The Best Indie Pop of 2017

These ten bands share a perspective on the world that doesn't shy away from tough questions or feelings.

From a certain angle, the tropes and styles associated with indie pop music — twee affectations, basically — are everywhere these days. Or at least in TV commercials where sweater-wearing would-be hipster couples skip around, hug and shop. That has nothing to do with what indie pop means to me.

Neither should we get too distracted by the way that strains of ’80s synthpop have filtered through the indie world and made their way into the sounds of mega pop stars. That may be interesting in its own right, but what we’re looking at here are the year’s most interesting and exciting albums from idiosyncratic pop-leaning musicians with a DIY spirit. They’re in conversation with past scenes and sounds — many of these bands share influences — yet none are merely the sum of those influences; all put their own stamp on familiar styles and approaches.

One major home-base for exciting indie pop this year was Australia (especially Melbourne and vicinity). There are four Australian groups on this list, and there were several more waiting in the wings. What this year’s batch of ten artists share overall, beyond geography or musical lineage, is a perspective on the world that doesn’t shy away from tough questions or feelings.

Indeed, these songs don’t exist in a bubble, they’re not cloistered in a cutesy dream-world. They’re not the musical equivalent of the cocooning hipsters in their sweaters going to Target or wherever. They are directly engaged with the world around them, beautiful and brutal as it is. It’s a genre for misfits and critical thinkers. As Fred Thomas sang on one of this year’s albums, “We all navigate the having of bodies and histories.” This is the sound of navigation.

10. Gingerlys: Gingerlys (Topshelf)

On their debut album, Brooklyn’s Gingerlys play melodious music that can sometimes resemble a maze built of beguiling dreams. Guitars and synths commingle with a sense of uncertainty. The music’s pretty but has a rough edge within, even a purposeful incongruity among the instruments. Jackie Mendoza’s unshowy singing is dour beyond the surface. Gingerlys might seem sugar-sweet and fresh but there’s a provocative melancholy, too.

9. The Courtneys: II (Flying Nun)

Somewhere between bubblegum and garage-rock, the Courtneys sing sweetly yet fiercely about relationship angst over loud guitars. The music moves like waves, in time with the emotions of the songs. Those emotions tilt towards a general uncertainty and unease with life and one’s place in it – but there’s also a feeling of pleasure derived from living that unease to its fullest. Some songs are exuberant about being freewheeling in life, while others expound upon crushes in a way that seems void of the hope that finding and getting ‘the one’ will really make one’s life more fulfilling.

8. Perfume Genius: No Shape (Matador)

On the fourth Perfume Genius album, Mike Hadreas goes even further to take his intimate, anguished piano ballads and blow them up into high drama. Check out the cinematic moment of explosion that comes one minute into the first song. The pummeling, up-staging countenance of the album manages tofurther accentuate the emotions in his songs of love and pain. It ends up as the most diverse Perfume Genius album, even as it adopts a very particular mix of revelation and anthem.

7. Pregnancy: Urgency (Lost and Lonesome/Emotional Response)

Featuring members of the Melbourne-based indie pop groups the Ocean Party, Ciggie Witch and Totally Mild, Pregnancy take clear inspiration from the music of the immediate post-punk era, with arrows pointing towards new wave. With co-lead vocals from Zac Denton and Ashley Bundang, the songs are based on steady interplay and movement. They’re more rhythmic than those of their other bands in the sense that the upbeat rhythms are less conventionally rock-based, more dancefloor-leaning. It’s dark in tone, romantic and shadowy.

6. School Damage: School Damage (Chapter)

You can call this punk if you’d rather, for its spirit. The debut album from Melbourne’s School Damage begins with a declaration that there are no new ideas left (“every pop song has been sung / every image has been drawn”) and proceeds to show us why that doesn’t make art and music any less thrilling. (“Try Something New”, a song later in the album tells us.) Theirs is a bittersweet sort of rag-tag rebelliousness, with ruminations on the pain and confusion of being alive, the distance between me and you, between our current self and past selves. Even their most minimalist sketches are a bounty of feelings and ideas.

