2003 was a good year when it comes to head-bopping, if mindless, pop

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

January 01, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

In many ways, 2003 was a dynamic and perplexing year. For me.

I'll spare you the details of my personal drama, which contributed to my confusion about such things as love (I'm learning it's both draining and replenishing) and spirituality (feels like love to me). Fortunately, the good, incredible stuff outweighed the melancholic issues. So as always, I was abundantly blessed. Got a lot to be thankful for.

I guess you can say the same about pop in 2003: We were blessed with some great songs (Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" and OutKast's "Hey Ya" were two of the strongest) that made you want to get up to break it on down despite the war (What is it good for?) and the sluggish economy (Brother, can you spare a dime?) Some of the lesser known gems this year (Meshell Ndegeocello's Comfort Woman and Annie Lennox's Bare) moved me, shimmying down into the soul. But much of pop left me puzzled. (Now, why was Ashanti's "Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)" such a huge hit?)

There weren't any real trends in pop. It seems that production took precedence over vocal performance. R. Kelly's Chocolate Factory, one of the year's most successful albums with more than 2 million copies sold, is perhaps one of the Chicago native's finest works: polished, well-crafted and so catchy you hate the man. Although his voice never really knocked me out anyway, Kelly has given us more inspired vocals on other albums, particularly on 1993's 12 Play and his 1995 self-titled effort.

But on the Chocolate Factory, the 34-year-old artist -- who scaled the charts with his salacious music despite the wide circulation of That Videotape and 21 counts of child pornography-related offenses -- proved he's one of the strongest producers on the urban front. Not the most ambitious or the most creative, mind you. That would be Timbaland. But regardless of the controversy, Kelly still managed to drop solid though slightly predictable music in 2003.

Rock wasn't all that innovative, either. But the White Stripes infused it with some energy. Songwriting and craft were obviously paramount to this Detroit duo. But its ideas, which were basically derived from '70s punk and country blues, weren't exactly new -- nice, but it's not like we didn't hear similar stuff from Queen or Iggy Pop years ago. I wouldn't call Elephant, the duo's platinum album, a timeless classic. But it's essential and still one of the best rock records I've heard in a while.

In 2003, the country picked two of the year's most unlikely pop stars: Clay Aiken, a skinny geek from North Carolina, and Ruben Studdard, a gargantuan fella from Alabama, both hit No. 1 with their heavily produced, post-American Idol albums.

The two possess shake-the-window-pane voices; each guy is charming in his own uncanny way. But will we still care in 2004? Will either move beyond the American Idol shadow and establish himself as an important artist despite his association with an overblown, sometimes nauseatingly corny talent show? I doubt it. But stranger things have happened. Hey, Paula Abdul, one of the show's judges, was once a platinum-selling artist herself. Go figure.

Although it was released at the tail end of 2002, Justified, Justin Timberlake's solo debut, exploded in '03 with such smashes as "Cry Me a River" and "Rock Your Body." Again, this is an example of where the production ultimately saves the project. Justin's vocals (not to mention the lyrics) were the weakest parts. But Justified featured some of the Neptunes' tightest, most spirited tracks. Too bad they couldn't find a better singer for 'em.

And speaking of the supaproducers from Virginia, the Neptunes released "Frontin'," one of the year's most infectious hits. The single boasted several charming elements: Pharrell's don't-take-it-seriously falsetto, an airy, spare arrangement and that killer break reminiscent of Michael Jackson circa '79. It was perfect fun-in-the-sun music.

Last year's best-selling artist is a former drug dealer from Queens, a muscled dude with a shy grin who has been shot nine times, whose mother, also a drug dealer, was murdered when he was still a boy. Curtis Jackson, or 50 Cent as he's known to the world, sold 6.4 million copies of his debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin', in the United States alone. The rapper didn't just limit himself to CDs. In April, he put out The New Breed, a music video DVD and a fresh format labels successfully pushed this year. 50's visual disc, which was packaged with a bonus audio CD of four songs, was the year's biggest seller with 645,000 copies sold. The commercial success may suggest that the man saved hip-hop, but he didn't. (That honor goes to OutKast and Speakerboxxx / The Love Below.)

Although I didn't get the hoopla over the rapper's hard-knock, gangsta image (like we haven't seen that before), I must admit 50 Cent's jams rocked the party all year long. It was a strange juxtaposition, but it worked: a roughneck with a long criminal record, oiled muscles and tattoos galore spitting fun lines over pop-friendly but hard-edged beats even your grandma can bounce to: Go, go, go shawty / It's ya birthday / We gon' party like it's ya birthday ...

Not much there, of course. It's mindless, it's immediate, it's easy.

Hey, that was pop in 2003. As I continue to evolve, though, I would love to hear more substantive, richer material in 2004. I'm expanding my tastes. But I still won't be able to resist a tight hook and a head-nodding groove, regardless of how inane the lyrics may be. I won't have to worry, though. We'll have plenty of that if we get nothing else.

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