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Indie Music: An Essential Playlist

Updated on May 14, 2017

Indie bands have been recording albums for over two decades that indie music hardly needs an introduction. And yet, defining indie music is still being discussed as to its true meaning. “Indie” as in independently produced albums outside of big recording labels is only the technical definition. To filter all descriptions to its truest definition, comes to this: Indie music is music created by artists for themselves, without artistic limitations, and not intended for mainstream audience. Often, the word "hipster" pops in, although taken rather negatively, holds true. Indie music, generally, is an acquired taste. Why go indie when there are a hundred other commercial bands vying for attention, crowding youtube with music videos and headlining arenas?

Because one of the best things about indie music is a sort of exclusivity one feels towards a band or a song. That the music, especially a song that one really relates to, is yet to be heard by many, becomes more personal, thus more meaningful. The relationship between the music and the listener is tethered by an invisible cord they knew only existed between like minds uncorrupted by media hype and the lust for fame. And it is at times, a pain to share. But, good music is meant to be shared. In building the essential playlist, here are the songs that are great starting points:

The violin, Andrew Bird's instrument of choice
The violin, Andrew Bird's instrument of choice

A NERVOUS TIC MOTION OF THE HEAD TO THE LEFT (Andrew Bird)

from the 2005 album Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs
(Righteous Babe)

Andrew Bird is a rare breed. Formerly from the bands Squirrel Nut Zippers and Bowl of Fire, he turned solo and produced a number of amazing albums displaying his skills for various musical instruments among them the violin, guitar, xylophone, glockenspiel, and mandolin. But, it is his whistling that separates him from other artists, making it a veritable part of his music. The Bird sound—a combination of jazz, rock and folk, often looked at as too eclectic for taste. Nonetheless, Bird’s music is nothing short of original, intelligent and complex, dubbed “chamber pop orchestra.” This is a musical genius with talents far beyond ordinary musicians.

In A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left, the second song off the album Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs, released in 2005, Bird showcases a plethora of sounds. He starts the song by plucking the violin, which he turns to the looping machine, uses the bow alternating between whistles, shifts to the electric guitar, sings, before turning back to using the bow. The resulting sound displayed is immaculate. This is a man who knows how good he is. A Nervous Tic Motion is his performance piece.

LOVER'S SPIT (Broken Social Scene)

from the 2002 album "You Forgot It in People"
(Arts & Crafts)

Broken Social Scene is a gathering of talents from the Canadian indie scene formed by Kevin Drew and Brendan Cunning in 1999. The number of members at a time varies from three to twelve and throughout the course of its existence, more than 25 musical artists from other bands have been a part of it. Among them are: Leslie Feist, Lisa Lobsinger (Reverie Sound Revue), Evan Cranley (Stars), Andrew Whitman (Apostle of Hustle), Charles Spearin (Do May Say Think), and Andrew Kenny (Wooden Birds). When performing, Broken Social Scene features full orchestration that includes string, wood, and brass instruments aside from the basic set-up of an indie rock band. Their musical style is baroque pop, and long multi-layered instrumentals.

Lover's Spit, Kevin Drew's ballad about sex and relationship, is one of the anthems of the indie scene and one of the most played songs in movies (Wicker Park (2004), Lie With Me (2005), and TVs (Queer as Folk, Nip/Tuck). Even, with only a handful of chords for both verse and chorus parts, a slow progression and a long coda, Lover’s Spit feels immensely grandiose. The frankness of the lyrics is easy to connect with that even singer/songwriter Lorde referenced the song on her debut album. Lover’s Spit is just epic.

Discography: Feel Good Lost (2001), You Forgot It in People (2002), Broke Social Scene (2005), Forgiveness Rock Record (2010).

SUCH GREAT HEIGHTS (The Postal Service)

from the 2003 album "Give Up"
(Sub Pop)

If there's a band that doesn't give a damn about names, it's Seattle’s The Postal Service. Formed in 2001, they’re so-called because members Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel/Headset) corresponded and sent recordings through snail mail. Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, who was a neighbour of Tamborello, joined later on. The Postal Service’s music is basically indie electronica with melodious vocals, a lot of samplings and fill-ins, creating a catchy, danceable atmosphere.

