This year was a year of nostalgic revivalism in indie rock. Whether it was recalling the subdued mood of 80’s shoegaze, channeling the raw, unbridled cynicism of grunge or applying the tight musicianship of 90’s indie, independent artists drew from considerable past influences in 2010. However, a handful of acts continued to push the envelope by challenging convention and taking listeners into uncharted waters. The final result was a diverse indie rock landscape that offered something for everyone. The following 10 albums (and subsequent 20 songs) represent the best of an indie rock scene that teemed with quality content in 2010.
10. Freelance Whales – Weathervanes
In a year marked by stripped-down, lo-fi rock, this group of multi-instrumentalists bucked the trend by masterfully mixing crystal clear banjo, harmonium, xylophone, synthesizers and acoustic guitar into one of the year’s most ambitious and earnest records. This folky wall-of-sound borders on cheesy at times, but the production value and sheer catchiness more than make up for it.
Key tracks: “Starring,” “Generator ^ First Floor”
9. Male Bonding – Nothing Hurts
Although this English trio’s blisteringly fast 13-song record clocks in at just under a 30 minutes, it maximizes every second. Combining fuzzy guitars and vocals drowned in reverb, Male Bonding has created a perfect garage punk concoction that is urgent and unabashedly in-your-face but also full of enough infectious gems to keep listeners coming back.
Key tracks: “Weird Feelings,” “Year’s Not Long”
8. Fang Island – Fang Island
Fang Island describes their sound as “everyone high-fiving everyone,” an incredibly accurate assessment. This mostly-instrumental record oozes with euphoric bliss as the group’s three guitarists shred relentlessly, layering their parts with perfect balance. The lack of vocals is hardly noticeable as the band plows through a series of tracks that could easily pass as the soundtrack to an 80’s action movie montage.
Key tracks: “Daisy,” “Sideswiper”
7. The Radio Dept. – Clinging to a Scheme
Prior to its stateside breakthrough in 2010, this Swedish group of 15-year music veterans was best known for an appearance on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack. But on this record, The Radio Dept. makes expert use of calmingly muffled vocals and serene backing tones, putting forth an anthology of perfectly crafted mellow pop songs.
Key tracks: “Heaven’s on Fire,” “This Time Around”
6. Best Coast – Crazy for You
Retro beach-pop outfit Best Coast doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel with its musicianship, which is a big part of the band’s appeal. Singer Bethany Cosentino’s voice, dripping with nostalgia and harkening back to the girl-group pop of the 60’s, works in perfect unison with the record’s simple, carefree guitar riffs. The end result is a head-bobbing romp through lazy summer days long passed.
Key tracks: “Goodbye,” “I Want To”
5. Beach House – Teen Dream
One would be hard-pressed to find a more atmospherically stimulating vibe than the one present on this Baltimore dream-pop duo’s third album. Victoria Legrand’s rich, smoky voice rolls smoothly over her counterpart’s hazy organ and keyboard as the record progresses in captivating fashion. Ambient and wildly replayable, this is the most beautiful-sounding album of the year.
Key tracks: “Walk in the Park,” “Norway”
4. Delorean – Subiza
After starting out as a punk band, Barcelona-based Delorean has more recently turned to electronica for inspiration. Needless to say, the finished product is exhilarating, as the group has embraced house music and synthesizer sounds on its third album. Wrapped in tight production, Subiza showcases a breezy, often tropical sound with steel drums, bongos and other assorted bells and whistles thrown in for good measure. Overall, the record is a festive and highly danceable compilation that just might inspire you to take your next vacation on the coast of the Balearic Sea.
Key tracks: “Stay Close,” “Real Love”
3. Wild Nothing – Gemini / Golden Haze EP
As if a superb full-length wasn’t enough, 22-year-old Jack Tatum (who records under the moniker Wild Nothing) released an EP at the end of 2010 to cap off his breakout year. Through his winsome guitar riffs and delicate vocals, Tatum makes no attempt to hide the significant influence of 80’s shoegaze rock in his work. The final product is a relaxing trip that expertly straddles the line between forlorn nostalgia and happy-go-lucky melody. When listening to these records, it’s easy to imagine a young Tatum looking out the window on a rainy day, listening to The Smiths with song ideas percolating in his brain.
Key tracks: “Bored Games,” “Chinatown”
2. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
This quintet of 20-somethings from West Palm Beach, Fla. self-recorded Astro Coast using college scholarship money, and what resulted was a wise-beyond-its-years assortment of straight-ahead guitar pop. Guitarists John Paul Pitts and Thomas Fekete are the true stars here, skillfully layering their dueling guitars throughout the album, paying homage to the 90’s indie rock on which they undoubtedly grew up. Although band members ironically claim they’ve never surfed, there is a distinct sense that they’ve spent a lot of time near the beach. Surf punk riffs penetrate the record at every turn. In the end, the band’s combination of precocious musicianship and songwriting gave listeners some of the catchiest tracks of the year. And with a deal freshly inked with major label Warner Bros., chances are you haven’t heard the last from these guys.
