How Do You Define Indie Rock?

vinylWhat is “indie music” or “indie rock”?  It’s a term people either seem to love or hate, and it probably depends on how you define it.  For some it is music that is produced and released by independent record labels, which further begs the question of how you define “independent” record labels.

Others see “indie music” as that which is found at low key, off the beaten path, semi-underground music venues across the world.  Still others will see it as a musical recording style, marked by low-fi, seemingly “under- produced” recordings and the “more indie” of these are done using classic second equipment and recording devices.

And I guess lastly, you could define “indie” in terms of the people that created the music, their insights into the world, their attitudes, and how their music and lyrics express their emotions. assembled this list of what we thought were the top independent rock records produced in the last 20 or so years based on an aggregate definition of the terms that really encompasses all of the above mentioned interpretations.  But really we wanted to identify those albums whose originality, sound, approach and style have stood the test of time, and those which have grown to become major influences on all types of music that followed it.  Here is that list, and I should say in no particular order, with some brief captions.


In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
Jeff Mangum assembles one of the most quintessential albums we think of all time here; then he quickly sees the pain of stardom, and recluses with just an occasional appearance here and there on stage with friends.  An interesting guy, a true music story, an original piece of art and one of our favorite albums ever created.

Bleach by Nirvana
Bleach is so unnervingly raw and so much fun to listen to even right now that it’s amazing this isn’t the one that truly launched them to super stardom.  Everything that made Cobain such a brilliant songwriter and Nirvana such a great band is here to be heard.


Bee Thousand by Guided by Voices
GBV are perhaps the epitome of indie rock, having built an incredibly loyal following of fans, and working their butt off to create a library of albums, and killer live shows.


Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth
Another band with an amazing discography but Daydream Nation really hit on all cylinders and is flawless from start to finish.


Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement
Pavement launched an entire movement with this record, introducing a style of songwriting that expertly combined musical talent with slacker mentality, and these songs with their hodgepodge of melodies have remained as important now as when they were created.


Surfer Rosa by The Pixies
Multiple Pixies albums could have (and perhaps should have) made this list, but Surfer Rosa is in our view the record that really defines the band, their sound, and the impact they would have on rock history.  Even folk musician Todd Snider plays homage to Black Francis.


Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground by Bright Eyes
Conor Oberst was what, 16 when he started writing songs and 20 when he released this ground breaker? The album is genius from start to finish, and it helped launched the career of an influential songwriter and an excellent performer.


Repeater 3 Songs by Fugazi
Another band that’s remained indie throughout their career.  We immediately think of $5 show tickets, and crazy mosh pits.  Fugazi tapped the teenage angst with an amazing body of work.  Repeater is just one of their shining stars.


Oh, Inverted World by The Shins
The Shins’ unique songs struck instantly, way before New Slang showed up in the film Garden State.  Oh, Inverted World created an atmospheric sound with sly lyrics and musicianship to really disrupt what at the time was getting to be a somewhat stale musical environment.


Either/Or by Elliott Smith
Remarkable musical talent with that distinctive soft voice, Elliott Smith is like no other musician on this list. This is one of many of his defining albums that demands to be listened to on regular intervals. He will be missed.


Michigan by Sufjan Stevens
We remember when Sufjan broke onto the scene with his unique multi-instrument blend and amazing melodies, creating a rich and enchanting sound unlike anything anyone had ever heard.  An amazingly talented individual, his live shows remain legendary, and he continues to innovate to this day.


69 Love Songs Volumes 1 by The Magnetic Fields
This ambitious project by frontman Steve Merritt is a collage of 69 different songs about love, and each one is vastly different from one another encompassing many different styles, voices and emotions.  Vol 1 is still a favorite.


Kill the Moonlight by Spoon
Their fresh, percussive style of songwriting created a brand of indie music that many try to emulate, but most fall short.  Britt Daniel’s distinctive voice matched with innovative changes made this album stand out from the pack.


Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate
I can call up these beautiful melodies in my head at a moment’s notice.  They will live forever.  What a collection.  Listen to this one again today.


Rage Against the Machine by Rage Against the Machine
When it was released, this rap metal album spread like wildfire, and Tom Morello’s guitar riffs combined with Zach de la Rocha’s intense lyrics and delivery, made for a politically charged album aimed at enraging what they saw as an imperfect system. And so many of us agreed.


What do you think?  Which albums are missing?  Please share your thoughts.