At the beginning of the 2010s, indie was still struggling to get out of bed. The turn of the decade saw the genre resurrect the slacker stereotypes that alternately defined and plagued the bedhead indie rockers of the 1980s and ’90s — back when the term more applied to defining an ethos than a marketing plan. This time around, the tools were slightly different; alongside wooly, lazy-river guitar bands like Real Estate and Woods, home-recording technology and the increasing interconnectedness of the internet birthed chillwave, a nostalgia-laden subgenre of indie that largely focused on electronic-pop textures and blurry tones ripped straight from various eras of physically degraded media. Some of indie’s most visible forefathers (the specified gender being operative) gained widespread recognition through hitting the road and gigging regularly; chillwave’s practitioners, on the other hand, could reach a massive audience without ever leaving their rooms.
As indie continued its industry-led transformation from a way of being to a way of selling, the relaxed-fit days of the early 2010s continued to have ripple effects amid the emergence of bolder, punkier, and more progressive acts. Vancouver haze-spinner Mac DeMarco became one of the decade’s most familiar faces with a generous, come-as-you-are style of guitar rock as impossibly charming as the gap-toothed grin across his face, while bridge-gap enfants terribles Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty emerged with hallucinogen-gobbling backstories and stoner-friendly wistfulness that belied grander ambitions. In particular, those latter two artists unleashed something representing their own respective political awakenings last year with Lust for Life and Pure Comedy; the first a dread-soaked evocation of modern life in political wartime, the second representing essentially a Chapo Trap House listener’s version of the infamous “Time for some game theory” Twitter thread.
History often repeats itself, and so 2018 saw two releases from previously slacker-pigeonholed acts consumed with confronting and questioning the regular horrors of everyday society; this time, however, from acts who don’t share as many spiritual kinships as Lana and Misty. Psych-pop duo MGMT snuck into the opening months of 2018 with Little Dark Age, their most direct and approachable statement since 2008’s blockbuster debut Oracular Spectacular and an album zeroing in on the apocalypse — what it might look like, and how we should react to the oncoming threat. Then there were NYC’s wisecracking punks Parquet Courts, whose Wide Awake! took on an explicitly political shape more than any of their previous work, while also representing a melodic breakthrough for a band that had already established itself as reliably producing Velvet Underground– and Wire-indebted guitar punk.
Of the two records, it’s hard to decide which topical pivot proved more surprising; elements of worldly concern lurked underneath both bands’ respective frameworks, but were doubtlessly brought to the forefront following pretty much everything that’s happened in American life over the past several years. An air of dead seriousness sometimes lurked underneath Parquet Courts’ previous material, in particular; “Dust,” from the band’s 2015 album Human Performance, treated the pesky mites as an everyday epidemic threatening to choke the air out of our lungs. But vocalists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown have also showcased an approach as knowingly snarky as it is positively baked, dating back to their time in Denton, Texas, weirdo-pop outfit Fergus & Geronimo. To wit: One of the standouts on Parquet Courts’ breakout 2012 release Light Up Gold was titled “Stoned and Starving,” which was about exactly what it sounds like.
That sense of postcollegiate conviviality is still more than present on Wide Awake!, an album that Savage has said represents an attempt to make a punk record that could be played at parties. With curious collaborator Danger Mouse at the helm as producer, Parquet Courts more than successfully achieve that vision; Wide Awake!’s sound is loud and bright, every sliver of sneering attitude leavened by a hip-shaking funkiness down to the DFA-esque title track. But the lyrics are often searing and direct when it comes to addressing topical concerns and how they affect what’s going on inside their heads; the band’s trademark sense of humor has all but disappeared, from their gangland chanting “Violence is daily life!” on “Violence” to the bar-band closer “Tenderness,” in which Savage admits, “I can’t count how many times I’ve been outdone by nihilism.”
Gentrification, groupthink, and social consciousness take up ample lyrical space; on “Death Will Bring Change,” Savage is joined by an innocent-sounding choir as he states, “Before the grief / I felt peace in my selfish ways / My yesterdays were erased,” before landing on the ominous titular mantra. Then there’s “Before the Water Gets Too High,” which represents Parquet Courts’ bong-loaded past colliding with its freaked-out present, a meditation on climate change drenched in dub reggae’s eerie, placid echo. “Glass barely bends before it cracks,” Savage states with just the right amount of saucer-eyed disaffection, the type of so-obvious-it-stings observation that’ll never stop feeling like a fresh hell in the face of our planet’s imminent doom.
And doom is largely the name of the game on MGMT’s Little Dark Age, too — an album less about the minutiae that occupies our minds and more about the wide-scale decay we’re constantly staring down. Wide Awake! essentially represents Parquet Courts subverting their listeners’ expectations while becoming more accessible, but MGMT have spent most of this decade doing more of the former and less of the latter; since Oracular, their output has been wonderfully weird and difficult, from the zonked-out psych of 2010’s Congratulations to the Sparks-esque eccentricities of 2013’s self-titled effort.
With reputed psych-pop producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips) at the helm for both records, MGMT spent much of the 2010s’ first half pushing back at the portrayal of the duo as, to quote lead singer Andrew VanWynGarden in my 2013 profile of the band, “druggy, retarded, partying hipsters.” For Little Dark Age, MGMT’s guard-changing Danger Mouse figure was former Chairlift member Patrick Wimberly, whose equal affinity for big-budget sheen and off-putting intricacies is the perfect ingredient to complete VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser’s psychedelic brew. There are some of MGMT’s most open-hearted songs to date, from the radiant “James” to the John Hughes–isms of “Me and Michael”; but where the clouds part to reveal the duo’s melodic gifts, new and threatening shapes take their place.
“So many people in the news have been saying, ‘Objectively, the world is actually ending now,’ VanWyngarden told me earlier this year while discussing Little Dark Age’s doomy themes. “It’s a pretty harrowing time to live in, but what do you do? Do you give up? Or do you try to bring out the best in humanity with whatever time we have left?” That sense of kitchen-sink optimism in the face of certain obliteration shines through on Little Dark Age’s most striking moments. “I don’t wanna die / Wishing I’d done something,” VanWyngarden exclaims in an upper register during the glammy motorik of “One Thing Left to Try,” later prescribing, “You have to draw the line / And remember there’s more than you see in your sight.” The gothy title track evokes gun-toting policemen and strange-sounding stereos before subtly issuing a call to arms: “Come find us heading for the bridge / Bring a stone.”
The album’s most ideologically ferocious song is, ironically, its most placid: the soft-rock glow of closing track “Hand It Over,” which finds VanWyngarden soothingly seething about “the deals we made to shake things up / And the rights that they abuse.” “They played their hand / Now there’s one thing left to do,” he states in a honeyed voice, alluding to the increasingly accepted notion that nothing short of total political upheaval will be able to pull us out of the societal muck. His vision seemingly represents, as Savage puts it on Wide Awake!’s title track, “Eyes so open that my vision is as sharp as a blade” — and it seems totally possible that before this decade comes to its wretched end, we’ll be seeing more laid-back indie figures wiping the crust from their eyes, searching for newfound clarity instead of perpetually abusing the snooze button.