Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Top 50 Indie Rock Albums

Having reviewed a couple of other indie rock lists, I decided it was time to make my own.  There are a few bands that could have more than one album on this list, but I decided to limit the top 50 to one record per artist.  Actually, due to difficulties with either counting or decision-making or both, I decided to go up to 55 and limit the top 55 to one record per artist.

I almost never listen to albums all the way through any more, so this list is partially based on memories that are mostly more than 10 years old of when I would listen to a CD start to finish. I've always prefered singles, mix tapes, and radio to listening to whole album sides or CDs, so most of my lists are song lists and not album lists. Nonetheless, there are occasional standout records that are deep enough that they warrant recommendation as albums more than just individual song recommendations.  This is not to say that there aren't a few clunker tracks on many of these albums.  In a day and age where it's so simple not to load the whole CD into your iTunes library, I just wasn't willing to require perfect consistency.  And, let's face it, perfect consistency is not indie rock's strong suit.  Big label producers make things bland, but they also serve a positive role as editors for some bands.

Before I start counting down, I would like to say a bit about a few excluded artists.  I did not include Komeda.  Their record "What Makes it Go?" was among the best records of the 90s and a song from that record topped my 90s song list, but it's just not quite rockin' enough to qualify as indie rock.  The same goes for Sufjan Stevens and Belle and Sebastian, but I found those choices easier to make than the Komeda choice.  I also left out the Beta Band while feeling somewhat unsettled about why they shouldn't be considered an indie rock band.  And don't look for the Arcade Fire or the Decemberists.  I think they're good, but I also think they're overrated.

#55  Delgados - Hate (2003)  An excellent album that would have been a lot higher on this list if I felt a little more comfortable calling it indie rock.

#54 Dr. Dog - Easy Beat (2004)  Not totally solid all the way through, but a great debut with several outstanding tracks.

#53 Tortoise - TNT (1998)  Including post-rock was debatable, but maybe I skirted the debate by including them just outside the real top 50.

#52 Rilo Kiley - Take Offs and Landings (2002)  Song for song, I think I prefer their Warner Bros debut "More Adventurous", which was, ironically, less adventerous.  This one is the right pick for the indie rock list though.

#51 Marah - Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight (1998)  Inconsistent, but seemingly bursting with potential, some of which was realized and some of which was wasted on later records (e.g. a disappointing collaboration with Springsteen).

#50 Starlight Mints - Built on Squares (2003)  A whimsically entertaining record that's more indie pop than indie rock, but it has enough of an edge that I felt it qualified.

#49 Sex Clark Five - Antedium (1992)  Too much of a garage band to really qualify as indie pop, and too much of a power pop band to be aligned with the fashionable trends at the time it was released.  This is non-self-concious indie rock from the genre's formative years.

#48 Revelers - On Top (1995)  A great indie rock band that never managed to break out of Cleveland.  They might not have been as loud as rock bands needed to be in the mid 90s to gain recognition.

#47 The Mommyheads - Flying Suit (1994)  I mostly excluded EPs from this list, but this has 8 songs, which I figure is as many songs as a lot of classic rock albums.  They show good range here for a band that's so quirky.

#46 Adam Elk - Labello (1999)  A totally overlooked solo effort by The Mommyhead's leader with help from some friends from Cake and others.  Less quirky and more Beatle-y than his work with the Mommyheads.

#45 The Evens - Get Evens (2006)  I might be the only person who thinks The Evens are Ian McKaye's second best band after Minor Threat (i.e. better than Fugazi).  I like how comfortable he sounds with the way his sound has matured.

#44 Von Bondies - Lack of Communication (2002)  Way over on the garage rock end of the spectrum that might not be called proper indie rock, but there's strength in the songwritring that you don't usually see in garage rock.

#43 Cake - Motorcade of Generocity (1994) Their self-released debut showed they were ready for the leap to major label alternative radio, but it's still indie rock to me.

#42 Push Kings - Far Places (1998)  Relentelessly peppy and maybe more indie pop than indie rock.  It was a tough choice between Far Places and their self-titled debut.  Their third record includes my favorite Push Kings song, but it's not a very good record overall.

#41 Tullycraft - Disenchanted Hearts Unite (2005)  One of the most rockin' bands that nonetheless falls comfortably under the indie pop umbrella.  They've gotten more conistent over time.

#40 Archer Prewitt - Tear Me All Away (2002)  Amazingly well crafted pop rock songs from a guy who sits at the intersection of many Chicago independent music scenes.

#39 Vehicle Flips - In Action (1995)  Some of the songs may be a bit too quiet to be properly called indie rock (versus indie pop), but the song structures favor more indie rock (versus indie pop) complexity.

#38 Man or Astro-man - Is it...  Man or Astro-man? (1993)  Indie rock was a bigger tent in the early 90s than it was in the 2000s with the proliferation of subgenres.  This sci-fi-friendly surf revival was just right for the indie rock crowd at the time.

