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“Dolby’s Top 100 Indie Rock Albums of All Time”

Is indie rock dead? Well, all music is dead, so it would stand to reason as much, wouldn’t it?

And I can almost hear the breaths of relief spurting from millions of social climbers the nation over, who can now go back to the simple life of subservience to pretty much everything, who will never again have to say that, like Morrissey quipped, “The pressure’s on / Because the pleasure hasn’t gone”. 

What’s surprising, anyway, and that even surprised me a little bit, is how many of these albums ended up being from the last five years or so, which is to say after former underground music guru Amanda Petrusich professed her love for Miley Cyrus and ICP. You can still get sucked into Broken Social Scene’s kaleidoscopic world of dream pop as ever, and our little boys No Age are growing up into some seriously psychedelic masters of texture. 

At one point it hit me that you can’t call these lists “all time” because… we’re not at the end of time yet! In all seriousness, though, never has this phenomenon of temporal unfurling, or the idea that (some of) the best might be yet to come, been clearer or more pronounced in my mind than in my manufacture of this list, which I just had to produce anyway for the simple reason that it’s some of the most focused rock music made in the last half century, unencumbered by the corporate dollar, too. I mean, if that’s cool, and stuff. 

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100 Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks

For how rubber-fingered and virtuosic he can be on guitar, East Coast indie mainstay Ted Leo is still at his best when he’s pumping out straight-ahead, catchy pop-punk, like an awkwardly erudite and megalomaniacally frustrated reincarnation of Green Day. Such manifestations are in full force on his robust 2010 return to form, as in “Ativan Eyes” and the slower, funkier “One Polaroid a Day,” as well as, of course, the salient centerpiece “Even Heroes Have to Die,” which stalks death in the spirit of a vindictive career swan song. 

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99 Dinosaur Jr. – Farm

Does anybody else actually PREFER the material from Dinosaur Jr.’s late ’00s comeback to their original stint as a band in the late ’80s and early ’90s? The songs just pick apart so much more easily, not lacking in substance and inspiration either, with ’09’s Farm playing as a competitive though perhaps subservient to 2007’s indescribable reemergence of Beyond. Both albums come rife with hooks, heartbreak and most importantly, some piercing, feedback-laden solos. Indeed, this was one loud show to see in ’07, even outdoors in SoCo Denver as it was. 

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98 Liars – They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top

Liars, nomadic goth-punks once composed of Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill but now a solo act of Andrew’s, are certainly not a band guilty of ever repeating themselves. In the spirit of this, their debut album stands in stark distinction with the rest of their catalogue, in large part for its adherence to the danceable, or FUNK, roughly, like a rendition of Primus less reliant on shtick and more on the founding post-punk of XTC and Joy Division. “The Garden Was Crowded and Outside” is the headhunter, though, an orgy of sadistic sounds and vituperations and twisted, spoken-word vocals that very few other bands could ever dream of imitating.

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97 Guided by Voices – Half Smiles of the Decomposed

To me, this is an easy GBV album to overlook because your first impression of it tends to be that it leans heavily on delicate, psychedelic melodies of songs like “Girls of Wild Strawberries” and “Window of My World,” and so plays as a sort of dead end as a result, of sorts. But part of the reason why it comes across as this, I think, is that it’s rarely if ever the FIRST GBV album people hear (nor should it be, as it were), and so the elements forsaken tend to be the signature lo-fi GBV groove of pithy opener “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)” and the rambunctious tension of “Sleep over Jack,” a track the helps to solidify the balance of the whole operation.

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96 Califone – Stitches

When Stitches came out in 2013, Califone was already my favorite band on the strength of Roots & Crowns and most of their older albums, so buying the CD upon its release was pretty much a no-brainer, and I also took a Greyhound over to Pittsburgh to see them on this tour, unfortunately missing the opening act Richard Buckner. In general, this album has taken a while to emerge as one of my favorites but still I like it more every time I hear it, from the classic, gentle and melodic feel of “Magdalene” to “Frosted Tips,” even, which I used to think of as a Dinosaur Jr. ripoff but now I correctly identify as a rare moment in which this rapaciously original band actually WIELDS any noticeable influences.

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95 Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

For being one of the most fiercely and consistently disappointing bands of the last five years, Deerhunter sure did pump out some gems in their hey day. My usual spiel on this particular album is that I thought we didn’t even NEED another new one from Deerhunter in 2010 — I hadn’t even begun to digest Weird Era Cont. yet, but here it was, nonetheless. Anyway, one thing interesting I noticed about Halcyon Digest in the way of similarities to its similarly celestial predecessor Microcastle is the band’s weird habit of grafting out a hole of melancholy and utter torpidity within the middle section, only to unleash exactly four classic cuts on us to end the album. Microcastle pulls off the exact same ploy. Digest might have the edge over Microcastle in consistency, though, and boyish charm like “Come out tonight / And we’ll get stoned / I don’t wanna get old / I don’t wanna get old”. 

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94 Band of Horses – Everything All the Time

Band of Horses were technically “indie,” but as such, they defiantly wielded about as much privilege as an allegedly small-fry act can muster, with Sub Pop sort of being already like the “evil empire” of the rock underground. Also, the band hail from Seattle, the epicenter of “cool” in matters such as this, and managed to snag Built to Spill producer Phil Ek for this ’06 debut effort. All of this adds up, then, to an album that just SOUNDS big and glorious, almost like something that plays as the overarching anthem that’s to soundtrack the plight of indie rock itself, as a whole. The guitars on “The First Song” seem to melt in your mouth and “Funeral” is the obvious, ubiquitous classic but the other gems abound like “Weed Party” and “Our Swords,” a tense and ironic song about unification through universal self-defeat: “Count on us all / Falling on our own swords tonight”.

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93 Enon – Hocus Pocus

Enon around this time are proof that if you don’t want any two albums to be alike, you can’t wield any two band lineups that are the same. Ejected from the prior Dayton pop-punk outfit Brainiac which had suffered the death of singer Tim Taylor, John Schmersal dabbled around in a couple bands, Skeleton Key and Jon Stuart Mill, before forming Enon with former bandmates Steve Calhoon and Rick Lee. By Hocus Pocus we’re down to Schmersal, drummer Matt Schulz and vocal/instrumentalist nube female Toko Yasuda and it seems addition by subtraction all the way, many of these gloriously sarcastic numbers like “The Power of Yawning” and “Spanish Boots” perhaps even directed at former bandmates. Either way, the songwriting is loose, free and from-the-hip, with even some potent production, some serious bass reverb amalgamated to the rest of the mix with beautiful force on “The Power of Yawning.”

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92 The Black Angels – Death Song

On their fifth album Death Song, Austin’s The Black Angels follow a similar blueprint to the rest of their career of sludgy, deliberate and goth-y rock music, so it’s strange how much vitality these songs seem to pick up nonetheless, which by this point sound naturally more tired and damaged and so more meaningful in the process. Opener “Currency” is probably the classic of the group but all over this LP there’s no imitating the slick cleanness of Jake Garcia’s guitar sound, which seems to clarify itself in spite of the muddled mess that is generally this quintet’s uncompromising roar. 

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91 The Jesus Lizard – Liar

What’s funny about Liar is that it’s produced by the exact same person their last album was, Goat, but somehow just SOUNDS so much better. Actually, if I put Goat on my CD player and then Liar after that, I have to turn it down like five notches for Liar if I don’t want my ears to start bleeding. In terms of songwriting, too, it’s at least arguably a step up, with my personal favorite “Rope” the closest thing to a hardcore punk 100-yard-dash the band has ever put to wax, and the equally gripping “Perk” offering the tickling line “Take off your shoes if you’re going to dance on me”.

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90 Grizzly Bear – Shields

“Sleeping Ute,” the opener on Grizzly Bear’s 2012 album Shields, is probably the only way to follow up a formidable beast like Veckatimest, an ostentatious, faux-dramatic sort of rock opera that conjures up every bit the wild, unpredictable feel of a night in mountainous Utah. Closer listens, though, do unveil some new guitar techniques on the part of Daniel Rossen that offer a distorted roar midway through “Ute.” All in all, anyway, it’s a great album, even if it does sound a shade like its predecessor, and “Yet Again” was probably my favorite song to hear in Whole Foods, a crown that had prior belonged to “Two Weeks.” 

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89 Sebadoh – The Sebadoh

The story of Sebadoh is sort of a bittersweet opus — Lou Barlow getting kicked out of Dinosaur Jr. to form this band that I think wrote even better songs, at least until the Jr.’s late-’00s reunion which yes featured the aforementioned Barlow. The Sebadoh from ’99 might be a little poppy by the standards of some fans but this is still a pointedly near-sighted take on it because the angular, cathartic guitar is still there on “It’s All You” and Barlow’s pop genius comes to full boil on “Weird”; “Flame”; “Decide” and elsewhere. Even “Tree,” a slow, tender love song I always expect to be corny, tends to pay off just for the impression it exudes that nobody was influencing this music one iota but the songwriters’ inner muses.

