The Year of the Nonalbum

A brief, nondefinitive look back at 2003.

Forget the Britney-Madonna-Christina kiss: The best all-girl smooch of the year was the one that didn’t make it to air. On Feb. 25, t.A.T.u., two teenage Russians who pretend to be lesbians onstage, appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and performed their excellent single “All the Things She Said.” Tongues flew during the instrumental bridge, as is customary during their performance. Leno’s producers decided to focus on the duo’s rhythm guitaristfor 30 seconds, an eternity in TV time. The effect was even more shocking than if they’d kept t.A.T.u. on camera: People are still this prudish in 2003?!I can download more risqu頳tuff than that at Kinko’s.

I’m wag enough to add that anonymous rhythm guitarist to my short list of artists of the yearlike many fans, a pop headline unfolded in front of him, and he ignored it. That’s something you had to do a lot of this yearnot so much ignore the hype as to figure out how to hear through it. But as usual, not all flaps were created equal. The silliest is that Liz Phair “betrayed” her fans by posing in her underwear and discovering the Autotuner and, um, making a record a lot of people disliked, myself included (though not Keith Harris, who defends it elsewhere in this section).

R. Kelly, who was plausibly accused of doing genuinely terrible things, provided a thornier problem, which did not ease itself when he released what may be the year’s best single. “Ignition Remix” is completely, audaciously irresistible, from the staggering beat to the coy vocal to the epiphany of the song’s best line: “Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce/Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.” Yeah. I mean, no. I mean . . . uh, see what I’m saying? The Dixie Chicks got angry at the president for waging an unjust war and had their wrists slapped by Toby Keith and, especially, Clear Channel, whose strong-arm tactics allegedly helped derail New York’s Field Day festival, in addition to making radio suck even harder than American Idol fallout times Murder Inc. Records. OutKast allegedly broke up but not before putting out the most overrated double album since The Fragile. And Michael Jackson was Michael Jacksonnothing new there.

As usual, Jay-Z had the smartest solution: He guest-appeared on everything (including two other single-of-the-year candidates, Beyonc駳 “Crazy in Love” and the remix of Panjabi MC’s “Beware of the Boys”), issued a condensed version of a bloated double CD, launched a shoe line, and with the excellent Black Album, announced his retirement. It won’t last, of coursethe Michael Jordan principle of going out with a bang guarantees a need for the limelight that retirement, we understand, tends not to satisfy. But if he makes good on it, Jigga will be an example for many to follow. (We’re looking at you, P. Diddy.)

THE RIGHT COLUMN of this page contains a 101-song MP3 playlist I devised of songs I liked in 2003. I don’t claim it to be definitive, even for my own tastes. Adjusting to this job has taken time, and while my handle on it gets firmer every week, it has cut into my listening time a lot more than I’d like. I’ll probably spend the first two months of 2004 playing catch-up, which is always fun if a little frustrating, professionally speaking. Really, it’s no fun admitting that two of my favorite albums of 2003 were, in fact, released in 2002: Justin Timberlake’s amazingly resilient Justified and, my very favorite, Triple R’s Friends, the cuddliest and most endlessly playable DJ mix disc I’ve ever encountered. Both albums revealed their greatness to me only after I’d spent months playing them again and againand realized after a while that I’d, um, been playing them again and again, and I wanted to keep doing it.

That’s one of the many things music should do. One thing I’ve tried to do with the Weekly‘s music section is to question the received wisdomthe job of any critic or editor, surelythat has long had a stranglehold on the discussion of pop culture, not the least of which is that music should only do one thingnamely, edify. Bushwa I didn’t get into this racket to force-feed myself or my readers granola. (That’s as much an indie-rock reference as a jam-band one, incidentally, though if Stephen Malkmus has his way the two categories may yet become one.) You come to pop for the kicks and stay for the artanything else is just bad form. But nowhere did that received wisdom run more rampant than in Rolling Stone‘s Dec. 11 cover story, “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and USA Today‘s Dec. 5 crisis-alert piece on the so-called “death of the album,” by Edna Gunderson.

I’d already decided not to publish a top-10 albums list in the Weekly‘s year-end issue when the Stone list began making the rounds, but by the time I caught Gunderson’s premature obit (whose expert witnesses included Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas and his indie-cred doppelg䮧er, Ryan Adams) my resolve had hardened. I’d say “petrified,” but I’d prefer to leave that to the Stone list, which along with Let It Be . . . Naked almost made me start hating the Beatles for the first time in my life. There was Sgt. Pepper’s at No. 1 again, four Beatles albums in the top 10 . . . and, oh look, almost no hip-hop, no post-rave dance music at all save Moby’s Play, and 74 albums from 1990 forward. The implication was, is, the same as it always is when Rolling Stone concocts a list like this: The ’60s (and ’70s) rule, the present means nothing, ad nauseam. At least RS managed not to spell it out the way Gunderson’s article did: “Good albums can provide an enriching experience, which teens are missing nowadays.” They sure are. Why, just the other week I saw some poor teenager buying a copy of the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums issue.

The album isn’t dead, thoughlike rock and roll itself, it’s merely become one option among many. The center cannot hold because no one can agree on what the hell it is anymorebesides hip-hop, of course, which is the reason Stone and USA Today are het up to begin with. But that’s one reason the Weekly‘s music writers were asked for a single CD-R of each of their favoritesI wanted to try something different and to accurately reflect the year, which was dominated as much by downloading and hits compilations (Now 14 is a Billboard top-10 fixture) as by any one artist. (The results were too long for one section; look for the rest next week.)

I also not-so-secretly wanted to hear what I was missing out onpartly because I love hearing new music, but also because I wanted to combat my own fatigue. The most disheartening thing about the Stone list and the USA Today article is that both exemplify the thought-freezing “If it isn’t happening to me, it isn’t happening” school of criticism. But pop music is too constantly in flux to stand still; that’s why it’s worth engaging as something more active than a mummified history lesson. If I learned anything in 2003for me a year of upheaval and overwork, of too much to do and not enough time to hear everything I wanted toit’s that if it isn’t happening to me, it probably is happening, and that I’d better spend 2004 trying to catch up.