The Best Indie Pop of 2008

Lately I’ve lost patience with the insatiable hunt for groundbreaking new sounds. Maybe it’s because I turned 35. Or maybe it’s because I witness so much innovation-hunting among music fans that I’m thinking more than I used to about how most of these ‘earth-shatteringly new’ bands don’t seem all that new. And when they do sound like nothing I’ve heard before, that isn’t always a good thing.

I live for new bands, for keeping up with music on a ground level, where people are making music and packaging it up themselves, or having friends do it. There are many, many bands making music today by their own means, on their own terms, enough so to be labeled “independent”. But in today’s music-industry climate, where a record contract isn’t as valuable or even necessary as it once was, what does that independence itself mean? What does it tell you about the music?

In 2008, I’ve found myself again gravitating to bands not because I perceive them to be revolutionary, nor because they’re hip, and not even just because they follow a DIY path. I find myself gravitating to bands because of their songs. I find myself once again in awe at the craft of building a pop song, of thinking up a melody, writing some words, and singing them so other people can listen to them obsessively, get to know every second, share them with friends, bring them along on road-trips, put them on during breakfast and lunch and dinner, and linger over them when they should be sleeping.

That isn’t to say that the 10 albums I chose as my favorite indie-pop albums of the year don’t possess a sense of style. Each of the 10 is an album with its own personality, its own way of speaking, made by a band that has built its own unique approach to pop music. Style goes hand in hand with songwriting. It isn’t an end in itself. That’s part of why these songs have the air of music that will last, maybe not for pop-music historians, but for listeners, for music fans.

Artist: The Lucksmiths
Album: First Frost
Label: Matinee
US Release Date: 2008-11-04
UK Release Date: 2008-11-03

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List number: 1

I can think of no other band that writes melodic pop songs as articulate about everyday life scenarios — cities, the weather, wasting time, interactions between friends and lovers — as the Lucksmiths, and they keep getting better at it as the years pass. What’s more, their music is getting more attractive to the ears. Each of their last three albums has represented a strengthening and filling-out of their sound. First Frost is touched by driving rock, stately folk, tender soul, and a blast of noise, even. And all the while this sounds like the Lucksmiths we know and love. Within these songs people travel, get drunk, grow together and grow apart. None of the stories are unnecessarily over-dramatic, but rather thoughtful, detailed, and recognizable. That real-life familiarity may be why their albums are so easy to listen to over and over again, to live with.

The Lucksmiths: First Frost

Artist: The Capstan Shafts
Album: Fixation Protocols
Label: Rainbow Quartz
US Release Date: 2008-07-08

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List number: 2

Dean Wells of Vermont is among the increasingly large batch of indie-label musicians that find obvious inspiration in the music of Guided by Voices, of Robert Pollard. As the Capstan Shafts, he writes short pop-rock songs and records them lo-fi-style. He has released an insane number of recordings, somewhere around 20, in the last four years. But the more he releases, the less relevant it seems to mention GBV. Unlike his peers, Wells has been turning his love for that band into his own style — related, but not at all imitative. With Fixation Protocols, his best recording yet, he has taken another huge step forward in his own direction. This is a home-made rock album that feels like a big-studio, classic album filled with anthems that could ring out of car stereos for eternity. This 22-song album is packed with more dynamite melodies than you can imagine fitting on one album, not to mention on an album that’s only around a half-hour-long. His lyrics are clever, funny, wryly emotional, and mysterious. He leaves you wanting more, but also fully satisfied with every last drop you were given.

The Capstan Shafts: Fixation Protocols

Artist: No Kids
Album: Come Into My House
Label: Tomlab
US Release Date: 2008-02-19
UK Release Date: 2008-03-17

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List number: 3

The music of Vancouver’s theatrical-pop group P:ano, as brilliant as it was, could sometimes sprawl so far as to knock you about the brain. Their offshoot, No Kids, offers sounds more streamlined, but at the same time even more progressive on their debut album Come Into My House. And if that title implies they’re welcoming us into a specific world, they are. It’s a Salinger-on-vacation universe of sad souls in expensive houses on Martha’s Vineyard or some such place. Their dreams take the form of giddy and bittersweet stage-musical music, evoking old and new: easy-listening and hip-hop, vocal groups and sci-fi discos alike. Mini-orchestras are invaded by kids clapping hands against sand-pails, stomping feet against sidewalks, and everyone sings.

No Kids – Dancing in the Stacks (live)No Kids: Come Into My House

Artist: Beaujolais
Album: Love At Thirty
Label: Parasol
Contributors: J.A. Ziemba
US Release Date: 2008-09-30
UK Release Date: 2008-09-30

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List number: 4

With Wolfie, Busytoby and the Like Young, Joe Ziemba wrote imaginative, catchy pop-rock songs, sometimes also experimenting with longer song-forms, multi-part songs and albums that carried an overall theme. His latest album, as the one-man-band Beaujolais, is the zenith of his creativity in terms of the ‘concept album’, and in terms of expanding his music beyond the minimalist guitar-and-drums format of his most recent band. Musical and lyrical themes weave in and out, telling a small story in an epic scope, with strong songs coming together as one but holding up separately, too. He takes personal hardships and casts them as a horror-movie tale, through lyrical references and the general mood. What makes this album hit even harder — punch fans in the gut, really — is that it’s a divorce album from someone whose wife was in all of his bands. This is the dark flip side of Busytoby’s full-length love letter It’s Good to Be Alive, though this harrowing ride still ends up a story of survival and growth.

