Highly Refined Pirates
Suicide Squeeze, 2002

Songs about yachting, getting drunk, going skinny-dipping, hanging out with girls, and various combinations thereof aren’t usually this interesting, but Minus the Bear, or “Jawbox the Party Band” as I think of them, not only embrace the day-to-day aspects of life, but a finely tuned and layered approach to writing propulsive, math/indie rock. Whether it’s Dave Knudson’s finger-tapped guitar leads or Matt Bayles’s subtle keyboard work and electronic underpinnings, there’s usually some instrumental shenanigans going on, but the solid rhythm section and Jake Snider’s casual vocals ensure that it doesn’t regress to Steve Vai vacuousness. Clearly, songs titled “Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twister,” “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse,” and “Let’s Play Guitar in a Five Guitar Band” can’t go wrong.

Survival is for Cowards
Second Nature, 2002

Emo as a facet of popular culture has certainly come to the fore in this decade, but its existence as a viable genre, if it ever was, has dissolved into little more than self-parody. That said, the Casket Lottery managed to cull together what scraps of dignity the “heart on sleeve” paradigm had left by excising cringe-worthy Live Journal entries and incorporating a great deal of the sonic heft and rhythmic confidence from Kansas City brethren like Dirt Nap and Shiner. Whether it’s the acoustic lilt of “Leaving Town,” the lurch of “What I Built Last Night,” or the rending familial admission of “The Bridge,” Survival is for Cowards has a deft touch for pacing and variety, ensuring that the genuine passion displayed here never approaches cloying clichés.

You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See
Jade Tree, 2002

This is no sympathy pick. You Can't Fight… is on par with Girls Against Boys’ Touch and Go trilogy, and enacts a throttling return to form after the production follies of Freak*on*ica. Scott McCloud’s seemingly innocuous lyrical content hides incisive jabs at the major label quagmire—“We can drown with everyone / With a sound fooling everyone”—and Ted Niceley’s return to the production chair ensures the crisp, throbbing mix they need for the double bass undertow. The lurid danger of Venus Luxure #1 Baby is gone, but the pop hooks are sharpened, making “All the Rage,” “Tweaker,” and “BFF” the envy of the Geffen/Universal executives who cut the cord.

Music for a Sinking Occasion
Aesthetics, 2000

While finding out that the two singer-songwriters in L’altra, Joseph Costa and Lindsay Anderson, ended an eight-year-long relationship in the midst of recording this album adds a fair deal of context to the blurry edges and hushed voices, finding out that they kept it from their bandmates for several weeks is a comparative watershed. Music for a Sinking Occasion hides as much as it reveals—“Blades and tales of blades / Shivers in my neckings / I’ll tell a lie” from “Motor Me” couples romance and violence in a tenuous manner while “Little Chair” insists “You’re the right kind”—but it’s that ambiguity that makes the album compelling, casting every nuance into a bout of second-guessing. The additional instrumentation—horns, electronics, organs—act as a delicate membrane to hold all of these muted emotions together.

Uno Nunca Sabe
Stereorriffic, 2003

Rectangle was one of the all-too-well-kept secrets of my college town, but their second album ignores the scoffing frat guys and focuses on getting its angular rock on. From the stuttering slabs of guitar of “Hit My Heart Wrong” that jumpstart Uno Nunca Sabe to the surprisingly gentle “Space Perspective” that closes it, an equal surplus of charm and left-hand turns await to run you off the road. Champaign’s heirs to the bent-until-broken indie rock lineage of Pavement and Polvo didn’t stick around long after the album came out, but that’s no excuse to ignore the campfire doo-wop of “Western Union,” the subtle wordplay in “Surreal is More Eel,” or the harmonic chimes in “Semaphore Word.”

A Story in White
Matador, 2001

From a distance, A Story in White seems like a colossal, bipolar mess: awkwardly emotional in parts, jarringly violent in others. But up close, the landscape between the triumphant heights of “Post-Tour, Pre-Judgment” and the no-fi wanderings of “Egypt,” the string-laden balladry of “Hatred” and the anthemic flagellation of “Zionist Timing” makes sense, as the moments aren’t stranded, but overlap via their prompts of basic human doubts like hatred, faith, and fear. The US version’s appendix of The White Paw EP adds three songs that may not slip into the tapestry as easily, but the lush acoustic longing of “Messenger” and the gradual build-up of “Motion” augment an already strong narrative.

