With the rise of streaming services, musical discovery is literally at our fingertips. It wasn’t always that way, though. Flipping through crates and taking a chance on some interesting artwork, word of mouth, and good old fashioned trading were once the pathway to finding new music. Indie rock was born in the 1980s and 90s as bands like Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Guided By Voices found loyal followings while eschewing orthodox methods of recording and distribution.
Some records serve as game changers by forcing new and innovative sounds on an unsuspecting audience, others have a commercial impact that help open the door for similar artists to get their music out there. Here’s a look at 25 indie records that helped shape the landscape over the last 25 years.
Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted
Pavement effectively gave birth to “slacker rock” with their seminal 1992 release Slanted and Enchanted. While Nirvana’s breakthrough opened the airwaves to forms of punk and alternative music that were previously relegated to college radio, most of the emerging artists of the era were opting for highly polished production. Pavement were distinctly polar opposite, finding comfort in fractured structures and white noise. It’s perfectly imperfect.
Honourable Mentions: Sonic Youth – Dirty, Green Day – Kerplunk
Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
Liz Phair’s 1993 debut album is a lo-fi masterpiece. While it was never really a massive commercial success, Exile in Guyville remains one of the most celebrated efforts to come out of indie’s early-90s explosion. Phair showed off an ability as a singer/songwriter that she would struggle to match in future efforts.
Honourable Mentions: Eric’s Trip – Love Tara, Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle
Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand
Guided By Voices’ seventh album would become a game changer for the Ohio-based band. Bee Thousand was distinctly lo-fi, featuring songs that seemingly cut-off mid-track and audible hissing throughout the record. Many of Robert Pollard’s best songs appeared on this 1994 classic that eventually led the outfit signing with Matador Records for their follow-up.
Honourable Mentions: Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary
Pavement – Wowee Zowee
Where Pavement cleaned up for their excellent sophomore effort Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Stephen Malkmus and Co. got weird as hell for 1995’s Wowee Zowee. Admittedly fueled by marijuana usage, Malkmus swayed from raucous guitar-driven cuts like “Rattled By The Rush” to country-inspired songs like “Father To A Sister Of Thought,” and weird punk numbers like “Best Friend’s Arm” and “Serpentine Pad.” It also features one of Spiral Stairs’ best songs, “Kennel District.” It wasn’t immediately embraced by critics, but Wowee Zowee is regarded by many fans as their best effort, if not their most unique.
Honourable Mentions: Guided By Voices – Alien Lanes, Fugazi – Red Medicine
Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister
Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian have released nine studio albums to date, but it’s 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister that frontman Stuart Murdoch has often cited as the band’s best effort. The band crafted beautiful Simon & Garfunkel-esque indie pop that wouldn’t feel out of place in any year since 1960.
Honourable Mentions: The Olivia Tremor Control – Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island, Sloan – One Chord To Another, Weezer – Pinkerton
Radiohead – OK Computer
Radiohead ditched convention in favour of experimentation for their third full-length. Soon after its release, OK Computer reached number one and greatly expanded Radiohead’s worldwide popularity. It received almost universal critical acclaim instantly, with comparisons being made to legendary albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon.
Honourable Mentions: Sleater-Kinney – Dig me Out, Built to Spill – Perfect From Now On, Mogwai – Young Team, Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear The Heart Beating as One
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Widely considered to be inspired by the life of Anne Frank, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second full-length release stands as one of the most celebrated and influential indie records of all-time. It wasn’t so rosy out of the gate in terms of critical reception, although outlets like Rolling Stone and NME would later change their tune on the band’s landmark 1998 release. Singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum slipped into a reclusive lifestyle not long after, re-surfacing sporadically through the mid-2000s before NMH finally reunited in 2013. We’ll keep holding out hope for a follow-up release…trust me, we’ll wait.
Honourable Mentions: Cat Power – Moon Pix, Silver Jews – American Water, Elliott Smith – XO
The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I
Originally scheduled to be released by Interscope, The Dismemberment Plan were tossed aside when Universal Music took over following a merger. The band went on to release their critically acclaimed third album on their former DeSoto Records. It would be reissued on vinyl in 2011 to even further critical acclaim.
