2003: The Year in Music
by Tim McMahan
before we get to the best-of lists and the Omaha stuff, here are a
couple things that happened in 2003 that changed pop music forever.
First: I never really
"got" why downloading is such a big deal until this year,
when I saw a TV commercial that said "The iPod. Now for Windows."
I ordered one from Apple the next day -- a 20 GB monster. Before
I knew it, I had all my favorite CDs -- about 400 -- downloaded
into a little white music machine that's smaller than a deck of
cards. We're talking about 2,400 songs neatly tucked away in my
shirt pocket to be played whenever and wherever I want.
Think about that for
just a minute: Every CD you love in the palm of your hand, ready
to play with a twirl of a finger. Add to that the iPod's "random
play" feature, and you've got a veritable radio station in
your shirt pocket that plays only your favorite tunes. Cap it off
with a mini FM-broadcast attachment and you can wirelessly play
your iPod on any stereo.
End of commercial.
So what's the big deal?
Look, there's a whole new generation of music lovers out there who
will never, ever be interested in buying CDs when they can just
download them (or only select tracks) directly to their PC/Mac,
and then onto their iPod or any of the low-priced mp3 players that
are hitting the market this Christmas.
I know what you're saying:
'But what about the artwork? What about the essence of owning something
tangible?' These days, as soon as I get a CD, I immediately download
it onto my iPod, glance at the jewelcase, then put the CD up on
the bookcase where it sits untouched.
Yeah, this is old news.
But until you actually use one of these clever little devices, you'll
never get why it's really a revolution. "Downloading"
isn't about listening to music on your PC, it's about listening
to it on your iPod. And I haven't even touched upon the whole "stealing"
aspect of the story.
Is this really the end
of the music industry as we know it?
Two recent conversations
drove home the point. The first was with a young, hip, successful
record label owner. When I told him I just bought an iPod, his eyes
lit up like a Christmas tree and a grin spread across his nebbish,
stoned-Seussian face. "Dude, it'll change your life. You're
gonna love it. I couldn't live a day without mine." This from
a guy who's business is making and selling CDs.
The second, not-so-gleeful
discussion was with a long-time employee of a local record-store
chain, a fellow who's made a decent career in music retail. He said
he was so sure of the downfall of the retail music industry that
he was contemplating what he was going to do when the inevitable
comes and he's out on the street along with everyone else who works
at a record store.
Need more proof? Some
I used to think the slide
in sales was all about the rise of shitty music. Instead, it's about
the rise of convenience.
- Total CD shipments
dropped 15 percent from January through June this year, twice
the total decline during 2002 (Spin Jan. 2004).
- Apple has sold more
than 25 million songs since it launched its iTunes service and
it sold 336,000 iPods in its fourth quarter ended Sept. 27, up
140 percent from a year-ago (Reuters).
- 32 percent of Internet
users recently said they had downloaded music -- up 71 percent
from the summer of 2000. (Pew Internet & American Life Project).
- The crappy gift of
choice this holiday season according to WhatACrappyPresent.com:
CDs. The site says kids are far better off downloading music for
free from the Internet than having their parents spend cash on
second inescapable fact in 2003: Hip-hop has officially become this
generation's rock and roll.
Look, every era has a
sound that defines it, from doo-wop and the birth of rock in the
'50s, psychedelic and heavy metal in the '60s, disco and punk in
the '70s, hair bands and New Wave in the '80s, and grunge in the
Now in the '00s, the
definitive sound is hip-hop. If you don't believe me, turn on MTV
or the FM and listen. Or just look at the charts -- throughout '03
the Top-20 was consistently dominated by hip-hop acts, from Missy
Elliott to OutKast, 50 Cent to Eminem. Sure, there was the usual
spew of goon rock, pop-punk and teen idol ephemera, but ask your
typical teenager what's blaring in his ear-buds and he'll likely
grunt out the name of this week's favorite emcee.
