From Orange Juice to Broadcast: our guide to the best Indie Pop
Cardigan washed? Fringe looking good? Guitars set to jangle? Let's go!
Genres are difficult things to try to get your head around. "Indie pop"? We've only recently published our guide to psychedelic rock that could've easily taken on board some of the artists we're gonna talk about here. Wait a few more weeks and we'll be publishing our guide to essential indie rock - and a good few of the artists featured in this piece could easily slot into that one, and vice versa. But try drawing clean lines between 'psyche' and 'pop', 'rock' and 'pop', etc. that aren't arbitrary - it's impossible.
Also...pop? As in, short for popular? Indie never used to be popular. That was kinda the point. Go back just a few short decades and 'indie music' pretty much meant 'unpopular music'. Back in the 80s, you could grace the upper echelons of the indie chart by selling a few hundred records. But 'The Norman Records guide to essential Indie-Unpop" doesn't work either.
So here's how we're making the distinction necessary to write this piece. Jangly guitars? Probably indie pop. Emphasis on melody? Probably indie pop. Charity shop dressers with floppy hair? Probably indie pop. Fey-sounding band name? Probably indie pop. Any of the above and hailing from New Zealand? Definitely indie pop.
Best indie pop bands
Often seen as one of the originators of the indie-pop sound, Beat Happening were an American three piece led by indie polymath Calvin Johnson. Their sound had a total disregard for the conventions of music production, being resolutely lo-fi in nature with wayward, off-key singing and subject matter that at times verged on the juvenile.
However, this simplistic approach yielded brilliant songs. Beat Happening veered between fuzzy garage rock textures and a more plaintive acoustic sound, but they had a way with melody that led to many of their songs - such as ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Cast a Shadow’ - being covered by other artists (REM, Luna, Yo la Tengo). Furthermore, the band were also important in raising the profile of like-minded bands, both through Johnson’s label K and their International Pop Underground festivals.
Speak to any aficionado of indie-pop for long enough and they will mention Sarah Records. The Bristol-based label was the perfect home for an indie band, being resolutely independent, having its own totally unique aesthetic, and refusing to compromise with the music industry machine. Many bands got their chance on Sarah but one of the very best were The Field Mice.
Though initially seeming to be as-indie-as-they-come with their fey vocals, tinny guitars, and drum machines, the band were in fact one of the label’s boldest experimenters. They dabbled in electronics, country, folk, ambient soundscapes and everything in between. They were at their best, though, writing beautiful, chiming pop songs - once described as ‘the Byrds on a wristwatch’. Band leader Bobby Wratten’s lyrics were beautifully dreamy, poetic and heartfelt lending the band an autumnal, melancholic air.
All their records appeared on Sarah Records, and the band split at the height of its powers leaving many fans totally bereft. Wratten went on to front Northern Picture Library, Trembling Blue Stars and Lightning in a Twilight Hour all of which, one way or another, continued the work he started with The Field Mice.
In the early 80s a group of like-minded art students founded the Postcard label. The now-legendary imprint was inspired by Motown and used the motto "The Sound of Young Scotland", paraphrasing the American soul pioneers. Ambitious stuff.
Its lead band - Orange Juice - had similarly grand designs. Their initial idea was to blend The Byrds with Chic, bringing together jangly guitars with the disco and soul music they loved. They looked, well, almost ridiculous. But their big, floppy fringes and charity shop style became a template for the look of indie pop and their initial run of singles on Postcard were exceptional - a blend of jaunty, strummy guitars and the kind of white boy soul soon to be heard in everyone from Aztec Camera to Haircut One Hundred.
It wasn’t long before they left their indie days behind and signed to Polydor. Their debut You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever was more polished (if still rough around the edges) and its bright, chiming sound can be heard in almost all subsequent indie pop. From there, the band became a more mainstream proposition, albeit still odd and lop-sided. Rip It Up brought in funk, reggae and spawned an enormous hit in its title track. Their final album, The Orange Juice, saw the band pared back to just singer Edwyn Collins and drummer Zeke Manyika. This paved the way for Collins's solo career, which saw him maintain a cult following whilst occasionally come up with more chart-busting glory - ‘A Girl Like You’ in particular.
