The indie genre refers to music that is produced independently from the major labels that had controlled music recording and publication for most of the 1900s. Here we take a look at 57 of the best tracks to have ever been released on an independent music label or that were self-released.
1. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) – Arcade Fire
The first track on Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut masterpiece Funeral. With its driving guitar, dancing piano, and catchy harmonies, this song was the first impression that the world got of the Canadian indie rock band. In 2009, Pitchfork rated it number 10 on their Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s list that extended to all artists and genres.
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2. Nude – Radiohead
While not their most famous song, Radiohead made waves when they “went indie.” After years on EMI, Radiohead released their album In Rainbows and they told fans to just “Pay What You Want/Wish/Will,” embodying the indie spirit. “Nude” would reach the top of the UK indie charts and was Radiohead’s first single to make the charts since the release of their debut hit, “Creep.”
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3. Ball and Biscuit – The White Stripes
Buried near the end of their album Elephant, The White Stripes released arguably their greatest jam, “Ball And Biscuit.” Just over seven minutes in length (and if you listen to the lyrics, that can’t be an accident) and using the twelve-bar blues, this song embodies the tenacity and purpose of Jack and Meg White’s duo. It has the distinction of being the first (and perhaps only) song written in the 21st century covered in concert by Bob Dylan.
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4. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel
The title track of Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album gives us the perfect backdrop on which to release our fears and sit in the arms of our own mortality. The song asks us to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. It embodies the 90s lo-fi sound that defined the genre and era. Thanks, in great part to this track, the album has gained cult status and a dear place in the hearts of men.
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5. Jesus, Etc. – Wilco
Wilco’s fourth album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is, for many, their magnum opus. Initially self-released, the album received a perfect 10 from Pitchfork and was universally praised. While there are many clear choices for the best song on this album, “Jesus, Etc.” embodies the quality and power of the album. For critics and audiences alike, this album represents Wilco’s best work, and “Jesus, Etc.” is a worthy choice for the best song to come from it.
6. Lua – Bright Eyes
One cannot talk about indie music without talking about Conor Oberst and his many projects. While there are many of his songs that deserve recognition, the fourth song of Bright Eyes’ sixth album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, displays the power of Oberst’s writing and performance. With a simple strummed guitar and a quiet, shaky timbre to his voice, he delivers a powerful and biting performance.
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7. Dramamine – Modest Mouse
Before Modest Mouse was signed to a major label, they were building a small but loyal following. “Dramamine” is the first track of their debut studio album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About. It introduced their poetic, percussive vision to the world—a truly spectacular debut track. It evokes intoxicated rides down rural highways, lost in the depths of our intoxicated minds.
8. Chrome Plated Suicide – The Flaming Lips
Few psychedelic rock bands have had the impact of The Flaming Lips. Before being signed to a major label, they were making waves in the 80s with their sound. While there are several stand-outs from their first several albums, it’s “Chrome Plated Suicide” that stands out on their 1989 album Telepathic Surgery.
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9. I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor – Arctic Monkeys
There are few artists whose debut embodied the indie spirit more than that of the Arctic Monkeys. After years of gigging and giving away demo CDs of their songs at shows, they built up a notable reputation before ever releasing an album. Their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the best-selling debut in UK music history, and no track better captured the raw energy of the album than “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor.”
10. Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes
The Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album in 1983 is one of the first major indie successes, published by the Slash indie label. The first track, “Blister In The Sun,” remains a masterpiece and a staple of the genre. It is a song that all aspiring guitar and bass players find themselves playing and that has gotten stuck in all of our heads.
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11. New Slang – The Shins
Entering with its eerie falsetto melody, The Shins’ debut single “New Slang” has remained one of their greatest hits. The song captures feelings of angst and confusion with acceptance and beauty. Perhaps no greater review of the song exists than when Natalie Portman’s character in the film Garden State called the tune a song that “will change your life.” This influenced the sound of indie music throughout the years to come.
12. Take Me Out – Franz Ferdinand
With a driving guitar and lo-fi vocals, Franz Ferdinand introduced themselves to the world with a bang. The Scottish band’s indie rock hit “Take Me Out” pulls you in before breaking into a half-time funky jam. The song earned constant radio play. Pitchfork rated it as one of the Top 50 Songs of the 2000s and MTV rated it as the number 7 Best Indie Anthem of All Time.
