The Best Indie-Pop of 2007

The prefix “indie-” will always evoke questions of definition. If it is strictly a matter of not being on a major label, then what do we make of independent labels that eventually tie themselves in some way to major labels? Are the bands on those labels now in a new genre? Or what to make of a band that is “indie” by label, but has other ties to a huge corporation, through a commercial for Applebee’s, for example? Does that change their status? What if Eric Clapton decided his next album should be on an independent label…would that make his music “indie-rock”? There must be a handy chart for this somewhere, a plus-minus list to figure out if your favorite band can truly be considered “indie”.

We can elude this debate by focusing on history, considering “indie-pop” as its own distinct sound by now. That’s too narrow to be useful. If a genre consists of bands that all sound the same, with no room for expansion, then there’s no point in paying attention to it year to year. To me the “pop” part of “indie-pop” is at least partly about opportunity for growth, for finding new styles or playing around with the old ones. And the “indie” part is above all about doing it on your own terms. We can argue about economic independence from here to eternity, but artistic independence is what matters most. The two mostly go hand in hand, but not necessarily.

Many of my favorite indie-pop musicians of 2007 are operating on their own small level, doing what they do without much acclaim. Some of the absolute best, though, are getting the attention they deserve. That they’re doing so without compromising their art is significant. My favorite indie-pop album — or album, period — of 2007 is from a group that’s getting stranger as they grow in popularity. The next two artists in my top 10, and those in the final four slots, have been honing what they do over time, to the point where their latest works crystallize their musical visions in awe-inspiring ways. Without departing too strongly from their past releases, their music nonetheless sounds like it’s been reborn. They’ve followed their own distinctive paths to fertile new ground.

The other three bands on the list are younger, but no less representative of the fruits of stubborn independence. The many albums that didn’t quite make the list can be described under these same terms. So can many of the year’s most disappointing releases, actually. This was the year where Rilo Kiley decided to work with hip-hop producers and strive for a superstar-sexy sound, with awkward and fascinating trainwreck-like results. It was the year when Architecture in Helsinki decided to record all their vocals as if they were characters on a punk episode of The Muppet Show. 2007 was not a year overstuffed with completely new sounds, but it was a year where artists seemed particularly dedicated to doing their own thing, for better or worse. It was a year of independent thinking.

Artist: Of Montreal
Album: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Label: Polyvinyl
US Release Date: 2007-01-23
UK Release Date: 2007-02-12

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List number: 1

Of Montreal has always been theatrical, but with Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? they took it to a new level. The album is an epic of smeared make-up and dirtied dance floors, of guitars turned into keyboards and drums married to drum machines. Kevin Barnes indulged in all of his current favorite tendencies — mythological references, Prince-like identity crises, musical melodrama — to an exaggerated effect. But at the same time this is his first autobiography-leaning album, a rough journey through one man’s breakdowns. In 2007, Of Montreal grew beyond musical boundaries and expectations, becoming larger-than-life. That they did so while becoming musically more themselves, stranger and stranger, is amazing. Hissing Fauna is not just a complicated mishmash of surprises and fears. It’s emblematic of how art and commerce don’t need to stand so far apart. Sometimes careers can be made by bands taking their own crazy trips and not caring who follows.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Of Montreal – Gronlandic Edit

Of Montreal: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

Artist: Jens Lekman
Album: Night Falls Over Kortedala
Label: Secretly Canadian
US Release Date: 2007-10-09
UK Release Date: 2007-10-08

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List number: 2

Swedish crooner/arranger/songwriter Jens Lekman taps into hip-hop’s methodology by pulling samples from pop classics into his songs, weaving them in as extra texture. It’s a progressive approach, yet his songs themselves are already unique enough to make the attention he gets from music fans completely deserved. His best recording yet, Night Falls Over Kortedala is a stunning achievement. The music is romantic and luxurious, resplendent of Hollywood musicals and soft-pop extravagance. His witty lyrics are the perfect avenue for feelings of absolute sadness and confusion. It’s strange how he seems to be effortlessly moving pop storytelling forward while soaking in the grandeur of its past.

Jens Lekman – Sipping on Sweet Nectar

Jens Lekman: Night Falls Over Kortedala

Artist: Lucky Soul
Album: The Great Unwanted
Label: Ruffa Lane
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2007-04-09

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List number: 3

The Greenwich, UK, band Lucky Soul epitomizes the independent spirit. Their self-released debut album is making waves because of sheer talent. Group founder Andrew Laidlaw writes and arranges songs that put a fresh spin on pop-music history. Singer Ali Howard belts them out in a stylish yet emotional way, fitting the nature of the songs themselves, which flash at you to get your attention but then quietly break your heart as you listen past the surface. Sad love songs have been written forever, but Lucky Soul’s are especially sharp, with clever lyrics joined to perfectly bittersweet melodies.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Lucky Soul – My Brittle Heart

Lucky Soul: The Great Unwanted

Artist: The Clientele
Album: God Save the Clientele
Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2007-05-08
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 4

The Clientele is a band with an instantly recognizable sound, but their latest album broadens that sound in unexpected ways. It breaks expectations open, yet still sounds like a Clientele album. The hazy, surreal mood is intact even as it’s flooded with a brighter light, with more hopeful melodies and rhythms. It’s like an especially introspective someone has suddenly woken up and become more fully engaged with the world. God Save the Clientele is their most diverse album yet, but it just confirms what so many already knew, that they are a distinguished band with its own distinctive style.