The Pastels might be the ultimate indie-pop band. Everything about them, from their music to their look to their attitude, is a perfect encapsulation of what indie pop is about.
Their music is a sort of beautiful shambles. Since 1981 they’ve been pursuing a sound that initially had a lot in common with Beat Happening in the USA. Resolutely DIY, they use simple song structures and maintain an almost child-like quality to their songwriting. The band appeared on the legendary NME C86 tape, which cemented their reputation as the grandparents of the indie-pop scene.
Yet, unlike most of their peers, The Pastels have continued to release records (albeit at very sporadic intervals) and more recent records have showcased a more mature and ambitious sound that retains the stuttering naivety of the original band. Like Beat Happening, The Pastels have also been heavily involved in increasing the profile of indie-pop - promoting record labels, writing fanzines and most recently becoming co-owners of the famed Glasgow record shop Monorail.
With their eyebrows permanently aloft, The Monochrome Set were early post-punk practitioners of the indie-pop style.
They were led by Indian-born songwriter Ganesh Seshadri (also known as Bid) and their early line-ups contained musicians who escaped from the fledgling Adam and the Ants. Bid’s songs were arch, knowing, pun-filled affairs with literary references inserted at regular intervals. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they were a massive influence on the early Morrissey. Their music was hook-filled avant pop with twists and turns and - let’s be frank - was just a bit too self-congratulatory to ever threaten bothering the mainstream. However, The Monochrome Set were important because they blazed a trail for what would come later. If Morrissey and The Smiths were the immediate beneficiaries of their groundwork, then Franz Ferdinand, Pulp and the Divine Comedy could also to be said to have used the Monochrome Set’s blueprint in their own work.
Emerging out of Australia in the late ‘70s, The Go Betweens were initially purveyors of simple, straightforward pop in thrall to the likes of Jonathan Richman and Lou Reed. But they found their own, distinct songwriting chops by the time 1982’s Before Hollywood rolled around.
Listeners were spoilt for choice in having very distinct songwriters, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, to choose from. The two had the classic Lennon/McCartney relationship: Forster was the more arty, uptight one; McLennan the more flowingly-melodic, romantic one. Together they worked like a dream, effortlessly making album after album of superbly-crafted, poetic jangle-pop throughout the 80s - culminating in their exquisite Sixteen Lovers Lane swansong in 1988.
Despite a cult audience and only lukewarm critical acclaim during their lifetime, the band's songs seemed to mature in the period they were away and in the mid 90s Forster and McLennan returned with another three albums which never quite captured the magic of before but were still charming affairs. The Go Betweens story ended tragically when McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006, but their legacy remains.
In a parallel universe, if David Gedge’s girlfriend hadn’t split up with him then the whole Wedding Present story may not have happened. Essentially, Gedge mined one moment of heartbreak to create a back catalogue of bruised, gritty northern indie pop which set his distinct bark on top of frenzily strummed electric guitars and scattershot drums
Their early years were their best and debut George Best is still seen as a classic today. Its matter-of-fact song titles (‘Everyone Things He Looks Daft’, ‘Give My Love to Kevin’, 'Eeh Bah Gum These Chips Are Hot', etc.) mask clever pop songs, with mosh-pit-friendly choruses assisted by Gedge’s man-down-the-pub lack of pretension. Further albums followed, most notably Seamonsters which had a rougher, harsher sound than before and benefitted from Steve Albini’s tough-as-teak production.
From there the band failed to keep a settled line up and though further albums followed, Gedge seems happier now with the band as something of a heritage act, playing regular performances of their classic albums to audiences eager to lap up the undoubted charms of the old songs.
Where angst met pop and went to the library.
Listen to almost any indie band from the mid-80s - certainly from the UK - and you can hear the influence of The Smiths loud and clear: mopey vocals and jangling guitars illuminating bittersweet, clever-clogs lyrics. Yet it’s hard, listening to early Smiths records, to hear exactly what they themselves were listening to. Certainly, we’ve since found out that 60s girl groups, Sparks, Marc Bolan, New York Dolls and Roxy Music featured high on the Morrissey and Marr playlist. But The Smiths still, somehow, sounded nothing like any of those groups - instead, they sounded wholly original.
