Best Indie-Pop of 2006

“Indie-pop” is a slippery phrase, as all musical categories are. It’s sometimes used, pejoratively or not, for particularly cute, melody-oriented pop: “twee”. Others use it in more of a music-historical sense, to mean the C86 scene in the UK, and memories of Sarah Records and so on, and of the current bands taking inspiration from those bands. I find an inclusive definition to be most useful. That is, if I think of indie-pop as indie-label music created with a stubbornly DIY, independent spirit, which falls more on the pop side of the pop/rock equation, which has a broader emotional scope and musical landscape than rock, and seeks a certain type of mass appeal… I realize that so much of the new music I get excited about year to year falls into that category. And I realize that indie-pop is also, though not always, the indie-label music that gets cast aside most quickly by critics, thought of as insubstantial or not ambitious enough.

Yet indie-pop seems to me an ever-evolving genre with plenty of invention. In this year alone there were excellent albums by pop musicians taking their lead from hip-hop radio (The Blow), from ambient/space exploration (Mahogany), from opera and modern classical (Liam Singer), from rock theatre (Belle & Sebastian), from a synthesis of electronic music and folk traditions (Melodium, Momus), all within the framework of the pop song. At the same time, I don’t want to focus too much on the “new”, as this year most of my favorite pop musicians were driven less by reinvention than refinement, practicing the art of skillfully, carefully, creating a song. The ten albums I’ve chosen as the best are those whose songs have most become a part of my life, who have reminded me of the lasting power of a masterfully written pop song.

In addition to new albums, there were some great indie-pop reissues and compilations this year; most notably, Brighter’s Out to Sea (Matineé) and Boyracer’s Punker Than You Since ’92 (555). And of course, albums were only part of the story; some of the best songs this year weren’t on albums. There were great EPs and singles from Harper Lee, Bearsuit, Lovejoy, and others, and b-sides from Belle & Sebastian that rivaled the songs on their latest album. And if Voxtrot’s 2006 output — two EPs and a compilation track — were put together as an album, that would no doubt be in the top spot. Watch for them next year on best-of-2007 lists, after their debut album comes out (on a major label, even), though you can never rule out a fresh crop of new-new-new-comers who appear out of nowhere to blow us all away.

Artist: Math and Physics Club
Album: Math and Physics Club
Label: Matinee
US Release Date: 2006-11-16
UK Release Date: 2006-11-13

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List number: 1

This Seattle group’s songs didn’t drop from the sky…that is, you can clearly hear the influences of other pop music from the last few decades in its songs. But it seems so beside the point, considering how perfectly crafted they are. It’s hard to offer a music-critic’s defense of this music as 100% new, but it’s so easy to hear these songs as truly special. The melodies are catchy but in a lasting, not disposable way; the lyrics are articulate, smart expressions of feelings (hope, heartbreak, sadness, wonder); the songs are played and arranged with such bare-bones grace that they begin to resemble Zen expressions of pop music’s essence.

Multiple songs [MP3 and Streaming]

Math and Physics Club: Math and Physics Club

Artist: Camera Obscura
Album: Let’s Get Out of This Country
Label: Merge
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US Release Date: 2006-06-06
UK Release Date: 2006-06-05

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List number: 2

The Scottish group’s first two albums were unfairly overlooked, dismissed by association (not for cause) as Belle & Sebastian imitations. It used to seem like no one liked them; now, with this third album, it seems like everyone does. But this album does take their music to a new level of brilliance. They’ve assimilated various pieces of music history — from ’50s girl groups to classic county tearjerkers — into an elegant style of sensitive pop music that’s completely their own.

Multiple songs and videos [Streaming]

Camera Obscura: Let’s Get Out of This Country

Artist: Tilly and the Wall
Album: Bottoms of Barrels
Label: Team Love
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US Release Date: 2006-05-23
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 3

There’s a fierce independent streak to Tilly and the Wall that I admire. From releasing their album online for free to using a tap dancer for percussion, they do what they want. Even better still is the music itself. An emphasis on rhythm and energy melds perfectly with sing-along melodies and open-hearted lyrics written from the perspective of outcasts and outsiders. This album, their second, broadens their sound in ways that work to heighten the musical and emotional impact.