It all comes as something
of a surprise to all of us white guys who grew up in the '80s that
discarded hip-hop and rap as little more than a short-lived novelty
or fad. "There's no melody! The guy is just talking fast, he
can't sing. Anyone can do that!" Such shortsighted idiots were
we. Now 20 years later, hip-hop is everything, at least from a commercial
I remember hearing stuff
like Bobby Darin, Chubby Checker, The Big Bopper and Bill Haley
and the Comets -- you know, the stuff they played on Happy Days
-- thinking "that's old people's music" and it was only
20 years old at the time. How does this generation view stuff that
was released in 1984, before hip-hop had rose to its current level
of pop prominence? The Replacements? Husker Du? The Go Gos? Van
Halen? That's old people's music! Where's the rhyme? Where's the
style? Where's the off-the-hook beat? For this generation, hi-hop
hasn't pushed rock and roll aside, hip-hop has become rock and roll.
Where does that leave
indie rock? Right where it belongs -- right where it's always been,
really -- under the radar. Despite the success of bands like The
White Stripes, The Strokes or Ryan Adams, indie continued to go
virtually unnoticed last year by the great gray masses, with the
most successful bands quietly selling CDs in the thousands instead
of the millions.
That said, here's, my
top-10 favorite CDs of 2003 (in no specific order):
this generation, hip-hop hasn't pushed rock and roll aside,
hip-hop has become rock and roll.
- Okkervil River -- Down the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar)
-- Heart-warming and/or heart-wrenching southern-tinged storybook
folk from Austin. One of the most overlooked bands in indie today.
- Twilight Singers -- Blackberry Belle (One Little Indian)
-- Dark and haunting, as angry as it is seductive. And as good
or better than anything he did with The Afghan Whigs. Welcome
back, Mr. Dulli, we've missed you.
- Criteria -- En Garde (Initial) -- A home-grown angular
stew that never lets go of a good hook. Formerly of Slowdown Virginia,
Cursive and The White Octave, frontman Stephen Pedersen knows
how to write a good riff and an even better pop song.
- The Kingdom Flying Club -- Non-fiction (Emergency Umbrella)
-- These sweet, snotty indie kids from Columbia, Mo., remember
what good pop sounds like. Truly under the radar, it's worth the
- Crooked Fingers -- Red Devil Dawn (Merge) -- Think Neil
Diamond on acid or imagine "September Morn" sung through
a bull horn. Former Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann has
a knack for making disaster sound fun. Gritty and good.
- Yo La Tengo -- Summer Sun (Matador) -- Trippy beats and
melody that border on quiet jazz, the trio is mellowing as it
gets older, and that's a good thing.
- Consonant -- Love and Affliction (Fenway) -- Mission
of Burma's Clint Conley takes it into a new millennium without
forgetting the past. He brings Come's Chris Brokaw and Bedhead's
Matt Kadane along for the ride.
- Guster -- Keep It Together (Palm/Reprise) -- I don't
care if they're indie or not, no band -- commercial or otherwise
-- writes better hooks. This is as perfect as a pop record gets.
Regardless, Guster somehow has managed to stay out of the public
- The New Pornographers -- Electric Version (Matador) --
They sound like fun-loving Birmingham hippies channeling the Kinks
even though they're from Vancouver. This year's retro winner,
along with The Shins.
- Lost in Translation Soundtrack -- various artists (Emperor
Norton) -- My Bloody Valentine, Air, Jesus and Mary Chain, the
best soundtrack from the best movie of '03.
There was a lot of great stuff that
didn't make the cut, including CDs by The Shins, Cursive, Steely
Dan, Tilly and the Wall, Enon, The Rapture, The Carsinogents, Azure
Ray, The Postal Service, Guided by Voices, Bleu, Mayday, Head of
Femur, and more. Not bad for what arguably was one of the "offest"
off years in recent history. But in the end, there really wasn't
one indie CD that will be remembered above all the others as thee
CD of 2003, and that isn't a good thing.
So what happened in the glorified Omaha music scene in '03? Here
are some highlights:
- Regardless of having one of the quieter years in terms of releases,
Saddle Creek Records' visibility continued to soar, thanks
to voracious touring by almost all its bands, including Bright
Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Cursive, The Good Life and The Faint. Bright
Eyes earned the distinction of being the first true Omaha band
to play on The Late Show with David Letterman as Oberst
and Co. performed "The Trees Get Wheeled Away" on the
national broadcast June 11. That, along with Bright Eyes' Lifted,
or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground selling
more than a 100,000 copies, are achievements the label has been
building toward since it began a decade ago.
