I need to say it: Making a year-end list feels irrelevant right now, at the end of a traumatic, tumultuous year that seems like it’ll never really end. At the same time, musicians’ livelihoods are among those damaged by the pandemic; ignoring the amazing music of 2020 is like rubbing salt in wounds.
Without making any blanket proclamations on what was going on in “indie pop” this year, or trying to intellectually situate my choices within current events, I instead can only present a personal list of favorites. It’s a collection of albums close to my heart, by musicians expressing or trying in vain to understand the human heart.
In that way this year, my 15th writing a Best Indie Pop list for PopMatters, is not different from other years. The music I’m writing about broadly prizes the personal and the immediate, whether leaning inward (melancholy, introspective) or outward (melancholy people seeking each other).
The best indie-pop in 2020 privileged self-questioning and human connections over showy declarations of greatness. Small music with a big impact. The artists come from the US, the UK, Australia, Spain, Sweden, and Estonia. They do not represent all of the music I loved in 2020 (this year I followed myriad rabbit holes across genre, place, and era).
Things I’m happy for in 2020 – there’s still room for murkiness and mystique within melody-forward pop tunes; small creative endeavors still materialize, and matter, as the world is brought to a halt and options are in danger of being reduced to the lowest common denominator.
10. Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna [Slumberland]
Fully in dream-pop/soft shoegaze mode, the New York-based band
Peel Dream Magazine’s second album further expands their sound until it’s big-sky, widescreen-epic big. Their synths are clearly Stereolab-influenced, the noisy guitars beg for My Bloody Valentine comparisons, but those are perfect inspirations to build dreamy music around (in 2020 I’d much rather have them than yet another Beatles or Beach Boys-influenced pop-rock band). The vocals and tunes within the swirling mix are steady and graceful. The lyrics, when you pick up on them, are cryptic challenges, adding to the air of abstract act, of pastiche. Yet they’re not without resonance. “The 21st century will kill me one day” — indeed.
9. The Very Most – Needs Help [Lost Sound Tapes/Kocliko]
Since the early 2000s, Jeremy Jensen’s the Very Most have created light, melodic, multi-instrumental pop with emotionally searching lyrics. Needs Help cuts deeper with the self-questioning, suited for 2020. And while the songs are personal expressions of doubt and compassion, the album also resembles a musical variety show, in part from his recruiting various fine female pop singers, from across the globe, to share the lead vocals on a majority of the songs. It was a brilliant move; he did something similar with male vocalists for 2016’s synthy Syntherely Yours. Here, within more of a ’60ish/Belle & Sebastianish sound, it again yields rewards, diversifying the personality, sound and emotional impact of the songs. Wearing music devotion on his sleeves, Jensen titles the last song, “Songs You Skipped 25 Years Ago (Say So Much)”.
8. The Legends – The Legends [Golden Islands]
The number of “features” listed on the tracklist make it look like hip-hop, and perhaps that’s the idea. The seventh album from Johan Angergård’s always-changing the Legends project feels like a victory lap, basking in the luxury and power of stripped-down, unlabored-over tunes. Its brashness also resembles a fresh start. The songs and album are short (ten songs in 20 minutes) and the arrangements spare, making for a rush of melody and harmony, with simple, infectious grooves. Sometimes a couple minutes of a beat, a little repeated melody line, and bright/lusty pop vocals, is all you need.
7. Pia Fraus – Empty Parks [SekSound]
Empty Parks, the sixth album from Estonian dream-pop stalwarts Pia Fraus is one of their loveliest. At this point, the group have perfected their sound/approach, which is altogether clean, composed, and dynamic. On each track, they strike a balance between dark and light, quiet and loud, worried and relaxed. The music is filled with a sense of optimism and awareness of struggle, making ultimately for an inspirational soundtrack to living within the everyday sorrow of modern life. Specific ideas and phrases (“love / it’s inside of you”) jump out within the swirl of sound and feeling. Each idea they grasp at lives within a stylish, attractive musical demeanor.
6. Thibault – Or Not Thibault [Chapter Music]
Synthesizers are what you hear first, on the Australian band Thibault‘s debut. These are not blippy, bright new-wave synth sounds. They remind me more of folk-horror soundtracks, experimental compositions, and art-pop with a ’60s psych side (think Broadcast). Named after singer/musician Nicole Thibault, the musical project called Thibault marks her return 13 years after the end of Minimum Chips. The songs on Or Not Thibault carry a musical sense of meandering, like a fairy-tale voyage gone nightmarish or some kind of psychedelic nature hike. Yet there’s a persistent pop sensibility to the whole affair. The autobiographical songs give detailed, frank glimpses into real-life human struggles, which creates a compelling back-and-forth with the more fantastical music.