Music

The 10 Best Indie Rock Albums of 2010

"Indie rock" is 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 their 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 are 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.

Heavy Metal Guitarist by The Digital Artist (CCO Creative Commons / Pixabay)

10. Spoon - Transference [Merge]

Spoon have, 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 ("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 have ever written. Spoon are 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 [Transgressive]

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 [Young God]

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 [Sub Pop]

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 [DFA]

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?

5. Beach House - Teen Dream [Sub Pop]

Let's get it out of the way, upfront: no, Beach House don't 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 [Thrill Jockey]

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 [XL Recordings]

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 have 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 [Dead Oceans]

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 continue to play (it hurts to even say it) smaller-than-mid-sized 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 [4AD]

The National are 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, black humor, and candid revelations, allows him to communicate to us the experiences that we find immediately familiar but previously not articulated. The National does their 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.

* * *

This article originally published on 6 December 2010.

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