In 2008, independent rock returned to the underground, where it belongs. Given the grand catastrophe that is today's record industry, most major-label executives don't have the time or energy to convince music fans they might like something a little out of the ordinary. They're too busy recycling variations on what were once sure things while desperately searching for career exit strategies that don't involve tall buildings, open windows and running leaps. As a result, fringier artists have had the opportunity to develop outside the spotlight, sans the sort of unrealistic commercial expectations that can lead to self-consciousness, compromise and a lifetime of regret. Not selling means not selling out, as the following albums demonstrate.
Marnie Stern This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That (Kill Rock Stars) In "Prime," the first song here, Stern declares, "Defenders, get onto your knees," then forces them to do just that by way of roller-coaster rhythms, staccato vocals and guitar fragments sharper and deadlier than Chinese throwing stars. In an age of dial-twisters and digital manipulators, she's a genuine instrumental virtuoso. Still, she isn't searching for the perfect note on tracks such as "Shea Stadium" and "Steely." Instead, she merges artsy intentions with unfettered passion and takes her listeners to destinations as unexpected as they are exhilarating.
Fucked Up The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador) There aren't many genres more hidebound than hardcore punk, whose rudiments have hardly changed for decades, and the essential conservatism of the style's fan base makes trying to broaden its scope seem like a suicide mission. Nevertheless, these Fucked Up Canadians take on the challenge, and at album's end, they're still standing tall. Chemistry's instrumentation, which includes French horn and congas, is unusually diverse by hardcore standards. Yet the idiosyncratic arrangements of songs such as the oddly Wagnerian "Royal Swan" enhance the sonic drama in ways even a purist can appreciate.
TV on the Radio
The only major-label release on this list is the exception that proves the rule. Despite its quality, the TV crew's previous album, Return to Cookie Mountain, occasionally tried too hard to establish its artistic bona fides, as if integrity increased as accessibility diminished. Dear Science is a more natural effort -- one in which innovations and good grooves co-exist. "Crying" and "Golden Age" feature energetic dance beats, funky bass lines and the sorts of hooks that make the moments when Tunde Adebimpe shifts into falsetto seem coincidental, not carefully planned in advance.
Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
Deerhunter's Microcastle has received far more hype than this album, which was recorded by the band's Brandon Cox under the Atlas pseudonym. But even though the Deerhunter disc is undeniably worthy, Cox's solo outing is better, and it lingers like a half-remembered dream. "Recent Bedroom" cloaks guitar squall in a cloud of echo-laden harmonies that suggest radio signals on the edge of their range, "Quarantined" finds beauty in the gentlest cacophony, and "Ready, Set, Glow" juxtaposes industrial drones, animal noises and childlike keyboards to inexplicably beguiling effect. The album is so insular that listening feels like eavesdropping.
For a buzz band, Blitzen Trapper sure is modest. In lieu of trying to overwhelm listeners with their awesomeness, Eric Earley and crew create casually vital tracks that draw from rock classicism in a manner that's simultaneously familiar and fresh. "Sleepy Time in the Western World" epitomizes this approach; the song features a Blonde on Blonde-style organ line, yet its lyrics and shambolic arrangement seem more interested in tomorrow than yesterday. Few discs as anticipated as this one are so low-key -- or so deserving of the buzz that preceded them.
Ra Ra Riot
The Rhumb Line
The Rhumb Line is frequently characterized as a tribute to Riot drummer/lyricist John Pike, who died under mysterious circumstances in June 2007. While that's true, this is much more than a simple eulogy. Songs like "Dying Is Fine" were penned long before Pike's passing, and they would have been every bit as impressive were he still manning his kit. Moreover, the band's instrumentation on the likes of "Too Too Too Fast," which supplements standard rock gear with cello and violin, represents a distinctive twist on the neo-college sound.
House With No Home
(Kill Rock Stars) Like Ra Ra Riot, Horse Feathers features a cellist and a violinist as full-time members, but the comparisons end there. The Portland, Oregon-based trio is fronted by Justin Ringle, who sings in a wispy tenor and favors light strumming and intricate finger-picking over power chords. Lyrically, meanwhile, Ringle tends toward imagery whose power lies in understatement. Witness the rhetorical question, "Won't you agree how the winter could bring the darkest spring?" from "Curs in the Weeds." The performances are moving in their austerity, quietly evoking harsh landscapes and emotional truths to match.
Various Artists Of Great and Mortal Men (Standard Recording) The concept of this three-CD set -- 43 original compositions about each U.S. president through George W. Bush -- could hardly be more gimmicky. But rather than turn into an occasion for history-nerd jokes ("Who got stuck writing about William Henry Harrison?"), the collection emerges as an unexpectedly rich and enlightening excursion into musical and lyrical Americana. Tunesmiths Christian Kiefer and Jefferson Pitcher, supplemented by indie figures from Smog, Magnolia Summer and more, come up with material and performances that are better than a lot of these guys deserve.
On Missiles, the Dears' Murray Lightburn doesn't go out of his way to win hearts. With typical perversity, he kicks off "Disclaimer," the lead track, with two minutes of saxophone-fueled atmospherics entirely devoid of the memorable hooks he's so adept at delivering. And when he finally starts singing, it's about avenging "everyone that washed up here in a sea of blood." In the end, though, Lightburn's indifference toward show business as usual only enhances these intelligent, lovingly crafted tales of losers, elancholics and battered survivors.
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Portugal. The Man Censored Colors (Equal Vision) The true pride of Wasilla, Alaska (sorry, Ms. Palin), Portugal. The Man draws from a wide variety of styles without being beholden to any of them. Stand-alone songs like "And I," a composition that seems small-scale in the beginning but epic by the end, bear the mark of rock, pop, soul and even gospel. The album's title may speak of censorship, but in actuality, nothing is off limits.
-- Michael Roberts