Below are ten of the best rock songs to come out in 2013. This list has everything from gentle lullabies to angsty guitar licks. What it doesn’t have are the 10 best indie rock songs of 2013, which are still yet to come. But I bet you’ll find these are so good that you won’t mind a bit.
Use the music player on the bottom of the screen to preview the whole list, or right-click and choose “Save as” to download. Songs will play in a new tab if clicked on.
“Literally Baby” isn’t even indie rock. This is good old-fashioned rock and roll that’s a little bit 1955 and a little bit 1995. For the latter I’m thinking of the vocalist, who shouts like one of the many nineties rockers influenced by ska or rockabilly. The piano tinkles like a golden oldie and the triumphant back-up chorus is one of many trills that give the song fullness.
The main reason this song didn’t find better footing on my list is that I’m perplexed by the refrain, which happens to remind me of my biggest grammatical pet peeve. It’s not that he’s using “literally” wrongly, it seems more like for no reason at all. Maybe it’s a reference to the girl having a similar pet peeve—akin to Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma.” But unlike the latter, it’s unclear what the singer is getting at with the refrain. Your thoughts on the lyrical intent?
The opening shrill cuts like a knife and the thick, lusty guitar makes me want to sway right from the first riff. Not a lounge-y sway, but a raucous, wide-legged sway, deep enough to be a yoga move, best accompanied by a pumping fist. Next the drums and guitar relent in favor of the singing, unexpectedly soft. This is all just a breather, a chance to prep yourself for some more indulgence to the God of strings. I’m not one for long guitar solos (which half “Thumb Buster” is…I’m wondering if the title is a reference not to the song’s content but what it does to John Dwyer’s fingers). It all fizzles out in skillfully-dosed feedback. Fans of shoegaze and classic rock should check out “Thumb Buster”.
The reason “Needle” didn’t get a better spot on my best of 2013 list is because it starts out too pretty. I like the pretty, but it’s a little too plodding, too plaintive. When the crisp refrain begins it feels like a slow slap in the face. Thirty seconds later I remember why I love this song. When Born Ruffians begin singing “A way! A way!” they have gorgeous harmonies it’s rare to hear in a rock band. And “Needle” does rock when it gets to that refrain. The rockage sneaks up on you.
There’s something to the lyrics too. Most of the song is a plaintive complaint of how the singer doesn’t fit in. But it’s not a sad song, it’s a love song. He’s found that someone, and what are the odds that such an odd fellow would find his needle in the hay?
I belong to no one
A song without an album
Long forgotten maxim spoken to the sea:
I belong with no one/ I belong with no one/ I belong with no one…
you belong with me
The typical lovesong would focus on the object of his affection but “Needle” is mostly lyrical navel-gazing. It’s narcissistic moping is touching because the more of an oddball he is, the more amazing it is that he found her.
Born Ruffians are one of many bands that hasn’t yet gotten the recognition they deserve. In “Needle” they sound a bit like they’re impersonating Vampire Weekend, but many of their best songs are more straightforward rocking out.
Leave it to a Swedish electro band to show us how a synth was meant to be used. “World
On Fire” is yet another rousing tribute to soundtrack the march towards our dystopic future. “The world has gone mad,” the royal concept sings, and this is the song we lemmings will be dancing to as we go over the edge. Originally one of my top-five favorite songs of 2013, but I overplayed it so it lost its rank. Unfair? Tell me if you think it deserves a better spot.
“I got my headphones on from the minute I’m up to the minute I go to bed.” That’s a refrain I feel more kinship with than I do with 90% of love songs. I love the image of a pair of headphones as a sideways mohawk. These Canadian cops on horses are going to be buried in their headphones, proving they’ve done their homework. The guitar work pulls you in without drawing attention to itself while the chilled-out harmonies have a bit of edge in the refrain.
This is a mix tape for Evan. So the songs are a little dark or a little queer, or well-stated, just like Evan and the stuff he writes. I’ve also focused on songs that are new wave, electro, or dark wave as I know those are genres Mr. Petersen and I both favor. In honing the list, I’ve favored songs that embrace big topics like God while fearlessly examining our shadow selves, because I know Evan Petersen thinks about the heavy shit.
The unofficial tagline of this site is “It’s not Brittany, bitch.” But my hopes are that the days of such cornball kinderwhore are over. Why just you listen to these ten delicious pop songs from 2012 and you’ll find you’re beginning to feel much more optimistic about the future of pop music.
