English act Echo Lake ended up in the news for the worst possible reason in 2012, the death of drummer Pete Hayes more widely-reported than the release of their debut album, Wild Peace. To bring this up is not to downplay the tragedy the band suffered, but to point out, to all those that skimmed over the RIP notice, that Hayes played drums in a band he loved and believed in, who're worth hearing outside of the specter of his death. Though named after a feature of Disney World, Echo Lake's sound is distinctly English; drawing from the dreamy, atmospheric end of shoegaze practiced by acts like Slowdive and Pale Saints, with Linda Jarvis's washed-out voice swimming through unfurling ribbons of delay-draped guitar.
ESP are a LA trio obsessed with old New Age cassettes, with guided-meditation synthesizer soundscapes and flotation-tank keyboard waft and the synaesthetic qualities of particular presets. There's been scores of underground synth-muzak acolytes exploring this realm, but few have hit quite so vividly on the possibilities of exploring these sounds unironically. Rather than sounding like a work of retrofuturist pastiche or bedroom isolationism, the trio —based around the brother/sister duo of Aska and Seiya Matsumiya— sound like they want nothing more than to make a human connection; to have us all holding hands, and lucid-dreaming our way together through the rainbow-ripples of their psychedelic-synth-sound cosmos. This is, of course, the goal of Extra Sensory Perception: the dream of communication via thought, not words; and their self-titled EP wants to be a bridge between their brains and yours.
Young London outfit Evans the Death have a genuine weapon in the form of vocalist Katherine Whitaker, whose voice can go from highwire howls to tender prettiness and back. It adds a beauteous contrast to the band's raggedy indie-rock racket, which leans often on distortion and brashness. Even better: Whitaker's singing the witty words of songwriter/guitarist Dan Moss, which are mischievous and satirical in the great tradition of English indie-pop smart-asses (think: Howard Devoto, Edwyn Collins, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker, Darren Hayman et al). And, at their best, the lyrics can be both hilarious and beautiful, like in single "I'm So Unclean," when Whitaker mournfully, tenderly carols "When I'm watching the shopping channel, I will think of you."
For devotees to classic anorak indie —C-86, twee, jangle, dream-pop, Sarah and Slumberland, zines, scenes, cassettes, cuties, cardigans and K Records tattoos, etc.etc.— then Fear of Men were the debutantes of the year. Given they are, clearly, fans of classic anorak indie themselves. The Brighton band even put out their "Mosaic" seven-inch on the once-thought-to-be-defunct Too Pure imprint, scoring late-'80s/early-'90s nostalgia via the logo on the back of the 45. Matching the sing-song singing of Jessica Weiss with the requisite thin, trebly, jangly guitars and cardboard-box-ish drums. On "Born," Fear of Men turn this into a thing of beauty; tapping into that spirit of bedroom-indie as the eternal balm for broken hearts.
Foxygen are a pair of American kids —one from New York, one from Olympia, WA— rummaging through old British Invasion records, nicking licks and repurposing swagger, performing a cut-and-paste job on classic-pop sounds with both a sense of humor and a sense of adventure. Their awesomely-titled disc Take the Kids Off Broadway is like a magical mystery tour into murky, manic, ever-merry rock'n'rolls jams, in which pastiche switches up into pastiche into pastiche; a whole jukebox worth of late-'60s tropes hatcheted up into twitchy, itching, impish form. The colossal, shape-shifting, rock-opera closing cut, "Middle School Dance (Song for Richard Swift)," includes a shout-out to a producer who serves as both spiritual forebear and neat comparison for Foxygen.
Whilst raucous Swedish rockers Holograms are clearly obsessed with post-punk England, to the point where Anton Spetze's yelpy bark almost sounds like an Oi! vocalist (especially when he's singing, assumedly with some irony, "Sweden's pride!" over and over in "You Are Ancient"). Their debut, self-titled LP —issued on Brooklyn's brilliant Captured Tracks— showcases a band playing snarling, stripped-down, bare-bones punk in a cavern of echo, like they've taken their keyboard/bass/drums/guitar onto the train-tracks of a subway tube, and we're listening to them from the next station. That (kinda contrived, sorry) image suggests the darkness, the darkness, and the subterranean intrigue of their post-punk; which is further conveyed by press photos that paint the members as sepia blur. Fans of Danish punks Iceage: listen up.
Whilst indie-rock has long been in thrall to the work of primitivists, punks, and outsider artists, there's always been a place for those with unadulterated musical proficiency; the rise of folk like Sufjan and Owen and Joanna in the '00s turning the ambitious, orchestrally-minded prodigy into a friendly, first-name figure. Florida five-piece Hundred Waters are clearly compositional eggheads, but, like those forebears, they haven't forgotten the simple humanity and straight-up beauty that best connects with an audience. Their self-titled debut album is a study in mixing concert-hall grandeur with rough-hewn folksiness and ruptured digitalia, but, thanks to the glorious, soaring voice of Nicole Miglis, no one's ever going to mistake it for a work of austere chin-scratchery.
Io Echo first put out their first song in 2009, which is roughly two decades ago in blog years (which are exactly like dog years, natch). Yet, they remained an almost-secretive proposition in the three years since, only putting out two more singles whilst beavering away at their debut album. It's still coming, too; the LP still being finished up for 2013. But Io Echo have turned out their debut, five-song EP; a work of evocative, atmospheric goth-pop that draws from '80s staples like Siouxsie Sioux and Cocteau Twins in its vast, echoey symphonies of trouble. Sometimes, their dream-pop layers are soft-focus and foggy, all misty ambience and soft coos; but other times Ionna Gika strikes a more command presence, Leopold Ross layers on the noisy, shoegazin' guitar, and the band peddle something closer to pure pop. It's a promising mix whose gestation period has been long.
Impeccably-maned Londoner Adam Bainbridge came out of nowhere to issue one of the year's most striking debut LPs, Kindness's World, You Need a Change of Mind. On it, he creates a singular mood —effectively, downbeat disco— from a range of different-sounding songs, and a wide-ranging run of influences (French-house, synth-pop, funk, piano-bar jazz, chillwave, etc). The huge influence of French superstars like Daft Punk and Phoenix gives a cross-channel flavor to his chilled-out, hipster stew, and Bainbridge's thoughtful curation of the Kindness 'brand' —his attention to myth-making, to publicity shots, to artwork, to music videos— has made the getting-to-know-you process an unbroken delight.
At the beginning of 2012, Mac DeMarco arrived with his debut LP, Rock and Roll Night Club, which ran the clichés of mid-century Americana —blue jeans, bobby socks, malt shops, etc— through the warped, lo-fi filter of Ariel Pink. Making such a debut would've made a fruitful year for any debutante, but the Canadian kook made light of regular release-schedule pace, showing up six months later with his second LP. 2, as it was casually called, found DeMarco refining his brand of laconic, wobbly pop; jams like "My Kind of Woman" and "Freaking Out the Neighborhood" showing the endearing melodies, stylistic oddness, and goofball charm of ol' Mac. Ol' being non-literal: though he has two LPs under his belt, DeMarco is still just 22, but a babe in the rock'n'roll woods...