March 23, 2002
There's something to be said for being bored in school.
During my first two years in high school, I was basically checked out mentally. There were a lot of reasons why this was, and they're not really worth going into in this post. But I'd like to believe that one consequence of this was that I became so fascinated with music and music charts that I eventually started my top 40 chart. If I was focused more on trigonometry and chemistry and world history, there probably wouldn't have been enough room in my brain to pay attention to music or music charts.
Now, for a lot of people, this is a recipe for disaster. Some kids are fortunate enough to have recognizable talent and/or a wealthy family that it can mitigate the need to go to public school. But in my case, even though I buckled down my junior and senior years, I didn't have the grades to get into college right away. Nor did I have the foresight to think that the subjects I was genuinely interested in, like music and photography, should have been the fields I looked toward in a career.
Michelle Branch didn't have this problem. She knew by age 15 while she was writing songs during her high school classes that music was what she wanted to do with her life. She's only three years older than me, so when she came along in the summer of 2001, it was probably the first time I felt like I could've known an artist as a classmate or friend. The first parasocial relationship I had with an artist, if you will.
Michelle Branch was born in Sedona, Arizona, in 1983 to a plumber and restaurant manager. Her parents enrolled her in singing lessons at a university when she was eight, and taught herself guitar when she was 14, when she began writing songs. Her parents took her out of high school and homeschooled her when it was clear she wanted to pursue music as a career.
She got gigs in Sedona as a teenager and eventually caught the attention of Hanson, the band known for their incessant 1997 earworm "Mmmbop". Soon she was opening for the group, and she was able to self-produce an album titled Broken Bracelet in 2000. The album led to a record deal with Maverick Records in 2001.
For her major label debut album, she worked with John Shanks as producer. Shanks had mostly been known for playing and co-writing songs with Melissa Etheridge, so he was a natural fit to helm the recording sessions. Branch wrote or co-wrote all the songs for the album, and The Spirit Room would be released in August 2001.
The album came along at a fortuitous point in music history. Just a few years prior, it seemed like heavily produced (dare I say, manufactured) stars like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys were going to be the standard for pop music at the turn of the century. But the backlash began before anyone realized it. In 2000, Eminem and Blink-182 were clowning the pop zeitgeist in their videos and getting hits as a result. And around the same time Michelle Branch was releasing her debut album, Britney was dancing with a snake at that year's MTV VMAs to "I'm a Slave 4 U". But despite the sensation that performance caused, the song only got to #27 on the Hot 100, and no other singles reached the top 40.
Now make no mistake, The Spirit Room wouldn't be mistaken for a recording of a coffeehouse jam session. The production on the album was high-end enough that pop radio could easily embrace it. But it was also clear that songwriting and instrumentation were given equal footing. The lead single from the album, "Everywhere" is a rollicking crowd-pleaser, the type of song you could imagine singing along at a concert. That combination was something I couldn't get enough of at that time, and the song reached #2 on my top 40. Nationally, the song didn't do too badly either, getting to #12 on the Hot 100.
"All You Wanted" would be the second single from The Spirit Room. Branch's narrator in the song is lamenting a relationship that seems to have hit the skids. Branch wants to be like this person she's infatuated with, and when she starts doing that, she loses herself in the process. She doesn't realize this person needed someone to complement them rather than imitate them. "I didn't know that it was so cold/And you needed someone to show you the way."
There's a level of self-centeredness in the chorus, where it seems like she thinks she can be this person's savior. "If you want to/I can save you/I can take you away from here." For whatever reason, even though I was nowhere close to a romantic relationship when the song was released, the lyrics resonated deeply with me. We all want our partners to be so in love with us that our egos wind up getting in the way. My brain had to imagine that whoever I fell in love with at that age would see me as the center of their world. It's easy now to see how toxic that way of thinking is, but when you're 15 or 16 and not riding much self-confidence to begin with, then I suppose that mindset can be forgiven somewhat.
