The Indie Music Alphabet 2009!!

Because I am a glutton for punishment, and still determined to put out a list unlike the rest of the year-enders out there, I bring you the 2nd Annual Indie Rock Alphabet. Despite what some people might tell you, I count 2009 to have been a great year for independent music. We are seeing the major labels crumble all around us, and the indie labels rise up through the new channels like Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes and eMusic.

A note about this list, for those who weren’t around last year to read the first one. This is not (cannot) be the top 26 bands of the year. No, rather, consider this a collection of twenty-six Top 2 lists (I’ve added a Runner-Ups this year as a bonus), one for each letter.

My alphabet would like to give a special thanks to DJ Quik, who put out a decent album with a couple very standout tracks. And also to The XX, who swooped down like an angel from the sky when I discovered that xiu xiu would not, in fact, be putting out an LP this year. And of course a warm thank you to Zaza, who made a short but great album to close out the list.

I personally would like to thank Leo Reynolds, who has allowed me to use his vast collection of found letters from his Flickr page. I recommend checking out his collections when you have a chance.

One final note, at the bottom of the alphabet you will find links to all of the songs from the list in two handy volumes.

So without further ado, here is the list…

Indie Rock Alphabet

Animal Collective – Mp3

Not putting Animal Collective on my list would be like betting against the Chicago Bulls to win the championship in the 90’s. “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” was one of the best albums of the year. Period. And their follow-up EP, “Fall Be Kind,” was better than 90% of the LP’s put out this year to boot. Animal Collective are in this bizarre situation where, instead of over-thinking how they are going to outdo themselves, they simply continue to polish and refine the sound which put them on the map to begin with.

Runner-Up: The Antlers – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Bat For Lashes – Mp3

“Two Suns,” Bat for Lashes’ sophomore album, is in many ways just as good as her debut, “Fur and Gold,” and in a few ways even better. As I loved 4AD at their apex, and 25% of Björk’s music, I love Bat for Lashes. Her music transports me to a damp, misty jungle where an evil temptress prowls beneath the  unseen. There is a confidence this time around which suits her style of music well. You can hear it on the first notes of the first track, where she gives Lisa Gerrard and Kate Bush a run for their money as music’s most hauntingly angelic vocalist.

Runner-Up: Beirut – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Neko Case – Mp3

Why not keep it rolling with another great female vocalist? Neko Case, who you might know from the New Pornographers. Or maybe not. In any case, she has released “Middle Cyclone,” this year, a great follow-up to what I consider her strongest album, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.” She keeps pace with the latter, invoking the same effortless melodies, the same signature nasally croon over top well-composed music. Her songs are confessionals, as evidenced in the opening track “This Tornado Loves You,” which includes lines like: “I have waited with a glacier’s patience, smashed every transformer with every trailer ’til nothing was standing… sixty-five miles wide.”

Runner-Up: Bill Callahan – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Alela Diane – Mp3

Alela Diane doesn’t do anything fancy; she just does what she does, and she does it well. Unlike other singer/songwriters who are usually stronger at the one or the other, Diane puts the two together in perfect accord. On “To Be Still,” Diane delivers her crystalline vocals in their most haunted capacity — like an off-key harp in an empty ballroom — and sings lines like: “The sea beneath the cliff is the blue in my mother’s eyes that came from the blue in her mother’s eyes,” effortlessly. I’m also a sucker for acoustic guitar, violin, and yodeling coming together to form a spooky set of murder-folk laments.

Runner-Up: Dan Deacon – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Espers – Mp3

With “III,” their fourth LP, Espers takes us to a forgotten time, when magistrates would bring thieves before the king to receive their punishment, when bards and court jesters danced merrily about, when queens wrought devious plans to overthrow their own husbands. But I digress. Somehow, Espers manage to do this almost entirely through the vocal stylings of Meg Baird and Greg Weeks. I remember The Decemberists trying to evoke a medieval epic feeling on their “Tain,” EP, but when compared to Espers that album was but a Renaissance Faire to Espers’ War of the Roses.

