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The best Indie Pop songs are like the rarest Pokemon. You never know where you're going to find them. You don't know what they're going to look (or sound) like. Even when you do manage to find indie pop music out “in the wild,” it's an artform that’s always changing shape.
That's where We Are: The Guard comes in. Every week, we trawl the latest playlists, YouTube channels, SoundClouds looking for the best indie pop songs and artists. We're here to help you catch 'em all!
What do you say about a genre that encapsulates the vaporwave acoustic soul of Blood Orange, the feminist cyberpop of Charli XCX, the international beat-mangling of Diplo? What can you say about an umbrella wide enough to cover the snarky anti-folk of Girli and the low-down grime of...Grimes!?
Indie pop music may be in the ear of the beholder, but there's more to it than that. Let's take a look at how we deliver the most popular indie songs, week after week.
Let's start by defining our terminology. How do you define indie pop music in the 2020s? Let's take a look.
Defining genres involves a unique, complicated calculus. We all know what indie music is. We all listen to pop music. Yet 'indie + pop + music' is more than just a sum of its parts. It's more than just a Venn Diagram where Arcade Fire overlaps with Ellie Goulding.
Indie pop music is a genre unto itself, while also being a sum of its parts. That means as indie and pop continue to shift, morph, and mutate into the 21st Century, so does indie pop. To get to a baseline, let's return to the origins of indie pop to orient ourselves.
To start, we must remember indie just means independent, as in music recorded for an independent label. That means much of the earliest, most influential rock 'n roll, blues, soul, funk, r&b, jazz, and even pop are all technically examples of great indie.
Perhaps we could include Buddy Holly's precocious, prescient "Not Fade Away," Howlin' Wolf's chilling, incendiary "Smokestack Lightning," or even John Lennon & Yoko Ono's "Happy XMas (War Is Over)" as early indie pop treasures.
We're going to start our investigation with our current conception of indie music, indie pop, and indie rock, difficult as it may be to trace, codify, or define.
Music journalist Simon Reynolds once pithily observed "Indie music was created in Scotland," referencing the rise of Glasgow's Postcard Records. While bands like Josef K and Orange Juice are peak examples of geeky hipsters with deep record collections and a penchant for DIY, today's broadened definition of Indie Rock allows us to turn the dial a little further back.
Music historian Emily Dolan describes indie pop as having the DIY, stripped-down minimalism of Punk rock with "the sweetness and catchiness of pop music."
These days, being punk as hell and liking pop music aren't mutually exclusive, as we can see from the meteoric success of artists like Frankie Cosmos. With so many artists forsaking the major label machine, crafting their catchy bangers in their bedrooms rather than multi-million dollar studios, it could be argued that a huge majority of musicians are DIY as they come. With so many musicians vying for our limited time and resources, everybody needs to know how to appeal, how to stand out from the line noise. Even the most abrasive, uncompromising artists likely have a shred of pop about them, as well.
For the sake of this exploration, we'll use the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP as indie pop's Year Zero. While the original conception of indie pop refers to crate-digging hipsters with a penchant for jangly '60s pop, our expanded definition includes all things catchy and melodic. While the stripped down minimalism and frenetic, furious fretwork of "Breakdown" or "Boredom" no doubt sounded downright misanthropic and alien in 1977, the infectious chord changes, hummable guitars, and chant-a-long lyrics just sound like a feel-good bop 40 years after the fact.
It's like that scene in High Fidelity, where Dick plays Sarah Gilbert's character the Stiff Little Fingers and a bunch of clueless punters ask if it's Green Day. It's clear that much early punk rock was really just sped up rock and pop, with the much-dreaded Chuck Berry riffs blasting off over speedfreak rhythm sections and feral vocals. Punk, pop punk, alternative, and indie rock are pretty synonymous in their early decades.
Indie music truly comes into its own in the 1980s. Which means that indie pop crystallizes into the recognizable genre we know today at the same time, even though it still wasn't called by that name for much of the decade.
The river of indie music started to flow in earnest in the '80s, becoming a recognizable genre in its own right. Indie started to branch out into its major tributaries - indie rock, punk, post-punk, and indie pop.
Tracing indie music back to the '80s offers a chance to assess the style in its purest form. The term indie music was shorthand for a kind of earnest, sincere guitar-centric rock 'n roll. Indie rock was posited as an antidote to the slick, mainstream machinations of major pop artists, with its raw, lo-fi aesthetic hinting at a greater "sincerity" and the populist sensibilities of punk rock.