The upshot was a string of truly excellent albums in a very short period, before the sudden implosion in 1987. Now is not the time to discuss what happened next, musically or otherwise. Instead, let’s remember the brilliant, charged music they produced and the unique influence they had wider popular culture. Because The Smiths built a tribe of fans, drawing to themselves thousands of disaffected, sensitive, earnest people who were horrified by Thatcher’s Britain and the materialistic excesses of the likes of Duran Duran. They gave a voice to anyone who felt different, whether that be different politics, different sexuality, or just plain not fitting in.
Never the most rock and roll of bands, Belle and Sebastian formed at Stow College's Beatbox program for unemployed musicians where their first album Tigermilk was made. Its fey indie stylings were completely out of step with the grunge and Britpop of the times, but did find an immediate audience with fans of the 80s bands they so revered.
The success of Tigermilk led leader Stuart Murdoch to recruit a full band and although their early shows were totally shambolic, Murdoch produced his best collection of songs for the album If You’re Feeling Sinister - still seen as a high water mark of their career. Sometimes criticized for their overly twee approach, they retained a cult following particularly in the United States.
Later albums showed the band toying with their sound, adding in pop, disco, soul and 60s influences. Their 2003 record Dear Catastrophe Waitress, somewhat improbably produced by 80s super-producer Trevor Horn, exemplified Belle and Sebastian’s playful approach to their music. Though further albums followed, the band attained their most widespread publicity in years when they managed to leave their drummer in a Walmart 500 miles away from where they were due to perform in a 2017 US tour.
The brainchild of the droll, acerbic songwriter Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields began in 1991 as a studio project. In another world, Merritt would perhaps be a lyricist, a songwriter on Broadway, or maybe even a songwriter-for-hire for mainstream artists. But his work is slightly too bitter and eccentric for widespread acceptance, and so bedroom pop genius it is.
Merritt's songs show signs of influence from the classic songwriters of the 1960s but are performed with rudimentary synths and sung in Merritt’s unmistakeable baritone voice. They are best known for their 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs which showcased an alarming breadth of styles as Merritt used more traditional instruments. A lot of his subsequent albums have also been concept pieces such as I (all titles in the first person) Distortion (blending Merritt’s dinky electro pop with Jesus and Mary Chain style racket) and the most recent 50 Song Memoir (a project in which Merritt wrote a song for every year of his life).
Maybe it's just best to say that Broadcast are an example of the sort of band who could be defined as indie-pop but brought to bear much more esoteric influences than the usual strum-and-jangle fare. They began on none-more-indie 7” label Wurlitzer Jukebox but were quickly snapped up by Warp - a label until then known for exclusively electronic releases. Their music was a stunning mix of sounds and ideas taken from earlier classic psych and electronic records. Broadcast were way ahead of their time in using groups such as The United States of America, Silver Apples, BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Joe Meek for influence and blended space-pop with electric pop emerging with a sound that was both retro and futuristic.
In vocalist Trish Keenan they were blessed with a singer who could project every shade of emotion into the work. Her voice glided over their music, giving them the classic feel of a lost, tape-saturated 60s psychedelic band fronted by Francoise Hardy. They made several exceptional records - all with a different slant or take on their signature sound. Tragically, Keenan passed away in 2011 after complications with pneumonia but in the years since their ideas and sound template have been influences on a huge number of artists. They never seemed to achieve mass success in their lifetime, but people were listening.
Cleaners From Venus
By the early 80s leader Martin Newell had already had a go at being a pop star in a variety of outfits and seemed somewhat past caring what happened to his songs once they were released. He began issuing his brilliant, lo-fi psych pop on cassette via adverts in the back of music papers. He even at one point refused to take money for them and, instead, bartered them. People who heard those tapes back in the 80s must have wondered if the world had turned on its head. Whilst the charts were dominated by anodyne, slick pop here was a master songwriter working in near total obscurity.
