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Pop surfs new waves of nostalgia

In a troubled 2010, indie acts fromThe Drums to Best Coast looked to a hazier, lazier past for solace, says Gillian Orr

The whole of December, it seems, is dedicated to arguing about the finest records of the year. It's practically impossible to browse a newspaper or website without being given a run down of the top 10 this and 50 finest that. But was there one sound or theme that defined music in 2010? The heavily stylised music (or just, perhaps, the outfits) of Lady Gaga and Rihanna might have won the most headlines, and Take That might have sold the most records, but there was a more reflective movement going on elsewhere.

Throughout the indie world, nostalgia ran deep. It was everywhere, both sonically and visually. It was in the rise of cassette giveaways, in retro cover art and in songs of innocence. Music moves in circles, and 2010 is hardly the first year that musicians have become bleary-eyed and sentimental, harking back to a time before life became so wearisome, but this year nostalgia swept over anyone who had access to a guitar and a laptop. These pangs of longing were accompanied by a lo-fi aesthetic that fetishised times past.

The likes of Best Coast, The Drums and Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, some of the most talked-about indie bands of the year, may not have shifted as many units as the major players, and they all sound different, but their DIY, fuzzy and lo-fi sound, reverb-drenched instrumentation and reminiscing were characteristic of a year that tended to look backward rather than forward.

In a particularly bleak year, the music being made was sweet and homesick. These artists weren't an angry bunch. Time will tell if social unrest will make way for some angry young things, but so far it's been a case of, "Don't get mad, get sad."

At the beginning of the year, Toro Y Moi released his debut album. Full of heavily filtered vocals, he re-contextualised Eighties synthpop into something fuzzier and sadder. Along with Washed Out, he was hailed the leader of a new genre called chillwave, a term that had been floating around since 2009 but came into its own this year, and was as much ridiculed as it was used. Artists argued that the genre didn't even exist but commentators were quick to throw groups together.

Matt Mondanile of Ducktails, another artist labelled with the chillwave tag, said, "Nostalgia is a huge part of American culture especially among my generation. I'm interested in expressing memories through pop music and having people's sensations tingle." Song titles such as "Backyard", "Welcome Home" and "Apple Walk" were as quiet and reflective as the music.

Ariel Pink of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, whose album Before Today finished the year in many top 10 lists and whose song "Round and Round", with the lyric "Sentimental heart break, everything is my fault/ Hold on, I'm calling, calling me back to the ball", was voted the year's finest by Pitchfork, the influential music website, was another artist quick to embrace nostalgia. He noted that the title "Round and Round" was a suitable way to describe the backward-looking nature of his music, with its Eighties-influenced, lo-fi, tape-hiss sound: "It's not really thought out, I even think that within 1980s music there was a lot of nostalgia. Y'know, those feelings of yearning and of winsomeness were quite prominent. I think it's fair to say that my music sounds like 1980s music, because of the instruments and sounds, but that it has a different twist on the nostalgia, because I'm being nostalgic towards it." He continues, "Sometimes it's just more natural to hark back and feel safe, especially in today's society, and I'm happy to show that in my music."

With their open-hearted tales and wounded delivery, The Drums were influenced by new wave and C86. They also incorporated Fifties doo-wop and Sixties girl-group sounds into their wistful tunes. In keeping with the lo-fi aesthetic, the album was recorded in one of the bandmember's bedrooms. Jacob Graham, their guitarist, explained, "We're very nostalgic people to begin with and one of the main reference points of our band is nostalgia, those feelings you have of things passing away that can never be regained."

Fuzzy, lo-fi, surf pop by artists such as Wavves and Best Coast was everywhere. The Beach Boys became a key reference point for bands, most of them celebrating youth. "My music is inspired by the music I listen to; stuff from the Fifties and Sixties," said Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast. "There's just this warm, happy, innocence that I feel when I listen to music from those eras... the pop stuff at least. I guess in a way I am trying to mix that 'nostalgic' era sound with a more modern sound. In some ways, the reverb and the fuzziness of it all reminds me of what it's like to listen to old songs on vinyl."

The artwork was as hazy as the sounds. The cover for Dum Dum Girls' I Will Be featured an old photograph of an unknown woman caught off-guard, who turned out to be the mother of lead singer Dee Dee Penny. Early in 2010, the identity of a British band, Summer Camp, was pondered over, as the mysterious duo released only old snaps of era-spanning families to accompany their lo-fi, glistening tunes. "We're big fans of glo-fi/chillwave," they said in an interview earlier this year. "Washed Out, Active Child, the Smith Westerns – there is something so nostalgic and heartbreaking about it, while still sounding really fresh and exciting." Vampire Weekend got in on the act, too using a 1983 Polaroid on the cover of their album Contra, which led to a lawsuit after the model depicted, Ann Kirsten Kennis, insisted that the photograph had not been signed off.

It was typical of much of the cover art that was around this year: old, amateur photography that looked like it had been discovered in a box in the attic. With a tendency toward shots that were a bit off-kilter and blurry, the Polaroid, the Holga or Lomography became the instrument of choice. Their retro look was mimicked in the popular iPhone app, Hipstamatic, which made Noughties snaps look like they had been taken in the Seventies. The DIY aesthetic complemented the music perfectly: imperfect and nostalgic. With all the new technology they could want at their fingertips, bands self-consciously chose an old, cosy aesthetic instead.

Music so often looks backwards, but 2010 might be remembered as the year when, in the face of a particularly desolate social landscape, when "austerity" was the most looked-up word in the dictionary, artists found themselves getting more than usually nostalgic for a better time that may or may not have ever existed.