Honourable Mentions: Wilco – Summerteeth, Pavement – Terror Twilight, Built to Spill – Keep It Like a Secret, The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
Modest Mouse – The Moon & Antarctica
Modest Mouse carved out a gritty masterpiece in 1997 with The Lonesome Crowded West, but it was on their 2000 release The Moon & Antarctica where they first flashed a penchant for crafting edgy but accessible indie pop.
Honourable Mentions: Radiohead – Kid A, Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump, Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Clinic – Internal Wrangler, The White Stripes – De Stijl
The Strokes – Is This It
Love or hate The Strokes’ calculated lo-fi debut, it changed everything. While the production on Is This It may have been puzzling to those unfamiliar with traditional indie rock, it was a commercial and critical success, opening up the airwaves for the likes of The White Stripes, Interpol, Ryan Adams, and many more. For a hot minute, The Strokes looked like the next big thing.
Honourable Mentions: The Shins – Oh, Inverted World, The White Stripes – White Blood Cells, The Microphones – The Glow Pt. 2
Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People
The record that put Toronto on the indie rock map and launched numerous solo careers. Broken Social Scene’s sophomore release saw Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning expand the band’s lineup to include, to name a few, Leslie Feist, Emily Haines, Andrew Whiteman, and James Shaw. The result was what stands as one of the most influential records this country’s ever produced. The album took home the 2003 Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year.
Honourable Mentions: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Interpol – Turn on The Bright Lights, The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Iron & Wine – The Creek Drank the Cradle
Cat Power – You Are Free
Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, released her sixth studio record to widespread acclaim in 2003. You Are Free saw Marshall enlist some help from the likes of Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl, but make no mistake, it’s Marshall’s often hauntingly beautiful songwriting and guitar/piano work that stands out. It was her first record to chart, reaching 105 on the Billboard 200.
Honourable Mentions: The Strokes – Room on Fire, Super Furry Animals – Phantom Power, Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell, The Postal Service – Give Up, The Constantines – Shine A Light
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Arcade Fire arrived on the scene in the fall of 2004 with one of the most emotionally charged efforts of the decade. Funeral was a tour de force, steeped in loss, discovery, and the eccentric underpinnings that would help the band rise to international superstardom. Most bands would spend their career trying to match a debut this powerful, Arcade Fire would come close just six years later.
Honourable Mentions: Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand, The Go! Team – Thunder, Lightning, Strike
Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary
With songwriting and vocal duties split between the divergent talents of guitarist Dan Boeckner and keyboardist Spencer Krug, Wolf Parade’s 2005 full-length debut could have sounded like a fractured affair. Instead, it’s a near-flawless exercise in record making. Boeckner and Krug continued to split songwriting and vocal duties for two more records, while dabbling in their respective side projects for the next decade-plus. While subsequent records were fantastic in their own right, they wouldn’t duplicate the raw magic of their debut…but who could?
Honourable Mentions: New Pornographers – Twin Cinema, Sleater-Kinney – The Woods, Bloc Party – Silent Alarm, The National – Alligator, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
Craig Finn’s storytelling ability reached the masses following the release The Hold Steady’s third album. Critical acclaim helped the band rise to new heights behind Finn’s highly literate approach to lyricism set in front of backdrop inspired by the likes of Husker Du, The Replacements, Thin Lizzy, and Springsteen. You could argue Separation Sunday was the band’s best effort, but Boys and Girls in America was their most important.
Honourable Mentions: Cat Power – The Greatest, TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain, Band of Horses – Everything All The Time
Feist – The Reminder
Feist’s third full-length record was a massive critical and commercial success. The Reminder’s singles “My Moon My Man,” “1234,” “I Feel It All,” and “Sealion” helped her capture the 2007 Shortlist Music Prize and five JUNO Awards.