After drafting this list, I realized quite a few of these albums haven’t been released in the U.S. yet. Sorry for any aneurisms this inaccuracy causes in your tender, particular brains. But we gotta keep it up and coming around here.
“Baby Blue” is bliss, right from the little breaths that open the song. The slight echoes behind the harmonies and the one-up coin sound effect at 1:12 are nice touches but this would be an adorable song with just the pianos and playful harmonies. This is what sunshine sounds like.
This isn’t your standard remix. It begins with beautiful a capellas; next come the violins. The vocals are chopped in a way that somehow transcends the typical electronic song. It doesn’t have the structure of your typical remix either, which generally has a a minute long intro and outro and two or three climaxes. Instead, this starts out soft and lovely builds to a single gorgeous cacophony and ends swiftly. Empty Spaces is musically interesting from beginning to end, and when you’ve listened to it a few times the lyrics are fun to sink into.
There are some who would object to including a remix (or two) on this list because it takes credit from the original artist. But I see it as a way to give space for two acts. Oh No! Yoko makes some delightful songs of their own well worth checking out.
From the first second “Older Together” starts with a take-no-prisoners hook. The guitar and and throbbing synth compliment it perfectly. Instead of the standard motif of playing the hook with the chorus, that piano bit lets up for the vocals, so neither delight has to compete. Before you’re sick of the hook, the vocals come in. Before you can tire of the vocals, there’s that hook. His voice is unique but not quirky, and a subtle reverb gives it that extra little something. The second refrain takes it up a notch with a synth brass section.
It speaks to just how good this song is that I’ve been listening to it since the single was released last year and it still holds up to songs I’ve only been enjoying for a few months. It’s a sweet song with an irresistible melody. Fans of Peter Bjorn and John’s adorable ditty “Young Folks” will like this one. Shockingly, Amazon offers their whole album for under five bucks (right now Amazon is selling all five songs on that album for $2.99). Get it now before the cool kids catch on.
This would be a catchy song with just the vocals, piano and drums. But there’s a lot of little touches that make it more polished. The synth trills. Before the refrain there’s a two measure vocal sample that hints at the vocal layers to come. The layered and sampled vocals that make up the bridge are delightfully surprising. The drummer does little effects, just enough to keep it interesting but not enough to get self-indulgent. I’m happy to report that every other song I’ve heard from Gemini Club is just as nice as “By Surprise.”
Alt-J has put out one of my favorite albums of 2012, and it would be fair to put “Breezeblocks” on this list. But I want to be sure you hear this remix, which turned out to be one of my most-listened to songs of the year. Something about the vocal decay, like at the end of the phrase, “here I go,” just works. It reminds me of the way visual artists are working with distorted images, finding beauty in what’s broken. And the tremolo is subtle, but tickles the eardrums just the same.
Here they are at least, the Top Ten Indie Rock Songs of 2012.
While this is a list of songs, in some ways this is also the Top Albums of 2012. Most of these bands put out more than one great song this year. But if I included more than one song by each band there would have been less bands overall, and each of these bands deserves recognition. But I swore I would never do another Best Albums list so this is what you get: the best song by my top artists of the year. It is hard to rank songs this good, so as part of weighing them, I sometimes ranked a song higher if their album had many songs that were just as worthy of being on a Best Songs List.
As mentioned previously, I’ve used the phrase “indie rock” very loosely here. This blog is focused on underplayed gems, so you will find we keep it all indie here, whether it’s rock, pop, dance, hip-hop, or some genre that’s yet to be named. If you want to check out the top indie songs from other categories, they’re listed at the bottom of this post.
There’s a ton of bargains on this list; some of these full albums are selling on Amazon right now for less than four dollars.
As usual, to download the song, right-click on it and choose “Save as.”
These are not quite the top ten indie rock songs of 2012, but are still some of the best bands you shouldn’t miss out on hearing.
Note that I’ve used the phrase “indie rock” very loosely here. I’m only striving to make a distinction to break these up into the vaguest of genres. So you can look forward to a hip-hop list, a dance list, and an indie pop list. This mostly means rock, but they’re just as much defined by what they’re not: dance-y. These are the (second) best songs of 2012 with more grit than groove.