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88 Melvins – Gluey Porch Treatments 

Undeniably instrumental in the construction of the pioneering style of Seattle grunge, Kurt Cobain’s favorite band (which was from his own hometown of Aberdeen, WA, at that) steeped up this debut full-length in ’87, following an EP Six Songs, that was pretty much a direct hit on the vital strategy this band would use to influence a whole movement. The pace was slowed considerably but the vocals, sound and delivery only made more intimidating and raw, with singer Buzz Osborne yowling with the intensity that original heavy metal was supposed to have in stock. In addition, the unorthodoxies in phrasing and song structure collect like wildfires all over this band’s early work, only adding to the difficulty, and eventually the satisfaction, of approaching their music. 

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87 Liz Phair – Whip-Smart

For some reason this song is pretty much thrown under the bus by critics, fans, culture vultures and whomever else might be applicable to this situation. But it opens with a song about “Fu**(ing) and watch(ing) TV”! In all seriousness, there are honestly some rad songs on here, like “Go West,” which brings its own reference to 69-ing in tow (I’m hoping this is relevant in some way and I’m not just perverted) and the strange and beautiful title track, more evidence of the stock rock star bent toward agoraphobia. 

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86 St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

If Strange Mercy were to be heard as a concept album, which I don’t think is entirely impossible, it might bubble up as something having to do with Annie Clark’s “growing up,” or final assimilation, as an Oklahoma girl fully adapting to New York City. She’s no longer pleading “H-E-L-P / Help me help me”, as amusing as that was, and rather than even conquering her surroundings, it’s more a case of her coming to terms with her own smallness as a person and finding some layered depth within some music that to me encompasses the most focused LP of her career. Among the standouts are “Chloe in the Afternoon”; “Cheerleader” and “Surgeon.”

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85 The Dodos – Time to Die

The Dodos came around in ’08 with Visiter (which per legend is titled with purposeful error after a little kid’s drawing and such spelling) as a sort of Pitchfork darling and seemed just preternaturally destined to be a trendy flash-in-the-pan. Perennial listens, anyway, have revealed Visiter to not only have some riveting lyricism and catchy hooks but to also just represent this awe-inspiring mass of sound, especially for being generated by only two people, guitarist/vocalist Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber. Their followup Time to Die was almost sure to be cast aside and thrown under the bus as a watered-down retread — indeed it’s poppier, by and large, a la the sublime “Fables,” but also has some moments of restless tension like “Two Medicines” and “This is a Business” which cement it as a well-rounded listen and vilify its almost impossible position as “critical breakthrough followup.”

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84 Spoon – Girls Can Tell

There was probably some point during the recording of Girls Can Tell where singer Britt Daniel mused to himself, Oh God, we’re becoming a funk band. Luckily, they’d end up leaving that to Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. That being said, the bass-heavy, bouncy numbers like “Everything Hits at Once” and “Take the Fifth” just barely skirt cheesiness and strut out of the speakers with just enough swagger and originality as to keep the whole thing afloat. As is par for the course with this band, though, the most cutting moments are also the poppiest, in particular “Anything You Want,” which bleeds with this impossibly streamlined brand of heartbreak to almost automatically slot it as classic.

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83 Julia Holter – Ekstasis

Another Pitchfork poster child, Holter unleashed the atmospheric, angular masterpiece Ekstasis (which I to this day hold wields a legitimate Annie Lennox influence, as in not a Eurythmics influence but an Annie Lennox one), marrying bedroom pop with this wilderness of sounds and effects. The whole thing comes to an exciting head on “Goddess Eyes I,” which follows “Goddess Eyes II” on the album, curiously enough, and tenders this bizarre, fu**ed-up modulated vocal for the defiantly simple mantra “I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry”. 

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82 Aloha – Here Comes Everyone

I discovered the Here Comes Everyone CD at a listening station at the record store in college and was immediately taken by the unique vocals of Tony Cavallario and the overall vibe it transmitted — like a nerdier Modest Mouse that mixed the poppy and the quirky toward a really original result. At its best, it’s operating at a Beach Boys level of pop excellence, like “Boys in the Bathtub” and “We Belong Here.” Still, the boys aren’t afraid of the stylistic foray, a la “Water Your Hands,” an almost completely piano-driven tune about encountering mysticism in a Roy Rogers. 

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81 Intelligence – Fake Surfers

I picked Fake Surfers by this band, a terse, unruly and excellent pop-punk album that marries a Buzzcocks attitude to an indie-pop songwriting concision, but really I have a feeling that this band is just grossly underrated in general and could have provided any number of LP’s to a list like this. Highlights on this blistering rock album include “Moody Tower”; “Debt & E.S.P.” and the centerpiece “I Hear Depression,” which totes this otherworldly ascending and descending riff in treated guitar as its menacing mantra.

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80 Black Mountain – In the Future

In the Future was the 2008 followup to the band’s excellent self-titled debut and right away picked up where the latter left off in the way of riffy indie grunge-sludge, weaving in though some seven-four time one refreshing wrinkle on the magnanimous opener “Stormy High.” The band don’t sustain the rocking energy as intensely as they did on their debut but we do get “Stay Free,” a curiously potent, non-romantic love song to a downtrodden person with “restless brown eyes” and a tendency toward getting beaten down by everyday life.

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79 Teenage Fanclub – Man-Made

I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who champion this as the best album by the Scottish quartet, but I do nonetheless, for its stripped-down direct approach to songwriting that avoids the cheesy bombast of Bandwagonesque, and the aching, autumnal melodies of gems like “It’s All in My Mind”; “Slow Fade” and “Cells.”

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78 The Spinanes – Manos

How near-sighted I once was to scoff at the notion of “’90s indie,” thinking it was a decade that solely furnished vital rock from the bulbous mainstream — indeed, with no shortage of calamities taking place, it was a period of significant overall substance and swagger in rock music. The Spinanes hail from Olympia, Washington, a staunchly iconoclastic Northwestern town that values potentiation of the underdog as a David vs. Goliath sort of phenomenon, and the coy but rich and gorgeous voice of Rebecca Gates on this album would stand as a prime manifestation of this rule.

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77 Cat Power – Moon Pix

1998’s Moon Pix sustained the Atlanta songwriter’s bare, minimalistic approach to recording, with many of these songs graced only by gentle guitar and vocals. The structural and melodic elements, however, started to become more pronounced and sophisticated, in addition to a bevy of memorable, haunting lyrics from “How selfish of you / To believe in the meaning of all the bad dreams?” in “Metal Heart” to “Come child / In a cross bones style / Come child / Come and rescue me / ’Cause you have seen some unbelievable things” in the album’s centerpiece, “Cross Bones Style.” 

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76 Sebadoh – III

I could try to wax poetic here but the truth is I don’t really think anybody truly knows what was going on in the minds of the Sebadoh dudes around this time. The only constant in their repertoire, which included everything from hardcore punk to indie pop to, like, atonal nursery rhymes, was eclecticism — through thick and thin, we were going to get a pluralistic songwriting roster which would yield no less than concise verse/chorus numbers, apocalyptic vitriol and of course, arguably the best electric guitar sound ever laid to wax on the cover of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!”

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75 The Black Keys – Rubber Factory

Hey guys, remember, people are tearing Led Zeppelin apart for mimicking the old blues boys. You’d be wise not to fall into the same trap. Ok… this is a piece of advice The Black Keys did NOT get during the recording of Rubber Factory, or if they did, it went over like a lead zeppelin. The nod to delta blues is obvious and bulbous all over this classic album, with Dan Auerbach even adopting a slight Negro, Mississippi accent on bayou rompers like “Just Couldn’t Tie Me down” and “Act Nice and Gentle.” Still, to me, the standouts come when the band departs from blues and just rocks like a couple Midwesterners, straight from the hip, a la “10 A.M. Automatic” and “The Lengths,” the latter of which marks a noteworthy confluence of the melancholy and the musically rich within 2000s rock.

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74 Guided by Voices – Earthquake Glue

In a way, this isn’t a TRUE Guided by Voices album, because it actually sounds full and, like, GOOD — it was probably recorded using more than just a half-functional four-track, which was the arbiter of their primary classic Bee Thousand (1994). Give them credit though for knowing who they were even in the overly conceptual post-9/11 era: the groove is steady and sure on the proud rocker “My Kind of Soldier” and “Beat Your Wings” is psychedelic indie rock serenity at its most blissed-out and oblivious.

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73 Witch – Witch

It seemed inevitable that we’d get the term “stoner rock” applied to this band, which features Dinosaur Jr. singer J. Masic on drums, hence fulfilling some obligatory sort of unconscious reference to the Melvins album Stoner Witch. A couple things are of note here: one, this is way better than Stoner Witch and probably rivals Gluey Porch Treatments, and two, I haven’t smoked pot in over a year and I can’t listen to this music in any way other than LOUD. It’s music for getting stoned to death by volume to, like a looser incarnation of Dead Meadow with more rhythm and swagger.