#37 Apples in Stereo - Fun Trick Noisemaker (1995)  One of several albums from the Elephant 6 crowd that I've included here.  The elephant 6 sounds hadn't yet become a distinct indie subgenre, and the fact that they weren't really that far out there at this point makes it more of a classic indie rock record.

#36 Cat Power - Moon Pix (1998)  Is this too quiet to be a rock record?  It's definitely too dark to be a pop record, nor is the tempor right for a pop record.  This is brooding indie rock, and proves that volume isn't a qualifying characteristic for indie rock.

#35 Olivia Tremor Control - Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. 1 (1999)  Testing the experimental and psychedlic borders of indie rock, but staying in bounds with just enough song structure.

#34 Bevis Frond - New River Head (1991)  This may be more of an independent rock record than an indie rock record.  As a high point of Bevis Frond's prolific output from the late 80s to the present, it felt like it belonged here.  No other record here owes as much to Neil Young's influence, but I don't see anything wrong with that.

#33 Bats - Fear of God (1991)  There are other good choices if one is just going to pick a single Bats record, but this one is a slice in time as indie rock began to define itself as a genre.

#32 The Go! Team - Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2004)  So much of indie rock's definition comes from bursts of energetic tunefulness rising above a low budget production aesthetic.  This was a different sound from all the indie rock that came before it, with a danceable hip-hop influence that ultimately made it friendly for NFL commercials, but it totally has the indie aesthetic.

#31 Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah  (2005)  This one owes a lot to the New York club sounds of the late 70s while being strongly representative of the new New York indie rock sound of the 2000s.

#30 Bright Eyes - Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002)  Did Omaha eventually win the much coveted next-Athens title that proved elusive for so many towns for two decades?  If they did, this folk and emo influenced record may be what put them over the top.

#29 Old 97s - Wreck Your Life (1997)  Arugably, alt-country, which is a genre that stands well enough on its own, shouldn't have any representation here.  I made an exception for this one.

#28 Bongwater - The Power of Pussy (1990)   Did Shimmy-Disc preceed indie-rock or help create the form?  I would argue for the latter and this is the most complete record they put out.

#27 Stephen Malkmus - Stephen Malkmus (2001)  This sounds enough like a Pavement record that I could be accused about breaking my rule about repeating artists.  I do think it was a step forward though, and it flirted less with major label stardom than the final Pavement record.

#26 Heavenly - Operation Heavenly (1996)  Heavenly certainly wasn't riot grrrl tough, but they had more of a punk edge than the name would suggest.  Indie pop could claim them, but indie pop doesn't own them exclusively.

#25 The White Stripes - De Stijl (2000)  It seems rather quaint now to think that they just started as an indie rock band on a label that didn't even have a terribly good repuation for consistent quality.

#24 Beulah - The Coast is Never Clear (2001)  More polished than a typical indie rock record.  There's probably a story behind why they never signed to a major label, but I don't know what it is.

#23 Calexico - The Black Light (1998)  The bands and records that stretch the genre are some of the most difficult to rank.  Should Calexico get a higher rank because they have such a distinctive southwestern sound, or should they fall lower on the list because it's as much Americana as indie rock?

#22 Peter, Bjorn, and John - Writer's Block (2006)  I'm not entirely sure what counts as commercial alternative these days, but the rise of bands like Peter, Bjorn, and John may have coincided with indie rock gaining a level of commercial acceptance on part with their overtly commercial pseudo-alternative counterparts.

#21 Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)  Not my very favorite Neko record, but my favorite Neko indie rock record.  The debts to her alt-country past are evident; however, she was definitely writing and performing for a broader audience here.

#20 Built to Spill - Keep It Like a Secret (1999)  Can an indie rock band sign to a major and remain an indie rock band?  Yes, and this is the proof.  I just don't see how anyone could categorize this Warner Bros release as something other than indie rock.

#19 Arctic Monkeys - Whatever I Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006)  Are the Arctic Monkeys the 2000s equivalent of The Jam, a band that was totally huge in the UK that stayed on the fringe in the US?  Their later records were a tad overrated by the NME crowd, in my opinion, but the debut was one of the best of the decade.

#18 SF Seals - Truth Walks In Sleepy Shadows (1995)  If you file this under Barbara Manning, then I'm breaking my rule of allowing the same artist on the list twice.  I see this as a real band with Barbara it's strongest voice, and the band name is consistent with the indie rock affinity for baseball over all other sports.

#17 Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (2003)  A very accessible indie rock record that helped expand the audience for the whole genre.

#16 Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - Heart of Oak (2003)  A lot of 80s punks became metal heads.  A lot of 90s punks became indie rockers.  In fact, some of them didn't really change all that much, but what got called what changed around them.

#15 Guv'ner - The Hunt (1996)  An archetypical indie rock album.  Definitely a rock record, but tuneful in a sing-a-long way, and with too many rough edges in both the production and the vocals to have any major label potential.

