Indie rock isn’t just a genre- it’s a movement within the music industry. “Indie” is short for Independent, referring to small, autonomous record labels.
While pop bands’ idea of success was to sign with famous record labels to become as popular and rich as possible, counterculture movements like punk rock valued autonomy over popularity.
Indie Rock originated during the late 70s as a haven for alternative rock and punk artists to record music with underground, independent record labels.
Many rock bands have achieved both popularity and independence from big record companies. We’ll list the most famous indie rock bands below.
R.E.M. is one of the pioneers of the Indie Rock movement and one of the most decorated indie bands in history. Made up of lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Berry, and bassist Mike Mills, R.E.M. was formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980.
Stipe’s complex and intellectual lyrics paired with the band’s industrial post-punk sound, were an instant hit for the underground music scene. R.E.M. broke through to the mainstream with the song “The One I Love” in 1987.
Their early 90s albums Out of Time and Automatic for the People reached the top of American and European billboards and garnered various Grammy awards and nominations. As a result, they have been inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
2. The Smiths
The Smiths spearheaded the independent rock movement in the U.K., which has garnered them a huge following.
The Smiths originated in 1982 in Manchester with its primary band members Morrissey as a singer, Johnny Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass, and Mike Joyce on the drums.
During their short five-year lifespan, The Smiths recorded three albums that were all wildly popular and controversial.
Their live performances garnered spots on the UK billboards with songs like “Reel Around the Fountain,” “The Charming Man,” and “What Difference Does It Make.”
They didn’t record an album until the 1984 release of their self-titled album. Their 3rd album, The Queen is Dead was popular enough to draw a major indie following in the U.S.
The Pixies started as a collaboration between lead guitarist Joey Santiago and singer-songwriter Black Francis during their college years in Amherst.
They formed Pixies first as a duo in 1986 before recruiting Kim Deal on the bass and David Lovering on drums.
Their debut album was Come on Pilgrim in 1987, followed in quick succession by Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossa Nova (1990), and Trompe le Monde (1991). Surfer Rosa and Dolittle achieved gold and platinum status.
Their sound incorporates punk and surf rock as melodic influences, while Francis’ lyrics take inspiration from his strict Christian upbringing.
4. The White Stripes
The White Stripes is a modern blues garage-rock duo comprised of singer and guitarist Jack White and his ex-wife and drummer Meg White.
The two married and began jamming informally during the late 90s, performing live for the first time in 1997.
They released their first album, the self-titled The White Stripes in 1999, which would be the first of 6 albums released between 1999 and 2007.
Their most popular albums were White Blood Cells, featuring the song “We’re Going to Be Friends,” and Elephant, containing the hit “Seven Nation Army.”
Both albums received widespread praise both during their release and years later and are both on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums of all Time lists.
5. Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth is both a pioneering indie rock band as well as a pioneering band for the experimental rock and noise rock genres.
Founded in New York City in 1981 by Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth has released 16 albums over its 30-year run.
They garnered a wide following but have never been a mainstream band due to the noisy and distorted nature of their music.
Still, they have influenced some of the greatest mainstream bands of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.
Many of their songs and albums have made it to U.S. Billboards, with songs like “Kool Thing” being the theme song for the video game Guitar Hero.
Radiohead is an experimental English rock band consisting of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Phillip Selway.
They formed the band in 1985, achieving worldwide fame with their single “Creep” in 1991.
Starting with Pablo Honey in 1993, Radiohead has released 9 albums, received 20 Grammy nominations, and received 42 awards from global music organizations.
Rolling Stone Magazine has called them one of the greatest rock bands of all time. In 2019, they were inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
7. The Strokes
Originating in New York City in 1998, The Strokes is an alternative rock band comprised of singer Julian Casablancas, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, drummer Fabrizio Moretti, and guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond.
The band became a regular installment in the NYC underground rock club circuit during the late 90s, perfecting their 14-song set they’d soon release on the debut album Is This It in 2001.
They recorded six albums total, but none of them reached the level of fandom as Is This It, which won a Grammy for best International Album.
Is This It was the album of the year in 2002 for many global music publications and the envy and inspiration of most indie bands during the early 2000s.
Spoon is a post-punk, experimental rock band that formed in Austin, Texas, in 1993 with founding members Britt Daniel and Jim Eno, who’re multi-instrument musicians that left their previous band to collaborate. Spoon has released ten albums, all through independent record labels.
Their breakthrough to nationwide popularity came during the first decade of 2000 with the Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight.
The song “The Way We Get By” was featured in the hit indie film Stranger than Fiction with Will Farrell, Emma Thompson, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
After the movie’s debut, Spoon played a slew of nationally televised late-night talk shows.
9. The Shins
The Shins started as a side project for singer James Mercer in Albuquerque in 1996. Mercer was already in a hit band and created The Shins with fellow bandmate and drummer Jesse Sandoval.
Their second album, Chutes Too Narrow (2003), became a commercial success after the song “New Slang” was featured in the indie film Garden State.
The Shins’ third album Wincing the Night Away marked the height of their popularity as an indie band, garnering a Grammy nomination.
However, Mercer’s decision to sign onto a major label caused the group to disband. Mercer has been the only continuous band member and continues to record and tour with different band members.
10. Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian is a Scottish folk rock band that formed in 1994 when Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David were music students, recording their first songs with their music professor Alan Rankine.
They recorded their first album, Tigermilk, in 1996 along with a hit single, “Legal Man,” which became an instant hit in the UK.
Their retro pop-rock music quickly became popular with US audiences, starting in 2000 when their music was featured in the movie High Fidelity.
Since High Fidelity, their songs have been featured in 500 Days of Summer and Juno to name a few. They’ve garnered more popularity with critics than with fans.
11. LCD Soundsystem
Originating in Brooklyn in 2002, LCD Soundsystem is the epitome of indie revival and the pioneers of Brooklyn’s hipster culture.
Not only is founder James Murphy a lead songwriter in LCD Soundsystem, but he’s also an independent record producer. His label, DFA Records released the band’s singles and hit albums from 2002 through 2010.
Their music is a mix of electronic rock and dance-punk, its many members utilizing multiple synthesizers, keyboards, and percussions in addition to standard drums, guitar, and bass.
Their 2005 single “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” received a Grammy nomination for the best dance song, and their 2008 song Tonight won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording.
12. Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse is an indie and emo rock band consisting of the singer Isaac Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green, and Eric Judy as the founders. The band started in 1992 in Seattle, releasing their debut album in 1996.
They were a popular indie band in the Seattle area until the release of their fourth album Good News for People Who Love Bad News, in 2004, which garnered national acclaim for the song “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty”.
Judy left the band in 2012, and there have been multiple rotating band members that have accompanied Green and Brock, including the former guitarist and founder of The Smiths, Jonny Marr.
MGMT is an electronic pop and psychedelic rock duo founded by Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser in 2002 in Connecticut.
The two members started experimenting with sounds and sharing musical musing during their time as students. They released their first single in 2005, called “Time to Pretend,” followed by “Kids.”
Both singles eventually became part of their full album Oracular Spectacular, which they released in 2007.
Oracular Spectacular gained widespread acclaim, garnering various Grammy nominations and a Grammy Award for The Best remixed recording with “Electric Feel.”
Rolling Stone named Oracular Spectacular one of the top 500 albums of all time.
Indie rock bands span the rock n roll sub-genres, often inventing their own style and treasured legacy.
While there are countless indie rock bands, the above list names the most famous and well-known of the lot.