By rights, Cleaners of Venus should have been one of the most important indie bands of the 80s. Their songs were three minute bursts of sheer creativity that often sounded like a confused 60s band dumped unceremoniously into the 80s, and ordered to make an album on a 4 track. Until very recently Newell stayed in semi obscurity, making a few solo albums and becoming a well regarded poet. But then ultra-influential Brooklyn label Captured Tracks re-issued a host of Cleaners tape albums on three box sets, and brought this fantastic music to an audience hip to the sort of sounds Newell had been bashing away at for decades.
Before Young Marble Giants it would be hard to discern whether minimal pop ever existed. True, Suicide used a synth, a drum machine, and little else. The Durutti Column’s debut The Return of the Durutti Column contained just Vini Reilly’s distinctive guitar patterns and Martin Hannett’s drum machine programming. But nothing had been as minimal and sparse as Young Marble Giants' debut, Colossal Youth.
The album was recorded live in just five days and contained just two overdubs. Their sound was made out of melodies played by Stuart Moxham on either organ or guitar, fleshed out by brother Phil’s rubbery bass lines, and simple rhythm patterns tapped out on a primitive drum machine. Alison Statton’s simple ‘girl next door’ voice was a perfect accompaniment to this primitive post punk. They excelled in catchy, almost child-like melodies and managed to create a surprising array of moods and textures from such basic instrumentation.
Though the album was much discussed and loved at the time it gained greater creedence when Kurt Cobain said Colossal Youth was one his five most influential records. Wife Courtney Love also covered ‘Credit in the Straight World’ with her band Hole. Sadly, that was it for Young Marble Giants - just two further EPs. But their members went on to further interesting things in the 80s, with the likes of The Gist and Weekend. Young Marble Giants reformed for a short victory lap in 2008 but not further new material was forthcoming.
One of the prime movers in 1990s indie were Stereolab.
Guitarist Tim Gane had previously worked with C86-friendly, left-wing indie-poppers McCarthy but Stereolab was a different entity altogether. Unlike the 80s indie bands they took their primary cue from the likes of kraut-rockers Neu and Can - using repetitive ‘motorik’ drum patterns, an ever-present drone, and as few chord changes as possible. Equally important, though, was singer Laetitia Sadier. Her Gallic vocals and inflections - along with lyrics that pulled in post-modern and Marxist theory - helped give the band a more exotic flavour as they started to expand their sound.
Gradually the band took in elements of space pop, exotica and even easy listening and their music became quite melodic. The playful harmonies between Sadier and backing vocalist Mary Hansen helped give their songs a more bubblegum feel, helping to negate criticisms that the band were overly hip, wilfully obtuse, and simply too repetitive. Sadly, Hansen passed away in 2002 and from then on the band weren’t quite the same, and whilst they continyed to release music the Stereolab project was put on indefinite hiatus in 2009.
But the DIY attitude dies hard, and the label - Duophonic - they set up at their inception in 1992 continued to release records by Tortoise, Broadcast and La Bradford. Since Stereolab's dissolution Sadier has performed as a solo artist, whilst Gane formed another - even more obviously kraut-flavoured band - in Cavern of Anti-Matter.
Felt always followed a stranger path than many of our indie-pop bands.
Almost utterly ignored by the powers-that-were at the time (John Peel hated them, they were notable by their absence on C86) they have become more revered as the years have passed. Perhaps their mysterious image, arty tendencies and eclectic approach made them into outsiders? Certainly, band leader and general ideas man Lawrence had some eccentric thoughts about how they should be run. But their music was often astoundingly gorgeous. Crystalline guitar lines wrapped around each other and ‘coloured in’, as Lawrence put it, the spindly, 80s indie sound they played. His Tom Verlaine/Lou Reed-style speak-singing and poetry was out of time with the more melodic approach of the time.
They were unusual certainly. Ten albums in ten years, two of which were entirely instrumental, containing many songs that essentially sounded exactly the same. They even did an entire album without Lawrence, who was only on song title duty. But some of their ideas have endured and bands from Belle & Sebastian to Real Estate have been inspired by their murmurings.
We can’t have a piece about indie pop without looking over to the other side of the world to our New Zealand cousins, can we?
The label Flying Nun brought a whole pile of bands to the attention of the UK music scene, from The Clean through to Straightjacket Fits through to Snapper. But perhaps the best were The Chills. They had a simple, economic songwriting style, inspired by post-punk and kraut rock but they contained a master songwriter in Martin Phillips, a man forever able to turn straightforward chords into spun-gold pop.