Multiple songs [MySpace]Tilly and the Wall: Bottoms of Barrels

Artist: Casiotone For the Painfully Alone
Album: Etiquette
Label: Tomlab
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US Release Date: 2006-03-21
UK Release Date: 2006-03-27

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List number: 4

Etiquette takes Owen Ashworth’s low-key one-man-synth-band to new heights as a recording project. As the production quality has sharpened, so have the songwriting and the performances. Ashworth is wise enough to hand the mic over to more technically capable singers at just the right moments, but his own somewhat ramshackle vocal delivery still works well within the world of humble, humorous-but-sad diary-songs that he’s created. Like many of the albums on this list, Etiquette‘s songs are arranged tightly together, to resemble the ideal of an album in format. An album should have depth to it, but be tight enough that when it ends, you’re ready to hear it again. That’s certainly the case here.

Young Shields [MP3]

Bobby Malone Moves Home [MP3]Casiotone For the Painfully Alone: Etiquette

Artist: Pants Yell!
Album: Recent Drama
Label: Asaurus
US Release Date: 2006-04-07
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 5

A year or so back, Tangents’ Alistair Fitchett hopefully referred to the Boston-based trio Pants Yell! as part of an “East Coast pop renaissance”, and that often does seem to be the case. But of all the rising stars he was talking about, Pants Yell! perhaps shine brightest. They have a knack at wry-and-shy observational songs that are also peppy, infectious and, increasingly, packed with a pop ‘n’ roll sort of force. Compared to previous releases, Recent Drama presents an especially polished, tightly wrapped version of what they do, and in that way it feels like the tipping point for what’s sure to be a fruitful career in music-making.

Kids are the Same [MP3]

Your Feelings Don’t Show [MP3]Pants Yell!: Recent Drama

Artist: Pipas
Album: Sorry Love
Label: Long Lost Cousin
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US Release Date: 2006-09-01
UK Release Date: 2006-09-01

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List number: 6

Stylistically the duo Pipas has no peers — its brand of sleek, whispery, (sort of dance-) pop sounds like no one else’s. Sorry Love sounds like a secret, like a love letter opened for the first time. But it also sounds like music that, in an alternate universe, people across the globe would use as a soundtrack for dancing, for falling in love, for breaking hearts and spending late nights pondering the moments passed.

Multiple songs [MP3]Pipas: Sorry Love

Artist: Irene
Album: Apple Bay
Label: Labrador
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 7

This year, every time I turned around there was another great band from Sweden: Love Is All, I’m From Barcelona, Pelle Carlberg, Suburban Kids With Biblical Names. My favorite, though, was probably this quick and breezy gem, filled with forever-summer anthems of crushes that may or may not blossom into eternal love, sung by a suave, handsome-in-voice frontman amidst horns and harmonies and bountiful positive energy. It’s one of those albums that seems so perfectly put together, capturing one specific mood.Irene: Apple Bay

Artist: Casey Dienel
Album: Wind-Up Canary
Label: Hush
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UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 8

Dienel’s debut album is a showstopper in the theatrical sense. She’s playing the piano like she was born behind one, belting out songs in a uniquely forward yet friendly way. And the songs themselves are just as distinct, somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Dr. Seuss and riverboat ramblers. They sparkle and shine, but have a lot of feeling within them. It’s first-person autographical songwriting, but from someone for whom life seems like a whirlwind of experience, who sees in bright colors.

Multiple songs [MySpace]Casey Dienel: Wind-Up Canary

Artist: The Snow Fairies
Album: Voila!
Label: Snow Fairies
US Release Date: 2006-12-05
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 9

A limited-release (only 200 copies), vinyl-only album of eight songs might be the epitome of “insignificant” if you’re Entertainment Weekly, or if you expect your music to come stamped with a big FBI warning and be sold at Best Buy. But this album is important to me, and should be to anyone who loves spunky, sharply written pop songs. The Snow Fairies broke up (and this LP fittingly ends with a playful song where the band is murdered), but this concise final statement, their third album, is also perhaps their best. There’s so many great melodies and harmonies here, so many great songs: soft and loud, sad and sweet.

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Multiple songs [MySpace]The Snow Fairies: Voila!

Artist: Sprites
Album: Modern Gameplay
Label: Darla
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US Release Date: 2006-09-05
UK Release Date: 2006-09-04

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List number: 10

It seems appropriate to end this list with a band using rock instruments (well… if you were a rock band in the ’80s, still open to synths) to play songs about very non-rock topics: video games, science fiction movies, blog-writing, computer programming, unconditional love. These songs are also, at heart, absolutely pop: sensitive, sing-along, smashing (in the “I want to hear this song everyday” way, not the breaking-stuff-to-prove-your-manhood way).

George Romero [MP3]

I Go Crazy [MP3]

Do It Yourself [MP3]

Following Her Around [MP3]Sprites: Modern Gameplay