The shoegaze tag on Bandcamp is a mess. Most of the bands that use it don’t really know what shoegaze is, and even the ones that do are often these heinous genre mash-ups, where they’re like “wouldn’t it be cool to combine shoegaze and EDM.” No. It wouldn’t be. Shoegaze is great. Shoegaze doesn’t need to be “improved upon” by your weak attempts at innovation. When I go to the shoegaze tag on Bandcamp, I want to hear shoegaze, not not-shoegaze.
So I have respect for Rev Rev Rev, a band I found on the tag that plays straight-up shoegaze. They don’t really add new wrinkles to the genre or even attempt to innovate in any way. But they nail the guitar sound that makes me love this style of music and have the right vocals and songcraft, none of which is a trivial accomplishment given how many bands attempt the My Bloody Valentine impression and fall flat.
The Italian group sounds like the usual suspects of classic shoegaze bands, with a more heavy and psychedelic take on the genre that most closely resembles You Made Me Realise era MBV with some of the repetitious elements of space rock. The band mixes in some lighter dream pop elements, but for the most part it’s really loud guitars with light vocals. As it turns out, the formula still works, and it takes some skill to know not to mess with it.
Pleasure Symbols is one of those bands that comes out of nowhere with a fully-formed, distinctive aesthetic. The duo from Brisbane makes icy, goth-tinged synth rock that combines like 30 different styles into something that feels like a genre of its own. Pleasure Symbols is their first 12-inch and it’s just four songs in about 16 minutes, but I listened to almost every song on repeat at some point.
The defining choice Pleasure Symbols make is taking a page out of the shoegaze playbook and burying their vocals deep in the mix. The cost is that it’s hard to make out a lot of the lyrics, but it adds to the band’s mysterious, seductive quality and is part of what made their album very replayable for me. Their songs rely heavily on repetition, looping one or two synth parts over and over, which along with the vocal mixing makes this a hypnotizing listen.
I’ve only really dabbled in French pop, but Cléa Vincent instantly reminded me of one of my favorites: Isabelle Antena, who back in the 80s combined electronic dream pop and Brazilian bossa nova, which was best showcased on her album Camino Del Sol. Like Antena, Vincent makes songs that are elegant and refined (it might just be that she’s French and I’m a boorish American), but her focus is more on the dancefloor, with a sound somewhere between Antena’s and the mutant disco stylings of Lizzy Mercier Descloux.
Vincent funnels those older styles through a modern pop sensibility, using a lot of colorful sounds and instruments to craft catchy hooks. Her music is instantly very warm and inviting, but is also tinged with a bit of melancholy. It’s that “I’m sad, let’s dance” style of pop, like on “Château Perdu,” which starts as a downbeat piano ballad before turning into a joyous saxophone-driven dance floor freakout.
This is another album where I don’t understand any of the words, but they feel even less necessary here, since pop music almost never relies on its lyrics to be enjoyable. (There’s also some practical application: lyrics distract me when I’m working, so this album soundtracked a lot of my writing.) Instead, it’s easy to bask in Vincent’s sunny productions and her charm as a singer, which made Retiens Mon Désir one of the year’s most satisfying pop diversions.
I’ve decided to start giving out a Trish Keenan Memorial Trophy for the artist each year who comes closest to emulating the Broadcast singer. This year’s goes to Eerie Wanda frontwoman Marina Tadic, who reminds me of Trish with her gentle psychedelic songs that strike a perfect balance between being charming and weird (or, I suppose, eerie).
Eerie Wanda’s actual sound isn’t much like Broadcast’s; there are no electronics, with songs always built off Tadic’s guitar and some light percussion and bass. The arrangements are simple, meant to showcase Tadic’s vocals while providing a tranquil, daydreamy vibe that evokes the 60s.
Tadic’s voice is the real defining instrument here: it has a warmth and dreaminess to it, but also somehow always sounds off-kilter and distant, which gives Hum its underlying strangeness that makes it stand out from other guitar pop albums this year.
I can’t understand a word on Kælan Mikla’s self-titled debut album. The beauty of it is that I don’t feel like I need to. After taking the poetry slam circuit in Reykjavik by storm, the trio worked on setting their poetry to music, and came up with the sound heard here: an ominous, synth-driven throb that makes it clear they aren’t singing about sunshine and rainbows.
The band sings/speaks in their native Icelandic, and it’s possible I’d enjoy this album less if I could understand the words, or even more since I’m not getting the full picture. But I enjoy having some element of the music left to my imagination, and sometimes think lyrics can be a distraction. Instead of trying to piece together the “meaning” of these songs, I could focus purely on this album’s sound, and I loved the way the language sounded with the music and how haunting and mysterious it was.
There is an intensity and urgency in Kælan Mikla’s performance that crosses any kind of language barrier. Even if I don’t understand it, I think I can feel what they’re trying to convey, and part of music’s power is in that ability to express feelings in a very visceral way. Despite the sometimes witchy vocals and the oppressively dark sound, Kælan Mikla also make songs that are enjoyable to listen to, with real hooks and mesmerizing bass lines. Their music leaves a mark, even if I’m not entirely sure what that mark is.
Episodic, the third full length from Field Mouse, is what I usually group into the “crowdpleaser” genre of album, with me being the crowd. Because as much as I enjoy trying to key in on specific things I love in music and being hyper-critical about everything, at the end of the day, I’m pretty happy if a band delivers nice melodies, plays the guitars pretty loud, and has a good singer.
Field Mouse does all of that: they play a melodic, straight-forward amalgam of basically every style of 90s music, can get loud when they need to, and are led by Rachel Browne, a talented singer who makes their songs memorable with her clear, bright vocals. Nothing about Episodic is going to catch the listener by surprise, but part of its appeal is that it gets the fundamentals of this dreamy rock sound right, and sometimes I just want to listen to something that is really catchy and unpretentious.
This might come off as me damning Field Mouse with faint praise, but one of my takeaways from spending so much of this year on Bandcamp is that it’s much harder than I realized just to make music that is listenable, much less albums like Episodic that are nearly impossible to stop listening to.
Most year-end lists focus on albums that make broad, sweeping statements about culture in an attempt to sum up “2016 in music.” My lists always look different because I tend to dislike those albums. Instead, my favorites are like Free Cake For Every Creature’s Talking Quietly of Anything With You — small, intimate albums that carve out a little space for themselves and the listener without self-consciously trying to feel “important.”
Free Cake For Every Creature is the brainchild of Philadelphia singer-songwriter Katie Bennett, who comes from the Rose Melberg school of indie pop. Like Melberg’s first band, Tiger Trap, Talking Quietly of Anything With You has a lot of fuzzy pop songs about feelings and a youthful, energetic sound. It’s a style often reductively labeled as “twee,” but I have a soft spot for this style of indie pop, which (when done well) feels really genuine.
Bennett’s style of singing helps make the album feel more intimate; she sometimes approaches more of a whisper, like a friend who is telling you her secrets. Her sharp lyrics capture the feeling of being young and the whirlwind of feelings and experiences you have that you don’t necessarily understand yet. She’s also funny, and a lot of what made this album stand out for me was its warmth and optimism — Talking Quietly About Anything With You is kind of like a musical hug.