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13. Love is All – The Tallest Man on Earth
While diminutive in stature, Kristian Matsson has well proven he deserves his moniker, The Tallest Man On Earth. His lo-fi recordings have endeared him to folk fans for over a decade. His second album, The Wild Hunt, is arguably his best, and few songs capture the raw emotional power of his guitar playing and singing more than “Love Is All.” With finger-picking guitar and soaring vocals, he has proven to be one of modern indie folk’s most enduring acts.
14. Radio Free Europe – R.E.M.
Before R.E.M. would find themselves on major labels, they released their debut single “Radio Free Europe” on the Hib-Tone indie label. The song introduced their signature sound and earned immediate critical acclaim, and they haven’t slowed down since. The Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry for establishing “the pattern for later indie rock releases.”
15. Midnight City – M83
Released in 2011, M83’s “Midnight City” is one of the greatest indie anthems of all time. With its blaring snare, catchy vocals, and soaring sax solo, the tune became the soundtrack to a night out for many. Pitchfork named it the best song of 2011, and it became a staple of the electronic indie genre.
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16. 1901 – Phoenix
Another French group, Phoenix defined themselves as one of the best indie rock bands with their fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Capturing the indie sound of the first decade of the new century, the track “1901” has raw energy, a mix of electronic and rock elements, and catchy vocals that make the band so successful.
17. Chamber of Reflection – Mac DeMarco
Slacker rock icon Mac DeMarco gave the world one of the best tracks on his second full-length album, Salad Days. “Chamber Of Reflection” captures the immersive, laid-back soundscapes that he is now known for, with his lo-fi voice floating over an ethereal synth drone.
18. Breezeblocks – alt-J
British indie rock band alt-J catapulted themselves to the apex of the music world when they released their debut album, An Awesome Wave, in 2012. Featuring eclectic instrumentation, the song “Breezeblocks” exemplifies the sound that made the band a household name.
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19. Two Weeks – Grizzly Bear
The debut track from Grizzly Bear’s third album, “Two Weeks” remains the band’s most enduring hit. With its driving piano, floating vocals, and comforting chorus, they gave us a song that holds us close to its chest.
20. We Looked Like Giants – Death Cab For Cutie
Recorded on their fourth and final record with an indie label, Death Cab For Cutie’s “We Looked Like Giants” remains one of their best tracks, displaying how their music came to shape the alt and emo rock genres. Soon after this record, they would be signed to Atlantic, though their sound would come to define the evolving idea of what indie music is.
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21. Sleepyhead – Passion Pit
Indietronica band Passion Pit’s debut single “Sleepyhead” established them as a force to be reckoned with in the electronic music scene. With its catchy music and soaring, untamed vocals, and an absolute banger of a breakdown, “Sleepyhead” remains a fan favorite of Passion Pit’s audience.
22. Time to Pretend – MGMT
On their debut EP, MGMT’s title track “Time To Pretend” introduced their electro-rock sound. An anthem for the disaffected, the song quickly elevated them to the top of the scene. They were quickly signed to Columbia Records on the quality of the EP, at which point they released the song on their debut studio album, Oracular Spectacular.
23. A Punk – Vampire Weekend
With its catchy guitar intro, “A Punk” was the perfect track to introduce the indie band Vampire Weekend to the world. While the band did not consider it the best track on their album, the tune captured the loving ears of audiences worldwide and propelled the band into the limelight.
24. Young Folks – Peter Bjorn And John
The Swedish band Peter Bjorn And John whistled their way into all of our hearts with their iconic hit, “Young Folks.” Accompanied by a hit animated music video, the up-tempo drums paired with a laid-back rock-synth soundscape embodied the indie sound of the 2000s.
25. Dance Yrself Clean – LCD Soundsystem
With a pitter-patter of claps and synth beats, the first track of LCD Soundsystem’s third album, This Is Happening, remains one of their most beloved tunes. A folk song wearing a barebones electronic disguise, it could find its home in the hearts of fans of all genres of music.
26. Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
Perhaps the greatest indie single of all time, Joy Division set the standard with their 1980 song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” With its driving guitar, floaty synth, and lazy vocals, this is one of the definitive indie tracks of all time. The song reflects on the frontman’s struggling marriage, depression, and epilepsy and was released shortly after he took his own life.