Indie pop saw its first archetypes emerge in the '80s, which would set the table for the sound that still most often defines the genre. Beat Happening's self-titled debut in 1985 would become the cornerstone for the lo-fi fuzzy intimacy of twee and anti-folk. The NME compilation C86 is the Rosetta Stone for the best indie pop songs of the '80s, however.
There's been a fair bit of controversy over the term C86 being used as a genre and of itself. The name derives from 86-minute cassette tapes, as a commentary on the rising trend of home-recording. Many of these bedroom and garage artists sound just like the reigning synthpop and New Wave of the day, but drowning in fuzz and buzzing with distortion.
While the sounds encapsulated on C86 may be too disparate to define a genre, it's an illustration of what happens when underground musicians start trawling the past, beyond the previous 5 years. Indie pop musicians in the '80s were more likely to take influence from Bowie than Banarama, Esquivel rather than Erasure.
30 years down the road, it's hard to imagine how having archaic tastes would be commercial suicide. Thanks to digital technology, the past lives inside the present. We obsess over all things old timey, perhaps in a quest for that 'authenticity' that lo-fi buzz was meant to symbolize.
The '90s is the moment when indie music went mainstream, with the ascent of formerly underground genres like grunge and 'alternative rock,' as well as the codification of the sound we now associated with indie rock.
Much like C86, a large portion of indie music in the '90s was steeped in a catchy, melodic sensibility. Prototypical indie artists like Belle & Sebastian and Stereolab define the sweater-wearing, crate digging indie hipster. Others would take the hooks and strong songwriting of the early British invasion and create another offshoot of indie pop - britpop.
The '90s gave us one of indie music's great icons, Elliott Smith. Elliott Smith could be seen as the martyred saint of indie pop, being the image of the lonesome, tortured, isolated auteur. Records like Either/Or and XO drip with angst and bristle with lo-fi production. Peel back the fuzzed outer layer, however, and you'll find songwriting chops straight out of Nashville or the Brill Building.
In the '90s, indie pop was still differentiating itself from indie rock, as well as mainstream rock and pop, with its rejection of 'cool.' As Pitchfork's Nitsuh Abe puts it, "One of those things was the idea that rock music was supposed to be cool-- 'cool' meaning sexy, tough, arty, fiery, or fantastical. ... The charts had 'cool' covered-- these kids, in their basements and bedrooms, were trying to hand-craft a mirror-image of it, a pop world where they were the stars. ... and a little bit of a raspberry blown at the larger musical world, which (sensibly) went right on preferring something more interesting than average white kids playing simple pop songs."
Anything can be 'cool' in the 21st Century, even things once considered the height of geekdom. As we shall see, delineating what is or what isn't indie becomes nearly impossible in the 2000s and beyond.
Independent music and the culture surrounding have truly exploded in the 21st Century. Debating what is or isn't indie would require a small book, investigating the complicated role of commerce, marketing, and image in modern underground music.
It also doesn't help that both 'indie' and 'pop' describe more of a feeling than a hard and fast genre at this stage in music history. That's how you end up with the art rock grandeur of Arcade Fire being mentioned in the same breath as Sufjan Stevens' baroque folk symphonies or the retro revisionism of Tei Shi. So far, this year, some of this year's top indie pop songs include the stripped-down lofi folk of Mxmtoons' "Prom Dress," or Karen O's delicious, delirious collaboration with Danger Mouse, "Lux Prima."
Some bring to mind the arty pretentious proggish-ness of the '70s. Others recall the plastic hedonism of '80s New Wave and synthpop. The most popular indie songs can come from absolutely anywhere, as well. You might find some Vaporwave-infused synthwave jams on Bandcamp like Trevor Something's Bots Don't Cry. You might find a playlist on Spotify that connects the dots between neo-psychedelia and catchy underground music of all stripes, from chillwave to alt r&b.
One thing's for certain, indie pop will continue to morph and mutate. The underground will continue to rise, becoming mainstream and blurring the boundaries between indie and pop music. Let's make the most of this. We've got more tools and resources to find exciting, innovative sounds from all over the Earth than any other time in history. Let's stop splitting hairs and just rock out!
We Are: The Guard will continue to dig into all of the playlists, the album drops, the mixtapes. We'll stay glued to Vevo for the latest music videos. With so much music out there, we need dedicated diggers. We'll be digging as furiously as our fingers and ears will allow, sharing the latest, greatest indie pop songs, wherever we may find them. Even if they move to a different beat.
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