Getting into indie music can seem overwhelming at first. The umbrella term “indie” seems to encompass an endless supply of bands, and trying to find the scene’s critically acclaimed heavyweights is fairly time-consuming. Even when these bands are discovered, listening to their complete discography can seem daunting, especially when members are involved in solo and side projects.
However, there is a general consensus that some indie albums are more influential than others, especially those released during the genre’s more formative years from 1975 – 2000. These are the albums that explored new directions and developed new styles, and are responsible for the way dozens of bands sound today. More importantly, you’ll get some serious respect among self-described indie fans if you know these albums well. An alternate title for this article could be “how to become an indie music scenester in just 10 albums.”
Since these albums are all fairly critical to the indie scene, they are not listed in any sort of subjective order and are instead listed chronologically.
- Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
Everyone knows about the golden years of punk in the late 1970s, when bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones had hugely influential releases. It might seem peculiar, therefore, that one of the most groundbreaking post-punk albums came out during the halcyon days of punk, not after them. It’s more important to focus on the “punk” than the “post” designation of post-punk, since the genre loosely refers to music that pushes the boundaries of punk while remaining somewhat rooted in its rock instrumentation and anti-establishment aesthetic. Television started out as a more traditional punk rock group, counting punk pioneer Richard Hell as a founding member. However, as they became a fixture at legendary New York City Venue CBGB, singer Tom Verlaine grew further away from raw guitar riffs and embraced a more sophisticated, technical approach to the band’s music. Disappointed with this direction, Hell left the band in 1975 and was replaced by early Blondie bassist Fred Smith.
Television’s 1977 debut album Marquee Moon is very much the product of musical perfectionists more concerned with substance than style. Throughout the album there are hints of 60s garage rock, nascent punk, and even jazz. Verlaine and fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd’s trademark dueling melodies can be found on nearly every track, and several contain extensive, intricate solos to make for some truly impressive guitar work. Exemplifying this is Marquee Moon’s title track, which serves as the band’s magnum opus and clocks in at nearly ten minutes in length. Lyrically, Verlaine filled tracks with clever wordplay, Manhattan references, natural imagery and introspection, causing many verses to read like poems.
Dozens of bands have gone on to cite Marquee Moon as an influence, including R.E.M., U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths and the Cure. Its complexity and guitar work alone make it a cornerstone of indie and alternative rock, and 40 years later it still sounds amazing.
- Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Like Television, Joy Division got their start in the punk scene of the late 1970s, this time near Manchester, England. Two of Joy Division’s founding members, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, were inspired to form a band after attending a Sex Pistols show, and Joy Division’s early releases, like the track “Warsaw,” really do fit in well with the punk rock of the time. The band attracted early attention from what became Factory Records, as frontman Ian Curtis’s distinctive baritone voice and erratic dancing added an intriguing type of charisma to their music.
Martin Hannett of Factory Records recorded Joy Division’s debut album Unknown Pleasures in 1979, and the final result genuinely surprised the band. The dark, brooding, and atmospheric sound the band is now famous for was more the result of Hannett’s production techniques and added effects than the band’s personal choice, as they had been anticipating a raw, straightforward punk rock album. Fortunately, they warmed to the studio release’s style, which was full of punctuating snare drums, thunderous bass lines, and periodic heavy guitar riffs. Matching the bleak sound was Curtis’ ominous voice spouting verses of doom and gloom throughout, which were the result of his own struggles with depression, a failing marriage and worsening epilepsy.
Joy Division’s career was tragically cut short when Curtis committed suicide in 1980, and the three remaining members renamed the band New Order. The band had started to experiment with synthesizers prior to Curtis’s death, most famously heard on the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which helps explains New Order’s emergence as one of the most influential synthpop groups of all time. As for Unknown Pleasures, it remains not only a critical post-punk album, but also one of the foundations of gothic rock. Curtis’s deep voice alone spawned dozens of imitators, and post-punk revival acts like Interpol, Editors, White Lies, the National and the Killers all clearly echo Joy Division to some degree.
