If 2002 was hell to pick through then this was paradise. Music in 2003 was just plain great and working on this list was a blast. Honestly it felt like everything was more alive this year. The number one song on Billboard was In Da Club and while I’m no great 50 Cent fan, obviously that’s more fun than How You Remind Me. Hell, Get Low made the top 20 for the year end list. In fact the Hot 100 entire year end list was pretty interesting. I love that I didn’t have room for a Michelle Branch song that did pretty well and Clocks by Coldplay couldn’t even notch an honorable mention.
This list is very rock heavy and that reflects a bias. That’s where my taste was. And honestly for good reason. 2003 was probably the best year for rock in 10 years. There was a wide variety from ultra dark to extremely happy music. Bands that were big in the 90s pop up here with big wins. New guys shine. Hell Evanescence was this year though when someone as Arkansas proud as I am leaves them off, consider it a review.
Who was I this year though? Well this was one hell of a year. Literally. Last semester of high school. First in college. Lot of change. Violent depression. I take Prozac as a result of a nervous breakdown this year. I’m going to talk a lot about this year as I go. It was a lot of challenges but I survived and 2004 will be a very happy year.
Avril Lavigne- Losing Grip. If I could make this a top 11, this would be 11. I can’t cut a single song from this list but this was really incredible. It began Lavigne shining in my book.
Outkast- Hey Ya. I feel like since I’ve started doing honorable mentions I have at least one song that’s of higher quality than the actual list but I just don’t love as much. This is that. A timeless classic for a reason.
Plumb- Real. Also have to have the cut that stings to make. I love this song deeply but it’s thin. It’s damned pretty though and I have lots of affection for it.
50 Cent- In Da Club. Do I actually love this song or is it inextricably linked to nostalgia for the summer between high school and college? Both I think. It’s the perfect club anthem. Who doesn’t love drinks with friends?
Alex Band- For You. Clocks didn’t make my list but a song that clumsily references Daredevil makes my list. Nostalgia and fandom are bad. This is probably not a very good song but it makes me happy. It’s here.
Alien Ant Farm was pretty great at shooting themselves in the foot. Like going back to Movies as the follow-up to Smooth Criminal when it was already rejected was a ridiculous decision and I liked that song enough to put it on my 2001 list! Crashing the BET Awards when you’re a group of white guys for a video was always going to ruin any chance their lead song had. That they did it again for a Justin Timberlake/Christina Aguilera tour and a gay pride parade really speaks to how much they wanted to sink any good will they might get. And it kills me because they had a great song.
10 Alien Ant Farm- These Days. This is a fascinating song. It’s not deep mind you, it’s another bad relationship song, but it’s both slick and rough at the same time. It has a big polished sound so common for the music of the day but it’s stressed. The emotion of the song is unmissable. It’s almost an exhausting track. Frustration is a great emotion for music yet it’s never in rock as effectively as it is here. I’m going to use the term big a lot on this list because a lot of these songs were that and this is that. A loud anthem that was of course a last gasp.
Time to get to one of the weirdest blind spots on this project. I’ve not talked about the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And there’s no reason for me to ignore them. They were constantly successful in the 90s and the 2000s were great for them. It’s not like I hate their music. Look at my taste. Of course I like them. They just kept bubbling under at say 20-25 when the cutoff is 15. Well they had one song I loved in 2003 that made it.
9 Red Hot Chili Peppers- Fortune Faded. This is kind of a weird outlier for these lists, a track thrown on the Greatest Hits album to sell it. Those are rarely good but this actually is, probably because it’s a perfect distillation of their sound. The California psychedelic funk the band is known for is all over this song. The hook on this is one of the best ever from a band very good at them. It’s tight too. This is just a good gut punch song. Took too long to get to them but I do respect legends.
I try very hard not to make these lists “what was my state of mind” in each year. I try not to put songs that directly speak to where I was. I slip though. In 1996, I had Missing You which reflected my sadness at leaving elementary school. That was an experience I only liked at the end. High school? I loved it. Four happy years. Look back at my 1999-2002 lists. So a song about losing something you love? Yeah it goes on.
8 The All-American Rejects- Swing Swing. Honestly this was one of my favorite songs in that moment above most of the songs to follow. I’m putting it lower because it’s not top 5 good. But it is damn good. Pop punk had a smooth birth in this moment and this is as good as it got. Just a simple broken heart song. I love how it uses the worst trait of the genre, the snotty whiny vibe, and just goes all in to make the song work. It’s a pissy self absorbed complaint and people need a song that’s just that. When you feel this way you aren’t going to be all that dignified frankly and I love that this is at least real about that mood. As a teenager then, I needed this song.
Liz Phair’s self-titled album is controversial to say the least. It’s considered the ultimate sell out album. And it’s not. Jewel’s 0304 was this year and I think it poisoned the well for this album. Critics were already knives out after that and Phair had bad timing to get caught in that. A local critic, one of the few positive reviewers, correctly argued the album was her selling herself to new listeners. What’s wrong with that? And I especially think credit is due on her lead single.
7 Liz Phair- Why Can’t I? It’s bizarre to me this is treated as a betrayal of craft because Why Can’t I? is as perfect as pop songs go. Yes, she’s trying to sell her music with the song. There’s direct quotes saying that. But come on, the music business is a business. I’m not mad at someone playing the game this well. This is a good simple love song with fantastic production and solid session work. It’s ephemeral but it was a summer song. Those are meant to be light and that’s exactly what memories I associate it with. Maybe the issue here is how much it gives away that art and commerce have such an ugly relationship that’s rarely in balance and nobody involved lied about it. I don’t care. This song rules.