Runner-Up: El Goodo – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Fanfarlo – Mp3

I fell in love with Fanfarlo earlier this year (see previous post), and haven’t grown tired of their album ever since. It took most of this year for their debut LP, “Reservoir,” to “catch on” (they were a big hit at SXSW this year, so I hear), but they are finally starting to get the credit they deserve. On first blush, you can cite a dozen or more influences (Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Beirut, etc.) but these similarities are a product of zeitgeist rather than derivation. When you put together their sweeping movements, vivid storytelling, and minor-key harmonies, they become something more sincere than secondary.

Runner-Up: Fever Ray – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Grizzly Bear – Mp3

Perhaps the most anticipated and subsequently acclaimed album of 2009, Grizzly Bear’s, “Veckatimest” (I lost count of how many people I have heard correcting others on the pronunciation of this word) is an amazing piece of song craftsmanship. I use that word because every note, every syllable is right where it needs to be, the harmonies refined to the point of androgyny, each instrument chosen and tuned with the precision of a scientist at CERN. But no matter how spit-shined their songs end up, the magic of the song’s original intent is never lost, only enhanced. That’s a rare gift, and it’s why Ed, Daniel, Chris and Chris have made one of the best albums of the year.

Runner-Up: Girls – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Richard Hawley – Mp3

Of all the male singers actively recording music, Richard Hawley has the best croon of them all. Jonathan Meiburg may win out in the upper register, Thom Yorke might emote more angelically, but Hawley is quite simply the deserving heir to Sinatra and Bacharach, no question. The difference between Hawley and his contemporaries, however, is that Hawley used to play guitar for Pulp, and is also an amazing composer. If you don’t believe me, check out the slow build and epic sweep of “Soldier On,” from his latest LP, “Truelove’s Gutter.”

Runner-Up: Holopaw – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Islands – Mp3

Islands manage to take everything I like about Of Montreal and refine it into something less esoteric yet more memorable. Listening to Islands is like eating a Jolly Rancher, no matter how long you turn it over in your mouth, the flavor never dies. Their follow-up LP, “Vapours,” is chock full of catchy tunes and worth-while hooks and melodies. While a little more pop/dance than their former band, Unicorns, Islands are no less diverse and catchy.

Runner-Up: Iron & Wine – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

jj – Mp3

Vampire Weekend, eat your heart out. Alaska in Winter, take note. jj burst on the scene this year with little-to-no introduction, and at this point, other music investigators have gleaned little more than their record label and their alleged names. In a strange way, I almost prefer it this way. Their debut LP, “jj n° 2,” is only 26 minutes long, but they manage to take us from the African savannah to the Caribbean shoreline without ever leaving the keyboards in their bedroom.

Runner-Up: Jóhann Jóhannsson – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Kronos Quartet – Mp3

This string quartet have been recording music since 1973. Most readers will probably recognize them most recently by their contribution to the“Dark Was the Night,” compilation this year. Their brand of orchestration traverses genres like international flight attendants, but their latest album, “Floodplain,” is something a bit different. “Floodplains,” was created as an homage the cultures who dwell in “areas surrounded by water and prone to catastrophic flooding,” in collaboration with different musicians from around the world. From Serbia to Egypt, from Lebanon to Ethiopia, the songs are as diverse as they are marvelous to experience.

Runner-Up: Knight School – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Land of Talk – Mp3

Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) produced “Some Are Lakes,” Land of Talk’s debut LP. Whether or not we owe this to Vernon alone is unlikely, but I certainly don’t think his presence could have hurt. You can certainly hear some of his balladry skills on slower songs like “It’s Okay.” Before this LP, I didn’t really know much about Land of Talk. But after “Some Are Lakes,” I have to mention them in the same breath as bands like Rosebuds, Rilo Kiley, Stars, even a little Delgados in there.

Runner-Up: Jason Lytle – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

The Middle East – Mp3

The only bad thing about The Middle East’s self-titled LP is how long it took me to discover it. When I had heard “Blood,” on the radio one afternoon, I realized at once that I was discovering one of the most promising bands of 2009. This Australian foursome sing their bedroom lullabies from the cliffs of an angry sea. At times quiet singer/songwriter, other times soaring ambience like Sigur Rós, and yet other times capable of Explosions in the Sky type intensity. But those characteristics — along with a falsetto that would make Jeremy Enigk shed a prideful tear — are the things which set The Middle East apart from 90% of their peers.

