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Cedric Watson, Edward Poullard, James Adams

Les Amis Creole

(Arhoolie)

With the partial exception of New Orleans jazz culture, young black American musicians rarely spend much time looking to the distant past for inspiration. One exception is Cedric Watson, a 22-year-old Creole fiddler from the prairies just west of the zydeco hotbed of Houston. Watson's interests extend beyond zydeco, back to the music called "la-la," the pre-electric folk material of his Louisiana Creole ancestors. Here, he performs these French-language waltzes, reels, and two-steps with a couple of the few remaining older practitioners, and the result is as joyous and unexpected as that ivory-billed woodpecker sighting a few years back. This music was supposed to have gone extinct a decade or so ago, and now it appears safe for another couple of generations.

M. Ward

Post War

(Merge)

A melancholy imagining of what American life will be like once our wars against terrorism are finally over, young neo-traditionalist rocker M. Ward has created the most beautiful record of his short, already distinguished career. While his acoustic guitar playing retains its folky, John Fahey-esque bluesiness, Post War finds Ward's arrangements lushed up with strings, piano, and kettle drums and other such sonic grandeur, creating a vast panorama for his understated and, at times, eerie tenor. It's schizoid, by turns achingly gentle and violently boisterous, utterly joyous and profoundly depressed. In other words, it's the perfect album for our imperfect times. — John Nova Lomax

What's indie rock? Who cares. Here's ten great CDs that will blow you away, no matter your definition

Clearly nobody needs a primer on indie rock. We all have our own idea of what it is, right? Nonetheless, why is it that so few of us can agree on who deserves such a designation? Fact is, attempting to define indie rock universally is as futile a task as trying to explain why Nyquil is green and Dayquil is orange.

Is the term literal? Should major label artists excluded from consideration? If so, where would that leave quintessential indie bands like Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and R.E.M.? Or is indie purely an aesthetic, a euphemism for music that's lo-fi, lowbrow, homemade, hi-fi, highfalutin, derivative, experimental, subversive, literate, or jangly? Or is it an ethos, an ideal based solely on a DIY approach?

Ultimately, as any Pitchdork blogger or college radio DJ worth his salt could tell you, indie rock is a shape shifting term that encompasses any and/or all of those things. And many of my favorite releases this year offer a pretty good reflection of that sentiment.

1. TV on the Radio

Return to Cookie Mountain

(Interscope)

Critical consensus suggests that the members of TV on the Radio are some sort of interstellar academicians. Really, though, they're just some arty fellas from Brooklyn that strive to consistently put out compelling music. Ascending Cookie Mountain is a challenging feat thanks to the dense, unsettling backdrops created by guitarist/producer David Andrew Sitek. Fortunately, the penetrating melodies of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone blaze a trail to the top, revealing some stunning vistas along the way.

2. Band of Horses

Everything All the Time

(Sub Pop)

Everything All the Time is achingly beautiful from end-to-end. From the first wash of guitars that introduces the album, to the plaintive arpegiated intro of "The Funeral," which swells seamlessly into sweeping grandeur, to austere ballads like "Part One" and disc closer "St. Augustine," which spotlight Ben Bridwell's (ex-Carissa's Wierd) helium-pitched vocals, Band of Horses' debut is the most exhilarating listening experience you'll have this year. Giddy up.

3. The Hold Steady

Boys and Girls in America

(Vagrant)

Led by front man Craig Finn, who delivers dependably engaging narratives with his patent threadbare beat poet-like delivery, the Hold Steady has outdone itself on its third full-length. This time out, the arena-sized riffs are even Thinner, Lizzy, augmented by swaggering piano and organ lines. As Finn spins the ballads of this year's also-rans and otherwise romanticizes various outcasts, his mates continue to brazenly indulge their affinity for bygone rock. End result: Boys and Girls is an instant classic.

4. Margot & the Nuclear So and So's

The Dust of Retreat

(Artemis)

Although The Dust of Retreat was unleashed on the masses this past spring by Artemis Records, the outstanding debut from this Indy outfit was originally issued on the Standard Recording imprint in 2005. Regardless, the act's folksy chamber pop still sounds fresh. Understated orchestral flourishes perfectly complement Richard Edwards's beguiling compositions, which are as charming as his tuneful croon, whether he's ruminating about love being an inkless pen or meowing (no shit!) like a house cat.

5. The Decemberists

The Crane Wife

(Capitol)

The Decemberists have always come across as a bit precious. But on their major label debut, the band seems... ah, what am I saying here? You still need to be decidedly erudite to appreciate Meloy's subject matter (in this case, a Japanese folk tale), and he still sings with an accent that makes Jeremy Enigk sound like Merle Haggard. Even so, his songwriting remains solid and there are enough interesting organ-heavy prog moments to make the pretense palatable.

6. Gomez

How We Operate

(ATO)

Never really cared for these cats. Always seemed interchangeable from the endless parade of thumb sucking messy hairs from across the pond. But dang if they didn't put together a nice one here that stands out. The perfect Sunday-morning-coming-down record, Operate is gentle and engaging. The act's trio of vocalists shine, whether it's on tranquil acoustic numbers such as "Notice" and the Nick Drake owing "See the World," semi-brooding, bass-driven tracks like "How We Operate," or Brit pop janglers like "Girlshapedlovedrug."

7. Kevin Devine

Put Your Ghost to Rest

(Capitol)

It's not hard to see what Capitol saw in Former Miracle of 86 front man Kevin Devine. Dude's burnished tenor and his phrasing so evokes Ben Gibbard, that if the Cab driver were ever to go on strike, Devine could easily slide behind the wheel. Devine himself cites Elliott Smith as a touchstone, going so far as to tap Rob Schnapf as a producer. Whatever the case, fortunately, Devine has his own way with words and a penchant for crafting memorable, heartrending tunes.

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