As the sun went down on the third day of the biggest indie-rock festival in U.S. history, all the possibilities of non-corporate-sponsored music seemed to be blossoming into reality: 70,000 people were gathered in Manchester, Tenn., to hear bands that by and large put out their own records. A few years back, many of the performers had enjoyed brief dalliances with major labels during the signing bonanza that followed the overnight success of a couple of groups from their scene. Later, most of them had been dropped when the industry realigned itself around teen pop, hiphop lite, and rap-metal. Still, because these bands had been touring for years on a relatively small circuit, it wasn’t too hard for them to dust themselves off, put out their own records, go out on the road, and make a fine living far from the gaze of Jim Mullen’s Hot Sheet.

But then Trey Anastasio took the stage, and I was jolted back to reality. You see, though the majority of bands at June’s Bonnaroo Music Festival were technically indie artists, they behaved like pampered rock stars anyway—they even had their own backstage Porta Pottis, guarded by event-staff goons who made sure no commoner waste mingled with that of the golden gods. And the audience was more than willing to play along. Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools told me that he couldn’t walk out among the festivalgoers, and I had more than one conversation with fans who claimed that God himself was speaking through the String Cheese Incident’s guitar player. And Anastasio? Well, let’s just say that if you liked five-minute flute solos, you were in luck.

The thing is, we’re rapidly moving into a time when major labels don’t merely not serve the needs of most serious music fans, they don’t serve the needs of many musicians, either. It’s a tacit arrangement that seems to be working: The Man gets the airwaves, and the bands that sell fewer than a million copies of each album get to make a living via other distribution channels: indie labels, Web sites, MTV2. Back in the ’90s, we used to complain that there was no middle class in music, that you were either Pearl Jam or the Candy Machine. That’s not really the case anymore. Jam bands are accomplished small businesses, with merchandising departments and sometimes, as in the case of the String Cheese Incident, their own charitable foundations. Emo rockers the Get Up Kids all own their homes, and, like many of their labelmates on the mega-indie Vagrant, tour in a bus, not a van.

More than likely, the crossover success of bands such as the White Stripes, the Strokes, and Dashboard Confessional (whose “Screaming Infidelities” was one of 2002’s best singles) will lead to another major-label feeding frenzy. It’ll be interesting to see what happens this time out—whether the indie bourgeoisie will circle its wagons or if the lure of the multinationals’ lucre will prove irresistible. My guess is the latter, but there’s no shortage of exemplars whose careers suggest that going it alone might be the smartest strategy in the long run.

Below are 10 outstanding records from the past year that evince the essence of indie, which is less a musical style than a deeply skeptical stance toward what the mainstream can realistically offer:

10. On a Wire, the Get Up Kids The Get Up Kids are the least cool band this side of Creed, if only because their career was heretofore based on the shameless repurposing of Superchunk’s sound for middle-class 10th-graders starving for energetic rock. That those youngsters stayed away from this record in droves should pique your interest: On a Wire is a subtle, unapologetically blue-collar rock album that takes an unvarnished look at finding yourself on the wrong side of 30 staring in the face of fatherhood.

9. McLusky Do Dallas, McLusky Andy Falkous could scrape paint with his voice, and if whoever controls the Pixies’ copyrights ever stumbles across McLusky’s highly derivative but scabrously entertaining second album, he may have to develop that skill to make a living. Aside from fellow Brits Ikara Colt, no one currently rocks the quiet-loud verse/chorus/verse schtick as well as this bunch of lovable Welsh losers. And any singer who can spit lyrics such as “All of your friends are cunts/Your mother is a ballpoint-pen thief” deserves your undivided attention.

8. The Pupils, the Pupils Half of Baltimore’s Lungfish, singer Daniel Higgs and guitarist Asa Osborne, used little more than a guitar, a drum machine, and Higgs’ unnaturally affecting vocals to make the best two-man-band record since Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Dazzle Ships—or, more relevant, Tall Dwarfs’ Hello Cruel World.

