I’m at that pivotal point in my music fandom: the bands I love have grown up and out of what was traditionally considered “indie.” Save for Adele, most can be best described as indie 2.0: they have publicists, tour managers, sold-out shows and make their livings as musicians. Some even have Grammy Awards, or at least nominations. And sure, most may not move Black Eyed Peas numbers or sell out arenas, but that’s not what their music is about — and that’s why I love them. Theirs isn’t music that just floats in the background, or passes off trite cliches and lazy repetition as lyrically significant.
The albums on this list have rearranged my relationships — with myself, others, and even the saxophone; forced me off my ass and onto my feet to dance my blues away; and inspired me to stay true to whatever unique, weird, beautiful vision I have of individuality. And let us not forget: they also freaking rock, albeit in their own special way.
• Bon Iver — Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
On the follow-up to his gloriously fragile debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon layers his strengths: an urgent falsetto buoyed by beautiful ’80s flourishes, from synthesizers to wailing saxes, start (“Perth”) to finish (“Beth/Rest”). It’s a triumph of excesses that both warms and chills the soul.
• The Decemberists — The King is Dead (Capitol)
The indie folk rock band has never been content with any one sound, and this deviation into alt-country is one of their best albums yet. At turns rollicking (“Down By the Water”) and emotionally resonant (“June Hymn”), there was still the sense the ever-literate band had even more to say — and they did, on the brilliant companion EP six months later, Long Live the King.
• Adele — 21 (Columbia)
Yes, the single “Someone Like You” is as inescapable as that lingering memory of your ex, but there’s no denying the powerful pull of the 23-year-old Brit’s achingly vulnerable second album.
• Feist — Metals (Arts & Crafts / Polydor)
A sonic wonderland of guitars, piano and percussion where every single moment counts and each listen leads you farther down the rabbit hole. There’s as much precision as artistry, and as much experimentation (“A Commotion”) as craft (“How Come You Never Go There”). It’s the sound of confidence.
• St. Vincent — Strange Mercy (4AD)
Annie Clark’s experimental art pop has never been more accessible, but that’s not to say it’s less ambitious. An electronic ghost haunts the edges of every song, with deliberate punctuations marks of percussion, synthesizers, and crunchy guitar riffs (“Dilettente”), and Clark’s strong, deceptively soothing vocals snaking in, around and above the instrumentation (“Champagne Year”).