Hey QT!—A Guide To Twee Pop

By James Li, Feature Photo via AUX

To put it simply, twee is cuteness: kittens are twee, tea parties are twee, holding hands is twee. Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel are the king and queen of twee. Twee is bowlcuts and button-up shirts for the boys, pencil skirts and knee-high socks for the girls, and sweaters for everyone. Sweaters are twee, but cardigans are the most twee of all.

Twee pop originated in the mid-80s, when NME issued the C86 cassette in 1986, which compiled songs from the contemporary indie rock scene. The C86 scene borrowed punk’s DIY ethic and the least cool elements of 60s music: jangly guitars and girl group harmonies. The British music press derisively referred to this scene as “shambling” (due to the amateurish live performances) and “anorak pop” (due to the dowdy fashion sense). But the pejorative that stuck was “twee,” British slang for excessively cute.

The C86 scene was short-lived, but it spawned twee imitators in Britain and overseas. Just like how cardigans combine the coziness of a sweater with the sophistication of a blazer, twee pairs childlike naivety with mature cleverness – you can expect literary references and a preoccupation with boy-girl crushes in the lyrics. I’m usually allergic to cuteness, but, when it is done right, twee pop melts even the most cynical heart. Here’s a guide to twee pop, from its C86 origins to today’s twee. Disclaimer: Scottish bands are over-represented on this guide – Glasgow must be the most adorable city in the world.

Primal Scream – “Velocity Girl”

This track kicks off the C86 compilation. Primal Scream’s main claim to fame is their heavily electronic albums, but this shimmering bright 90-second track from the Glasgow band encapsulates the C86 sound in a nutshell.

The Vaselines – “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam”

This one should be familiar to Nirvana fans. This short-lived Glasgow duo didn’t get any widespread attention until Kurt Cobain covered several of their songs, years after they broke up. The vocal harmonies and swelling strings are all there, but its lyrics are uncharacteristically glum for twee, with its cynical take on religion.

Beat Happening – “Tiger Trap”

This Olympia trio helped bring twee pop to America. It’d be difficult to distinguish them from the British C86 bands if it weren’t for Calvin Johnson’s off-key baritone. Beat Happening were a punk band in twee clothing. Strongly committed to DIY, Beat Happening distributed music on their own label, played all-ages venues, and democratically rotated vocal, guitar, and drum duties among its members. The punk influence is easy to spot in this Calvin and Hobbes-referencing song through its minimal three-chord approach.

Black Tambourine – “Throw Aggi Off the Bridge”

What happens if you coat twee vocals and melodies in ear-piercing feedback? The short-lived Washington, D.C. band Black Tambourine tried to find out. They only recorded ten songs, but they’re some of the darkest and prickliest twee pop tunes. This particular song is an adorable murder fantasy.

Belle and Sebastian – “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”

You can’t talk about twee pop without mentioning this legendary Glasgow band. It’s hard to pick just one Belle and Sebastian song, but this is a personal favourite. Instrumentally, this song is as gentle as it gets, with its acoustic guitar and soft flourishes of horn. But the lyrics are pure melancholy. If you’re the bookish introvert type, you’ll probably relate to Stuart Murdoch, who finds refuge in music and books – even to the point of crying when a book ends.

Camera Obscura – “French Navy”

What makes Glasgow’s Camera Obscura so good? It is the swelling string arrangements? The crisp guitar leads? Their irresistible choruses? All of those things, sure, but what stands out to me is how openly vulnerable their lyrics are. Tracyanne Campbell invites heartbreak on nearly every track of theirs. She comes off as a cynic who can’t contain her inner twee on this song: “I wanted to control it / but love, I couldn’t hold it.”

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Young Adult Friction”

These New Yorkers have the most twee band name ever. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart shamelessly borrows influences from twee pop and shoegaze. So they’re either a fuzzy twee band or a shoegaze band that’s too afraid to turn up their amps. But I love twee pop and I love shoegaze, so it’s hard to resist them. Oh yeah, and the bass solo in this song is great.

Allo Darlin’ – “My Heart Is a Drummer”

This English-Australian band loads their songs with references to Weezer, Johnny Cash, and Paul Simon, and a heavy dose of lap steel and ukulele. Elizabeth Morris’ Aussie accent makes me weak in the knees – especially the way she sings “when you call me on the telephone / my fingers will twist through the cord / and I’ll slide my feet up and down the wall.” Don’t pretend you don’t do that when you’re on the phone, too.

My Little Airport – “Victor, Fly Me to Stafford”

This Slowdive-loving Hong Kong duo offers an idiosyncratic take on twee pop, incorporating synthesizers, drum machine, and violin. Their lyrics, which they sing in Cantonese and heavily-accented English, are sometimes provocative or political, but this is just an adorably Anglophile song about missing a friend.

Alvvays – “Archie, Marry Me”

Here’s some homegrown twee! Toronto’s Alvvays describe themselves as three men and two women with a “crate of C86 tapes.” In my opinion, twee pop is usually winter music, but Alvvays’ bright and shimmering sound is unapologetically summery. This song is a millennial love story – Molly Rankin pleads Archie to forget about student loans and alimony and just get married! It’ll make you wish your name was Archie too.

Frankie Cosmos – “Sad 2”

Frankie Cosmos is the project of Greta Kline, who’s a living Girls character: a 20 year-old NYU poetry student and homeschooled daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. She’s already very prolific, having already uploaded 45 albums to Bandcamp. If you’re a dog person, this song will ruin your day. On an unrelated note, I really hope that title is a Kanye reference.

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