2003 in review: Music

2003 has been a really light year on the CD-buying front for me. I think this is mostly because the places where I listen to music have changed substantially in this last year or two, and partly down to MP3–but not necessarily in the way you might think.

When Alex started walking, we removed our floor-standing hi-fi speakers from the living room because they were hazards to toddler navigation. We could still play CDs through our DVD player and television speakers, but that’s a bit naff. I got a decent set of speakers for my PC earlier in the year, and that has taken the place of our living room music system. However, when we are all downstairs we usually have a game or a DVD playing on the TV. When Alex goes to bed and Abi and I dive into our respective hobbies, we usually leave the TV tuned to something like the History or Discovery Channel for background processing (hello, N.A.D.D.). The only time I tend to listen to music in the living room is after Abi has gone for her bath, and I’m alone downstairs.

We have a radio in the kitchen, which I listen to occasionally while I’m cooking or washing the dishes. Alex has a radio/CD player in his bedroom, and we usually slap on a CD when I take him for his bath, and turn it down softer while I’m reading him his bedtime story. (Right now, he is heavily into Gorillaz the Foo Fighters.) We don’t have a car (yet–more news on that soon, maybe), and I am currently without a portable music player, so I don’t listen to much music while I’m out of the house. (In my old job, it was common for people to stick on some headphones while they were coding, aber was vorbei ist ist vorbei, Baby Blue.) (Bonus points for catching that reference without resorting to Google.)

Part of the lack of new CDs, therefore, is that I haven’t been exposed to much new music over the year. I love radio, and despite the fact that British pop radio is becoming more and more sterile between sunrise and sunset, enough interesting stuff usually creeps in between the cracks to give me a year’s worth of CD buying tips. Not this year. What I ought to do, of course, is develop alternative sources for new musical input.

But that brings me round to the second reason for nor buying much new music, and that is that I’m listening to a lot more of my old music. I’ve now got somewhere between 150 and 200 of my CDs ripped to MP3, and I’m about half-way through re-listening to them all and rating them with iTunes. MP3 makes it so much easier to listen to music from my whole collection. There’s no constant shuffling of discs to find the one you’re in the mood for, and finding the tracks you like from a single disc is much simpler than standing with the CD jewel case in one hand, and the CD remote in the other. I have playlists of music for different moods, and if I’m feeling completely random, I can just hit shuffle on the whole collection. And when I’m constantly rediscovering tracks from old albums, I feel less of a need to go out and gather new material.

So what new music did I like in 2003? Well, in no particular order:

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers – By The Way. Chilled out, funky, melodic, with some magnificently intense grooves, it’s a joy from start to end. Favourite tracks: “Dosed,” “Can’t Stop,” “Minor Thing,” “Venice Queen.”
  • Bleu – Redhead. I saw Bleu in support of Toad The Wet Sprocket when was in Boston in February. He rocked. The album is a genius blend of light rock and power pop. He manufactures catchy guitar riffs with ease, and blends them with off-beat lyrics. There’s a lot of the jilted lover here, but it’s done with wit and maturity rather than angst and bitterness. Favourite tracks: “Could Be Worse,” “Watchin’ You Sleep,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Sayonara” (not available on the Columbia release! Major bummer! Try to get hold of the original release if you can.), “You Know, I Know, You Know,” “Feet Don’t Fail” (also not available on Columbia), and “Dance Baby Dance,” the best song ever written about an inflatable sex doll.
  • Siobhan Donaghy – Revolution In Me. Siobhan Donaghy was one of the original members of the Sugababes back in 2000, when they had a hit with the single “Overload.” (She was the cute one.) “Overload” stuck with me because of its odd mix of the raunchy and the innocent: a menacing bassline, a shivering guitar solo, and blasé yet come-hither vocals from three teenage girls. Siobhan left the band in 2001, and Revolution In Me is her first solo offering. While the Sugababes went down the pop track, Siobhan has pursued a more experimental, indie-sounding direction. The singles “Overrated” and “Twist Of Fate” may be sufficiently pop-like to make the mainstream charts, but the heart of the album lies in darker, moodier tracks like “As You Like It,” “Man Without Friends,” and the rocking “Dialect.” Her web site may be the single worst abuse of Flash I’ve seen this year, but it does provide a streaming music player for you to listen to a generous selection of six full tracks, so you can sample before you buy the album. If you haven’t listened to Siobhan before, do give her a try. Favourite tracks: “As You Like It,” “Twist Of Fate,” “Dialect,” “Man Without Friends.”
  • Matchbox Twenty – More Than You Think You Are. Matchbox Twenty aren’t nearly as popular over here in Britain as they are in the US. Consequently, the song “Unwell” wasn’t played to death on the radio, and I still like it. The album may not be the most daring slice of rock music out there, but it’s energetic, easy on the ears, and with just the right amount of melancholy to make it the perfect soundtrack for bringing you up when you’re feeling down. This, combined with clinically dangerous doses of caffeine, got me through many bad days this summer. Favourite tracks: “Disease,” “Bright Lights,” “Unwell,” and “Could I Be You.”
  • Queens Of The Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf. Heavy and dense, this isn’t nearly as accessible as their previous album, Rated R. The snippets of mock radio scattered between the tracks are annoying, but a curiously integral part of the album as a whole. The songs themselves are a bizarre mix of grungy metal, bass-heavy screaming punk, and trippy prog rock. It’s more than an album, it’s an experience; I find it almost impossible to listen to the rest of the album outside of its own context. I reckon it’s best enjoyed when you’re “in the zone,” whatever “zone” that may be. For me, it’s sitting in front of a computer screen late at night, fingers flying over the keyboard like hyperactive woodpeckers wired directly into my subconscious. Favourite tracks: whichever one is playing at the time.
  • The White Stripes – Elephant. Stripped down and raw in all the ways that Songs For The Deaf isn’t. Everything about this album is up-front in a take-it-or-leave-it kind of way. It doesn’t grow on you, it just hits you between the eyes on first listen and goes, “Yeah? You wanna make something of it?” I love it. Favourite tracks: “Seven Nation Army,” “There’s No Home For You Here,” “I Want To Be The Boy,” “Ball And Biscuit,” “The Hardest Button To Button,” “It’s True That We Love One Another.”

Coming up in 2004: I have absolutely no idea. Any hot tips?