Yeah, pal, that's "indie rock," scare quotes very much included. Look, it's a meaningless term. As are "college rock," "alternative," "hipster," etc. Let's not overthink this. Here we have ten splendid records with an amorphous rock 'n' roll designation, albeit in a perhaps slightly more experimental and thoughtful vein than the harder stuff that nowadays exists mostly to make you feel bad for not joining the Army. We begin, of course, in France.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Loyaute/Glassnote)
Exuberant, prismatic, relentlessly infectious, entirely inscrutable: The opening one-two punch of "Lisztomania" and "1901" (hailed as "summery" by every critic on Earth, including me) floors you with both its gorgeous synth+guitar-pop songcraft and its wanton ambiguity. No idea what frontman Thomas Mars is yelping about. None. But his vertiginous slide-whistle of a voice sells every word, from the gnomic to the unrepentantly corny. "Love Like a Sunset" (parts one and two!) is straight-up the cheesiest song title you could possibly imagine, but the burst of Eno-worthy synthesizer melodrama that heralds the transition from part one to part two will floor you all over again.
Speaking of yelping, Michael Angelakos delivers relentlessly giddy synth-pop supernovas of bombastic unease in a shrill, keening, karaoke-proof voice that makes Michael McDonald sound like Leonard Cohen. His band's debut full-length is passionately narcissistic but ridiculous fun all the same, a dance album for paranoid shut-ins who wouldn't be caught dead dancing. And the one track everyone knows, "Sleepyhead," is, like, the seventh-best song on it. The children's choir will not strike you as extraneous.
Middle Cyclone (Anti-)
If she didn't exist, NPR (and Paste and the New Yorker) would have had to invent her. But when she howls "What will make you believe me?" on "This Tornado Loves You," Neko Case makes you believe in a way her mile-high stack of fawning press clips never did. A whip-smart maneater (or, as she puts it, "man- man- man-, man- man- maneater"), Case has a smirking barb for every occasion and a smoldering countrypolitan torch song for every dark night of the soul.
Industry Giants (Thirty Tigers)
Yes, it's the "Sucked Out" guys, a decade-plus on from their Buzz Bin days, with several underheralded power-pop classics and a religious epiphany (for born-again frontman John Davis) to their credit. But even for those who kept up, Industry Giants is a shock of adrenaline, ferocity, and anthemic joy. "Everything'll Be Made Right" will convince you; "Live and Breathe" will make you see God whether you believe in him/her or not.
Curse Your Branches (Barsuk)
With apologies to Superdrag, nobody on Earth is writing better, smarter, or angrier songs about God than David Bazan, the longtime Pedro the Lion proprietor. He vacillates wildly between belief and disbelief and keys in on the latter here with brutal, almost hilariously bleak mope-pop odes to alcoholism and spiritual confusion. They would be unbearable if they weren't so unbearably beautiful.
Potato Hole (Anti-)
Booker T. Jones, as usual, is having exactly as much fun as he appears to be — in a word, lots. Here he's backed by the Drive-By Truckers, and the result is an inspiring combination of sweet and surly garage R&B, atop that exuberant organ, of course. So: Throw a BBQ. Cue up Potato Hole's cover of "Hey Ya." Crank it up. And bite into a cheese brat at the exact moment when that lead guitar comes surging in. You will see God — who, it turns out, exists after all. Offer him/her a cheese brat too.
Future of the Left
Travels With Myself and Another (4AD)
Future of the Left is the brainchild of frontman Andy Falkous, formerly of the much-feared/revered Welsh scuzz-punk outfit Mclusky. Travels, his new band's second record, is full of his hilariously unhinged rage. The disc is a vicious and erudite suite of throat-shredding, punch-throwing jams with jokey titles ("You Need Satan More Than He Needs You") that only make them that much more intimidating.
Bitte Orca (Domino)
It's totally understandable if you're ready to nuke Brooklyn already, what with all the "BK Indie-Rock Explosion!!!" headlines we've endured this year. But here's the one to pull from the fire. A defiantly bizarre mishmash of chirping choral nerdery, art-rock abrasion, globetrotting guitar-hero antics, and abrupt hooky delight, this is among the stranger critically beloved records in recent memory.
Rated O (Jagjaguwar)
Ah, wait — one more from Brooklyn, although this band is slightly less overexposed. Oneida is made up of distinguished-looking but exhaustingly prolific noise-rock dudes who here offer a three-CD set (!) that serves as the second act of a planned trilogy (!!) As such, it's a delightfully sprawling mess of atonal freak-folk screamfests, clattering dub zone-outs, and, occasionally, fantastically badass riff-rockers.
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Micachu & the Shapes
Jewellery (Rough Trade)
Best emotionally resonant use of a vacuum cleaner in 2009. Probably ever.