Ever find yourself missing the word "alternative" as a concept, a signifier, a lifestyle? Nowadays, any dudes-with-guitars collective either has to do the Creed butt-rock thing, the whine-incessantly-about-your-ex-girlfriends emo thing, or the get-beat-up-incessantly-by-your-ex-girlfriends indie-rock thing. It's harder and harder to find the best aspects of each combined: the fist-pumping intensity of the butt-rockers, the ludicrous melodrama of the emo kids, the inventive guile and vast record collections of the elitist indie crowd. That triad is increasingly rare, but -- like pink hearts, yellow moons and purple horseshoes -- magically delicious. Buy these ten records.
1. Muse, Absolution (Warner Bros.). It's hard to believe this record exists in 2004: pompous, overwrought and utterly exhilarating art-guitar rock that Kurt Cobain, or Kid A, or 9/11 allegedly "killed forever." It's got too many fancy gee-tar effects for Nickelback fans and too much soft-verse/loud-chorus pandering for Arcade Firemen; instead, it balances perfectly on the Schick Quattro's edge of English self-absorption and alt-rock self-flagellation. It also rocks yer face off.
2. Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Shake the Sheets (Lookout!). Ken Burns could make a ten-part documentary about the song "Little Dawn" alone: The Punk Guitar God riff, the melody cribbed from "The Way You Do the Things You Do," the amplifiers-aflame chorus, and the final three minutes, wherein Ted moans, "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right" over and over. It's the only thing you need or want a rock star to tell you, especially now.
3. American Music Club, Love Songs for Patriots (Merge). Only Mark Eitzel -- poet laureate, sad sack, meltdown time bomb -- could sequence the gorgeous, dew-eyed optimism of "Another Morning" and the ranting, male-stripper-as-metaphor-for-America dirge of "Patriot's Heart" and knock both outta the park. Further proof that Matador's entire back catalogue -- and mild depression -- should be mandatory possessions.
4. The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives (Epitaph). Behold the world's most arrogant Jazzercise instructors, ludicrously self-absorbed but shockingly invigorating. This breathless half-hour-of-power's best song, "Dead Quote Olympics," is a derivative garage-punk tune that derides rival garage-punkers for being derivative. The word for this is "genius." If you jogged to this record every morning for a month, you'd lose 150 pounds.
5. Various Artists, untitled CD inside the music issue of The Believer. God bless the mix CD. This one's got the Walkmen's "The Rat" for arena-rock grandiosity, TV on the Radio's "Dreams" for nervous, devastated funk, and Death Cab for Cutie's "Title and Registration" for the vibraphone solo. The Constantines are today's Tom Petty, the Gossip is today's Aretha Franklin, and the Mountain Goats are today's Neutral Milk Hotel. That and a Dodge Durango's worth of breathy, despondent singer-songwriter dudes adds up to a favorable prognosis for literary rockers nationwide.
6. Talking Heads, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads; Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Rhino, Matador). Ah, the reissue double entry. Is it cheating to include these? Perhaps. But who among us is writing brilliant robo-funk pop tunes like the Heads, or emulating Pavement's habit of making utterly nonsensical lyrics and ramshackle grunge riffs glisten like the rough surrounding the diamond? Forsake not the Gold Soundz and the Psycho Killers; both belong in the Pixies' league, in our hearts if not on our stages. Yet.
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7. A.C. Newman, The Slow Wonder (Matador). Effortless, effervescent melodies. Continuous sonic invention. Weird -- and weirdly evocative -- lyrics. Multiple projects, multiple guises. A certain prolific nature, a certain cult appeal. Anyone else think lead New Pornographer Carl Newman is Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard minus the Budweiser I.V. and goofy-ass on-stage high kicks? Anyone think he's often better? Anyone know how to react when the redheaded stepchild grows up and starts joyfully beating you?
8. The Secret Machines, Now Here Is Nowhere (Warner Bros.) Drums, as far as capital-R Rock is concerned, are designed to make one noise: WHUMP, WHUMP, WHUMP, WHUMP. And no album this year WHUMPS with more aplomb than this one. The kick-drum pounds like the footsteps of Corona-drunk giants as the tunes blossom into sprawling, panoramic alt-rock vistas. Like your heartbeat at the senior prom.
9. Blood Brothers, Crimes (V2). This record is violently unpleasant -- spastic, migraine-inducing, terrifying, lyrically macabre to a Saw-like degree. The dueling-vocalist Brothers scream in unbelievably high-pitched shrieks, like miniature teenage girls drowning in your bowl of Cheerios. But an old BB song title says it all: "Every Breath Is a Bomb," and the morbidly thrilling napalm highlights here prove that hardcore has a future, and the world, sadly, does not.
10. Cake, Pressure Chief (Sony). This is Cake's worst album, meaning that everything's great, but three or four songs are just sort of okay. This is also Cake's fifth album; Cal Ripken Jr. has nothing on this band for endurance and ingenuity. The sound is still witty, crafty and outlandishly unique. Furthermore, that Bread cover ("Guitar Man") is glorious, and frontman John McRea's interview technique is stellar. MTV.com headline: "Cake Singer Not So Excited About Touring, Admits His Band Is Irrelevant." Wrong, but oh so right.