- Omaha said goodbye to a major showcase when The Music Box
closed its doors at the end of October. Though an impasse in lease
negotiations has been rumored as the reason behind the closure,
there's no denying the venue struggled to book acts that consistently
drew sizable crowds. Left in its wake is the irascible Ranch Bowl.
The bowling alley/night club keeps chugging along, booking its
usual collection of youth-oriented, hardcore/pop-punk bands, refusing
to pick up the more adult-oriented acts that were the Box's bread
- The print media that covers the local music scene saw
its ups and down in '03. The Omaha World-Herald's Thursday
supplement, titled Go!, cut back its coverage from the
heyday when it rivaled the local alternative weeklies. Now its
focus seems to be on good-hearted family fare rather than music.
Medium Magazine, the slick, sexy, perfect-bound monthly,
saw a change in editors prior to its rumored demise. Meanwhile,
a rival to The Reader launched this year called Omaha
Pulp, helmed by former Reader editors Timothy Schaffert
and Leslie Prisbell. Relying more on a journal- than a journalistic-style
of writing, the paper boasts some promising music coverage, including
some dead-on CD reviewers.
- How could I forget what's been lauded by the City of Omaha as
one of the most important developments for local entertainment
since the invention of the television? Costing a mere $291 million,
the Qwest Convention Center and Arena made its debut this
summer promising to draw every county-fair style act the city
has craved but didn't have a facility large enough to hold. Among
them, such cutting-edge performers as, well, Grand Funk Railroad,
Cher, Fleetwood Mac and Lisa Marie Presley. And with winners scheduled
for 2004 like Yanni, Shania Twain, Britney Spears and Reba McEntire
you can be assured that Omaha will continue to be recognized for
its exciting music scene right alongside Branson, Mo.
- It was a strong year for fans of touring indie rock bands --
arguably, one of the strongest in recent history. Those hard-working
music entrepreneurs at One Percent Productions closed out
the year by booking more than 100 shows, most held at South Omaha's
Sokol Underground. After attending more rock shows this year than
I care to count, here are my top-6 most memorable live shows of
2003 in order of occurrence:
In the end, there really
wasn't one indie CD that will be remembered above all the
others as thee CD of 2003, and that isn't a good thing.
Jan. 15, Sokol Underground -- Blizzard conditions raged outside
while a capacity crowd of ultra-hipsters raged inside to the NYC
band's brooding, rhythmic electronic chants.
- The Warlocks,
March 21, Sokol Underground -- The Velvet Underground, My Bloody
Valentine, Spiritualized, Jesus and Mary Chain, Mercury Rev and
your favorite stoner rock band all rolled up in into one king-kong
sized sound. Too bad only 45 people saw it.
- Bright Eyes/Arab
Strap, May 12, Sokol Auditorium -- It'll be remembered as
the show where an ailing Conor Oberst finally snapped, ending
his short set by smashing his guitar on stage Pete Townshend-style.
- Mark Burgess,
June 26, Healing Arts Center -- A celebratory evening featuring
the former lead singer of The Chameleons backed on bass by local
legend Dereck Higgins.
- The Twilight Singers,
Nov. 6, Sokol Underground -- An hour and forty-five minutes of
pure bliss for Afghan Whigs fans; Greg Dulli proved once again
he's one of the best crooners in indie rock history.
- Crooked Fingers/Azure
Ray, Dec. 13, Sokol Underground -- Backed by Azure Ray, Eric
Bachmann a.k.a. Crooked Fingers breathed new life into some of
his darkest lullabies.
I suppose I should leave
room for No. 7, as Bright Eyes and Omaha folk legend Simon Joyner
are slated to take the stage at the historic Rose Theater Dec. 27
for a sold-out show that promises to be, at the very least, memorable.
What's to come in '04?
Find out next week when Lazy-i publishes its annual predictions
for the coming year. You'll be startled and amazed.
Posted Dec. 25, 2003. Published in the Omaha
Reader Dec. 29, 2003. Copyright © 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.