The Best Indie Pop of 2014

It's hard to see how any lover of indie pop could find the field of choices lacking in 2014, a year when the top ten albums are just the tip of the iceberg.

As a genre, indie pop is tailor-made for year-end list-making. It’s a genre that cherishes secrets and whispers and close-held truths, where listeners and musicians alike treat their favorite music as a part of their personality, feel like a melody alone can create a community or save a life.

2014 saw new releases from many cherished indie-pop bands of the past: Close Lobsters, the Wolfhounds, the Popguns, and a new band featuring members of Trembling Blue Stars. Boyracer returned, Lunchbox put out a new album and Comet Gain released another. Crayon got reissued, along with the Aislers Set, the Bluebells, the Jazzateers and NME’sC86 compilation. What year is this again?

This year you could immerse yourself back in the music of the original UK indie pop scene, or of its American antecedents. And you’d be happy and love life and find much great music to listen to. You also could listen strictly to new bands that sound very much like all of those bands, and be happy. Or better yet, why not do all of that and more?

I find it hard to see how any lover of indie-pop could find the field of choices lacking in 2014. There were new albums by legends of music, new bands with their own fresh variation on past styles, and great albums by established bands who either refined their approach or introduced a new, exciting twist on it. The ten albums I’m highlighting as the best of the year are packed with color, drama, grace, anguish, energy and the high and lows of the human experience.

Yet these albums were just the tip of the iceberg.


Artist: A Sunny Day in Glasgow

Album: Sea When Absent

Label: Lefse

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List Number: 10

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A Sunny Day in Glasgow
Sea When Absent

Some eight years after the group started, A Sunny Day in Glasgow seem to have stumbled upon greatness. Stumbled is an appropriate word for the sound of Sea When Absent, which is ever flowing all over the place, collecting sounds dreamy and scientific, tuneful and abstract. Yet you know the group labored over every last sound on the album — apparently through transcontinental emails, mainly. Nothing was done haphazardly. The beautiful chaos of their songs — which sometimes feel like deconstructed indie-pop, at least until everything falls into place and they feel like anthems — should be irresistible to fans of melodic pop, “shoegaze”, dream-pop, and the myriad variations on those.


Artist: Literature

Album: Chorus

Label: Slumberland

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List Number: 9

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How is it that Literature, with its spunky, melodic shuffles, can recall Sarah Records-style shy pop while also coming off like bright new stars-of-tomorrow, the would-be heroes of an indie-pop version of That Thing You Do? At the same time, the band stylistically evokes film noir, French New Wave films, and diaries and love letters never sent. Literatures wears its heart on its sleeves while hustling its way up the theoretical charts. The band’s second album Chorus offers a big sonic upgrade from its debut, and a polishing up and refining of its sound. Literature sells us an infectious mix of youthful energy and introspection that feels both classic and new.


Artist: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Album: Days of Abandon

Label: Yebo

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List Number: 8

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The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Days of Abandon

On Days of Abandon, Kip Berman and his revamped lineup of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart stepped back away from the ’90s alt-rock flirtations of 2011’s Belong towards something like a more refined rendition of the first album’s C86 fixations. Berman as always comes off like a supreme fan of everything indie-pop, and is getting better and better at channeling that into heartfelt, sensitive, layered creations of his own that bear, in sound, the sense of heightened righteousness of the group’s clunky moniker. Occasionally yielding the vocals to guest female singers, to great effect, Days of Abandon basks in a lush shyness that belies the bare desires lying underneath.


Artist: Architecture in Helsinki

Album: Now + 4Eva

Label: Casual Workout

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List Number: 7

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Architecture in Helsinki
Now + 4Eva

The pop sounds of the 1980s are running around out there in pop culture these days. But where someone like Taylor Swift is picking and choosing little synths sounds that evoke the 1980s, Architecture in Helsinki takes that sound and owns it on Now + 4Eva, turning the cheesiest dance hits of the ’80s into its own fresh, new, future-leaning sound. That might seem counterintuitive, building future style out of the debris of stuff like Men Without Hats, but intuitive is exactly what it is. Kellie Sutherland emerges as an unlikely Madonna clone on tracks like “I Might Survive”, while Cameron Bird as ever leads the group towards some fanciful future of freedom and art. A song like “Boom (4EVA)” embodies the band’s generosity of spirit and the sense of forward motion the album maintains even when the sounds get close to retro. An astounding fact that I can’t let go unmentioned — I’ve struggled to find any even somewhat positive reviews of this album from critics, something that astounds me, especially when the album has me wrapped up inside my own head, in a Technicolor daydream of a dance party.


Artist: Fear of Men

Album: Loom

Label: Kanine

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List Number: 6

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Fear of Men

A psychological drama/art film in the form of a tense but tender indie-pop album, Loom marks a dramatic entrance for the UK group Fear of Men into the hearts and minds of music lovers — at least, for those who weren’t already paying attention to its earlier singles, collected on 2013’s Early Fragments. Loom is an intense album of rumination and terror, but somehow sweet, too. Singer Jessica Weiss conveys that combination in her singing and in what she sings, in the emotional declarations that jump out from the imagery of being overtaken by water, of sinking under the weight of someone else, of fighting through your various selves. There’s a war going on here, but it might be all inside our own heads.

