Nobody needs a primer on indie rock. We all have our own idea of what it is. But why is it that so few of us can agree on who deserves such a designation? Fact is, defining indie rock is as futile a task as trying to explain why Nyquil is green and Dayquil is orange.
If the term is taken literally, as a DIY ethos, should major-label artists like Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, and R.E.M be excluded from consideration? Or is indie purely an aesthetic, a euphemism for music that's lo-fi, lowbrow, homemade, hi-fi, highfalutin, derivative, experimental, subversive, literate, or jangly?
Ultimately, as any Pitchdork blogger or college radio DJ worth his salt will tell you, indie rock is a shape-shifting term that encompasses any and/or all of those things. And many of the best releases this year offer a pretty good reflection of that sentiment.
1. TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope)
Critical consensus suggests that the members of TV on the Radio are interstellar academicians. Really, though, they're just some arty fellas from Brooklyn who strive to consistently put out compelling music. Ascending Cookie Mountain is a challenging feat, thanks to the dense, unsettling backdrops created by guitarist and producer David Andrew Sitek. Fortunately, the penetrating melodies of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone blaze a trail to the top, revealing some stunning vistas along the way.
Band of Horses
Everything All the Time (Sub Pop)
Band of Horses' debut is achingly beautiful from end to end. After a wash of guitars opens the album, the listener is treated to such highlights as the plaintive arpeggiated intro to "The Funeral," which swells with sweeping grandeur, and gorgeous balladry like "Part One" and "St. Augustine," both of which spotlight Ben Bridwell's helium-pitched vocals.
The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant)
Led by Craig Finn, who delivers dependably engaging narratives with his patent threadbare beat-poet-like delivery, the Hold Steady has outdone itself on its third full-length. This time out, the arena-sized riffs are even Thinner Lizzy -- augmented by swaggering piano and organ lines. As Finn spins the ballads of this year's also-rans and romanticizes various outcasts, his mates continue to brazenly indulge their affinity for bygone rock. The result: Boys and Girls is an instant classic.
Margot & the Nuclear So and So's
The Dust of Retreat (Artemis)
Although Artemis Records dropped The Dust of Retreat in spring, the Standard Recording imprint originally issued this group's outstanding debut back in 2005. Regardless, the Indiana act's folksy chamber pop still sounds fresh. Understated orchestral flourishes perfectly complement Richard Edwards' beguiling compositions, which are as charming as his tuneful croon.
The Crane Wife (Capitol)
The Decemberists have always come across as a bit precious, and on their major-label debut, the listener still needs to be decidedly erudite to appreciate frontman Colin Meloy's subject matter (in this case, a Japanese folk tale), and he still sings with an accent that makes Jeremy Enigk sound like Merle Haggard. Even so, his songwriting remains solid, and there are enough interesting organ-heavy prog moments to make the pretense palatable.
How We Operate (ATO)
Never really cared for these cats. Always seemed interchangeable with any of the endless parade of thumb-sucking messy hairs from across the pond. But dang if they didn't put together a nice one here. The perfect Sunday-morning-coming-down record, Operate is gentle and engaging. The act's trio of vocalists shines on such tranquil acoustic numbers as "Notice" and the Nick Drake-owing "See the World," the semi-brooding, bass-driven "How We Operate," and the Britpop jangler "Girlshapedlovedrug."
Put Your Ghosts to Rest (Capitol)
It's not hard to see what Capitol saw in Former Miracle of 86 frontman Kevin Devine. Dude's burnished tenor and his phrasing so evokes Ben Gibbard that if the Death Cab for Cutie driver were ever to go on strike, Devine could easily slide behind the wheel. Devine himself cites Elliott Smith as a touchstone, going so far as to tap Rob Schnapf as a producer. Whatever the case, Devine has his own way with words and a penchant for crafting memorable, heart-rending tunes.
Brightblack Morning Light
Brightblack Morning Light (Matador)
Brightblack Morning Light is the product of Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes, a couple of nomadic tree-huggers from Alabama who left their homes to live in a tent somewhere in Northern California. Psychedelic doesn't begin to describe the contents of the disc. Judging from the reverb-drenched vocals that drift above the haze of organs and drowsy guitars, these freaky folkers obviously smoked some of those trees, man.
Whatever People Say I am, That's What I'm Not (Domino)
Last spring, tastemakers and hipsters everywhere couldn't stop talking about the Arctic Monkeys. And when the hype machine hit overdrive, I swore that I wouldn't fuel it. In the end, though, I finally succumbed and bought into the quartet's spunky, tangled, three-chord rock and roll swindle. I was drawn in by the messy, frenetic bedlam of "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "Dancing Shoes." And now I can't get the monkey off my back. Sucker? Guilty as charged.
She Wants Revenge
She Wants Revenge (Geffen)
There's plenty of reasons I shouldn't dig She Wants Revenge. For starters, the act's sound is completely derivative, and the skuzzy, minimalistic electro come-ons seem just a little too calculated, in a Hot Topic/goth sort of way. In spite of all that, there's something oddly riveting about a band that can deliver lines like "She's in the Bathroom/She pleasures herself," with a straight face.