True, they never quite delivered a classic album but both the dark 'Brave Words' and the sparkling 'Submarine Bells' offered enough glints of pop perfection to ensure that their music would endure. Indeed, the whole New Zealand scene they were central to has become inspirational to a host of new bands - and when The Chills reformed in 2010 there was widespread excitement amongst indie-poppers everywhere. Spoiling us as ever, 2015 saw The Chills release the excellent in Silver Bullets - a remarkable album that didn't just live up to expectation but,at times, maybe even surpassed the band's original work.
Best indie pop albums
Orange Juice were young, confident and had already released a handful of superb early singles on Postcard by the time they recorded their debut album on major label Polydor. Though the sound was tighter and cleaner, the album perfectly encapsulated Orange Juice’s ability to match proto-indie Byrds influenced guitars with the rhythm and drive of disco and funk music. The albums sound can be heard in hoards of the C86 era bands that followed and much later in fellow Scots Franz Ferdinand.
Everyone has an opinion about which of The Smiths' albums is their best, but to us the sheer consistency of Meat Is Murder wins out. Everything on here is spot on, from the wild jangle of opener Headmaster’s Ritual to the closing gruesome title track. In between we get some of The Smiths' most driven, excitable music with underrated tracks such as Well I Wonder and That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, and even a bit of North West funk in Barbarism Begins at Home. The entire record sounds like rain pouring down the windows of a packed Manchester bus...in a good way.
“Oh was it you / That I saw through / The window of the Co-op” may or may not have been one of the lines barked out by David Gedge on the debut album by his up-and-at-‘em guitar band, The Wedding Present. Break-ups, petty jealousies, domestic abuse, blokes called Kevin stealing your girlfriend...George Best allied Gedge's sharp gift for lyrics and down-to-earth Northern pathos to tinny, frenzied guitars, and - briefly - threatened mainstream breakthrough. Their rough-and-ready, unpretentious indie was a gruff antidote to the more art-school affectations that were seen elsewhere at the time - and the only downside was that they inspired countless ragged lads to pick up guitars and moan about their relationship problems, few of whom had either the wit of Gedge or his knack for a catchy tune.
Young Marble Giants appeared out of nowhere (well, Cardiff) with a sound no-one had heard before - namely minimal pop music, made using the barest of ingredients, all topped off with Alison Statton’s simple vocals. Colossal Youth was an evocative, thought-provoking album and has dated so well because there really isn’t anything there to date. Everyone from Low to Beach House to Billy Bragg owes this album something. Quite simply, it’s the original minimal pop masterpiece.
Baltimore duo Beach House had spent several years tweaking their dreamy form of indie-pop, but Teen Dream found them at the top of the game. Like a lot of the best records, simplicity is the key to its success: the band left behind their previous reverb-drenched sound for a clearer tone which allowed Victoria Legrand’s vocals to swoop and swoon. Lovely songs, beautifully performed - what more is there to say?
I’m finding it hard choosing which is the best Field Mice album. Perhaps their collections of singles are the best place to start, as the stylistic twists and turns can sometimes derail their studio work. For Keeps was certainly their most assured and well-rounded album. The band were now a five piece, and For Keeps showcased their expanded sound veering from quiet ballads to Byrdsian jangle-pop to Loop-like experimental passages. They were about to become massive. Everything was in place. Instead, they split up at the height of their powers and thus cemented their reputation as true indie legends.
Mac DeMarco is a gap-toothed, Jack-the-lad type with an enormous following in thrall to his on-stage tomfoolery and likeable, everydude personality. But his music is very much the opposite of this persona. Thoughtful, studied indie with a lovely distinctive sound (guitar work possibly nicked from Cleaners from Venus) and clever lyrical wordplay. Salad Days is probably his most consistent record to date and is a lovely, laid-back afternoon sprawl through the back roads of indie-pop. Clever boy.
