[8 December 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Pop music is always in flux. Indie-pop seems especially so. In part it’s the way of the genre to be oriented towards the new. There’s always a hot new band that you must hear right now, whether their sound is already familiar or not. The flip side of that is how many musicians struggle to keep going. With indie-label pop music, we’re generally talking about small businesses, about people making music and people selling that music, without a corporate structure of support. The global economic hardships of the times inevitably hit musicians hard, and factor into how easy or difficult it is for them to keep going.
My indie-pop year 2009 was about young energy and autumnal melancholy, about the rush you feel when you first hear an exciting new band and the bittersweet feeling you get when your favorite band calls it quits. 2009 saw the Lucksmiths break up after 15 years or so, a sad moment for those of us who think they were one of the finest groups of our time. The Besties broke up; Free Loan Investments released a farewell EP; Pants Yell! released a great new album that they’ve said will likely be their last. The Clientele are saying similar things about their new album, which is appropriately an ode to autumn.
On the other hand, my favorite album of the year was a debut album, I was impressed all year by bands taking inspiration from the whole of pop music, and there are bands reuniting and keeping on all over the place. Another of my favorites this year—an album which expanded beyond the scope of ‘indie-pop’ but probably should have been on this list anyway—was Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs. They’ve been making music for 25 years.
On both sides of the equation, growth and departure, stand record labels. The label is a force that’s often overlooked in our download-everything era, but in the indie-pop world it’s important, curating as well as selling. The best indie labels of today recall the times when even the big successful labels had their own distinct personalities. You saw the label name and knew what to expect, and whether you should buy the record without hearing a note from it. Merge and Matador seem like mega-forces now, but both started on as small a scale as a label can. The former spent the whole year celebrating their 20 years. Both continue to release some of the best pop-rock music being made today. Slumberland also celebrated 20 years in 2009. Even though the label was absent some of those years, in 2009 they were omnipresent, not just for concerts showcasing their earliest bands, but for helping kickstart the careers of some of the most-talked-about new bands.
Meanwhile, plenty of other labels continue to be adventurous and steadfast, without as much hoopla. Darla, Labrador, Hush, Matinee, Home Tapes and many others keep releasing amazing recording after amazing recording. Their whole 2009 catalogues were in consideration for the list below, as were so many other musicians whose songs and sounds I’ve become taken with during the last year. It’s a sad day when your favorite band breaks up, but even sadder would be to give up ourselves, to stop paying attention to all the great un-famous or semi-famous musicians out there making intriguing and inspiring music.
“Tokyo Glasgow” is the first title, representing the geographical homebases of the two bands involved in the album, and also two musical sensibilities. The crossing point between the two is a hazy, pretty place, where the light catches your eye just so. A place of “Two Sunsets”, channeled into symphonic twee tunes and melancholy movie scores, plus a Jesus and Mary Chain cover (“About You”) and one brilliant summertime single, “Vivid Youth”, marked by vivid scene-setting and a rueful chorus: “Are we lost?” It, and this whole endeavor, is a meeting place between generations and locations, a pop conversation. Another instructional song title: “Start Slowly So We Sound Like a Loch”.
Islands tilts unabashedly back towards the 1980s, with a lush keyboards-and-guitar sound that makes the Mary Onettes sound like a less downbeat, more hopeful version of the Cure. That sound propels melodic pop-rock that, in its own low-key way, soars. Driving, if relatively slow-paced, drums and ringing guitars push a lost-in-thoughts/head-in-the-clouds atmosphere, while also maintaining the songs’ fresh, tuneful qualities. This is both more layered and more direct than their first LP, even more packed with hooks and contemplation, of love, aging, and the passing of time. I am getting older by the second, and this is the perfect soundtrack for every new wrinkle and gray hair.
As with labelmates Laura Gibson and Peter Broderick, to relegate Shelley Short to the category of folk music or singer-songwriter would be to ignore the imagination in her music. She approaches quiet music with the vocal style of a pop crooner and the perspective of a daydreaming child, seeing the world around as a place of mystery. A Cave, a Canoo beautifully captures that point of view, in moody songs riddled with strange angles and tones. Aglow with campfire and fireflies, lost in thoughts of death and birth, the album has a timeless quality that’s breathtaking, sounding new and old at once. The sound of the human voice, alone, is on display, within a fanciful but visceral setting that straddles lines between the adult and child worlds, animal and human worlds, the physical and the metaphysical.
The cover drawing of a razor blade captures the pain and self-evisceration that’s going on within this album, which on the surface is nothing but gorgeous innovation and blissed-out futuristic soundscapes. This has to be one of the prettiest-sounding harrowing break-up albums in recent years. It’s a staggering thing, in several ways at once. Sweet Trip have been around over 10 years now, and have three very different albums to show for it. Each has been more diverse, and better, than the one before it. Musically, You Will Never Know Why is even more filled with surprises than the others, while also the most thematically minded—the theme being a couple’s personal journey through darkness and confusion, towards a kind of acceptance. Even if, as the title indicates, solid answers can never come.
