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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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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

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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