What is Indie Rock?

Indie rock can denote any Rock music on an independent label. As a genre, however, it refers to catchy, guitar-based alternative rock from the ’90s and ’00s. Usually indie rock is released by independent labels, but similar sounding music from a major label is also often called indie rock.

In the ’90s, the biggest named in indie rock were American acts like Pavement, Guided By Voices, Built To Spill, Sebadoh, Superchunk, and Liz Phair. In the ’00s, indie rock is used to describe a wide variety of music, from second gen Post-Punk UK acts like Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys, to arty Canadian groups like The Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, to US Americana acts such as Bright Eyes and Neko Case.

Indie Rock Origins: As with many forms of alternative music, indie rock’s earliest inspiration are New York DIY Rock outfit The Velvet Underground. The “can do” attitude of Punk Rock, along with its emphasis on substance over style, was also foundational. Most directly, indie rock grew out of the American Underground movement of the ’80s, which included The Replacements, and Dinosaur Jr., and Hüsker Dü. These acts took the ethos of Punk Rock and expanded its palette in various ways, sometimes with classic Pop songcrafting and other times with the guitar solos abhorred by the first wave of Punks.
The First Indie Rock Era: After Grunge shifted the focus of listeners to alternative music in the early ’90s, a number of bands cropped up whose DIY approach was a reaction to the mainstreaming of the alternative sound. Many of these acts were signed to Matador Records.

California quintet Pavement were at the center of ’90s indie rock, attaining rave reviews for early ’90s albums Slanted And Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Liz Phair was celebrated for her smart, frank songwriting on 1993’s Exile In Guyville. With a nod toward ’60s pop, Ohio’s Guided By Voices received great praise for their mid-decade releases. During this same time, Boise, Idaho’s Built To Spill received accolades for their jammy take on indie rock.

21st Century Indie Rock: In 1991, New York’s The Strokes revived Punk-inspired guitar music and ushered in a new generation of indie rock bands. Within the genre, these acts found diverse forms of expression. Other NYC bands, like Interpol and TV On The Radio, gained notoriety in the first half of the ’00s. In the UK, Punk Rock revivalists The Libertines initiated another strain of indie rock founded on the sound of The Clash. Groups like Arctic Monkeys have followed suit. Glasgow’s Franz Ferdinand turned Post-Punk into danceable pop. From the alt-country of the ’90s, Bright Eyes and Neko Case craft an Americana strain of indie rock.
Indie Rock’s Future: While its specific direction remains to be seen, it seems clear at this point that indie rock will continue to evolve and to flourish. As more and more contemporary indie rock bands sign to major labels, new acts and sub-genres will emerge. With releases from indie label artists like The Shins and Modest Mouse placing in the Top 5 on the Billboard charts in 2007, indie rock may even overtake a music industry once dominated by major label pop stars. One can only hope.
Indie Rock Acts Worth Exploring:

    ’90s Artists:

  • Pavement
  • Guided By Voices
  • Built To Spill
  • Sebadoh
  • Liz Phair
  • Superchunk
    ’00s Artists:

  • The Strokes
  • Interpol
  • The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • TV On The Radio
  • The Walkmen
  • Bright Eyes
  • Neko Case
  • The New Pornographers
  • The Decemberists
  • Broken Social Scene
  • The Arcade Fire
  • Clinic
  • The Libertines
  • Franz Ferdinand
  • Arctic Monkeys
  • The Futureheads
  • The Killers

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