Blue Screen Life
Ace Fu, 2001

Underneath Pinback’s cloak of lush pop, gliding basslines, and spot-on harmonies lies an intriguing contrast between seemingly commonplace lyrical topics (online gaming, a dead pet fish, poor response for a favorite touring band) and rather devastating motifs of drowning, longing, and loneliness. But while some bands might sequester the former in near-novelty approaches, Pinback allots them the same attention to detail and poetic resonance, intertwining the sinking submarine of “Boo” with the surfacing fish of “Penelope,” imbuing both the broken computer of “Offline P.K.” and the soured record label relation in “Your Sickness” with a jagged nerve, and giving the ignored metal band on tour in “Talby” and the ruptured relationship in “Tres” equal resonance.

Get Saved
Arena Rock, 2004

The album title offers divine intervention. Their record label implies aspirations beyond their current means. Band name? Flight and war. But Pilot to Gunner is grounded in the best possible way, taking the tropes of D.C.-oriented indie rock and fine tuning them into sharp hooks, self-reflexive lyrics, and pulsing rhythms. It’s that touch of doubt that makes it compelling beyond the obvious steering-wheel-drumming appeal—the inversion in the title track impelling “Save us, save us / We’ll do anything”—the realization that the audience offers them as much as they offer us.

Turn on the Bright Lights
Matador, 2002

The strength of this album is not predicated upon which spirits they conjure, the debonair lines of their suits, or any claims of a doppelganger in their midst. Turn on the Bright Lights starts with a soft push into trio of lasting singles—the urgent violence of “Obstacle 1,” the uneasy, emotional coda of “PDA,” the yearning cityscape of “NYC”—and goes against form by lining up a series of equally memorable album tracks. The gothic post-punk exhumed here is in fashion but not indebted to it, owing its success not to revivalist urges but to sturdy songwriting.

National Skyline EP
Hidden Agenda, 2000

Following the dissolutions of two of my musical stand-bys, Hum and Castor, two bands formed from their mixed ashes. Castor singer Jeff Garber and Hum bassist Jeff Dimpsey revived the lost heritage of National Skyline (Centaur inverted the equation), distancing themselves from the progressive rock that lurks in their attic and embracing an icy veneer of electro-pop. The EP spans only 22 minutes, but like Castor’s debut, not a moment is wasted, as even the interludes are compelling. Jeff Garber’s vocal shape-shifting turns to a fitting falsetto, rising above the frequently minimalist backdrop to particularly strong effect on the opener “Metropolis,” but the electro-acoustic suicide note of “Karolina,” the yearning pop of “Air,” and the rousing Unforgettable Fire-esque closer “Kandles” are equally memorable.

Hydrahead, 2003

It’s almost impossible to get around how perfect a title Australasia is for Pelican’s monolithic math-metal; once I started envisioning these sinewy riffs to be shifting tectonic plates ripping continents apart, it became the dominant conceptualization of the band’s force. The eleven-minute-long opener “Nightendday” establishes Pelican’s manner of imbuing sonic twists and turns with a forlorn gravity, dropping out only to come back with added ferocity. Yet countering the oppressive heft of “Drought” and the harmonic incantations of “Angel Tears” with the delicate acoustic craft of the untitled track and the single-like gait and brighter melodies of “GW” is Australasia’s finest feature, assuring that it never approaches a draining experience.

Drag City, 2001

Rarely have malice, self-loathing, and black humor been disguised so well, hidden under layers of gorgeously arranged melodies and surprisingly direct rock riffs. The intricate guitar and piano swell that begins “Memory Lane” belies the savage spite of the opening couplet, “It’s quite a gamble to speak out of place / Those things could kill you, but so could your face,” but as the vocal harmonies and horn arrangements collect, it’s hard to focus on the brutal insults. “Get a Room,” an account of one last night of human contact, piles on the jabs as vibes ring clear over the acoustic guitars—“And you would get a snorer / To share your last hour / You sure picked a winner.” Whether O’Rourke is aiming these barbs at his enemies or himself is up for debate, but it’s hard to imagine better camouflage for such contempt.

We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes
Barsuk, 2000

I hadn’t anticipated their future role as preferred backdrop for overwrought teenage melodrama, but their hushed introspection and intricate arrangements certainly held the potential to dwarf the legacies of slow-core progenitors Galaxie 500, Low, and Codeine. It’s the details highlighting these shades of gray—the pinpricks of conversations, mile markers, and tousled clothing—that imbue the material with such an authentic feeling of longing for old loves, better times, and second chances. Bursts of emotion dot the canvas, but each is inevitably followed by a bout of stark contrition, a Catholic underscoring of culpability that renders Ben Gibbard’s brief levity even more bittersweet.