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72 Liars – Liars

By the mid-2000s we’d learned to expect the unexpected from this band but in a way the self-titled album from 2007 is like their Nevermind — the songs are straight-ahead, full of Fender stacks and good-ol’ home-baked guitar fuzz, running a track race between punk rock and the oblong texture Sunn O))). It begged the question of where they’d go from here (which ended up certainly being a story in its own right) but in the meantime the classic songs pile up like the blistering opener “Plaster Casts of Everything”; the bouncing and suicidal “Houseclouds” and, maybe the pinnacle, “Sailing to Byzantium,” in all its deliberate, majestically pastoral glory. 

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71 Broken Social Scene – You Forgot it in People

By 2002, Broken Social Scene were a pretty active entity in Canadian indie rock, having already put out the full-length Feel Good Lost, featuring a bunch of spacey ambient-rock oblivion and soft texture. A couple of songwriting gems start to bubble up on their sophomore effort You Forgot it in People, however, like the loose but irresistible “Stars and Sons” and the catchy, juicy “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” which seems to be awkward in every way that a well-wishing human expedition can be. 

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70 The National – High Violet

The National are a band that, despite their melancholy, depressive m.o., seems to just catch great songs out of thin air as if with a net. High Violet to me most illustriously epitomizes this phenomenon, with the tone being set impeccably by the gentle but glove-tight opener “Terrible Love”; leading into the textural expansiveness of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and culminating beautifully in “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” which nonsensically and euphorically sends things off into the night. 

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69 Erika Wennerstrom – Sweet Unknown

The plot gets viscous with malady: a girl grows up in the American Midwest, fends off a litany of sexist obstacles and rhetoric throughout her quest to express herself on guitar, then finally moves down south, frees herself from her former band and records a magnum opus of solo material. Sweet Unknown generally mimics the folk-rock blueprint of Erika Wennerstrom’s prior band the Heartless Bastards, but everything is freer, bigger, more pronounced and more indulgent, finally conjuring up with worthy vividness the sorts of big American images it seeks like a “Twisted Highway” and a bath of “Extraordinary Love.”

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68 Interpol – Marauder

The edge, the energy, the New York sense of grit is all back in full force on the band’s 2018 album, maybe even more prominent than ever, at that. All of these songs seem to convey a sense of danger, from the psychotic call in “The Rover” of “Come and see me and maybe you’ll die” to that mysterious figure in “Complications” that Paul Banks keeps describing as “Sidlin’ up the street / Sidlin’ up to me”, all in that hauntingly clear delivery like a vaudeville extraordinaire out of work. Rock doesn’t get any more unnerving. 

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67 Sleater-Kinney – All Hands on the Bad One

The proclivity for pop concision would continue to develop and pronounce itself on the 2000 effort from the Northwest trio of indie pioneers Sleater-Kinney. They seemed to always have some gripe about somebody and that album cover certainly betokens a mind state of widespread calamity and disaster. It’s how the continually pledge allegiance to rocking, though, that makes this stuff work, with the now-departed drummer Janet Weiss pounding out blitzkrieg grooves to flank the streamlined neuroses and platitudes of caterwauling vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. 

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66 Cigarettes after Sex – Cry

Cry plays as an apt, textural continuation of the elongated Velvet Underground trip of complete, sublime placidity initiated on the El Paso band’s 2017 self-titled debut. Romantic themes abound, as is par for the course for this band, and really these topics mesh pretty well with this music, which, though gentle and pretty, is also poignant and allegorical enough to suggest some excitement and piqued emotion that can’t help but be transmitted.

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65 Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Sometime just before 2007, Maryland singer/songwriter Bill Callahan split with his band Smog but continued along the same path of steady, stately and rich folk rock, where a guitar never sounds flat and the instrumentation never seems to lack eclectic diversity. Prone perhaps to ostentation in his initial solo material, he pares things down to a haunting dirge on the aptly named Apocalypse, with his brusque baritone almost as if dispatching from an armageddon scene to scrape up menial pieces of reassurance, which sometimes seems like what we’re already doing in life, anyway. 

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64 Spoon – Gimme Fiction

For Spoon’s 2005 followup to the breakout success of Kill the Moonlight, more than likely their best album, everything expectedly got bigger and more dramatic and bombastic, right from the stark piano, deliberate, majestic pace and frenetic guitar explosions of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored.” Some of the extra poignant, conceptual fare abounding here might be chalked up to singer Britt Daniel’s songwriting locale, which according to Wikipedia was a beach house in San Diego rented to him from musician David Klowden. The best moment might be the bizarrely androgynous “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” which extols a prestigious figure of yore not unlike an ubiquitous work of “fiction” might do and seems to tiptoe along methodically with the quiet respect for melody active in the best indie rock.

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63 Kevin Morby – City Music

Kevin Morby’s City Music focuses explicitly on his place of residence, New York City, but the warm sound and deliberate genuineness that seems deaf to convention can be explained by the vast geographical multiplicity feeding into its back story — Morby growing up in Texas and Kansas City and working with a California-based producer in Richard Swift. The result is something truly one-of-a-kind, as emotionally combustive as it is digestible and tranquil, as raw and authentic within singer/songwriter ideals as it is polished and “cool.”

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62 Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Tyranny of Distance

“Biomusicology,” the opener on Ted Leo’s breakout work The Tyranny of Distance, seems like kind of a flagship song for indie rock, in many ways. For one thing, obviously, it’s staunchly un-romantic — the subject matter of the lyrics remains fervently humanistic and universal, as if to feed a part of us that’s more than skin-deep, ideally. He comes ultimately to the denouement that “They may kill and we may be parted / But we will ne’er be broken-hearted”. True to form, a couple years after this album’s release, the U.S. dove into a military skirmish in Iraq that was based on questionable moral grounds at best and was dubbed a “preventive attack,” hence allowing that actually been a legitimate cause of the measures. All the while, “Biomusicology” seems to stand in the background as something to feed the peacemaking music-lover’s backbone, amidst all the imperial baseness being passed off as “heroism” all around us. 

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61 The New Pornographers – Electric Version

On the second album from this “supergroup” containing Neko Case, Dan Bejar from Destroyer and Carl Newman — who ironically was the least famous going in but would shoulder the bulk of the songwriting load — the guitar sounds mellowed and polished down to a pleasant timbre, with the songwriting not lagging behind in any right. Indeed, the catchy tunes pile up bulbously in the way of “From Blown Speakers”; “The Laws Have Changed”; “It’s Only Divine Right”; ad infinitum, with Dan Bejar’s stately and caustic “Chump Change” leading the way in the middle with the classic lines of “Wipe that look from your face / The world is that which is the case / It’s ok to be seen / Don’t dethrone the drama queen / Just for putting everybody in their place”.

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60 Battles – Mirrored

Brooklyn’s Battles should stand as evidence 2000s indie rock was an eclectic, varied party to which everyone was invited, the very antithesis of the wimpy dude in horn-rimmed glasses with an acoustic guitar it’s made out to be by mainstream culture vultures out there. Battles took every rule of rock songwriting and threw it out the window, the most noticeable of which might be the notion that percussion can’t be the driving force behind a song’s melodic interface. Right from the start on this blistering, rhythmic LP of gut-busting power, John Stanier’s drum beats clutter the mix with oppressive, rocking moxie, and the brilliant cover photo of the band’s glass-lined recording room tells it all too, centering on that giant bass drum like an portrait of unruly cadence. 

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59 Mudhoney – Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

In their review for Superfuzz Bigmuff, Pitchfork somewhat cheekily referred to Mudhoney as “the best band” of the grunge movement. To think of them actually being better than Nirvana, in all honesty, seems pretty absurd, but at the same time they are a reinforcement of the idea that every band in any zeitgeist like this brings its own, distinct flavor that’s meaningful and unique, and without which the larger sum total of the movement wouldn’t be the same. Mudhoney’s second album (and third if you count their early EP and singles collection Superfuzz Bigmuff which I mention earlier) walks an exciting tight rope of bluesy sludge and power pop, letting supremely catchy anthems like “Good Enough”; “Who You Drivin’ Now?” and “Pokin’ around” flank longer, grungier expeditions, with Mark Arm’s emotional opacity leaving you ticklingly at sea as to which side matters more. 

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58 Cigarettes after Sex – Cigarettes after Sex

This was a mystifying band for me right from the get-go in a sense because when I first heard them, in the form of their sleek, sauntering bedroom rock of “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” I didn’t envision a man singing, didn’t picture an Hispanic and sure as He** didn’t think they’d be a bunch of dudes from El Paso, Texas. Over time, this Southern trio has cooked up some serious schmaltz which I’ve particularly found to be an antidote for the sultry summers I spent down in Terre Haute, where the heat drives you to an oblivious haze and the only things that can speak to your realities are those which crawl and ooze along with Dionysian swampiness. The Velvet Underground’s self-titled album is a strong influence on this melodic, textural masterpiece.

