Indie-pop isn’t a genre. It’s hard to make a strident (if inevitably misguided) effort to argue for the genre’s purity, the way you can try to do with, say, jazz, country, blues or hip-hop. It’s more a category than a genre. What I mean by it is music that leans pop, versus leaning rock, that’s made relatively outside of the mainstream/corporate recording industry… trying, for reasons of philosophy or necessity, to operate on a smaller scale. As such, it’s harder to generalize about the year in indie-pop; there is always, and I imagine will always be, an immense number of musicians operating under this category. Writing about the best indie-pop seems inherently an individualized, personal experience—but that is fitting for a type of music that on one level seems more person-oriented than mass-movement-oriented.
The indie-pop music I loved this year is intimate and person-focused enough that a lot of it could perhaps rightly be qualified as singer-songwriter music, though it evades the tropes and traps associated with that phrase. It’s also predominantly music in love with the history, style, and craft of pop music—so much so that many of these albums are easily considered music about music, or more precisely music in love with our collective and personal love for music. There were a bounty of songs this year, on this list or not, that through sound, lyrics, or both conveyed a fascination with the power that songs hold over us. As the last song on the #1 album on this list puts it, “A record is not just a record.” Dave Heaton
High Water Marks
Pretending to Be Loud
On the surface you might consider this rock music, with loud guitars and drums coming fast at you. And it probably is. But beneath that this music is absolutely pop, with the hyper-catchy melodies, sunny disposition and sweetness that the word implies. Hilarie Sidney—one half of the group, with Per Ole Bratset—sings as powerfully barely-there as she did back in her days with the Apples in Stereo, and I’d be lying if I acted like this band doesn’t sound a fair amount like that one did in their earliest days. Feedback is high, and used more as a stylistic accent to the tunes than an end in itself. They are Pretending to Be Loud, after all, even as they engage your eardrums.
Reading Too Much into Things Like Everything
On the one hand, this UK group is impeccably retro in its girl-group sound, even more so than like-minded groups (Lucky Soul, Camera Obscura). Yet their way of getting down to the basics of the style can lead to interesting results. The songs get end up feeling weightier than bubblegum even when you know they’re just silly love songs. Or perhaps they’re just reminding us, yet again, that bubblegum music is almost always more than bubblegum; that form and content are one and the same; and that a pretty voice singing over pretty music about the enduring power for the human heart never gets old. I love that a song titled “Why Do You Have to Break My Heart Again?” leads right into “Baby, Won’t You Stay With Me Tonight?”, for example.
Square of Opposition
January 1st or so, this album came out with a rush of fresh energy. It’s a garage-band vesion of indie-pop: uptempo guitar-based pop songs, about love and whatnot, with clever turns of phrase galore, fitting a general film noir scene, from the spy diffusing a bomb which starts the LP to grifters and young criminals. This Austin-based group has spirit and spunk as they sing about the pains and fun of life as a young person. Their songs are short, to the point, and on fire, not unlike the Ramones (who also were essentially a pop band, come to think of it).
A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes
Jon DeRosa has played ambient drone music and country-folk, but his latest and probably best LP is pop in a Frank Sinatra/Johnny Hartman way. But it’s also informed by atmospheric, dreamy pop of the likes of the Blue Nile (who gets covered here) and by NYC literary pop wordsmiths like Stephin Merritt and LD Beghtol (also covered). It’s music for late nights at bars, when the night is threatening to give way to day and you’re surrounded by people as confused and lonely as you are. There’s romance to it, and sadness. Both are projected elegantly by DeRosa, whose smooth narrating takes us from vampires to “Teenage Goths” to tattoo parlors—swooning all the way, next to immaculate strings and horns.
One Happy Island
The Purpose of the Surface
If this Boston-based group’s first album, 2010’s One Happy Island, felt a bit all over the map, willing to deviate from any standard indie-pop script, its second album The Purpose of the Surface is downright circus-like in tone, and not just because of the kazoos and ukuleles. It includes in its 17-song scope a tropical paradise song with serious shades of Hawaii, a cute and slightly atonal song about bad dates in L.A., a showtuney song about the cool girl in class who throws insults around, one about a broken toe, some jazzy moments, some folk-y ones and an a capella group sing-along delivered in a phony accent. You can get wrapped up in the sheer fun of all that’s going on and in having a ball, and then you’ll get sideswept, knocked full over, by an emotional juggernaut about unrequited love—not just one but several of them.