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The Best Indie Pop of 2016

In 2016, indie pop's highlights often went hand-in-hand with a general feeling of fading away, falling apart, saying goodbye.

It felt appropriate that one of the last major indie pop records of 2016 was the farewell 7″ from Allo Darlin, one of the best bands of the last half-decade or so. The record isn’t a sad one, it has an air of gratitude and moving on. It represents a bittersweet farewell, near the end of a year that sometimes seemed to specialize in dissolution and disappointment.

That doesn’t mean 2016 didn’t have its highlights, just that they often were downcast ones. And that the highlights often went hand-in-hand with a general feeling of fading away, falling apart, saying goodbye. Thankfully, indie pop — for all its tweer-than-twee connotations — is already filled with an awareness of pain and disappointment, even when the music sounds chipper and optimistic.

There is a heavy dose of melancholy within the best indie-pop music of 2016, but also significant portions of wit, whimsy and atmosphere, and elemental things like melodies that won’t escape your head, simple guitar parts that sound monumental. Some of that energy came from newcomers, but much of it from old standbys, musicians who have been keeping on, following their path for decades. It seems like the best albums either instantly felt like old friends, or were made by them.

 

Artist: Terry

Album: HQ

Label: Aarght

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Terry
HQ

Australia still seems like a fertile place for this sort of smart, funny, rough guitar-driven pop music, with a heavy trace of postpunk arty messing-about. Terry is a quartet from Melbourne; its members have credits in a legion of like-minded bands. Their debut album HQ is antiestablishment and provocative, with a deadpan sense of humor but also a persistent melodic habit. You may call it rock, I call it noisy pop; they’re not blazing a new path, but this type of warped beauty will always shine.

 

Artist: Free Cake for Every Creature

Album: Talking Quietly of Anything With You

Label: Double Double Whammy

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Free Cake for Every Creature
Talking Quietly of Anything With You

In 2016, there’s still a place for cute DIY bedroom pop expressing anxiety about life as a young adult. Free Cake for Every Creature filled that role well in 2016, driven by singer/songwriter Katie Bennett’s narratives and commentary on life changes and decisions that come with growing up. Or not growing up. One song proclaims, “All You Gotta Be When You’re 23 Is Yourself”. Bennett’s singing is shy and confident (a classic indie pop balance), the songs are open-hearted and observational, and by the album’s end, you feel like you’ve been hanging out with friends.

 

Artist: Virginia Wing

Album: Forward Constant Motion

Label: Fire

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Virginia Wing
Forward Constant Motion

Now a duo, the UK group Virginia Wing took their music in a different direction on their second-full-length Forward Constant Motion. The title seems significant. Their style of dream-pop-meets-Stereolab-ish synth explorations is getting more diverse yet more streamlined. There’s an infectious, kinetic energy here that seems rooted in worry as much as in the desire to innovate. The result is music that constantly shifts and changes but also is unerringly gorgeous, albeit in a charmingly strange way.

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Artist: Jeff Runnings

Album: Primitives and Smalls

Label: Saint Marie

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Jeff Runnings
Primitives and Smalls

For Against’s 30-plus years making overwhelmingly good post-punk/atmospheric pop music is one of the great untold stories in music. Perhaps it’s because they’re from Lincoln, Nebraska, and not a major metropolis — or because their dedication to their craft is based on focus more than fashion. In 2016, lead singer Jeff Runnings released his debut solo album, and it’s perhaps even less likely to get the attention it deserves. It’s a beauty, with a distinct point of view that sets it apart from the band’s catalog and the overall tenor of music today. Who said underground pop music, strong in melody and atmosphere, shouldn’t also be murky, morose, confusing and heavy with sadness?

 

Artist: Red Sleeping Beauty

Album: Kristina

Label: Labrador

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Red Sleeping Beauty
Kristina

The Swedish pop group Red Sleeping Beauty formed in 1989 and released a couple of great albums in the 1990s. Kristina is their third great album, their first full-length in 19 years and at least as good as the others, probably better. It’s named after Kristina Borg, a band member who’s been battling cancer and was not involved in much of the recording of the album (she does sing on one track). That left Niklas Angergård (also of Acid House Kings) and Mikael Mattsson (also of The Shermans and The Charade) as the duo for most of this record. With this group and their others, they have quite the history of creating classic melancholy synthpop songs, and this is right in step. Deep longing is expressed within deceptively light tunes, often with a slight ‘80s bent, that are gorgeous and feel eternal.