For Branch's narrator, it seems this way of thinking blew up on her. "So lonely inside/So busy out there/And all you wanted was somebody who cares."
The instrumentation and production on the song shines through, but doesn't try to overshadow the heft of the lyrics. It might be easy for people today to dismiss the song as something to play in the background at an office. There were a lot of hit songs around this time that might fall in this category, including a few I've already talked about or will soon. But that diminishes how talented Branch really was. Listening to The Spirit Room again for this post, the whole thing just feels bright and uplifting, even though the lyrics aren't always trying for that effect.
"All You Wanted" would spend 32 weeks on my top 40 and ultimately be named my top song of 2002. In the United States, the song turned out to be Branch's biggest hit, peaking at #6 on the Hot 100. She followed it up later that year with "Goodbye to You", a re-recorded holdover from the Broken Bracelet days. That turned out to be another solid choice in my eyes, as it got to #4 on my chart. It didn't do quite as well nationally as its predecessors, but it still reached #21 on the Hot 100.
At the same time, Branch was tapped by Carlos Santana to contribute to his 2002 album Shaman, the follow-up to his unbelievably successful 1999 album Supernatural. Shaman followed the same formula as its Grammy-winning predecessor, featuring an all-star lineup of current pop, rock, and hip-hop artists to complement Santana's exquisite guitar work. Although the album didn't do nearly as much business as Supernatural, Branch's song on the album, "The Game of Love", was picked as the lead single and got to #5 on the Hot 100, and be the last time Branch reached the top 10 on the Hot 100. On my chart, "The Game of Love" would get to #6.
Branch released her next album, Hotel Paper, in 2003. It didn't do as well as her debut, but I still found it a pretty solid listen at the time. She would get one more top 10 song on my chart, with the lead single "Are You Happy Now" peaking at #7 that summer. The follow-up single, "Breathe", got to #13 early on in 2004.
After Hotel Paper, Branch married her bass played Teddy Landau, and had a child with him in 2005. She also collaborated with her friend Jessica Harp on a country music project called The Wreckers, which produced the album Stand Still, Look Pretty in 2006. I probably saw the video for lead single "Leave the Pieces" a few times on VH1, but it didn't interest me as much as Branch's solo work. Still, the song made an impression on country audiences, topping Billboard's Country chart and reaching #34 on the Hot 100.
Branch would fade from the music consciousness in the years that followed. She released a couple EPs, and managed one more top 40 hit on my chart with 2011's "Loud Music", which peaked at #39. In 2015, she divorced Landau and met Patrick Carney, one half of future Number Ones artists The Black Keys. Carney produced Branch's first solo album in 14 years, 2017's Hopeless Romantic, and the two married soon afterward. They have two children together, but the relationship hasn't always been solid. She separated from Carney in 2022 after she accused him cheating on her, and was later arrested for assaulting him. But they seemed to make up whatever differences they had and are still together at this time. Whoever said love was easy.
Branch is still recording music and touring, with his most recent release being 2022's The Trouble with Fever. But her moment as a pop star seems firmly in the past. She won't be appearing in this column again. Despite that, she was at the vanguard of a moment when talented female musicians were finding pop success, even if it was fleeting. We'll see a couple more of these women in the column very soon.
About the only notable usage of "All You Wanted" in media I can find is the song's appearance at the end of the pilot of the forgotten 2002 Batman-related TV series Birds of Prey. Unfortunately, I can't find the scene on YouTube. So we'll pick a different song. Here's Branch performing a version of "Goodbye to You" on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee as a mocking tribute to the end of Texas senator, and unrepentant asshole, Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign.
THE NUMBER TWOS
Thursday's screamo classic, the bleak and dissonant "Understanding in a Car Crash", peaked at #2 behind "All You Wanted". I want to feel this way forever.
iiO's hypnotic Eurodance banger, "Rapture", peaked at #7. The night I laid my ears on you I felt everything around me move.