"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.
5. Beach House: Teen Dream
Let's get it out of the way, upfront: no, Beach House does not desire to shatter your eardrums. They are not a noisy, or even a loud, band. Instead, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand create dreamscapes (sorry) of otherworldly beauty and restrained emotion. Legrand's voice, sultry and confident and remarkably powerful, makes cathedrals out of these songs, ornate and resonant structures that leave your jaw hanging open without your even noticing. You're too caught up in the moment to consider the glazed, vulnerable expression on your face. Scally, for his part, plays his guitar with such precision as to create the perfect foundations for Legrand's voice and keys to build upon. "Silver Soul" has a riff that aches with a yearning melancholy, while "Zebra"'s simply-plucked melody gains force through repetition. What sets Teen Dream apart from the band's previous records is its newly discovered flair for pacing. "Norway" takes its time in building to its heartstopping climax, with Legrand belting her heart out to blissfully cathartic effect. Similarly, "10 Mile Stereo" gradually turns up the volume and adds layers of percussion and atmospheric textures until the song suddenly has the weight and gravity of a track twice its length. Beach House knows when to play its cards close to the chest and when to reveal them to the light for maximum effect, and the result is an album thrilling in its subtlety and densely packed feeling.
4. Future Islands: In Evening Air
When his band plays live, Future Islands frontman Samuel Herring sweats. A lot. He pours every ounce of himself into performing, and his pores release the results. Herring has more intensity than ten lesser bandleaders combined, and it's not even in an attempt to make up for some deficiency of talent. He has the vocal chops to match, a steady tenor and a Tom-Waits-meets-Carey-Mercer growl that could rip the enamel off your teeth, both of which he uses to maximum effect. His fellow Islands, bassist William Cashion and keyboardist J. Gerrit Welmers, provide the backdrop for Herring's ravings, with Cashion laying down Peter Hook-style bass hooks as indelible as that of the English progenitor himself, perfectly matched to Welmers' quick-fingered synth melodies. "An Apology" practically bursts (to borrow a word Herring uses so well on tape) with tension and release, while the final explosive moments of "Long Flight" and "Inch of Dust" could each be rightfully called the most flooring musical moments of the year. To have them both on one record, combined with the rest of a tracklist that never comes close to missing a step, hands Future Islands a real accomplishment. It's a record that couldn't possibly get enough attention, and it deserves yours.
3. Titus Andronicus: The Monitor
References to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg, William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, Abe Lincoln and Jefferson Davis -- they're all here on The Monitor, a juggernaut of a record so huge, so self-assured, and blisteringly realized, that it somehow doesn't ever threaten to collapse in on itself under the weight of its Civil War concept and king-sized running time. The band knows not to take the conceptual elements too seriously, putting its style -- the mongrel child of classic '70s rock and punk -- front and center. Titus Andronicus has enough guitars here, enough soloing and glorious riffing, to make it seem as if synthesizers would best be used as paperweights. Frontman Patrick Stickles can't sing (let's be honest), but he can scream his lungs onto the floor until you can't do anything but believe wholeheartedly in what he's saying. "Four Score and Seven" has an "us-against-them" climax so anthemic that it almost boils the blood out of your veins, while "No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future" turns the sentiment of "you will always be a loser" into an utterly affirming rallying cry. If earnestness is out of fashion, no one told Titus Andronicus, and, please, no one ever tell them. Most bands have difficulty mustering within the space of an entire album even a fraction of the energy and passion that Titus shows on just one minute of the epic "The Battle of Hampton Roads". If The Monitor is any indication, that's a blueprint for bloody-knuckled success.
2. Frog Eyes: Paul's Tomb: A Triumph
There are two types of people, when you boil it down: those who have given witness to Carey Mercer's prophetic brilliance and who have joined the growing legions of Frog Eyes evangelists, and those who have not. Frog Eyes are perennial underdogs, the kind of band who continues to play (it hurts to even say it) smaller-than-midsized clubs to less-than-capacity audiences, despite having a vision and sound completely unique in such an oversaturated musical climate. It's understandable, to an extent. Their previous records, on a scale ranging from the sometimes impenetrable The Folded Palm (2004) to the comparatively accessible Tears of the Valedictorian (2007), were noisy, antagonistic, and often violent beasts. You needed to coax the beauty out of them, to prepare yourself to find it in unexpected places, before it would come. On Paul's Tomb: A Triumph, Carey Mercer and his band have dropped the distancing elements of squall and melodrama to make a thoroughly gripping album of guitar epics and hallucinatory visions. Mercer's voice remains the band's strongest instrument, his peerless ability to sound like the very monsters he creates in his lyrics, but he finally matches the vocal acrobatics with real, honest-to-God guitar shredding and pop structures. "A Flower in a Glove" is an absolutely stunning movement through his desperate mind, while the guitars in "Odetta's War" speak volumes more than most lyricists manage in entire lifetimes of their pens. One emerges from the end of the album's B-side feeling exhausted, shaken, and nearly swallowed whole. These, by the way, are all good feelings. Whether or not they get the recognition they so unequivocally deserve, Frog Eyes will continue to create unparalleled compositions, sprung from the heart of darkness that few artists have the wherewithal to approach.
1. The National: High Violet
The National is carrying the torch. They've paid their dues: two albums released in virtual obscurity, in which they explored their Americana roots before swinging for the fences with Alligator (2005) and finding the tremendous focus that had previously eluded them in Boxer (2007). They are an American rock band of the finest, most classic sort, writing songs about white-collar blues and packing each track with enough brooding intelligence and compositional finesse that even a three-minute pop song can sound like an emotional and musical epic. As a lyricist, Matt Berninger reaches out to the ambivalence of urban adult experience, the world of day-to-day office routines and barely missed human connections, and accomplishes the rare feat of actually touching the core of these lives. Even more importantly, his talent for imagistic portrayals, for black humor and candid revelations, allows him to communicate to us the experiences that we find immediately familiar but previously inarticulate or untranslated. His band does its part in writing densely realized and methodical compositions, with Bryce and Aaron Dessner's guitars alternately wailing and restrained, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf's rhythm section a not-so-secret weapon of heft and strength. Bryan Devendorf is the best drummer in the indie landscape today, never showy but laying down beats that become in themselves actual hooks, the sort of thing you find yourself trying to hum on the way to work. High Violet is the ultimate realization of all the elements that have made their past records great -- melancholy that would make Ian Curtis envious in its expression, propulsive rock songs that manage to transcend their seemingly simple confines and float toward the stratosphere, taking listeners with them. They are the kind of band to give you faith in unpretentious and fully-realized songwriting, and they're nowhere close to stopping soon.