the-best-indie-pop-of-2015

The Best Indie Pop of 2015

In 2015 indie pop, there are recurring appearances by the Dunedin Sound, brevity, the changing of the seasons, and the spectre of childhood that hangs over our adult lives.

Indie-pop has become such a wide-ranging descriptor used to describe everything from cutesy, Target-ad-ready tunes full of sickly-cute, faux-happy tunes to rough-and-rugged DIY stuff soaked in noise and the smoldering embers of punk. The “indie” part of it still seems relevant, as an artistic signifier and perhaps an economic one, even as the world has moved beyond the importance of the latter, taking for granted their globalized corporate reality.

In 2015 a broad range of significant music could be considered “indie pop” through some lense. Yet for this list I’ve set aside music that might be most likely placed under another easily recognized musical genre — for example, the most punk-leaning, country-leaning or R&B-leaning ‘indie’ acts. As it turns out, that may have meant I’ve set aside wide-ranging eclecticism, in favor of a more focused, idiosyncratic creative approach. This list is still full of torment, strangeness and extreme emotion, but generally speaking it’s within a comforting realm of melody-based pop. There’s a lot of atmosphere, many gorgeous guitar or synth passages, and — alas — plenty of infatuation, self-doubt and heartbreak.

The comforting side of the music represented here is deceptive. Within a lovely demeanor, there’s a lot of mystery, desire, fear, worry and even evil thoughts. The album in the #1 spot is essentially a horror movie in indie-pop form.

In 2015 there were a lot of familiar, heavy-hitters who put out amazing music beyond what appears on this list. Belle & Sebastian released a ninth album which felt like a brilliant summation of everything they’ve done to date, even though it (oddly) was greeted by critics as a one-off stylistic diversion. The second solo album from Sarah Cracknell of St Etienne bested the first, 18 years later. Yo La Tengo brought Dave Schramm back for a minimalist, really beautiful sequel to Fakebook. Christopher Owens of Girls did a surprise release that wasn’t perfect, purposely, but had some gorgeous retro-current pop-rock numbers. Momus’ Turpsycore was a truly eccentric three-disc set, two of them tributes to other eccentrics (David Bowie and Howard Devoto). Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey of Talulah Gosh/Heavenly returned as the beautifully low-key the Catenary Wives. Darren Hayman released an album of socialist chants, a delicate, intimate solo work and the beginnings of a musical travelogue through small English towns. Seapony released a super-consistent third album and then broke up.

Some of the ten albums I settled on were by musicians who have been making music for a long time, though on the whole they feel more under the radar to me. A few are debuts. There is a lot of overlap among them, in terms of both musical influences and lyrical themes. There are recurring appearances by the Dunedin Sound, brevity, the changing of the seasons, city vs. country life and the spectre of childhood that hangs over our adult lives, carrying within it promises of innocence, feelings of hope and memories of horrible things.

 

Artist: SPORTS

Album: All of Something

Label: Father/Daughter

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Sports
All of Something

The second album from the Ohio-based band SPORTS reminds me of so much great noise-soaked female-fronted indie music of the ‘90s. First-person narratives with titles like “Getting On in Spite of You” that channel disappointment and hurt into high-powered, angry but incredibly tuneful anthems. It feels 100 times less retro than a lot of the more acclaimed bands working in this general terrain, while still conjuring up memories in my brain of late nights watching loud bands play in basements. It’s likely that few of those bands from my memories generated as many great melodies as SPORTS cram into under 30 minutes.

 

Artist: The Mantles

Album: All Odds End

Label: Slumberland

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The Mantles
All Odds End

The Mantles are one of three bands on this list that can readily be described as sounding like New Zealand bands like the Clean, the Bats, the Chills, et cetera. It’s a great sound to emulate. Hailing from San Francisco, they populate their third album with impeccable jangle-pop melodies powered by restrained but driven energy. There are a lot of bittersweet sentiments, expressed by the songs’ narrator or projected onto others. Often those feelings are embodied by an image, like the person “standing in a doorframe all day.” That general air of melancholy makes an impression beyond the surface. But the songs themselves are above all else showcases for melodies and the power to drive them into our brains.

 

Artist: The Hermit Crabs

Album: In My Flat

Label: Matinee

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The Hermit Crabs
In My Flat

Over about nine years now the Hermit Crabs have released some great EPs and now two great albums. They may sound like a band, but it’s essentially Melanie Whittle of Glasgow, Scotland, and whoever is making music with her at the time. For this eight-song album, that “whoever” lives in Boise, Idaho: Jeremy Jensen and Jake Hite of the Very Most. Their diverse contributions do give this a different feeling than past Hermit Crabs records, but at the center of it all is Whittle’s singing and songs. Here there’s one letter to a loudmouth and then seven songs to get to the real heart of the matter: heartbreak’s aftermath. Feeling like a fool, feeling like a sculpture who’s alone at home doing nothing in particular, feeling confused and regretful and sad and like you have more time on hand than you want to. All of that is articulated cleverly and sweetly, within great little bouncy, fun and bittersweet indie-pop songs.

 

Artist: Stutter Steps

Album: Stutter Steps

Label: Wild Kindness

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Stutter Steps
Stutter Steps

There’s probably nothing entirely new within the musical DNA of Stuttering Steps’ self-titled debut, but it’s a glorious, deeply rewarding dive through classic guitar-pop sounds. In particular, it recalls New Zealand bands from Flying Nun records, Luna/Galaxie 500 and a slightly rockier Ladybug Transistor. I thought of those before knowing Dean Wareham plays a solo on one song and Jeff Baron of the latter band’s in the band. The ‘band’ here is mostly one person, Ben Harrison of Pittsburgh, PA. His songs are perfect slices of atmosphere that in lyrics and sound reflect a voice expressing recognizable truths to us, if not always pretty ones. The songs themselves are pretty, in an expansive, riding-a-guitar-rhythm-to-conjure-endless-mood sort of way.