As usual, to download the song, right-click on it and choose “Save as.” Also, please note the music player at the bottom right of the screen that enables you to preview all the songs on this page as a playlist.
Little Jungles – Nothing Will Grow
Hey, Little Jungles, what happened? Your Bandcamp said way back in January of 2012 that this song would be on the forthcoming album I Would Kill For Some Sunlight. And here it is January 2013 and that album appears to be still forthcoming. “Nothing Will Grow” indeed. Ah well get this song from Bandcamp, where you can name your price.
I wish Spencer Krug would pick a band and stick with it. He’s all over the place, sometimes in Sunset Rubdown, last seen in Wolf Parade and now he’s the primary voice behind Moonface. Every year I think the gent has produced nothing new, I come to find he’s in some other project. Fortunately he has a distinctive voice and amazing lyrics, so I tend to realize it’s a Spencer Krug song the first time I hear it. This one sticks out for the line “Teary eyes and bloody lips make you look like Stevie Knicks.” I think that makes you look more like Tina Turner, but I guess that wouldn’t rhyme.
When I was a tween I went to my first R&B show (I believe it was EnVogue). I had been to oodles of shows so I knew the uniform: comfy jeans, comfy shoes, clever T, and discernible lack of hat. But there was a secret I didn't know about EnVogue fans: they dress up for a show like they are going to the prom. They get their hair styled, they wear suits and not dresses, but actual gowns. Gowns I tell you. They complete the look with the perfect prom accessory, a limousine. Not just one couple or ten, but droves of them. Three R&B shows later I discovered maybe it wasn't just EnVogue after all. Some people get dressed up for shows.
I'm not saying you need to follow a dress code by genre system. I may wear a tutu at any time, and I support your right to do the same. But some people do like to fit in, and might like knowing this stuff. I'm just saying if you are going to a kind of show you've never been to before, it might help to ask a knowledgeable type what people are likely to wear. Because if you show up dressed for the Prince show at the Gwar show you are going to stand out, and ruin your fancy shoes.
I’m a sucker for harmonies and handclapping. Both are in abundance. This is one of those bands I discovered because cool DJs keep remixing them. I look forward to getting to better getting to know their sound in 2012.
That echoey guitar and croon combination creates some surreal magic in “Top Bunk.” Sounds like: Animal Collective made a mainstream surf album. And what’s with that drum that sounds like an explosion at the bottom of the ocean? How are they producing that dub-step worthy bass out of an ordinary drum kit? If you like music that sounds like the soundtrack Venice Beach surfers hear as they drown, get this whole album, because it’s equally, oddly, delish. Just for fun, here’s a video of “Top Bunk” made with old Shwarzaneggar movies. It’s well-produced but I can’t imagine it’s official, what with copyright and all.
The word “mature” comes to mind: musicians that have been doing this for a while and have put some thought into the lyrics and how it all comes together. The guitarist plays around a bit, showing off but not too much, while the percussion trades off with a variety of synth melodies. Sadly, I haven’t heard the rest of this album, so please share in the comments if you can tell us if the other songs are as good as “Repatriated.” If this song ended at 3:40 it would still be one of the year’s best, but it goes on for another minute just to make sure you know: Handsome Furs know how to rock.
In the proud tradition of Le Tigre, Heartsrevolution is an indie pop band fed on the mother’s milk of riot grrrl punk rock. “I.D.” goes back and forth between the identity politics of war and pop music. It’s framed as a prayer so when she says “I think we got a bad connection… Can you hear me now CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? NOW?” the urgency is to a savior that doesn’t seem to be listening. My favorite part is where she puts a new spin on that pop-shlock icon when she says that her fear “is that the world will be filled with Britney Spears. ‘It’s Britney Bitch. And I’m not that innocent.’ We’re not that innocent.” But she’s not (only) talking about pop music fans, she’s talking about the claims about American jingoism’s good-vs.-evil motif. She’s saying we know the war cries are a bunch of BS. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more going on in this band than a bunch of crystal bling on a pink ice cream truck. If you like electro but wish you could find something with a bit more substance, Heartsrevolution may be the flavor you crave.
Jon Fratelli can’t seem to get his shit together. First the Fratellis make it big, and he quits the tour because he got too effing “tired.” Then he formed the truly fantastic Codeine Velvet Club, and quits it before they have a chance to build any kind of legacy. But what he lacks in caffeine/direction he makes up for in talent. It’s straightforward indie rock, with rollicking guitars, “Whoah-ohs,” and charming lyrics about life on the road and the women he meets along the way.
