Gimme Indie Rock: 20 Bands That Shaped the Sound

Photo Credit: Bryan Zimmerman

The history of indie rock is as varied as the subgenre. The music has no definitive geographical origin, emerging almost simultaneously across the country, often in smaller and overlooked cities. Bands from St. Paul, Minnesota took over college radio, and Boise, Idaho suddenly became a hotbed for emerging rock bands. But the best thing about indie rock is its loosely defined sonic parameters. This looseness allows for the wide-ranging diversity you’ll see on this list, though the scene’s lack of racial diversity is an issue with which the industry is just beginning to reckon.

Few subgenres could accommodate so many different takes on a style, but indie rock has always been defined more by circumstance than sound. It allows for more substantial gaps between bands and what they sound like.  To celebrate the history of indie rock, we compiled a list of 20 excellent acts that emerged in the first and second waves of the era.

Yo La Tengo
1/20
Formed in Hoboken, New Jersey, Yo La Tengo is the quintessential indie band. Their music is gruff and unpredictable, and the group's three members are known for their musicianship and sense of humor. The latter appears most readily when Yo La Tengo performs cover sets, a Hanukkah tradition they've carried on for many years.
Pavement
2/20

Blending slacker cool with loose and jangled song structures, Pavement embodies the indie ideal that's permeated the genre for decades. The group has transcended the low-key tag slapped upon them, scoring a few hits with songs like "Cut Your Hair" and even headling the Coachella Music Festival in 2010


Sebadoh
3/20

Sebadoh was spawned in the shadow of Dinsoaur Jr. Lou Barlow, who handled bass for Dinosaur, was a songwriter himself, but his work was often scrapped in favor of J. Mascis' tunes. Barlow took the songs he'd written and recorded them with Eric Gaffney. Though Gaffney is no longer in the group, Sebadoh is celebrated for their impact on indie rock, introducing lo-fi aesthetic to a wider audience.


Guided by Voices
4/20

Guided by Voices is one of the most fascinating bands in indie rock history. Members have arrived and departed, songs get cut off before they're finished, and it's nearly impossible to keep up with the band's output. At the center of the chaos is the steady Robert Pollard, who founded GBV in 1983. With over 30 full-length LPs and a number of other releases, the group has kept its many loyal fans entertained for almost 40 years.


Built to Spill
5/20

Internal drama (and consequently changing lineups) is one of the dominant themes of indie rock's first wave. Built to Spill, the Boise-based project of Doug Martsch, invited this chaos by switching the band's members with each project. Because there wasn't enough time for turmoil, Martsch's project always stayed fresh and inventive, a guiding light for indie's modern sound.


Cat Power
6/20

Chan Marshall's decision to name her act Cat Power is almost as memorable as the music itself. After seeing a man wearing a Caterpillar trucker cap that read: "Cat Diesel Power," Cat Power stuck with her. Well, maybe it's not as iconic as her indie-folk tunes, but it is a nice origin story. Marshall originally began writing songs while working as a server in a pizza shop in Atlanta, and after a move to New York, recorded 20 songs in a single day that would shape her first two albums, Dear Sir and Myra Lee.


Superchunk
7/20

Indie bands often form in weird locales. Many on this list emerge from cities without well-regarded music scenes. Enter Superchunk, the greatest export Raleigh, North Carolina has ever known. While the city is now a destination, when Superchunk emerged in 1989, they were the most exciting thing going, thanks to their thrilling early singles.


The Pixies
8/20

The Pixies put all their influences in a blender and poured them out on every record. There's a bit of surf rock, some grunge and alternative rock, a lot of punk, and a lot of stuff no one but the Pixies could conjure up. Though the band broke up on bad terms in 1993, they reunited in 2004, with bassist Kim Deal leaving the group for good in 2013. Despite all the lineup changes and lengthy hiatus, the Pixies remain one of the great indie rock bands in history.


Sonic Youth
9/20

Regrettably, Sonic Youth may be as well known for extra-curricular drama as they are for their brilliant innovations in indie rock. When Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon divorced in 2011, the band split, too. One of the greatest couples in rock fell apart, and as such, the band did too. But Sonic Youth is still celebrated for their cerebral, noisy rock jams that boast a litany of stylistic copycats.