5 – 1

Artist: Nicholas Krgovich

Album: On Sunset

Label: NK World Service

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Nicholas Krgovich
On Sunset

In On Sunset, underrated pop maestro Nicholas Krgovich — of P:ano, No Kids, and Gigi — has produced a blissed-out, orchestral-pop travelogue/portrait of life in Los Angeles. The shine of Hollywood is in this album’s blood; it’s in the sound, even while the characters are lonely and troubled. “There’s something happening across town without me again,” he sings at one point (about the Oscars). On another song, he sits in traffic on the highway. Yet he makes loneliness, isolation within a shining city, sound dressed-to-the-nines fabulous. If the roots of Krgovich’s songwriting sometimes seems to live in a Stephin Merritt/Cole Porter/Brill Building world, here he’s also firmly in the grip of modern pop and R&B sounds. Some songs engage in dreamy floating, in a slow-motion haze, like the textures from the background of a pop hit have risen off to form their own air. The sound of On Sunset overall perfectly jibes with the aura of glamour and mystery about the album, and with the longings of the people behind the sheen.


Artist: Allo Darlin’

Album: We Come from the Same Place

Label: Slumberland

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List Number: 4

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Allo Darlin’
We Come from the Same Place

Allo Darlin’s third album follows an emerging love affair across the globe, from a Spanish bar to a dusty university town to airports and family homes, collecting thematically related side storylines along the way (a friend in a New York City apartment getting over a breakup, a memory of kissing Juicy-Fruit-touched lips in a swimming pool). While lacking some of the anguished urgency of 2012’s Europe (a modern-day classic), it in some ways weaves its story even more completely, utilizing winning melodies and Elizabeth Morris’ unrivaled ability for observational songwriting and expressive singing. If on Europe, our protagonist seemed to be searching for a home, here she’s chasing love, the hope of a specific, perfect love. The promise that tomorrow will be better than today, that we can feel embraced and supported within a chaotic, disappointing world. It’s an age-old tale, again made fresh. The title exemplifies a moment familiar from romantic films — meeting someone and feeling like you’ve met them before, like you come from the same place. But it also speaks to the way Allo Darlin’s songs hit us, the ability they have to hit on universal feelings and moments that transcend place and time.


Artist: The Happy Couple

Album: Into the Woods

Label: Felicite

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The Happy Couple
Into the Woods

The German/British duo the Happy Couple can do straight-up indie-pop, and it has done it before: jaunty melodic tunes with a sunny/melancholy tone. Take that as a base but then throw it into the woods — the confusing, meandering woods of love and life — and you have Into the Woods, the duo’s first proper album. (However, its first single came out over a decade ago.) The music on Into the Woods might be described by some with the F word (folk) or the A word (art), yet it is also sparkling pop music through and through. Musically, the album wanders from Stereloab-ish groovy harmonic numbers to straight-up piano ballads to off-key forays into weird visions. Lovers come together and separate, obsess over each other and then beseech and torment each other. Confessions are made, anguished letters are written but not sent, and beautiful hymns are sung, odes to love and loss and sweetness and confusion. “Let’s drive into the woods” is the final chorus. Yes, let’s.


Artist: The Icypoles

Album: My World Was Made for You

Label: Lost and Lonesome Recording Co.

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The Icypoles
My World Was Made for You

On their debut LP, the Australian quartet the Icypoles offer sing-songy chants over minimalist instrumentation. The music lives at the crossroads of kids singing taunts to each other on the playground; ’50s backing vocalists swinging on sounds like “na na” and “sha sha” and “oh yeah”; female motorcycle gangs breaking into song, à la Grease; parents making up lullabies to settle their babies down; and the dreamy vocal-chant territory the Raincoats got into when drawing from the same. This is a world where simplicity is complexity, where two voices in harmony over a drumbeat or barely-there bassline can be enough to provide your imagination. And just when the dreaminess of it all starts feeling like Twin Peaks, they cover a song from the show — not one of Julee Cruise’s sleepwalking waltzes, but the odd love song leather-jacket-wearing James sang in an unlikely falsetto. It says something about the Icypoles’ vision of pop music that they sing that and Martika’s “Love Thy Will Be Done”, imbuing both with quiet beauty and mystery. The vanity, sweetness and fleeting nature of love is present throughout My World Was Made for You.


Artist: Sylvan Esso

Album: Sylvan Esso

Label: Partisan

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Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso

One of the most exhilarating variations on pop music formulas this year came from a North Carolina-based duo taking a singer’s freewheeling melodies and poetic musings, and wedding them to playful, impulsive, dreamy hip-hop beats and grooves. The reference points are more varied than any other album on this list — with musical allusions to James Brown and Tommy James & the Shondells, and lyrics somewhere between John Muir-like nature writing, feminist criticism, and inner monologues about human desires and impulses. Yet in the end it presents one cohesive sound and one compelling vision of what music can do to listeners. That is: make them dance, think and feel, and take them on a ride — one with surprising rushes of energy, all-consuming atmosphere, phrases that jump out and mystify — at the same time. Sylvan Esso started as an experiment. That feeling is inherent in the music, in all the best ways, yet overall it feels not like the work of a side-project, but the pronouncement of a major new act.