27. Such Great Heights – The Postal Service
One of the best indietronica hits of the early 2000s, The Postal Service put their best foot forward on their debut single, “Such Great Heights.” With its driving drum kit, synthonic orchestra, and floating vocals, they quickly gained attention and notoriety for their hit.
28. Wolf Like Me – TV on the Radio
The debut track from their second album, “Wolf Like Me” embodies the indie sound of the art rock band TV On The Radio. The song is the band’s most successful hit, with swirling guitar and driving vocals and evoking the rock sounds of the Foo Fighters and the raw energy of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
29. Lazy Eye – Silversun Pickups
The third single off of Silversun Pickups’ debut album Carnavas, “Lazy Eye” has become their best and most enduring hit. Achieving platinum status, constant radio airplay, and slots on the Rock Band and Guitar Hero video game franchises, it remains one of the best indie rock songs of all time.
30. Carry Me Out – Mitski
While it is hard to choose the best song from Japanese-American indie songwriter Mitski, “Carry Me Out” seems to capture the wide range of sounds and emotions she is capable of touching. From the forlorn start to the soaring chorus, the song takes the listener everywhere, embodying her unique contribution to the indie music landscape.
31. Motion Sickness – Phoebe Bridgers
The indie alt-country hit “Motion Sickness” helped establish Phoebe Bridgers as one of today’s premiere songwriters. The song, with its laid-back rhythm and full guitar sound, covers her relationship with fellow musician Ryan Adams and the emotional abuse she faced.
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32. Red Eyes – The War on Drugs
The War On Drugs is known for its driving, ethereal soundscapes, and echoing vocals. “Red Eyes,” off their third studio album Lost In The Dream, captures their sound and remains a fan favorite. Bringing together a dreamy backdrop, lo-fi vocals, and a sense of wonder, it is one of the indie band’s best tracks.
33. Rip It Up – Orange Juice
Orange Juice’s 1982 hit “Rip It Up” is a definitive track in the early history of indie music. With its funky guitar and synth and floating vocals, the song was a radio hit and set a template for new sounds in indie music. Its classic video absolutely screams the 80s and is well worth watching and reminiscing about a bygone era.
34. The Funeral – Band of Horses
“The Funeral” opens with soft vocals over electric arpeggios before overdriven guitars elevate the chorus of the song. The debut tune of the indie rock band Band Of Horses remains one of the best indie tracks to come out during the 2000s. It has been featured in countless television shows, movies, ads, and video games as well.
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35. Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings – Father John Misty
After leaving as the drummer of Fleet Foxes, Josh Tillman introduced himself to the world as Father John Misty. Nearly undefinable, he merges poetic mastery with a complex, lo-fi musical orchestration to create a sound all his own. The track “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” along with a music video starring Aubrey Plaza, captures Tillman’s skill as a songwriter and producer.
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36. Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett
The Australian rocker introduced herself to the wider world with The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. With its phased guitar and plain-spoken lyricism, “Avant Gardener” represents the essential track of the album. A song for the anxious, Courtney Barnett established herself as a fantastic rock songwriter.
37. Here Comes Your Man – Pixies
With an opening lick calling back to the early Beatles, the Pixies’ classic hit “Here Comes Your Man” remains one of the most important indie songs of all time. While it was written long before the Pixies put out any music, they were hesitant to release it, but, thankfully for all of us, it made their third album,
38. My Girls – Animal Collective
The first single off their acclaimed 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion, “My Girls” remains one of Animal Collective’s best hits. With its spacey intro and floating vocals, it was named the number-one song of 2009 by Pitchfork.
39. All The Time – Bahamas
What could have been a simple folk song became an indie masterpiece. Afie Jurvanen, the man behind the Bahamas, won the Juno Award for Songwriter of the Year for “All The Time” and other tracks on the album Bahamas Is Afie.
40. Mykonos – Fleet Foxes
“Mykonos” captures the eerie indie folk sound of Fleet Foxes. Off their 2008 EP, Sun Giant, the tune helped establish the songwriting and composition credentials of the Seattle folk band. The second half of the song features powerful vocals over breaks in the music, enhancing the quality of the song.
41. Cold Girl Fever – The National
While The National has become a nationally known name, the Cincinnati indie band was relatively unknown when they released their self-titled album in 2001. Out of all the tracks, “Cold Girl Fever” captures the sound and attitude that would come to define their future discography.