Multiple songs: MySpace

The Clientele – Bookshop Casanova

The Clientele: God Save the Clientele

Artist: Sleeping States
Album: There the Open Spaces
Label: Absolutely Kosher
Price: $14.98
US Release Date: 2007-09-18
UK Release Date: 2007-10-09

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List number: 5

The single “Rivers” was an iconic anthem rich with a haze of guitars, like a sleepwalking Pavement with more grace and zero snark. But it opened and closed with stark guitar doodles that resembled a transmission from outer space. As Sleeping States, the Midlands-born, London-dwelling Markie Starkland has developed a unique aesthetic built as much on unusual tunings and experimental playing as on classic pop/rock songforms. And then there’s his singing, often left a capella and more akin to that of a lonely-night jazz vocalist. On the album, all of this is put in service of a rich set of songs parsing urban and rural life.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Sleeping States – Rivers

Sleeping States: There the Open Spaces

Artist: Ans.Andur
Album: Opeltvikerkaar
Label: Seksound
US Release Date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2007

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List number: 6

You might not know it, but Estonia has a remarkable pop/rock scene. Indie-label Seksound has several bright young bands on its roster. The brightest might also be the youngest: the twentysomething quartet Ans.Andur. They’re a tight, versatile band who on their debut album are always one step ahead of listeners, turning in often surprising but always delightful directions. Title is filled with color and light, as the band switches from jazzy, Steely Dan-ish pop to very ’90s, fuzzed-out guitar rock. The mood goes from sweet to wild in a controlled, elegant way, while maintaining a constant level of “wow”.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Ans.Andur – Parklate Linn, Alt Kummiga, and Idiootide KateederAns.Andur: Opeltvikerkaar

Artist: Japancakes
Album: Loveless
Label: Darla
US Release Date: 2007-11-07
UK Release Date: 2007-10-02

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List number: 7

Athens, Georgia-based instrumentalists Japancakes have been around over a decade, but this year they seemed to truly come into their own. As good as their 2007 album of original material, Giving Machines, was, it’s hard not to fall deeper in love with their ambitious album-length cover of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. With cello taking the place of vocals, it’s a beautiful double of a classic, not just a chance to re-hear the original, but a distinct work of its own. Doing a cover like this is breaking some unwritten rule, but in pop music there are no rules. The most exciting music always comes from those who realize that.

Multiple songs: MySpaceJapancakes: Loveless

Artist: Jason Anderson
Album: Tonight
Label: ECA
US Release Date: 2007-08-21
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 8

Jason Anderson revved up his songs with an E-Street-like band for Tonight. That makes it “rock” as much as “pop”, but those are just words. As the title makes clear, this is all about the moment, about capturing the feeling of now. That has long been the inspiration behind Anderson’s live shows, where he breaks down the musician/audience barrier by standing on your level and goading you to sing at the top of your lungs, as if each moment truly mattered. Tonight isn’t a live album per se, but it captures that feeling as fully as any recording could.

Multiple songs: MySpace

Jason Anderson – I Need You in My Arms

Jason Anderson: Tonight

Artist: Namelessnumberheadman
Album: Wires Reply
Label: Scatterplot Sounds
Label: St. Ives
US Release Date: 2007-04-24
UK Release Date: Unavailable

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List number: 9

Kansas City’s Namelessnumberheadman were spotlighted as rising stars in a 2003 Now Hear This article, and still deserve that status. After having two albums go out of print on regional labels, they took matters into their own hands and self-released their third album, also releasing a handcrafted vinyl version on the Secretly Canadian-distributed label St Ives. Most importantly, they’ve created their most impressive work yet, a themed album about environmental destruction and finding hope amid the pain of modern life. Carefully constructed of sounds both ancient and futuristic, their electronic folk-pop no longer seems like a hybrid, but a fresh, organic style of its own.

Multiple songs: MySpaceNamelessnumberheadman: Wires Reply

Artist: The Caribbean
Album: Populations
Label: Hometapes
US Release Date: 2007-10-30

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List number: 10

With their fourth album, Populations, Washington DC’s the Caribbean has further refined their unique style of mystery-pop, where melodies yield secrets and instruments are arranged into stunning minimalist architecture. For perhaps the first time, they’ve written a few songs that stand out as pop singles (especially the dynamite “The Go from Tactical”), yet the album as a whole is a clarification of their vision. Within its framework lie not just catchy tunes, but ideas and questions, in the music as much as the lyrics. Surfaces that at first seem calm contain stretches of wildness and turmoil, making this a provocative experience.

MP3: The Go from TacticalThe Caribbean: Populations