[5 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
This year’s Cherry Red boxset Scared to Get Happy: A Story of Indie-Pop 1980-1989 served as a reminder, in case you needed one, that “indie-pop” is a genre, in historical terms: the ragtag, individualistic style of melodic guitar-pop that grew out of post-punk in the UK. In 2013, indie-pop in one sense still means bands rooted in that sound and its offshoots, in the C86 scene, Sarah Records, etc. It’s also bands and scenes from the U.S. and elsewhere, associated with their own somewhat unrelated DIY scenes/movements leaning pop—meaning, in a sense, directed away from the macho/agro trappings of rock, but often using the same instruments.
This year, “indie-pop” was used by publications (including this one) as a descriptor for all types of music that I wouldn’t think of that way, from the pseudo-folk glee of the Lumineers to the cutesy affected music in Target ads. It’s become a catch-all descriptor of cute indie-ish music.
My personal definition of indie-pop is a mix of the historical one and a more intuitive sense for what feels like “pop” within the world of relatively non-corporate, home-crafted “indie” music. A focus on melody and harmony is a baseline trait, but I also find myself drawn to music with a sense of melancholy about the world, even within sentiments that are surface-level happy. Also, it’s music that conveys to listeners a feeling of intimacy, an impression of open-heartedness, of personalization—an approach which often pairs well with the daydreams of obsessive music fans (yes, so often indie-pop can be music about music). To use a phrase from the top album on this list, it can feel like “secret music” meant for our ears only, and at the same time like we’re being pulled into a community.
In some ways, this insularity and the aesthetics of indie-pop can be seen as reactionary. A type of response to the dominant goings-on in the world—war, corporatization, speed, narcissism, fashion. That can manifest itself in engagement sometimes, but perhaps more often in escape into a comforting embrace of sounds and melodies. Slowness, gentleness, sensitivity aren’t necessarily valued by the dominant culture.
This year’s batch of albums seems in some ways obsessed with the elemental things, with human relationships, the matter that makes up the world around us—light, air, the sun and moon—and the ways the two poetically relate within us. The heart-weather connection, perhaps.
Putting all 117 song titles in a row shows several common threads in titles alone; shared interests in hearts (“My Heart Beats”, “Check My Heart”, Our Hearts Beat Out Loud), in asking direct questions of another (“What Took You So Long?”, “Would You Be There?”, “Are You Kissing Anyone?”), and in the changing seasons (“Into the Sun”, “In the Winter Sun”, “Summer Rain”, “Seasons Change”, “Feel Winter”). Musically, those obsessions lead not just to tenderness and beauty, but also a sort of elegant, well-dressed, sophisticated minimalism.
One of a few bands on this list that comes from an earlier era, the UK band the Proctors last released an album in 1995, with a slightly different lineup. Their sound gives it away maybe—this type of dreamy guitar-pop isn’t as in fashion today. What’s remarkable about Everlasting Light isn’t just that they play a particular, somewhat familiar style very well—it’s that for about an hour these songs erase all notions of influence and familiarity from our brains, dropping us into an immersive, tuneful place where someone is singing softly to us about love, often in a deceptively optimistic way that soothes us even as we know everything is wrong.
Young smart asses from Kansas City, singing about xannies, Television, Machete, record stores, and friends with more highfalutin’ jobs—and doing it in a hyper-melodic, hyper-friendly way. It’s pop-rock that’s giddy and at the same time self-deprecating, an approach they instigated on their 2011 debut Stona Rosa, but elevate on this, their sophomore album. As upbeat as they make indecision sound, they also aren’t afraid to slow down and expose fragility, always with a certain amount of tongue in cheek. They also aren’t afraid to mess around with standard guitar-band formulas, like on their disco-ish, fake-Barry-White-looking “Lover Yeah”, which ends the album.
8Jim Ruiz Set
Fourteen years since his last album, Jim Ruiz returns with a reconfigured group, now Jim Ruiz Set instead of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group. Yet that gap, with the re-emergence of his musical persona, makes it feel just as legendary, or more so. This third album falls in line with the other two, which means his approach to pop is a bit eclectic, with jazzy leanings and the 1960s hanging in the air, musically, along with a couple vehicles more representative of the ‘70s (“Volkswagon Vanagon”, “Schwinn Continental”). It’s a romantic album, in atmosphere and demeanor, even while one of its chief subjects is the dissolution of love.