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57 Sharon Van Etten – Epic (EP)

Sharon Van Etten’s debut EP from 2010 is such a gut-check it should come with a disclaimer. On this melodic but stark mini-collection which in this way mimics the mid-’90s R.E.M. material that seemed to pack more feeling than was possible into a pop song, she chides the haughty and conceited (“Save Yourself”), and even the ode to a suicidal friend “Don’t Do it” seems to represent as much of a call to arms against that disposition and attitude as does is a vow of sympathy. But just to balance things out, she is herself fair game for the moral crosshairs as well, as in the manic and sublime “Peace Signs”: “I still dream that I think of you / In the calm of the night / And I don’t know what to do / Peace signs”.

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56 Deerhunter – Microcastle

My spiel on Deerhunter is that by 2010’s Halcyon Digest the band had compiled such a mass of significant, gripping indie rock within their catalogue that I figured, there’s GOTTA be a let-down at some point. Well, looking at the album cover and listening to the lyrics on Microcastle’s opener, it’s probably not inconceivable to get some sense of the suicidal at work in this band’s muse, hence not exactly lending itself to a landscape of longevity. But lo and behold, they really got it done on this one and what’s more with some ticklingly strange sequencing, plotting four gruesomely down and somber tracks consecutively from five through eight, all to let things explode back into Fender-rocking glory on “Nothing Ever Happened,” perhaps the best thing they’ve ever done as a band. I highly recommend Deerhunter’s live show as well, which I can attest to from Lollapalooza 2009, which would have chronologically supported this LP. 

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55 No Age – Goons Be Gone

Much like their Midwestern counterparts Hum, No Age belted out a rock album in 2020 that seems like a document that’s quintessential to their overall m.o. as a group. Every sound seems to breathe and gyrate with effervescent life and that songs, though often catchy and full of clever turns in and of themselves, seem to recede and let the sound itself reign sovereign, as if to comply with the traditional Sonic Youth school letting a completely mind-blowing and signature, undulating and rich texture be the ground on which the album walks. The most concise song might be “Feeler,” anyway, with the strange and alluring beckoning of “Would you like to / Board on to the rhythm of my astroplane?”, Dean Allen Spunt annunciating and emphasizing that last word as if it’s finally some minute, but “punk” in its vulnerable, reckless abandon, concept he’s found that he can finally worship. 

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54 Cat Power – The Greatest

To be honest I got into Cat Power in 2007, like finally fully “got” it, and the gateway to my appreciation of her was her third album Moon Pix from 1998, with its stark, minimalist and honest approach to songwriting and lyricism. The Greatest opens with a title track that’s pretty unassuming but wins its way into your heart nonetheless in due time, with a method of song construction simple and conventional enough to belie an undeniable and melancholy longing. “Lived in Bars” is a sad and haunting tale of being forced into a life of prostitution, in which the music video itself should give you a glimpse of this ironic juxtaposition of elements, almost as if singer Chan Marshall has found some dark and strange beauty in this depraved lifestyle. The centerpiece is almost undoubtedly “Willie,” though, which saunters along beautifully with the genuineness of country rock and the café “cool” of My Morning Jacket.

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53 Pavement – Brighten the Corners

Pavement as a public entity was pretty much always small-fry enough, at least in Middle America, to approach a fourth album like this surrounded by pretty hush outside anticipation. And it’s a good thing, too, because if more people had heard their epic masterwork Wowee Zowee, the band would have been under infinitely more pressure to deliver the dynamite goods on ’97’s Brighten the Corners. As it stands, though, they rocked out loosey-goosey and straight from the hip on Corners, spouting off snarky humor and sharp, classic hooks like they’re growing on the walls. “Blue Hawaiian”; “We are Underused” and “Fin” are the standouts in my opinion.

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52 Fleet Foxes – Crack-up

If you read my blog you’ve seen my spiel on Crack-up already but it cannot be overstated: leaving Sub Pop Records was exorbitantly beneficial for this band’s growth and freedom to craft an album that’s unabashedly rustic and expansive. This LP breathes and flows with the gushing, uncontrollable life of the American West, from which they hail, with awe-inspiring cover art that perfectly captures the album’s furious vibrancy and, amazingly, actually depicts a real photo of a seaside, taken by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Hamaya. The centerpiece has got to be the epic, unapologetic “Third of May / Odaigahara,” the longest track on the album that nonetheless carries the immediate, crystal-clear sort of beauty that abounded on their stupendous self-titled debut.

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51 Liars – Drum’s Not Dead

This album and this BAND in general I have to say took a while to grow on me — there’s a certain point in life where you become fed up enough with generic, streamlined products and things and it hits you that you’ll get sucked up into a rat’s maze if you don’t branch out a bit. Lead singer Angus Andrew multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill take great pains to circumvent the norm, here, crafting songs that see the drums often (true to titular form) taking something resembling an ostensible melody, and are often deliberately uncomfortable so as to channel a feeling and vibe that refuses to be anything other than completely singular and original. 

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50 Beach House – Teen Dream

Perhaps not surprisingly, the sound for Beach House’s Sub Pop debut (a shift from their former label, Carpark, in their hometown of Baltimore) got bigger, grander and more polished, like something I would eventually hear in a Kroger store in the way of “Better Times.” The songwriting substance of their scrappy, slipshod masterpiece Devotion is still there though, by and large, and perhaps most compelling might be Victoria Legrand’s sympathetic, humanistic lyricism, which seems to peer into the psyche of a troubled soul with startling clarity on “Walk in the Park”; “Real Love” and “Take Care.”

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49 Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville

When it comes to emerging as an original songwriter and taking on the freedom and boldness to really say what’s on your mind almost in a stream of consciousness, Liz Phair with her debut album Exile in Guyville is a very significant figure in history. A couple of them gems on this album include “Help Me Mary”; “Soap Star Joe” and “Shatter”; straight-ahead rock and roll jaunts directly reminiscent of ’70s-era Rolling Stones. (In the DVD for the re-release of Guyville there’s an amusing tidbit with Phair detailing meeting Mick Jagger and finding him “forgive” her for mimicking the Exile on Main St. title.)

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48 The Black Angels – Passover

Moving on to another definitive debut LP by an act that would model all their subsequent successful work directly after it, we go to Austin’s Black Angels and their infectious brand of deliberate, spooky grunge rock. To be honest, I haven’t really mulled over the “Passover” title and its obvious Jewish implications too much, Alex Maas sounding like a rather Jewish name of the lead singer, and it seems like something that while probably prominent in the shaping of the songs’ messages, is also kind of a personal matter. Either way, Maas croons heartily and ominously all over these haunting dirges like anything but somebody taking subservience to an antiquated deity. 

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47 Sleater-Kinney – The Woods

The change of producer and the change of sound are evident in full, bludgeoning force right away on this staggering, uncompromising album. Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Weezer) brings a sonic bite that explodes out of the speakers and helps make this album a physical experience, fitting as it features a 10-minute song about fu**ing. Not necessarily standing alone as the centerpiece, though, it does anyway cap off the album’s blinding mid-section of “Modern Girl”; “Entertain” and “Roller Coaster” which offers intriguing songwriter plurality and some tight, explosive rocking. 

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46 Lower Dens – Nootropics

Sometimes I feel so un-punk. But with Lower Dens, their more critically acclaimed album was generally Escape from Evil (2015), with Nootropics (2012) dismissed as “experimental.” Well I see the flipside of this: I hear this band as at their best when they are creating something relatively experimental, with crisp, memorable songwriting wafting through all of the trippy haze and bulbous song structure. The stylistically eclectic project just makes for a more entertaining listen and there’s still plenty of catchy juiciness to suck up here, coming to a glorious, Velvet Underground-harkening head with “Lion in Winter, Pt. 2.” But I like the album that HAS a style. So much for recording DIY on $600, I guess.

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45 Heartless Bastards – The Mountain

Again, I’m pulling the stuffy, artsy-fartsy, “this album has more of an eccentric stylistic disposition about it” card. But it’s true: you learn a lot about the band’s progress on this 2009 tour-de-force just by looking at the personnel page, as the addition of Zy Orange Lyn on violin and mandolin infused the band with a stalwart originality and penchant for deviating from the norm in indie rock. “Had to Go” is an indescribable masterpiece with one of the wildest violin solos you’ve ever imagined and then we get back to folk-rock brass tacks on the cathartic, emphatic “Witchypoo,” just to cement this project’s element of variety.

