Indie rock is disembodied—but, largely, in rather satisfying form. What indie previously came to represent, or, more precisely, why it flourished then regressed, is difficult to boil down to a short-sentenced aphorism. Much is said about hip-hop’s role in pulling the rug from beneath indie’s feet, but there are also many elemental hard truths to be faced, of which, many fuelled indie towards a pop culture cliff-dive. From over-saturation, to a dire inability to innovate and promote inclusiveness.
Last year’s highest-selling and most streamed artists, and the pantheon of some of the most celebrated and acclaimed rock artists of all time, are predominantly straight, white males. To this day, festivals are still failing to address gender representation. Despite this, more non-binary and gay artists are fronting bands than ever before. There are more all-female bands than ever before. And they’re upsetting all patriarchal expectations. White, cisgender males still somehow dominate the airways —or what’s left of them—whereas the most intriguing sounds and ideas no longer seem ascribed to their long-standing pop and rock canons.
Multi-faceted female rock artists have existed as their male counterparts for decades — it just feels as if a generation is finally blowing rock’s dust-settled casket open. Veterans Screaming Females (led by Marissa Paternoster) and Leslie Feist, for example, recently returned with significant releases, both to widespread acclaim. Feist’s folk-leaning, experimental indie-pop LP ‘Pleasure’ marked a triumphant return to form. Paternoster’s piercing riffs provided for the focal point of their 2018 opus, ‘All For Once.’
Two indie acts who hover close to commercial relevancy—Alvvays and Wolf Alice—have charismatic female lead-vocalists, in Molly Rankin and Ellie Rowsell respectively, marked by magnetising vocal chops and ineffable gifts for dramatised meditations. Alvvays’ 'Sub-lunar Antisocialites' was an almost perfect dream-pop album; full of comforting and lusciously reverb laden pop tunes. Tantalising portraits of love are painted delicately, and mournfully, by Rankin’s ethereal warble.
Girlpool have been making vital music for some years now, as have Chastity Belt. Both groups pull from a vortex of dissatisfaction and alienation. They delineate these undercurrents of tension through their unique off-brand, jangly, sombre, guitar-rock. Sung with dispassion, bordering on resigned, Chastity Belt’s Julia Shapiro opens Complain with: “I’ve had a drink and ate some stuff/Now I’m already bored/A couple of bros said some shit/I’m choosing to ignore”. On the chorus, she’s shatteringly fragile. “Do you ever dream about what it’s like to give up?”
Katie Alice Greer’s sneering, politically-charged billows for post-punk act Priests are, in fact, punk true-and-true. UV-TV, and THICK, too, are vastly promising punk revivalists. Their sounds are an unapologetic blend of raw garage-rock, noise-pop and growling punk-riffs.
A new crop of exceptionalists emerged on DIY scenes in recent years. 2017 saw many of these young acts grow; artistically, personally and metaphysically, within the realms of an increasingly sinister digitized age of mistruths, broadening inequalities and crushing existential uncertainty. Their forged paths could be seen as patently as an evening out of the odds, or an antidote vital to redressing years of stagnation, even chain-breaking.
The barriers-to-entry typically associated with musicianship have been eviscerated, through the advent of the internet and the ease-of-release of platforms like Bandcamp, Soundcloud and YouTube. Frankie Cosmos, and more recently Sidney Gish, represent this lo-fi DIY ethos most accurately. Gish, just 20-years-old, self-released ‘No Dogs Allowed’ on New Year’s Eve last. Her mordant wit complements her sweet, intangibly complex guitar arrangements, which move at a slow pace, quiet and hypnotic. On quirky highlight I Eat Salads Now, she refers to an early Frankie Cosmos track (“I’m 20”), quipping that she’s “twenty, washed up already”.
Artists like Vagabon, Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast and Snail Mail, ride this tidal wave of liberty, and are unwilling to compromise for anyone, or anything. Vagabon in particular—born Laetitia Tamko, who grew up in Cameroon—is a self-taught polymath that balances poise and vigour. She taught herself to play acoustic guitar via instructional DVDs, and inspired by seeing a friends’ band play, she decided she could do better.
‘Infinite World’ was her breakthrough release and The Embers was the moment-of-clarity quantifying her genius; a heart-wrenchingly tender voice, imaginative lyrics that use something as minute as losing someone’s cat as a force-field of female defiance, all the while, unearthing crushingly intimate melodies.
