"Indie rock" has become a term as amorphous and hard-to-pin-down as some of its associated lingo. But for our purposes here, we'll go with a line of demarcation strangely omitted from the discussion much of the time: the rock portion of the equation.
"Indie rock" has become a term as amorphous and hard-to-pin-down as some of its associated lingo -- think "hipster", for example. You know it when you see it, to borrow a phrase. The old debate about the values of commercialism versus the DIY values of punk, indie's tattooed and bloated father, seems to matter less to audiences these days. So, if the boundaries of indie can't be satisfyingly defined by the classic majors-versus-minors label split, what are we left with?
For our purposes here, we'll go with a line of demarcation strangely omitted from the discussion much of the time: the rock portion of the equation. Are these bands using guitars? Are they turning them up, you know, really loud? Or, if they're more brooding and less bombastic, are they at least using guitar, drums, and bass as the basic ingredients for their songs? This categorization isn't meant by any means to slight the recent revival of electronic elements in indie music, the influence of which has given us some of the best records in recent memory. Rather, it's just meant to track what happens when bands find inspiration -- however explicitly or implicitly -- in classically analog sounds.
In other words, would Merriweather Post Pavilion have made this list if it had been released this year? No, since Animal Collective definitively shifted its palate toward sampling, synths, and programmed percussion, virtually eschewing guitars and live drums (and, it should be noted, to great success in many listeners' opinions). What about This Is Happening? LCD Soundsystem is a disco band that uses keyboards in at least equal measure to its unimpeachable live drum-and-bass section. Will they make the list? Wait and see. (Yes, they will. I'll explain later.)
Beyond all these admittedly arbitrary delineations, 2010 has been a good year for fans of indie rock. Bands like the National and LCD Soundsystem made good on their earlier successes to become true titans of the genre, gaining well-deserved success outside of the often-insular indie world. On the other hand, groups like Beach House and Deerhunter reached heights of popularity and acclaim that even their beloved previous records likely never suggested. Belle and Sebastian and Sufjan and even Swans came back. So did the Walkmen. A bevy of promising newer talents, from Titus Andronicus to Wild Nothing to Future Islands, gave us hope for the coming decade. The most exciting thing about all of these groups? When taken together, it's astonishing to stand back and behold the diversity in sound, style, aesthetics, influences, and so forth. Indie, for all the blog backbiting and pretense that remains, has finally become an admirably all-inclusive musical landscape.
Anyway, back to guitars.
10. Spoon: Transference
Spoon has, quietly and confidently, become one of the most consistent bands of the last decade-and-change. 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was their masterstroke, a perfect concoction of pop hooks and rock swagger, and it left many fans wondering how they could possibly top such an album. Transference isn't what most expected. It's a difficult record in comparison to the band's back catalog, full of strange elliptical constructions ("The Mystery Zone") and self-consciously coy expressions ("Is Love Forever?"). Where Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga came on with forceful immediacy, Transference takes time to unfold its many delicacies. "Written in Reverse" has Britt Daniel screaming his throat raw (how's that for our rock question), while "Out Go the Lights" functions on a subtle melancholy that slowly reveals it to be one of the best songs the band has ever written. Spoon is an American workhorse, a rock band of unbridled talent and restless creativity, and Transference sees the group pushing ahead into unpredictable and ultimately fruitful territory.
9. Foals: Total Life Forever
Foals bounced off of the hyperkinetic dance-punk of their debut, Antidotes (2008), into an entirely new realm for the band. Total Life Forever sees them simultaneously calming down to let their compositions breathe in newfound negative space, while refining their energetic sensibilities into sharp-toothed bursts of coordinated catharsis. "Miami" and the title track have the band's outrageous rhythm section coiling in and out of lockstep with intricate guitar hooks, recalling everyone from Fugazi to Talking Heads to, yes, Bloc Party. The album finds its greatest strengths when Foals distance themselves from their rhythm-centric past, shooting for the moon in the spacey ballads "Spanish Sahara" and "Alabaster". They're moving past their comfort zone, but it sounds perfectly natural.
8. Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
When Michael Gira announced the return of his legendary Swans after a 14-year hiatus, fans greeted the news with equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism. Plenty of bands are cashing in on the reunion trend (hello, Black Francis), and while it's wonderful to be able to see your '80s or '90s heroes play again, generally these tours weren't accompanied by the release of any new music worthy of the groups' hallowed names. Swans, per usual, proves to be the exception. Blending the teeth-clenching noise of the band's older material with the blacker-than-black folk of Gira's more recent Angels of Light project, My Father hits like a merciless punch to the gut. Gira sets himself up as a crazed prophet in a black cowboy hat; his lyrics are intelligent enough and his baritone delivery drips with enough spite to make us really believe he fits the role. The album pits good versus evil, sin versus redemption, and, by the time it ends, you're not left with a particularly reassuring sense of affirmation. Whatever -- it's a top-notch work from a mind of singular focus and dark brilliance, and well worth the time if you can stomach it.
7. Wolf Parade: EXPO 86
Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug enjoyed the bittersweet accomplishment of releasing their band's debut record, Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005) and catching the world off guard -- the album became an instant classic, untouchable and beloved by anyone with a pulse. As a result, any subsequent Wolf Parade records have the unenviable task of attempting to live up to the expectations Apologies created for the group. EXPO 86 doesn't give the same immediate rush, but it makes up for that by being a much meatier and full-throated composition from front-to-back. Boeckner, honing his skills in Handsome Furs, has become the indie Springsteen so many wanted him to be, all swagger and passion and cigarette-soaked vocals. Krug, on the other hand, has become comfortable indulging in the prog-laced mini-suites of experimentalism he creates in Sunset Rubdown. When the two come back together into the same room to write for Wolf Parade, they play to their own strengths and to those of their bandmates. "Pobody's Nerfect", "Little Golden Age", "What Did My Lover Say (It Always Had to Go This Way)" -- all of these songs seethe with an intensity that should easily backhand into silence anyone who might still doubt the merits of the group in their post-Apologies years.
6. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening
Don't confuse LCD Soundsystem for an electronic band. A dance band, absolutely, but electronic? Yes, James Murphy wields an array of synths like a nuclear arsenal, ready to obliterate the competition at the push of a finger. At his core, however, Murphy is a classicist. Listen to the Bowie-esque guitar line at the center of "All I Want". Check the floor tom and spiky power chords that propel "Drunk Girls" to the rafters. Don't forget the disco stutter of the guitar on "Home" or the palm-muting that anchors "You Wanted a Hit". Even on more electro-centric tracks like megajam (and song of the year, in my book) "Dance Yrself Clean" and "I Can Change", Murphy builds his compositions around chest-shaking bass, perfectly placed snare hits and a thoroughly internalized sense for drama. He knows how to pace a track more expertly than anyone else working today. Still, for a man who wears his influences so far down the edge of his sleeve ("Losing My Edge", anyone?) that they almost spill onto the floor, Murphy never seems like he's merely copping tricks from his inimitable record collection. He makes the tools of the trade his own, inflating them to proportions as grand as the giant disco ball he and the band took on tour this time around. Live, they're unparalleled -- LCD Soundsystem refuses to sample even a second of any track they play, recreating every single sound live with an intensity that's matched only by that of the crowd fawning and dancing at its collective feet. If that's not a rock'n'roll attitude, what is?