As a genre, indie pop is tailor-made for year-end list-making. It’s a genre that cherishes secrets and whispers and close-held truths, where listeners and musicians alike treat their favorite music as a part of their personality, feel like a melody alone can create a community or save a life.
2014 saw new releases from many cherished indie-pop bands of the past: Close Lobsters, the Wolfhounds, the Popguns, and a new band featuring members of Trembling Blue Stars. Boyracer returned, Lunchbox put out a new album and Comet Gain released another. Crayon got reissued, along with the Aislers Set, the Bluebells, the Jazzateers and NME’sC86 compilation. What year is this again?
This year you could immerse yourself back in the music of the original UK indie pop scene, or of its American antecedents. And you’d be happy and love life and find much great music to listen to. You also could listen strictly to new bands that sound very much like all of those bands, and be happy. Or better yet, why not do all of that and more?
I find it hard to see how any lover of indie-pop could find the field of choices lacking in 2014. There were new albums by legends of music, new bands with their own fresh variation on past styles, and great albums by established bands who either refined their approach or introduced a new, exciting twist on it. The ten albums I’m highlighting as the best of the year are packed with color, drama, grace, anguish, energy and the high and lows of the human experience.
Yet these albums were just the tip of the iceberg.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow
Sea When Absent
Some eight years after the group started, A Sunny Day in Glasgow seem to have stumbled upon greatness. Stumbled is an appropriate word for the sound of Sea When Absent, which is ever flowing all over the place, collecting sounds dreamy and scientific, tuneful and abstract. Yet you know the group labored over every last sound on the album—apparently through transcontinental emails, mainly. Nothing was done haphazardly. The beautiful chaos of their songs—which sometimes feel like deconstructed indie-pop, at least until everything falls into place and they feel like anthems—should be irresistible to fans of melodic pop, “shoegaze”, dream-pop, and the myriad variations on those.
How is it that Literature, with its spunky, melodic shuffles, can recall Sarah Records-style shy pop while also coming off like bright new stars-of-tomorrow, the would-be heroes of an indie-pop version of That Thing You Do? At the same time, the band stylistically evokes film noir, French New Wave films, and diaries and love letters never sent. Literatures wears its heart on its sleeves while hustling its way up the theoretical charts. The band’s second album Chorus offers a big sonic upgrade from its debut, and a polishing up and refining of its sound. Literature sells us an infectious mix of youthful energy and introspection that feels both classic and new.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Days of Abandon
On Days of Abandon, Kip Berman and his revamped lineup of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart stepped back away from the ‘90s alt-rock flirtations of 2011’s Belong towards something like a more refined rendition of the first album’s C86 fixations. Berman as always comes off like a supreme fan of everything indie-pop, and is getting better and better at channeling that into heartfelt, sensitive, layered creations of his own that bear, in sound, the sense of heightened righteousness of the group’s clunky moniker. Occasionally yielding the vocals to guest female singers, to great effect, Days of Abandon basks in a lush shyness that belies the bare desires lying underneath.
Architecture in Helsinki
Now + 4Eva
The pop sounds of the 1980s are running around out there in pop culture these days. But where someone like Taylor Swift is picking and choosing little synths sounds that evoke the 1980s, Architecture in Helsinki takes that sound and owns it on Now + 4Eva, turning the cheesiest dance hits of the ‘80s into its own fresh, new, future-leaning sound. That might seem counterintuitive, building future style out of the debris of stuff like Men Without Hats, but intuitive is exactly what it is. Kellie Sutherland emerges as an unlikely Madonna clone on tracks like “I Might Survive”, while Cameron Bird as ever leads the group towards some fanciful future of freedom and art. A song like “Boom (4EVA)” embodies the band’s generosity of spirit and the sense of forward motion the album maintains even when the sounds get close to retro. An astounding fact that I can’t let go unmentioned—I’ve struggled to find any even somewhat positive reviews of this album from critics, something that astounds me, especially when the album has me wrapped up inside my own head, in a Technicolor daydream of a dance party.
Fear of Men
A psychological drama/art film in the form of a tense but tender indie-pop album, Loom marks a dramatic entrance for the UK group Fear of Men into the hearts and minds of music lovers—at least, for those who weren’t already paying attention to its earlier singles, collected on 2013’s Early Fragments. Loom is an intense album of rumination and terror, but somehow sweet, too. Singer Jessica Weiss conveys that combination in her singing and in what she sings, in the emotional declarations that jump out from the imagery of being overtaken by water, of sinking under the weight of someone else, of fighting through your various selves. There’s a war going on here, but it might be all inside our own heads.
// Notes from the Road
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