My Top 20 Pop Songs of 2003
by matthew webber
1. Outkast - "Hey Ya"
I love this song so much I now refuse to listen to it. As soon as I hear its introductory four-count, I "seek" with my right index finger quickly enough to break it. This is not contradictory. In the approximately 20 minutes of driving I do each day - the only time I listen to the radio - this song is on somewhere for 18 of them. Right now, in fact, you can hear that funky bassline - and Andre 3000 wooing Lucy Liu - on your pop, rock, hip-hop, and even adult contemporary radio stations, sandwiched between Natalie Merchant, the Pixies, and 'Pac. The song has crossed over from hip-hop to sock hops, as the video's Outkastmania has invaded our land like locusts. Or Beatles. Yet I change the channel. If I deny myself this pleasure today and tomorrow, I still might enjoy it 20 years later, when hip-hop is the mainstream and two Atlanta rappers are the most innovative musicians of the year. "What's cooler than being cool?" Singing this song at the top of your lungs. Shake it, and save it, like your favorite Polaroid picture.
2. Liz Phair - "Why Can't I"
I will not trap artists in a box. I will not banish them to bargain bins alongside the Lox. I will not accuse artists of selling their credibility. I will listen to this song unashamedly, repeatedly. Since Viacom, Clear Channel, and almost every music critic I've ever read refused to support this song, the album on which it appears, and the career-suicidal Liz Phair herself, I worry more about getting called a "pants-less nancy" for enjoying well-crafted pop songs (this actually happened) than getting sick of this one expertly crafted pop song (I don't think it will). Like Outkast's catchy chorus, Phair's happy hook belies the pain in the verses. Listen to the lyrics of both songs if you don't believe me. Breaking up is easy; staying together is hard to do. I learned this year that Phair is right: The best part of breaking up is finding someone else you can't get enough of. The trouble for me is that someone else was doing the breaking and finding, and though I don't think they've fucked yet - to paraphrase Phair - my head is spinning. This song could be her anthem, even though she doesn't like it. She and the critics dislike the overproduction by Avril Lavigne's production team, the Matrix. She and the critics yearn for another Exile in Guyville, even though people change. She of all people should know this. Why is it I, then, who can't stop listening to this song instead of she? Why can't I speak? "It's the reason I don't listen to Michelle Branch," she said. And that's the reason I do. I'm not afraid to commit, dear: to love or to pure catchiness, so passionately it's painful. Listen.
3. Johnny Cash - "Hurt"
A Nine Inch Nails cover by Johnny Cash. I hope to deserve a eulogy so stark.
4. Beyonce featuring Jay-Z - "Crazy In Love"
Can we really love a piece of music? Is everyone who blasted this song from his/her car speakers or at a picnic crazy? I'll tell you what crazy is: This song has more hooks than a pirate convention! (See below for rejected turns of phrase.) Those horns are as huge as an elephant's tusks! On the 8th day, God created this chorus, and it was good! More hooks than a tackle box! More hooks than a sad vaudevillian! More hooks than a coat rack! Check out the hook while the DJ revolves it!
5. Christina Aguilera - "Beautiful"
"He called you a pants-less nancy," she told me, and he doesn't even know I adore this song. Those piano chords are the sound of me choking up. That whisper of a voice is the sound of me melting. Every second of this pop song is crafted to perfection. I think this song is beautiful. No matter what they say.
6. Justin Timberlake - "Cry Me a River"
Justin worships the pre-pedophilia Michael Jackson; we know this. He emulates, however, the post-Wham George Michael. "Like I Love You" was a white gold R&B number like "Faith." The more balladeering "Cry Me a River" resembles "Father Figure" at least enough to complete an SAT-style analogy. If the pop life is a test, then Justin studied his sequined fingers off this year. Of all pop life test-takers, Justin scored in the 99th percentile in "White People Who Make Good Black Music," "Wronged Boyfriends Whose Cheating Girlfriends Were the Best Thing That Could Have Ever Happened to Their Careers," "Most Convincing Bid by a Former Mouseketeer For Artistic Credibility," and "Whoa, Didn't That Dude Use to be in 'N Sync? Maybe He Doesn't Suck After All." Justin's Bonus Essay Question: Compare/contrast your post-breakup musical endeavors to those of your ex. Why is this particular collaboration so emotionally expressive, aurally adventurous, and enjoyable? Why was hers so none of the above?
7. The White Stripes - "Seven Nation Army"
I've been to Wichita twice in my life. The second and most recent time, this November, had the more rocking soundtrack. The whole way there, and for months before and afterwards, I silently sung and smiled at the line from "Seven Nation Army," "I'm going to Wichita." And then the music goes "Bum bum bum BUM." Wichita's actually cool, in a mid-sized, Midwestern kind of way. But I agree wholeheartedly with Jack White's grievance that it is "Far from this opera forevermore." Wherever White's opera forevermore might be, it is sure as hell not in Wichita. Unless it's at the Dog and Shake.
8. John Mayer - "Clarity," "Bigger Than My Body," and "Something's Missing"
As my singer/songwriter buddies and I listened to the first three songs on John Mayer's Heavier Things album in our living rooms and cars, every time we hung out, all we could talk about was how much we love this guy. We discussed neither girls nor grades nor Guns 'N Roses, topics we debated in the pre-Heavier Things epoch, and instead spoke of a songwriter who understands being a sensitive male twentysomething. We asked ourselves rhetorical questions, which I always attempted to answer: "How can Spin magazine say this guy's boring? Are they listening to the same album?" "Well, you know, he's not that challenging, and Spin would rather devote space to bands with retro T-shirt designs instead of to a guy who already sells millions of records to college girls without their help." At the end of our rousing matches of "Speed Scrabble," we always concluded thusly: We want to hang out with Mayer. We want to sing the words "microphone check" in an acoustic number. He could be us, man! To us, being John Mayer is the one thing cooler than being ice cold.
