Indie pop seems like a niche but also a broad category. DIY musicians are sprouting up everywhere you turn, on your block and on your Facebook. Pop music is in everything; it is all-encompassing. There are persistent strains of pop in “indie” music of all genres, in your electronic, rock, ambient, singer-songwriter folk, even hip-hop. Yet when I think of indie pop as an entity, it’s music that’s predominantly pop (versus predominantly rock or folk) that also has an inherent interest in the classic format of a song.
In 2011, the indie pop music that made me stop and take notice wasn’t necessarily the high-energy splice-and-dice hybrids or the cutesy, catchy super-melodic stuff, though there still were fetching examples of both. Call it a sign of our (hard economic) times if you will, but in 2011, the most memorable pop songs, while colorful and big and romantic, tended to keep a lot of grey around, to portray the world as one big melancholy ball of confusion.
None of this is political music, in an overt way, but the weight of the hardships of the world often hung in the air, standing as a reminder not just of our particular moment, but of the universality of human suffering, frailty, and uncertainty. The fogginess of life is expressed in various ways within the confines of this list — be they grand, reaching-out-to-the-audience statements or small, individual ones.
Some of these bands might not be “indie pop” in a music history way, though most definitely are, in heredity, influence, or spirit; for example, the #2 band on this list just released a heart-shaped 7”-vinyl single dedicated to their hero “Lawrence”, of Felt. But that’s crucial to the mutability of pop music, the way our most interesting musicians can express themselves within the essential form of a song, while also changing, even upending, how we think about songs, about what they are and what they do to us.
10. Bart and Friends – Stories with the Endings Changed [Lost and Lonesome]
Bart Cummings, of the Cat’s Miaow and other great Australian bands, started his Bart and Friends project, which includes various members of other good bands as “friends” changing with each release, with an album in 1998 that stands for a few of us as an under-recognized classic of the era. Last year’s release of a new CD, nine years after the previous one, was a joy. This follow-up is at least as good: a collection of charming, melodic, tender, happy, and sad little pop songs about life and love and the fleetingness of it all. That temporality is mimicked by the brevity of the songs and of the CD itself, considered a “mini-album” sometimes but feeling to me like an album. Style-wise, what he’s doing isn’t much different from what he did over ten years ago, but that’s something to celebrate, as his songs are affecting and immaculate as ever.
9. The Bats – Free All the Monsters [Flying Nun]
New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records and their related bands get written about like something of the past, an influence more than a musical entity worthy of our attention now. Yet here, in 2011, we’ve got a new, eighth album by the Bats (plus another stellar David Kilgour album). The basics of what they’re doing haven’t changed much since 1987: melodic guitar-pop, with a lot of atmosphere and feeling, wrapped up in melodies that will haunt you, and keep coming back at you when you aren’t paying attention. And yes, newcomers will hear in their songs, the old or the new ones, traces of a lot of bands you’ve come to love over the last couple of decades. The Bats were here first, and they’re still here, and in great form.
8. The Ladybug Transistor – Clutching Stems [Merge]
Four years have passed since the last Ladybug Transistor album, which came four years after its predecessor. That, combined with frequent lineup changes, is enough to make each album feel like a comeback and a reinvigoration, even if the band’s ‘60s-influenced, lazy-autumn-day, orchestral-pop sound hasn’t changed that much since it started out back in 1996. Gary Olson’s songwriting is consistent in approach and consistently good. Still, their seventh album does feel like a rebirth — not because it’s drastically different from their other albums, but because it’s livelier in tone than the last couple, somehow particularly emotional in the lyrics and delivery, and as good overall as anything they’ve done before. It’s a cliché to say that certain contemporary pop music sounds timeless, but somewhere in its fabric, timelessness seems integral to what the Ladybug Transistor does, and does well. It’s music evocative of places and people, and the way we link emotions to the memory of them.
7. Seapony – Go with Me [Hardly Art]
Seattle’s Seapony combine in their sound a few of my favorite indie-pop styles of the last couple of decades: amateur songwriting in the Beat Happening tradition, pretty melodies over drum machines (à la forgotten bands like Alsace Lorraine), and a woman’s voice sweetly singing about sad things, like — what else? — heartbreak. The album flies by in about a half-hour, like a summertime fling that leaves behind both romantic memories and a bitter aftertaste. They’re too sincere about sentimental matters to be fully embraced by the music press; both the PopMatters and Pitchfork reviews were on the low end of the spectrum and they’re the likeliest band this year to be derisively referred to as “twee”. Yet they’re a classically indie-pop band whose minimalist, breezy style puts a fresh face on beloved formulas.
6. Amor de Días – Street of the Love of Days [Merge]
Amor de Días was treated largely as a side project of the Clientele, and maybe it is, but if so it’s also a side project of the less famous but equally great band Pipas. Since neither band is making music right now, is it really a side project at all? It has neither the slightness nor the dead-end-road quality that the phrase implies. Musically, it weds qualities from both of the other bands — the melancholy surrealism of the Clientele, the spunky transient pop melodies of Pipas — but also feels like something completely new, taking mystical folk music and dreamy pop wandering, and building off them into something strange and beautiful. The marriage of the two styles would be welcome enough, but there’s also a quality here that says much more musical territory is waiting to be explored. There is both depth and openness in this music, not to mention images, melodies, and sounds that keep calling us back to them.