So why didn’t I bring up Jane’s Addiction in the 90s? Them and Soundgarden feel like the last two big bands I haven’t covered from the age. It’s actually pretty simple. They stank. Been Caught Stealing? Terrible. Jane Says? If you trim off the live intro which is a song unto itself, atrocious. Perry Farrell has a terrible voice. Overall their sound is wretched. But a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut.
6 Jane’s Addiction- Just Because. This a killer rock song. Again, just simple as it gets, angrily telling someone off. This is not a year of flowery metaphor but even here it’s incredibly direct. And it’s so very angry. Dave Navarro is the star here with guitar work that sears. Just as an instrumental it would sound furious. Everything I hate about Farrell fits for once too. His annoying voice is perfect for a rant. This is a great variant of a great style of song. And weirdly not the best by a bad band this year.
It hurts to look back at this song. It’s a painful thing to listen to knowing what was coming. In this moment these guys sounded raw and interesting. To know they would sell out harder than anyone has to hurt. But this was a moment they shone in. So I must put this song here.
5 Maroon 5- Harder to Breathe. Add this to the list of songs that are actually about the record industry that we can’t escape. This is a song about being creatively stifled by an overbearing label using the metaphor of a relationship from a band with no credibility in just a few years. I’m beating up on them because this remains an all timer. It sounds wild and angry with barely choked out vocals from Adam Levine that are weird and unnerving. Sonically it feels like a nightmare and those were weirdly absent in nu-metal so it makes sense a pop group fixed that. This gets under your skin.
I gravitate heavily towards songs about addiction as a depression sufferer. Few things have the same sky high comorbidity as those two. Both are the experience of fighting giving into episodes which are often destructive. Both are virtually impossible to escape. They’re so similar I could seriously go for hours. Anyway that’s why a song about addiction is on this list.
4 Seether- Fine Again. This song applies to depression almost as much as its actual addiction subject with staggering rawness. This song nails what it’s like to be struggling. You don’t want to give into the void. You want to fight and be productive but there’s that urge to give in. This song sounds like that feeling better than damned near anything ever recorded on the subject. Lyrically, it’s a beast with perfect description upon perfect description. Writer/Singer Shaun Morgan has openly fought these issues and this is a hell of a work. I don’t need to say I connected with this at a moment of extreme change. It’s beyond obvious I did.
OK, so that song was about a similar experience to what I have but what about my actual mental health issues. I have violent anxiety. I have meltdowns. And there’s a bit of music on that. Basket Case. Paranoid by Black Sabbath. Help! by The Beatles. Good songs. But what does a panic attack really feel like? There should be a perfect example. And there is.
3 Taproot- Poem. When you start a song with “overbearing panic attack entrenching my veins,” you guarantee a spot high on this list. And seriously, it took two great songs by favorite bands to keep this from the top. This is an exact perfect study of what goes through the mind of an anxiety sufferer. There’s lots of repetition. The words are tight and fast but get messy and loose at points. It’s full of emotion at every second. It’s intense. And it honestly helps during panic attacks beautifully. I’m prone to playing it then. The very words of the song are a constant reminder to breathe and move on. We need music like this.
I hate thinking about politics in the 2000s. I’m extremely political in the way a lapsed member of a faith despises organized religion but clings to what he loved of the faith and wishes he could believe in it fully. I don’t believe in the system and 2003 is why. The Iraq War was a depressing error I once thought was a good idea. I fell for propaganda and I will die bitter about it. And we will cover music directly about it in years to come. I mean, do the math and you know what’s coming next year. But we have an early entry into music about this moment and it’s a masterpiece.
2 Coldplay- Politik. This song is often linked with the war and 9/11 and that’s deliberate. It was written on 9/11 and they played it at the Grammys in the lead up to the war. It is a desperate cry to understand another person at a moment where the world began to become impossibly polarized. This is a naked bloody wound of a song. The lyrics are precise. The piano work by Chris Martin almost dominates the song more than his voice does, pounding you then becoming light before pounding you again. The string section is gold. This is the defining song of the moment.
I didn’t go to my graduation. That’s a very important fact for my life. I did not go to my high school graduation. I didn’t want to and I don’t regret missing it. It’s a ceremony that meant nothing to me. I was at the grocery store when my name was read. I helped my family instead. I hate it so much I didn’t want a song that could relate to it to top this list unless it was the best song by one of the greatest bands ever. And when I looked at the music of 2003 I realized that yes, one was indeed the best song of my graduation year. And I’m glad to talk about it.
1 Foo Fighters- Times Like These. I love everything about this song. This is a track of pure light. A perfect guitar riff. Incredible drum work. And Dave Grohl at maximum rock god mode. I feel like I could just leave this at the top and be done. But it’s important to talk after a list about songs that let me wallow in anxiety how much I love a celebration of rebuilding from that. This is a deeply felt celebration of facing a stressful moment and not knowing what to do. “Do I stay or run away and leave it all behind?” Yeah I relate to it. And ultimately this is about fighting it out. You are made better from stress. I hope that’s true. And I believe it when I listen to this. Here’s how great this song is. I think pretty much any live version is better because Grohl is one of the happiest performers of all time. He sounds so giddy belting it. What a perfect anthem. One of my favorite bands and their best song. Damn right this is what I want for this year.
Next year: The list I had to write twice in 2004.