Such Great Heights is one of the most recognizable indie songs from the opening keys to the droning bassline. Proof of its popularity is it being used in TV commercials like UPS and M&Ms, the TV show Grey’s Anatomy and most memorably in Garden State (2004). It is also a song frequently covered by other acts. Versions of the song have been made by Iron & Wine, Ben Folds, Confide, Streetlight Manifesto, The Scene Aesthetic, Amanda Palmer, and Black Cantrell.

Discography: Give Up (2003), Singles: Such Great Heights/The District Sleeps Alone Tonight (2003), Against All Odds (2004), We Will Become Silhouettes/Be Still My Heart (2005), Turn Around/A Tattered Line of String (2013).

MYRIAD HARBOUR (The New Pornographers)

from the 2007 album Challengers
(Matador)

One of the most known and celebrated indie bands hailing from Vancouver, Canada, The New Pornographers, was formed in 1999, is composed of an array of musicians, each from previous bands (or will later on, pursue a solo career): Carl Newman (Zumpano, Syperconductor, and as a solo artist), Dan Bejar (Destroyer, Swan Lake, Blue Roses), Neko Case (Maow, The Corn Sisters, Cub, and as a solo artist), Kathryn Calder (Immaculate Machine, and as a solo artist), Todd Fancey (Limblifter), John Collins (The Evaporators, Destroyer), and Blaine Thurier (an indie filmmaker). This wonderful collective of musical tastes gives a diverse, big sounding, multi-layered texture to the New Pornographers music.

Myriad Harbour is the band's trademark song. True to its name, the song is a colorful array of guitar sounds from acoustic rhythms to electric riffs, harmonica, keyboards and Charlie Bukowski-inspired beat poetry lyrics, all coming together with energy. Even the singing itself is a mixture of voices. Myriad Harbour is a storytelling up tempo song that’s so enjoyable to listen to, even the band couldn’t help but smile.

Discography: Mass Romantic (2000), Electric Version (2003), Twin Cinema (2005), Challengers (200), Together (2010), Brill Bruisers (2014).

Listen to Indie music while coloring a book, what a great idea, BUY:

Official Music Video

FLOAT ON (Modest Mouse)

from the 2004 album Good News For People Who Love Bad News
(Epic)

Isaac Brock has been making music since the formative days of indie rock and the band already went to so many changes, the constant being the continued success of Modest Mouse. With several albums and successful concerts, the band Brock formed in 1992 in Issaquah, Washington while he was working in a video store, has been influential to so many other bands. The founding members aside from Brock were bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green. The line-up changes include percussionist Joe Plummer of The Black Heart Procession and guitarist Johnny Marr of The Smiths.

Float On stands out from Modest Mouse’s other songs, and one of the most known songs from any Indie band. Brock wrote the song as an answer to the bad news happening all over the world. Indeed, the opening guitar riffs are just too catchy followed by Brock’s energetic singing and with the intended high-pitches, could easily transform one’s mood. The song has been covered by Ben Lee, Iron Horse and Goldspot and have appeared in an episode of The O.C.

Discography: This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996), The Lobesome Crowded West (1997), The Moon & Antarctica (2000), Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004), We Were Dead Before the Ship Ever Sank (2007), Strangers to Ourselves (2015).

THE WEATHER (Built to Spill)

from the 2001 album Ancient Melodies of the Future
(Up Records Warner Bros.)

If there’s one band that other indie bands cite the most often as their influence, its Built to Spill. The band was born in Boise, Idaho in 1992 by frontman and guitarist Doug Martsch along with Brett Nelson and Ralf Youtz. Their music is a boisterous charge of electric guitars and ever changing tempos that couldn’t drown Martsch’s voice. Acts like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Finn Riggins, Silversun Pickups and Band of Horses all give credit to Built to Spill for the development of their sound.

Doug Martsch ends their 5th studio album with The Weather, a love song. Considering the stormy, electric guitar-driven songs that precede it, offers a calming effect. Listening to the song for the first time, one could easily get attached to it and its because the lyrics seem to be words you’d been longing to hear are finally being said:

Do you want it to be outside in the cool night
Where the stars gravitate toward you?
Do you want it to be outside in the cool night
Where the fog wraps itself around you?

Do you want it to be outside in the sunshine
Where the clouds take their places for you?