- The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986)
The Smiths formed in Manchester only a few years after Joy Division and Factory Records made it a musical hotspot, with guitarist Johnny Marr and singer Steven Patrick Morrissey bonding over their love of hard rock band the New York Dolls. Although Factory Records and EMI passed on signing their early recordings, independent label Rough Trade eventually gave them a deal and renowned DJ John Peel took an early liking to them, impressed with their music’s originality. Their first two albums, The Smiths (1984) and Meat is Murder (1985), contained a peculiar type of rock-oriented pop driven by Marr’s jangly guitar and supported by Mike Joyce’s snare-heavy drumming and Andy Rourke’s rockabilly-tinged bass lines. Morrissey meanwhile crooned lyrics that reflected on loneliness, sexual frustration, social issues and death, all with their somber content buried beneath generally cheerier melodies. While their music now sounds unmistakably from the 1980s, it was also worlds apart from the hair metal and synthesizer-driven new wave that dominated the decade.
The Smiths’ 1986 album The Queen Is Dead is the pinnacle of all the style they had created. From the opening drum beats of the opening title track to the fade out of Marr’s notes on “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” the album never lets up, and not a single track is out of place. Morrissey’s flair for the dramatic is in top form throughout, shaming the monarchy one moment and comparing his despair to a burial the next. The lyrics are also genuinely witty too, with lines like “now I know how Joan of Arc felt, as the flames rose to her Roman nose and her Walkman started to melt” on “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” The Queen Is Dead also contains “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” the definitive Smiths song. Its lyrics tell the tale of an outcast modeled after James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause,” who goes on a car ride with a love interest, culminating in a striking chorus of “if a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” Many critics and Smiths diehards consider the album the band’s best, and with good reason.
The Smiths broke up just one year after The Queen Is Dead was released, and Morrissey went on to a prolific solo career. However, his five years in the Smiths arguably remain his most influential, and bits and pieces of their legacy can be heard all over. They paved the way for the emergence of Britpop in the 90s, with bands including Oasis, Blur and Pulp following in their footsteps. In the current indie world, you can hear their guitar stylings in bands like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, their morose lyrics in bands like the Drums, and their contrast between upbeat instrumentation and dark lyrics in bands like of Montreal.
- Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
While the Smiths were amassing their cult-like following the UK in the mid-80s, Sonic Youth were receiving a more mixed reception in New York City. Formed by bassist Kim Gordon, guitarist Thurston Moore (who was married to Gordon from 1984 to 2013), and guitarist Lee Ranaldo, their early work was characterized as “noise rock,” where heavy distortion and feedback was used to create generally dissonant music. Their 1983 debut album Confusion is Sex and its 1985 follow up Bad Moon Rising were not exactly “accessible,” and the group’s growing European fame was not matched stateside. Fortunately, 1986 marked a turning point for the group, as they signed to independent label SST Records, recruited drummer Steve Shelley, and released the more straightforward rock album EVOL. This album, combined with their 1987 release Sister, rewarded the band’s shift away from atonal noise rock with critical acclaim and a larger following.
This evolution came to a fore with Sonic Youth’s 1988 album Daydream Nation. A double album with a closing “Trilogy” that’s over 14 minutes long, it was a musical tour de force that only stops rocking for a brief interlude track (“Providence”). Gordon, Moore, and Ranaldo trade vocal duties throughout, singing cryptic, avant-garde lyrics that reference other rock stars, New York City, and art pieces. The real star of the show, though, is the instrumentation, with guitar parts that find the perfect balance between the fuzzy distortion of their earlier noise rock period and the more melodic riffs of EVOL and Sister. It redefined guitar-driven indie rock, exploring new dimensions with the instrument and highlighting the band’s creativity. Elsewhere, Shelley drums with remarkable intensity, and Gordon’s bass lines add an underlying drone to complement the melodies. The album received universal critical acclaim, and netted the band a major label deal with Geffen.
Sonic Youth went on to rock for 23 more years before effectively splitting in 2011. They released ten more studio albums after Daydream Nation, and though almost all of them were good (if not excellent), none managed to displace Daydream Nation as the band’s best. It not only contains their most innovative music, but also represents a watershed moment for indie and alternative rock. Daydream Nation pushed these genres into the relative mainstream, showing they had more than a purely underground appeal. Guitar-driven bands, lo-fi bands, and frankly any band that calls their music “indie rock” or “alternative rock” owe part of their identity to Daydream Nation.
