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Not Art Rock: Top 10 'Smart Rock' Albums

There's indie rock. And then there's indie rock in horn-rimmed glasses. Not quite art rock, but "smart rock." According to the lexicographers at Urban Dictionary, smart rock is:

Forthwith: How we made out in 2008.

Click here for more entries in the Best CDs of 2008 series.

Not Art Rock: Top 10 'Smart Rock' Albums

1. Okkervil River

"Lost Coastlines"

From 'The Stand Ins'

By Okkervil River

Austin's signature smart-rock quintet picked up even more national momentum in 2008 with the release of, in essence, a collection of outtakes from an aborted double-album. In many ways, this is more like the flip side to last year's The Stage Names; whereas the earlier disc was a meditation on fame, this new collection is about the collateral damage—the emotions curdling under the spotlight. Songwriter Will Sheff mashes up power-pop, '60s folk, new wave and even Motown to form a backdrop for nearly a dozen lush, pint-sized portraits. The result is a miniature masterpiece.

2. The Hold Steady

"Constructive Summer"

From 'Stay Positive'

By The Hold Steady

Thirty-six is old in rock 'n' roll years. But frontman and lyricist Craig Finn works it to his advantage, transforming the classic rock of his youth into music that's both modern and penetrating. Stay Positive is equal parts arena-rock resurrection and indie-rock insurrection. Chunky, Weezer-esque riffs anchor down paperback lyrics, turning teenage head-bobbers into sublime character sketches. It's a confection for the ears, sure, but also for the stuff in between.

3. Shearwater

"Rooks"

From 'Rook'

By Shearwater

Shearwater's fifth album officially terminated this trio's status as Austin's best-kept secret, winning such universal acclaim that leader Jonathan Meiburg was forced to abandon his duties with Okkervil River. Throughout Rook, there's a rustic tension that borders on the eerie. It's more than just dark lyrics like "when the rooks were laid in piles by the side of the road ... they were burned in a feathering pyre"—it's folk-infused melodies that flutter, get still, and then explode like a cloud of birds from the window of an abandoned church. Not surprisingly, Meiburg has a thing for birds (he's a post-graduate ornithology student) but better still, he has a thing for music's power to evoke an emotional response. On Rook, you simply get lost in his reverie.

4. Jenny Lewis

If you're familiar with Lewis' work fronting Rilo Kiley, forget it. Next, try to get past the parade of guest stars (Elvis Costello, M. Ward, Johnathan Rice) on this album. Ultimately, Acid Tongue is a vulnerable, honest and mostly autobiographical sophomore solo CD that vacillates between furious rock and something like Tumbleweed-era Elton John. If that sounds a little schizophrenic, consider the gorgeous title track, wherein Lewis at once revels in and is repelled by her indulgences (drugs, loneliness), but discovers herself on an unlikely road to redemption.

5. Conor Oberst

"Cape Canaveral"

From 'Conor Oberst'

By Conor Oberst

In 2005, at a show in Ft. Worth, Texas, Oberst proclaimed, "I'd put a f------ gun to my head before I'd live in your state." Now that the angry young man is all grown up, he may as well start paying his Texas property tax, given that he's firmly moved into the same musical territory as Townes Van Zandt. While Oberst is no stranger to smart, somber lyrics cradled in maudlin country-pop melodies, he's finally transcended the mopey "emo" rock of his Bright Eyes days. What's left has a relaxed, self-assured spontaneity that's vastly smarter than most of his contemporaries. All is forgiven, Omaha Boy.

6. My Morning Jacket

"I'm Amazed"

Genius or dreck? Here's the album that launched a million blog rants, mostly from fans of the old jammy version of this Kentucky-fried favorite. You could easily get hung up on the literal—from thick classic-rock riffage and Prince-style delirium to James Brown funk and Flaming Lips' electro-perversions—but then you'd be missing the point. Evil Urges is what happens when innovative musicians decide it's just not enough to be thought of as "innovative"; if you want to avoid self-parody, you've got to stick in the knife and twist it good and hard. This CD is more than merely hook-happy and devastatingly joyful: It's an object lesson in musical creativity (and the inherent risks thereof). Smart rock? Ha. It's solid-gold genius.

7. Fleet Foxes

"White Winter Hymnal"

From 'Fleet Foxes [Bonus Tracks]'

By Fleet Foxes

Every generation has a phantom musical memory that begins about five to ten years before it came into existence. For the current generation of twentysomethings, here's the soundtrack to that time and place that never was. The full-length debut of this Seattle band features harmony-saturated melodies that are genuinely brilliant unto themselves, but nonetheless owe as much to Fairport Convention as to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Fleet Foxes is engaging, occasionally haunting and strangely comforting—and it gets even more rewarding with subsequent listenings (as the greatest albums always do). Better yet, it somehow rises above genre. Let's just call it ... Appalachian-Californian spiritual hymns of the '70s.

8. Department of Eagles

"No One Does It Like You"

From 'In Ear Park'

By Department of Eagles

There's something almost classic about the debut LP In Ear Park, from Brooklyn's Department of Eagles. Or maybe it's the sound of reverence. Whether it's the 1960s doo-wop on the standout "No One Does It Like You" or the ragtime jangle of the song "Teenagers," musical partners Daniel Rossen (perhaps best known for his work in the art-rock group Grizzly Bear) and Fred Nicolaus have crafted an astonishing meditation on childhood. Rossen's honest and sometimes fragile voice, coupled with the ethereal acoustic instrumentation, help make In Ear Park a soaring, dream-like reflection.

9. Leatherbag

"It's Over"

From 'Love and Harm'

By Leatherbag

Chances are very good you've never heard of Randy Reynolds, nor his stage name/project Leatherbag. Chances are also very good that that won't be the case much longer. The singer-songwriter is a Hurricane Rita refugee from Houston who found his home (literally and figuratively) on the Austin music scene. On stage, he resembles an Elvis Costello fueled by energy drinks, or maybe Buddy Holly were he born circa 1985. The sound: a frenetic garage-rock charge reined in by melodies that early Wilco would be proud to call its own. If you're looking for indie rock in horn-rimmed glasses, look no further. Our one complaint? At eight songs, Love and Harm is far too short. More, please.

10. The Smiths (Honorable Mention)

"This Charming Man"

From 'Sound of the Smiths'

By The Smiths

Witness ye the birth of smart rock. This first-rate collection of classics, rarities and B-sides (handpicked by none other than Morrissey and Johnny Marr themselves) is a humbling reminder of what this British quartet achieved in four incandescent years. It wasn't the lyrics (many were nonsensical), or the well-crafted melodies or the innovative guitar work that made The Smiths groundbreaking. It was the moody energy and intellectual tension The Smiths created which melted these elements in perfect proportion. In these vintage tracks you can hear radio-ready music that was just too far out front of the mainstream. In retrospect, the writing was on the wall; once "discovered," The Smiths were doomed.

Copyright 2008 KUT News

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David Brown
David Browne is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth and Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Spin and other outlets. He is currently at work on Fire and Rain, a book that will track the lives and careers of The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young during the pivotal year of 1970.