You can listen to Mister Heavenly’s entire album on Youtube, which is how I can tell you it’s a solid work with ample variety between songs. I wanted to pick one song from Out of Love and while I think “Bronx Sniper” is my favorite, the songs are so wonderfully different from one another you may find another suits you better. It’s no surprise, as Mister Heavenly is made of folks from The Shins, The Unicorns, Islands, Man Man and Modest Mouse. They even got Michael Sera to play bass for them on tour. Something good is bound to come of such a combination, and it seems that they’ve lent their talents in equal proportions.
This single appeared in 2010 but it didn’t get released on Amazon til 2011, so it’s fair game by my rules. Oberhofer sounds a bit under-produced in a world of Britney Spears, and that’s a good thing. It sounds like they recorded it on the second take, capturing all of Oberhofer’s emoting, whistling, and glockenspiel-tapping in its random, glorious splendor.
Initially “Go Alien” sounds like a Jonsi clone, which we could stand to have a few more of, so that’s fine. But twenty seconds in, some banging drums and guitar-slapping let us know that this isn’t all going to be lullaby music. I like that the build-ups and breakdowns in this song don’t fit the standard chorus-to-refrain ratio. Where most songs kind of do the same thing for a minute and then give you a repetitive refrain, Oh No! Yoko seems to change course every thirty seconds, taking you on a nice ride.
Patrick Wolf put out a ton of material in 2011. Most of it struck me as a pretentious but I’d listen to it again. Perhaps his seriousness keeps “The City” from slipping too far into bubblegum territory. It’s a new wave love song in the tradition of Crowded House or Tears For Fears. I love the piano melody, and only wish it were louder in the mix.“ The City” harkens to the days when a saxophone was a perfectly fine backing instrument for a rock song.
Hey, who uses this much flanger anymore, or at least uses it well? This song is an anthem, a song to dedicate to your friend who’s just gotten out of a long-term relationship or failed the bar exam. It seems all these years we’ve been in need of a song that proclaims “Get back into the rhythm of things and come to the bar!” So thanks for that, Pete.
Polarsets have put out one of my top-5 favorite albums of 2011, and “Leave Argentina” is just one song worth checking out (See my Best electro of 2011 list for a few others). The first thirty seconds of this song are nothing to get excited about, which makes the contrasting burst of sound all the more compelling when he breaks into the refrain. There’s all kinds of bells and electronic percussion and general exuberant wackiness. The refrain of “Leave Argentina” is one of many reasons Polarsets is one of the bands to keep an ear on in 2012.
It’s a simple guitar melody, some slow drums, occasional handclaps, and a few well-placed backup harmonies. When simplicity works, it’s all the more effective (see: The XX), and this Chicago band has pulled off a song just as catchy as some of the pop numbers with double the instruments, clappers, and singers.
I haven’t had a chance to listen to the rest of their latest album, but “Fire” is a sign that The Submarines are just as good as they were on the last one (which is worthy of blowing your milk money). It’s hard to believe it only takes two people to make songs this infectious. Maybe the synergy comes from the fact that they’re married. Maybe it is because singer Blake Hazard is a Harvard-grad whose great-grand-pappy wrote The Great Gatsby. Whatever the case, I hope this couple stays lovey-dovey long enough to get the fame they deserve.
This is probably the most over-played song on this list, but The Best Indie Rock of 2011 wouldn’t be complete without it. Thank goodness we have the Black Keys to pick up where the White Stripes abandoned the cause of reminding us of rock and roll’s long-time love affair with the blues. The Black Keys are back with another album, chock full of guitar-bragging in the fine tradition of Billy Gibbons and Angus Young.
The Go! Team are happy to present another album of songs for cheerleaders to rock-out to. If you’re looking for songs to do kartwheels and splits by, this is the one for you, and this here’s the finest track. Bonus points for naming their title track after the anti-consumerist holiday, though from vague lyrics are more likely to inspire a round of beers than a revolution. There’s a terrific Go! Team remix in my Best Dance Songs of 2011 list.
When it comes to dark, shoegaze-y rock born of some shadow-world version of 50s LA surf-rock, the Dum Dum Girls are not alone. The Raveonettes have produced another album for people who like their guitars with maximum fuzz.