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44 Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer

Like a faster, sleeker, more fuel-efficient upgrade on Apologies to Queen Mary (2005), At Mount Zoomer (2008) dashes out of the gates with some streamlined and truly comely indie rock riffs, doing well at sequencing and variation at that. “Soldier’s Grin” plays as the classic, Apollonian opener, giving to the tense, ominous and gripping “Call it a Ritual” and then wielding the indescribable “Language City,” with one of the best hemispheric key and meter changes ever put to wax. 

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43 Califone – Quicksand/Cradlesnakes

“Michigan Girls” is typically the fan favorite off of this second Califone album, which should tell you something about the lyrical subject matter values most people employ when assessing music. The truth is this LP is vast, varied and indescribable, with stupefying statements in pristine folk rock like “Horoscopic.Amputation.Honey” and “Vampiring Again” flanking more unabashedly bluegrass numbers nonetheless with a catchy authority like “Mean Little Seed” and “Million Dollar Funeral.” The showstopper though is the impossibly melancholy closeur “Stepdaughter” and its haunting mantra of “Bury me shallow and scratch out my name / I’d make every mistake all over again”.

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42 The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

The inspiration and evasion of emotion letdown were obvious in full force right from this album’s opening track, “The Crane Wife 3,” which pares a world of remorse and sorrow down to three distinct, purposeful chords. Colin Meloy’s delivery is confident here as well and almost sub-conscious in its preternatural knack for hugging the melody and imparting a sense of urgency. Other standouts include “When the War Came”; “The Perfect Crime #2” and “Summersong”; each of which seems to take on the inevitability of tragedy and loss in life as a topic and embrace it through tender, genuine songcraft.

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41 No Age – Nouns

Right off the bat from a textural standpoint, this band made its distinct mark on indie rock with some jarring, all-consuming guitar fuzz, made even more noteworthy by the fact that it’s only two people generating all this sound. Songs like “Eraser” and “Sleeper Hold” rock along like a snarkier, more fluid incarnation of Nirvana, but make no mistake: this band could get meticulous too, as evidenced by the haunting album centerpiece “Things I Did When I Was Dead,” on which Dean Allen Spunt’s vocals dispatch as if from some otherworldly realm, depicting an alarmingly thick discourse on mortality.

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40 Mudhoney – Mudhoney

I don’t think “coherence” was ever really Mudhoney’s first priority. Making a strong impression, on the other hand, almost assuredly was, and that by and large they do with this self-titled debut that features the most ham-handed grunge vitriol you’ve ever imagined but also some spooky protogrunge a la “Come to Mind” and “When Tomorrow Hits”; two midtempo dirges that would prominently go on to set the standard Seattle sound.

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39 Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

French quintet Phoenix made a splash on the blogosphere with 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That but to be on their followup Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix the songwriter is crisper and more focused, making for a meaningful listen. Part of Thomas Mars’ lyrical mission, as explicated on “Lisztomania,” is being “Not easily offended”, and to me this little mantra sums up this group’s identity in general — their brand of rhythmic, melodic pop has been described as “breezy” and through and through it seems like music for letting problems fall off your back and just sinking into the moments of life. The “Love Like a Sunset” suite makes for a nice faux-instrumental foible, earmarking creativity and genuineness.

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38 Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

Melding funk, pop, singer/songwriter and just about whatever else they could get their hands on, Dirty Projectors in 2009 constructed an undeniable and blisteringly original indie rock masterpiece that caught the attention and adulation of David Byrne, among many others. The opener “Cannibal Resource” sets the tone in style and also by wielding that charming trait of a lot of post-punk of setting really grim, even apocalyptic lyrics to sugary, bubble-gum chords, and the very nonsensicality of this practice only seems to add to its appeal.

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37 Women – Public Strain

Some songs just seem to have this especially poignant feel, like Nirvana’s “All Apologies” or Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love,” of functionally bringing the band to their own culmination. Unbeknownst to them at the time, “Locust Valley,” the indescribable, brisk and brilliant rocker that appears within this late album, would embody exactly such a phenomenon, with guitarist Christopher Reimer dying in his sleep in 2012 and the band calling it quits as a result. More well-developed, mature and even emotionally sound than their scrappy, experimental self-titled debut, Public Strain is a masterwork of pop (“Narrow with the Hall”); Sonic Youth noise (“Drag open”) and most everything in between.

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36 The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema

I remember my exact thought when I heard The New Pornographers had a new album out was “Well, there’s no way it’s gonna be better than Electric Version, so there’s no point in getting it.” I think I waited then somewhere around four months until about October, having a strange inkling in me to go ahead with it, and as a result this album will forever soundtrack the still tranquility of late fall — the silence, the bareness of the trees and the general sense of everything mellowing and declining for the holiday season and winter. “The Bleeding Heart Show,” which made it onto a University of Phoenix commercial, and “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” are typically held as the classics, but my stoned college self was particularly partial to “Falling through Your Clothes,” which tiptoes along with majestic perfection and is buoyed the whole way by thick accordion.

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35 Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit

For all its achievements in catchiness, variety, energy and setting, The Life Pursuit above all seems to be a lesson in discipline. Unbelievably, this was the group’s first album in 10 years since If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996), and indeed it plays almost as one of those 10-year greatest-hits comps. like U2’s The Best of 1990-2000 or whatever: the batting average of proud, rocking and clicking numbers on this LP is absolutely staggering. There really is hardly a song on here at all that couldn’t have been a radio hit. Some standouts include the romping, jolly “For the Price of a Cup of Tea” and the tense, jittery “We are the Sleepyheads” but “The Blues are Still Blue” is a groove that everyone should hear before they die, writing a new blueprint in making indie rock awkward and fun at the same time. 

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34 Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Hearts of Oak

There was a time in American culture when it seemed like the coolness and intrinsic value of a white dude rocking out with an electric guitar would be obvious, would not have to be defended from the gallows tooth and nail. Suffice it to say, anyway, that it seems like Leo’s whole career, whole tenure of guitar playing and singing, was leading up to the classic album Hearts of Oak and the hauntingly direct and exhaustive “The Ballad of the Sin Eater.” Nobody really knows anything, that is, about his former band Chisel, or the Ted Leo album before The Tyranny of Distance, and that album was just that — tyrannical and distant, with long, imposing songs that seemed to meander and lack core statements. Hearts of Oak boils things down to crisp pop and the spoils come aplenty (“The High Party”; “Dead Voices”; “The Crane Takes Flight”). 

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33 Guided by Voices – Alien Lanes

Alien Lanes (1995) must have been an odd project for the band to work on because it was the first album on which they knew they were an actual, permanent thing. In fact, on the podcast “Self-Inflicted Aural Nostalgia” it was detailed that Bob Pollard had intended to terminate the band’s existence after Bee Thousand (1994), except that that album ended up garnering a certain level of critical acclaim and occult popularity that it made him keep the GBV wheels turning. He’s been known to favor scrappy rockers like “Watch Me Jumpstart” in live shows, a song more just strange than anything, but in which you could interpolate a certain amount of artistic efficacy, as if it’s just tickling that the strange message over tawdry energy really means something more to Pollard himself. 

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32 Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff/Early Singles

Much like fellow Northwesterners and one-time Sub Pop labelmates Nirvana, Mudhoney for the second album, which would come out in 1991, seemed to just stumble upon a rose garden of songwriting genius, whether by way of a certain substance or not. Compared with the unflaggingly grating, minor chord somberness of their self-titled debut, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge is just filled with way more crispness, catchiness and memorable glory, the best track of all perhaps being “Good Enough,” which has that innocent poppiness about it like Nirvana’s early single “Sliver.” Elsewhere, the grunge rocking returns in full glory a la “Something So Clear” and “Shoot the Moon”; with “Poking around” an amusing number about a girl getting herself off with various kitchen objects when her boyfriend or husband is gone.

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31 Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights

First of all, there’s that guitar sound. It’s like a heated sidewalk for post-9/11 New York and America, performed by lead guitarist Daniel Kessler, presumably on the red Rickenbacker mentioned on Wikipedia (Telecasters have a thinner, grainier sound for blending into the rest of the band). I’ll never forget this Pitchfork thing I read on this band or album that claimed some of Paul Banks’ lyrics to lack muscle and the example was “Her stories are boring and stuff” line in “Obstacle 1,” apparently oblivious to Banks’ line being a troll of the subject girl and her annoying habit of saying “and stuff” at the end of every sentence. And in general, this is that type of album without question: there’s a lot you can miss about it, if only the hypnotic way “Say Hello to the Angels” has of ballooning out to a bulbous level of intensity and emotion, buried in your mind by pure virtue of its copious catchy, intense album cohorts.

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30 Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder

I was thinking about the most “consistent” bands out there today and what specifically got me tending to this concept was listening to the last Deerhoof album, Future Teenage Cave Artists, and marveling at its textural, angular tension and brilliance, and the disarming possibility that it might be their best album to date. Broken Social Scene belongs undoubtedly in this same discussion, as after the generally heralded You Forgot it in People (2002), they only seem to get deeper, richer, more mature and more engulfed in an undeniable sense of urgency that gets them writing lines like “We’re just the latest on the longest rank and file that’s ever to exist / In the history of the protest song”.

