There’s little doubt that indie music has been going strong in recent years, so it’s no surprise that the genre had another great year in 2010. No category was harder for me to settle on this year than Indie. There were more than 30 albums being considered for this list, and while a few were moved to other categories, most ended up being removed entirely. After hours of taking albums on and off of the list, I have finally settled what I believe to be the 10 best indie rock and pop albums released this past year.
There’s a fine line between indie pop and dream pop. While indie pop focuses on catchy hooks and melodies, dream pop has a much stronger ambient quality. The two don’t often mix well, so it’s all the more impressive that Beach House’s Teen Dream blurs the line perfectly between the two styles. The songs are certainly catchy, and will appeal to indie fans, but listeners who are turned off by modern indie music should also find something to like here. It’s catchy and ambient in equal parts, and it’s one of the better dream pop albums to come out in some time.
The Besnard Lakes
The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night
If there’s one thing that stands out about The Besnard Lakes, it’s how well they play with tension. The songs on their sophomore release start out pretty enough, but the band’s real strength is in how they build. Each song has a powerful moment where the tension breaks and the songs really start to take form. The single “Albatross” is a perfect example of this. It starts as a beautiful little indie rock tune, and keeps building until it turns into a full fledged rock song. The vocals work perfectly with the music, and while the chord progression starts to become a little predictable over time, the payoff is always worth it.
The Corin Tucker Band
The long awaited new project from former Sleater-Kinney frontwoman Corin Tucker is a little more typical than what Sleater-Kinney fans may expect. There are very few yelps, no psychedelic riffs, nor is there really any relation to SK’s masterful last album, The Woods. Still, 1,000 Years is a solid debut album from a band led by a more mature Corin Tucker. The music is softer, almost to an indie pop or folk point at times, but it’s strongest point is that it shows a very different side of the band’s leader. Corin Tucker takes a much more personal approach to 10,000 Years, and it pays off. The lyrics of based on personal reflection, and the music does the same. The Corin Tucker Band is certainly stripped down compared to Sleater-Kinney, but 10,000 Years is undoubtedly a solid album, and fans of Tucker should embrace this side of her music.
Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse
Dark Night of the Soul
While technically leaked by the artists in 2009, the collaboration between producer Danger Mouse the late indie rock legend Sparklehorse finally saw an official release last summer after years of fighting between labels. For those who missed its leak, Dark Night of the Soul’s instrumentals were created by Sparklehorse, mixed by Danger Mouse, and then sung over by a wide variety of indie rock guests, including Black Francis form the Pixies, all members of the Flaming Lips, and Iggy Pop. There are even two spoken word sections from legendary filmmaker David Lynch. Unfortunately, the songs don’t quite live up to their potential. “Revenge” sounds like a Flaming Lips song, and it’s no coincidence that the whole band is featured on that track. “Angel’s Harp” with Black Francis sounds like one his post-Pixies tracks, and so on. That’s not to say that those aren’t good, as both are great songs in their own right, but it’s disappointing that the songs don’t always sound like something created by Danger Mouse or Sparklehorse. “The Man Who Played God” is the album’s standout track, and one of the few where the three artists at work (guest vocalist Suzanne Vega being the third in this case) come together to create something unique. Still, Dark Night of the Soul is a solid indie rock album that any fan of the genre should enjoy.
It’s a little disappointing that Deerhunter have decided to put their shoegaze sound on hold, as 2008’s Microcastle was one of the more interesting post-My Bloody Valentine albums in the genre. Instead, Halcyon Digest, is much more of a traditional indie rock album, and thankfully it’s very good at what it does. As such, it’s a lot more accessible than Deerhunter fans might anticipate, but that’s not say that Halcyon Digest is generic. The lyrics are mostly outstanding, and there’s a strong contrast of dark methodical riffs and more upbeat high-pitched vocals. The combination is reminiscent of the effect Modest Mouse had in their prime, as Halcyon Digest is pure darkness lined with glimpses of light and optimism. It’s an interesting record to say the least, and while it’s not up to the level of the aforementioned Microcastle album, it’s still comes highly recommend to indie fans.
The Hold Steady
Heaven is Whenever
It’s more than a little strange to hear Craig Finn attempt to actually sing, and in all honestly it doesn’t always work. After Stay Positive, it’s unlikely The Hold Steady could take their sound any farther, so it only makes sense that they would try something different. However, Finn doesn’t have a strong voice, and Heaven is Whenever could have benefited from more of his trademark part-sung, part-spoken word vocals. Despite that misstep, Heaven is Whenever works for the same reasons The Hold Steady’s past albums have worked- Finn’s phenomenal storytelling and the band’s heavy bar rock riffs. Finn’s lyrics are laced with musical references (including past Hold Steady characters), and he celebrates the simple beauty of life (“Heaven is whenever / we can get together / sit down on the floor / and listen to your records”). The Hold Steady may sound like a different band on Heaven is Whenever, but in some ways it’s for the best. This is another exceptional release from a band that can seemingly do no wrong.
Murder by Death
Good Morning, Magpie
Darker and more gothic than their past albums, Good Morning, Magpie is a natural step for a band that continues to grow with each new release. This isn’t your typical indie rock, as Murder by Death’s baritone vocals and awesome use of electric violins (yes, electric violins), makes them sound closer to a gothic folk rock band than anything else. Regardless of how you classify them, Murder by Death have solidified themselves as one of the most creative rock bands of today. Masterful tracks like “White Noise” and “Foxglove” are proof of just how far this band has come. Good Morning, Magpie is an excellent album that earns a strong recommendation to any rock fan.
It's only recently that The National have been put under the mainstream spotlight, but the Brookyln indie rock band has quietly released some of the finest music of the pest decade. Starting with their self-titled debut in 2001, The National have grown with each album, continuing to polish and perfect their dark blend of chamber pop, High Violet is no exception. In a way, it’s is more of the same for The National, but this the most polished, consistent, and even memorable album to come from the band thus far.
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The New Pornographers
After a string of great albums, indie supergroup The New Pornographers take a small step back with Together, a solid album that sometimes sounds more ordinary than what New Porno fans are used to. It’s still good, especially in terms of how catchy it is, but it’s still a little too tame. Twin Cinema and Challengers both elevated the genre in a significant way, bringing together the creative talent of the eight musicians. In a way, Together sounds more cohesive, but A.C. Newman’s songwriting doesn’t take advantage of the talent around him the way that it usually does. The songs could work as solo material with guest work, and don’t rely on the other members as much as they should. Still, Together is a very solid indie rock album that only disappoints in comparison to the group’s past work. As an album on its own, it’s absolutely worthy of a listen for any fan of indie music.
The Five Ghosts
The Five Ghosts is an indie pop record that sets itself apart from the pack. It’s still cute and catchy, but the latest Stars album is a little darker than what you may expect. The songs are undeniably catchy, but there are moments of haunting vocals and lyrics that transcend The Five Ghosts into an album stronger than than something just simple and catchy. The back and worth conversation on “Dead Hearts,” for example, has genuine emotion rarely seen in the genre. Sometimes indie pop groups are too concerned with making their music fun and catchy that they remove the human element. The Five Ghosts has that vital human element, and while it may not do anything differently musically from other albums in its genre, it goes above and beyond the average indie pop record.