From 2007 through 2009, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio, and Animal Collective topped the Pazz & Jop albums poll, closing a decade in which underground music produced dance-punk and avant-noise, double-fisted bar music and Ivy League high life, albums about entire states and artists’ grandmothers. (And those were just the bands from Brooklyn.) After this creative burst, indie enjoyed its biggest crossover moment since the mid 1990s: Jay-Z co-signed Grizzly Bear, Kanye West enlisted the help of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Shakira covered the xx, and after a shock Album of the Year win at the Grammys, “Who Is Arcade Fire??!!?” became a thing.
In other eras, a type of self-correction followed underground rock being embraced on a larger scale—20 years after grunge went above ground, for example, indie still seems averse to heavy rock. How then to follow an eclectic, anything-goes era? Making music destined for a limited audience: Indie burrowed first into retro fuzz-pop, then found mainstream Kryptonite in limp, demo-quality electro and amniotic dribble. (The once-healthy Brooklyn scene has worked as a microcosm of indie’s rise and subsequent flagging influence: Between 2002 and 2007, the borough produced or housed 21 nominally indie bands that cracked Pazz & Jop’s Top 50. In the past four years, it has spawned three.)
Considering the results of this year’s Pazz & Jop, a new crop of committed individuals following a personal muse seems in short supply. Bursting free of the pack, Oakland-based tUnE-yArDs—easily the albums poll’s least-well-known winner—sits at #1 this year. Merrill Garbus’s band forged strong personal connections with listeners (her points-per-vote average was a whopping 12.185) because of her muscular, theatrical blend of personal and political politics, not to mention live shows sparkling with the magic of a committed individualist who’d finally located a loving audience. Further down the list is former Gowns member Erika M. Anderson, now making boldly honest drone-folk as EMA.
It’s probably no accident that corners of the indie world became more insular when social media exploded. While tastemakers of old were early adopters, recognizing or even kick-starting trends and movements, gatekeepers today primarily accrue social currency online and in real-time, making speed of consumption discerning music fans’ most precious asset. “We have evolved into early adopter listeners who enjoy an MP3 70 percent more when we are among the first several thousand people to hear it,” Hipster Runoff’s Carles deadpanned in 2010. Protecting the “personal brand” is how it’s defined on HRO; via check-ins and tagged photos on services like Foursquare and Instagram, users selectively shape and broadcast their impeccable taste without room for context, thought, or nuance. This year’s Lana Del Rey hubbub mirrored these very problems. Her cool-baiting signifiers—David Lynch, Nancy Sinatra, James Dean—earned her quick praise online, but when the news that she had made an earlier stab at a major-label career broke, listeners furiously argued over her artistic validity and lip shape.
The head-spinning end result is an indie-rock world that feels like a place where fitting in is more valued than standing out. Chillwave and its electro-pop cousins—easily digestible, rooted in collective memory and experiences, lo-fi enough to mask amateurishness—were tailor-made for the job, capturing mood and vibe and, by extension, providing a ready-made soundtrack for listeners. The resulting pattern of looking over one’s shoulder for approval while attempting to embrace an artist as early as possible doesn’t foster a healthy creative environment but one dominated by conservative choices, where the familiar (or easily understood) trump the bold and the brave. Ruptures in expectations, risks, and singular artists who defy categorization are suppressed if the overarching motivation of the audience is a fear of looking foolish.
On the other hand, if the goal is to embrace music unsullied by the potential of crossover success, job well done. For more than a half-decade, the new wave of indie tastemakers have been considered bloggers. Today, the most influential of those is arguably the Dallas-based blog Gorilla vs. Bear, though its sensibilities are hardly troubling the critical world as a while. GVSB’s album of the year, Shabazz Palaces’ exploratory, intelligent Black Up, placed at #10 on Pazz & Jop; Real Estate was the site’s only other Top 25 LP to cross over into the P&J Top 50, landing at #32. Outside of those two excellent albums, the rest of the site’s year-end Top 25 combined didn’t garner as many P&J points as either tUnE-yArDs or poll runner-up PJ Harvey did on their own. (Some 18 months after gaining next-medium-thing status, the heavy hitters of chillwave didn’t fare any better: Only Washed Out landed in the Top 100.)
With such a disconnect between the underground’s more discerning ears and the critical world at large, veterans and entrenched sounds dominated the poll. Wild Flag (#4) and cryptic indie pop artist Destroyer (#7) joined fellow deservedly lauded ’90s holdovers Shabazz (the former Digable Planets leader) and PJ Harvey in the Top 10. Also in the upper reaches of the list: veteran shape-shifters Tom Waits, Paul Simon, the Roots, Wilco, and Radiohead. Most of the relatively new groups are classic rockers in thrift clothing; the highest-placing of those, Bon Iver, is led by Justin Vernon, who literally traded recording alone in a Wisconsin cabin for collaborating with some of the biggest pop stars in the world, while the best of them is Kurt Vile, who displayed a wry sense of humor and a casually confident mastery of heartland rock on Smoke Ring for My Halo. Despite micro-indie and underground music’s almost pathological fixation on the now, the only truly new indie artist in the albums poll’s Top 40 is U.K.-based ’90s revivalists Yuck, while the highest-placing indie single is courtesy of ’80s revivalists M83. With LCD Soundsystem calling it quits and TV on the Radio slipping to a ho-hum #43 spot, that 2002–07 Brooklyn class is starting to shrink from the vanguard of indie rock. Other than embryonic artists ill-prepared for the spotlight, alternatives seem to be in scant supply.