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2003: The Year in Music

by Tim McMahan

Okay, 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 figures:

  • 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 CDs. The site says kids are far better off downloading music for free from the Internet than having their parents spend cash on prerecorded CDs.

I used to think the slide in sales was all about the rise of shitty music. Instead, it's about the rise of convenience.


The 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 '90s.

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 pop-music standpoint.

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):


For 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 find.
  • 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 eye.
  • 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 and butter.
  • 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.











  • Interpol, 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.

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Posted Dec. 25, 2003. Published in the Omaha Reader Dec. 29, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.