NPR logo Not Art Rock: Top 10 'Smart Rock' Albums

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:

Will Sheff (center) and Okkervil River are KUT's pick for the smartest of this year's smart rock. Steve Gullick hide caption

toggle caption Steve Gullick

"...music that appeals to a discerning, educated audience ... often mellow yet complex ... the antonym of 'dude rock.'

Example: 'Instead of studying their AP English Literature homework, William and Sara made out to Smart rock on the couch.'"

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

Okkervil River

Lost Coastlines

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97706627/97694498" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

1. Okkervil River

  • Song: Lost Coastlines
  • from The Stand Ins

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
The Stand Ins
Album
The Stand Ins
Artist
Okkervil River
Label
Jagjaguwar
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

The Hold Steady

Constructive Summer

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97706627/97414310" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

2. The Hold Steady

  • Song: Constructive Summer
  • from Stay Positive

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Stay Positive
Album
Stay Positive
Artist
The Hold Steady
Label
Vagrant
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Shearwater

Rooks

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97706627/97694448" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

3. Shearwater

  • Song: Rooks
  • from Rook

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Rook
Album
Rook
Artist
Shearwater
Label
Matador
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Conor Oberst

Cape Canaveral

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97706627/97694497" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

5. Conor Oberst

  • Song: Cape Canaveral
  • from 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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Conor Oberst
Album
Conor Oberst
Artist
Conor Oberst
Label
Merge
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

My Morning Jacket

I'm Amazed

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97706627/97694486" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

6. My Morning Jacket

  • Song: I'm Amazed
  • from Evil Urges

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Evil Urges
Album
Evil Urges
Artist
My Morning Jacket
Label
Red
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Fleet Foxes

White Winter Hymnal

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97706627/97694496" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

7. Fleet Foxes

  • Song: White Winter Hymnal
  • from Fleet Foxes [Bonus Tracks]

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Fleet Foxes [Bonus Tracks]
Album
Fleet Foxes [Bonus Tracks]
Artist
Fleet Foxes
Label
Cooperative
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Department of Eagles

No One Does It Like You

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97706627/97694370" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

8. Department of Eagles

  • Song: No One Does It Like You
  • from In Ear Park

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
In Ear Park
Album
In Ear Park
Artist
Department of Eagles
Label
4AD
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Leatherbag

It's Over

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97706627/97694499" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

9. Leatherbag

  • Song: It's Over
  • from Love and Harm

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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
Love and Harm
Album
Love and Harm
Artist
Leatherbag
Label
self-published
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

The Smiths

This Charming Man

Audio is no longer available

10. The Smiths (Honorable Mention)

  • Song: This Charming Man
  • from Sound of 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.

Buy Featured Music

Song
The Sound of the Smiths
Album
The Sound of the Smiths
Artist
The Smiths
Label
Rhino
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.