Jay Som, aka Melina Duterte, is another artist of the same cloth as Tamko. ‘Everybody Works’ was her second full-length but it felt less a musical project and more a whispery, lo-fi fuzz, and R&B-inspired soundtrack to a sweet coming-of-age drama; her influences varying as far as her talents. Baybee is the best Mac Demarco song Demarco has never written, a blissful slither of synth-pop heaven.
Japanese Breakfast—otherwise known as Michelle Zauner—is a project indebted to diversity in sound, but one that that remains decidedly uniform in its earthly divinity. Lush instrumentation and robust guitars saw her slide cinematically between autotuned-disco (‘Machinist’), sprawling balladry (‘Boyish’), and red-eyed singer-songwriter mode (‘This House’) on 2017’s ‘Soft Sounds from Another Planet’. Mitski, on the same hand, is as infinitely gifted at penning expansive indie tracks. ‘Puberty 2’ was an unflinching statement of personal intent, she chronicled human nature’s coded predisposition for self-destruction through narratives and observations wry and cold.
Still only 18-years-old, Lindsey Jordan is the bandleader, and guitar-shredder-in-chief, of rising alt-rock band, Snail Mail. Her band recently signed to Matador Records after the release of their promising debut EP ‘Habit’ on Priests’ label Sister Polygon last year. Her songs are doused in a lo-fi fuzz, but they rock, and pulsate.
Mitski, Duterte, Jordan and Lamko are incidentally all gay, but they don’t allow their sexuality to be a defining part of their artistry. And although queer politics don’t pervade their work externally, their experiences help to tell their stories, which for too long have gone untold.
Their presence itself, it seems, is a statement. Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison told the New York Times that even her music’s vulnerability is “kind of political because you’re going against everyone who says that you can’t feel that.”
Lucy Dacus and Soccer Mommy—with a matched delicate, disintegrative approach to songwriting and honeyed vocals—have already released two of 2018’s most poignant albums. Dacus uses turns-of-phrase on ‘Historian’ that flutter in liminal space (“I used to be too deep inside my head/Now I’m too far out of my skin”). There’s guitar passages that boldly speak for themselves. In all of her overwrought messaging—she sees herself as a historian masquerading as a musician—her impish delivery, as well as her technical proficiency, rise like cream.
Sophie Alison, better known as Soccer Mommy, is another artist revolutionary in her own right. Her melodic lo-fi brand of indie is wrung from pop sensibilities but eschews all known parameters of how an indie act should feel. She yearns to be cool, knowing it relates to some far-flung adolescent social concept, she just wants to belong. (“I wanna know like you/I wanna be that cool.”). Self-doubt and self-loathing creep into the gorgeously tender Last Girl. (“She’s the sun in your cold world/And I am just a dying flower”). We’re all fallible. And Alison uses this emotional disintegration as a conduit for wickedly sharp, hook-encrusted, indie gems on debut ‘Clean’.
You can hear the self-awareness writ large, its inimitable. Yet—Tamko, Jordan, Duterte and Zauner, are also indefinitely fearless and ambitious. At a time where male indie bands are pastiches of a bygone NME era, these acts seem implacable. Even decent-to-good new male-fronted or lad-bands preen at decades-old influences and sound tired.
Philadelphia’s Hop Along—slated to release an album next month—play intelligent, power-pop inspired indie-rock. Inescapability is a descriptor not kindly enough for Frances Quinlan’s voice, at times it’s wrathful, in other moments it enters the uncharted territory between jubilation and anguish through it’s sheer weight.
Charly Bliss delivered one of the most instantly hooky alt-rock albums in recent memory in ‘Guppy’. A choppy pop-punk album that glistens in ‘90’s alt-rock nostalgia, it’s two young lovers lying in a field, high, picking out the constellations. Eva Hendricks is outrightly funny, too. Her bubblegum vocals and razor-sharp attitude as irrepressible as her fiery guitar licks. On break-up song Black Hole, Hendricks sings: “She’s got her toe in the cornhole/Bleeding out in a snowcone”. On DQ, she admits to laughing at her ex’s dog dying and rues that she always gets dumped on her birthday. This unwavering power in self, in recklessness, is why artists such as Hendricks are pushing buttons and boundaries.