Honourable Mentions: Dinosaur Jr – Beyond, The National – The Boxer, Arcade Fire – Neon Bible, Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend’s debut studio album drew comparisons to Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 release Graceland. Simon himself touched on accusations that it borrowed too heavily, telling Vanity Fair “Everybody was saying that they were taking stuff from Graceland or whatever. I felt bad. I wanted to go and tell them that I didn’t think they were taking anything. So that’s what I told them. They said, ‘Do you think we are?’ and I said, ‘No, I think you’re going to the same sources that I went to. You’re drawing from the same well. You’re trying to write interesting songs.’ In a way, we were on the same pursuit…”
Honourable Mentions: Deerhunter – Microcastle, Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes, M83 – Saturdays = Youth, Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
French indie pop outfit Phoenix gained a massive mainstream following upon the release of their fourth studio record, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Singles “1901” and “Lisztomania” continue to rock the airwaves stateside, while North American fans continue to receive an informal education in the nuances of European art. It’s pop masterpiece that gained Gold certification in Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Honourable Mentions: Joel Plaskett – Three, Grizzly Bear – Veckatimist, Dinosaur Jr – Farm, Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion, The xx – xx
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
While Arcade Fire were on their way to ‘biggest band in the world’ territory by 2010, few would dispute their claim to that title by the time The Suburbs left its mark on the global scene. It took home numerous awards over the course of 2010-11, including Best International Album at the 2011 BRIT Awards, Album of the Year at the 2011 Juno Awards, and the 2011 Polaris Music Prize. The band rose to even greater heights following a surprising win for Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
Honourable Mentions: Titus Andronicus – The Monitor, The National – High Violet, Vampire Weekend – Contra
Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Bon Iver’s follow-up to his celebrated debut saw Justin Vernon depart the comforts of his indie folk stylings for something layered in influences ranging from yacht rock to electronic music. The result was one of the decade’s best albums, and a win for Best Alternative Music Album at the 2012 Grammy Awards.
Honourable Mentions: Fucked Up – David Comes To Life, M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Just when you thought the likes of The White Stripes and The Black Keys exhausted the limitations of the two-piece rock scene, Japandroids went and delivered an eight-song monument to their punk and classic rock influences. The band’s sophomore release remains one of the most celebrated indie albums of the first half of the decade.
Honourable Mentions: Tame Impala – Lonerism, Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
Kurt Vile – Wakin On a Pretty Daze
Kurt Vile’s ability as a guitarist was hardly a secret, but his first breakthrough of sorts, 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, showcased his softer indie folk approach. He would let loose on 2013’s Wakin On a Pretty Daze, blending 80s electronic influences with much simpler classic rock methodology.
Honourable Mentions: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City, The National – Trouble Will Find Me, Diarrhea Planet – I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream
On The War on Drugs’ third studio effort, frontman Adam Granduciel wears his influences on his sleeve. Thankfully, we’re all better for it. Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and 80s Brit pop inspirations are clearly on display throughout the band’s 60-minute foray across an eclectic landscape shifting between ambient and wailing guitars, synthesizers, and horns.
Honourable Mentions: St. Vincent – St. Vincent, Spoon – They Want My Soul, Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else, Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
Hop Along – Painted Shut
The third full-length from Philadelphia-based indie folk outfit Hop Along served as a breakthrough for Frances Quinlan and Co. Quinlan’s distinct vocals know no bounds, swaying from anxious yet not overbearing, to unanticipated heights. Painted Shut was released to widespread critical acclaim and reserved a spot on ‘Best of 2015’ lists across the continent. If you slept on it, it’s time to wake up.
Honourable Mentions: Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love, Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
Mitski – Puberty 2
26-year-old New York-based singer-songwriter Mitski’s fourth album is a fearless confessional on the journey of adulthood. It reaches brooding depths and explosive heights, all centred around relatable tales of relationships and discovery. It’s personal, yet an expansive take on where we are.
Honourable Mentions: PUP – The Dream is Over, Angel Olsen – My Woman, Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial, Pinegrove – Cardinal
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