9. Jay-Z - "99 Problems"
I hear too many rappers today rapping the praises of the great MCs from hip-hop's golden era while doing everything they can to sound nothing like their heroes. Invoking the ghosts of Biggie or Scott LaRock is as trendy as sampling Indian music. I listen to hip-hop radio and it's like I'm watching a team of Ted Williams' fans striking out. (To be fair, listening to any radio station is like watching a cryogenics scientist beheading Ted Williams.) Jay-Z, on his supposed retirement album, dared to ask the questions, Wouldn't it be great if rap records sounded as thought-provoking as they used to? and, Wouldn't it be awesome if Rick Rubin - the maestro behind many of Run-DMC's, LL Cool J's, and the Beasties Boys' hardest beats - produced rap records again? Over Rubin's trademark rock guitar bursts, Jay-Z raps an autobiographical narrative about the police encounter that almost got him arrested and stopped his prolific rap career before it started. The rest of his Black Album is big pimpin' as usual, but "99 Problems" is a riveting true crime drama.
10. 50 Cent - "In Da Club"
50 Cent sometimes slurs his words; and he singsongs as much as he raps; and his young, white, suburban and rural fan base probably relates to his gritty tales of being shot nine times, the intricacies of having sex vs. making love, and drinking expensive champagne in dance clubs about as well as they relate to the hypotenuse of a right triangle; but when your Dr. Dre-produced beat is this fucking slamming, Dustin Diamond could be freestyling about Mario Lopez's sexual preferences and it would still fool you into thinking it was epic poetry to shake your ass to.
11. Fountains of Wayne - "Stacy's Mom"
My friend D__ doesn't like this song. I do. He says it sounds like "Jesse's Girl." I say it sounds like "Just What I Needed." Since this is my list, he is wrong.
12. Evanescence - "Going Under"
Hark, a scary angel sings. Just like "Bring Me to Life," sans shouting. Just like Linkin Park, but fronted by Tori Amos. A song for the undead to dance to.
13. Northern State - "Trinity"
Speaking of the Beastie Boys… Northern State and Jay-Z agree: Licensed to Ill was dope! Hesta Prynn, Guinea Love, and DJ Sprout are three white female rappers from Long Island. They "dress all in black like Johnny Cash" (not really) and sing in "three-part harmony like Crosby, Stills, and Nash" (they really do). If the mid-'80s Beastie Boys had been liberal arts and sciences-educated women or had already discovered that misogyny isn't funny, they would have fought for their reproductive rights instead of to party. They would have sounded like this.
14. Jason Mraz - "I'll Do Anything"
When we weren't listening to John Mayer and playing Speed Scrabble, we were making fun of Jason Mraz's lame trucker hats and his strange fascination with chickens while we played Trivial Pursuit. I laughed at Mraz's Anthony Kiedis-like rapping style and tapped my toes to his melodies. His references to Jane Jetson and Kool & the Gang, as well as his referring to himself in the third person, inspired me to write songs that weren't about breakups. He's better at this than I am though, with his dexterous guitar work and his operatic voice, as well as his comic's sense of timing.
15. Kelis - "Milkshake"
The best part of this song isn't its novelty, its sass, or the way it has been stuck in my head for months. It's that greasy spoon dinner bell that punctuates the beat - ding! Congratulations, Kelis. Welcome to the Two-Hit Wonder Cub.
16. J.C. Chasez - "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)"
If you haven't caught it yet, J.C.'s follow-up single, "Some Girls (Dance With Women)," is as embarrassing for a grown man to sing as you might think, even though the brilliance of its parenthetical title rivals anything by Meatloaf. His first single, however, a minor hit from the soundtrack to the minor hit Drumline, temporarily elevated the term "former member of 'N Sync" from fluky signifier to booty-shaking guarantee. But as Justin continued to shimmy up the charts, J.C. - and Drumline - crashed like hi-hats. When your first song is as percussive and sexy as "I Want Your Sex" - hell, when your first song is "I Want Your Sex" - your second song should likewise blow up. But J.C.'s second song just blew.
17. Jane's Addiction - "True Nature"
With this one song, I finally got Jane's Addiction.
18. Audioslave - "Show Me How to Live"
The chunkiest riff of the year. I wonder what Zack de la Rocha is doing nowadays. And Kim Thayil.
19. The Roots featuring Cody Chesnutt - "The Seed 2.0"
This rap/funk/rock song almost planted one of today's best bands - not just the best rap band - firmly in the mainstream, as MTV2 rotated the video between videos featuring rockers in vintage jeans and vintage jeans commercials featuring rockers. I heard a mediocre funk band cover it, and it still sounded fresher than a baby named rock 'n' roll.
20. Zwan - "Honestly"
The return of Billy Corgan was neither triumphant nor permanent, as his new band, Zwan, has already broken up. But the band's first single reminded me why Corgan is one of my all-time favorite songwriters. Since the Smashing Pumpkins' premature demise, Corgan has traded his mellon collie and infinite sadness for a siamese dream of joy, sweet harmonies, and power pop guitar work. I adored it.
Note: To read the "What We Loved Most in 2003" feature straight through, click here to go directly to the next article.