The Wombats make rock music that’s as close as it can be to being described as “cute” without crossing the line into twee. “1996” is a full-blown nostalgia trip for twenty-somethings. If you liked “Let’s Dance to Joy Division” or “Kill the Director” or “My Circuitboard City” here’s more of the same.
I didn’t want to like this song because I overplayed The Ting Tings’ first singles until I was sick to death of girl rap-singing over guitar and a catchy beat. I thought I was through with all that, but “Hang It Up” refuses to be ignored. I forget to not like it, catch my head nodding, and when the guitar breaks out 1:40 I’m all “sweeeeet!” My apologies, Ting Tings. You still got it.
Fast drums and shrill synth and then it’s all over too quickly. Another in the category of great-bands-from-Sweden, Those Dancing Days are an all-girl rock band in the tradition of the Go-Gos and Sleater-Kinney. While their last single was more in the pop tradition of the Bangles this songs shows that Those Dancing Days can rock out like the late-90s girl groups.
Speaking of Sleater-Kinney, the Portlandia star is still making music, with her band Wild Flag. Perhaps should have been on my Best-of list, no?
The first time I heard TuNe-YaRdS I thought they were some sort of Afro-Carribean revival. And maybe they are, despite the fact that singer Merrill Garbus is not an African dude, but a petite woman as white as a stationary shop. It’s not really cleary what genre TuNe-YaRdS is trying to be, which is half of what makes them so great. The other half is that crazy voice, that swoops off in a thousand directions, at times pretty, at times raucous, at times soulful, but never predictable.
You know how your best friends are your partners in crime? How half the amazing pranks, road trips and crazy antics of your life only happened because of some off-hand brag or dare you had to live up to? It’s about time someone wrote a song about it. “You Told the Drunks I Knew Karate” is a fun and clever duet in the tradition of alt-folk story-telling. If you like Hello Saferide or the Moldy Peaches, be sure to give this one a listen.
Hey dudes: if you’re looking for a song to sing at your woman while you jump around the dancefloor–this is the one.Try dancing like a maniac while mouthing “I’m gonna take you back to my house! I love the feeling when you touch me baby!” and surely you will get laid.
This sounds like it should have been the lead single on the Tron soundtrack. After releasing countless albums, M83 is finally starting to get radio play with this song. No wonder, as the beat makes it a little less dreamwave than most of their other stuff. It’s hard to tell where the vocals end and the synth begins. And the passioned cry, “The city is my church!” never gets old.
Remember when Arcade Fire won that grammy and everyone was all, “Who’s Arcade Fire?” Strange times we live in. They wouldn’t let me on their selection committee, but I suspect one of the reasons they won was for the lyrics that explore suburban angst. Arguably the best of these is this song, “The Suburbs,” a song I can’t seem to get tired of.This cover slows it down for a sexy groove that makes the beauitful lyrics easier to understand.
Another fun cover that’s a bit easier to sing along with than the original. If you haven’t heard of Kreayshawn yet, just-you-wait. She’s an up-and-coming Oakland rapper, who courts controversy by being not only white, but having a uniquely Oakland-hipster style. Far as I can tell, she doesn’t seem to give a fuck, which is the best way to be. The original “Gucci Gucci” is in my collection, but I recognize that it can be a bit too…boldly obnoxious for many. 2011 was a year for sexy slow-downs, and this one contrasts nicely with Kreayshawn’s brazen and clever lyrics.
There’s a lot of weird, delightful little sounds in “Polish Girl.” It’s easy to get lost in wondering what toys he’s using to create this-or-that sound. Then I remember the lyrics, and get pulled back into the story of the song, until I hear that sound that’s like Mario just won a green 1-up shroom, and I’m pulled back into the swirly goodness. When there’s too much greatness to concentrate on at one time, you know it’s a song that’s going to stay on the heavy rotation for many months.
Pure, perfect electro.So happy, it almost sounds like calypso. Yet it manages to avoid sounding too sacharine. Maybe it’s because of the emotion in his voice, but it all just works. If you like this song, get this album. One of the year’s best.
No really, you should get their album. Listen to “Sunshine Eyes” and get a lesson in how a perfect new wave song is built. Pure delight from beginning to end. Sounds like: the montage music for your summer romance.
The heavy beat on “Stunts” would have made this a good fit for the “Best Dance Music of 2011” list, but the lack of vocals takes some of the energy out of it, so I put it here instead. If you’re a fan of Ratatat and Caribou this may be the fix you need.
