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, and some have been quite successful.
Thus in this post, we’ll go over 13 of the greatest and most famous indie rock bands to hit the airwaves. Read on!
One of the pioneers of the Indie rock movement and one of the most decorated indie bands in history is R.E.M. The group formed in 1980 and consisted of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry, and Mike Mills.
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 Billboard charts in America and Europe and garnered various Grammy awards and nominations. As a result, they have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
2. The Smiths
In the UK, it was rock band The Smiths who spearheaded the independent rock movement, which has garnered them a huge following.
The Smiths originated from Manchester in 1982 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 UK Billboard charts 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 debut album. Their 3rd album, The Queen Is Dead was popular enough to draw a major indie following in the US.
From Boston, Massachusetts, the Pixies started in 1986 as a collaboration between lead guitarist Joey Santiago and singer-songwriter Black Francis during their college years in Amherst. Soon after, they recruited 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.
Some of their songs, “Here Comes Your Man” and “Where Is My Mind,” have been featured in major Hollywood films like Fight Club and 500 Days of Summer.
4. The White Stripes
Modern blues garage-rock duo White Stripes is 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 eponymous debut album in 1999, which would be the first of six albums released between 1999 and 2007. The most popular 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 both are on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums of All Time list.
5. Sonic Youth
Founded in New York City in 1981, Sonic Youth is both a pioneering indie rock band and a pioneering band for the experimental rock and noise rock genres.
Over their 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 on US Billboard charts and have had songs, like “Kool Thing,” feature as the theme song for the video game Guitar Hero.
Consisting of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Phillip Selway, experimental English rock band Radiohead formed the band in 1985.
Starting with Pablo Honey in 1993, Radiohead has released 9 albums. The single “Creep,” featured in their debut album, became their greatest hit.
For their work, Radiohead has received 20 Grammy nominations and 42 awards from global music organizations. Rolling Stone magazine has called them one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and in 2019, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
7. The Strokes
Originating in New York City in 1998, The Strokes is an alternative rock band comprised of Julian Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture, Fabrizio Moretti, 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 their 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. It was also Album of the Year in 2002 for many global music publications and the envy and inspiration of most indie bands during that decade.
In 1993, a post-punk, experimental rock band named Spoon formed in Austin, Texas. Their founding members, Britt Daniel and Jim Eno, who’re multi-instrument musicians, had 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
As a side project, singer James Mercer formed The Shins in 1996. Mercer was already in a hit band and created The Shins with fellow bandmate and drummer Jesse Sandoval.
Their third album, Wincing the Night Away (2007), became a commercial success and was nominated for a Best Alternative Music Album Grammy. Soon after, their song “New Slang” was featured in the indie film Garden State.
They were well on the road to fame when Mercer decided to sign onto a major label, dropping other band members. As the founder, Mercer has been the only continuous member and continues to record and tour with a different lineup.
10. Belle and Sebastian
Scottish folk rock band Belle and Sebastian formed in 1994 when Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David were music students. They recorded 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 the band was mentioned in the movie High Fidelity.
Since High Fidelity, their songs have been featured in other films, like 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 utilizes 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 Electronic/Dance Album, and their 2008 song “Tonight” won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording.
12. Modest Mouse
Founders Isaac Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green, and Eric Judy created indie and emo rock band Modest Mouse in 1993.
They were popular 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.
Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser are the duo behind MGMT, is an electronic pop and psychedelic rock group formed in 2002.
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. This album gained widespread acclaim, garnering various Grammy and Brit Award nominations. It was also named by Rolling Stone one of the top 500 albums of all time.
Summing Up Our List Of Popular Indie Rock Bands
From the start, indie rock bands have spanned the rock and roll subgenres, often inventing their own style and treasured legacy.
While there are countless indie rock bands, the above list names the most well-known and influential of the lot. These bands have created sounds so unique that they’ve cemented themselves high on music charts.
For this, they will never be forgotten, and their songs and albums will be enjoyed for many generations to come.