The Best Indie-Pop of 2012

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

 

Artist: High Water Marks

Album: Pretending to Be Loud

Label: Jigsaw

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List Number: 10

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.

 

Artist: The School

Album: Reading Too Much into Things Like Everything

Label: Elefant

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List Number: 9

The School
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.

 

Artist: Literature

Album: Arab Spring

Label: Square of Opposition

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List Number: 8

Literature
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).

 

Artist: Jon DeRosa

Album: A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes

Label: Mother West/Rocket Girl

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List Number: 7

Jon DeRosa
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.

 

Artist: One Happy Island

Album: The Purpose of the Surface

Label: Odd Box

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List Number: 6

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.

5 – 1

Artist: Jens Lekman

Album: I Know What Love Isn’t

Label: Secretly Canadian

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List Number: 5

Jens Lekman
I Know What Love Isn’t

I Know What Love Isn’t is very clearly a breakup album, yet one that seems more about learning from the experience than wallowing in regret. In other words, he beats himself up as much as he does his ex. As always, Jens Lekman has his own unique way of approaching familiar material, his own observational and confessional sense of storytelling that avoids the clichés usually found in those approaches. This album is united, musically and thematically, in a way that makes it feel very much like an album. Across songs it uses instrumental arrangements in a scaled-back and elegant way, letting Lekman sound even more the crooner than usual while keeping a consistency in atmosphere and tone that makes his more somber-than-usual words start affecting us deeply by about the halfway point (“She Just Don’t Want to Be with You Anymore”), growing towards serious tear-jerker mode, and unsentimentally so, by the album’s finale.

 

Artist: Tennis

Album: Young and Old

Label: Fat Possum

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List Number: 4

Tennis
Young and Old

“It All Feels the Same”, the first song is titled, but it doesn’t. Where their acclaimed, nautical-themed debut Cape Dory (2011) felt at times thin and cutesy in a prototypical indie-pop way, their second album blows that sound up and expands the color palette, adding more life, body, and emotional depth to their already catchy and appealing pop. It’s colorful dancefloor music (in a Saint Etienne meets Luscious Jackson in the 1950s way), but also in our heads, filling them with weighty questions and feelings. A song will start out like a lark, feeling free and easy, and then it gets to worrying about the inadequacy of words to carry meaning, about the legacy we’re all leaving our children, and about crushed dreams.

 

Artist: The Smittens

Album: Believe Me

Label: Fika

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List Number: 3

The Smittens
Believe Me

The perennially under-noticed Smittens of Vermont keep getting better, to those of us not turned off by their unabashed sentimentality or their love for cute bubblegum pop melody and barbershop quartet/Beach Boys sing-alongs. None of these should be mistaken for corniness or ignorance of the world around them. These songs are thoroughly connected to the world, the complexity and pain of it, and how we negotiate our lives and loves within it. Lusty dance-pop sits near sweet love letters and humorous looks at aging. With a punk spirit of go-for-it-all, they sing about staying positive and yourself within our times. The album’s titular credo comes from a song with a title so straightforward it could describe the whole of pop music: “Sometimes People Get Sad”. At the album’s end, when they proclaim that next year will be the year we want it to be, we believe them.

 

Artist: Advance Base

Album: A Shut-In’s Prayer

Label: Caldo Verde

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List Number: 2

Advance Base
A Shut-In’s Prayer

This year Owen Ashworth followed up his 13 years as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone with the first Advance Base album. It’s not radically different — still Ashworth talk/singing his way through smart, often funny songs about loneliness, mainly to keyboards — but at the same time is quite different than the fuller pop sound that Casiotone for the Painfully Alone had ended up with. He’s scaled everything back to a minimalist level, using extremely simple yet surprisingly emotional melody lines played on keyboard with minimal accompaniment, some light percussion mainly. The simplicity accentuates the emotion in his small stories about living a quiet, solitary life, dealing with neighbors, reminiscing about childhood and getting bittersweet about his siblings and their relationships. It’s a powerful little album with a wintery mood that conceals legions of stories and feelings.

 

Artist: Allo Darlin’

Album: Europe

Label: Slumberland/Fortuna Pop

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List Number: 1

Allo Darlin’
Europe

Allo Darlin’s early singles and first album were great, but the utility of the music was always limited somewhat by the emphasis on being clever (see “Henry Rollins Don’t Dance”, “Heartbeat Chili”, etc.). With its timely recurring theme of feeling homeless and lost amid a creeping global crisis and its focus on celebrating and replicating the emotional hold a simple song can have over people — not to mention the better harmonies, more mature song structures, and fuller sound — Europe is a stunning leap forward. Elizabeth Morris sings in a disarming way about the ups and downs of life, within generally hopeful songs that at the same time manage to vividly depict feelings of disconnect and confusion. Europe is exactly the sort of record that the group’s own songs describe, one that never really leaves you once you’ve heard it and will likely to be considered a treasured companion by many of those who do.

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