To some, indie rock is an aesthetic, something between Sonic Youth and Pavement that’s only played by people with mop-tops, ringer T-shirts and cans of Pabst atop their amplifiers. Others might take the genre literally as music recorded and performed by musicians not affiliated with major labels. Whatever your definition, here are 10 tracks from the past 10 years that continue to amaze.
10) “Palmyra” • Jolie Holland • The Living and the Dead 
She’s on an independent label and she (sometimes) plays rock music, but Jolie Holland is really half-country and half-folk, with a twist of Mission hipster. “Palmyra,” a tumblin’ folk-rock ballad that alludes to Hurricane Katrina and the narrator’s penchant for breaking her own heart and those of others, brought all of Holland’s luminous talents to a fever pitch—from her desperate emotion and charmingly sexy Southern vocal stylings to her impressive knack for guileless storytelling.
9) “Shake the Dope Out” • The Warlocks • Phoenix 
Recalling classic underground lines of self-abusive desperation such as Swervedriver’s “my soul belongs to the dealer now” and the Ramones’ “I could’ve been rich / but I’m just digging a Chinese ditch,” The Warlocks’ “Shake the Dope Out” took Velvet Underground-
8) “Knife” • Grizzly Bear • Yellow House 
“With every blow / comes another lie / you think it’s alright / can’t you feel the knife?” Brooklyn-based soundscaper Grizzly Bear successfully matched ghostly Beach Boys-esque harmonies and tender, poignant guitars, piano and percussion with casually vicious lyrics in “Knife,” one of the highlights of Yellow House, the band’s spellbinding breakthrough LP. It’s a magical incantation of hurt that, if provoked, could easily take anything by Nine Inch Nails and softy lull it to death.
7) “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” • Spoon • Gimme Fiction 
After about a decade suffering in bargain-bin purgatory, Spoon emerged with Gimme Fiction, a hypnotic sonic accomplishment that became a hipster classic, and “The Beast and Dragon” kicked off the twisted fun with a slow burn. “When you don’t feel it at shows / they tear out your soul,” singer/guitarist Britt Daniel sings just as the burn becomes a wildfire, “but when you believe / they call it rock ‘n’ roll.” I’m pretty sure that line isn’t in the Bible, but it should be.
6) “Milk Man” • Deerhoof • Milk Man 
Let’s just get this out of the way: Yes, towering Deerhoof drummer/spokesman Greg Saunier has Tourette’s syndrome, and it affects the genuinely virtuosic freak-jazz drumming we’ve heard on Deerhoof classics like “Milk Man,” which was eventually turned into a children’s ballet in Maine. What’s truly remarkable is how Saunier’s percussive explosions juxtapose front-woman Satomi Matsuzaki’s tiny voice and childlike imagination. By turns spastic and softy fantastical, “Milk Man” is Deerhoof’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” (by The Who)-type masterpiece.
5) “And You Lied To Me” • The Besnard Lakes • The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse 
Like several songs on this Vancouver studio-wizard’s killer second LP, “And You Lied To Me” is peppered with inaudible voices reminiscent of the murmuring parents from Peanuts, but The Besnard Lakes’ genius lies not in charming absurdity but in stunning co-ed harmonies, big guitars and astute lyrics. In particular, “And You Lied To Me,” a gorgeously scathing ode to America’s longtime role as international police, utilizes shimmering lo-fi rock and startling group vocals to shed light on an issue we’re all too familiar with.
4) “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” • Stephen Malkmus • Stephen Malkmus 
Reminding listeners of his renowned early-’90s slamming of The Smashing Pumpkins, former Pavement mastermind Stephen Malkmus brilliantly trashes wide-eyed, jam band-loving crunchies in “Jenny and the Ess-Dog.” She’s a naive teenage hippie with “awful toe rings,” he’s a 31-year-old musician in a ’60s cover band, they’ve got a dog (named after Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio) who “has a window into their relationship.” She leaves for school “up in Boulder,” where she pledges Kappa, and the distance is the end of their relationship, not to mention the toe rings. It’s a cinematic story within a rock song, a vivid marriage of forms that the likes of The Beatles and Elvis Costello were also able consummate.
3) “Cause = Time” • Broken Social Scene • You Forgot It in People (2002)
This gigantic Toronto-based collective’s first proper album was actually the trancy instrumental workout Feel Good Lost. But its sprawling indie arena-rock breakout was You Forgot It in People, highlighted by “Cause = Time,” a churning surge of guitar and drum heaven. Front-kid Kevin Drew creatively juxtaposed hopeless romances (“you got it all and it’s pretty good / but I seem to be in disbelief”) with beatific abstraction (“kill the white within the bliss / this is the blood I love to shed”) on this head-bopping underground classic.
2) “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” • Arcade Fire • Funeral (2004)
Montreal youngster Arcade Fire gave us one of the best debut rock albums of all time with 2004’s darkly beautiful Funeral, and the opening piano swirls and cascading guitars of its wondrous first track are still enough to make me stop whatever I’m doing and envision a snow-covered town where kids are digging tunnels from bedroom to bedroom. Like many Arcade Fire tunes, the melodious sing-along conclusion to “Neighborhood #1” will stay on the tip of your brain for days, years, even decades.
1) “Roscoe” • Midlake • The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006)
Harmonically-gifted Denton, Texas, throwback Midlake surprised and mesmerized listeners with The Trials of Van Occupanther, a concept-heavy second album that detailed the life and times of a fictional rural scientist who lived roughly 100 years ago. “Roscoe,” a subtly driving rocker in which singer/guitarist Tim Smith muses “Whenever I was a child I wondered what if my name had changed / into something more productive like Roscoe / been born in 1891 / waiting with my Aunt Roseline,” has given me chills each of the 2,000 or so times I’ve listened to it.