And the wind and snow and the rain that blows
None of those would matter much without you
And as long as it's talking with you
Talk of the weather will do

Discography: Ultimate Alternative Wavers (1993), There's Nothing Wrong with Love (1994), Perfect from Now On (1997), Keep It Like a Secret (1999), Ancient Melodies of the Future (2001), You in Reverse (2006), There is No Enemy (2009), Untethered Moon (2015).

TALL TALL GRASS (Tilly and the Wall)

from the 2008 album o
(Team Love Records)

An Indie band with a tap dancer? The only guess would be Tilly & the Wall, the five-man indie pop band from Omaha, Nebraska, whose basic instruments are outnumbered by vocals and percussion. They don’t have a drummer, period. What substitutes for the drumkit is Jamie Pressnall’s tapdancing. That and a lot more percussion like tambourines, shakers, bells and what have you. The group came into being in 2001 after several other bands from which the members came from, disbanded. Jamie Williams and singer/percussionist Neely Jenkins came from the Conor Oberst-led Park Ave while Kianna Alarid, also, singer/percussionist came from the group Magic Kiss. Guitarist Derek Presnall (who married Williams), and keyboardist Nick White joined later on. Tilly & the Wall is a fun, pop rock band and one of the things they are known for is making a version of the Sesame Street song ABC and appearing on the show.

Their third album o starts with a sad, melodious ballad, Tall Tall Grass. It is basically an acoustic song interrupted by a wild, discordant guitar solo, intended to break its seriousness and overt sentimentality. But, it is unusually perfect, a beautiful song that had gone completely under the radar. No official video on youtube, only crude, badly dubbed fan videos, making this song a real rarity. The few who have heard would testify, this IS a golden song.

When I was young
I used to sleep up in the garden
Wait to sneak in
When the house grew quiet

Now that I'm grown
I can't seem to find it
There is no tall, tall grass
For me to hide in

When there wasn't
Anywhere for me to go
Oh, I stumb led into deep love
With your rock and roll

Discography: Wild Like Children (2004), Bottoms of Barrels (2006), o (2008), Heavy Mood (2012).

NYC (Interpol)

from the 2002 album Turn On the Bright Lights
(Matador)

The dark suits and black ties, Interpol is New York City’s fashionably-sensed rhythmic mood band. Droning guitars and sordid singing reminiscent of Joy Division and The Jesus & Mary Chain and their contemporaries The Strokes. Their album Turn on the Bright Lights (2002) is one of the best debuts in the Indie/Alternative scene. Formed in 1998 by guitarist Daniel Kessler and bassist Carlos Dengler, former classmates in a philosophy class at New York University, hired singer/guitarist Paul Banks and drummer Greg Drudy. Calling themselves Interpol, a name that’s misleading at times, released a series of EPs that caught the attention of recording labels, and finally signed in 2002 by Matador Records. By the time, Sam Fogarino had already replaced Drudy in 2000 while Dengler will eventually leave in 2010 to pursue personal interests. Personnel changes however, was inconsequential, with just their debut album’s overwhelming success (a certified Gold), accolades from Pitchfork, NME, Stylus and Rolling Stone, have since propelled the band to legendary status. Best record, best album, most influential band of the decade are somewhat common to Interpol.

Subway is a porno. That one line jumps out of the song NYC, giving the proper attitude that’s Interpol, posterizing the indie underground scene of New York City. NYC is a slow, brooding, sordid love affair with the city with dirge-like singing, twangy guitars and precision drumming with a chamber sounding atmosphere. Paul Banks low-echoed singing is undeniably Ian Curtis, a comparison that stuck ever since. But, that’s as much a compliment as anything.

Discography: Turn on the Bright Lights (2002), Antics (2004), Our Love to Admire (2007), Interpol (2010), El Pintor (2014).

Lazy Eye Official Video

LAZY EYE (Silversun Pickups)

from the 2006 album Carnavas
(Dangerbird)

The band’s name , derived from its place of origin, have become hometown heroes playing Los Angeles clubs such as Spaceland and the Silverlake Lounge. Formed in 2002, Silversun Pickups is composed of frontman/guitarist Brian Aubert, Nikki Monninger on bass guitar, Christopher Guanlao on drums and keyboardist Jo Lester. Former members Elvira Gonzales and guitarist Jack Kennedy were said to have been dating Brian and Nikki, respectively, thus the band’s original name was A Couple of Couples. Since the release of their studio albums and several singles, Silversun Pickups is enjoying much success and have been active in tours.