Perhaps the closest to a proper rock band on this list, Veronica Falls nonetheless deal in snappy melodies and harmonies that hide an immense interest in human frailty and hurt. Their second album finds a certain romance in disillusionment and despair, in people who see themselves as broken toys, who feel like they should be buried alive. Roxanne Clifford’s voice in particular carries those feelings almost no matter what’s she singing. At the same time, the band plays these songs as inclusive anthems, asking the audience to bask in feeling the same way.
6Amor de Días
The graceful, underrated collaboration between indie-pop heroes Alasdair Maclean (the Clientele) and Lupe Núñez-Fernández (Pipas) continues in a patient, dedicated way on their second album The House at Sea. That title image is a central one from an album filled with images of the sea, the sun, the air, rain, and wind. There’s a sense of loss, of fading away, within these songs, but also sensory experiences, of the way our surroundings influence, and are refracted through, our mood. The sensory side comes through too in the sounds of guitar strings and their voices, in the pleasure they take in bittersweet melodies and words.
It’s been six years since the last album from the Blow, the electro-pop/philosophical-pop project of Khaela Maricich (now a duo with Melissa Dyne). The passage of time hasn’t greatly altered her musical approach, but it has apparently given her time to further refine and focus it. That’s a theme among the artists in this list—time between albums, but also consistency, or even growth, through that time. The Blow as a title is obviously re-introductory, but rightfully so. The album is the most coherent, fulfilling statement yet from Maricich, whose skill at social analysis and unique outlook on the world is fully on display – over bright dance beats, of course.
From the quieter side of pop comes the UK group Lorna, built around the vocal harmonies of husband-and-wife Mark and Sharon Cohen-Rolfe. Heart of Wire, like their previous three albums, has a sense of slow-motion to it, a sense of being out of step with the world around them. At the same time, the music is especially well-timed, the singers and instruments notably in sync. This one is more elaborately arranged than the others, and is extra beautiful and moving for it, mainly because of that quality of careful calibration, of being engineered for emotional effect, especially for those of us predisposed to enjoy patient, pretty music.
3Saturday Looks Good to Me
Fred Thomas’ group Saturday Looks Good to Me has been around since 1999, but has shifted in lineup and style a few times. Always at the center is Thomas’ classicist approach to songwriting and production, what often gets him referred to as a DIY Phil Spector or a one-man Brill Building. Just as persistent is his ability to write melodies for female singers to inhabit. One Kiss Ends It All, the group’s first album in six years, returns both to the center while keeping the music feeling current in outlook. The songs are about the world around us, the future, even, for human relationships and human communities. It’s a bit apocalyptic, but hopeful, with a bounty of sad but somehow energizing tunes.
2Math and Physics Club
On their third album, Math and Physics Club have perfected what has always been their strongest trait: economy. In the lyrics, the tunes, the instruments…they have a way of keeping everything within their melodic pop songs lean, even elemental, and bowling you over with that simplicity. The songs are, unsurprisingly, love songs, but as always that mean many things. Many sweet things are said from one person to another, but they always carry the sense that they’ve been earned, aren’t frivolous, and didn’t come easily. There seems a legion of stories within these songs—of nights, days, and bumps in the road—but the stories aren’t all told. Instead what we’ll get is a catchy melody, sparsely sung, carrying an economically worded, yet emotionally overwhelming sentiment. There’s also an overriding love for pop music here—a memory is inevitably tied to the song that was playing on the radio, which is how we all live, right?
Many of the groups on this list have been around awhile, but the Pastels have them all beat —they formed in Glasgow in 1981, over 30 years ago. It might not be unrelated that Slow Summits carries not the ragtag creativity of their earliest songs, but a more rounded, seasoned sort of tender approach that takes its time and doesn’t unleash all its pop pleasures at once. Over the last decades, they’ve been working on atmosphere as often as songcraft; here the two pursuits come together beautifully, making the album feel like an august culmination of their whole career. There still are spunky bursts of romantic energy, but also wide-eyed, slow-motion looks and listens around. The album has both some of their most immediate, memorable melodies and the prettiest stretches of impeccably arranged music. “Check My Heart” is in my brain as perhaps the iconic single of 2013; the album has pleasures that stretch far beyond it.