Is indie-pop hip now? It does seem like indie-label music fans are embracing pop sounds more than they did a few years ago, with bands like Best Coast, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and Dum Dum Girls getting raves from Internet tastemakers. The revitalized Slumberland, a key indie-pop label from the ‘90s, seems to get even more attention than they did originally. Pitchfork seems as likely to celebrate a new band of shy melody-makers as they are some new ‘primitive’ experimentalists. It’s not that young music fans are completely forsaking cool and disaffected guitar-rock bands for sensitive and fanciful pop bands, but there does seem some movement in that direction.
2010 was a great year for indie-pop, with an assortment of new bands making an impression by putting a fresh new stamp on old sounds. There were outstanding debut LPs from Allo Darlin’ (London), Magic Kids (Memphis), Standard Fare (Sheffield), One Happy Island (Boston), and the School (Cardiff) among others.
At the same time, it seemed a year of refinement, where bands on their second, third, or fourth albums took their sound and refreshed it. My favorite ten indie-pop albums of the year include just three debuts, and two of those are by new groups whose members have been around for a while in other bands.
In 2010, the past never seemed far away. Classic indie-pop bands like Unrest and 14 Iced Bears reunited for tours. The legendary Scottish band Orange Juice returned to music fans through a comprehensive box set. There were new albums this year by many of the bands that influenced the indie-pop of today: Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, Vaselines, Jonathan Richman, Teenage Fanclub.
The year in indie-pop, then, had a lot going on. Even outside of the new-album world, there were significant releases: the Lucksmiths’ farewell 7”; the great series of 3” CDs on the WeePop label; Bart and Friends’ first EP in a long while; Girls’ EP follow-up to their 2009 debut LP; CD reissues that introduced the Wave Pictures to the US. There were riches aplenty.
I Shouldn’t Look As Good As I Do
(Matinee; US: 8 Jun 2010; UK: 1 Jun 2010)
Math and Physics Club
I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do
The second LP from Seattle’s Math and Physics Club follows up on their excellent 2006 debut with a similar mix of pop punch and storytelling, delivered in a streamlined way that keeps the emphasis on those strengths, without any unnecessary fluff. Each song quickly gets to the point, whether it’s to have a laugh at the whole nature of show business or to ponder how love changes over time. The album also contains what I’m pretty sure is my absolute favorite song of the year, “Trying to Say I Love You”, which sketches out a shy confession of love in so few strokes that it takes my breath away.
Top-Notch and First-Rate
As Cotton Candy, Mark Robinson (Unrest) and Evelyn Hurley (Blast Off Country Style!) play pop music as Pop Art, mining the world of radio and TV commercials for both inspiration and actual material. Mixing sugary pop songs of their own in with them singing the “Beef, It’s What for Dinner” jingle and “Clap on, Clap Off” (the Clapper) might seem incongruous, but it’s all part of the same pop-culture fabric, tied in with feelings from childhood, wonder, mystery, and naiveté. Cotton candy, Star Wars bedsheets, the booming voices of used car salesmen… these are memories, building blocks of people.
Since their 2005 debut album, Gothenburg, Sweden’s Sambassadeur has struck me as underrated. Their streamlined synth-pop music, featuring the warm vocals of Anna Persson, fills a room with a distinct atmosphere, sweet and melancholy. Their third album refines that sound to the point that the change feels revelatory, even though it’s not that large of a shift. In a way it’s mostly about framing, the way they use piano and strings to give their music a romantic sweep, making it feel bigger and more enveloping. European began the year with this widescreen dose of hopefulness. The album has an overriding theme of moving forward and putting troubles of the past beyond you. It feels like a leap forward for the band as well.
The London band Allo Darlin’ is about as cute as pop bands come, with spunky little pop songs that say witty things about love, using Woody Allen as a reference point and weaving the chorus of a Weezer song into the fabric of their own song, via its characters singing it together on a ferris wheel. Clever, yes, but they also can be rather emotionally affecting. Sing along, clap along, and dance around your room, but as these things go, soon you’ll realize how much sadness there is in these songs, that many of the people in the songs are poor, lonely, and feeling lost, stumbling through life like we all do.
A Coming of Age
(Ruffa Lane; US: Import; UK: 19 Apr 2010)
A Coming of Age
Lucky Soul’s second album expands on the pop-and-soul sound, rooted in the 1960s, of their first. Again they are pros at playing big, bouncy, shiny music that contains a lot more sadness than you hear at first, and a lot more complexity. A Coming of Age pushes their sound in some new directions, with arrangements that are by turns dense and spare, matching the emotions of each song well. There is a lot of uncertainty, even fear, running through the album, apropos of our time. There are few pop bands around as capable of capturing in one moment the giddiness of new love and the monumental weight of heartbreak.