 

Artist: Girlpool

Album: Before the World Was Big

Label: Wichita

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Girlpool
Before the World Was Big

The drummerless LA duo Girlpool had me early on in one listen to Before the World Was Big. It might have been when they titled a song “Dear Nora”, and then by the next track reminded me again of the brilliance of Dear Nora the band and the unreported but I believe massive influence they’ve had on the current crop of DIY indie-pop acts. With guitars, bass and two perfectly anxious voices, they deliver hushed, raw, intimate expressions of worry about life that make the title and title track, expressly about the feeling of being a child, seem appropriate for the whole beautiful endeavor. “I am nervous for tomorrow and today”, they declare on one song, and it’s hard not to nod in understanding..

5 – 1

Artist: Mammoth Penguins

Album: Hide and Seek

Label: Fortuna Pop!

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Mammoth Penguins
Hide and Seek

Emma Kupa’s singing is for me a visceral source of inspiration and motivation, and I can never quite put my finger on why. That’s even more true with this new band Mammoth Penguins than it was with her previous band Standard Fare, who put out two great albums a few years back. I think it’s because Mammoth Penguins feels more direct, highlighting her singing in an even more raw way. The songs are similarly melancholy yet raucous, articulate about personal failings and emotional dilemmas within a structure of driving pop. The guitars and drums crash their way into an endless party, while Kupa voices inner turmoil. Hide and Seek drives through a collection of wishes, confessions and regrets, before culminating in an explosive rumination on aging and generational expectations.

 

Artist: Dick Diver

Album: Melbourne, Florida

Label: Chapter

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Dick Diver
Melbourne, Florida

Chapter Music’s website refers to the band Dick Diver as “Melbourne deep pop thinkers”, and it seems like such a perfect description. Their grasp on guitar-based indie-pop music is clearly deep; they often recall New Zealand’s Dunedin scene and the Go-Betweens and other melodic-guitar-pop bands of the past. That’s a starting place, but they keep going directions you don’t expect, from the sax solos to faux ‘60s rave-ups to crashing anthemic choruses to soft-rock moods to quiet grooves that unfold and then disappear. The “thinkers” word is incredibly important too – when I think of their approach to lyrics as “smart”, what I mean is that they alternate among being inscrutable, wry, emotional, biting, strange, straightforward and poetic. One song, “Waste the Alphabet”, was written with the help of an actual poet. So you know, that means they’re smart.

 

Artist: The Leaf Library

Album: Daylight Versions

Label: WIAIWYA

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The Leaf Library
Daylight Versions

The title Daylight Versions makes me wonder what the nighttime versions might sound like. In any case, this is music that delivers textures that make you think of light and its fading, of seasons changing — and the feelings that go with those things. They do that through music that bridges the gap between groove-based Stereolab jams and intimate bedroom pop, someone whispering their thoughts in your ear in a pretty voice. And there’s an aura of filmic mood music in there as well. They sing about nature as well, and stars and the human heart, while the music twinkles and glows behind singer Kate Gibson’s lovely voice. This is the debut full-length from the London-based group the Leaf Library, after various releases scattered across seven or so years, and it’s an absolute wonder.

 

Artist: Looper

Album: Offgrid:Offline

Label: Mute

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Looper
Offgrid:Offline

When you see the phrase “side project”, think not “less essential” but more like someone in a group who had their own separate artistic vision they needed to express. Looper’s been described as a side project of Belle & Sebastian since their inception, though Stuart David left the group 15 years ago. Looper’s been relatively dormant, at least album-wise, since just a couple years after that. Their fourth album Offgrid:Offline came at the same time as a brilliant retrospective boxed set, one that took the unconventional approach of grouping the songs by invented genre names. Offgrid:Online includes songs in all of those genres, while feeling different than the duo’s past work. The album title represents the life path Stuart & Karn David took, moving to the countryside. Offgrid:Offline has a more organic feeling representing that choice, and the songs dwell — in gorgeous, poetic ways — on the properties of cities versus the country and on the life choices we all make. There’s a minimalist, natural side to their style of synth-pop in 2015 that is incomparable and, perhaps not surprisingly, going more unnoticed than it should. But that’s part of the fabric of the album: slipping into the darkness and feeling satisfied with that choice.

 

Artist: Advance Base

Album: Nephew in the Wild

Label: Orindal

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Advance Base
Nephew in the Wild

Owen Ashworth rebranded around 2010, changing the name of his one-man-band from Casiotone For the Painfully Alone to Advance Base. There was a slight change in musical direction, towards a more minimalist keyboards and drums set-up, but in reality the change may have mostly cast off fans not keeping up with the news. Those fans need to come back, ASAP, like the character in this latest album’s first track, “Trisha Please Come Home”. Ashworth is up to the same old tricks, but over time he’s gotten even better at them. The last Advance Base album, 2012’a A Shut-In’s Prayer, streamlined the sounds of those brilliant last two CFTPA albums to great emotional effect. Nephew in the Wild, as its ominous title suggests, starts there but goes off in more ambiguous and unsettling directions. It’s a pretty pop album but the more you listen to it the more it starts feeling like a horror movie. Satan even shows up at a few pivotal moments. And there’s a love song titled, “My Love for You Is Like a Puppy Underfoot”” By the epic, muted ending which references The Exorcist, in your listener’s brain you’ve started entwining loneliness and regrets held since childhood with creepy visions of disappearing children, demons lurking in suburban homes, and perhaps severed heads. And more common real-life horrors like car crashes and unexpected deaths.

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