Here’s a confession to start: I don’t know what the term “indie rock” means in 2012. I’ve made this list for PopMatters the past three years running, and I’ve always sent it off to my editors feeling as if I’d cheated somehow, swept a few albums underneath the banner that likely didn’t quite belong there. But now, looking back over the year, I’ve noticed more of a subtle—but still seismic—change in my own listening habits than ever before. I’m not one to assume the playcounts on my own iTunes scorecard should be taken to suggest anything remotely like a pattern in the year’s musical landscape, but I do know a) I’m a tried-and-true rockist and b) most of my favorite albums of the year featured nary a power chord, or even a guitar, at all.
What to do? While I know I couldn’t include, on this list, my favorite record of the year—that would be Killer Mike’s oxygen mask of a mission statement, the El-P produced R.A.P. Music—or other highlights like Kendrick Lamar’s vital good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Frank Ocean’s studio-rat opus Channel Orange, or Grimes’s joyously offkilter Visions, what about albums that more readily tread the line between rock and, well, something else? Should the finest singer-songwriter records of the year, Bat for Lashes’s The Haunted Man and Cat Power’s Sun make the cut, or do they speak with more clarity to the worlds of pop (whatever that may mean these days, too)? Can I claim Purity Ring’s Shrines or Frankie Rose’s Interstellar or do they belong somewhere closer to the dancefloor than the rock club?
Ultimately, I said no to those albums. Instead, I decided to reemphasize the “independent” in “indie rock”, focusing on rock(ish) records that were made outside of the mainstream studio-radio apparatus. Simple enough, if not very satisfying. I promise to have it all worked out by 2013. Corey Beasley
With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery
Spencer Krug must think nothing of momentum—he bowed out of one of the decade’s most-lauded rock bands, Wolf Parade, and broke up his other act, the sorely missed Sunset Rubdown, without so much as a formal announcement (he left it to his former Wolf Parade partner, Dan Boeckner, to confirm the band’s demise in an unrelated interview). Who knows how long he’ll record under the Moonface moniker, but the project—aided by Finnish droners Siinai—has already given us a fantastic record. Krug’s affinity for prog rock saw diminishing returns in his Wolf Parade songwriting and mixed results with Sunset Rubdown’s less earthbound tracks, but with Siinai’s help he finally finds the sweet spot between pop melody and prog sprawl. Heartbreaking Bravery can be a dense listen, but it’s best consumed in a single sitting, the bursts of hooks (the title track, “Shitty City”) slicing deeper when springing up from the depths of the record’s more droning, meditative selections (“I’m Not the Phoenix Yet”, “Headed for the Door”). When those dueling tendencies ultimately coalesce in the massive, lacerating final cut, “Lay Your Cheek on Down”, it’s an exhausting thrill.
The strongest song on Oshin, “How Long You Have Known”, also turns out to be something of a feint. Riffs the stuff of dreams, a steadily propulsive rhythm section to buoy them even higher, Zachary Cole Smith’s breathy vocals practically pickled in reverb—not groundbreaking, this shoegaze pop, but a more effortless version than you’ll typically find. It’s when Oshin focuses more on texture than on hummable melodies that DIIV’s charm has its subtle way with your dopamine levels, the bulk of its songs acting more as experiments in mood than occasions to sing along. In that way, Oshin changes depending on what feelings you bring to it, rather than insisting you bend your mood to its whims.
Spooky Action at a Distance
Deerhunter often leaves me cold—easy to admire, especially in a live setting, but tough to love, despite the accolades raining down on the band with every product of its exceptionally prolific output. Spooky Action at a Distance proved to be one of the nice surprises of the year, a solo outing by Deerhunter guitar maestro Lockett Pundt that sacrifices most of the volume of his other band in favor of a gentler, tightly woven songcraft. Play Spooky Distance at a low volume, and its songs wash over you in a pleasant haze; turn the volume up, and Pundt’s surprising knack for pop choruses reveals itself again and again. If nothing else, when compared to Deerhunter’s consistent reinvention from album to album, this record suggests dynamism can work in a quieter way, too.
Attack on Memory
The best Jade Tree record that label never released, Attack on Memory delights in the signposts of early ‘90s emocore: emotional sloganeering, brittle guitars, reverence for the floor tom. Here, Cloud Nothings tap into a time before “emo” was a dirty word, when the distortion in Jawbox’s amps would peel the tattoos from Chris Carrabba’s flesh. The record comes packaged with a back story, Dylan Baldi jettisoning the forgettable power-pop of his previous solo work in favor a full-band effort with Steve Albini in the studio, but it’s best to plunge into the songs without much preparation. That way, the sting of “No Future/No Past” and the adrenaline kick of “No Sentiment” will feel stronger, less calculated. That should do the record justice—a serious amount of craft must have gone into the writing of Attack on Memory for it to seem so raw and volatile.
A Thing Called Divine Fits
Do not reinvent the wheel. Rather, find a partner or two who know how to make it spin more smoothly. If you’re Dan Boeckner, late of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, figure Britt Daniel can lay a sultry rhythmic groove underneath your restless, anthemic yearnings. If you’re Spoon’s Britt Daniel, consider how Dan Boeckner might ladle the sweet syrup of his straining vocal chords and punk-Springsteen guitar heroics onto your deconstructed pop songs. Recruit human metronome Sam Brown of New Bomb Turks to sit behind the kit, while you’re at it. Shake. Apply to studio. Release into the world a vision of hard-won rock professionalism honed by two of the most essential songwriters in a generation. Rejoice in the surprise of just how much fun it all turns out to be. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.