Original Soul

This time, it's personal: Our look back at an intimate year in music.

"Here, put this on."

Nearly everyone you met in 2003 came with a personal soundtrack. From the little middle school "sevvie" in your car pool who carried a personal mix CD in her backpack to the businessman in front of you at the ATM playing Dido just a little too loud on his iPod's headphones, people moved to their own personal soundtrack.

No one has to listen to music that isn't on their personal "favorites" list anymore. Find it, buy it (at iTunes' 99¢ Only store) and rip it to something you can take with you. At work, tune in the Internet radio station that best suits your mood. In the car, punch in that XM network that specializes in your favorite genre.

In fact, it's almost hard to listen to anything today that hasn't been filtered, somewhere, through someone's own set of preferences. Compounding that process, while record labels continue to slump badly in the face of this personalization, they're also releasing more albums by more artists than ever before. That means people wade through a pool of the awful -- which is bad -- just to get to the portion of the good music they want to hear -- which is great.

This all explains why this year, we've decided to forgo traditional top 10 lists. We'll just tell you what we liked, what we responded to most. We'll laugh and marvel at trends as we consumed them. We'll share how we and others experienced music. And the four top 10s we do offer will cover specific genres, written by some of the best and most enthusiastic critics of those genres -- they know what they're talking about, and they enjoy the hell out of it.

In the end, the personalization of music has made the sounds swirling around each of us as much a statement as the clothes we wear. Enjoy as our regular New Timescontributors share a few of their favorite things:

Jack Black teaches a teenager the value of good rock
A fortysomething dad could ask for no better gift than Jack Black's feel-good film School of Rock. It didn't take much to convince my 14-year-old son that every record before 1984 is worth hearing as long as it was featured in a millisecond of this film. Already exposed to the Beatles through Yellow Submarine, he's cut straight through to Sabbath, the Ramones and Zeppelin. That crazy tingle I'm feeling (sob) -- it's pride! – Serene Dominic

Johnny Cash and SUV trailer trashing
Well-scrubbed execs who normally wouldn't dream of affixing a bumper sticker to their Escalades let their country arses show after Johnny Cash died. Of course, the big black-and-white "CASH" promotional sticker (from the American IV compilation) didn't look out of place on many of the Lexus SUVs we saw driving around Scottsdale after Johnny met his Maker on September 12. But we delighted at one Paradise Valley man, who defaced the back window of his newly purchased black (naturally) Lincoln Navigator with a huge, cheesy hand-stenciled banner: "In Memory of Johnny Cash." Just made y'all wanna honk. -- Jimmy Magahern

Jay-Z and Panjabi MC's "Beware of the Boys (Mundian To Bach Ke)"
You'd have figured musicians would let their political flags fly this over Boy George's administration in song. Nope. One who did happened to be the disputed king of New York hip-hop. Jay-Z spit two typically smooth verses over Panjabi MC's already great bhangra-meets-Knight Rider smash "Beware of the Boys," but it's the one where he intoned "We're rebellious, we're at home/Screaming leave Iraq alone'" that made the ears percolate. If retirement comes on the heels of "Only love kills war/When will they learn?", then Jay's leaving just as he was getting ready to say something. -- Piotr Orlov

Big Boi vs. Andre 3000
Judging by the press clippings, I feel like the only white critic in America who actually prefers Big Boi's hip-hop on OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Belowto Andre 3000's freaky-deaky routine. With its Prince rip-offs, big-band goofs, junglist cover of "My Favorite Things" and one great pop tune ("Hey Ya!"), Andre's The Love Belowis something to behold. But here's the real revelation: Big Boi is pretty fucking eccentric, too. Overshadowed by his flamboyant partner for years, he steps forth on Speakerboxxxwith an ear for the psychedelic and an unhinged sense of drama. He's as concerned with Iraq as he is with being the gangster mack. -- Christopher O'Connor

The R. Kelly hit parade
I sometimes wonder if Chicago Sun-Times pop critic Jim DeRogatis made a back-room deal with R. Kelly before he turned the singer's infamous sex tape over to Windy City cops in February 2002. Instead of killing Kelly's career, the investigation into his alleged bedroom improprieties has jump-started his career for what must be the 10th time, with singles "Snake," "Thoia Thoing" and effervescent remixes of "Step in the Name of Love" and "Ignition" confirming his creative viability one inappropriate double entendre at a time. With all due respect to his victims, if Kelly goes to jail, can he keep making records? -- Mikael Wood

A.R.E. Weapons commit Modified Arts sacrilege
The rawking electro-trash of A.R.E. Weapons verifies there is no way to make a keyboard sound tough. But the scuzzy, raw-energy New Yorkers turned downtown Phoenix's art-rock haven Modified Arts into a bona fide dive for one night. The duo shattered the shoe-gazing sanctity of the joint and temporarily created a beer-soaked dance club. The normally alcohol-free venue this night featured drag queens spraying beer on indie kids and snotty NYC-fashion fucks dancing to preprogrammed beats. Shirtless and drinking Beam, the Weapons felt like drinking whiskey in church. -- Jonathan Bond

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