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The year’s five best indie albums.

The most important story of the year in indie rock is that Elliott Smith didn’t release a record—and when he does release one, sometime in the middle of next year, it will be on Dreamworks. The reigning bard of passive-aggressive rock, Smith is a younger Neil Young minus the country-rock influence—the prototype for an entire generation of indie singer-songwriters, none of whom have come close to matching his gift for embittered lyrics and deceptively gentle melodies. The fact that he records for Dreamworks, the corporate megarock giant owned in part by David Geffen, rather than Kill Rock Stars—the Olympia, Wash.-based indiefor which Smith recorded his first two incredibly influential records—is as clear a sign as any that indie labels are now the minor leagues for the big-corporate majors. Only the redoubtable Cat Power (whose new record will be coming out in February on Matador), the queen of sadcore, continues to make the case for indie rock as a world apart. 

Which isn’t to say that niche-market singer-songwriters and bands on their way up can’t still produce great music.  What follows is a brief anthology of five of the most notable indie rock artists of the year.

Neil Halstead’s first solo album, Sleeping on Roads (4AD), contains nine modest, literate, intensely tuneful songs. (It actually came out last year in Europe but has only been available in the United States this year.) The difference between Halstead and most literate singer-songwriters who play acoustic guitar is that Halstead writes beautiful, dreamy melodies, has a wonderful voice, and can play his guitar—workaday talents honed by his day job as lead singer and songwriter for Mojave 3, the sadcore champs whose Excuses for Travellers was my favorite record of 2000 (Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 was a close second). “Driving With Burt” is an accessible favorite with moody, autumnal guitars that seem to move in time with the wheels of a bus. Halstead writes songs about gentle losers, addicts, lovers, and people looking for shelter—his voice is quiet, tuneful, and unsentimental.  

Guided by Voices is a great rock band routinely derided by major-label types as symbolizing everything self-indulgent, weird, and annoying about indie rock. My first impression after hearing GBV for the first time, way back in the ‘80s, was that I was listening to a poorly produced rock and roll record by a fourth-grade teacher from Ohio who wrote fractured, surrealist rock poetry, set it to atmospheric thrash, then sang the whole mess in a fake British accent. Which is exactly what it was. And it was awful. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Part of the success of this recipe has to do with the mad conviction of lead singer and lyricist Robert Pollard in his own material. On Universal Truths and Cycles (the group’s homecoming record on Matador), Doug Gillard adds some unusually disciplined and exciting guitar—chug-a-long ‘80s punk mixed with heavy gusts of Pete Townshend-esque classic rock guitar (to match Pollard’s increasingly Daltrey-esque vocals). The result is the closest thing to Tommy that indie rock is ever likely to produce. (For a lovely early-Who steal, click here.)

But the real payoff for Guided by Voices listeners is that Pollard simply inhabits a different stylistic universe than any other rock songwriter. Song titles like “Christian Animation Torch Carriers” and “Factory of Raw Essentials” have a  loony, fun surrealism, making great use of a genre that is usually the artistic refuge of scoundrels. Pollard’s genius as a writer is his way of starting with nonsense, then letting you in for a glimpse of meaning, then following it up with more nonsense. “Does she blend well?/ Your choice, I mean/ Your angel-baby-monkey girl/ a gift of smiles and love reduction?” he asks. When he follows this with a stately chorus of “Does it hurt you/ to love, I mean” you think you have the fox cornered: It’s a confessional song about a girl. Then it’s not. In the end, every Pollard song collapses in on a phrase that is built to sustain repeated listenings without ever quite becoming fixed in its meaning.

It’s hard to say whether the fact that Universal Truths and Cycles was the best rock record of the year—and that the single “Everywhere Is Helicopter” was the best heart-pounding rocker of the year—is good news or bad news for indie rock, especially considering that it’s music by guys over 40 who are mining a stylistic vein they pioneered in the ‘80s. OK, it’s bad news. But this is still a great record.