Aleatory Element
Technical Echo, 2004

Attempting to extract a single track of the two-disc behemoth Aleatory Element is often maddening; while “The Revolution Will Start Next Semester,” “Blurry Trees the Song,” “Mating Habits of the North American Finless Brown Trout,” and “We Didn’t Know It Was a Mutiny Until It Failed” all possess a glowing space-rock aura and saucy titles, hearing them emerge from the cinematic tides as fully formed ideas is the true wonder. This is a 400 mile-per-hour drive across the post-prog-psych-kraut-ambient-avant-rock landscape with Tungsten74’s hand on the radio dial, shifting frequencies and styles with remarkable ease.

You Are Free
Matador, 2003

Judging only by a handful of atypically direct rock songs—“Free,” “Speak for Me,” “He War”—it would seem that Chan Marshall has finally opened up the door to interpretation and discarded the layers of ambiguity enveloping her music. In context, they amount only to teases, and Marshall’s penchant to complicate matters invades even that role (“He war / He war / He will kill for you” is hardly free of subtext). You Are Free is just as confounding as her past catalog, shrugging off second glances and remaining at arm’s length. But it’s the added touches—how Warren Ellis’s plaintive violin helps make the child choir of “Good Woman” anything but cloying, how Eddie Vedder’s celebrity evaporates in harmony with Marshall—that reinforce how effective and affecting her simple chord changes and skeletal structures can be.

Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts
Mute, 2003

Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts is a striking array of fractured pop songs, pastoral elegies, disembodied voices, and Commodore 64 symphonies, glistening with an overflow of pink noise and channeled through synthesizer arrays and drum machines. Their shoegazer forefathers might look down inquisitively on the shift of emphasis from guitars to keyboards, but the end result is just as powerful, buzzing with equal disrespect for round edges and muted palettes.

Sometimes You Scare Me
Diver City, 2000

I saw Durian perform to a handful of people in a hole-in-the-wall in Brooklyn, and I had a sinking suspicion that they wouldn’t overcome their lack of pedigree within the D.C. scene, even as they continued to make quantum leaps in songwriting and instrumental precision. Still, Sometimes You Scare Me is filled with moments of fulfilled promise—the electric energy of “Range Rover,” the melancholic lilt of “Press Stop” and “Just Read,” the searing confidence of “Dogtrack”—and it’s topped by the way that “Bend and Grab” transitions from a suburban daydream to a lockstep, passionate address. Its motifs may signal past D.C. greats, whether the operatic vocals of Craig Wedren or the math-rock structures of Jawbox, but I always felt like Durian was one of their peers, not one of their subordinates.

Young Liars EP
Touch and Go, 2003

From my experience, 95 percent of the bands heralded as “The next big thing!” are just a shoddy rehash of the last big thing (see: the garage rock revival). So when TV on the Radio turned out to be the genuine article, a brazen concoction of post-punk, barbershop harmonies, electro-pop, and soul (with a side of early ’80s Peter Gabriel), I was taken aback. In a mere five songs, the band layers flute and Tunde Adebimpe's falsetto over the jittery, digital rhythms of “Satellite,” takes “Staring at the Sun” from empty streets to a packed club, simmers the slow-burning desperation of “Blind,” billows the flames of the title track without losing control, and turns Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” into a religious evocation. No slight-of-hand tricks were used in earning their reputation.

Mantra, 2002

The Delgados are one of the few bands that can go full-blown orchestral—I’m talking choirs, string sections, horns, piano ballads—and never arrive at schmaltzy melodrama. The title of Hate gives a strong hint of why, as their lyrical embrace of seemingly negative characteristics makes their songs believably human as opposed to clinically crafted, whether it’s culminating “Woke from Dreaming” with “We will kill if we need to,” Alun Woodard enacting “All You Need Is Hate” as a new dominant philosophy, or daring to name a song “Child Killers.” Hooks are the other half of the equation, with Emma Pollock’s sweeping chorus in “The Light Before We Land” and bouncing melodies in “Coming in from the Cold” equally hard to pry from memory.

Whatever You Love, You Are
Touch and Go, 2000

The presence of newfound multitudes of violin tracks spilling across the canvas helps Whatever You Love, You Are reinvigorate Dirty Three’s traditionally spartan synthesis of violin, guitar, and drums. Few performers wrangle heart-rending contemplation out of their strings as well as Warren Ellis, and this effect certainly does not diminish when multiplied. “I Really Should Have Gone Out Last Night” pairs wandering pizzicato with slurred bowing to lighten the mood, “Some Summers They Drop Like Flys” layers tracks in a brume of sound before giving way to the dominant motif, and “I Offered It Up to the Stars & the Night Sky” offsets its beginning only to pull together for its chaotic finale. Moments of stoic simplicity still linger, their effects heightened by the contrast.