When it comes to rock music, the “indie” moniker is a confusing one. Originally used to refer to bands that operated with a DIY ethos, outside of the mainstream and away from the gaze of major labels, it has since come to refer to a certain sound – loosely defined by catchy lead guitars, energetic drum beats and wordy lyrics.
In our list of the very best bands from the indie rock spectrum, we’ve focused on the groups that define the sound rather than the mentality, though that’s not to say there aren’t some examples on our list who embody both.
We’ve charted indie rock titans, starting from the genre’s heyday in the 80s and early 90s through to its revival in the 2000s.
15. The Jesus & Mary Chain
East Kilbride's Jim and William Reid became the prominent voices of Scottish indie after forming in 1983, releasing their debut album Psychocandy in 1987 and recording a handful of influential John Peel sessions. There’s a huge amount to discover across the band’s diverse and multi-faceted back catalogue, with seven studio albums, six EPs and plenty of compilations to get to grips with. Hilarious as it sounds, Jez from Peep Show summed the band’s appeal up perfectly when he compared them to his and Mark’s complicated new boiler: “It's like the Jesus and Mary Chain of central heating control systems — difficult to get into initially, but then so much to explore.”
14. The Maccabees
The Maccabees are another defining band of their era – the lingering bass note that opens the band’s 2005 debut single X-Ray is enough to make the memories of skinny jeans and questionable haircuts come flooding back, and frontman Orlando Weeks had one of the most distinctive voices in the scene with its trembling vulnerability. As the years went on, the band’s sound matured, moving away from a frenetic post-punk energy towards more considered art rock.
‘Angular’ has become a cliché when talking about indie rock but Pavement’s wonky melodies and cutting guitar lines embody the description more than most. The Californian band embodied a slacker spirit throughout the 90s but there was nothing lazy about their songwriting and knack for killer choruses. After they split in 1999, frontman Stephen Malkmus has furthered the band’s legacy with a series of brilliant solo albums but fans are still holding out hope for a Pavement reunion soon.
12. Echo and the Bunnymen
Ian McCulloch’s Echo and the Bunnymen established themselves as one of the truly alternative voices coming from Merseyside in the late 70s and early 80s. Their brand of indie pop saw them experiment with psychedelic influences on tracks like The Cutter, one of the highlights of their extensive back catalogue. The band are hardly lacking in self-belief either: McCulloch called their 1984 track The Killing Moon “the greatest song ever written” in an interview with the Guardian and claimed it “contains the answer to the meaning of life”. Modesty might not be their forte, but their impact on UK indie rock cannot be overstated.
Boston’s finest Pixies were pioneers of the loud/quiet rock dynamic which came to have a huge influence the 90s alternative scene. The group also understood the importance of simplicity better than any of their contemporaries. Zero frills didn’t mean zero thrills though: the band carved their own lasting mark on the musical landscape and tracks like the haunting Where Is My Mind and the absurdist Monkey Gone To Heaven are some of the greatest anti-anthems of the era.
10. Neutral Milk Hotel
Few indie records capture raw, unfiltered emotion quite like Neutral Milk Hotel’s iconic record The Aeroplane Over The Sea. The Louisiana group etched their name in rock history with the album in 1998, which featured lo-fi productions with distorted acoustic guitars, heartbreaking lyrics and some of the most impassioned vocals in rock courtesy of frontman Jeff Mangum. The singer’s performances on tracks like Two Headed Boy are utterly captivating and seem incredibly direct — like he’s stripping away all distractions and addressing the listener directly. The group never released another album but the strength of The Aeroplane Over The Sea means they retain one of the biggest cult followings in indie to this day.
9. The Cribs
To put it plainly, any band that Johnny Marr wants to join has to be considered a very good band. The Smiths guitarist linked up with Wakefield’s finest to record an album, 2009’s Ignore the Ignorant, adding a sophistication to The Cribs’ jagged, punk-fuelled indie rock. Their earlier three albums were packed with hooks and scything guitar lines from Ryan Jarman, backed up by his brother Gary’s no-nonsense bass playing and the raucous drums of their cousin Ross. For a while they were the darlings of the indie rock world, but even as the scene began to lose its way the band’s cult following remained just as fervent.
