Music fans, rejoice: "list season"--that wintry instant when our nation's critics whittle a year of records into tidy top 10s--has come again. According to the album-review aggregators at Metacritic.com, Bob Dylan scored highest in 2001. Tom Waits took '02, '03 was Led Zeppelin's year and Brian Wilson owned '04. So who's winning this round? Some guy named Sufjan Stevens. That's "SOOF-yawn"--in case you haven't heard of him.
Stevens's success (and the dinos' decline) neatly sums up a year that saw "indie" rock suddenly selling to scenesters and suits alike. In November '04, Conor Oberst--the genre's poster boy--snagged the top two spots on the singles charts, and Death Cab for Cutie's 2005 record "Plans" debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Despite a dip in overall sales, indie labels now claim 27 percent of the music market--their largest share in recent memory. "This year, there's a real consensus around 10 records," says Adam Shore of Vice Recordings. "And they're all this type of indie rock."
Connoisseurs are crediting "Yupsters"--Yuppie hipsters--for the change. (Need help? Take a look at "The O.C.'s" Seth Cohen, who stocks his Range Rover with Death Cab discs.) For the past decade, indie records sold primarily to obsessives because, without major-label distribution, the music was tough to find. But now a few clicks and an iPod are all it takes for would-be Yupsters to indulge any curiosity. Just ask Metacritic's eighth-ranked act: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. A year ago they were unsigned--and unknown. But hot MP3 blog Stereogum.com posted a track in February. In June, Pitchfork media.com gave their debut a rare 9.0. Now they've sold 50,000 CDs--one of which provided the cube dwellers of NBC's "The Office" with the soundtrack for a recent BBQ. "We're at a crossroads," says Stereogum's Scott Lapatine. "Indie bands are gaining in popularity--and indie Yuppies are using the Web to discover them."
Expect the hybrid to thrive in 2006. Audi now advertises on Pitchfork. John Varvatos crafts custom Converse. Apple is set to unload as many iPods in the next three months as it sold between '01 and '04. And on Feb. 6, Sufjan Stevens will vie for indiedom's just-invented answer to a Grammy: the New Pantheon Award. Who knows? Come next list season, you may even be able to pronounce his name.