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.