The Best Indie-Pop of 2013

In 2013, the best indie-pop felt like "secret music" meant for our ears only and, at the same time, like we're being pulled into a community.

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.

Artist: The Proctors

Album: Everlasting Light

Label: Shelflife


Display as: List

Display Width: 200

List number: 10

The Proctors
Everlasting Light

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.

Artist: The ACBs

Album: Little Leaves

Label: High Dive


Display as: List

Display Width: 200

List number: 9

The ACBs
Little Leaves

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.

Artist: Jim Ruiz Set

Album: Mount Curve Avenue

Label: Shelflife


Display as: List

Display Width: 200

List number: 8

Jim Ruiz Set
Mount Curve Avenue

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.

Artist: Veronica Falls

Album: Waiting for Something to Happen

Label: Slumberland


Display as: List

Display Width: 200

List number: 7

Veronica Falls
Waiting for Something to Happen

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.

Artist: Amor de Días

Album: The House at Sea

Label: Merge


Display as: List

Display Width: 200

List number: 6

Amor de Días
The House at Sea

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.

Next Page

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.