A Ten Song Introduction To Twee Pop Music

Hal Hewlett rounds up his ten favourite twee pop songs - for those who are unfamiliar, a subgenre of indie pop that grew out of C86 in the early 90s.

1. Beat Happening - Fourteen

Beat Happening isn’t musically the first band that I’d think of here, but talking about this band is crucial when you’re looking back at this genre. The band literally went on to found K records, one of twee’s two primary record labels (the other being Sarah Records). Fans of other 1990s alternative music may also recognise the label for such acts as Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Beck, The Microphones as well as six of the bands on this list. The label was incredibly influential to the twee pop movement, and it was build on the back of Calvin Johnson, frontman of Beat Happening. This song, composed far earlier in the 80s than most songs here, shows its more rough origins - the washed out, bored sounding vocals smack of contemporaneous American punk music, and the washed out production is a lot further from pop music than this list’s other inclusions. Nevertheless, the bright and simple guitar, romantic lyrics and DIY aesthetic make this track a key precursor to twee pop.

2. Talulah Gosh - Talulah Gosh

Talulah Gosh are also a slightly earlier band, but this group and this song sounds a lot closer to the indie guitar pop we’re expecting. Talulah Gosh was a foundational band in the C86 scene whose members will continue to show up here, and this self-titled track contains all the hallmarks of this burgeoning genre. Poppy guitar riffs that smack of Friday I’m in Love, roomy production that lets the cutesy percussion echo around the guitar riffs, which give way to a fast-paced, upbeat chorus behind which the drums energetically rattle and shake. This song really does feel like a great snapshot of late 80s alternative, from everything from the vocals to the music video. Plus, they’ve got the Thom Yorke seal of approval.

3. The Pastels - Comin’ Through

The Pastels are another late 80s C86 band, that pioneered the shiny, guitar-pop sound of twee pop. The two-piece from Glasgow enjoyed a long and influential career, in which this song was but one moment, but the low vocals, driving bassline and twinkling backing tracks make this a particularly great one. This track in particular blends the growing indie pop movement’s sensibilities with post-punk inspiration and makes for a catchy, impressive track. In particular, while guitar pop is definitely still a good descriptor, the guitars take more of a supporting role, and Stephen McRobbie’s slick vocals are the song’s main draw.

4. Heavenly - Sperm Meets Egg, So What?

Heavenly are, for me, the quintessential twee pop group. Made up primarily of former Talulah Gosh members (including siblings Amelia and Matt Fletcher), this song really has it all - luscious guitar embellishments, punchy and frenetic drums, plucky bass, irreverent lyrics, bright production, even some use of keyboards. The song feels like a precursor to riot grrrl in that it takes the irreverence and melodic simplicity of punk rock, but infuses some brilliant interweaving of pop-inspired instrumentation and a whole different tone. This song doesn’t have everything that Heavenly have on offer, but it’s definitely got all their best qualities.

5. Plumtree - Good Time to Tell Me (Flutterboard)

Biased opinion here cause Plumtree is one of my favourite bands ever. We cross back across the Atlantic with this pick to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Plumtree released their first EP in 1994. This all-girl band met as teenagers and began the band not long after, combining a start rooted in heavy metal with pop music and contemporaneous indie music that evolved over the band’s career. Good Time To Tell Me is Plumtree at their most twee, with twanging guitar and bass backing under pleading vocals that gives way to a twinkling and sombre chorus. I much prefer this version to the one that appeared on their first full-length effort, Mass Teen Fainting - both are good, but the instrumentation and timbre in the Flutterboard version feels much more textured and keeps that DIY aesthetic that is characteristic of twee pop.

6. Tiger Trap - Puzzle Pieces

Puzzle Pieces represents a more stripped back, though still enjoyable, addition to this list. The instrumentation is simple and rhythmic, and is a key change and some vocal changes away from being a true, blue punk backing track. The vocals are mixed low, always struggling to fully come in over the top of the thick rhythms, helped by the backing vocals that wail back and forth during the choruses. It’s not an artistic masterpiece, but Puzzle Pieces features catchy song writing and a great sound. Can’t ask for much more than that.

7. The Softies - Charms Around Your Wrist

This represents perhaps the most melancholy and most simple of any of the tracks here. Charms Around Your Wrist is a glittering, melodic, sad song about relationship trouble, that features dual vocal tracks bending and interweaving atop a warm, guitar-pop backing. And that’s all it features - no drums or bass are needed, and the song is better off for them. The song carries itself on intricate musical embellishments and a strong tone; vocalists Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia each bring cosy, soft vocals that envelop the twanging guitars. It’s not as energetic as other entries here, but who said pop music can’t be sad once in a while?

8. Heavenly - Atta Girl

Coming off their 1993 EP, Atta Girl is an uncaring, upbeat track that features fast tempo, strong rhythm sections and sing-along vocals that are heightened by a strong lyrical theme. The chords are drowned in fuzz and mixed low enough that they provide a very light background upon which the lead guitar, strong bass tone and emotional vocals can be painted. The end result is a song that is trademark Heavenly - mature lyrics, strong and catchy song writing, and a sweet tone with a hint of sourness. This is a bit more of a single-minded screed than other Heavenly songs, but it takes on the topic at hand with less flippancy than the rest of their catalogue, making for a more genuine and emotional track, which plays surprisingly well with the band’s typical sonic landscape.

9. Plumtree - Hang Up Baby

Plumtree continue to appear on this list with some added spice in the twee pop recipe - a great intro featuring castanets (?) and a lovely, heavy bass tone, which gives way to a lovely, elegant song that utilises layered group vocals, great guitar lines and an energetic performance all round. There’s not much to say about this track, but its awareness of its own repetitiveness means that it doesn’t outstay its welcome (the main body of the song clocks in at scarcely over a minute and a half), and it manages to tell a strong, relatable story with relatively limited lyrics. Just like the song’s muse - no matter what, even when I don’t know why, Plumtree keeps me coming back every time.

10. Radiator Hospital - Cut Your Bangs

While twee pop usually is confined to a certain timeframe of the early to mid nineties, I wanted to provide a song that gives a more modern take on the genre. Cut Your Bangs is exactly that - melancholy, smooth production and wistful lyrics make for a catchy track about a relationship growing stale - “you say you’ll cut your bangs, I’m calling your bluff / Because when you lie to me it’s in the small stuff”. The track roars to life over metallic, tinny percussion, fuelled by a driving, groovy bassline and Sam Cook-Parrott’s distinctive vocal style. Although Radiator Hospital are a popular modern indie band, the indie movements of the early 90s still bear strong influence on current music, and Radiator Hospital as a band (and this song in particular) are great indicators of the twee pop influence on the larger alternative music landscape.

Hal Hewlett


Edited by: Gemma Cockrell

Featured image courtesy of Catherine Stockhausen via Facebook.