I was very excited to hear the new Rapture album, and while I can’t recommend the whole thing, this song is a winner. Part of what makes the Rapture so great is Luke Jenner’s emotive vocals, and this one is no exception. Four cocktails down, you will have trouble not singing “How deep is your love!” not as a question, but as an exclamation to be shouted to the fullest.
At the beginning of the year, I was obsessing over their new song “Dystopia (the Earth is On Fire).” Well, I overplayed it and now I’m sick of it. But then I discovered that “Paradise Engineering” is even better. Both songs give a nod to the catastrophic state of the world channeling it all into blissed out disco denial. It’s a soundtrack for oblivious consumerism in a broken world, which makes it more than good pop: it’s the zeitgeist of the 21st century.
This is song #3 of a playlist for my LYLAS Kat. The subject is great indie lyricists. Each week I’m focusing on the lyrics of one band and why those lyrics are worth delving into.
Since you’ve been obsessed with the Mountain Goats lately, we’ve been talking about who some of our favorite modern lyricists are. This playlist was made specifically to answer that question. Today’s band is Metric.
It’s no secret that Metric is one of my favorite bands of the decade. One may compare them to chick-fronted rock bands like Blondie or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But Metric wins bonus points in having captivating, socially relevant lyrics. I first got hooked on the mysterious “The Police and the Private” and became fanatic with “Patriarch on A Vespa.” I say it’s socially relevant but it’s more poetry than preaching. She’s writing about the world she sees, and as a socially aware person, this is reflected in her writing.
Take the aforementioned “Police and the Private”. She sings:
Didn’t make this up I learned, I learned it from a friend
My friend is coming clean, she told me
Keep one eye on the door, keep one eye on the bed
Never expect to be sure who you’re working for
It’s clear she’s talking about some black market world. Is it drugs? Prostitution? Does it matter which, or does it matter more that the larger point is that “the whole world wants what we’re on…the police and the private, the doctor, the lawyer, the garbage collector“? The tone is desperate and dangerous. Never once does she ask why something the whole world wants is outlawed, as that would be preaching. I liken it to the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime,” in that capturing the dangers of the lifestyle is more telling and more interesting than a sermon about the morality of those who choose to live in the underworld. The clincher in “Police and the Private” is the last line, Got to get to you the orphanage is closing in an hour. Such a haunting line. Does the character in the song live this dangerous lifestyle in the hopes of making enough money to get her child back? It’s unclear, merely suggestive that criminals lead desperate lives because there are other more innocent lives at stake.
Another example is “Gold, Guns, Girls.” The lyrics All the guns, all the gold, in the world…couldn’t get you off seem to be directed at a certain president and his cabinet that were in power when she released the song in 2009. Did she sit down to write a song about a particular politician, or does her pen naturally gravitate to such subjects because they interest her? Would the song be better if she namechecked Bush or Cheney? No, the song is better because it is about a certain type of person that Cheney happens to be an example of.
The lyrics to Patriarch On A Vespa wouldn’t be out of place in the latest urban literary magazine. I’ll print them in full so you can imagine them not in a rock song but within your favorite poetry anthology.
Patriarch On A Vespa
Promiscuous makes an entrance
Her mouth is full of questions
Are we all brides to be?
Are we all designed to be confined?
Buy ourselves chastity belts and lock them
Organize our lives and lose the key
Our faces all resemble dying roses
From trying to fix it
When instead we should break it
We’ve got to break it before it breaks us
Fear of pretty houses and their porches
Fear of biological wristwatches
Fear of comparison shopping
Dogs on leashes behind fences barking
Pretty little pillows on floral couches
Until our faces all resemble dying roses
Stop trying to fix it
Patriarch on a Vespa
Runs a red and ends up
Crushed under the wheel
I can imagine this getting high marks at the next Berkeley poetry slam, can’t you? But on the contrary, she sings this while playing the keyboard solo and kicking her legs in the air in total bad-ass fashion. The “it” she refers to I presume to be bullshit suburbia and when she shouts “Stop trying to fix it…we should break it” she has created a couplet not matched in the history of rocking out since The Who first shouted “Meet the new boss! Same as the old boss!” If this song had been popular enough to hit heavy rotation on corporate radio, surely it would have inspired some chair throwing and bra burning.
