From the late 1990s until whenever we stopped burning things onto compact discs, I gave my friends, family, and colleagues a year-end best-of mix as my Christmas card. I kept it to my favorite 20 songs of the year, the final track listings subject to last-minute switches, bold additions, and sequence changes that were controversial to only myself. During a recent decluttering of my office, I found a whole bunch of them, from 2003 to 2009, and as I popped each one open and looked at the seven years of soundtracks I fretted over for seven solid Decembers, I was faced with one important question:
What the hell are most of these songs?
Now, listen: I can tell you my favorite music from 1987, because I still have my Replacements, George Michael, and Tommy Keene records. I know my favorite music from 1997, because I’m hoarding CD booklets overstuffed with post-Oasis Britpop, Ben Folds Five, and Soul Coughing. I can call my favorite music from 2017 right up on my phone, because I make year-end playlists in both Apple Music and Spotify and post them on Twitter at Christmas (which I think we can agree is not the same as burning a CD).
But if you ask me to name my favorite songs from 2007, I might need to use a lifeline. The music of the mid-aughts to early-teens is largely gone, lost down a new-millennium memory hole. There is a moment that whizzed right past us with no cassettes, discs, or Shazam queries through which to remember it. These are the Deleted Years, and we need to start honoring this period, right now, before we forget it forever.
The Deleted Years, by my count, ran from 2003 to 2012—give or take a year or two on either side—from the time the Apple Music Store opened to right around when we really started to use Spotify. In the early years of the new millennium, the music industry was crashing from its decadent late ‘90s peak, and record stores were beginning to drop like the early victims in Contagion. Napster was taking a chunk out of sales, though some of us still purchased music, whether to assuage our guilty consciences or because the peer-to-peer services were too unpredictable. But if you were an early adopter of Apple Music Store, as I was, everything you bought from 2003 to 2009 is stuck on a dusty iPod for which a charger can no longer be found, or on a MacBook that’s three MacBooks ago. Whether you bought that whole first Kaiser Chiefs album or just plunked down the 99 cents for “I Predict A Riot,” you don’t have it anymore. It simply does not exist for you, and it didn’t even leave behind a record sleeve to let you know it ever did. Now the era is over, and only a handful of dusty Maxell compact discs reminds me that I used to be really into The Pipettes.
The superstars of the Deleted Years—your Timberlakes, Beyonces and J. Los—were left over from the Gilded Era before. As for new artists, if they started making noise by 2002, or from 2013 forward, they escaped the curse. Damien Rice is Deleted Years, David Gray is not. Coldplay is Coldplay, Starsailor— even with a debut album produced by Phil Spector—is Deleted Years. Nelly still gets to tour, Chingy gets an episode of a “where are they now” show called FINDING on BET’s YouTube page. John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, and Lana Del Rey escaped the Deleted Years by launching their careers just outside its boundaries. KT Tunstall, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Mat Kearney did not. Maroon 5 dropped Songs About Jane in 2002 and have been in our ears ever since, The Click Five came out in 2005 and…well, kids, once there was a very good band called The Click Five.
And though the Deleted Years fully swallowed Maroon 5’s finest work, 2007’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, some of what it disappeared is best left that way: Snoop Dogg’s “Sexual Seduction,” Nick Lachey’s post-divorce reality single “What’s Left Of Me,” Christina Aguilera’s big band period, and the closest Pink ever came to a novelty record, “Stupid Girls.” The subject of the latter song, Paris Hilton, released “Stars Are Blind,” a true musical Rorschach test if ever there was one. Also: the entire genre of mashups.
It’s not that the Deleted Years didn’t produce stars, it’s that a music industry in free-fall spat out fewer of them, and lower development budgets meant everyone but the top tier got washed out to sea. And right in the middle of this period, the iPod gave way to early-generation iPhones, which if memory serves could hold eleven short songs. Only your very favorite songs and artists survived the transition. So for every Gaga and Rihanna, there was a JoJo and a Lumidee. For every Vampire Weekend, there was a Tapes n’ Tapes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and a !!!. For every Black Keys, a Blue Merle. And unless you were a big enough fan to catch one of these ill-fated acts live and cop a t-shirt, there is simply nothing tangible to let you know they were here. It’s like we got memory-zapped by the Men In Black: International (which, I swear, is also a thing that happened, this very summer).
A handful of the other successful artists who debuted in the Deleted Years had the wind at their backs at the start of their careers, in the form of country radio support (Taylor Swift), an unholy mix of Christian rock fans and the Warped Tour (Katy Perry), Adele’s personality (Adele), and the Disney Channel (The Jonas Brothers). That each of these has evolved and remained relevant we can indeed chalk up to talent, but if not for the big machines behind them, they might be SheDaisy, Jem, Duffy, and Hot Chelle Rae.
The ways we acknowledged and celebrated hit music began to crumble around us in the Deleted Years as well. BBC countdown mainstay Top Of The Pops aired its last episode in 2006, with the indignity of its final number one being Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.” Two years later—and long after MTV had abandoned music videos in favor of teen moms—Total Request Live ended its run, with its last chart-topper being Ne-Yo’s “She Got Her Own” featuring Jamie Foxx and Fabolous. (Sing it. Right now.) Rolling Stone and Q shrunk in size and page count. By 2013, Billboard had changed its chart methodology to reflect how young people were consuming music, a move whose initial impact was giving Baauer a number-one single because of all those “Harlem Shake” videos.
At the same time, the internet changed music from something you bought to something you experienced; the growing presence of Pandora allowed you to hear a song you might like based on the songs it knew you did like, but unless you were right at your laptop to clock an artist and a title, you might never hear it again. What once had been singles were reduced to ones and zeroes, pleasant moments in between ads for eBay.
It’s not that each era hasn’t had its own one-hit wonders and flashes in the pan, but in the Deleted Years, everything came together to make music feel especially disposable. The charts lost their significance, the value of a song plummeted, the gatekeepers became redundant. And where my generation has dusty 45s and cassingles to keep the memory of our Johnny Hates Jazzes and Positive Ks alive, whoever was unlucky enough to be 13 in the mid-aughts has only a LaCie hard drive filled with mislabeled Limewire files to turn to. The world remains chaotic for the music fan of 2019, of course, but at least our Spotify and Apple Music playlists remain. Until the next thing comes along, anyway.
A lot of great music came out in The Deleted Years. That we’ve forgotten much of it doesn’t mean it was more disposable, it’s just that the rapid changes in technology meant we disposed of it. And now it’s gone. It left us without even a SiriusXM channel to remember it by, and there is a SiriusXM channel for spa reggae. It’s vanishing from our collective memory, and I want to tattoo reminders all over myself like the guy in Memento so I never forget it, but then I look at a picture of Metro Station, and I’m like, maybe not.
The Deleted Years are a time to be celebrated and mourned, but if I’ve sent you to Spotify to look up Blue Merle, then maybe it hasn’t been in vain.