Lazy Eye is one angry song. It follows a steady tempo before vocalist / guitarist Brian Aubert lets it all out with an avalanche of angsty lyrics that has been waiting to be released. And you can't even tell where the breaking point would be. Its like Smashing Pumpkins, only well, not Goth. Its just so explosive, this song.

Discography: Carnavas (2006), Swoon (2009), Neck of the Woods (2012), Better Nature (2015).

HYMN FOR CIGARETTES (Hefner)

from the 1999 album The Fidelity Wars
(Too Pure)

Hefner is a London, UK once-upon-a-time band formed by singer-songwriter Darren Hayman and drummer Antony Harding in 1996 and which disbanded in 2002. But their music is still being discovered by new fans that they sort of have become something of a cult. Search for music videos, even proper, hi-resolution photos of the band is like a treasure hunt. Formed in East London, Hayman and Harding met at art school in Kent and added bass player John Morrison upon relocating in London and recorded their debut single Another Better Friend. In 1997, after much friendly-radio airplay, Hefner was signed by Too Pure recording label and released several EPs. Breaking God’s Heart, their full-length first album came out in 1998 and they released three other albums in succession. And then, it was all over. A lot of their songs enterted the UK charts (although, not really reaching the top). Their music is simple-arranged, even danceable, college radio pop tunes.

Hymn for Cigarettes is a very catchy tune with simple, playful lyrics and a straightforward story. While the chord progression is simple, the delivery is blatant, scorching and punk. Hayman’s attitude towards the song, and singing in general, is a nerdy tribute to Sex Pistols, but with an intelligence of a bookworm-ish rebel.

Discography: Breaking God’s Heart (1998), The Fidelity Wars (1999), We Love the City (2000), Dead Media (2001).

WISHBONE (Architecture in Helsinki)

from the 2006 album In Case We Die
(Tailem Bend)

The circus has come to town and its playing great pop music. Describing Architecture in Helsinki in both music and image, one would be reminded of a carousel with colourful lights. Here's a band whose music is almost impossible to categorize in plain words. Employing a wide variety of percussion like glockenspiel, clarinet, xylophone, tuba, keyboards, recorders and samplers, besides the usual guitars, bass, violin and drums, creating a cauldron of sound, unpredictable, unusual and totally fun. However eclectic or folly, Architecture in Helsinki is never boring. They’re one of the most original bands to come from down under and one of the most active. Formed in 1999 in Fitzroy, Melbourne by childhood friends Cameron Bird, Jamie Mildren and Sam Perry, the name of the band came from cut out words from newspapers they re-arranged. Drummer Gus Franklin and vocalist and clarinet player Kellie Sutherland, complete their current line-up.

Wishbone, running a mere 2:26 minutes is a masterpiece of progression, instrumental configuration, timing and lyrical verse. What’s so wonderful is that each of the instruments has its day in the sun. It starts with the keyboards, with everything breaking in almost simultaneously, by the second verse, you’ll hear a light violin towards a bogus ending. And as a quick drum solo signals the return, the guitar enters for its own solo, then everything slows down with a variety of voices, semi-acapella, until the violin caresses the song to a halt. And its all over and you’d want to play it again immediately. Wishbone is a song made to be looped eternally. The melody is just heaven sent.

Discography: Wild Like Children (2004), Bottoms of Barrels (2006), o (2008), Heavy Mood (2012).

RECOMMENDED: Follow the lyrics while listening to Wishbone.

Choke, choking on a wishbone in the firing line of lovers who will never slow down
And I won't let you steer, commandeer the atmosphere, since you suggested running away (Romantic)

Hit the redial, maybe we should sigh a while, save our second wind for sentimental warm weather
Four forever, two together, we'll play dead, we'll play dead! We'll play deadly

Should we make believe you remember me from a holiday delayed by a storm?
Should we chance our arms' alarms set to high noon until the shiver in the river is gone?

Hope, hoping you might whistle, get all dizzy, 'cuz I found the reason why you're around
If I locate the fear, talk you through the tangles, can you chase me till you my feet touch the ground? (And go dancing)

Tambourine style, walking in a single file
You whisper half thoughts to me

Should we make believe you remember me from a holiday delayed by a storm?
Should we chance our arms' alarms set to high noon until the shiver in the river is gone?

