In 2005, pop music was rock music. Kelly Clarkson’s tarted-up “Since U Been Gone,” Ashlee Simpson’s Courtney Love-after-a-bender vocals, Hilary Duff’s collaborations with her Good Charlotte boy toy Joel Madden — even the biggest Top 40 starlets liked their guitars cranked up to a sassy 11.
Death Cab for Cutie: Plans
The jangly, sepia-toned R.E.M. mash note “Soul Meets Body” is the aural equivalent of morning sun on bare skin, “Summer Skin” describes an ephemeral fling filled with squeaky swings and tall grass, and the measured piano chords of “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” capture the hollow dread you feel when you discover your lover is a stranger.
Fall Out Boy: From Under the Cork Tree (Island)
At age 14, most people are hopelessly crushing on their lab partner in biology, overflowing with angsty poetry and analyzing every detail of their lives. This confusing but also exhilarating time informs Fall Out Boy’s major label debut, a frenetic rush of racing hormones, Xanga-style confessions and punk-pop for adolescent misfits stuck in cookie-cutter PTA hell.
Eisley: Room Noises
Straight outta small-town Texas — but sounding more like the house band of a verdant magical forest or Rilo Kiley’s ambitious baby-sitting charge — Eisley fulfills the whimsical indie-rock promise of its first few EPs with Room Noises, incorporating bits of genial Coldplayesque Britpop, coffeehouse jam sessions and glimmering, crushed-velvet rock.
Nine Inch Nails: With Teeth
Howling industrial catharses and mechanized sludgefests rage with Trent Reznor’s usual pain — “Right Where It Belongs,” in particular, shines with its needlepoint piano and droning beehive backdrop — though instances of sophisticated, Apple-product-sleek synthpop and boogie-down glitchtronica nod to a kinder, gentler NIN.
Nada Surf: The Weight Is a Gift
Matthew Caws is the Woody Allen of indie-geekdom, a perpetually anxious songwriter well-versed in therapy jargon and self-help books. But his low self-esteem is the listener’s gain on Gift, Nada Surf’s most cohesive record and a crystallization of the New York trio’s velvety power ballads, chiming pop songs and fuzz-rock screeds about loneliness and longing.
The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart
Time has only made Go-Betweens tale-tellers Robert Forster and Grant McLennan richer musicians, judging from the lovely, haunting Oceans Apart. The core elements that made their 1980s albums so classic — unadorned strummed guitars, purple-tinted vocals, vibrant emotional gravitas — are present in spades on Apart, highlighted by the taut, high-speed-train chords hurtling through the globetrotting “Here Comes a City” and the Church-reminiscent, rainy-day missive “Finding You.”
The Epoxies: Stop the Future
(Fat Wreck Chords)
The Epoxies are loving preservers of a time when new-wave bands sported makeup and costumes that were as outlandish as their synthpop confections. Accordingly, the futuristic punk on Stop the Future references robots, the glory of video and laser beams, as sci-fi synths and the type of rhythms that Molly Ringwald whirled to in The Breakfast Club careen past.
Mae: The Everglow
(Tooth & Nail)
Mae distinguishes itself from countless other youth-group-emo acts with The Everglow, an ambitious CD with the unmistakable layered, dense production work of Failure’s Ken Andrews. Frantic piano exercises and vocalist Dave Elkins’ eager-beaver singing style mesh well with the album’s surging hooks and chugging riffs. In fact, Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World only wishes they had written a song as effortlessly whirling-on-a-carousel giddy as “Suspension.”
Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So
Time will probably be kind to Franz Ferdinand’s sophomore effort; its sophisticated tunes find the band adding emotional depth to its otherwise kicky dance-punk. But Better is actually stylistically closer to being a burned-out garage rock album than a post-punk primer, its twisted kiss-offs and leering come-ons benefiting from hot-poker hooks and devil-doll hot-rodding.
The Darkness: One Way Ticket to Hell …
Working with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, the flamboyant UK rockers naturally do a credible — and often scarily dead-on — impression of Queen’s wheedly-wheedly guitars, indulgent solos and layered harmonies. The cascading, shriek-like-a-girl la-la-la chorus screams of “Hazel Eyes” sound like a prog-rock elf frolicking in the English countryside, and Hell‘s cock-rocking riffs smirk and conjure the arena bombast of Def Leppard, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy.