11 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Indie Folk Bands

Written by Dan Farrant

There are plenty of music genres out there, from heavy metal to rock and roll to modern dance to techno synth-wave cyberpop.

But sometimes, you need to get back to basics. You need to touch the very spirit of music—the stuff made of subdued strings and gentle percussion straight from the heart. In short, you need indie folk.

If this is the mood that’s been consuming you of late, don’t fear. The following 11 of the greatest and most famous indie folk bands will help you connect with that crunchy, emotional down-home music you’ve been yearning to hear. Read on to learn more.

1. Avett Brothers

If there is a Mount Olympus for indie folk bands, then the Avett Brothers belong in one of the seats of honor upon its celestial peak.

As its name suggests, the band’s core members are two brothers, Seth, and Scott Avett. They formed the band from a combination of Seth and Scott’s respective school bands and went on to add guitarist John Twomey and later bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon.

The Avett Brothers’ style often varies between lighthearted tunes like “Kick Drum Heart” and more mournful, melancholic tunes like “Murder in the City,” “I and Love and You,” and “Victory.”

If you’re putting the Avett Brothers on your queue, be sure to clear your afternoon just in case of emergency emotional introspection.

2. Fleet Foxes

The next band on our list is the Fleet Foxes, whose blend of indie folk, chamber pop, and folk rock gained prominence in 2008 after the release of Sun Gian, their second EP.

Since then, the group has both seen success and endured several rough patches, including drummer Joshua Tillman’s less-than-amicable departure from the band.

Fleet Foxes is an ideal group for anyone who loves to listen to haunting music. With lush, eerie, and evocative tracks like “White Water Hymnal” and “Mykonos,” their music is an ideal complement to anyone looking to delve into the lyrical storytelling associated with indie folk.

3. The Mountain Goats

To say the Mountain Goats first “formed” in 1991 is a bit of a misnomer. The band’s founder, John Darnielle, is its only permanent member. Darnielle paired with the reggae group Casual Girls to compose his first Mountain Goats songs. His first big break came with the album Zopilote Machine.

Since that time, the Mountain Goats have probed a wide variety of musical styles, from lo-fi boombox experimentalism to classic folksy sounds.

Throughout, though, they have retained the same esoteric and cultured lyrics and themes that attend to profound emotions, from love to grief. To take a sample of their work, try listening to “No Children” and “Love Love Love.”

Darnielle does not share sales numbers for albums, but the Mountain Goats have reached over 15 million streams online.

4. The Decemberists

The next group on our list, Decemberists, is one of the more eclectic entries—which says quite a lot, considering that indie folk is one of the most eclectic genres out there. They are known for their baroque musical style, which draws on a variety of different instruments to produce a medley of complex sounds.

In terms of content, their work is some of the most steeped in the history of all the entries on this list. Their songs either reference folkloric events or conjure elaborate, lush fictional worlds, which creates a lovely, atmospheric listening experience. “By the Water” and “Mariner’s Revenge Song” are among their popular singles.

The Decemberists are also one of the best bands on this list to see live. They usually engage in elaborate, participatory antics with their audience, from historical reenactments to live skits.

5. Mumford And Sons

If you watched Saturday Night Live in the early to mid-2010s, then you know that Mumford and Sons need no introduction. Despite being an indie folk band, Mumford and Sons have had some of the most marked mainstream success of all the groups on this list.

Formed in 2007, the band rocketed to fame after appearing at the Grammys alongside patron saint of folk Bob Dylan and fellow listmakers the Avett Brothers. Their tunes have included such singles as “Little Lion Man” and “I Will Wait,” and they have sold over 14 million albums.

Mumford and Sons’ musical style is noteworthy for being the closest to the folksy, bluegrass origins of the genre. Notably, they draw on instruments like mandolins, banjos, and resonator guitars.

6. The Lumineers

The other end of the spectrum from the Decemberists is the Lumineers, bringing the most obviously filigreed sound. Their subdued arrangements and deep, resonant vocals, while powerful, strike a far more minimalist and haunting note than other entries on this list.

The Lumineers formed in 2002 as the cover band Free Beer. They developed their sound through the mid to late aughts, coming into their own as the decade closed out. They rocketed to success with the single “Ho Hey.”

Although their lineup has seen some major shifts over the years (right now, there are only two members in the band), they remain a monumental influence in the genre of new folk music. Since their formation, they have sold over 5,000,000 albums.

7. Neutral Milk Hotel

Formed as a garage band in 1989 and spent their longest period of activity in the 1990s, Neutral Milk Hotel has remained a seismic influence in the genre of indie folk and indie rock.

Their big break came in 1994 with the single “Everything Is,” and although they languished in obscurity in the 2000s, they have sold over 400,000 albums.

Unique from the others here, the early music of Neutral Milk Hotel was designed to be incredibly challenging to listen to, and even their most popular songs are a puzzling, psychedelic listening experience.

Still, if you want to know the deep origins of the genre of indie folk, you can’t go wrong with the group’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

8. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

The next group on our list is the indie darling Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. If the group’s name conjures associations with the 1960s and 1970s folk, soul, and R&B, this is no accident.

In fact, behind smash hit songs like their big break “Home,” is an incredibly bizarre band with a story that seems to belong to another time.

The group’s genesis occurred when frontman Alex Ebert, during a stint in rehab, wrote a text about a messianic figure and partially took on his identity (that figure being Edward Sharpe).

Assembling an eclectic crew of misfits and miscreants around him, Ebert/Sharpe went on to create some of the most catchy, exuberant, spiritually rich folk songs out there. Since then, the band has sold over 400,000 albums.

9. Of Monsters And Men

Next up, we have Of Monsters and Men. Bridging the minimalist end of the spectrum with the maximalist, the band’s sound is noteworthy for its tender, nostalgic lyrics, and complex melodies.

Of Monsters and Men was formed in 2009 when founder Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir expanded her solo endeavor, Songbird, with five additional members: Brynjar, Raggi, Arnar, Árni, and Kristján.

Their first big hit came in 2011 with the song “Little Talk,” which was released in their debut album, My Head Is an Animal. The album itself was also a critical and commercial success. Since then, they have released other well-received singles like “Dirty Paws” and “King and Lionheart.”

10. Mipso

The second to last folk band on this list is a relative newcomer. Formed around 2011, Mipso is a group with roots in the community around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but their influences go far wider.

Founding members Joseph Terrell, Jacob Sharp, Libby Rodenborough, and Wood Robinson met as undergrads at UNC. During their time at the university, they blended the sounds of classic North Carolina bluegrass with the more complex, guitar-driven arrangements of folk rock.

Their big break was their first album Dark Holler Pop, with hits that include “Louise” and  “A Couple Acres Greener.” Although sales data for their albums are not available, they have neared the tops of several Billboard charts.

11. Big Thief

Created by Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek in 2015, Big Thief is the newest on our list to join the indie folk scene. The two began as a duo, touring together, but after gaining some following, they decided to add members.

Their first four albums had moderate success, with the singles “Masterpiece,” “Mythological Beauty,” and “Not” among those that were well-received.

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, their album dropped in 2022, is their biggest success yet and has gained international attention. It ranked within the top 60 of several countries, including the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Summing Up Our List Of Great Indie Folk Rock Bands

If you’ve heard one indie band, you’ve heard—well, one indie band. All sorts of indie folk bands are out there, but each has its own unique sound. Now it’s up to you to find the one that’s right for you!

But have we missed an indie folk band that should be on here? Let us know, and we’ll add them for you!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.