8. Sonic Youth
New York noise rockers Sonic Youth, made up of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo, first found a cult following amongst the ‘no wave’ art scene in the early 80s. They reached a new generation of fans after signing to major label DGC in 1990 but they never lost their edge. Despite achieving more mainstream success their constant experimentation saw them cover works by experimental composers like John Cage and Steve Reich, pushing boundaries of genre and come to redefine what it meant to be an indie rock band over the last four decades.
REM were one of the leading alternative voices in US rock before finding mega stardom off the back of1992 album Automatic For The People. REM were one of the leading alternative voices in US rock. Their debut album Murmer in 1983 announced them as one of the most exciting talents in American indie years before they became stadium mainstays. Guitarist Peter Buck is arguably one of the most underappreciated musicians of his generation too — his shimmery, jangly style was the key component of the band’s sound alongside Michael Stipe’s unmistakeable vocals.
6. The Libertines
Deified by certain sectors of the British music press and no doubt magnified by the celebrity of frontman Pete Doherty, The Libertines are nevertheless one of the essential bands of the movement. Their music was sloppy and infectious with choruses that were as at home in rowdy, booze-soaked pub as they were in front of thousands at a festival. Can’t Stand Me Now, the first single off their second, eponymous album stormed to number 2 the UK Top 40 in 2004 – when the charts still meant something – and became the band’s ultimate singalong, electrified by the intraband tensions that would eventually come to derail them.
5. The Stone Roses
So much of what the Stone Roses did was iconic: the wiggling bassline on Fools Gold, the bold religious appropriation of I Am The Resurrection, even the first line of the first song on the band’s first album (“I don’t have to sell my soul, he’s already in me” remains one of Ian Brown’s most memorable lines). They epitomised the Madchester movement – an explosion of sound, fashion and substances – and popularised the psychedelia that would weave its way into the music of so many huge British bands in the 90s.
4. The Cure
The Cure’s sound is sprinkled with glitter and gloom, bridging euphoric pop highs with dark, gripping art rock. Listening to their back catalogue is like disappearing down the rabbit hole: there’s a wealth of musical ideas and forms to discover, from starker albums like Pornography to the technicolour indie pop of The Head On The Door and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Their magnum opus Disintegration remains one of the most revered double albums ever too, with Robert Smith representing one the true visionaries of UK indie.
3. Arctic Monkeys
Nothing less than a British phenomenon. Their swift ascent from an unknown four-piece to one of the biggest bands in the country in the mid-to-late 2000s was astounding. The debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is the fastest selling in UK history and an indie-rock staple: audaciously clever lyrics, massive choruses and unforgettable hooks. They never stood still and were unafraid to risk alienating parts of their fan base for the sake of progression – the wholly unexpected sound and mood of 2009’s Humbug, their third album, was the first example of this. Alex Turner’s lyrics meanwhile have gone from Mike Skinner-ish observations to those concerned with galactic hotel reservations on their latest release. That said, each album they’ve released has more hits than most bands could hope for in a career.
2. The Strokes
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes.” So goes the first line of Arctic Monkeys’ latest album, a clear indication of just how influential the New York five-piece has been. Their first album Is This It, released in 2001, was the earthquake that shook up the next decade of rock music on both sides of the Atlantic. Its chugging guitars, beguiling hooks and swaggering, observational lyrics laid down a blueprint that countless other bands would follow. The record that came after it, Room on Fire, was nearly just as brilliant. The rest of the band’s discography varies in quality, but the enduring appeal of Is This It cements The Strokes’ place as one of the very best.
1. The Smiths
The Smiths became arguably the most influential British band since the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when they emerged in the early 80s, influencing and inspiring entire generations of fans and musicians alike. Geoff Travis, head of iconic independent label Rough Trade, took a punt on the band after being handed a tape by a teenage Johnny Marr and signed the band in 1983. In the space of just four years the group released four of the most influential British albums of the decade and left an indelible mark on the musical zeitgeist. The unique vocal and guitar stylings of Morrissey and Marr respectively as well as backing from the underrated and underappreciated rhythm section of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce made them one of the most compelling groups of the era. Marr remains an almost messianic figure for UK guitarists and while Morrissey’s history of controversial comments have caused some to question the band’s reputation, their musical legacy has never been in doubt.