Twee pop: the gentle revolution that could. Often found underneath the indie rock umbrella — twee pop is best defined as melding pop songwriting to an aesthetic that recalls the sweet, the innocent and the past. Twee is as divisive as it is complex; much like emo, there are plenty of bands who have rejected the label out of fear of being distilled into something insulting. For every band like Belle & Sebastian that have staked out a musical identity out of tradition and history, there are others, like the Shop Assistants and Los Campesinos, that have shown how fun it can be to tear up the rulebook and do something else.
Twee pop’s modern roots can arguably be traced to one band that ruled 1980s’ England: the Smiths, a band who took the twee ethos and brought it to a massive audience. Morrissey said it took strength to be gentle and kind and people really took that to heart. But the same could be said about the work done by independent labels like Sarah Records provided a formative ground for acts or NME attempting to will entire trends into existence with their C86 tape. Meanwhile, American bands like Beat Happening and Tullycraft took the simplicity-via-purity ethos and used it to inspire an entirely different set of bands, leveling out the playing field for a more diverse set of musicians.
Here’s a selection of 10 albums that provide a varied introduction to twee, both past and present. And one note: Historically, twee’s strong associations with DIY meant releases were generally designed with the cassette and CD formats in mind, with vinyl releases a rarity. As a concession, albums that were readily available were chosen for inclusion when possible.
Cardiff’s Los Campesinos always had a flair for the dramatic. The band’s early recordings were jam-packed with heart-on-the-sleeve missives; dense, wiseass verbiage and plenty of instrumentation; the band frequently toured with six or seven members. Their debut Hold On Now, Youngster… was a scrappy album that was as endearing as it was exuberant but their studio follow-up Romance is Boring found the band beginning to embrace their inner darkness. There are no songs resembling Hold On… highlight “You! Me! Dancing!” but the noise breakdowns in “Plan A” are sure to surprise, and that’s nothing to say of the emotional black hole that is “The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future.” Romance is Boring is Los Campesinos’ maximalist album — a sprawling over-the-top mess full of seething heart. No stone is left unturned.
The closest twee pop ever had to a Death Row was a tiny independent label located in Bristol named Sarah Records. This DIY label single-handedly defined post-C86 indie pop in the ’80s, releasing records by bands such as Heavenly, Another Sunny Day and the Orchids. Sarah’s flagship band, however, was the Field Mice, one of London’s key bands. Their debut album Snowball was diverse, indulging in just about every music trend happening at the time from dance to post-punk. On Snowball, the Field Mice proved they were one of London’s best at being earnest, best at displaying that wide-eyed naivety that defines the best pop and most importantly, they openly defied the notion that English twee bands solely existed to rip off the Smiths.
Rose Melberg first became prominent with her band Tiger Trap, an influential American twee pop group albeit a short-lived one. Go Sailor found Melberg teaming up with Paul Curran and Amy Linton — who notably played in Henry’s Dress and the Aislers Set, two bands very much indebted to the C86 aesthetic — to make music a lot lighter and lowkey, sacrificing punk distortion but retaining Melberg’s ability for crafting great hooks and sweet melodies. The band was a short-lived affair but their sole self-titled compilation (released by punk label Lookout Records too!) serves as a fantastic study into a time when the overlap between punk and indie began to blur.
Black Tambourine were hardly an active band. Formed in Washington, D.C., as a side project containing future members of Velocity Girl and Whorl, the band was only around for two years. In that timespan, they released 10 songs, scattered among various singles and compilations. It’s clear they were onto something: sullen pop songs cloaked in overwhelming noise and reverb. An obvious link would be the Jesus & Mary Chain, a band that perfected the marriage of noise and melody. Black Tambourine took those British sensibilities and molded it to a shambolic American twee core, resulting in a sound that evoked menace and sugar. You’ll want Black Tambourine over the older Collected Recordings, for the former adds an extra six songs to make this the most-to-date statement on Black Tambourine you could ever need.
Nobody in Beat Happening really knew how to play their instruments. The Olympia punks played without a bass player. Calvin Johnson, who would widely be known for creating K Records, an American DIY label that epitomized independence and creativity, had a drowsy foghorn of a baritone. Band members Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford would frequently switch off on drums and guitar mid-performance. In an era of bands like Fugazi and Black Flag, Beat Happening openly challenged the notion of technique. But they knew how to write great songs and their DIY ethos opened up more lanes for independent musicians who weren’t at all interested in aggression or loud volume. Look Around is a retrospective showcasing exactly what Beat Happening were great at — charming bedroom lo-fi that skirts between whimsical and naive. Look Around also presents their evolution as a band, proving just what can happen when you give a few people the patience that they’ll figure it out eventually.
The members of Joanna Gruesome all met in anger management. It’s a fitting origin tale; the band’s music subverts traditional twee notions with a healthy undercurrent of rage. Yes, there are boy/girl vocals, a pop sensibility to match and more than enough C86 influences to hear in all the guitar noise. Yet what’s inspiring about Weird Sister is the strange places the aptly named Joanna Gruesome will take it — there’s hardcore blastbeats, abrasive noise sections that recall My Bloody Valentine and bratty gang vocals all the while wrapped in a paper airplane whizzing for your head. These twists define the half an hour listening experience of Weird Sister — it’s a blistering experience yet it’s hard to think of another band that’s made being reckless sound so much fun.
Some artists take their time to evolve and while it’d be disingenuous to imply Belle & Sebastian got it right on the first go — their second album If You’re Feeling Sinister is largely considered as the better album by critics — Tigermilk is certainly the cornerstone of what was to later come. Yet the origins of this album — recorded in five days as a college project, initially pressed to a mere 1,000 copies on vinyl — and the lengthy time it took to get a second pressing meant that Tigermilk took on a near-mythical quality. Thankfully, a lot of the album’s staying power also had to do with it being a collection of great music that revealed a well-crafted mythology that fans wanted to learn more about. Songs like “The State I Am In” and “We Rule The School” revealed Murdoch’s skill for grafting sharp, poignant lyrics to music that recalled at times Nick Drake, the Smiths and Orange Juice but showcased a band crafting their own identity.
Speaking of crafting one’s identity — Camera Obscura were practically dogged with plenty of Belle & Sebastian comparisons early in their career. One listen and it’s easy to see why; they nailed the charming, reserved and retro-minded aesthetic that Belle & Sebastian glamorized and at a time when the latter were beginning to move on from that, fans clamored for more. For Let’s Get Out Of This Country, the strongest move Camera Obscura could make was to move past it. Jari Haapalainen’s production grants the band a huge canvas to work with and they take merciless advantage; from the joyous horn parts that make their entrance during “If Looks Could Kill” to the twang guitar featured on the title track, Camera Obscura end up transcending their indie pop DNA to craft something nearing a masterpiece.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see just how big a fan singer and bandleader Kip Berman was of the past thirty years of indie pop, seeing as a lot of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart opts to rewrite it on their own terms; it’s a fantastic hybrid of noise pop and C86 jangle. Songs like “Come Saturday” and “A Teenager In Love” are bursting with just enough detail and bookish charm that it’s hard to tell if it’s a sincere homage or the band slyly winking at the audience.
Morrissey reportedly claimed “All Day” by the Shop Assistants was his favorite track of 1985. Thematically, it’s not too different from something his own band might have done; the lyrics touch upon desperation and longing for someone clearly not interested in the narrator. But while any other band might have backed that with something soft sounding, the Shop Assistants went for fury and three chords — “All Day” was the furthest thing from jangly even if it shared the same pop structure. Maybe the Shop Assistants didn’t necessarily have the emotional range of a band like the Pastels (who were from neighboring Glasgow and shared a member in guitarist David Keegan) but there was enough rage amid potent charm found on the band’s sole album Will Anything Happen. The righteous anger and unpretentious delivery defines songs such as “I Don’t Want To Be Friends With You” and “Looking Back” where vocalist Alex Taylor makes threats about scratching out the eyes of former lovers. Will Anything Happen, the sole full-length the band could make before breaking up, is a fantastic statement of aggression and melody.