Beaujolais: Love At Thirty

Artist: Ponies in the Surf
Album: See You Happy
Label: Darla
First date: 2008-02-19
US Release Date: 2008-06-10
UK Release Date: 2008-06-09

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List number: 5

The brother-sister duo Ponies in the Surf play gentle folk-ish pop songs informed partly by their roots in Bogota, Columbia, partly by fellow Boston bands of past or present. Their songs are sweet, lovely to listen to, and very transporting, taking you to a very specific place. But there’s always more going on in their music than just prettiness, something See You Happy reveals to a fuller extent than any of their previous recordings. Every song has its own dreamy, strange aura. There are happy and sad songs about life in the city, about growing-up, about disappointment and love. Yet the album also takes unexpected routes, like with the odd hero-theme “Johnny Rebel”, or the nearly rock energy of “Holes in the Walls”. That song, at least as I hear it, seems a tribute to humble little favorite places. This is an album that fits that same category, a little album that the right listeners will welcome as a true companion, reliable and understanding.

Ponies in the Surf – Sweet and Low (live)Ponies in the Surf: See You Happy

Artist: A Weather
Album: Cove
Label: Team Love
US Release Date: 2008-03-04
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 6

Cove, the debut full-length from the Portland-based band A Weather, sounds like a whispered secret. It’s hushed, calm on the surface, but impassioned, like there’s always a driven purpose on hand, expressed or not. At the same time it’s open music, welcoming. The musicians yield a variety of instruments to generate one warm, organic sound. Meanwhile a man and woman sing together in a special fashion: with each other, off each other, together and apart. Their songs voice anxieties and then try to calm them away. The album carries its own sadness, but also an accompanying sense of potential reassurance. They sing and play both worries and come-ons sweetly, sweeping us up onto soft but not necessarily steady dream-clouds.

A Weather – It’s Good to KnowA Weather: Cove

Artist: The Smittens
Album: The Coolest Thing About Love
Label: Happy Happy Birthday to Me
US Release Date: 2008-08-12

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List number: 7

References to flowers, kisses, and summertime abound in their songs, and the Smittens seem like the band most likely to break into a group singalong at any moment. That means they’ll get dismissed by some as too cute, which is a shame, and not just because haters would miss out on fantastic melodies. Their music is more than just happy-go-lucky. It has more to it than just fun (though fun it is). On The Coolest Thing About Love, that happy/cute side of the band seems mostly an idealistic dream of what love can be, one that in real life is felt in passing moments but still worth striving for. Love is complicated by distance, personal failures, and the passing of time. But when everything clicks right, it generates excitement, peace and contentment. The Smittens capture all of that in suitable song forms — classic pop anthems, impromptu doo-wop ballads, the melancholy strumming of a guitar.

The Smittens – GumdropsThe Smittens: The Coolest Thing About Love

Artist: Mike Downey
Album: Hold Horses
Label: Heart Phone
US Release Date: 2008-02-05

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List number: 8

Once upon a time Mike Downey lived in Illinois rocked out in Wolfie, the New Constitution, Mathlete, and his one-man band the National Splits. Now he lives in Sweden and rocks out under his own name, with his computer. His sense for melody and knack for writing memorable songs about his own life has only improved over time. His music has a sense of freedom about it, bolstered by his willingness to throw crazy sounds into the mix as it pleases him. But it also comes straight from whatever place — mental, emotional or geographical — that he’s in at the time. The songs on Hold Horses are memorably descriptive about the world through Downey’s eyes. The music itself is just as descriptive, filled with small, impressive touches.

Mike Downey: Hold Horses

Artist: Lorna
Album: Writing Down Things to Say
Label: Words on Music
US Release Date: 2008-11-18

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List number: 9

The cover of the UK band Lorna’s third album is a stunning horizon photograph of where sky, sea, and earth meet. Its calm beauty is similar to that of the music on the album: a carefully crafted, peaceful but mysterious soundscape. We’re instantly pulled into an atmosphere that’s placid but not uniform. Lorna’s gentle dream-pop songs have not just mood, but also personality. Lap steel and harmonica add a country-campfire feeling, while horns and strings subtly give cause for the adjective “orchestral” to be employed. Husband-and-wife Mark Rolfe and Sharon Cohen-Rolfe sing lovely together, on songs that keep returning to themes of home, of finding a place to belong: a place that the music’s comfort emulates.

Lorna: Writing Down Things to Say

Artist: ballboy
Album: I Worked on the Ships
Label: Pony Proof
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2008-08-11

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List number: 10

Scottish songwriter Gordon MacIntryre has been fronting ballboy for over 10 years now, and seldom getting the acclaim he deserves for his thoughtful, bittersweet pop-rock songs. I Worked on the Ships, ballboy’s first LP in four years, starts out filled with longing, someone singing for the long-distance love that will never be. And it continues in that lovelorn state across the album. “Nobody knows which way is up anymore”, he sings during one song, and the inhabitants of these songs do mostly seem lost, looking for something more. It’s a state of the heart that the album brings vividly to life, without ever completely abandoning the feeling that hopeful times could be around the corner, but without projecting certainty that this will ever be the case, either.

Ballboy – Songs for Kylie (live)ballboy: I Worked on the Ships