Top Five Lo-Fi Indie Rock Songs I Keep Coming Back To

5 Oct

I’m a sucker for a certain style of art. I love books by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mazzucchelli. I love Machinarium and Old Man’s Journey. I loved the animated movie L’Illusioniste. I also love lo-fi indie rock records.

I love the gentleness and the intelligence and the melancholy. I love the quiet and the lack of hurry and the sincerity. I love the way they feel. And with this list, I’m going to give you 5 (plus a bonus) of the ones I love the most.

Honorable Mention. Sufjan Stevens – Should Have Known Better

This is a delicate, gossamer track. Sufjan’s singing is a caress and that softness animates the track. It’s a very hazy, very ambiguous track and that’s key to the whole aesthetic. You don’t want full sentences or a full story.  The  empty space is the point. This is magical realism as music.

That gentleness and obscurity accentuate the melancholy of the music. The title tells you the emotion that the song wants to convey, but by itself, it would be flat. The attraction of this music is in the texture. It’s in pushing a feeling that you can’t pin down, but can only hint at. He sings “I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / The bridge to nowhere / I should have wrote a letter / Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling” but his voice doesn’t carry regret, but lightness instead. It’s accepting of what has happened, not recriminating. Melancholy doesn’t have to hurt.

5. Girlpool – Chinatown

This is still lo-fi, still indie, but this is a track with an edge to it. Where “Should Have Known Better” is soft and gentle, this is a track that’s not shy about its pain. It’s a misfit’s song and so sharp it cut itself. “I’m still looking for sureness in the way I say my name” is a razor blade and the loud of “I am nervous for tomorrow and today” after the soft of the chorus has all of the emotion of Nirvana but with millennial anxiety instead of 90s angst and “If I loved myself, would I take it the wrong way” is a line both painfully smart and just painful.

4. Ghostpoet – Meltdown

Ghostpoet may not be the most traditional pick for a list like this, but “Meltdown” hits all the right notes for inclusion. It’s the sadness of a missed opportunity and of the gap between knowing that you should act and acting itself. It’s a hazy and indeterminate song, it doesn’t feel like any particular moment, but instead of a period that blends together in memory into a singular feeling.

It’s also strikingly urban in a genre that’s typically small-town. Normally, these songs are situated in a suburb that’s easily painted sepia, but this song feels like I walk I once took at 2AM in San Francisco as things fell apart. It was cold and the mist muddled the brightness of the streetlights and passing cars and the blurriness contrasted with the sharp, wet pinpricks of the air outside. It’s every bit as cinematic as anything else on here, but with a very different palette and for all of its differences, it holds all the same quality.

3. The National – I Need My Girl

You cannot write a list like this without The National. They’re the poster child of this kind of cinematic melancholy. Indeed, movies of this ilk turn immediately to the National for a reason. I was tempted to pick “Pull of You” or “I Am Easy To Find” off their latest album instead of this track. I Am Easy To Find took the giant step forward of adding female vocalists to their track and so balancing out their biggest flaw, their preoccupation with themselves.

It is for that preoccupation that I picked this track though, to highlight that clear single point of view that so typifies the genre. It’s in choosing self-flagellation over making amends. It’s in how the fault was his and yet he is still centered in the song.  He needs his girl.

That inability to understand animates the song though. This is the music of having made a mistake and being the kind of person who can’t fix it. Were it not for the delicate skill of the music, this song would be nothing, but instead it is the perfect distillation of the wistfulness of past wrongs.

2. Speedy Ortiz – No Below

I spent months singing the chorus of this song over and over again. I didn’t even sing the full thing, just “I was better off just being dead / Better off just being dead.” There’s something about the tone of Sadie Dupuis as she sings that I cannot resolve in my mind and so it sticks to me. Her singing is sweet and rough and jars so sharply against the song’s content, which in turn is so clearly enunciated that you cannot miss a single word and which itself communicates fatigue so cleanly.

Sometimes, things change you and you just stay changed. Some things are permanent. Sometimes, you can have all of the pieces you need to be happy, but you’re just not a person who can be happy in the way you used to be. It’s just not in your range anymore.

The distortion at the end of the song is everything here. The song is built on some very efficient storytelling. It’s honest, vivid narrative all the way through, and then the vocals stop and the guitar’s screech gives you some space for your own thoughts, and as this song describes, there are few better ways to lacerate.

1. Better Oblivion Community Center – Service Road

I’ve written a lot about things like magical realism and cinematic qualities in this list, but no song does that better than “Service Road.” It’s exceptionally clever and that results in truly excellent storytelling. “Asking strangers to forgive him / But he never told them what it is / He did to them that made him feel so bad” is evocative and open-ended and so the best of what the genre has to offer. Truly excellent melancholy is not mere sadness nor mere self-reproach, but needs the intelligence both to trap the singer and to enthrall the listener.

The comes through in the music as well. The simple, effective guitar frames the vocals very well and gives them space to be gentle, human and regretful. Where some of the other songs here have jagged edges, this one slips into you without a ripple and never leaves. I do wish that it had more Phoebe Bridgers though.

It ends on such an open note though. It ends with motion, with the feeling of freedom. Maybe that’s the only way for these to end. These are stories about life and there are no true conclusions there. Things go on.

The sharpness of a regret is not in it happening, but in living with it having happened, but maybe there’s a second side to that. It’s not in redemption or in self-improvement or forgiveness. It’s not even in having a fresh start. It’s just that tomorrow exists. It’s not a new day or a fresh page and it can’t change what happened today, but it still exists, both as blessing and as curse.

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