#14 The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (2006)  Some indie rock is more about the lyrics and the attitude than the instrumentation.  The digital release exclusive single "Teenage Liberaton" isn't on the actual CD, but I count is as part of the album for ranking purposes.

#13 Luna - The Days of Our Nights (1999)  Their first record after getting kicked off their major label.  The fact that they got kicked off probably proves they were an indie rock band all along.

#12 Nothing Painted Blue - Power Trips Down Lovers Lane (1993)  Nothing Painted Blue had some hit-worthy songs, at least in the minor indie-rock sense of the word "hit".  None of them are on this record.  This is a hit-less record with one really strong song after another.  Franklin Bruno's wordplay is likely to either grow on you or get tiresome.  If it's the former, this is a record worthy of extensive repeated listening.

#11Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)  A sprawling journey that spans songs that are quite sparse with others that are extremely dense with especially inventive instrumentation.

#10 Barbara Manning - 1212 (1997)  I understand from interviews concurrent with this records' release that she thought this would be the breakthrough record.  I have no idea why it wasn't.  That Liz Phair became a star while Barbara Manning wallowed in obscurity is one of the great indie rock injustices of the 1990s.  One has the sense that maybe there are games one has to play to make it and that Barbara isn't one to play those games.

#9 Mountain Goats - Tallahassee (2002)  There are a lot of candidate Mountain Goats records for this list.  Their first record on 4AD was one of the biggest surprises.  Adding the 4AD gloss to the usually unadorned Mountain Goats repitoire was like adding just th right sauce to a simple organic recipe.

#8 Art Brut - Bang Bang Rock'n'Roll (2005)  The emergence of prominent indie bands in the 80s was more of a UK than US phenomenon, but making this list made me realize that I think of indie rock as primarily an American form.  This is the highest ranking UK release on my list.  The humorous self-referential lyrics help endear it to the genre.

#7 Sloan - Navy Blues (1998)  Canadian major label outcasts who started their own label, murderecords, where they matured from fringe alt-rock acceptance to indie rock mainstays.

#6 TV On the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain (2006)  After a fantastic debut EP, they suffered a sophomore slump of sorts with their first full-length record.  This, their second full-length CD, was where it all came together with a sound that was both warm and adventerous.

#5 Sebadoh - Harmacy (1996)  Their 1991 record "III" was a lot more important to the evolution of indie rock, but Harmacy is more consistent and listenable as a CD start to finish.  I feel a little bit wrong judging indie rock on listenability, but, c'mon, what else are we supposed to do with it besides listen.

#4 Pavement - Slanted & Enchanted (1992)  More than any other record, I think this one defined and launched the genre.  It would be #1 here if they could have kept up the focus of the first 4 tracks.  They did keep it up, for almost a decade, but not on this record.

#3 Spoon - Girls Can Tell (2000)  The first of two records that pulled Spoon out of a crowded pack of 90s indie rock bands.  They came into the 2000s with a more stocatto style and more open dynamics that gave their songs room to surprise and please.

#2 New Pornographers - Twin Cinema (2005)  Here again we see the difference between a song list and an album list.  The New Pornographers have no shortage of great songs or great albums, but this album's strength is its depth of very, very good songs as opposed to being the record that has their very best song.

#1 Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)  Yo La Tengo are not just a great indie rock band.  They are great sonic innovators, layering low-key harmonies over dense guitars and thoroughly modern beats, pulling together past and present in a cohesive sound that has sometime changed dramatically from one record to the next.  Song for song, this album is both their best work and the one most readily identified as an indie rock classic.  It just feels right that a Matador band from New Jersey from the late 90s should top this list.

That's it.  Where's Sleater-Kinney?  I just never really got into them.  Where's Guided by Voices?  I didn't feel like they ever made a complete album.  Where's Thinking Fellers Union Local 282?  I'll save a spot for them on best indie rock band names.  Ask and answer your own questions in the comments.


  1. 1. Did I miss Game Theory? I'm curious as to why Enigma or Rational weren't indie labels. Maybe there was the whole distribution deal with Capitol, but...

    2. I respectfully disagree on Guided by Voices, but only slightly. Alien Lanes was clearly a complete album. In my opinion, their own, but it was complete.

    3. Thank you for including Bongwater.

  2. Cat Power, Sex Clark Five, Bats, Shins, Pavement, YLT
    You're on the right track for sure...peace

  3. The late 80s bands that I think of as college rock bands that sound just like indie rock bands are a challenge for me. It's purely a semantics thing. I'll need to make a proto-indie-rock best-of list sometime.

  4. I'd say Elliott Smith was more of rocker than Bright Eyes ever could be. Oberst is just garbage

  5. This list is indeed one that qualifies the qualified! Thanks for including some that may not be as popular as international bands but have the edge to become great once given the chance. Adam Elk-I trust that this solo could have been patronized if only more people listen to the music’s depth. Thanks again for sharing.

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