Sarah Utter and Maggie Vail of Bangs sing with the infectious energy of the great Susanna Hoffs: With the accompaniment of a solid drummer, they sound like the greatest girls-school punk band ever. (Obsessive indie fan alert: Maggie’s sister Tobi is credited on the liner notes for “screams, backup vocals, hand claps.” Tobi Vail was Kurt Cobain’s girlfriend.) Bangs’ debut EP, Call and Response, is also a timely reminder of how little the (supposedly virtuous) hipsters of the indie rock business have done to redress the commercial imbalance between the sexes. If Bangs were, say, the Strokes—hunky guys playing warmed-over Velvets and Iggy Pop, rather than indie girls playing old Go-Gos’ riffs—they’d be celebrating their first gold record right now instead of touring the South to support a 16-minute-long EP on Kill Rock Stars. Bangs are women who rock—and who sing like the Bangles. Slimy A&R guy alert: Get these girls into a major studio right now, surround them with a bunch of production pros, put Susanna Hoffs on one track, and then market the crap out of them!

Richard Buckner sounds like a froggy, bumptious combination of Warren Zevon and Ryan Adams, conveyed in the voice of a ‘90s shy-guy-who-can’t-sing. The spare arrangements on Impasse—released on tiny Chicago-based Overcoat Records—thankfully return to the sound of his terrific debut, Bloomed, dispensing with the orchestral impasto he laid down on his forgettable major-label work for MCA. At heart, Buckner is an honest craftsman writing country-tinged relationship ballads: I picture him living alone in Canada in some place with no furniture, a drifter-type in a Russell Banks novel.

What’s unusual about Buckner is that he writes well-crafted dysfunctional-guy songs. The lyrics seem like verbal litter when you read them on paper but cohere into allusive stories when sung. Buckner’s strongest point, I think, is always the beginnings of songs. The opening line is usually the best: “Born into giving it up/ and closing down when it’s done,” or ” Was I there/ all loaded at the wrong door.” Overall, Impasse is a tight, focused record from a guy who got dropped by a major label and badly needs to recapture his audience. I have played it with my old Dusty Spingfield record, with Gram Parsons records, and with my recent thrift shop discovery— Slowhand, by Eric Clapton. I think that MCA made a big mistake by dumping Richard Buckner. 

On the other hand, I’m not sure exactly how I feel about Bill Doss. He seems to spend his days in a universe of his own making, writing film scores to freaky conceptual movies that exist only in his own weird head. The Sunshine Fix’s Age of the Sun (on the Los Angeles-based indie Emperor Norton), Doss’ latest project, pretty much encapsulates everything that’s right and wrong with approaching rock like an artiste. The album is filled with annoying cultish passages where Doss twiddles the dials on antique vacuum-tube consoles and endlessly repeats the same jaunty, Victorian dance-hall-sounding themes again and again, as if to explain why he’s not a big rock star. What redeems the record is the combination of his monomaniacal focus on a single theme—the sun—and an indelible gift for writing happy-sounding interior music that recalls the best of late ‘60s/early ‘70s light psychedelia: the Beach Boys, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, even Chicago. Doss’ guitars are warm and sweet, and his lyrics have a cracked but literate charm. “Can’t you hear the calling of a luminous moon/ as it’s setting on an hourglass,” he sings, before launching into a bright, pinwheel-eyed chorus of “I could show you all the mountains you could climb/ all the mountains you could climb.” Has Doss been staring too hard at the sun? Sure. But Age of the Sun repays repeated listening—and is the sort of record that your children will be interested to discover in your collection.

Finally, my choice for the year’s saddest, most depressing sadcore record is from Carissa’s Wierd, which records for the heartbreakingly named Sad Robot label. Women who’ve been dumped recently by their boyfriends during the holiday season will enjoy repeated listenings of “Farewell to All Those Rotten Teeth” and “Ignorant Piece of Shit”—just as their male counterparts will enjoy “Sofisticated Fuck Princess Please Leave Me Alone.” If you just broke up with someone and want to plunge yourself into total, abject misery—or make someone else feel miserable—buy it. In fact, buy all of these records. They’ll keep you company during the long, dark December holiday weeks to come—and you’ll keep some of America’s most talented musicians in business.