The Top 10 Indie Rock Albums of 2008

In Sounds From Way Out
The top 10 indie-rock albums of 2008, in no particular order

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.

Fucked Up
The Chemistry of Common Life
There aren’t many genres more hidebound than hardcore punk, whose rudiments have hardly changed for decades. 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
Dear Science

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.

Atlas Sound
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.

Blitzen Trapper
(Sub Pop)
For a buzz band, Blitzen Trapper sure are 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.

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 such as “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.

Horse Feathers
House With No Home
(Kill Rock Stars)
Like Ra Ra Riot, Horse Feathers feature a cellist and a violinist as full-time members, but the comparisons end there. The Portland, Oregon-based trio are fronted by Justin Ringle, who sings in a wispy tenor and favors light strumming and intricate finger-picking over power chords. 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.

The Dears
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, melancholics and battered survivors.

Portugal. The Man
Censored Colors
(Equal Vision)
The true pride of Wasilla, Alaska (sorry, Mrs. Palin), Portugal. The Man draw from a wide variety of styles without being beholden to any of them. Stand-alone songs such as “And I,” a composition that seems small-scale in the beginning but epic by the end, bear the mark of rock, pop, soul, even gospel. The album’s title may speak of censorship, but in actuality, nothing is off-limits.

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