If you want to see some chill-inspiring rockage, check out the thrills she throws down at 1:40. It will give you a sense of why Emily Haines is one of the goddesses of indie rock:
Bonus: If this rocks a little hard for you, check out Emily Haines solo career with her backing band The Soft Skeleton. Or if you just can’t get enough, she’s also a sometimes-singer for Broken Social Scene.
There is a long-standing debate in music criticism about whether pop music should be considered worthy of review, or whether it is a guilty pleasure best left undiscussed in polite company. With limited amount of time to write and listen and limited space to post reviews, these “rocktivists” argued that we should be focusing our reviews on Serious Art. The opposing poptimist camp won, as you’d expect: In a generation where the Internet promised there will always be a surplus of reviewers and space to post their opinions, why not review everything?
The problem with this debate is few people ever bothered to define what pop music is in the first place. It used to be so simple in the days of Nirvana. Pop music was inoffensive and danceable. Rock music was brash and unpolished. But the postmodern era we live in teaches us that labels are elusive bastards that refuse to divide most things in life into tidy binaries. The underground dance movement has shown us that there’s plenty of dance music that is clearly not pop. The success of corporate rock b(r)ands that “did it all for the nookie” will get the same snub treatment from rock critics, even though they aren’t thought of as pop. And even back in the days of Nirvana, what the hell was Bjork? Where did Future Sound of London fit in?
We labeled those acts as “Alternative;” today we call them “Indie.” Even label status can be a misleading marker though. The biggest label in a small country will be perceived as independent in other countries far from where their marketing efforts can reach. This is more and more a factor in a global economy. At the other end, you have indie labels that are swallowed up by major labels. Do the bands on these labels still count as indie when their label is bought? Does it matter if the parent corporation allows the staff to continue running their company exactly as they did before the takeover? Does it matter if the label gets a bigger publicity budget? And then you’re haggling over a dollar amount to define a genre.
No definition will be perfect, but here’s what I propose. Pop music is music produced by a team of people who collectively are designing a product. That product happens to be art, just as the designers who produce the sheets and lampshades at Target are also producing art. Pop music is first and foremost a money-making venture, and artistic decisions will be guided by marketing factors like target audience and branding. By this definition, Britney will be pop no matter how many giant rock guitars she locks her legs around. Weezer is an example of a rock band that became a pop band when they got rich and started making the songs they thought their teen audience wanted to hear.When you begin to think of Pop music as a product rather than a genre, the rocktivist argument makes a lot more sense. Art critics could write reviews of the output of graphic design firms, but usually they leave that task to Ad Week.
Pop music is absurd. It is absurd to pay someone who can sing fifteen grand to write a song and then have someone who isn’t a particularly good singer record that song because her face is the one you want plastered on album covers. It’s absurd that the same system that pays $78,000 to create a single pop song will ask the rock bands they woo to sell their song and soul for a dime. Pop reduces the art of music the way a butcher cuts up a piece of meat. Every aspect of the song is outsourced to different experts who turn in their perfect little cog. All these cogs are reassembled as the clockwork machination we know as the pop star. The empty smile, the calculated cleavage, the vague unreality, the overly clean, slickly produced sound—all of these are symptoms of turning music into an assembly line process.
Conversely, all the rage and hubris the rock critics have flung at the poptivists seems almost silly. The poptivists have done themselves a dis-service by asking critics to take pop music seriously. Pop music is serious business but it is not, cannot be, serious art. Serious art stands for something. Serious art reflects someone’s vision. Because it is a hodgepodge of the cogs, whatever vision the writer began with will be diluted by marketing teams who wish to promote trends or avoid offense. It’s the difference between Jill Sobule singing in favor of kissing a girl and Katy Perry the product who sells the kissed-a-girl brand.
We need to move away from thinking of pop music by the symptoms that describe it—polished, electronic, trite, overly-produced—and think instead of the machine that produces it. We need to stop thinking of pop stars as artists and think of them instead as the logos for carefully tailored marketing campaigns. These surgically perfected smiling dolls are as sad as Frankenstein’s monster, as close to music as hamburger meat is to fillet Mignon. We can take pleasure in what is the fast food of the art world while seeing it for what it is, while going on to chase these monstrous stars with our pitchforks and torches. We love the monster. We hate the monster. We consume the monster. She sells art, but she is not an artist.