5. The Clientele: Music for the Age of Miracles (Merge)

The Clientele’s sixth album is an especially elegant turn in their career – picking up where they left off seven years ago, with their same mythological and surrealist interests, their same knack for gorgeous tunes, full of longing, that make time seem to stand still for a few moments. Their atmospheric pop songs began in compact daydream style back around the turn of the century. Here they’ve stretched out, expanded into different explorations of similar moods and ideas – featuring collaborations with Anthony Harmer, playing an Iranian dulcimer called a santur. It adds a new texture to the group’s pleasingly familiar sound.

4. Fred Thomas: Changer (Polyvinyl)

Fred Thomas has gone through his one-man Brill Building years (as Saturday Looks Good to Me, mainly) and emerged as a sort of sharp-eyed poet laureate of wistful restlessness. Youth has faded, bringing even more questions and doubts. You long for wilder years and at the same time long for more mundane habits to stabilize you. Changer is jam-packed with observations born from memories that taunt and life situations that befuddle. All this to the sort of where-did-that-come from melodies that Thomas specializes in, and music that switches styles song-to-song yet always seems to come from one man’s intuition, his sense for space and tune.

3. Milk Teddy: Time Catches Up With Milk Teddy (Lost and Lonesome)

A lot of the pleasure found in listening to music lies in not following exactly what a song is about, in literal terms, but in catching the feeling of the song. Milk Teddy always keep me a little confused, perhaps not on purpose. Their songs use little scenes, thoughts, and stories as the basis for really brilliant, beautiful, tuneful guitar-pop songs. Their second album Times Catches Up With Milk Teddy is even lovelier and more fascinating than their first, 2012’s excellent Zingers. One persistent theme involves the feelings a particular place can stir up; songs reference the gothic architecture of one city, the airport of another. Train journeys, whirlwind adventures through a new city. There’s so much yearning in these songs, which also possess hooks and melodies that surprise in their twists and turns. Singer Thomas Mendelovits sounds joyous and sad at once, with an amiable demeanor and a singing style somewhere between pop crooning, poetry-rambling, and rock striving. The final song “Too Young to Vote Too Old to Cry” is at turns funny, sweet and heartbreaking, and an appropriate final tone to strike.

2. Alvvays: Antisocialites (Polyvinyl)

Toronto’s Alvvays drew a lot of attention for their 2014 self-titled debut, with its instant-classic single “Archie, Marry Me”. Yet their second album, Antisocialites, surpasses it in every way. On the first one, as good as it was, they were still in development, moving towards something greater. Here, start to finish, the album exudes confidence in what they’re doing — which is playing swooning, romantic, bittersweet, hopeless sorts of gorgeous pop music, with jaw-dropping melodies tenderly sung by lead vocalist Molly Rankin. At around a half-hour, the album’s brevity is part of its charm. After nine songs that mix regret with infatuation, there’s the finalé of the year in “Forget About Life”, which starts like an intimate invitation and blows up partway through into a glorious cinematic escape, driven by a home-grown dance groove and a soaring call that’s both a surrender and a proclamation as close to hopeful as they get.

1. The Ocean Party: Beauty Point (Spunk/Emotional Response)

Beauty Point opens with a gorgeous rumination reminiscent of the Blue Nile. Not a bad place to start. Sensitive, literary pop of the ’80s is a definite starting point for the Ocean Party, a prolific group from Australia now on their seventh album in six years. A six-member band where all six sing and write songs, the Ocean Party have a distinct sound that neatly encompasses multiple sounds within it. Their always enjoyable music has hit a new height with this one, an album that travels a stylistic journey while its characters travel theirs — marked by internal crises (one song is called “Crisis”) and complicated relationships with the places around them. They wonder where they can be happy, whether their lives are the right size for them. The songs open up in beautiful ways with keyboards and saxophone lending different shading, song to song. The splendid last song, “Cracked and Shattering”, finds them trying to figure out what’s next. Only good things, it seems, as far as the Ocean Party and their music is concerned.