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29 Sufjan Stevens – Illinois

It’s ironic that, in what was originally slated as an endeavor of writing one album about each of the 50 states, Stevens’ best and most popular work would be on Illinois, a state that’s neither his home origin (Michigan) nor one he’d come to call home in his professional career (New York). So definitive is this album’s dominance within his catalogue, to me, anyway, that my second favorite album he’s ever put out is probably The Avalanche, which according to Wikipedia is comprised of “outtakes and other recordings from the sessions for his album Illinois.” Of course, the brilliance is in how he weaves this broad tapestry of strings, banjo and just about every concert band instrument you could find in the boiler room, only to pare things down to memorable, succinct pop music on classics like “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.” 

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28 Black Mountain – Black Mountain

Around this time, 2005, I remember Rolling Stone having the annoying habit of giving every indie rock album three stars, no matter what the band’s influences, song structure strategy, general aesthetic or anything else. Well, I can tell you this is definitely not a three-and-a-half star album: it spans a dizzying array of songwriting techniques and checkpoints along the history of classic rock, from the Rolling Stones, acid-soaked mournfulness of “No Satisfaction” to the invigorating grunge rock of “Don’t Run Our Hearts around.” The most stupefying track of all might be “No Hits,” which features programmed kicks and claps and a groove and synth warp so hypnotic that you’d swear you were listening to something as organic as Buddy Holly.

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27 Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond

This might be a douche bag opinion but this is my favorite Dinosaur Jr. album of their whole career and much of it has to do with production. 2007 was an age when indie albums were taking digestible, professional shapes, and sure maybe on this list I downgrade the importance of a scrappy, DIY approach to recording. But part of what I’m doing here too is showing that indie albums are totally enjoyable on a holistic sense — they don’t require the prebaked bias of favoring the underdog or the low-budget. Rather, many times it’s just a case of the mainstream record label’s complete ineptitude in recognizing or identifying artistic merit. J. Mascis is given free reign of pedal hopping and rocking, anyway, and the pearls about in the form of “Almost Ready”; “This is All I Came to Do”; “We’re Not Alone”; “I Got Lost” and more. Plus, this is album entails a great story of Lou Barlow, founding Dinosaur Jr. bassist, rejoining the band and even dipping his hand into the songwriting and vocals pot for “Back to Your Heart” and “Lightning Bulb.”

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26 Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow

If underground rock music were really given the clout and attention it deserves in this era then Remind Me Tomorrow (2019) would be considered an undeniable classic and Sharon Van Etten would have achieved a level of fame on par with Adele or Billie Eilish. Feeble? Corny? “No One’s Easy to Love” saunters along with the punch and power of “Ava Adore,” for Christ’s sake, and “Comeback Kid” possesses a snare sound that probably outpaces both Interpol and The National in terms of punch and resonation, also finding Van Etten’s voice projecting beautifully, like a richer, more emotive reincarnation of Cat Power. 

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25 Cat Power – Wanderer

I rank this album highly because it’s composed of great music that’s truly original and Chan Marshall’s voice is one of a kind in its damaged, melancholy croon. With this being said, I might go to bat for this project in particular more so than others, on account of its back story. Unbelievably, Matador Records was giving Marshall the runaround leading into this album’s release, their claim that it didn’t feature any potential “hit singles.” Of course, what primarily enrages me about this petty reception on their part is that Marshall has always existed outside of the mainstream and has churned out music that frankly is too dark and edgy for radio, anyway. Plus, since when does Matador, which housed small-fry bands in the ’90s like Pavement and Yo La Tengo, stake a claim to radio? It’s also disappointing seeing as this is supposed to be the best indie label in America, right up there with Sub Pop, who of course also seems not to be above capitalistic exploitation of its artists. We weave a tangled web but Wanderer — aptly titled in light of its plotline of creation — exists as a steady, soothing channel of folk rock that will remind you of the simple things in life that really matter.

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24 Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet

As of May 2021, when I’m writing this, Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017) is still the last full LP from Michelle Zauner, operating under the stage name of Japanese Breakfast. This should give you an idea of its poignancy and exhaustiveness in terms of creativity and artistic ideas, and certainly it doesn’t disappoint in this regard, with clear, urgent vocals that seem to belie the euphoric nonchalance of the music in the background. And it’s not as if these grooves are sloppy or aimless, but rather that they just know how to act as an innocuous, ambient backdrop for Zauner’s vocals, which are often capable of taking on the gravity of a singer/songwriter’s work. “Diving Woman” is like The War on Drugs swathed in extra guitar feedback and captivating shape and the provocatively titled “Road Head” features a beautiful isolated guitar part, a funky groove and a chord progression that never falls apart because it never falls together. 

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23 Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Alec Ounsworth, drum-machine-wielding singer/songwriter operating under the stage name Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, was doing things the “indie way” right from the start: releasing albums on his own label, embracing aesthetic quirks like “yellow country teeth” and, of course, unabashedly endorsing public displays of enthusiasm, something that’s really like walking a tight rope these days. The best moments on this album are generally the most Velvet Underground-influenced like “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” and “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” but “Gimme Some Salt” makes an interesting splash too, with an element of funk, a New York sense of danger and of course some good ol’ white boy snakiness.

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22 Sebadoh – Bakesale 

Sebadoh is like a dream to me. Ever since I visited the record store in Denver one time looking for some Lemonheads and some Oasis and discovering The Sebadoh (1999) as an apt, usurping conduit between the two with rocking numbers like “Weird” and “Flame”; I’ve been hooked for life. To listen to their music is to immerse yourself within an world that’s undeniably distinct and autonomous from the rest of the universe and I guess to the greatest extent Bakesale (1994) is just that album that I put on and for the next 40 minutes say, Ok, I’m in the Sebadoh world. Usual universal law doesn’t apply here. But make no mistake: this is no fantastical, ephemeral world for the pu**y-footers: we get unabashed and hilarious honesty like “Crazy people are right on” in “Sh** Soup” and Lou Barlow referring to himself on “Rebound” as “Heartbroken and attractive”. Never before has a musician gotten kicked out of a band and proceeded to exhibit this much swagger, so soon after the break. 

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21 Real Estate – Atlas

Again, this album is pretty much like a dream, and also, again, I must apologize for favoring clean, polished sound, but it just makes for a sublime listen on the strength of that twee pop guitar sound of Martin Courtney. According to an interview with Spin the guitar Courtney was playing around this time was a Martin (and yes that is his first name too… that’s not a typo). In general, the strength of this album is its clear, pristine precision, with the bona fide emotion of these songs providing all the “muscle” this music needs in order to thrive. Obvious classics other than the opener “Had to Hear” would be the brisk, breezy “Talking backwards” and the gorgeous instrumental “April’s Song” but “The Bend” was the real grower for me, a song I heard them rip through a zesty version of on a KEXP session.

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20 Spoon – Kill the Moonlight

Sorry for the stupid “I had a girlfriend who liked this album a lot” spiel but there is an element of that in this enterprise for me, unavoidably. Well, the opener is fun, that much is for sure, an very original, comprised as it is solely of funky synth and the damaged, splayed vocals of Britt Daniel that just seem preternaturally destined for soundtracking a John Cusack movie. “The Way We Get by” is the quintessential American indie rock song of the 2000s and indeed seems to serve as a Rosetta Stone for an entire culture, citing The Stooges and quipping to a close friend that “You sweet talk like a cop / And you know it”, amusingly enough. There are lots of classic songs here but don’t forget that closeur “Vittorio E” and its textural, glorious finality.

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19 Califone – Roomsound

Chicago’s Califone are a band I’ve been following for a long time and truthfully that I’ve had somewhat of a hard time getting a lot of people into. And indeed, there isn’t even a Wikipedia page for this particular album. This is music for lovers of music. This is your favorite musician’s favorite band. It is music that vibrates to its own drum, to its own pace, constructing elaborate, folky and beautiful songs that will fall apart completely if you poke them hard enough. The generally held centerpiece here is “Bottles and Bones (Shade and Sympathy)” but I’m personally partial for “Fisherman’s Wife,” a vial of absolute emotion and melancholy that gets by on little more than acoustic guitar, vocals and a rhapsodic fiddle solo.

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18 Hum – Inlet

Speaking of a “comeback kid,” Inlet (2020) is Hum’s first release of any kind in 22 years, since Downward is Heavenward (1998), their second best album to date, dropped into our laps on RCA, essentially right before the collapse of mainstream rock into nu metal  and high school drama. These guys are all nerve, though, and even take the sonic blueprint of Downward is Heavenward and stretch it into a default of expansive, seven-minute songs, perhaps wisely cloaking their vocals in fathoms and fathoms of grunge guitar and steady but booming drums. It’s a great album too insofar as every track on it acts as a microcosm thereof, with a haunting opacity and reluctance before establishing any sort of theme, hence making it a little bit hard to choose a single favorite song or standout. But this is just one more way in which Inlet is refreshing: it commands complete listens and discourages the quest for “hit singles” with multifaceted adamancy. 