42. Shadow People – Dr. Dog
The psychedelic rock band Dr. Dog has earned a reputation as one of the best bands of the last twenty years. With complex arrangements, ecstatic harmonies, and joyful lyrics, they have gained a loyal fandom. No song may be more beloved than their 2010 hit “Shadow People.”
43. Cocoa Butter Kisses – Chance the Rapper Featuring Vic Mensa And Twista
While typically hip-hop acts do not get lumped in under the indie umbrella, Chance The Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap has to be a clear exception. The song “Cocoa Butter Kisses” remains the essential track of the album, introducing the world to the sound that would make him an international superstar.
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44. Ocean Eyes – Billie Eilish
On November 18, 2015, Billie Eilish posted “Ocean Eyes” on SoundCloud and the rest is history. The homespun track went viral, and she immediately got catapulted into superstardom. While we don’t often think of pop stars as indie artists, she got her start producing her own music.
45. Swing Lo Magellan – Dirty Projectors
With its lo-fi guitar, “Swing Lo Magellan” is the premier track off of the Dirty Projectors’ sixth album of the same name. Known for its complex and unique sounds, the album features a slew of breathtaking songs that all deserve a place on this list.
46. Sparks Fly – Waxahatchee
Indie Americana songwriter Waxahatchee got her start with a series of lo-fi recordings that gained her a small but loyal following. As she continued to gain fans globally, the track “Sparks Fly” off her fourth album exemplifies her emotionally resonant sound that continues to gain her widespread acclaim.
47. The Boy With The Arab Strap – Belle and Sebastian
The indie pop group from Scotland, Belle And Sebastian, has always had a penchant for home-spun and catchy tracks. No song embodies this better than “The Boy With The Arab Strap,” with its driving drums, parlor piano, and soft-sung poetry.
48. The Distance – CAKE
Off their second album, Fashion Nugget, “The Distance” is one of indie rock band CAKE’s most iconic songs. Featuring a forward drum kit, horn section, alien synth, overdriven guitar, and their characteristic deadpan singing, the track captures the raw energy that has endeared the band to countless fans.
49. Loser – Beck
Beck released one of his most famous tracks, “Loser,” through an indie label before it was picked up by a major label. He would play old blues tunes on guitar but found audiences were bored, so he began improvising lyrics in order to keep their attention. This evolved into the song that we know and love today.
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50. Wonderwall – Oasis
English rock band Oasis is synonymous with their hit single “Wonderwall.” It is a song that all aspiring guitar players learn and that all annoying audience members request at concerts. The song builds up to an epic conclusion.
51. Pumped Up Kicks – Foster the People
Initially posted on the internet for free download, “Pumped Up Kicks” would quickly gain attention from a mass audience and major labels. With its catchy, sing-along chorus, it was the soundtrack for 2011.
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52. Video Games – Lana Del Rey
Before gaining the attention of the major labels, Lana Del Rey released the hit “Video Games.” With its cinematic quality and impressive vocal performance, the song helped launch her into superstardom. Soon after releasing the single, she was picked up by Universal.
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53. Yellow – Coldplay
Off their debut album Parachutes, “Yellow” was the first hit for British rock band Coldplay. The song shot to the top of the charts, with its hypnotic instrumentation and romantic lyricism, making them a household name.
54. Shut Up Kiss Me – Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen is one of today’s premier indie songwriters and performers. While many songs could take the top spot, it’s her 2016 song “Shut Up Kiss Me” that captures the raw energy and power of her writing and performance style.
55. Roll the Bones – Shakey Graves
Shakey Graves came to notoriety with his self-released debut album Roll The Bones. The title track exemplifies the driving and dreamy sound of his one-man-band set. Like many great folk artists before him, Shakey Graves himself is the music, and “Roll The Bones” is one of his greatest pieces.
56. Cut Your Hair – Pavement
One of the most important underground bands of the 90s, Pavement has always worked with independent labels. No song embodies this attitude more than their biggest hit, “Cut Your Hair,” a diatribe against the image that major labels demand of music artists.
57. Penelope – Pinback
The San Diego indie rock band has a small but loyal following. With percussion and bass-driven compositions, Pinback’s most famous track is a tune about the singer’s fish, “Penelope.” It was released on their second album, Blue Screen Life, with Ace Fu Records.
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As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.