In the relatively progressive milieu of indie music, female artists have not had their voices amplified as their male peers. Music publications and industry professionals alike often use their “cause” as marketing gimmicks with eyes lasered on the commercial, or PR, and with little visibility or support comes oppression, less recognition, and often regrettable obscurity. Spotify’s recent Smirnoff Equalizer experiment, released to mark International Women’s Day, is the most cynical of examples.
Using an algorithm, the Vodka-sponsored application provides users with a percentage breakdown of of their listening habits, male-vs-female. And if you skew heavily towards male artists, the extension generates an equalizer playlist of recommended female artists. Something so flagrantly branded does nothing to serve gender equality in the industry. Many found their recommendations to be commercialised regardless—Top-40 pop artists, classic ‘90’s hits—that, by definition, elevates nothing but profit margins.
To some, it’s not so much about a pendulum swing, a paradigm shift in power, as much as it is redemption. Sheer Mag—gritty ‘70s hard-rock purveyors, fronted by the hair-rising manic energy of Tina Halladay —beckon you to fight back, not stand-by, much like what she and her contemporaries are doing. “You've got to fan the flames/You've got to stand up and break the chains,” she sings with enviable fury on Fan The Flames, simultaneously decomposing hard-rock’s misogynistic and male-dominated roots.
The Opening is a deliberate underhook to prescribed gender roles in the music industry, not a device in ironic jest, that feminist-punks Camp Cope deliver on the first track of their latest album, ‘How To Socialise & Make Friends’.“It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up the room/It’s another man telling us to book a smaller venue,” Georgia McDonald shout-sings. The song, by its own admission, tackles female artists being treated as quota-fillers and token-acts.
You don’t have to look too far across the Atlantic, or the Irish Sea, to find bratty, DIY punk in féminité glory. Ireland’s most promising rock acts lie far from the lukewarm male-dominated scene of years gone by. Plec Pick Pillow Queens’ latest track Favourite confronts anxiety and the preconceived image of Irish self-deprecation, sung with a sharp Dublin twang, of course. Vernon Jane attack gender roles with sardonic venom on Fuck Me. “I know you’ve been teaching me my right from wrong,” sings Emily Jane O’Connor. There’s hues of riot grrrl in her channelled frustration as disparate, nihilist-sounding guitars coalesce on the hook. “I want you to call me your bitch,” O’Connor screams with hell-bent scorn.
Even if the compositions are not classically punk in their energy, then the aura, or vision, which flows through its arteries can lend itself to punk. This is the case with many of the most potent singer-songwriters in recent memory, all of which use a guitar as a vehicle by which to deliver their transcendent voices. Julie Baker and Angel Olsen are telling examples of this. Sparse melancholy informs their sound, with their timelessly commanding and haunting vocals stretching and soaring in ways most singers can only dream. On 2016’s ‘MY WOMAN’, Olsen’s sound, effectively, became more grandiose and muscular. In her enthralling scope, and corporeal execution, she represents a microcosm of a changing modern indie-rock landscape.
Adrianne Lenker, of Big Thief fame, has also a voice to be reckoned with, it renders sugar sour, and halts time like a broken watch. Her lyrics are deeply exploratory. One of the most vivid writers working today—lavish, progressive, folk guitar arrangements in accompaniment—traumas are memorialised with blanketing conviction. “You can wake up now Momma,” Lenker sings from an echoing distance on Coma. “You won’t recognise your house/Will you recognise the/Iris of the body.”
Common Holly and Phoebe Bridgers are two rising artists in the same weightless vein. Waxahatchee, another visceral songwriter and performer, is effective in bridging the gap between punk aesthetics and emo despondency, her most recent release was striking in its simplicity. Wounded, yet fierce. There’s infinite examples of artists not limiting themselves to their gender identity; Courtney Barnett, Jesca Hoop, Miya Folick, Shilpa Ray, Mannequin Pussy, Bully, Girl Ray.
I see cracks in the power structures of old and the prevailing sounds and voices are refreshing, hard-hitting, and full of depth and colour, wholly regenerative and urgent. Indie-rock underwent an deep identity crisis. A reductionist exercise would be to profess what post-crisis indie actually means today in the ever morphing terrains of music and media. What’s less ambiguous is the fact female rock artists are making the most cutting-edge, determinedly defiant, rock music today. And we should not only listen. We should recognise, support and celebrate a revolt, one which is taking place from the outside-in.