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17 Pavement – Wowee Zowee

I think I was reading the liner notes to some Pavement release and it was peppered with comments from lead singer Stephen Malkmus on every release the band ever put out. His take on what was manifesting on Wowee Zowee (1996) was “late 20s confidence.” Let’s just say that if Slanted & Enchanted is holding shaking Asian dudes eating a Big Kahuna burger at gunpoint and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is initiating an attempted strangulation of Jackie Brown, Wowee Zowee is hitting on Brazillian girls on a Capital One commercial. It’s about as loosey-goosey as it gets: “Brinx Job,” for one, has essentially no business existing, and “Best Friend’s Arm” features one of the weirdest sessions of scatting gibberish you’re likely to hear this side of Soul Coughing. But the ideas are there in abundance, with standouts like “Half a Canyon” and “Fight This Generation” still yielding to the unflagging pop rubric that informs centerpiece “AT&T” and gives Malkmus the groundwork for this language in which he’s so happy to be able to speak. 

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16 Beach House – Devotion

Where’s the love for Devotion? I’m not sure if it’s just the fact that this is the album that, arguably, made this band Pitchfork darlings, but for whatever reason, for all the herds and droves of Beach House devotees populating sleek cities across the nation and Baltimore, I can’t for the life of me upturn a stone and find an arbiter of Devotion greatness. Undeniably, it’s my favorite album by this band, packed to the gills with catchy, classic songs and rendered within that indescribable croon of lead singer Victoria Legrand. What’s more, here is finally an instance of me championing the DIY (you knew it was coming), as the scrappy production and the “cheap-sounding drum machine” to me bespeak confidence that these songs can get by on their hooks and construction alone, which they  certainly do, most pointedly in the form of “You Came to Me”; “Gila” and “Home Again.” But again, you won’t find a mediocre song on this album.

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15 Cat Power – You Are Free 

On the surface You Are Free (2003) is a great folk rock album packed with some dense, emotionally charged songs. Upon a closer look, though, the composite view of its DNA gets a little more complicated: the first song, for instance, is dedicated to Kurt Cobain, with the unsettling admission in light of his suicide that “I don’t blame you.” The song is delivered over spare, hauntingly bare piano run, devoid of guitar, bass and drums, and so it’s clearly Chan Marshall’s intention to revamp the way we’re thinking about the world and do anything but pander to radio and a**hole record execs who would try to taint her art with capitalistic motives. So it becomes like a Paglian phenomenon of “fingering our worry beads” while looking at the beauty of nature and sleek rockers like “Speak for Me” and “He War” are naturally met with compunction in light of the amount of dark, vituperative truths manifest elsewhere (“Fool”; “Babydoll”; “Names”). 

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14 Sonic Youth – Sister

Anytime you’re talking about indie rock, it’s all going to come back to Sonic Youth, at some point. There’s not a beacon within this realm that doesn’t owe something to the New York quartet which has at this point undergone a dizzying amount of metamorphoses and adaptations and amazingly kept the same lineup of Thurston Moore on guitar and vocals, Kim Gordon on bass and vocals, Lee Ronaldo on guitar and vocals and Steve Shelley on drums. Sister (1987) was kind of the initial spark, the exact point in their career of their general m.o. of maliciously making your ears bleed in no particular method apparent to the listener having some potential to morph into some swatches of meaningful music, like the pop-noise devolution of “Tuff Gnarl” and the gentle majesty of “Cotton Crown,” on down to my personal favorite, “Pipeline/Kill Time,” a Lee Ronaldo dirge with some of the trippiest lyrics you’re likely to hear in a long time. 

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13 The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow

In 2003, Sub Pop was probably an indie label in letter and in letter only, as the gargantuan success of Nirvana had afforded them a pretty substantial wealth, and they were prone to housing big, grandiose acts such as The Shins and Sleater-Kinney, as well as, eventually, No Age and Beach House. All in all, Chutes Too Narrow plays as more of a blockbuster hit than some scrappy product of the underground — the sound is clean, the vocals are clear and Apollonian, and the lyrical themes tend to adhere pretty strictly to everyday tropes of romance and individuality. This album’s reputation speaks for itself but I guess my take on it would be that, related to how they call Albuquerque their hometown, James Mercer always to me represented an Indian in the way of exuding a sense of independence and emotional leanness, and gorgeous numbers like “Fighting in a Sack” and “Pink Bullets” seem to almost aurally project a sunset in the Western United States — a panorama of beauty but also an ending and, hopefully not, looking back and regretting.

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12 The Dodos – Visiter

In terms of putting out an album on an indie label and getting the songs airplay on satellite radio, you could certainly do worse than The Dodos did in 2008 with Visiter. This is ironic, though, at least to me, because I don’t think the songs really WORKED for shopping in the grocery store to — I actually didn’t fall in love with “Walking” or “Fools” until I heard them in the context of the entire album, whereupon my favorite songs unveiled themselves as “Red and Purple”; “Joe’s Waltz” and “Paint the Rust.” There’s an undeniable Spring vibe about this album, calling to mind sunny days and social anxiety, and I recently made the half-retarded comment on Facebook that “Walking” was the exact aural representation of the feeling of Spring allergies. Indeed, I at one point was “allergic” to it itself until I realized that its lack of climax, its tension and essentially its hopelessness are all a tactic for establishing this album’s aesthetic and painting an emotional picture that’s true to life, not lunging or interpolating conquest onto anything.

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11 Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

It’s only one album but without question, Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear slayed a lot of dragons and earned a wide array of stripes on 2009’s Veckatimest. One distinction obviated by this album would be that this band is the leader in applying classical music to indie pop, with many orchestral instrumentations and song structures acting on these tracks and making for a unique, expansive and absolutely singular listening experience. The other is probably betokening themselves as the “American Radiohead” (I know the concept is stupid but it’s kind of fun to entertain nonetheless), perhaps most evident on “I Live with You,” an almost impossibly tense and melodically angular dirge about emotional hopelessness and lack of inspiration, two particularly common Radiohead lyrical themes, for that matter. Also, in somewhat of a shocker, “Two Weeks” actually does work as a radio hit, as could perhaps have “Cheerleader” and “While You Wait for the Others,” though by and large this is not an album for doing a price check to.

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10 Guided by Voices – Bee Thousand

As I state in the mini-blurb on Alien Lanes, Bob Pollard had set Bee Thousand up to be the last Guided by Voices album (he missed that mark by just a hair, you might say), and only sustained the band’s output upon the slight occult following that came in the wake of this LP. Listening to these songs, though, it’s a wonder as to why the success would have come as a surprise to him: sure, there’s that ridiculous mixing error on “Hardcore UFOs” where one of the channels cuts out for like 10 seconds and they neglect the glaring error, but “Tractor Rape Chain”; “Queen of Cans and Jars” and “I am a Scientist” all seem like catchy, magnanimous enough anthems that the arbiter of them would have gleaned that he were in for a popularity explosion, the way Kurt Cobain apparently did with Nevermind. Bee Thousand is 20 songs that breeze by in 40 minutes and find themselves peppered with weird, unforgettable lines like “The popular mechanics are at it again” and “I wouldn’t dare to bring out that awful bliss”, in a way mirroring the overall “slacker” motif of the ’90s and actually adding some musical minimalism and laziness, just to authenticate the proceedings.

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9 Wolf Parade – Apologies to Queen Mary

Another “three and a half star” album from trusty ol’ Rolling Stone here, Apologies to Queen Mary is an experience in indie rock unlike any other, hated by many for the sheer factor of their popularity and “hype” and the presence of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock on vocals, but still impossible to ignore. I remember trying to go see them in ’06 in Boulder and finding it sold out, but amazingly, the Fox Theater broadcast the concert on a TV that was visible outside, with full audio and video. I heard this sagacious, 50-year-old urban wit type remark that “This is the best band I’ve seen in a long time.” And sure enough, the songs are there stamped and bona fide and sure they’re kind of like a Modest Mouse Jr. but Modest Mouse is a band even whose impostors tend to come across pretty impressive, for their sheer ability to do it at all. True to form, anyway, self-deprecating lyrics within a quirky delivery harvesting an ironic pop appeal are rampant on standouts like “Grounds for Divorce”; “I’ll Believe in Anything” and “Dinner Bells.”