The Pastels were always slow movers and by 1997 their career had only yielded four studio albums, the last of which - Illumination - headed into the softer, more subdued place their music had been threatening to go for some time. It’s made up of gentle guitar rustlings, horn accompaniments and fragile vocal melodies that recall a folky, pastoral answer to My Bloody Valentine. Its gentle, cinematic sound proved that the band were more than just shambling C86 veterans and had more in common with American dream pop wanderers such as Yo La Tengo.
Though each Broadcast album mines a slightly different take on their 60s-influenced retro-futurist sound, The Noise Made By People is arguably the most perfect encapsulation on what was so good about the group. The album seems to consist of music that has emerged fully-formed from outer space. It’s Karen Carpenter singing Syd Barrett’s songs backed by Silver Apples. They took influences from the most unlikely and esoteric sources, yet The Noise Made By people is beautifully listenable - the experimental electronics used to create pop music with the warmest of hearts.
Real Estate had already released an intriguing, self-titled debut album which turned many on to their nostalgia-driven sound - but Days was the moment they became fully realised. The album is superb from start to finish. Inventive music that took the very best bits of 80s ‘college rock’ (REM, The Feelies, Felt, The Smiths) and twisted them into lovely new shapes. Their melancholic, heartfelt sound and lyrics gave the album a hazy, sepia feel which set them apart from other bands mining the more forgotten bits of 80s music for inspiration.
By the early 90s, indie pop had fallen a bit out of favour. Supplanted first by grunge and then by the much more aggressively ambitious Britpop, lots of sad-hearted people were left milling about waiting for the next wave of mopey bands to come along. They didn't have to wait too long, as Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian provided the perfect antidote to the laddish guitar bands of the day. If You’re Feeling Sinister was, and still is, their best collection of songs. Though the band clearly worshipped at the altar of Felt, these songs also reimagined the mellow folk rock of Nick Drake and Love for the post-Sarah Records generation.
It’s rare that we’d include a compilation as an essential album, but in the case of indie-pop the NME’s legendary C86 cassette is an indie-pop milestone that simply cannot be ignored. Full of bands who would go onto greater things (Primal Scream, The Wedding Present, Half Man Half Biscuit) alongside more obscure outfits (Big Flame, Kilgore Trout, The Dentists), it showcased some of the best indie tunes of the era and brought bands like McCarthy and The Pastels to a wider audience. Crucially it wasn’t all indie pop, with bands like Stump and Bogshed provided a harsher avant-pop contrast to all the romantic yearning.
The Go Betweens - Before Hollywood
The Go Betweens belatedly found their feet with this 1982 release, bringing a distinctly Antipodean sound to the previously British-dominated independent music scene. Its breakout track ‘Cattle & Cane’ was a evocative slice of pastoral indie that was heartstopping in its beauty. The album as a whole had a dusty, nostalgic, cinematic feel very different to what else was around at the time. It also showcased the more angular side of the band, marking the moment their early clankier sound fought for superiority over soft-focussed pop.
Marine Girls were the early DIY band most notable for featuring Tracey Thorn (future Everything But the Girl/solo artist). Initially they were so very DIY it hurt, with scratchy guitars, toytown harmonies and a child-like world view. But Thorn’s songs were already beginning to shine through on their debut ‘Beach Party’. Two years later they made Lazy Ways which was almost professional by contrast - a perfect ode to youth and summer produced expertly by Young Marble Giants' Stuart Moxham. It would be the last record the band would make before Thorn went off to more mainstream success, and it showcases a yearning, romantic innocence that she would never repeat.
Way before Stereolab came along, McCarthy were Tim Gane’s original C86-style band. Their jangly indie-pop was pretty much of its era (though not without melodic merits) but what set McCarthy apart was their lyrical content. Their albums came across like left-wing manifestos, yet they were clever enough to blend these into perky three minute indie. These were no tubthumping anthems but a more subtle way of discussing politics - heck, you didn’t have to particularly agree with them to enjoy their music. Though musically dissimilar, they were a huge influence on the nascent Manic Street Preachers and I Am a Wallet was described by Nicky Wire as "the most perfect record, a Communist manifesto with tunes". James Dean Bradfield rated as his top British album of all time. You don't have to like the Manics to see that they were onto something.
Even more of the best indie pop bands and albums
We could write about indie pop forever, but we've gone on enough. Here are a few more pointers for you.