A song cycle of absolute devastation in the wake of love’s dissolution, Before You Left was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s A Man Alone, but no doubt truly inspired by real-life pain. There’s no other way someone could come up with an album this heartbreaking, that captures so well the feeling that you’re absolutely alone in the world, that all comfort and hope is gone forever. The brilliance here isn’t just how Roger Quigley, aka At Swim Two Birds, sings and writes that pain. It’s how he stretches it out over lush, sad, and beautiful loops of melody and sound. Guitars and synthesizers take a haunting tune and repeat towards what seems like infinity, replicating the prison our protagonist has found himself in, while also creating a gorgeous base for contemplation. It’s incredibly calming yet undoubtedly unsettling music at the same time.
It’s hard not to be excited when a great new band, filtering an intimate knowledge of pop music history through a lively sound, gets recognized and raved over. In the span of a year or so, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart went from playing to small audiences to selling out shows and appearing on late-night TV. As the year wore on and the flames of hype got thinner, their songs still shone brightly—snappy, fuzzy, immediate, with great melodies and witty sensitive-youth lyrics. They have obvious debts to the Pastels, Jesus and Mary Chain, a lot of Sarah Records bands, and other indie-pop legends, but they have their own charm and style. It’s impressive to hear a young band so in love with music and the rush it gives you, so able to convey that glorious rush while burying within it deep sadness.
Laptop whiz Jona Bechtolt, who has long run in indie-pop circles, boosted his electronic-music cred this year by signing YACHT to DFA. More importantly, YACHT, now a duo, took leaps and bounds in every direction on See Mystery Lights, their most focused, thoughtful, and invigorating recording yet. This is expansive, colorful pop music that takes as inspiration a freewheeling variety of musics, from ‘70s post-punk to ‘80s new wave, ambient mood to hip-hop. As philosophical as it is infectious, See Mystery Lights explores “what’s out there?” and “what’s next?” questions, while musically embodying that same boundless inquisitiveness. YACHT takes Bechtolt’s long-held interest in belief systems to new places, more thoughtful, touching, and rewarding. The epitome is one of the year’s best singles, “Psychic City (Voodoo City)”, an infectious mix of hope, skepticism, and belief.
The “pram town” of the title is Harlow, Essex, England, a planned community in commuting distance of London. The album isn’t entirely a loving ode to the place. Rather, it’s a critical look at the whole notion of planning communities. But it’s also an understanding look, an album-length story of people with their own hopes and dreams, who live out the differences between expectations and reality while also dreaming their own dreams of a more ideal life. And it’s gorgeous, a catchy pop album with an overly tuneful yet melancholy sheen. It’s a loving tapestry built of human stories, childhood memories, and contemplation of what places mean to us—the ways the romance of places butts against the reality of them. It’s bittersweet, funny, and touching, a human drama played out amidst lawns, motorways, and roundabouts. Hayman narrates with an eye for detail and a care for human weakness, but also doesn’t pull punches—“They built high rise towers / In medium sized towns / They didn’t stick around / To see the towers let us down”.
It’s no surprise that the Clientele consider autumn “the loveliest season”. Their music has always held a fascination with changing environments and the feelings they carry—light changing to dark, mirrors reflecting, seconds ticking by. They manage to tie those times of uncertainty to a feeling of strangeness, here as well or better than ever before. Songs like the title track, “Harvest Time”, and “Tonight” feel like they could roll on forever, while evoking specific surroundings and holding us still for a particular moment. Within this autumnal setting are people looking for each other, losing each other, and wondering about each other, and by relation themselves. We begin on the dance floor, where identities morph in time with the beat, and end walking in the park “on a dying afternoon”. If this is indeed their last album, as they’re saying it probably will be, then it may well stand as their finest moment. It contains their most beautiful songs, fully realizing the ideas and song-forms they’ve explored throughout their existence.
I have instant skepticism towards bands that are hyped too much, and am instantly protective of bands who are backlashed against too strongly. That should make me a yo-yo in this case, but I heard Girls before all that started, and was won over right away. Across their album, titled with awareness, they’re pulling templates from various periods of pop music to have a go with them: the teen-idol love ballad (“Laura”), the anthem for lost youth (“Lust for Life”), shoegaze (“Morning Light”), the come-hither romantic interlude (“Headache”), the summer of love theme song (“Summertime”), drag race/surf anthems (“Big Bad Mean Motherfucker”). With every moody guitar part and contortion of Christopher Owens’s singing voice, they put their own weird, playful, dramatic, epic stamp on each song type. Their lyrics are simple in a classically pop way, and not afraid to be dumb (always a plus). The way they pull our strings exemplifies the star-listener dynamic, the way music makes us feel. At the same time, they’re always commenting on that action, on how a singer makes us feel like we can express ourselves better. For example, “Every time I hear you sing / I love love love you.” Or even better: “I knew it when I heard it the first time / I knew it when I heard it the last time / ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.”