Runner-Up: Cass McCombs – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Marissa Nadler – Mp3

Marissa Nadler has returned in 2009 with ten more songs of unforgettable melancholy on her fourth album, “Little Hells.” The gothic, snowy cemetary stylings are still there, in all their murderous wonder. While she hasn’t strayed far from what gained her notoriety, Nadler still manages to embellish her voice and guitar with organs, adding weight to her otherworldly elegies. I can always listen to Marissa Nadler, regardless of time of day, mood, or shirt color.

Runner-Up: Neil On Impression – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Other Lives – Mp3

Any time you can fuse the allure of Brit Pop with the best instrument ever made: the piano, you know you have a recipe for success. Other Lives self-titled LP sounds like what might happen if Rufus Wainwright and Danny McNamara of Embrace came together and made an album. Every song is woven together with the grace and beauty of the former, and the minor-key earnestness of the latter. “Black Tables,” might be the most beautifully somber song I’ve heard all year: Right up there with The Middle East.

Runner-Up: Old Jerusalem – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Phantogram – Mp3

I really had Portugal. The Man, as my pick for “P” going into the end of the year, but then I was introduced to Phantogram by a friend. This album is the perfect answer to my affinity for “sad bastard music,” as others have so eloquently put it. The reason it’s perfect is that the hint of melancholy persists under the funky basslines, angelic vocals, and crispy break beats. This is a rock album by definition, but plays like more of a melange in practice. The whole album exists within its own microcosm, and when you play it from beginning to end, it feels you’ve been taken inside the band’s psyche and spit out on the side of the road on a rainy night.

Runner-Up: Portugal. The Man – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

DJ Quik and Kurupt – Mp3

One of the best West Coast “Rap” songs ever made was DJ Quik’s “Tonite.” I think he was something like 19 at the time. Kurupt, when he emerged on Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” in 1992 as part of Snoop’s Dogg Pound, was the West Coast’s answer to Inspectah Deck. These two coming together trumps Muggs and Gza from a couple years back, and while I haven’t found a West Coast rap album I’ve liked from start to finish since… well… “The Chronic,” there are indeed enough solid tracks on “BlaQKout,” to warrant a “Q” slot.

Runner-Up: Quiet Village – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Raekwon – Mp3

I remember that first video from Wu Tang Clan in 1993 (“Protect Ya Neck”) like it was yesterday. More than a dozen of the baddest looking rappers I’d ever seen were mugging the camera, some hooded, some masked, some with a mouthful of gold teeth. The music was “hard” in the sense that you felt like a bad-ass just rapping along, trying to guess who was who. Wu Tang have since become musical legends, and Raekwon is one of the few members who has had a critically acclaimed solo career with any consistency. Which is a shame, because my favorite member, Inspectah Deck, cannot claim the same accomplishment. Never fear, for the song I’ve chosen from “Only Built for Cuban Linx II” includes a memorable verse from the Rebel INS himself, taking us back to the grimy streets of Staten Island.

Runner-Up: Real Estate – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Sunset Rubdown – Mp3

The grandmaster of melodrama is at it again; Spencer Krug (who released albums with Sunset Rubdown and Swan Lake this year) continues adding to his repertoire of one-of-a-kind Shakesperean Anthems. His voice isn’t for everybody, but for me it really adds to the baroque and off-kilter presence his songs tend to have. You never know where his music is going to take you. You may start out under the impression you are listening to an 8-bit laptop folk song and wind up in the middle of a palatial indie opera complete with crashing cymbals, chaotic keyoards, lavish harmonies and soaring guitars. That’s just the charm of Krug, and with Sunset Rubdown he remains the central figure from start to finish, just the way I like it.

