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Pop Rocks

In 2005, pop music was rock music. Between Kelly Clarkson's tarted-up "Since U Been Gone," Ashlee Simpson's raspy, Courtney Love-after-a-bender vocals, and Hilary Duff's collabs with her Good Charlotte boytoy, Joel Madden, even the biggest top 40 starlets liked their guitars cranked up to a sassy 11.

Elsewhere, rockers in eyeliner (word up, My Chemical Romance) resonated with the dark minions of suburbia, as did 1990s survivors (yo, Green Day and Weezer) and lovesick nerd pinups (Death Cab for Cutie). Oh, and bad news — or good, depending on your taste: MySpace-driven emo shows no signs of disappearing from local malls and high schools any time soon.

1. Death Cab for Cutie, Plans (Atlantic): The protagonist of Death Cab's 2003 mainstream breakthrough, Transatlanticism, wondered if life was worth living after a wrenching breakup. But the storyteller spinning tales on Plans, the band's major-label debut, appears to be in the twilight of life, flipping wistfully through yellowed remnants of youthful romance. The jangly, R.E.M. mash note "Soul Meets Body" is the aural equivalent of morning sun on bare skin, while "Summer Skin" describes an ephemeral fling filled with "squeaky swings and tall grass," and the measured piano chords of "Brothers on a Hotel Bed" capture the hollow dread you feel when you discover your lover is a stranger. Although the high-gloss production of Plans occasionally feels too slick and the album's faint electronic fingerprints largely sound awkward, Death Cab's latest is also its most heart-grabbing.

2. Fall Out Boy, From Under the Cork Tree (Island): At age 14, most people are hopelessly crushing on their cute seatmate in biology, overflowing with angsty poetry, and obsessively analyzing every infinitesimal detail of their lives. This confusing but also exhilarating time informs Fall Out Boy's major-label debut, a frenetic rush of racing hormones, Xanga-style confessions, and punk-pop for adolescent misfits stuck in cookie-cutter PTA hell. But Tree's tunes don't resort to the whining of other mainstreamo bands. Instead, they focus on a refreshingly straightforward immediacy, one cloaked in churning hardcore shuffles, Smiths-influenced guitar juggernauts, and jagged hooks.

3. Eisley, Room Noises (Warner Bros.): Straight outta small-town Texas — but sounding more like the house band of a verdant magical forest or Rilo Kiley's ambitious babysitting charge — Eisley fulfills the whimsical indie-rock promise of its first few EPs with Room Noises. Swooping choruses and twinkling-stardust harmonies unfold from the drawling vocal sister act of Sherri and Stacy DuPree, sirens with just a whisper of twang in their voices, while Eisley's music incorporates bits of genial Coldplay-esque Britpop, coffeehouse jam sessions, and glimmering, crushed-velvet rock.

4. Nine Inch Nails, With Teeth (Interscope): In recent interviews, a joking Trent Reznor appears to have left his demons back in the last century, along with much of his hair. But the uncompromising With Teeth honors his angry legacy even as he programs new and diverse chapters of frustration. Howling industrial catharses and mechanized sludgefests rage with Reznor's usual pain — "Right Where It Belongs" in particular shines with its needlepoint piano and droning-beehive backdrop — although instances of sophisticated, Apple-product-sleek synthpop and boogie-down glitchtronica nod to a kinder, gentler NIN.

5. Nada Surf, The Weight Is a Gift (Barsuk): Matthew Caws is the Woody Allen of indie-geekdom, a perpetually anxious songwriter well-versed in therapy jargon and self-help books. But his low self-esteem is the listener's gain on Gift, Nada Surf's most cohesive record and a crystallization of the New York trio's velvety power ballads, chiming pop songs, and fuzz-rock screeds about loneliness and longing. In fact, the falsetto-spiraling Caws has never sounded so forlorn and wracked with pain as he (unsuccessfully) tries to convince himself he's over a breakup on "What Is Your Secret?"

6. The Go-Betweens, Oceans Apart (Yep Roc): Time has only made Go-Betweens tale-tellers Robert Forster and Grant McLennan richer musicians, judging from the lovely, haunting Oceans Apart. The core elements that made their 1980s albums so classic — unadorned strummed guitars, plum-purple-tinted vocals, vibrant emotional gravitas — are present in spades on Apart, highlighted by the taut, high-speed-train chords hurtling through the globetrotting "Here Comes a City" and the Church-reminiscent, rainy-day missive "Finding You."

7. The Epoxies, Stop the Future (Fat Wreck Chords): The Epoxies are loving preservers of a time when new-wave bands sported makeup and costumes that were as outlandish as their synthpop confections. Accordingly, the futuristic punk on Stop the Future references robots, the glory of video, and laser beams, as sci-fi synths and the type of rhythms Molly Ringwald whirled to in The Breakfast Club careen past. Consider 'em a less chirpy Missing Persons or the Go-Go's embracing their innermost Casio fantasies.

8. Mae, The Everglow (Tooth & Nail): Mae distinguishes itself from countless other youth-group-emo acts with The Everglow, an ambitious CD with the unmistakable layered, dense production work of Failure's Ken Andrews. Frantic piano exercises and vocalist Dave Elkins' eager-beaver singing style mesh well with the album's surging hooks and chugging, pedaling-a-bicycle-uphill riffs. In fact, Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World only wishes it had written a song as effortlessly whirling-on-a-carousel giddy as "Suspension."

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Annie Zaleski
Contact: Annie Zaleski

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