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Defining the best indie rock bands and music in the 21st Century is a challenging proposition. In an era of online music platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud and massive streaming services like Spotify, where independent musicians are able to reach mainstream audiences by the millions, what really qualifies as 'indie'?
Things get even more convoluted when you consider the fact that a large percentage of the world's largest music festivals all cater to indie crowds. From the Pitchfork Music Festival to Austin's SXSW or Austin City Limits, it sometimes seems like independent music is the mainstream. While there's some truth to that, as much of the best indie rock goes on to mainstream success, other musicians spend their entire careers in the underground.
Let's take a look at the history of independent rock to understand where the genre's at today and how it got that way!
When you look at the history of rock 'n roll - or any form of popular music, really - it seems that it's all indie. Or it started out that way, at least.
Some of the most influential music of the 20th Century all started out on independent labels. Stax, Sun Records, Motown, Chess, even A&M, all started out as indies. Indie music is woven into the DNA of nearly every sound and style we listen to today.
Things really got going in the '70s, however, with the birth of punk rock, the beginnings of a truly underground music network, and the rise of home recording.
Independent music truly came into its own in the '70s, as people moved away from the pomp and grandiosity of Prog and Arena Rock. There are tons of influential indie bands, labels, scenes, and movements in the '70s. It just wasn't called 'indie rock.'
Much of the obscure, mind-bending sounds to trickle out of the underground in the 1970s can't be easily categorized. You've got the surreal, psychedelic, avant-garde blues of Captain Beefheart, who released some of his most seminal albums on Straight Records, also home to other Californian freakniks such as Frank Zappa. Captain Beefheart would become synonymous with a certain kind of obscure music fanatic - the indie hipster - as seen in the movie High Fidelity. A sweating music geek asks to buy a copy of Trout Mask Replica on pristine vinyl, only to be turned down by Jack Black because he wasn't cool enough.
Meanwhile, The Stooges and The Velvet Underground were laying the groundwork for Punk Rock, Art Rock, an influx of non-Western music, and a drug-addled style and aesthetic that would also become de rigeur for many denizens of the musical underground. They just happened to do it on major labels within the context of indie rock songs.
Punk Rock and its offshoots are probably the best example of what we now think of as indie music. Inspired by the 'Year Zero'/anything goes spirit of The Sex Pistols, legions of angry, disaffected youth took up cheap guitars, photocopies, and staplers to create their own music network. The Punk pioneers of the '70s had to establish their own venues, radio stations, and record stores.
This is the true spirit of independent music and culture, which is still echoing into modern times.
Again, much of what we now think of as 'indie music' got its start in the 1980s. It just wasn't called by that name. Instead, the '80s saw the rise of college rock and alternative rock, which was still being used synonymously with indie rock.
Bands like The Smiths, while referred to as alternative, would become a template for uber-serious underground music with an activist's spirit and a broken heart worn on its sleeve. To this day, indie kids all over the world are still rocking Morrissey t-shirts and copying lyrics from "How Soon Is Now?" onto their backpacks in White Out. Johnny Marr's pyrotechnic guitarwork - adventurous and experimental while still sticking in your ears like saltwater taffy, are good representations of two indie movements emerging from the '80s - Indie Pop and Noise Rock.
Other proto-alt rock bands would go on to shape the future of independent music both directly and indirectly. The Pixies pioneered the shouty loudQUIETloud aesthetic that would come to fruition in both Emo/Pop Punk and the sprawling, symphonic song structures of Post-Rock. They'd go on to influence the mainstream even more heavily via one of indie music's biggest exports - Nirvana.
It's difficult to fathom how many best indie rock songs of all time have been written aping Frank Black's yawping, self-deprecating lyrics and Joey Santiago's surf rock-indebted melodicism.
Some of the biggest indie bands would record for major labels during the '80s, also, further muddying the waters as far as what exactly independent music is or sounds like. Perhaps one of the '80s strangest, most unlikely success stories, Devo, recorded their anxiety-inducing New Wave for Warner Brothers, in one of the least unlikely careers in Pop Music history.
Warner Bros. executives' must've been lacing their water with something in the '80s, or maybe that's just how weird things were, in the wake of Punk Rock. The major label even signed one of punk's most uncompromising, most uncommercial voices. Influential agit prop Dance Punks Gang Of Four released Hard on Warner Brothers in 1983, blending Punk's hardline philosophical outlook with Disco's unrelenting rhythms. This style would truly come into fruitions in the postmodern indie explosion of the 2000s, when all things old would become new again.
Independent music's sound, style, and aesthetic crystallized in the '90s, solidifying the slackened, somewhat lo-fi guitar-centric sound that first springs to mind when you hear the phrase. Bands like Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, Yo La Tengo, Guided By Voices, and Pavement would release some of their most iconic statements, inspiring generations of bedroom songwriters and basement bands the world over, releasing albums on some of the genre's most iconic labels.
