The indie rock genre has evolved quite a bit over time, going from only referring to independent and underground artists to including most modern alternative rock bands. In this article, we’ll give you a little bit of everything, from huge artists that started out as indie groups to ones that are still independent today.
Here are the 25 best indie rock bands of all time:
1. Arctic Monkeys
Arctic Monkeys was founded in 2002 and became popular entirely due to the internet. It was one of the first times a band gained notoriety of that level outside of traditional marketing, waking people up to the potential for promoting new bands online. They eventually broke into mainstream success with their 2013 single Do I Wanna Know? which reached the top of four Billboard charts and went platinum in the US. They would then receive a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album in 2019 and are the first independent band to debut at number one on the UK charts.
2. The Strokes
The Strokes formed in 1998 and ended up becoming a major part of the indie rock revival in the US. Their 2001 EP The Modern Age brought in a lot of interest from labels and they eventually signed with RCA Records. They’re still going strong with their 2020 album The New Abnormal, winning the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album. Overall, they have over five million record sales worldwide.
3. The Smiths
The Smiths were always independent, from their formation in 1982 until their breakup in 1987. The band signed with an independent record label in 1983 and released a debut, self-titled album in 1984. All of their albums reached the top five of the UK charts, with Meat Is Murder reaching the number-one spot in 1985.
4. Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth remained independent for a good chunk of their career. They originally came out of the no-wave art scene in underground circles in New York during the late 70s. Eventually, they turned into a more mainstream rock band, especially after signing with a major label in 1990. One of the key elements of their music is unorthodox rock guitar sounds that they were able to create by tuning their instruments with random objects like tools and drumsticks.
Pixies were originally formed as an alt-rock band that focused most of their music on punk and surf rock with a lot of loud-soft-loud shifts to their songs. They had a big influence on other bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, and Weezer. They were also more popular in Europe than in the US, though in recent years, they’ve found more mainstream success than in the past.
Oasis formed in 1991 and went on to sign with the independent label Creation Records in 1993. Their third album, Be Here Now, was released in 1997 and became the fastest-selling record in UK history. They’ve become one of the most successful groups of all time, selling over 70 million records worldwide while remaining mostly independent. Over time, the band would be nominated for two Grammy Awards and won six Brit Awards.
Radiohead is an English rock band that was critical in making alternative rock what it is today. After signing with EMI in 1991, they released their debut single Creep, which would go on to become a worldwide hit and is still played today. In their history, they have sold over 30 million records worldwide, won six Grammy Awards, and have been named one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by Rolling Stone.
8. The White Stripes
The White Stripes originated as part of the Detroit music scene and were responsible for part of the garage rock scene during the early 2000s. Before signing to a label, they had already released three albums. They’re best known for the low-fidelity quality approach of their music and indelible fashion sense. The White Stripes’ most recognizable single is probably Seven Nation Army.
Nirvana established itself in Seattle in the 80s as part of the grunge scene, releasing its first album with an independent label before signing to DGC Records in 1991. Their music mixes some pop melodies with traditional noise rock to create a most unique sound. From humble beginnings, they would go on to become one of the best-selling groups of all time despite disbanding after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, selling over 75 million records worldwide.
10. The Cure
The Cure experimented with a few different sounds throughout their album releases, originally starting out in the post-punk scene, before moving to darker music and then toward pop styles. Their 1986 singles compilation Standing On A Beach broke four million sales within three years. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after 13 studio releases and over 30 million worldwide record sales.
11. Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam was one of the most important and popular rock bands of the 90s. Their debut album remained on the Top 200 charts for over five years and went on to go thirteen-time platinum. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 after selling more than 85 million records worldwide. They were active in the 80s before signing to a label in 1991 and even opened for Alice In Chains for a special concert.
Alt-rock bands of the 90s mostly pointed to R.E.M. as the pioneers of their genre. Their formation in 1980 made them one of the first alt-rock bands to gain any kind of mainstream success. During the 80s, they released multiple albums and singles through independent labels before signing to Warner Bros in 1988. Their 1991 album Out Of Time received seven Grammy Nominations alone, but the totality of their work would net them over 85 million worldwide record sales.
13. Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers ended up being one of the most successful groups of all time, though they started out as an independent band before signing deals with three different labels. Their music still incorporates elements considered to be part of indie rock, featuring funk metal, rap metal, alt-rock, hard rock, and hip hop. They hold records for the most number-one singles, most weeks at number one, and most top-ten songs. They have also won six Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
14. The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses were one of the pioneer groups of the indie dance music scene in Manchester, England, during the 1980s. Their self-titled debut album is considered one of the greatest British albums ever recorded, and their success caused them to seek out a contract with a label that wasn’t independent.
15. Neutral Milk Hotel
Neutral Milk Hotel grew most of its popularity on the internet when the band was actively touring. They’ve stayed independent throughout multiple hiatuses, though their online following has continued to grow. They purposely use lo-fi elements in their songs and use home recordings for most of their work.
Beck’s most popular music may have come in the alt-rock scene, but he’s focused on a huge range of genres in his career. The experimental lo-fi style he mostly used during the 90s brought him a lot of fans, with three of his fourteen album releases being produced by indie labels. Color won two Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Album and Best Engineered Album.
Sebadoh worked alongside other indie rock bands like Pavement and Guided By Voices to create a lo-fi style of indie rock that incorporated cassette noises. Their biggest hit was probably Brand New Love, which was featured on their 1990 album, Weed Forestin’.
Like Sebadoh, Pavement was part of rock’s original experimentation with lo-fi qualities that spawned the entire lo-fi rock genre. Unlike other bands of their time, they remained signed with independent labels throughout their entire existence. Over their career, they released five full-length albums and ten EPs.
19. Dinosaur Jr.
Dinosaur Jr. ended up adding the Jr. to their name because they got sued by a supergroup that was already using the name that had members of other successful bands. The suit was mostly because Dinosaur Jr. finally found mainstream success with the release of You’re Living All Over Me. Their first three album releases came with independent labels, but not long after Lou Barlow left the group due to some creative tensions. It worked out for him, as he went on to form Sebadoh.
20. Husker Du
Originally formed in 1979, Husker Du released multiple albums with independent studios before signing with Warner Bros. Records in 1986. Their most famous album, Zen Arcade, was one of those early independent releases. Two major studio albums were released, but none touched the work of their indie albums, and they broke up in 1988.
21. The Clash
Formed in 1976, The Clash became a major player in multiple music movements in England. They started out as part of the first wave of punk rock that overtook the isles but dabbled in other movements like reggae, funk, and ska music. Rolling Stone named their third studio album the Best Album of the Eighties. Their release of the Combat Rock album included the release of Rock The Casbah, which would go on to become a Top 10 hit. In more recent years, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and named the number-28 artist on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
22. Talking Heads
Active from their formation in 1975 until 1991, Talking Heads helped pioneer the new wave of music with their incorporation of punk, art rock, funk, and world music. Most of their inspiration came from their education as art students who were involved in the New York punk scene of the 70s. Burnin’ Down The House became their biggest commercial success in 1983. and in 2002, the group was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Though disbanded, some of the members would go on to perform under the names Shrunken Heads and The Heads.
The indie rock and pop band Spoon formed in Texas during the 90s and spent their early and late years with the independent label, Matador. They are self-described as a “psychedelic” group. During their time with Elektra A&R, their contact at the studio quit, leaving them high and dry. Their songs The Agony Of Laffitte and Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now were their comedic play at essentially dissing their former contact.
24. Modest Mouse
Influenced by bands like Pixie and Pavement, Modest Mouse recorded and released demos of songs for over two years independently before signing to a local indie recording studio in Olympia, Washington. Their fourth album in 2004 brought them into the eye of the mainstream music crowd, and they’ve continued releasing music to this day.
25. Joy Division
Joy Division was formed in 1976 after the original two members, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, went to a Sex Pistols concert. While their style started out mostly influenced by the punk music of the time, they went on to develop a unique sound and became a pioneering band of the post-punk movement. Once 1980 rolled around, they reformed under the name New Order and have since disbanded and reunited multiple times.
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