Silver Jews
10/20

David Berman tragically died in 2019, just weeks after he released his first and only album under the name Purple Mountains. While this album was widely-acclaimed, Berman must be celebrated for his work as Silver Jews, one of the most innovative indie folk-rock bands of all-time. Though his albums under the moniker were consistently brilliant, Berman is celebrated for how he retired the project: by playing a final show at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee on January 31, 2009, 333 feet below the ground for 300 devoted fans.


Modest Mouse
11/20

Modest Mouse formed in Issaquah, Washington in 1992, and are one of the first second-wave indie acts to make it big. Influenced by Pavement, Pixies, XTC, and Talking Heads, the group's amalgamation of their influences and inherent knack for songwriting propelled them to superstardom. They emerged seemingly out of nowhere in 1996 with This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, though the group rehearsed for two years before recording.


Hüsker Dü
12/20

Hüsker Dü was founded by guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould, bassist/vocalist Greg Norton, and drummer/vocalist Grant Hart. The St. Paul, Minnesota band gained notability as a hardcore punk band, later crossing over into alternative rock and, eventually, indie stardom. Mould is the group's heart, but Hart's vocals played an important role in the band's sound.


The Replacements
13/20

Across the street from Hüsker Dü, The Replacements were hanging in Minneapolis, Minnesota, ripping up every club around with their inimitable blend of post-punk and pop. The band started as a punk band but became innovative in the alternative rock scene, though the band's on-stage antics and messy live shows often overshadowed their brilliant songwriting.


Sleater-Kinney
14/20

Sleater-Kinney originated as part of the riot grrrl movement and quickly overtook the indie rock scene thanks to their innovative songwriting and unwillingness to back down to anyone questioning their credentials. The band is known for left-leaning politics, and guitarist Carrie Brownstein has found a second career as the star of Portlandia. Though the group is still around, they re-emerged in a new iteration after longtime drummer and vocalist Janet Weiss left the group in 2019.


Elliott Smith
15/20

Elliott Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, raised in Texas, and spent most of his life in Portland, Oregon, the city with which he's most commonly associated. Though Smith's tragic death will always overshadow his life, the music created during his short time on this planet will last forever. He released five albums from 1994-2000, establishing himself during this period as the new face of indie's folk scene.


The Microphones
16/20

Phil Elverum has undergone many evolutions throughout his career, but he began as The Microphones, a lo-fi, beautifully structured project obsessed with nature and the cadences of our planet. He was a seminal part of the now-legendary K Records, and after retiring the name to perform as Mount Eerie, re-emerged as The Microphones in 2020 to acclaim from critics and audiences alike. 


Bill Callahan (Smog)
17/20

Bill Callahan no longer writes or performs under the name Smog, but he emerged in the early '90s under the name. After a few years of releasing highly experimental tape manipulations, he began to craft the Smog sound his fans know and love. His disaffected voice, which often takes a sardonic tone, floats atop instruments that cover lo-fi, indie rock, and country territories. It's a versatile sound, and within indie's landscape, one few have been able to replicate.


Palace Music
18/20

Will Oldham has performed under many monikers. This slide could be titled after any of them. Though his work as Bonnie "Prince" Billy has brought him more acclaim and his days as the Palace Brothers introduced him to the world, his strongest album, Viva Last Blues, was recorded under the Palace Music name. Oldham brought a DIY aesthetic to his freak-folk compositions. Innovative at the time, his style has since been imitated by numerous bands.


The Dismemberment Plan
19/20

Though The Dismemberment Plan hailed from punk mecca Washington, D.C., their unique style leaned more towards math rock and post-hardcore music. Their name came from a throw-away line said by the insurance salesman in Groundhog Day, and it's the sort of Easter egg that D-Plan fans pride themselves on recognizing. The band's music is highly intuitive and complex, ushering in an era of indie rock that focused as much on instrumental complexity as catchy songwriting. 


The Wrens
20/20

The Wrens are still one of the most celebrated bands in indie rock, though they've only released three albums, the last of which, The Meadowlands, was released in 2003. The New Jersey-band underwent multiple label issues that prevented the release of more music, and though they suggested a new album was finis