- My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
If you’ve ever heard of the ridiculously-named subgenre “shoegaze” before, you’ve probably heard of Irish band My Bloody Valentine. For those who haven’t, just know that shoegaze involves using heavy guitar distortion to create an intense droning effect. The name “shoegaze” either comes from the resulting spaced-out, trancelike music, or from the copious use of effects pedals that cause band members to always look down at their shoes.
My Bloody Valentine didn’t start out as a shoegaze band though, and their first releases actually resembled the dark post-punk of Joy Division. Founding members Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig had a tough time getting any attention in the late 1980s, until they began to experiment with noise rock with 1986’s EP The New Record by My Blood Valentine. While this EP foreshadowed their future sound, the band took an unexpected turn into jangle pop after they recruited second vocalist Bilinda Butcher in 1987 and released the mini-album Ecstasy. This turned out to be a momentary side trip though, as their 1988 full-length debut Isn’t Anything returned to heavy guitar distortion and solidified this trait as part of their sound.
When Loveless was released three years later, it took the band’s previous experiments with noise rock and guitar effects and brought them to their logical conclusion. The entire album is full of a near-constant drone of guitars that make ample use of the tremolo bar, and their lines stacked on top of one another in an indistinguishable haze of distortion where it’s hard to determine how many guitarists are actually playing. The prominent vocals on Isn’t Anything are now part of this noise, often indecipherable and there more for the atmosphere they create than their lyrical content. Yet there are several strong melodies throughout Loveless, such as the lead guitar lines on “When You Sleep” and “I Only Said.” The band also sampled guitar feedback to create new sounds throughout Loveless, and frankly nothing about the album’s recording process was conventional.
Many consider Loveless to be the shoegaze album that defines the subgenre. It expanded ideas of what could be done with the guitar, and really pushed the musical envelope – a hallmark of indie music in general. Their pioneering of shoegaze can be heard in the latter-day guitar work of bands like Radiohead, TV on the Radio, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Deerhunter and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to name a few.
- Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted (1992)
Pavement formed in the central Californian city of Stockton in 1989, far away from the musical powerhouses of New York City and Manchester. The band started when childhood friends Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, both guitarists and vocalists, decided to visit the home recording studio of Gary Young, who had worked with other local punk bands. Young offered to play drums on their tracks, and their dynamic was so good that he ended up as their full-time drummer. The resulting EP from the initial recording session, Slay Tracks, combined the rhythm and energy of post-punk band the Fall with the noise rock stylings of early Sonic Youth, all with minimal post-production that made the tracks seem like they hadn’t been touched after being recorded.
This same description can be applied to their full-length debut Slanted and Enchanted, released in 1992. Each track was full of distorted guitar riffs that have a definite ‘fuzziness’ to them, and the bass and drum lines never really dominate or rise above this fray. It’s musically all over the place, ranging from the mellow and steady “Here” to the crashing chaos of “No Life Singed Her.” Similarly, Malkmus’s vocals go from deadpan sing-talking to his best earnest tone to shouting, sometimes all within the same song. The album’s unifying feature is instead its lo-fi production quality, which gives it a strange sense of honesty in that Pavement has nothing to hide in the recording process. Its raw sound also gives off a nonchalant attitude that the band seemed to embody in person, not really belonging to any music scene.
Pavement released four more albums before calling it quits in 1999, and Malkmus went on to lead a successful career with new band the Jicks. Arguably, Pavement’s later albums like Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee include their best tracks, but Slanted and Enchanted remains the most groundbreaking and influential. The band were frequently labeled as “slackers” due to their lo-fi sound, yet knew how to create some great melodies and really put work into the initial songwriting. To make an awful pun, they paved the way for several raw-sounding rock bands around today, and bands like Parquet Courts, Speedy Ortiz, and Yuck all clearly take up their lo-fi mantle.
- Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
Radiohead have been a pretty big deal in the world of rock music for over two decades now. From their founding as a high school band in Abingdon, England in 1985 to last year’s excellent A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead have charted one of the most successful courses in the history of modern music. Yet when listening to their initial releases, it’s easy to think “this was Radiohead?” Their 1993 debut album Pablo Honey sounded like a pop version of grunge music, and they risked becoming a one-hit wonder with the overwhelming success of hit single “Creep.” How did Radiohead go from being an MTV-dominating, fairly standard rock band to the more avant-garde legends we know today?
The answer lies in Radiohead’s third album OK Computer, released in 1997. Far from the guitar-driven rock of Pablo Honey and its follow-up The Bends, this album turned what was expected from on a rock group on its head with a tilt towards experimentation. It does have rock-oriented tracks – “Airbag,” “Karma Police,” and “Electioneering” to name a few – but nothing on OK Computer could really be considered “conventional,” from Johnny Greenwood’s guitar effects to Thom Yorke’s ever-shifting vocals. Some of the more experimental moments are incredibly prominent, like the super creepy “Climbing Up the Walls” and the computer speech interlude of “Fitter Happier,” but the album as a whole perfectly blends the band’s less-conventional parts with the strong rock melodies of their initial releases. Perhaps the greatest example is “Paranoid Android,” a track that opens with acoustic strumming and Yorke singing in falsetto, explodes into distorted riffs and Yorke shouting, and ends with a mild chanting-driven segment before exploding once more. It’s the rare album where all of its parts are strong enough to stand on their own, but create something incredible that listeners probably couldn’t have even imagined when combined.
OK Computer set the stage for Radiohead to continue down a more experimental path, and all of their releases since have been endearingly weird. In fact, it’d be really off-putting to hear a more conventional rock release by Radiohead now. OK Computer not only changed the band’s course, but also reshaped alternative music as a whole. Right as Britpop started to decline, Radiohead showed the potential for less guitar-driven alternative that included electronic elements. There’s some debate about the difference between indie and alternative (more on that here), but it goes without saying that any indie band in the past two decades that breaks out of a more traditional rock sound or tries to push boundaries owes something to OK Computer.
- Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
Most people first heard of Modest Mouse in 2004, when their smash hit “Float On” was released. While it’s not a bad song, the Issaquah, Washington-based band had been releasing brilliant music for a decade before that point. Their 1996 debut This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About quickly established what would become the band’s signature sound, with tremolo-heavy guitars, regular use of the hi-hat, and quieter moments unexpectedly giving way to frantic energy and vice-versa.
Their sophomore album Lonesome Crowded West, released the year after, not only solidified the band’s sound, but would also be arguably their best album. An eclectic release, it goes between manic punk energy on tracks like “Shit Luck,” to essentially resembling country music in the fiddle-driven “Jesus Christ was an Only Child.” Frontman Isaac Brock’s lisped vocals have a somewhat innocent quality to them for most of the album, but there are also several tracks where he shouts at the very top of his lungs. What really sets Lonesome Crowded West apart, though, are its subtle touches that directly connect the music and lyrics, painting a bleak picture of Americana (hence the album title). For instance, “Cowboy Dan,” the tale of an alcoholic cowboy unable to deal with urbanization, features a tambourine to give the eerie effect of someone walking around wearing spurs. Other songs are about trailer trash, traveling long distances, theological questions, urban sprawl, and all kinds of drunks. And even outside of the album’s overriding themes, there are some exceptional lyrics throughout, like “In this life that we call home, the years go fast and the days go so slow” and “Opinions were like kittens I was giving them away.”
The Lonesome Crowded West was the perfect combination of thought-provoking lyrics, powerful vocals, deft instrumentation, and dynamic shifts, all united by a common Americana theme. The album’s success won universal critical acclaim, a major label deal, and a cult following that would remained as such until “Float On” catapulted them to widespread fame. The album’s influence is less overt than others on this list, and there are likely fewer Modest Mouse copycats, but The Lonesome Crowded West was nonetheless groundbreaking, simply for the amount of detail that went into its production. Pitchfork even released a 45-minute long documentary about the album five years ago.
- Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane over the Sea (1998)
If you have some exposure to the indie music scene at all, you probably expected this album to be on here. There’s a stereotype that all indie types/hipsters worship this album, to the point that the album cover has become a meme and a representation of hipsterdom itself. At the same, one tends to hear relatively little about Neutral Milk Hotel’s other studio album On Avery Island, released two years prior, or band members other than elusive frontman Jeff Mangum; the emphasis seems to be entirely on Mangum and In the Aeroplane over the Sea.
In the Aeroplane over the Sea is certainly one of the most unique albums ever released. Allegedly, it’s a concept album about Anne Frank, who is at least the clear subject of the track “Holland, 1945.” The album’s lyrics are otherwise too abstract to lend themselves to a single neat interpretation, yet are intriguing enough to make even first-time listeners wonder about the repeated characters like “the King of Carrot Flowers” and the “Two Headed Boy.” These cryptic lyrics, all delivered by Mangum’s incredibly distinctive nasally voice, are juxtaposed with relatively pop-sounding melodies that combine folk music and lo-fi rock, and each track is a work of admirable songwriting. Aside from your standard rock guitar, bass, and drums, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is full of less-conventional instruments like eastern European-sounding horns, organ, and even accordion. It’s accessible enough to draw in listeners wanting simple melodies, but has enough depth to inspire ruminations about its content almost two decades later.
To say that In the Aeroplane over the Sea developed a cult following would be an understatement. Mangum disbanded Neutral Milk Hotel the year after its release, but that only seemed to add to the band’s overall intrigue and helped solidify its legendary status. The album might have received “good but not great” reviews when it first came out (check out NME’s writeup), but it has since been hailed as one of the greatest indie albums of all time. Its diverse instrumentation, deep lyrics, and expert songwriting built around a central concept caused dozens of bands to question their musical limits, an effect that can be heard in contemporary bands like the Decemberists and Arcade Fire. Dozens of different bands, both indie and non-indie, have paid tribute to the album with cover songs or discussions of its legacy, and its cult status is likely to endure for years to come.
- The Strokes – Is This It (2001)
If you’re older than 20, you probably remember a time in the early 2000s when a wave of garage rock bands with names adhering to the formula of “The (noun)s” appeared out of nowhere. The Hives, the Vines, and the White Stripes are some of the most prominent examples, and pop-punk band Sum 41 even mocked the trend in their video for “Still Waiting.” Why did all of these garage rock bands, some of which had been around for years prior, suddenly receive so much attention?
While the other bands mentioned certainly had their merits, none matched the Strokes and their 2001 debut Is This It. Compared to their garage rock revival peers, the Strokes had a fuller sound than the White Stripes, were more consistent than the Vines, and more varied than the Hives. Yet they still relied on the same fuzzy, repetitive guitar riffs, low budget recording techniques, and general “retro” feel due to their music’s rawness. Instead, what really set Is This It apart was its overall feel and the combined talents of its individual members. A five piece band from New York City dressed in denim jackets and sporting long, shaggy hair, it was hard to tell if the band were actually time travelers from the 1970s, since everything they did seemed to suggest as much. Vocalist Julian Casablancas held the mic right against his mouth as he sung to give his words a fairly muddled effect as he described relationship woes in a somewhat detached manner. And while rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. laid down the chords that were the band’s bread and butter, lead guitarist Nick Valensi would occasionally take the reins with solos on tracks like “Alone Together.” Even though its sound borrowed heavily from the 1970s, it sounded entirely original in 2001.
The Strokes were arguably the most successful garage rock revival band of the early 2000s, and their debut remains the crowning achievement of the period. The band carried their relevance into the next decade stronger than their contemporaries, and each of its members have gone on to a solo or side project, owing to their individual talents. More importantly, Is This It was the catalyst behind a mid-2000s wave of shaggy-haired, repetitive-riff playing indie bands that would take the garage rock revival to its logical conclusion, particularly in the UK. Arctic Monkeys, the Libertines, the Kooks, the Wombats, and Franz Ferdinand (breaking the plural noun trend there) all capitalized on the throwback sound that the Strokes popularized, and the flow of imitator bands has only recently waned. Now if you hear a vaguely garage rock-sounding indie band and associate it more with the 2000s than the early 60s or 70s, you can probably thank the Strokes.