June 2011

Ready to Pop


The next wave of indie buzz bands embraces the spotlight with quality songwriting and a nod to the stylings of the ’80s

One of the ways indie music has made the mainstream—hello, Arcade Fire—is by asserting that pop doesn’t have to be a four-letter word. Of course, writing a catchy chorus is no guarantee of success in today’s iTunesand-blogs music world, and it’s certainly harder than ever to make an album that will stand the test of time.

To get as far as they have, these bands had to have ambition, emotionally and artistically, to stand out from the crowd. If they have a common thread—besides being on the tips of the tongues of those in the scene and the headphones of those in the know—it’s an acknowledgment of the emotional effect of memorable lyrics and a nostalgic look toward the ’80s, pop’s last great decade.


Shy and retiring, the Swedish trio aims to let its beautiful melodies and the wistful longings in Johan Duncanson’s breathy vocals conjure up rich inner worlds for listeners. After years of touring Europe and a brief buzz from an appearance on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in 2006, the Radio Dept. has finally gained some much deserved recognition in the States. On their third and newest album, the critically acclaimed Clinging to a Scheme, the band looks to the fundamentals. “We got into trying to make the songs more danceable and upbeat...and also back to the dirt,” says Duncanson. “We tried to make the second album more luxurious—this time we didn’t want to hide that we’re a band that records at home.”

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Alternatively hyperaggressive and savagely self-deprecating, the musical output of Odd Future’s 11 members—especially leader Tyler, the Creator—is disturbingly graphic in its violence and desire to offend, but under the adolescent angst, there’s surprising depth. With endorsements from rap elder statesmen like Mos Def and ?uestlove (of the Roots), these adolescent Angelenos have taken the music world by storm. While Odd Future is far from fully realized artistically, the flashes the group has shown—of intricate lyrical dexterity, innovative beats and a shocking level of raw introspection—are harbingers of what could be great things to come.

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Demonstrating that heartbreak and longing never go out of style, this foursome’s soft indie pop transports you through time to a reinterpretation of the efficiently crafted songs of the ’80s and early ’90s. The best tracks, like “Everything with You,” could have been released on NME magazine’s seminal C86 cassette compilation (released in 1986, naturally). Like contemporaries Wild Nothing, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s music is earnest and full of angst. Frontman Kip Berman and his fellow Brooklynites come across as unassuming but are deeply passionate. “I feel there’s something about pop songs that doesn’t rely on era,” Berman says. “Throughout every era there’s good songs. It’s not about wearing bell-bottoms or anything like that—good songs are good songs.”

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The sensual, glossy, New Wave–inspired pop performed by Dominican-born New Yorker George Lewis Jr., whose stage name is Twin Shadow, can be both introspective and danceable, as when he tore up Jimmy Fallon in early May with a live show that cranked up the guitars—and the braggadocio. With a pompadour, mustache and flair for showmanship, Lewis’ stage presence evokes more than a little Prince...not that Lewis is sweating the comparisons. “I’d love for people to never say that my music is, like, the rebirth of the ’80s,” he says. “I don’t see it that way, but if people see it that way, it’s fine. If they hate me for it, that’s awesome, and if they love me for it, that’s equally as awesome. I don’t want to control how anyone listens to music.”

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Before going solo as Panda Bear, Noah Lennox came to prominence as a founding member of Baltimore psychedelic experimentalists Animal Collective. His recent album Tomboy is a set of sonic explorations that, at their best, are simultaneously wildly adventurous and carefully crafted. On the title track, Lennox marries the spaced-out reverb of dub with the soaring layered vocals of choral music, for an effect that’s half holy, half high. There’s nothing retro about the sound: Lennox’s work sounds fully and truly new, a primordial soup of pop music from which a new style might very well emerge. “We’re not trying to make music that people don’t like—we want people to like what we’re doing,” he says. “But at a certain point, that’s something you don’t have a lot of control over, so maybe it’s smartest to concentrate on what you do have control over.”

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If there’s one band that embodies the mishmash that is the 2011 indie-music world, it’s Cults, the New York–via–California boy-girl duo who rocketed to prominence through online buzz and a taste for the timelessness of a well-crafted pop song. When Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, both film-school dropouts, self-released their single “Go Outside” in February 2010, they could hardly have guessed that a little more than a year later they’d have played Coachella and would be preparing to tour Europe in anticipation of a full-length album being released this month on a Columbia imprint. Still, Oblivion insists they haven’t let the hype get in the way of expanding their sound. Their new track “Abducted” maintains the sweetness of girl-group pop but adds a darker, mournful edge—sort of like the Ronettes for a disaffected generation. “I think,” he says, “there’s kind of an outgrowth of getting better at writing music, you know? Being more comfortable writing string parts and being more comfortable writing a bridge, which we had never done before.”

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DANIEL SIEGAL is the associate editor of the Los Angeles Times’ ThisIsBrandX.com, where he keeps tabs on the L.A. indie scene.

PHOTOS (from left): Pavla Kopcna, Dove Shore, Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times, Charley Gallay/Stringer, Ana Gibert, Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images