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Independence Day

Clearly nobody needs a primer on indie rock. We all have our own idea of what it is, right? Still, why is it that so few of us can agree on who deserves such a designation? Fact is, trying to define indie rock universally is as futile a task as trying to explain why Nyquil is green and Dayquil is orange.

Is the term literal? Should major-label artists be excluded from consideration? If so, where would that leave quintessential indie bands like Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and R.E.M.? 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? Or is it an ethos, an ideal based solely on a DIY approach?

Ultimately, as any Pitchdork blogger or college radio DJ worth his salt could tell you, indie rock is a shape-shifting term that encompasses any and/or all of those things. And many of my favorite 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 some sort of interstellar academicians. Really, though, they're just some arty fellas from Brooklyn that strive to consistently put out compelling music. Ascending Cookie Mountain is a challenging feat thanks to the dense, unsettling backdrops created by guitarist/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.

2. Band of Horses, Everything All the Time (Sub Pop): Everything All the Time is achingly beautiful from end to end. From the first wash of guitars that introduces the album to the plaintive arpeggiated intro of "The Funeral," which swells seamlessly into sweeping grandeur, to austere ballads like "Part One" and disc closer "St. Augustine," which spotlight Ben Bridwell's (ex-Carissa's Wierd) helium-pitched vocals, Band of Horses' debut is the most exhilarating listening experience you'll have this year. Giddyup.

3. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant): Led by frontman Craig Finn, who delivers dependably engaging narratives with his patented, threadbare, beat-poet-like delivery, the Hold Steady has outdone itself on its third full-length. This time, 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 otherwise romanticizes various outcasts, his mates continue to brazenly indulge their affinity for bygone rock. Result: Boys and Girls is an instant classic.

4. Margot & the Nuclear So and So's, The Dust of Retreat (Artemis): Although The Dust of Retreat was unleashed on the masses this past spring by Artemis Records, the outstanding debut from this Indy outfit was originally issued on the Standard Recording imprint in 2005. Regardless, the 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, whether he's ruminating about love being an inkless pen or meowing (no shit!) like a house cat.

5. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (Capitol): The Decemberists have always come across as a bit precious. But on their major-label debut, the band seems... ah, what am I saying here? You still need to be decidedly erudite to appreciate 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.

6. Gomez, How We Operate (ATO): Never really cared for these cats. Always seemed interchangeable with the endless parade of thumb-sucking messy hairs from across the pond. But dang if they didn't put together a nice one here that stands out. The perfect Sunday-morning-coming-down record, Operate is gentle and engaging. The act's trio of vocalists shine, whether it's on tranquil acoustic numbers such as "Notice" and the Nick Drake-owing "See the World," semi-brooding, bass-driven tracks like "How We Operate," or Brit-pop janglers like "Girlshapedlovedrug."

7. Kevin Devine, Put Your Ghost 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 Cab 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, fortunately, Devine has his own way with words and a penchant for crafting memorable, heartrending tunes.

8. 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 tents somewhere in Northern California. Psychedelic doesn't begin to describe the contents of the disc. Judging from the rambling, reverb-drenched vocals that drift aimlessly above the smoldering haze of organs and drowsy guitars before evaporating, these freaky folkers obviously smoked some of those trees or something, man.

9. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino): This past spring, the Arctic Monkeys were on the tongues of tastemakers and (ack!) hipsters everywhere. The hype machine was stuck in overdrive, and I swore that I wouldn't fuel it. In the end, though, I finally succumbed and bought in to the quartet's spunky, tangled, three-chord rock 'n' 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.

10. 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. (Obviously so. I mean, really, a song titled "Tear You Apart"?) 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, though, there's something oddly riveting to me about a band that can deliver lines like, "She's in the bathroom/She pleasures herself" with a straight face.