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Curse Your Branches: The Top College-Rockish Records of 2009, Part 1

Yeah, pal, that's "college rock," scare quotes very much included. Look, it's a meaningless term. As are "indie," "alternative," "hipster," etc., etc. Let's not overthink this: Here we have ten splendid records with an amorphous rock 'n' roll designation, albeit in a perhaps slightly more experimental and thoughtful vein than the harder stuff that nowadays exists mostly to make you feel bad for not joining the Army. We begin, of course, in France. 10. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Loyaute/Glassnote) Exuberant, prismatic, relentlessly infectious, entirely inscrutable: The opening one-two punch of "Lisztomania" and "1901" (hailed as "summery" by every critic on earth, including me) floors you with both its gorgeous synth+guitar-pop songcraft and its wanton ambiguity. No idea what frontman Thomas Mars is yelping about. None. But his vertiginous slide-whistle of a voice sells every word, from the gnomic to the unrepentantly corny: "Love Like a Sunset" (parts one and two!) is straight-up the cheesiest song title you could possibly imagine, but the burst of Eno-worthy synthesizer melodrama that heralds the transition from part one to part two will floor you all over again. 9. Passion Pit, Manners (Frenchkiss) Speaking of yelping, Michael Angelakos delivers relentlessly giddy synth-pop supernovas of bombastic unease in a shrill, keening, karaoke-proof voice that makes Michael McDonald sound like Leonard Cohen. His band's debut full-length is passionately narcissistic but ridiculous fun all the same, a dance album for paranoid shut-ins who wouldn't be caught dead dancing and just like to imagine other people dancing instead. And the one track everyone knows, "Sleepyhead," is, like, the seventh-best song on it. The children's choir will not strike you as extraneous. 8. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (Anti-) If she didn't exist, NPR (and Paste) (and The New Yorker) would've had to invent her. But when she howls, "What will make you believe me?" on "This Tornado Loves You," Neko Case makes you believe in a way her mile-high stack of fawning press clips never did. A whip-smart maneater (or, as she puts it, "man- man- man-, man- man- maneater"), Case has a smirking barb ("Next time you say 'forever,' I will punch you in your face") for every occasion and a smoldering countrypolitan torch song for every dark night of the soul. Look out for the half-hour's worth of chirping crickets, though. 7. Superdrag, Industry Giants (Thirty Tigers) Yes, it's the "Sucked Out" guys, a decade-plus on from their Buzz Bin days, with several under-heralded power-pop classics and a religious epiphany (for born-again frontman John Davis) to their credit. But even for those who kept up, Industry Giants is a shock of adrenaline, ferocity and anthemic joy. "Everything'll Be Made Right" will convince you; "Live and Breathe" will make you see God whether you believe in him/her or not. 6. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches (Barsuk) With apologies to Superdrag, however, nobody on earth is writing better, smarter or angrier songs about God then David Bazan, the longtime Pedro the Lion proprietor who vacillates wildly between belief and disbelief, keying in on the latter here with brutal, almost hilariously bleak mope-pop odes to alcoholism and spiritual confusion that'd be unbearable if they weren't so unbearably beautiful. "Hard to Be" is a heartstopper, that lovely synth melody a lament Bazan fears may never be satisfactorily heard or answered, but he trudges doggedly, thoughtfully on, nonetheless. And he's having more fun than he appears to be. See our picks for Nos. 5-1 Monday.

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