Indie-pop has become such a wide-ranging descriptor used to describe everything from cutesy, Target-ad-ready tunes full of sickly-cute, faux-happy tunes to rough-and-rugged DIY stuff soaked in noise and the smoldering embers of punk. The “indie” part of it still seems relevant, as an artistic signifier and perhaps an economic one, even as the world has moved beyond the importance of the latter, taking for granted their globalized corporate reality.
In 2015 a broad range of significant music could be considered “indie pop” through some lense. Yet for this list I’ve set aside music that might be most likely placed under another easily recognized musical genre—for example, the most punk-leaning, country-leaning or R&B-leaning ‘indie’ acts. As it turns out, that may have meant I’ve set aside wide-ranging eclecticism, in favor of a more focused, idiosyncratic creative approach. This list is still full of torment, strangeness and extreme emotion, but generally speaking it’s within a comforting realm of melody-based pop. There’s a lot of atmosphere, many gorgeous guitar or synth passages, and—alas—plenty of infatuation, self-doubt and heartbreak.
The comforting side of the music represented here is deceptive. Within a lovely demeanor, there’s a lot of mystery, desire, fear, worry and even evil thoughts. The album in the #1 spot is essentially a horror movie in indie-pop form.
In 2015 there were a lot of familiar, heavy-hitters who put out amazing music beyond what appears on this list. Belle & Sebastian released a ninth album which felt like a brilliant summation of everything they’ve done to date, even though it (oddly) was greeted by critics as a one-off stylistic diversion. The second solo album from Sarah Cracknell of St Etienne bested the first, 18 years later. Yo La Tengo brought Dave Schramm back for a minimalist, really beautiful sequel to Fakebook. Christopher Owens of Girls did a surprise release that wasn’t perfect, purposely, but had some gorgeous retro-current pop-rock numbers. Momus’ Turpsycore was a truly eccentric three-disc set, two of them tributes to other eccentrics (David Bowie and Howard Devoto). Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey of Talulah Gosh/Heavenly returned as the beautifully low-key the Catenary Wives. Darren Hayman released an album of socialist chants, a delicate, intimate solo work and the beginnings of a musical travelogue through small English towns. Seapony released a super-consistent third album and then broke up.
Some of the ten albums I settled on were by musicians who have been making music for a long time, though on the whole they feel more under the radar to me. A few are debuts. There is a lot of overlap among them, in terms of both musical influences and lyrical themes. There are recurring appearances by the Dunedin Sound, brevity, the changing of the seasons, city vs. country life and the spectre of childhood that hangs over our adult lives, carrying within it promises of innocence, feelings of hope and memories of horrible things.
All of Something
The second album from the Ohio-based band SPORTS reminds me of so much great noise-soaked female-fronted indie music of the ‘90s. First-person narratives with titles like “Getting On in Spite of You” that channel disappointment and hurt into high-powered, angry but incredibly tuneful anthems. It feels 100 times less retro than a lot of the more acclaimed bands working in this general terrain, while still conjuring up memories in my brain of late nights watching loud bands play in basements. It’s likely that few of those bands from my memories generated as many great melodies as SPORTS cram into under 30 minutes.
All Odds End
The Mantles are one of three bands on this list that can readily be described as sounding like New Zealand bands like the Clean, the Bats, the Chills, et cetera. It’s a great sound to emulate. Hailing from San Francisco, they populate their third album with impeccable jangle-pop melodies powered by restrained but driven energy. There are a lot of bittersweet sentiments, expressed by the songs’ narrator or projected onto others. Often those feelings are embodied by an image, like the person “standing in a doorframe all day.” That general air of melancholy makes an impression beyond the surface. But the songs themselves are above all else showcases for melodies and the power to drive them into our brains.
The Hermit Crabs
In My Flat
Over about nine years now the Hermit Crabs have released some great EPs and now two great albums. They may sound like a band, but it’s essentially Melanie Whittle of Glasgow, Scotland, and whoever is making music with her at the time. For this eight-song album, that “whoever” lives in Boise, Idaho: Jeremy Jensen and Jake Hite of the Very Most. Their diverse contributions do give this a different feeling than past Hermit Crabs records, but at the center of it all is Whittle’s singing and songs. Here there’s one letter to a loudmouth and then seven songs to get to the real heart of the matter: heartbreak’s aftermath. Feeling like a fool, feeling like a sculpture who’s alone at home doing nothing in particular, feeling confused and regretful and sad and like you have more time on hand than you want to. All of that is articulated cleverly and sweetly, within great little bouncy, fun and bittersweet indie-pop songs.
There’s probably nothing entirely new within the musical DNA of Stuttering Steps’ self-titled debut, but it’s a glorious, deeply rewarding dive through classic guitar-pop sounds. In particular, it recalls New Zealand bands from Flying Nun records, Luna/Galaxie 500 and a slightly rockier Ladybug Transistor. I thought of those before knowing Dean Wareham plays a solo on one song and Jeff Baron of the latter band’s in the band. The ‘band’ here is mostly one person, Ben Harrison of Pittsburgh, PA. His songs are perfect slices of atmosphere that in lyrics and sound reflect a voice expressing recognizable truths to us, if not always pretty ones. The songs themselves are pretty, in an expansive, riding-a-guitar-rhythm-to-conjure-endless-mood sort of way.
Before the World Was Big
The drummerless LA duo Girlpool had me early on in one listen to Before the World Was Big. It might have been when they titled a song “Dear Nora”, and then by the next track reminded me again of the brilliance of Dear Nora the band and the unreported but I believe massive influence they’ve had on the current crop of DIY indie-pop acts. With guitars, bass and two perfectly anxious voices, they deliver hushed, raw, intimate expressions of worry about life that make the title and title track, expressly about the feeling of being a child, seem appropriate for the whole beautiful endeavor. “I am nervous for tomorrow and today”, they declare on one song, and it’s hard not to nod in understanding..