5. Terry vs Tori – Heathers [El Genio Equivocado]
Any year wouldn’t be complete without a fresh take on the comfort food that is ‘jangle pop’, guitar-driven indie-pop, whatever you want to call it. Terry vs Tori, a quartet from Seville, Spain, play daydreamy music with lovely hushed vocals. The songs feel familiar and new at the same time. Their debut album is short and sweet – ten beautiful, poetic songs focused on the transient, illusory, hard-to-grasp aspects of being alive (memory, love, meaning). “It was all in a rush,” the last track declares. The album ends and I want it to begin again; trying myself to hold onto something ineffable.
4. Tan Cologne – Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico [Labrador]
There’s heavy, and heady, UFO vibes on this New Mexico-centric debut album from a duo of multi-discipline artists, Lauren Green and Marissa Macias, who tackle pop music as one of several artistic outlets. The music creeps along in a slow-motion daze, not lost from our world but entranced by both it and its overlapping pathways to potential worlds beyond (new and old, real and imagined). Much of the album was recorded in a historic adobe fortress, and they seem intent on tapping into whatever ancient-world vibes and spirits emanate from that setting. It’s trippy music, focused on both melody and mood, which journeys into hidden places not just sonically but emotionally.
3. Koney – Koney [High Dive]
Since the mid-2000s, Kansas Citian Konnor Ervin, aka Koney, has written and performed sly, sort-of fragile bubblegum pop-rock with his band the ACBS, and played in the offshoot band Shy Boys. Sweetness and a wise-ass casualness have always walked together in his songs. It’s the same here, but the playful, sometimes quietly breathtaking music deepens that quality. It’s less of a rock album than a minimalist playground for sounds and approaches.
There are deep soft-pop vibes and a continual sense that power-pop has been transfigured into synth-driven lullabies. The infectious melodies are humane and gorgeous, as Ervin casually expresses uncertainty about life and one person’s place in it. If this album seems like it’s been dropped into the universe unceremoniously, without fanfare, it suits his whole approach to music, which is humble and casual almost to a fault, disguising a thoughtful studiousness about, and curiosity towards, the craft of pop music.
2. Fenne Lily – Breach [Dead Oceans]
Fenne Lily‘s first album was often filed as folk, yet on Breach it’s clear how expansive her vision for music is. This is one of the most gorgeous albums of the year, with a layered pop sound that amplifies the level of deep yearning in the songs. These are lonely songs about dealing with anxiety, isolation, and the memory of past bad times — essentially the world we’ll all living in right now. But there’s also the clear sentiment of embracing all that’s uncomfortable (“focus on a foreign feeling”, she sings at one point) while calling out mistreatment and injustice. She approaches rough experiences with a sense of humor and a no BS attitude that carries over into every aspect of this uncompromising, ambitious new pop classic.
1. Cindy – Free Advice [Paisley Shirt / Mt. St. Mtn / Tough Love]
The San Francisco-based band Cindy might have the simplest, even most “amateur” approach to pop music on this list. So much beauty and strength can come from a good idea, lived out in a unique way. Cindy’s second album Free Advice is a masterful example of how much impact can be built from the sparest of building blocks. In this case, it’s Karina Gill’s almost-spoken, not quite-monotone singing, organ-generated mood, and a rhythm section minimalist and sometimes glacial enough to evoke “slowcore” as a description by some. I’m not sure I detect many of the bands that have been mentioned as obvious touchpoints (except maybe the third Velvet Underground album, in parts).
To my ears, they’re building their own means of expression through disparate pop elements. Theirs is a beauteous type of art-pop that carries within it so much: wordplay, storytelling, connection, mood, and mystery. A song like “Seeing Double” or “April Magazine” is waiting to be fully figured out. I’m not sure we’ll ever quite get there, which is why Free Advice feels so special, an instant treasure of the sort music fans wear as a badge.
15 honorable mentions (alphabetical):
2nd Grade – Hit to Hit [Double Double Whammy]
Becca Mancari – The Greatest Part [Captured Tracks]
The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers [Carpark]
Dead Famous People – Harry [Fire]
Emma Kupa – It Will Come Easier [Fika]
Gary Olson – Gary Olson [Tapete]
Gum Country – Somewhere [Dinosaur City]
H. Moon – Trustblood [Welfare Sounds]
The High Water Marks – Ecstasy Rhymes [Minty Fresh]
Jetstream Pony – Jetstream Pony [Shelflife/Kleine Untergrund Schallplatten]
Nana Grizol – South Somewhere Else [Arrowhawk / Don Giovanni]
The Reds, Pinks & Purples – You Might Be Happy Someday [Tough Love]
Stutter Steps – Reeling [Blue Arrow]
Sweet Whirl – How Much Works [Chapter]
Wednesday – I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone [Orindal]