HEART IT RACES (Dr. Dog)

from the 2007 7" Vinyl The Girl/Heart it Races
(Park the Van)

The Pennsylvanian native band Dr. Dog is a surprise act that gained critical attention opening for the band My Morning Jacket in 2004. Influenced by 60s rock n roll like The Beatles and The Beach Boys and also by indie acts like Guided by Voices, Stephen Malkmus and Pavement, lends psychedelic, folk, blues touches to their sound. The band consists of Toby Leaman (vocals and bass guitar), Scott McMicken (vocals, lead guitar, banjo, keyboards and Omnichord), Zack Miller (keyboards, piano, organ and accordion), Frank McElroy (rhythm guitars and backing vocals), Eric Slick (drums and percussion), and Dimitri Manos (percussion). With several albums to date, the band is also known for sharing their music online.

Heart It Races is originally a song by the band Architecture In Helsinki, which Dr. Dog covered in 2007 and released as a 7” vinyl. The result which everyone agrees on, is even better, considering that the song was so unlikely to be picked up and covered, let alone, make a different rendition of. If you listen to the original song by Architecture in Helsinki, you’d get the general idea. Dr. Dog's laid-back take is a work of wonder: multi-guitar tracks, slide guitars, bass, vocals (and back-up vocals) work in perfect unison creating this groovy vibe that's impossible not to like.

Discography: Tootbrush (2002), Easy Beat (2005), We All Belong (2007), Fate (2008), Shame, Shame (2010), Be the Void (2012), B-Room (2013), The Psychedelic Swamp (2016).

Nowhere near the original: Architecture in Helsinki's original version.

RECAP

Song
Album
Artist
A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005)
Andrew Bird
Lover's Spit
You Forgot It in People (2002)
Broken Social Scene
Such Great Heights
Give Up (2003)
The Postal Service
Myriad Harbour
Challengers (2007)
The New Pornographers
Float On
Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004)
Modest Mouse
The Weather
Ancient Melodies of the Future (2001)
Built to Spill
Tall Tall Grass
o (2008)
Tilly & the Wall
NYC
Tutn On the Bright Lights (2002)
Interpol
Lazy Eye
Carnavas (2006)
Silversun Pickups
Hymn for Cigarettes
The Fidelity Wars (1999)
Hefner
Wishbone
In Case We Die (2006)
Architecture in Helsinki
Heart It Races
The Girl/Heart It Races (2007 EP)
Dr. Dog

Further Listening

OTHER INDIE SONGS TO LOOK FOR: The Postman (American Analog Set), Ode to LRC (Band of Horses), Another Sunny Day (Belle & Sebastian), Brand New Colony (Ben Gibbard), Click Click Click Click (Bishop Allen), The Greatest (Cat Power), Breakfast With My Shadow (Cloud Cult), Under the Tracks (Creeper Lagoon), The Recluse (Cursive), l Will Follow You Into the Dark (Death Cab for Cutie), Oceanside (The Decemberists), Rue De Lis (The Essex Green), Police Sweater Blood Vow (The Fiery Furnaces), Quiet Houses (Fleet Foxes), Cities Burning Down (Howling Bells), Godpeed (Jenny Lewis), Cat Heaven (Jets to Brazil), Winning the Battle, Losing the War (Kings of Convenience), Dead Head Blues (Lightspeed Champion), Smile (Lily Allen), Maximum Sunshine (The Lynnfield Pioneers), Let Somebody In (The Magic Numbers), Get Better (Mates of State), Broadripple s Burning (Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s), Fade Into You (Mazzy Star), Female Doctor (Miniature Tigers), Lucky Number Nine (Moldy Peaches), Master Plan (My Morning Jacket), Daughters of the Soho Riots (The National), Fever (Neko Case), Communist Daughter (Neutral Milk Hotel), A Stone (Okkervil River), Bad Diary Days (Pedro the Lion), Amanda Green (Robbers on High Street), New Slang (The Shins), House Fire (Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin), Counting Down the Hours (Ted Leo & the Pharmacists), A Pillar of Salt (The Thermals), Let’s Get Known (The Unicorns), Oxford Comma (Vampire Weekend), Demons (Yo La Tengo).

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