longer escapable. This was the last year before I began my iPod addiction but it was the first year that my primary engagement with music came through the computer. Prior to 2003, I only used the internet to order CDs. I skipped over Napster and any of its imitators; I never had the time to troll websites looking for music.
Then I started to spend increasingly longer hours working at computers that I didn’t own. A friend introduced me to Yahoo’s Launch music service. In many ways, by asking listeners to rate songs, favorite artists and genres, it was a less algorithmic version of Pandora. I could sign in anywhere and be sure to hear some of my favorite music plus new music that I just might like.
Launch music struck out a lot with me but it scored a big hit the second or third time I heard “Recycled Air” by the Postal Service. Within a month, I was listening to Give Up almost nonstop. “Such Great Heights” (which I have written about) quickly became one of my favorite songs. When Iron & Wine covered it I thought that my head was going to explode.
During a trip to Philadelphia I stayed with a friend (The Chess Tiger) and played speed chess into the early morning light. (There were also beverages; I didn’t win one game.) I hadn’t seen him in years. I went to his CD player to find something to play and Give Up was already loaded. We almost screamed like little girls. The Chess Tiger had discovered Give Up in a coffee shop. He bought a French Press just to spend longer in the store.
Rarely do I turn into an apostle over music. Another colleague of mine, who looked tragically like Montgomery Burns at only age 35, once told me that he never gives books as gifts because the choice is too personal, like giving an acquaintance lingerie. I have also felt the same about music. I will share music I like with people (so I guess the lingerie comparison fails there) but I only really make gifts of music to my siblings (and that is a greater comparison failure).
I don’t know if there is another album from the last decade that was as good from beginning to end or as liked by so many different people. I can’t imagine a greater crime against humanity than the fact that the Postal Service didn’t release another album. (Well, except for releasing an album and having it suck.)
I was so taken with Give Up that I made every graduate student I knew listen to it. I became a Postal Service Proselytizer. But the crazy thing is that the converts were willing. My roommate fell in love with it. Other colleagues went out and bought everything by Death Cab for Cutie to try to find something similar. One friend used to take naps in the office while listening to “Sleeping In”.
Now, 2003 did still feature some conventional music consumption as I eagerly awaited the release of Welcome to the Monkey House (The Dandy Warhols) and Keep it Together (Guster) and Transantlanticism (Death Cab for Cutie—an album that dominated 2004 more) but these albums really became the story of the following year. Later (2004 and 2005) I would love other music that came out in this year: The Transfiguration of Vincent by M. Ward, Young Liars (TV on The Radio), Chutes too Narrow (the Shins) and Arcade Fire (Arcade Fire).
The other album I was quite taken with in 2003 I found by rather conventional means. My wife returned to NYC after a weekend home with her family and told me she had seen some artist on PBS whom she was sure I would like. Now, my wife (then girlfriend) has almost never been wrong in predicted whether or not I would like something. The only time she was ever surprised? When I converted to Reggae.
So, trusting her instincts and propelled by her zeal, I used the fabulous internet to look up the TV listings of the PBS station in her hometown. I found a list of artists who had played on the night she was home and eventually we landed on a winner: Ben Kweller.
The young Ben Kweller’s re-released Sha Sha is a fine collection of catchy and quirky songs. My wife and I both grew to love this album. It was my companion on the subway and in the gym—it helped me to replace the somber tones of Elliot Smith and made up for the fact that I didn’t learn to love Badly Drawn Boy.
See, this might seem like a minor thing, but in 2003 I learned that I could love new music again. I discovered that despite the wasteland of popular music and the onslaught of multi-platformed artists engineered by accountants, there was still good music out there. There was always good music out there—I just didn’t expect to find it so I didn’t look.
Horrors: Any lyrics written by Beyoncé; “Stacy’s Mom,” Fountains of Wayne; “Where is the Love,” The Black Eyed Peas