By Rob Harvilla
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.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
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.
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.
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.
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.
Curse Your Branches
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.
Booker T. Jones, as usual, is having exactly as much fun as he appears to be -- in a word, lots. Here he's backed by the Drive-By Truckers, an inspired pairing of sweet and surly garage R&B atop which that exuberant organ emotes more exquisitely than do most vocalists. So: Throw a BBQ. Cue up Potato Hole's cover of "Hey Ya." Crank it up. And bite into a cheese brat at the exact moment when that lead guitar comes surging in. You will see God -- who, it turns out, exists after all. Offer him/her a cheese brat, too.
Future of the Left
Travels With Myself and Another
"I'm not bitter; I'm justifiably angry. That's a different thing." So noted FOTL frontman Andy Falkous in a recent video interview (at a laundromat, but never mind), explaining the split from his old group, the much-feared/revered Welsh scuzz-punk outfit Mclusky. Travels, his new band's second record, is full of his hilariously unhinged rage, a vicious and erudite suite of throat-shredding, punch-throwing jams with jokey titles ("You Need Satan More Than He Needs You") that only make it that much more intimidating. If you don't believe in Jesus, at least believe in the Jesus Lizard.
Totally understandable if you're ready to nuke Brooklyn already, what with all the "BK Indie-Rock Explosion!!!" headlines we've endured this year, but here's the one to pull from the fire. A defiantly bizarre mishmash of chirping choral nerdery, art-rock abrasion, globetrotting guitar-hero antics and abrupt hooky delight, this is among the stranger critically beloved records in recent memory. And as Solange Knowles will tell you, the closest thing we had to an "Umbrella" in 2009 was "Stillness Is the Move," which is stranger, and more wonderful, than the rest of Bitte Orca's songs combined.
Ah, wait -- one more from Brooklyn, albeit a slightly less overexposed enterprise. Oneida is made up of distinguished-looking but exhaustingly prolific noise-rock dudes who here offer a three-CD set (!) that serves as the second act of a planned trilogy (!!), and as such is a delightfully sprawling mess of atonal freak-folk screamfests, clattering dub zone-outs and, occasionally, fantastically bad-ass riff-rockers. As for the latter, head straight for disc two's "Ghost in the Room," a muscular and precise headbanger, that, upon reflection, only increases in power and resonance when you wade through the hour-plus of inspired aural flotsam on either side of it. Carve out some time and make your peace with Brooklyn again.
Micachu & the Shapes
Best emotionally resonant use of a vacuum cleaner in 2009. Probably ever.