The Best Indie-Pop Singles (and Albums) of 2011

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Los Campesinos! have come a long way in five years of playing music together. When we heard the Welsh band’s Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP in 2007, we were instantly enamored of their twee-pop earworms with lyrics that you couldn’t help shouting along to. Since then, they’ve released three albums, each with progressively darker lyrics and a more aggressive, dissonant sound. So we were amused and unsurprised to hear that their new album, to be released tomorrow in the US, would be titled Hello Sadness , and were excited to absorb it in full (it’s now streaming over at NPR).

But Los Campesinos! are hardly the only twee band to grace us with new music in 2011. For those of you who are new to the indie-pop world, or who haven’t visited it in awhile, allow us to catch you up. Pop music has always been more about singles than albums, particularly in the age of iTunes. Inspired by Hello Sadness‘s lead single, “By Your Hand,” we’ve gathered up a selection of the best indie-pop songs of this year. As a bonus, we’ve also rated how well the album stands up in comparison. Enjoy, and tell us what we left out in the comments.

Los Campesinos! — “By Your Hand”

Last year’s Los Campesinos! LP Romance is Boring was one of our favorite albums of the year. It was dark, sad, full of neuroses, and incorporated some noise. With a title like Hello Sadness, we expected more of the same from this album, but the opener “By Your Hand” is more reminiscient of the band’s earlier, more twee material. But it’s not all kittens and unicorns. The song epitomizes the angsty, dark humor Los Campesinos! fans love, with lyrics that somehow manage to fit sexual frustration, hand jobs, and murder into one pun.

Does the album hold up? After an early evaluation (we’ve only had it for a week), it’s our least favorite Los Campesinos! release so far, but there are still some great songs. Comparative Sadness Rating: like the blob in the Zoloft commercial before getting on meds.

Tennis – “Marathon”

It seems like it came out forever ago, but the wonderful album Cape Dory by the husband-wife group Tennis, a collection of adorable songs about the couple’s honeymoon sailing trip, was actually released in January of this year. We wore it out in the winter months and spun it on lazy summer days, but going back to it now, it’s clear that this is music meant for any season. “Marathon,” a re-recording of a track originally released on their Baltimore EP, is a buoyant, pretty song with a mischievous edge, which chronicles an almost-disastrous night on the couple’s sea voyage. The track achieves a perfect balance of lo-fi fuzz and clear, strong vocals, resulting in a song so comforting you want to wrap around you like a Snuggie.

Does the album hold up? Totally! It makes us want to take a cruise, er, sailing trip, with our imaginary husband. 4.5/5 oars.

Traveling — “Future Ghost”

Ginger Alford has been playing in the Bloomington, IN pop-punk group Good Luck for a few years now, and though we love their energetic, angsty tunes, we think she’s hitting her stride with her new side project Traveling, which released a demo called End of Summer this year on Bandcamp. If you’re a big fan of bands like Built To Spill or The Weakerthans, you’ll love her tight songwriting and quotable lyrics. We are particularly into the song “Future Ghost,” which feels instantly recognizable without being tired. We’re excited to see more substantial releases from this project in the future.

Does the album hold up? All the songs on the demo are great! We would definitely give her $5 (or more) for the download!

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart — “Heart In Your Heartbreak”

We were big fans of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart’s self-titled first album, but we were blown away by their new LP Belong , which puts aside the lo-fi fuzziness of their older stuff and brings their songwriting and musicianship to the forefront. But though the album offers a lot of great, ’80s-influenced pop tracks, we are totally obsessed with the first single, “Heart In Your Heartbreak.” Pains excel at pop songs that start catchy and build to a euphoric climax, and this song replaces “Young Adult Friction” as their greatest example of this yet. We recommend the song for any dreary morning; it’s guaranteed to turn your day around.

Does the album hold up? Overall, we think so, with other standout songs like “My Terrible Friend” and the title track, “Belong.” 8.6: Best New Album By A Band With Too Many Words In Their Name.

Kids on a Crime Spree — “To Mess With Dynamite”

The first of a few surf rock-influenced bands on this list, Kids on a Crime Spree definitely bring the pop to their album We Love You So Bad . They mix their sugary tunes with a garage sound similarly to another favorite new pop band of ours, Davila 666. What makes this band interesting is their soft, Belle & Sebastian-like vocals over growling guitars and rockabilly riffs. The self-descriptive “Sweet Tooth,” is the obvious single, but we prefer the girl-group harmonies and rock ‘n’ roll rumble of “To Mess With Dynamite,” a song you can’t help but imagine dancing embarrassingly around your room to.

Does the album hold up? 3.5 out of 5. San Francisco surf-rock bands agree it’s “pretty rad.”

Real Estate — “It’s Real”

Sometimes a band you’re tired of hearing about puts out an amazing album, and you just have to deal with it. We were getting a little weary of Real Estate, their multiplying side projects, and their seemingly endless reserve of alt-cred, until we heard this undeniable track off their recently released second LP Days . Their older material, though it had great potential, sometimes seemed a bit lost in a haze of guitar pedals and pot smoke. This song, however, is crystal clear. (Plus, OMG, dogs.)

Does the album hold up? WE TAKE IT BACK, REAL ESTATE, PLEASE PLAY OUR LOFT PARTY!!!!

Slow Club — “Two Cousins”

Exceedingly appropriate for this list is the band Slow Club, who we originally discovered when they toured with Los Campesinos! “Two Cousins,” the first track off the UK-based duo’s second album Paradise, will most likely make our top-ten favorite songs list for the year. Unlike a lot of generic indie pop, it’s instantly emotionally affecting, with a melody that bounces around your head for days. We consider this album what the Cults LP could have been if they were better songwriters and had a singer as expressive as Rebecca Taylor. We’re sure you’ll be hearing more about this album soon, on a variety of year-end lists.

Does the album hold up? One of our favorites of the year. Ambiguously-Dating Band Rating: 4/5?

Smith Westerns — “Imagine pt. 3”

It’s always impressive when very young bands make good music. Smith Westerns started getting a lot of attention last year for just that, and this year they came through with the release of Dye It Blonde . When we first heard the album, we were ecstatic about its bouncy and sometimes psychedelic melodies and instrumentation. These elements are especially apparent on the track “Imagine pt. 3,” where their pop songwriting is used to great effect.

Does the album hold up? It’s surprisingly good upon return. Months since we last listened to it: six.

Dum Dum Girls — “Coming Down”

We had written off Dum Dum Girls as another band with “Girls” in their name, and one with a suspiciously similar aesthetic to Vivian Girls, until we actually gave them a listen this year and found that they’d totally transcended “band with trendy name” status. Our current favorite off their new album Only in Dreams is the smoldering slow-dance jam “Coming Down.” A perfect soundtrack to lying on our beds and learning to blow smoke rings.

Does the album hold up? 7 on a scale of 8 Girls.

Davila 666 — “Ya Seria Otro”

Puerto Rico’s Davila 666 have only recently broken into the American blog-hype cycle, despite releasing a full album in 2008 and two EPs last year. All their work is lo-fi, rockabilly and surf-influenced rock that conveys both machismo and an indie-pop sensibility that comes across best in a live setting. Their new album, Tan Bajo , leans more towards the garage and punk side of the spectrum, but the song “Ya Seria Otro,” which was originally featured on last year’s EP Mala, manages to incorporate doo-wop harmonies, and even strings, elevating it above some of their tracks that kill it live but grow a little tiresome in recorded form.

Does the album hold up? ¡Sí! Es muy padre. Queremos fiestar.