Very Clever, Boys

The pithy titles below spell it out better than I ever could: Chutes Too Narrow, Echoes, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?. In 2003 indie rock--that ignoble refuge of the shortsighted, the solipsistic, the retro-fixated, the immature, the self-righteous, the terminally disappointed and the simply boring--faced perhaps its greatest crisis of identity since, I don't know, Lou Barlow crossed the threshold of authenticity into eight-track recording.

Too much of the music sluicing across college radio waves and burning through blank CDs last year paired a lifeless musical voice with a nonexistent sociocultural one--which wasn't a crime against humanity back when DIY dilettantes like Mark Robinson (whom I love) did it, nor when underground heroes like Jad Fair (whom I could give or take) did. But the act sure made for dull listening, and an even duller worldview, at a time when humanity was enduring its fair share of world-historical crimes. I won't bother naming names, since I still try to avoid Wal-Mart when I can and because Timbaland and the Darkness don't need my help at all. So find below the shortsighted, retro-fixated, terminally disappointed indie-rock records in which this self-righteous college graduate sought relief.

1. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)

I've got no idea if the Shins have a sociocultural bone in their whimsical Western bodies--front man James Mercer's songs on Chutes Too Narrow, the band's anticipated follow-up to 2001's sleeper hit Oh, Inverted World, are so dense with liberal-arts wordplay and homegrown mythology that parsing them lyrically requires tools I just don't care to sharpen. But musically these guys were as lively as anyone not from Scandinavia in 2003: juicy melodies, crisp textures, a sense of psychedelia that didn't preclude forward momentum. Give 'em another McDonald's ad or two and they'll be right up there with Justin Timberlake.

2. The Rapture, Echoes (DFA/Strummer/Universal)

Yep, the retro-fixated, in all their self-aggrandizing glory. Only Echoes wasn't the exercise in coolly removed, deftly cowbelled snark I'd come to expect after "House of Jealous Lovers" gave with-it Lower East Siders an honest-to-goodness dancefloor smash to call their own. Instead, these unashamedly open-eared New Yorkers coughed up a hunk of encouragingly musical, unexpectedly emotional you-are-here(-and-there) that even managed to give the bedraggled piano player some. A soundtrack to an American Trainspotting, if things ever get that bad.

3. Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism (Barsuk)

The mainstream doesn't exactly exclude sad boys with guitars from the marketplace--Coldplay sold the shit out of a live CD/DVD before making a third album, and front man Chris Martin even got to marry Gwyneth Paltrow (which, technically speaking, means he's probably not sad anymore). But the underground is still the place for slow-and-steady evolution, which is why it's taken Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie four albums to make its student-union masterpiece Transatlanticism, a record so saturated with autumnal guitar chime, Pacific Ocean piano and wistful tenor whimper I'll be amazed if The O.C. is the only teensploitation drama to flog it come sweeps week.

4. Chris Lee, Cool Rock (Misra)

Underappreciated New Yorker Chris Lee held it down in 2003 for hung-up hipsters too ashamed to admit to digging John Mayer's Heavier Things--which is a slight on hipsters, not Mayer, since on a more perfect VH1 these two guys'd be hanging out in the same green room separating singer-songwriter introspection from supper-club improvisation. Like Things, Cool Rock delivered precisely what it advertised. Scat is back!

5. The Fiery Furnaces, Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade)

I didn't include Elephant here because Jack White dates a movie star and gets his arrest reports splashed on the Smoking Gun now; if that's indie rock, make sure no one tells Stephen Malkmus. So here's the year's second-best brother-sister garage-blues combo, Brooklyn's Fiery Furnaces, and Gallowsbird's Bark, their rollicking debut after a spell of live shows notable for singer Eleanor Friedberger's mean-spirited Chrissie Hynde impersonation and her bro Matthew's bashful Henry Thomas one. What Bark has over Elephant: more seasick circus keys and a tune about doughnuts.

6. Cat Power, You Are Free (Matador)

As with movies starring Vincent Gallo, there's a lot to Chan Marshall's songs I don't pretend to understand; I'm still a little frightened of digging too deeply into the fucked-up kids whose fucked-up lives Marshall details in You Are Free's "Names." Inevitably, though, what's more disturbing is what is understandable: an empty room, a broken promise, an upset stomach. Socioculturally, her work remains a feast.

7. The Dismemberment Plan, A People's History of the Dismemberment Plan (DeSoto)

I admit to a little wishful thinking here, since I've listened to this collection of fan-submitted remixes of songs by Washington, D.C.'s defunct Dismemberment Plan maybe three times since its October release. But conceptually speaking, no other record from 2003 better demarcated where I hope indie rock heads in 2004: respect for the audience, embrace of variety, live band vs. hard drive, great jokes. All that's missing is a bootleg mash-up--"The Ice of Boston" over "More Than a Feeling," anyone?

8. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It in People (Arts & Crafts)

Canadians: always trying to one-up we Americans. On the nine-piece Toronto outfit Broken Social Scene's second album, that meant Sister-era Sonic Youth as reimagined by Flaming Lips fans coming to grips with an adolescence misspent toying with Radio Shack electronics and hand-me-down effects pedals. You Forgot It in People works because it mixes up a backpack's worth of Amerindie references with the unmitigated glee of those lucky ducks not paying for emergency-room visits.

9. Animal Collective, Here Comes the Indian (Paw Tracks)

Self-consciously experimental music crossed over to the indie mainstream in 2003 thanks in large part to the fertile crescent of activity stretching between Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood and Providence's warehouse scene. Here Comes the Indian, the most high-profile of a slew of releases from New York's aptly named Animal Collective, actually sounded like a journey through that crescent: interstate hustle, backwoods bustle, rural calm, big-city roar. Compelling worldview? One part moss to two parts soot.

10. Metric, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Enjoy)

In a year without new music from Spoon, Hot Hot Heat or Elastica, the peripatetic fashion plates in Metric gave cynical nü-wavers reason to believe in a shittier tomorrow. Listen to singer Emily Haines (who also appeared on You Forgot It in People) slump against the tightly wound guitar coils and serpentine synth lines in "Succexy" and "Dead Disco" and hear a generation confront its own apathy--a generation too late?

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Mikael Wood

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