To some, indie rock is an aesthetic, something between Sonic Youth and Pavement that's played by people with in mop-tops and ringer t-shirts with cans of Pabst atop their amplifiers. Others, meanwhile, might define indie rock literally as music recorded and performed by musicians not signed or affiliated with major labels. However you prefer to slice it, here are ten tunes from the past ten years that continue to amaze. Feel free to weigh in with your own picks or tell us that ours are completely whack.
10. Jolie Holland "Palmyra" (2008)
She's on an independent label and she (sometimes) plays rock music, but Jolie Holland is really half country and half folk, with a twist of Mission hipster. "Palmyra," a tumblin' folk-rock ballad that alludes to Hurricane Katrina and the narrator's penchant for breaking her own heart and others, brought all of Holland's luminous talents to a fever pitch, from her desperate emotion and charmingly sexy southern vocal stylings to her impressive knack for guileless storytelling.
9. The Warlocks "Shake the Dope Out" (2002)
Recalling classic underground lines of self-abusive desperation such as Swervedriver's "my soul belongs to the dealer now" and the Ramones "I could've been rich/but I'm just digging a Chinese ditch," the Warlocks' "Shake the Dope Out" took Velvet Underground-descendant drug-rock to another level by indulging in hallucinatory lyricism. These guys might need professional help, but we'll enjoy the musical side-effects while they last.
8. Grizzly Bear "Knife" (2006)
"With every blow/comes another lie/you think it's alright/can't you feel the knife?" Brooklyn-based soundscapers Grizzly Bear successfully matched ghostly Beach Boys-esque harmonies and tender, poignant guitars, piano and percussion with casually vicious lyrics in "Knife," one of the highlights of Yellow House, its spellbinding breakthrough LP. It's a magical incantation of hurt that, if provoked, could easily take anything by Nine Inch Nails and softy lull it to death.
7. Spoon "The Beast and Dragon, Adored" (2005)
After about a decade suffering in bargain-bin purgatory, Spoon emerged with Gimme Fiction, a hypnotic sonic accomplishment that became a hipster classic, and "The Beast and Dragon" kicked off the twisted fun with a slow burn. "When you don't feel it at shows, they tear out your soul," singer/guitarist Brit Daniels sings just as the burn becomes a wildfire, "but when you believe they call it rock n' roll." I'm pretty sure that line isn't in the Bible, but it should be.
6. Deerhoof "Milkman" (2004)
Let's just get this out of the way: Yes, towering Deerhoof drummer/spokesman Greg Saunier has Tourette's syndrome, and it affects the genuinely virtuosic freak-jazz drumming we've heard on Deerhoof classics like "Milkman," which was eventually turned into a children's ballet in Maine. What's truly remarkable is how Saunier's percussive explosions juxtapose front-woman Satomi Matsuzaki's tiny voice and childlike imagination. By turns spastic and softy fantastical, "Milkman" is Deerhoof's "A Quick One While He's Away"-type masterpiece.
5. The Besnard Lakes "And You Lied To Me" (2007)
Like several songs on these Vancouver studio-wizards' killer second LP, "And You Lied" to me is peppered with inaudible voices reminiscent of the murmuring parents from Charlie Brown, but the Besnard Lakes' genius lies not in charming absurdity but in stunning co-ed harmonies, big guitars and astute lyrics. In particular, "And You Lied To Me," a gorgeously scathing ode to America's longtime role as international police, utilizes shimmering lo-fi rock and startling group vocals to shed light on an issue we're all too familiar with.
4. Stephen Malkmus "Jenny and the Ess-Dogg" (2001)
Reminding listeners of his renowned early-90's slamming of the Smashing Pumpkins, former Pavement mastermind Stephen Malkmus brilliantly trashed the kind of wide-eyed, jamband-loving crunchies Coloradoans know so well in "Jenny and the Ess-Dog." She's a naïve teenage hippie with "awful toe rings"; he's a 31-year old musician in a '60s cover band; they've got a dog (named after Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio) who "has a window into their relationship." She leaves for school "up in Boulder," where she pledges Kappa, and the distance is the end of their relationship, not to mention the toe rings. It's a cinematic story within a rock song, a vivid marriage of forms that the likes of the Beatles and Elvis Costello were also able consummate.
3. Broken Social Scene "Cause = Time" (2002)
This gigantic Toronto-based collective's first proper album was actually the trancy instrumental workout Feel Good Lost, but their sprawling indie arena-rock breakout was You Forgot It In People, highlighted by "Cause = Time," a churning surge of guitar and drum heaven. Front-kid Kevin Drew creatively juxtaposed hopeless romances ("you got it all and it's pretty good/but I seem to be in disbelief") with beatific abstraction ("kill the white within the bliss/this is the blood I love to shed") on this head-bopping underground classic.
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2. Arcade Fire "Neighborhood #1(Tunnels)" (2004)
Arcade Fire gave us one of the best debut rock albums of all time with 2004's darkly beautiful Funeral, and the opening piano swirls and cascading guitars of its wondrous first track are still enough to make us stop whatever we're doing and envision a snow-covered town where kids are digging tunnels from bedroom to bedroom for wariness of crying parents. Like many of this Montreal band's tunes, the melodious sing-along conclusion to "Neighborhood #1" will stay on the tip of your brain for days, years, even decades.
1. Midlake "Roscoe" (2006)
Harmonically-gifted Denton, Texas throwbacks Midlake surprised and mesmerized listeners with The Trials of Van Occupanther, its concept-heavy sophomore effort that detailed the life and times of a fictional rural scientist who lived roughly one-hundred years ago. "Roscoe," a subtly-driving rocker in which singer/guitarist Tim Smith muses "whenever I was a child I wondered what if my name had changed into something productive like Roscoe and born in 1891, waiting with my aunt Roseline," has given us chills each of the 2,000 or so times we've listened to it.