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Artist: Pete Astor

Album: Spilt Milk

Label: Slumberland / Fortuna Pop

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Pete Astor
Spilt Milk

Split Milk is driven by witty pop-rock songwriting with super melodies, framing life’s frustrations in an immediate, entertaining way. That shouldn’t be a surprise — it’s what’s driven Pete Astor’s music now for over 30 years, starting with his bands the Loft and the Weather Prophets in the 1980s, and continuing solo since 1990. His perspective on Spilt Milk is older and wiser, or perhaps older and jaded, with a persistent sense of humor. James Hoare (Ultimate Painting) recorded the album, played a number of instruments, and apparently convinced Astor to make the album. Thanks for that, as Spilt Milk is a beauty, which should appeal equally to longtime fans and to listeners coming to the charms of Astor’s music for the first time.

 

Artist: Ablebody

Album: Adult Contemporaries

Label: Lollipop

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Ablebody
Adult Contemporaries

The debut album from Ablebody is a luxurious, romantic affair, albeit one where the lyrics seem driven by doubt, frustration and heartbreak. A bittersweet romance, like all the best ones. The project of Christoph Hochheim (Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Depreciation Guild), aided by his twin brother Anton Hochheim, Ablebody play melodramatic synthpop steeped in influences of the past, but not dominated by any one. The synths mean the ’80s are never far from the listener’s mind, but various sides of that decade, from top 40 radio ballads to shy underground anthems. On Adult Contemporaries Ablebody turn those influences into a consistently beautiful and affecting album; a pleasure to listen to, with layers of sound and feeling to dive into.

 

Artist: The Radio Dept.

Album: Running Out of Love

Label: Labrador

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The Radio Dept.
Running Out of Love

Attention Americans: before you start thinking of running away to Europe to escape the current political state of things, you might want to listen to the latest from Sweden’s the Radio Dept. Living in a climate shifting towards xenophobia, fascism, aggression, etc. has chased the love songs out of their music. The Radio Dept has always been defiant, provocative, progressive in spirit, but never this single-minded. Which doesn’t mean Running Out of Love is a more narrow realm than their impressive back catalog — they’re still progressing, pushing their music forward. The sound is as dreamy as ever, with synths you can get lost in and a new focus on dancefloor grooves. It’s a powerful combination — protest and romance.

 

Artist: Jonathan Richman

Album: Ishkode! Ishkode!

Label: Blue Arrow

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Jonathan Richman
Ishkode! Ishkode!

At the point in his career where the attention he gets is mainly from longtime superfans, Jonathan Richman remains on a genuinely independent path, stubbornly so. His latest is countercultural, in that you won’t find it on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, et al., but you can buy it directly from the record label (Blue Arrow, a record store turned label). He remains countercultural in outlook, and idiosyncratic, and sound as great as ever, in voice and guitar. And while he displays his trademark blend of wide-eyed sentimentality, playful humor, and nostalgia for another era, over the last handful of years he has also quietly been probing deeper into questions of mortality and life’s meaning, something he continues here. While his story has been written as a progression (youthful angst leading to a second childhood), his more recent work is tonally more complicated than that story would lead you to believe. Ishkode! Ishkode! is one of the best albums he’s released in the last two decades, though he’s released a lot of great ones in the time. This time he’s even brought back at least one hallmark of his earlier albums — the giddy, loveable amateurish backing vocals — while continuing to move forward.

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Artist: Frankie Cosmos

Album: Next Thing

Label: Bayonet

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Frankie Cosmos
Next Thing

The labyrinthine creative world Frankie Cosmos has built in the last few years, out of homemade Bandcamp releases full of in-jokes and wisps of tunes, instantly felt like it was just training, upon the release of Next Thing, her second album to have more of a band/studio treatment. Her dozens of releases all have their charms, but there’s nothing anywhere near as well-developed as this. The sturdier musical approach is the perfect foundation for her songs, which are so interior in focus and gentle in tone that they can in other settings be dismissed as lightweight. Nope, the emotional depth here, projected as often through tiny scenes and stories as through openhearted expressions, is vast. Her singing is affecting, the melodies feel familiar like old friends (not familiar like tired). The songs seem tiny and epic at the same time; intimate and universal. They’re packed with ideas and experiences, much more so than it can seem at a glance. On Next Thing, an album with deep pleasures to offer indie-pop fans, Frankie Cosmos feels like one of the best young songwriters working today.

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