The '90s is also the moment when indie became a style in and of itself. Alternative rock spun off and became its own thing, despite some of its most noteworthy bands emerging from the underground. Grunge also got going in earnest, as did Brit Pop, both of which were just polished versions of underground genres that had been going for a decade.
NYC's Matador Records are perhaps the best representation of '90s indie rock, as well as an illustration of its underground/mainstream polarity. Many Matador bands, like Mary Timony's Helium, Flipper, or Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, would remain uncompromisingly rough and experimental. Others would encapsulate indie's accessibility and populist charm. Liz Phair would become a staple of alt rock radio following the release of her debut Exile In Guyville. Teenage Fanclub were almost indistinguishable from regular pop music, helping to define and refine the sound of what we now call Power Pop.
The most representative band of Matador's - and independent music in general's - trajectory in the '90s is Pavement. Watch the music video for "Range Life" to truly capture the essence of '90s indie culture. It follows the band playing their signature slackened guitar pop to enormous festival audiences. It's a time capsule of the styles and fashions of early indie rock. It also showcases the often blurry line between indie and alternative rock, which were often one and the same. It's also the source of underground music's greatest beef, with Pavement's Stephen Malkmus taking digs at some of alt rock's biggest names, most notably Billy Corgan. Corgan's ego was slighted, going on to use his clout to get Pavement kicked off of the 1994 Lollapalooza Festival Tour.
Matador Records are also an exquisite example of underground music's expansive sound and style. They'd also release albums from innovative electronic bands like Japan's Cornelius and Solex, as well as the slick, shiny pop music of Pizzicato Five, which sounds like an early version of J-Pop.
Perhaps the most well-known and signature '90s indie rock, that would come to define the aesthetic as well as cement a certain myth, is Elliott Smith. Departing from his punk band Heatmiser, Smith's early recordings are a high point of lo-fi home recording. Elliott Smith created his symphonic, folkish pop to a 4-track, offering a glimpse into his homespun world and indenpedent scenes all over the world. Elliott Smith would approach Beatles-esque Pop and intricate Folk Rock with a perfectionist spirit, recording all of the instruments himself, showcasing what was possible with a limited home recording setup.
Anything was possible, it turns out. This would become increasingly true as independent music moved into the 21st Century, with its proliferation of powerful, cheap technology and increased ability to share with the wider world as the Internet truly came into its own.
Discussing independent rock in the 21st Century gets increasingly complicated. For one, you've got the resurrection of every underground music style of the last 100 years. Post-Punk, Dance Punk, Shoegaze, and Garage Rock all enjoyed major resurgences in the 2000s, often improving upon the original movements. You've also got indie artists delivering classic rock 'n roll styles in new and stylized ways. You've got Wilco, taking traditional Country Rock and weaving in avant-garde musical techniques. You've got Austin's Okkervil River, remaking sadsack Adult Contemporary music in an artful emo take on indie folk. You've got My Morning Jacket, taking Lynyrd Skynrd-style Southern Rock and drenching it in cavernous reverb on their earliest recordings, before pivoting to produce a kind of itchy, twitchy Prince-style art funk.
Finally, you've got some of the biggest and best indie rock bands of the 2000s delivering their ultimate statements for major labels. Death Cab For Cutie would depart the cozy confines of Barsuk Records, where they forged their reputation, signing on to Atlantic Records for 2005's Plans. Modest Mouse would take their bummer, slacker mumblecore rock 'n roll to Epic Records for Good News For People Who Love Bad News, scoring an unlikely radio hit with "Float On."
Another Portland outfit would export their traditional sounds and unkempt styles onto a major label for an unlikely success. The Decemberists' sprawling, literary art folk was paired with crisp, sparkling hi-fi production on 2006's The Crane Wife. It's a decent example of the overall state of indie music in the 2000s. The Decemberists were always ambitious, with orchestral instrumentation bolstering stories that sound more like O. Henry than The O'Jays. Indie rock is often brilliant, adventurous, and musically-accomplished; it's just shrouded in murky lo-fi recordings. Scrape away the fuzz and you'll hear some of the most exciting music of the last 100 years.
More and more people seem willing to perform that sonic archaeology with each passing year. Indie rock's been blowing up in the 2010s, like every other form of independent music. Indie music is diversifying in the second decade of the 21st Century, becoming much less white, less straight. You've got artists like NY's Mitski, channeling her experiences as a young Japanese-American woman into angsty, arty, catchy folk rock. Similarly, another New York singer/songwriter, Frankie Cosmos, channels the confusion and uncertainty of the millennial experience via the rough, DIY aesthetic of anti-folk to an unexpectedly large audience.
Even the most obscure, most diverse, most uncommercial indie artists can have huge followings in the 2010s, thanks to the extensive infrastructure forged by indie musicians of the past. It's been a long, hard, often twisting road from bowling alleys and basements to some of the largest stages on the planet.
Indie may just be a name, at this point, an empty sonic signifier that doesn't do much to describe a band's sound. The DIY sensibility, paired with non-Pop song structures, an openness to underground, obscure, and experimental music from all over the world, ensures that indie rock will continue to be a vital musical force for decades to come.