An Indie Pop Retrospective on 2015

OSHEAGA 2015. Patrick Watson. Photo Pat Beaudry. OSHEAGA 2015. Patrick Watson. Photo Pat Beaudry.

A year is a long time. In it, there are 52 official days of album releases, plus the multitude of albums that come out of nowhere and mixtapes. While I am writing this piece, I realise that what I listened to at the start of the year nowhere matches up to what I am listening to by the end. On the one hand, it means that it’s mighty difficult for a single album to stick in my consciousness for a full year and that those which do deserve all the plaudits. On the other hand, it’s an indictment of our high speed, high octane times. There’s too much music (and I retain the negative connotation of the adverb) and too little time to think about any of it. I think of those solid early year releases from Laura Marling (Short Movie), Bill Fay (Who Is The Sender?), and Howard (Religion) that I forgot by the time summer came around. We decry Top 10 listicles but pieces on the best albums of the half-year now make a lot more sense to me.

Tame Impala. Metropolis Motnreal 2015. Photo Nina Chabel

Tame Impala. Metropolis Motnreal 2015. Photo Nina Chabel

If I have to generalize my year in listening, I’d say that it was a year for gentle head bopping. There must be something in the air in the indie rock scene, kickstarted a few years back with bands like Real Estate, influenced from further back in time by Dire Straits. I can rattle off a number of bands that have continued that pared-down and chilled-out sound, all of them with great 2015 releases: Widowspeak (All Yours), Palehound (Dry Food), Mac Demarco (Another One), Kurt Vile (b’lieve i’m goin down…), and Houndstooth (No News From Home). Perhaps I’ve been ingesting a lot of high-production, fuzz ridden music in the past few years, but these bands are great antidotes, bringing me down to earth from long days at work.

However, earlier in the year I paid a lot of attention to Dan Mangan + Blacksmith’s album, Club Meds, eventually checking them out at the Corona Theatre. Mangan, formerly known for his radio-friendly (though not Top 40-friendly) singer-songwriter fare (which I love), went all out with his experimental ambitions by pushing his touring band Blacksmith upfront. The result took a few listens to get into, but in essence it was a Mangan record, both emotional and political, fulfilling my needs for slightly edgier and grittier records.

I also listened to Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Father John Misty. The former’s Multi-Love was a lesson on subtlety; on repeated listens I heard more and more old school funk rhythms and bass lines underneath a tapestry of electronics and a masterclass of guitar work.

As for Joshua Tillman’s alter ego, he captured all I ever thought of about the problems of the USA and most of its millennials in the song ‘Bored In The USA’. The laugh track that played after he croons “They gave me a useless education, and a sub-prime loan on a craftman’s home” isn’t what I can relate to personally but I felt the knife in the back for all my peers.

Closer to home, Patrick Watson came out with the beautiful Love Songs For Robots. There’s no categorising this man’s music. Too contemporary for the folk tag, too intricate for singer-songwriter. He’s blessed with a captivating voice but his penchant for penning songs that swell and recede like hopes and dreams shine through again and again. Peter Henry Phillips, a fast riser in my books, had a similarly intricate orchestra folk sound going on in The Origin.

They both are complete contrasts of the gritty band from Detroit, Protomartyr, whose album The Agent Intellect takes the prize for grower of the year. There may be an overflow of post-punk revival bands at the moment but the more attention I paid, the more I craved the sound. Stripped, industrial, and jarring, its emptiness was so easy to crawl into.

To finish off, I’d like to talk about the big hitters from the veterans and indie darlings. I know that big name bands like Death Cab For Cutie, Blur, and Tame Impala all released albums but it was the latter’s touring mates that really caught my attention. Mini Mansions supported Tame Impala at the Metropolis this year and they were, for my money, the best pop rock album of the year. Each and every song on Mini Mansions is infectious. For a band with only three members, their sound is full and heavy, sparkly and ravy.

My last two mentions are for songwriters of two different molds. First, the Jeff Tweedy-led Wilco’s surprise album, Star Wars, is a personal favourite. The album feels more like a return to the early era Wilco, more Being There than Sky Blue Sky. Hard hitters mixed with ballads for spooning, everything’s there. Like Spoon, Wilco are at a place where whatever they’re churning out is reliably good. Tweedy still draws from his well-deep barrel of modern Shakespeare lyrics with lines like “I’ve come all this way to hold your hand, I became a calendar while I was waiting.” I can’t imagine whether a younger me would’ve appreciated this brand of writing in this emoji and txtspk world but for what it’s worth, I’m glad Wilco are still writing for themselves and serving loyal fans along the way.

Of a similar age bracket is EL VY (comprised of the duo Matt Berninger’s of The National and Brett Knopf of Menomena, both darlings of the alternative scene) and their album Return To The Moon. Equally heartfelt, endearing, and funny, it plays like a Michael Chabon novel. Berninger sings that he ain’t no Leonard Cohen, but he doesn’t have to be. With quips about his band’s ratings on Pitchfork, it’s his style of meta-irony that appeals. How fitting for the 21st century.