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8 Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West

Before you start to riot on me, please let me remind you that this band’s 2000 project The Moon & Antarctica came to us by way of Epic, hence disqualifying it from this list. Truth be told, Moon is the band’s definitive statement, with The Lonesome Crowded West, their last album on Up Records, piping in as a semi-worthy companion piece with more rustic production and every bit the goofy approach to lyricism (“Jesus Christ was an only child”; “Convenient parking is way back”; “Eating snowflakes with plastic forks”). But don’t let the primitive aesthetic fool you: this band even in their early days were capable of staggering versatility, getting frenetic and haphazard on “Doin’ the Cockroach”; downright intimidating on “Cowboy Dan” only to stream back into the pop bliss of “Trailer Trash,” the album’s centerpiece with this gloriously simple bassline outro that will make you miss departed bass player Eric Judy, if you didn’t already, which you certainly should have. 

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7 The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I

In general I’m definitely a fan of this band — in fact I’m the only person I know who actually likes their last album, Uncanney Valley (2013). This being said, it’s rare to find any group in history with such an obvious choice of what their best album is, besides maybe Hootie & the Blowfish. Emergency & I is an indescribable journey through the perilous process of growing up and assimilating yourself into the world — Travis Morrison even makes frequent references to his own job, and allusions to things like disaffection, dissatisfaction and crushing malaise. On the excellent, Moog-driven “The City” he mourns the departure of a friend (“The city’s been dead / Since you’ve been gone… I’ve never felt less at home”). It’s fighting your way out of an emotional nadir with pure emotion and rhythm, which makes the centerpiece “You are Invited” all the more glorious: Morrison is beckoning in the chorus that “You are invited / By anyone to do anything  / You are so needed / By everyone to do everything” and at the end of it all you’re not sure whether to rejoice and join into life or just feel bad for the guy, driven to that haunting level of discursive simplicity on the whole thing.

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6 Yo La Tengo – Ride the Tiger

You might think I’ve been disrespecting Yo La Tengo by not putting more of their albums on this list. Well, listen to them… do you hear another classic album? I do in Popular Songs (2010), Fade (2013) and There’s a Riot Going on (2018), with them erstwhile perhaps reluctant to write a classic album and achieve the sort of fame that Kurt Cobain did, which of course proved problematic for him. This is just a theory I have but regardless, their 1986 debut is truly a consistent listen and possesses the sort of quiet songwriting confidence evident in early R.E.M. of around this time, where the soothing, hypnotic songs seem like more than the sum of their parts. Ride the Tiger is the only YLT album with bassist Mike Lewis, who would inspire the song “Lewis” that appeared on their next album New Wave Hot Dogs, in a nice human interest story. 

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5 Califone – Roots & Crowns

For many, many years, this was my favorite band on the planet, probably now ceding by a narrow margin to Wilco on the strength of the spare and beautiful Ode to Joy (2019). This is my exact first impression of Califone: I bought Roots & Crowns after having read Amanda Petrusich’s articulate and glowing review of it on Pitchfork. I took the CD home, which was packaged in one of those stylish paper cases and had some weird picture of some Chinese women’s swim team on it. I listened to the first song and thought it was meandering, overly jazz-tinged and annoying. I got to the second song and my life changed forever. “Spider’s House” is a delicate, tiptoeing indie pop tune wielding a robust Beatles influence and taking its aim at nothing in particular, accompanying a video of an abandoned house full of weird, spooky shots and complete desolation. Indeed, loss and heartbreak represent much of the subject matter of this 2006 album, as suggested by the song titles “The Eye You Lost in the Crusades” and “Burned by the Christians.” Another melodic high point is the impossible fragility of “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” and the haunting mantra of “It’s almost surgical / The way you shatter when you hit the water”. All this and, you’ll never believe me, but my favorite moment on the album might be where Tim Rutilli rips off the guitar riff in “She is Love” by Oasis for “Sunday Noises,” which should give you some sense that this stuff is really pretty approachable, under the eclectic, folky  and banjo-laden veneer.

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4 Nirvana – Bleach

Nirvana is a very frustrating band, to me. They’re frustrating on one hand for the obvious reason that their singer departed from this world at a very young age from suicide. They’re frustrating, also, though, for the general phenomenon of deeper, more thorough research on their lead singer yielding a darker, more sinister sense of humanity. There are tales of him bad-mouthing other bands, stories of him getting into violent altercations with bandmates, and of course the drug use and general disrespect and hopelessness conveyed in his everyday life. I guess punks just aren’t meant to last long. They’re meant to pi** you off and then leave a good-looking corpse. And that’s exactly what Cobain did, with Bleach a nice time capsule of what they were in their embryonic days, which was Melvins-influenced alternative rock that was reliant heavily on minor chords, produced impeccably by Jack Endino on a budget of $606 (hence yielding the best turnaround profit on an album since the Elvis Sun sessions) and, perhaps most importantly, unsettlingly dark and grim. “Paper Cuts” is an uncompromising grunge dirge about a family that locked their kids in a bedroom for over a  year and elsewhere the caustic abrasion just doesn’t seem to relent, making this a very cathartic album and one steeped in a distinct musical vision.

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3 Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Some bands take a while to grow on you. Some bands take a long time to become popular because the world isn’t ready for them. Fleet Foxes are not one of these bands. Their patient, punctilious and gorgeous brand of folk rock, buoyed heavily by Robin Pecknold’s otherworldly vocals, was an absolutely perfect bookend to the indie rock craze of the 2000s which itself was a reaction to the war in Iraq, and, I think, a spiteful dismissal of mainstream America, if only in theory and temporarily. Fleet Foxes was an album that reminded us that we were all heartbroken but that life goes on and we’re going to have to try to find the beauty and optimism in us if we’re really going to do any of this at all. Still, the whole thing is plagued by an enriching heartbreak and desolation the whole way, whether it’s the strange and terrible account in “White Winter Hymnal” of “And Michael you would fall / And turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime” or the troubling conclusion in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” that “I don’t see anybody that dear to me”. Through all the musical depth, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the one truly, utmost defining moment, but part of me for whatever is partial to “Meadowlarks,” and its bare, resigned simplicity completely with an extensive “Mmm-mmm-mmm” vocal part. Sometimes the highest profundity is gibberish. 

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2 Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

The opener. “Teen Age Riot.” I’m pretty sure everybody remembers where they were at when they first heart this six minute, 57 second segment of unadulterated, expansive indie rock glory. For me, actually, it was recalling it from an earlier age of my sister listening to it, popping it in when I was almost done with college and had just purchased the CD, hence initiating what would be about a five-year Sonic Youth kick for me. It’s rare to find an album on which the opener so authoritatively sets the tone and carries the energetic load and, truthfully, the rest of the album could be ambient drone and it would probably still go down as a classic album. This being said, side A is generally cluttered with challenging, long-winded moments, with four of the first six songs at least approaching the seven-minute mark. One highlight within here is Kim Gordon’s strange rant on “The Sprawl” of “I wanted to know the exact dimensions of He** / Fu** you / Are you for sale? / Is fu** you simple enough?” It doesn’t get much more New York City, or more 1988, than that, folks. Other highlights include “Total Trash”; “Candle” and generally anything Lee Ronaldo touches, songs that seem to turn the history of music on its head and graft an undeniable sense of urgency toward the objectives of individuality and sovereignty of the self.

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1 Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

It’s hard to think of Pavement albums without handling the general theme of their opening lines, what with Wowee Zowee’s “There is no castration fear”; Brighten the Corners’ “Pigs they tend to wiggle when they walk / The infrastructure rots” and Terror Twilight’s eventual observation of “Now I see the long the short the middle / And what’s in between / I can spit on a stranger”. In a way, “Silence Kid” is just as important of an opener of any of these, and just as tickling, too, with the strange beckoning of “Silent kid / Don’t listen to the rain”. Everybody knows, though, that “Cut Your Hair” is the best da** thing this band ever did, a glorious, hilarious and snarky indictment of aesthetics in popular music that doubles as relationship advice: “Darling don’t you go and cut your hair / Do you think it’s gonna make him change?”, sort of a bath of sympathy for women who are struggling futilely to get some sort of upper hand in their relationship. This keen, inside understanding of humanity, then, seems to move to inform what’s generally this band’s most vital work, such as the unfortunate command in the excellent “Stop Breathin” of “Write it on a postcard / Dad they broke me” and, who could forget, the uncomfortable placement of The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots on the verbal chopping block in “Range Life.” The latter might be the album’s strongest track but the proceedings wouldn’t be the same without two odd and unforgettable numbers toward the end. One is “Heaven is a Truck,” a strongly androgynous and intensely therapeautic paean to a semi-truck he’s seen stopped on the side of the road, and “Fillmore Jive,” a similarly noodley, broad rocker with a convoluted, layered meaning I have a kind of hard time parsing but that seems to amount to the death knell of rock music, observed within none less than a rock song. Elsewhere, “Gold Soundz” is nothing less than succinct, creatively phrased indie pop perfection, bleeding into “5-4=Unity,” a complete genre departure into Dave Brubeck jazz which almost plays as a disclaimer that if you get too close to the summit of this stuff, you’re liable to be changed forever. 

109 thoughts on ““Dolby’s Top 100 Indie Rock Albums of All Time”

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