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by Rachel Devitt

February 20, 2013

The 50 Best Songs of 2003

by Rachel Devitt  |  February 20, 2013

So, 2003. Feels like it was only yesterday, doesn't it? We were in a recession. We were watching a new Terminator movie, a hobbit-y movie and a quirky, oddly aloof Bill Murray movie. Hell, we were even at war in Afghanistan (yes, it's been that long). The more things change and so on, right?

All jokes aside, that's what makes putting one of these 50 Best playlists together for a year most of us can still remember so fascinating: Things haven't changed that much. Or, to put it another way, not enough time has passed for us to have agreed upon a codified idea of "2003-ness" in history.

Musically speaking, this means that a lot of the names associated with Big Important Songs and Albums from 2003 are still getting tossed around today: Beyoncé. Jay-Z. Muse. Coldplay. Juanes. (And let's not forget a certain Mr. Timberlake, who's now come full circle 10 years after his solo debut dropped.) But some significant discrepancies crop up, too: Johnny Cash, who wowed us in '03 with his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," is no longer with us. Aventura, Outkast, White Stripes and Jet are no longer with us in the same way they were a decade ago. And we only sporadically hear more than a peep out of some of 2003's pop culture fixtures who seemed destined to be running the show unopposed by now. (Missy Elliott, we're looking at you, lady).

In other words, there's still plenty for us to talk about -- and take a stroll down memory lane with. Since 2003 isn't culturally distant enough to have become totally codified in history, we can actively participate in shaping that history right here, right now. The sheer omnipotence, the power!!! So let's get started. What was 2003 all about?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was kind of about rock 'n' roll. Shocking turn of events for American pop music history, right? But 2003 saw the solidification of two very important strains of the stuff: First, what we in the biz like to call "active rock" -- alternative-edged, heart-pounding, occasionally hip-hop-inflected, hard-driving (but still not hook-phobic) butt rock. Your Linkin Parks, your Queens of the Stone Ages, your blink-182s and Audioslaves (neither of whom made the list, but who are here in spirit), your aforementioned Muses, even your Evanescences. This was an era of ballcapped, barrel-chested, tattooed dudes (and a few ladies) rocking out to operatic proportions.

Meanwhile, over on the other, less muscle-y, skinnier jeans-clad end of the rock spectrum, we could find the hipsters deep in the throes of their garage rock revival. The White Stripes, The Kills, The Strokes, The Raveonettes -- this is the heyday of the definite-article indie rock bands who discovered their grandpas' collections of blues records, their fathers' classic garage band records and their uncles' classic punk records, then got together with some buddies and some PBRs to form a band. (Alternate, '04-leaning version: Dig into your mom's classic disco and '80s synth-pop records, get some hipster pals who wear brighter clothes and even tighter jeans together, and form a dance-punk band a la !!!, Junior Senior or Electric Six.)

And what were we all doing way back in '03? Duh! We were shaking it like a salt shaker, obeying commands to "Get Low" and getting down on the floor "Like a Pimp" whilst "In Da Club." This was the era when hip-hop basically took over pop, whether it was Timbaland partnering with Timberlake; Missy, 50 and Lil Jon heard pumping out of every radio station that remotely had to do with pop, hip-hop or R&B; or just basically every corner of the charts getting all crunked up and nasty on us. The ATL was huge, STL was still going strong, and even Americans were paying attention to U.K. hip-hop, thanks to Dizzee Rascal and his grime brethren. You could not go anywhere (pop radio! hip-hop charts! even Indian bhangra!) without hearing either Jay-Z and/or Beyoncé. And then there was Outkast's Andre 3000, who had one of the biggest hits of the year with a retro-tinged, bubblegum-rock-fueled little ditty called "Hey Ya!"

Of course, there was a whole world (or, rather, there were whole worlds) going on outside of the big, important mainstream stuff. Like its English-speaking counterpart, the Latin music industry saw major trends toward both the urban and the indie rock: Bachata boy band Aventura and reggaeton were holding court in the East and the Caribbean, while over on the West Coast, Akwid helped spark the urban regional movement, which interwove hip-hop and regional Mexican music for a tuba-and-accordion-packing swagger. Meanwhile, Colombia's Juanes was well on his way to becoming king of the sensitive alt rockers, while Mexico's Julieta Venegas was establishing her queendom.

Back in the U.S., country music was recovering from its late-'90s foray into very poppy terrain with a little revivalism of both the roots and good ol' boy varieties, thanks to artists like Dixie Chicks on the one hand and Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson on the other (none of whom were afraid of a pop hook, either). And while electronic dance music itself was kind of transitioning between movements, hipster-friendly electro-pop outfits like Basement Jaxx, The Knife and The Postal Service were everywhere.

Well, what do you know? Maybe it wasn't too soon to try to historicize 2003, after all! At the very least, we're certainly removed enough to identify the year's biggest surprise hits: Lumidee's "Never Leave You (Uh Oh)," Electric Six's "Danger! High Voltage" and Fountains of Wayne's inescapable "Stacy's Mom." Even if we can still sing each and every one of 'em like it came out yesterday.

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