Indie Rock Takeover: Wilco and Other Essential Indie Rock Bands

Indie Rock Takeover: Wilco and Other Essential Indie Rock Bands

What is indie, anyway? Theoretically, it's any independent artist, or an artist signed to an independent record label. So congratulations, the lo-fi shoegaze punk band you formed when you were 17 can be categorized alongside the likes of Wilco and the White Stripes. 

Would that it were so simple. Much like pop music, indie, specifically indie rock, has taken on a life of its own as a genre. In the '80s, it still referred to its namesake; bands releasing their music independently, but a genre began to develop around the bands' material themselves. Artists like Sonic Youth, Joy Division, and the Smiths developed such a distinct sound that a movement was built around them. Thus, you have "indie rock" artists signed to major labels, playing arenas around the globe. To celebrate this unique genre as it moves into its fifth decade, here are some essential vinyl records by some of our favorite indie rockers. 

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) — Wilco

Though signed to a major label, Wilco opted to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on their website months before it became commercially available. The result was a more subdued, grounded Wilco than the one heard on their previous, psychedelia-tinged records. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stood as the turning point in Wilco's career, providing musical groundwork for the band's next two decades. Experimental arrangements blend with frontman Jeff Tweedy's Americana influences to create a record that stands tall among Wilco's best. 

AM (2013) — Arctic Monkeys

With their fifth record, Arctic Monkeys reminded listeners why they deserved their status as one of the world's biggest rock bands. AM contains hit after hit, from the bluesy, gritty sounds of "Do I Wanna Know?" to the hip hop inspired "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?" Arctic Monkeys have never been afraid to experiment, paying homage to genres all over the musical spectrum, but have always managed to retain their signature sound. 

Dig Me Out (1997) — Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney emerged in the early '90s in Washington, the grunge capital of the world, with a decidedly different sound. Leaning on their punk roots, Sleater-Kinney became one of the most important groups in the riot grrrl scene of the '90s, a cultural and political movement that quickly developed its own musical identity. Sleater-Kinney is an unabashedly feminist band that wears its politics on its sleeve, and Dig Me Out is the group at its best. 

Is This It (2001) — The Strokes

Can you think of another debut rock record with this level of hype? We sure can't. After releasing an EP earlier in 2001, The Strokes signed with RCA Records, releasing Is This It in June. The album received almost universal praise, virtually reinventing the indie rock genre. The record came with a certain groove, with vocalist Julian Casablancas able to tap into the minds and emotions of the band's younger audience. The album's use of guitar was notable, fuzz drenched and largely inspired by '60s garage rock. 

Surfer Rosa (1988) — Pixies

When we talk about the origins of the indie rock movement, we can't do it without talking about Pixies. Pixies can be summed up by the following line; "must like Peter, Paul and Mary and Hüsker Dü." It sounds like a joke, but that's how Black Francis, the band's frontman, recruited its bassist. Pixies is that perfect marriage of punk and folk, with Black Francis able to turn from raw screaming to subdued, emotional vocals practically on a dime. Surfer Rosa is the band's introduction, featuring arguably its biggest hit, "Where Is My Mind?"

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998) — Neutral Milk Hotel

Despite releasing only two records, there is arguably no band that has had a greater influence on indie rock as we know it today than Neutral Milk Hotel. Bandleader Jeff Mangum wrote his entire heart into his lyrics, covering everything from relationships and family to his daily thoughts. Neutral Milk Hotel was an indie band in every sense of the word, producing intentionally low-quality sounding music and remaining on the fringes of popularity until they became one of the first groups to achieve widespread popularity through the rapidly growing internet. True to his original vision, the newfound popularity led Mangum to place the band on hiatus, briefly reuniting 15 years later. 

Elephant (2003) — The White Stripes

Amazing how much sound you can create with just a guitar, some drums, and a bunch of 60 year old recording equipment. Jack and Meg White went into the studio to record Elephant without the use of any digital equipment, using just the raw power of their instruments and Jack's iconic vocal talent. The record spawned their signature track, "Seven Nation Army," its signature beat remaining an indie rock staple. 

Be the Cowboy (2018) — Mitski

Now firmly in the throes of mainstream success, Mitski used Be the Cowboy as an opportunity to explore her musical identity. Having gone back to basics on Puberty 2Be the Cowboy was produced with little layering, leaving Mitski, in her words, "in the spotlight." Be the Cowboy delves deep into Mitski's personal feelings, particularly her newfound success and notoriety, combining subdued indie rhythms with her signature synth-pop influences. 

Slanted and Enchanted (1992) — Pavement

Slanted and Enchanted was '90s indie rock in a nutshell. It was restrained, yet energetic. Melodic yet raw. Its emotionally charged lyrics captured the lives of 20somethings in the early '90s, with jangly, low-fi guitars as perfect accompaniment. Slanted and Enchanted helped set the tone for the indie rock explosion of the late '90s and early 2000s, providing a wealth of influence for burgeoning, young rockers. 


The Crane Wife (2006) — The Decemberists

Ironically, The Crane Wife is the Decemberists' first title to be released on a major record label. The band had attracted mainstream attention with 2005's Picaresque and its delightfully bizarre, folktale inspired sound. On The Crane Wife, the band felt comfortable to lean into their progressive rock influences, particularly on the 12 minute long "The Island," as well as "When the War Came." The Crane Wife established the group as major players in the indie prog rock subgenre, continuing to experiment with sound on every subsequent release.