7. The River Made No Sound, Pan*American It seems likely that Labradford, the self-proclaimed bad boys of New Age, have packed it in for good now that keyboardist Carter Brown has decamped from Richmond, Va., to the Philippines. Console yourself, devastated graduate student, with guitarist Mark Nelson’s side project, which sees him pilot his iBook through the proverbial space between the notes, coffee cup in hand, bemused expression on his face. If there was a better low-key record released this year, I missed it, and I can’t imagine Sunday mornings without the newspaper and this document.

6. Concubine Rice, Lone Pigeon If the Beta Band is the low-rent Pink Floyd, it makes sense that former member Gordon Anderson, aka Lone Pigeon, should be its low-rent Syd Barrett. The conditions under which Anderson left the Betas are murky (usually summed up as “illness”), though the hundreds of quirky, hummable songs he records at home in Fife, Scotland, each month seem to indicate he had better things to do with his time. This strange little no-fi record gets better the closer it gets to the end—a perverse trick guaranteed to weed out even sympathetic listeners. Stick with it, though, and its pleasures will sneak up to you, knock over your beer, and run off laughing oddly.

5. Free Beer Tomorrow, James Luther Dickinson “World Boogie Is Coming,” Dickinson proclaims in the liner notes. That seems a less valid prediction than this one: At most, 50 people will buy this album. The thoroughly wacked-out Memphis producer (Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers) and session pianist (Dylan’s Time Out of Mind) barrels through 10 bluesy, torchy covers of songs nobody with a real job’s ever heard. Buy this; the recent reissue of Dickinson’s long-out-of-print 1972 LP, Dixie Fried; and two bottles of Knob Creek. You’ll be single and unemployed within a week, but man, will you understand the funk.

4. You Don’t Need Darkness to Do What You Think Is Right, Various Artists Stephen Pastel’s Geographic label somehow finds a unifying sensibility that encompasses both echt twee-popsters International Airport and major-label also-rans Telstar Ponies, whose contribution here is a song in search of a Dawson’s episode. I’d venture it has something to do with both bands’ being Glaswegian, but then again, German Barbara Morgenstern fits right in with her icy “Kleiner Ausschnitt.” My favorite track is Future Pilot AKA’s “Remember Fun (Like We Was Young),” probably because I get a kick out of typing the words “righteous Scottish reggae.”

3. Trust, Low It would have been easy for Duluth, Minn.’s, finest to ride out the rest of its going-on-10-year career without messing with the icy, Galaxie 500-derived groove that has made it a favorite of the black-turtlenecks-and-thick-glasses set. But over its last couple of records, Low has shown an impressive willingness to stretch, both music- and production-wise, dropping pop numbers such as “Canada” and “La La La Song” among cryptic faith-based initiatives such as “I Am the Lamb.” The album was mixed by Tchad Blake, who arranged a very successful introduction between the band and the tintinnabulation of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.

2. Read Music/Speak Spanish, Desaparecidos In 30-odd minutes, Omaha, Neb.’s, Conor Oberst and his distortion-pedal-crazed Cornhusker posse lash out at chain stores, housing developments, and the poor quality of life out in the paved-over amber waves of grain. Despite being only 22, Oberst never condescends to the people who move to the exurbs in search of a better life; his bile is reserved for the empty promises that lure them there. Ryan Adams rocks this hard only in his dreams.

1. Lifted: Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Bright Eyes Despite a preponderance of precious gimmickry such as fake interviews and sound collages, this batty emo masterpiece by Conor Oberst (yes, again) squeezes every drop of meaning out of a year in the life of a reluctant indie-rock heartthrob. As with the details of Eminem’s life, it’s not important whether Oberst’s brother’s DUI or his own attempted suicide really happened: The wobbly way he dissects both events, fully orchestrated by an all-star revue of Nebraska rock royalty, leaves you wanting to know more, even as Oberst questions his own motives for sharing. Nothing short of a flyover-states Eminem Show. CP