A guide to twee pop in seven groups

If you’ve been online remotely in the past few weeks, you’ve heard that twee is back. Get Z, via TikTok, rediscovered it and made it viral.

Yes, that means the return of Zooey Deschanel, Moonrise Kingdom, and – chill – Tumblr. Same vogue covered the twee’s revival, which probably confirms he’s really back.

What’s probably less well known, however, is that there’s a whole musical genre based around aesthetics. Twee pop began as a subgenre of indie pop in the 80s, and as often happens with subgenres, some have struggled to distinguish between twee pop and indie pop.

The differences exist and they are essential. Twee pop stemmed mostly from NME’s seminal C86 compilation of indie pop artists, but twee pop bands weren’t as loud or loose, and their sound favored simplicity and seriousness.

Many of the songs were about love, often unrequited, but he never indulged in sadness. The songs were childish and innocent, but seemed no less for it. Catchy melodies dominated the nice, pure sound as twee pop became a haven for sensitive art school types.

The twee pop movement quickly grew around labels like Sarah Records, K Records and Slumberland Records. Olympia and Seattle in Washington State, Glasgow, London and Melbourne became founding cities of the genre.

The genre’s roots probably go back further to the Smiths – most indie pop was influenced in one way or another by Johnny Marr and Morrissey – but it was also arguably a response to more overtly macho rock. . The heyday of twee pop came in the early ’90s, right after the brash hair metal scene of the late ’80s.

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It was then followed, particularly in the UK, by bulldozing Britpop, before Coldplay and Travis turned the sensibility into a cutesy commercial venture in the early 2000s.

Similar to “emo”, “twee” was often used as an insulting term in musical circles. But when done right, twee pop managed to avoid being overly sweet and goofy, instead possessing tender melodies and earnest charm. And that may annoy the grunge crowd, but Kurt Cobain, at his core, was a twee kid: his favorite artists included Daniel Johnston, The Vaselines and Marine Girls.

To mark the resurgence of twee in today’s culture, we thought we’d give you a guide to twee pop through the music of seven leading bands of the genre, including one iconic Melbourne band.

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Beat Happening

Perhaps the biggest proponent of twee pop. Formed in Olympia, Washington (a twee pop hub) in 1982 by Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford, the group is also a reference in lo-fi music. The trio made ramshackle and raw songs, all imbued with a wonderful sense of fantasy. Nothing here is technical; it sounds better for that. Johnson’s booming baritone and Lewis’ heavy vocals were the perfect foils for each other as they sang things both meaningful and absurd. Johnson also founded the famous K Records, a home for lo-fi and twee pop artists.

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tiger trap

High school friends Angela Loy, Rose Melberg, Heather Dunn and Jen Braun, the foursome only released one titular album on K Records, but that was enough to ensure their future influence. Beat Happening gave a song their name, while Melberg became a twee pop icon for her roles in other bands of the genre like Gaze and The Softies. Tiger Trap’s only album is a delightful collection of fast-paced, big-hearted pop. It was a taste of the riot movement to come but with an added sweetness.

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Belle and Sebastian

Glasgow has a proud indie pop tradition and Belle & Sebastian are arguably the greatest exporters of the form of Scotland’s musical capital. Where artists like The Pastels were knowingly hip, Belle & Sebastian added a touch of sincerity and artistic intellectualism. And in Stuart Murdoch they have one of the best songwriters of the past 30 years: he tells deep stories of lost and lonely people like few others. The band have moved on to other genres lately, but their run of three twee pop albums in the 90s – tiger milk, If you feel sinister, and The Boy with the Arabic Bracelet – was a trio of masterpieces.

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field mice

Sarah Records artist, the London band may have dabbled in multiple genres, including dance and punk, but it was all delivered with genuine naivety. “If you need someone / To hold you / When you’re scared / I’ll hold you,” they sing in their popular song “If You Need Someone,” which is about as twisted as it gets. The Field Mice possessed the seriousness of the Smiths while avoiding the squeaky indulgence of Morrissey.

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Store assistants

Hailing from another Scottish city, Edinburgh, Shop Assistants only existed for a few years in the 80s. Their soft tones and unassuming songwriting, however, won them an army of fans, including Morrissey. Alex Taylor had a beautiful lead voice, full of breathless charm and soulful energy. Janice Long and BBC Radio 1’s John Peel both adored the band, which is enough of an endorsement.

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Tullycraft

Seattle’s Tullycraft were the only twee pop band to play the genre with a wry nod and wink. “Well she wakes up every morning / To the sounds of Sarah Records / On a compilation tape,” sings lead singer Sean Tollefson in the simply titled “Twee”; other songs come with titles like “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid To Know About” and “The Punks Are Writing Love Songs”. And that’s basically what Tullycraft did: they were frenetic DIY punks who made cute pop with a conniving spirit.

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blacksmiths

Some will debate whether the Lucksmiths are jangle pop or twee pop and, while they fit the former’s historic place in Australian music, there’s plenty of tweeness included. Over 11 albums – far longer in length than most of their twee pop contemporaries – The Lucksmiths have crafted some serious, beautiful songs. It’s all done with a distinctly Australian flair: several songs are now synonymous with Melbourne and the city’s culture, in particular ‘Under the Rotunda’ and ‘The Sandringham Line’.
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