The pandemic-engendered bedroom banishing birthed a multitude of exceptional indie-pop this year. Weary of enforced quietude, many artists rejected sleepy lo-fi and instead embraced grander arrangements—orchestral instrumentation and stadium-ready production bolstered their guitars and anxieties. In-crowders Wolf Alice and Japanese Breakfast offered music of this ilk. Both acts released their third and their most grandiose albums in the summer.
Elsewhere, the no-nonsense jangle-pop of bands like Kiwi Jr. and UV-TV provided a back-to-basics break, comfort from simplicity, and reminded us that you can, sometimes, achieve more with less. The gaps were filled by veterans such as Faye Webster and Hovvdy, who put out their best material yet, while many rookies released auspicious debuts. Honorable mentions in this area go to Hana Vu and Lily Konigsberg.
This list is dominated by women—either female-fronted bands or solo artists. This isn’t a new trend, as Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, and HAIM justifiably topped various best-of lists in 2020. It is notable, though, that those that take the poppier road are, more often than not, women. The albums on this list have in common an intimacy and an unmistakable coping mechanism—whether it’s Courtney Barnett’s mantra of taking it day by day or Japanese Breakfast’s conscious attempt to make a record about joy.
These indie pop albums are the best of the year and the ones that best exemplified the uncertain excitement of the world reopening: transcendent time capsules. – Hayden Merrick
15. Kero Kero Bonito – Civilisation II [Polyvinyl]
At only three songs, Civilisation II might seem like an odd inclusion on an album survey like this, but anyone who’s heard Kero Kero Bonito’s latest EP can attest, they pack more synthpop goodness into this EP than some bands do for their entire careers. Careening from video game glitch pop (“Well Rested”) to blissed-out hyperpop (“The Princess and The Clock”) with astonishing ease, it’s clear that the group’s collaborations with noise-pop notables like 100 Gecs and Dorian Electra have only sharpened their natural synthpad instincts. Civilisation II may only clock in at 14 minutes, but that’s all the time Kero Kero Bonito need to win us over. – Evan Sawdey
14. UV-TV – Always Something [PaperCup]
UV-TV conjure a simpler time. The crude album art, the no-frills production—Always Something is accidentally anachronistic, one for the live TV watchers and goodwill shoppers. Guided by the Primitives and Felt, the trio’s unselfconscious bubbly pop is the secret oasis of the year. These nine songs pull up a drawbridge to whatever the hell the preceding 11 months were and lock listeners in a 1980s reverie. “Plume” is a plodding ode to “Just Like Honey”. Tracks such as “Distant Lullaby” showcase Ian Bernacett’s swirly guitars and Ian Rose’s propulsive drums (two Ians are better than one). Rose Vastola’s innocuous speak-sing delivery has a gift for taking listeners “Back to Nowhere”. Nowhere is somewhere, after all. – Hayden Merrick
13. Baby Boys – Threesome [Grand Jury]
The album cover for Baby Boys’ Threesome is of three men tonguing a microphone, and it feels like a weirdly apt depiction of the songs contained inside. Comprised of three producers (including two members of the indie rock band Hippo Campus), the group’s first proper studio full-length features a litany of production styles across its rolling vision of broken hearts and never-ending hedonism. Sufjan-style horn blasts, heavily-processed acoustic guitars, the tinniest of drum machines: every inch of Threesome is aglow with wild musical ideas and curious sonic details. Their often-distorted or AutoTuned voices mask their lyrics containing curious emotional observations. “You park the car in the strangest places,” singer Nathan Stocker notes in “Gone”. But the spiky, bizarre, and altogether memorable first effort from Baby Boys points at an even wilder pop future than we could’ve imagined. – Evan Sawdey
12. Hovvdy – True Love [Grand Jury]
By far the warmest album on the list, True Love is blissed-out indie-pop to score campfire heart-to-hearts and languid canoe jaunts. These 12 tracks have the most concentrated version of the Texan boys’ sound—bright, open acoustic guitar chords and rich two-part vocal harmonies grace every song. As Hovvdy push through a break-up and find contentment on the other side, their hazy transgressions regarding memory, childhood, and long summer days wrap you up in an immersive beach towel. True Love manages to sound like nothing you’ve heard before, yet it’s also irritatingly familiar—nostalgia pop at its most intense. It’s an optimistic album and a consistent one, the sound of everything in its rightful place. “Be okay with not changing things”—amen to that. – Hayden Merrick
11. Bachelor (Jay Som and Palehound) – Doomin’ Sun [Lucky Number]
Bachelor is the super-duo of Jay Som‘s Melina Duterte and Palehound’s Ellen Kempner—friends, not bandmates, they make a point of clarifying. Their lockdown project, birthed from a Californian rental house in only a fortnight, is often murky and has stacks of moxie. The songwriters sound like they have always been one entity, effortlessly weaving existential fright and their identities and relationships into a wintery night drive soundtrack. Tracks such as the single “Stay in the Car” have the impact of a riot grrrl screecher but are delivered through a fatigued cloud of guitars. “Went Out Without You” is just as distant but features an eerie acoustic guitar and high-register vocal murmurs, the sound of their anxieties cornering them in a dark alley. It’s undoubtedly the indie collab of the year and hopefully not a one-off timekiller. – Hayden Merrick