Runner-Up: Surfer Blood – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

The Twilight Sad – Mp3

God, this album is good. I’ve never been to Scotland, but after a good listen to The Twilight Sad’s sophomore LP, “Forget the Night Ahead,” I feel like I’ve walked beneath its overcast skies, crossed its rocky hillocks, wended my way through its gnarled forests. What is most impressive about these guys is that—regardless of how messy and distorted the electric guitars get—there is an underlying cohesion which holds up against the very best rock anthems. This is a compliment of the highest order, and if anybody writes The Twilight Sad off as post-rockers with funny accents, you’ll know they haven’t actually listened to their albums.

Runner-Up: Tiny Vipers – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Uninhabitable Mansions – Mp3

Here was a case where I discovered the band on my quest for a viable “U” candidate. U.N.K.L.E. hadn’t put out any material (and frankly, I haven’t enjoyed an U.N.K.L.E. record in some time), and the Unicorns are still broken up (but at least we have Islands, see above). Fortunately, Uninhabitable Mansions appeared just in time. Their album, “Nature is a Taker,” is chock full of jangle pop of the sunniest disposition, enough to make The Magic Numbers proud. Their sound falls somewhere betwen Beach Boys, Pavement and Buddy Holly; but you be the judge.

Runner-Up: UUVVWWX – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Volcano Choir – Mp3

There’s that pesky Justin Vernon again. He shows up in the strangest of places, always wearing that amicable Midwestern smile, always making unique and beautiful music. This time he’s partnered with fellow Wisconsinites, Collection of Colonies of Bees, under their collective moniker Volcano Choir, and the results are unexpectedly astounding. After “For Emma, Forever Ago,” it may have seemed a stretch to pair Vernon’s songwriting and song-playing with experimental electronica. But what he hinted at on his “Blood Bank,” was only but a snippet of the success to be discovered on Volcano Choir’s debut album, “Unmap.”

Runner-Up: Sharon Van Etten – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Wild Beasts – Mp3

I had heard a song from Wild Beasts earlier this year, before getting my hands on their full-length release, “Two Dancers.” And while I thought the song itself was pretty cool, I was not prepared for the baroque, flamboyant, intense, melodramatic, and confident display of this LP. Just about every song on this album is a full-on experience to be remembered. Like some of my favorite bands (see Sunset Rubdown, above), Wild Beasts put many of their songs together as multi-part movements. We soar and we dive, we hoot and we howl, and we love every twist and turn. Hayden Thorpe’s voice is unlike any I have heard before. Highly recommended stuff.

Runner-Up: Women – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

The XX – Mp3

You don’t need me to say it, but for a someone who has taken on the challenge of putting together an Indie Alphabet for the second straight year, having a band with the letter X in its name is as sought after as a Park Place sticker at McDonald’s during Monopoly month. But for that band to have two X’s in a row—and to also be one of the best bands on the entire list—well that’s just divine intervention. This male/female duo sing lazy verses over tightly produced tracks with the care-free confidence of Massive Attack in their hey-day. Like two star-crossed lovers breaking up then falling in love all over again, XX keep us transfixed at the spectacle of themselves. And it hurts so good.

Runner-Up: Xylos – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet


On paper this album shouldn’t appeal to me: off-key singing over strange 80’s post-industrial synth pop; tried and tired vocal distortions and samples; and the occasional techno beat for good measure. But what you don’t get in words you can certainly hear on their album, “See Mystery Lights.” The very quirks and oddities which shouldn’t go together somehow work. And to bluntly summarize: this album is damn good!

Runner-Up: Yo La Tengo – Mp3

Indie Rock Alphabet

Zaza – Mp3

We’ve made it to the letter “Z” at last. And a fine note to end our journey on. Zaza have only just begun putting out material, but already you can feel their knack for rich orchestrations and opium den atmosphere. Their album, “Cameo,” emits a lush ambience from start to finish; drums, vocals, organs and guitars melt into one, and everything seeps into your skin like a local anesthetic. In short: achingly hypnotic music to send you into a trancelike state until the next Indie Alphabet comes along.

Runner-Up: Zola Jesus – Mp3

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“The Indie Music Alphabet 2009!!”