Key tracks: “Swim,” “Floating Vibes”
1. Wavves – King of the Beach
Wavves mastermind Nathan Williams became something of an indie rock pariah in 2009, following his drug-fueled meltdown at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound Festival. Retreating into the studio, Williams replaced his backing band and dropped the lo-fi sound that had defined his first two albums. The result was a jaw-dropping collection of frantic pop-punk tracks that sounded like Nirvana on a Beach Boys kick. And while the chaotic garage punk vibe from Williams’ earlier efforts still exists on King of the Beach, he showcases considerable versatility, including a pair of ballads and several slow, gloomy foot-stompers. Comeback complete, Williams exits 2010 with both middle fingers in the air as the blogosphere that once castigated him can only shake their heads at his eccentric genius.
Key tracks: “Linus Spacehead,” “King of the Beach”
Top 20 Best Indie Songs of 2010
These 20 songs represent the crème de la crème of indie in 2010. Many of the top tracks from artists referenced above are here, as well as some one-off gems from groups whose album didn’t quite make the top 10 cut. In order to earn a coveted spot on this list, the album containing a song had to have been released on an independent record label in 2010. So, set up a new playlist in iTunes and enjoy this retrospective look at the year’s top indie jams.
20. Girls – “Heartbreaker”
After releasing one of last year’s best full-lengths, San Francisco’s finest treated fans to a short EP which contained this song, a victory lap of sorts, which recalls many of the elements that made 2009’s Album so great.
19. Small Black – “Photojournalist”
Chillwave, the breakout genre of 2009, all but died in 2010, but Small Black does its best to keep it afloat on this song, which calculatingly meanders its way through a haze of seductive synthesizers.
18. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros – “Home”
Edward Sharpe (real name: Alex Ebert) and his merry 10-member band of neo-hippies nail the vintage sounds of folk and country western on this excellent revivalist romp through the Old West.
17. The Arcade Fire – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
This song is the uncontested standout track on the sweeping epic of an album released by indie rock kingpins The Arcade Fire in 2010.
16. The Morning Benders – “Excuses”
Berkeley’s finest indie rockers enlist the help of a strings section, resulting in some of the year’s purest harmonies and an overall fascinating track from a quickly rising act.
15. The Radio Dept. – “Heaven’s on Fire”
Everything that makes The Radio Dept.’s 2010 breakout album so intriguing is present here, as a perfect pop sensibility is applied to a song that is upbeat and lively despite a recording technique designed to inspire melancholy.
14. Matt & Kim – “Cameras”
The former indie rock king and queen of Brooklyn return to form with a cut featuring an infectious hook and enough window-rattling bass to endanger your old car speakers.
13. Male Bonding – “Weird Feelings”
The super-distorted guitars and vocals on Male Bonding’s album can make for a tough first listen, but this track distills the band’s sound into a near-perfect 2-minute pop song, assuming you can peel back the layers of reverb.
12. LCD Soundsystem – “Dance Yrself Clean”
James Murphy, the aging godfather of Brooklyn hipsterdom, eases listeners in for the first three minutes with toe-tapping background music before blowing the doors off with ferocious beats and synthesizers that make the song’s full nine minutes seem short.
11. Fang Island – “Daisy”
It’s probably best to listen to this song in a cold environment, because the triple-layered guitar might melt off your face.
10. Das Racist – “Who’s That? Brooown!”
The indisputable masters of hyper-literal hipster rap released two superb mix tapes in 2010, and no track better showcases the group’s clever wordplay and monster hooks than this one. Further, the video for this song gets the nod for best of the year.
9. Sleigh Bells – “Tell ‘Em”
Screeching guitars meet cheerleader chants in the loudest, hardest-hitting track of the year.
8. Beach House – “Walk in the Park”
The gorgeous soundscape created by Beach House on its album Teen Dream is best encapsulated on this soaring track, which features the band’s most riveting hook to date.
7. Yeasayer – “Ambling Alp”
The stilted, forceful beat on this song lays the foundation for a track that sounds like the singer of a jam band stumbling upon a room full of foreign-sounding synthesizers, mixers and drum machines.
6. Wild Nothing – “Bored Games”
One-man-band Jack Tatum croons over a calmly consistent drum machine, occasionally using his vintage guitar sound to stir the pot on this retro-sounding standout track from his album Gemini.
5. Freelance Whales – “Starring”
Freelance Whales’ multi-instrumentalist talent is on full display here as they combine their trademark banjo, xylophone and wistful vocals with the year’s best synthesizer part.
4. Wavves – “Linus Spacehead”
Grunge rock gloom is counterbalanced by syrupy sweet “oohs” on this track, which sounds like what Kurt Cobain might have written if he’d ever visited the beach.
3. Dom – “Living in America”
18-year-old wunderkind Dom may not have revealed his last name in 2010, but he gave listeners this spectacular mixture of Casio keyboards, fuzzy bass and a sing-along chorus.
2. Delorean – “Stay Close”
This all-encompassing mountain of sound builds gradually as Delorean seemingly jams ever rapturous noise known to man into the year’s best and unquestionably most blissful dance track.
1. Surfer Blood – “Swim”
Seamless dueling guitars and the year’s catchiest chorus make this song the class of 2010. If your fist isn’t pumping by the end, please check your pulse.