Academic journal article Notes

A Guide to Essential American Indie Rock (1980-2005)

Academic journal article Notes

A Guide to Essential American Indie Rock (1980-2005)

Article excerpt



Indie rock is a genre of popular music presently commanding more commercial success and academic attention than at any point in its relatively short history. The term "indie rock" was first introduced around 1980 in the United Kingdom where the first charts for independent artists were compiled. (1) The genre remains somewhat vaguely defined, but its practitioners are generally characterized by some degree of separation from the business practices and creative control of the large corporations operating major labels. Indie rock is more difficult to define in strictly musical terms, as it contains many subgenres that embrace rock music and other divergent styles equally. (2) However, while independence from major labels is of fundamental importance to indie rock, this factor alone is not enough to fully describe the genre. (3)

Partly as a result of the impulse to remain independent of mainstream expectations, a distinct indie rock sound has developed. (4) The hallmarks of this sound include: the careful balancing of pop accessibility with noise, playfulness in manipulating pop music formulae, sensitive lyrics masked by tonal abrasiveness and ironic posturing, a concern with "authenticity," and the cultivation of a "regular guy" (or girl) image. These characteristics constitute a shared pool of aesthetics common to the genre. Each individual artist makes use of these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree--no artist is likely to epitomize all of them--and individual styles develop, in part, through the emphasis or rejection of one or more characteristics, or the introduction of other, "non-indie" characteristics. In particularly creative instances entire subgenres have resulted from the manipulation of the indie rock formula. (5)


This guide provides a critical analysis of American indie rock recordings that, in the authors' estimation, best illustrate the genre's evolution from 1980 through 2005. (6) Rather than presenting a list of "best" albums, this essay focuses on selected albums that represent specific time periods and/or subgenres. Indie rock is a genre whose practitioners tend, like jazz musicians, to be highly conscious of their musical history and traditions, and indie rock artists are often acutely aware of the ways that their music fits into that history. Bearing this in mind, the recordings highlighted in this article are representative of their respective eras and illustrate ways that the "anxiety of influence" may be in play as the artists respond to, build on, challenge, or reject the works of their predecessors. (7) Since the historical context of each recording and the lineage of influence from artist to artist can be so important, the analysis that follows is arranged chronologically.

Reference and trade publications such as the All Music Guide, Pitchfork, Spin and other sources in academic popular music literature served as a bases for an objective selection process; however, some amount of subjectivity in the selections is unavoidable. For example, Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand (8) is here used to represent the "lo-fi" movement, whereas any number of albums by that band or others could have quite ably illustrated the characteristics of that subgenre. Although this guide is by no means all-inclusive, we hope it will serve as a starting point for collection managers interested in acquiring indie rock recordings for their collections, and for anyone else who may be interested in a basic introduction to the genre.

An Overview of American Indie Rock

What has come to be called indie rock grew out the "alternative" or "college rock" scenes of the 1980s. (9) While its pioneers may or may not have been "independent" per se, they are now regarded as such by virtue of being imitated and cited by true indie acts of the 1990s and beyond. …

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