One of the leading genres of modern time, indie rock infiltrated the music industry as early as the 1970s with its notorious DIY attitude, low-budget production, and its amalgamation of punk rock, psychedelia, post-punk, and country.
Though the term was originally utilized to describe independent record labels, “indie” became synonymous with bands who strived to deviate from the mainstream norm in both sound and appearance, creating a slew of subgenres such as shoegaze, math rock, and emo. In the rest of this article, we’ll be discussing the best indie rock bands of all time and the major impact they’ve had on the music industry.
List of the Best Indie Rock Bands of All Time
12. Modest Mouse
|Frontman||Isaac Brock (1992 to Present)|
|Years||1992 to Present|
Perhaps one of the more underrated indie rock bands of their era, Modest Mouse was formed in 1992 by teen Isaac Brock when he met bassist Eric Judy at his local video store and drummer Jeremiah Green at a heavy metal show, deciding that they would form a band together.
The band released their first recordings in 1994 on their debut EP, Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect? Under K Records. Performing mostly at DIY punk venues across Washington, Modest Mouse gained larger recognition in 2000 with the release of their third studio album, The Moon & Antarctica, which was critically acclaimed with NME referring to it as “one of the greatest records ever made.” They became a major commercial success in 2004 with the release of their fourth studio album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, which sold over 1.5 million copies in the US and was certified platinum by the end of the year.
Referred to as “the best Modest Mouse album yet” by The New York Times, the album was critically acclaimed upon its release and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 2005.
Modest Mouse continued to define the indie rock genre throughout the 2000s and 2010s and continue to explore their limits within the genre, releasing their newest album in June 2021, The Golden Casket.
|Frontman||Paul Banks (1997 to Present)|
|Origin||Manhattan, New York|
|Years||1997 to Present|
|Genre||Post-Punk Revival, Indie Rock|
One of the key players in the revival of indie and alternative rock during the early 2000s, Interpol remains one of the truly great rock bands, drawing inspiration from Television and Joy Division which extended the arms of the post-punk revival.
Interpol was formed by guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Greg Drudy in 1997. Kessler met bassist Carlos Dengler in their philosophy class at New York University and later met Paul Banks who became the band’s frontman, finalizing the band’s earliest line-up. The band released their debut work, Fukd ID No. 3 in 2000 which garnered little attention. It was during this time that Drudy left the band and was replaced by Sam Fogarino, who has remained the band’s drummer since.
The band released their debut studio album in 2002 after signing with Matador Records, titled Turn On the Bright Lights. Though the album wasn’t an immediate success, it garnered critical acclaim and cult status, with Pitchfork naming the album the best of the year. Along with bands such as The Strokes, TV on the Radio, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol became a major influence in the post-punk revival of the 2000s and the New York City indie rock scene, helping to define the era’s distinct sound.
Interpol saw continued success with their second studio album released in 2004, Antics, which is reportedly frontman Paul Banks’ favorite out of the band’s discography, as he felt more confident musically and “put a lot of blood, sweat and tears onto this record.” The band was signed to Capitol Records in 2006 and released their third studio album in 2007, Our Love to Admire, and went on to headline Lollapalooza that year.
After releasing music regularly throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Interpol’s highly anticipated seventh studio album is currently in the works, though it was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to be released in early 2022.
10. Arctic Monkeys
|Frontman||Alex Turner (2002 to Present)|
|Years||2002 to Present|
|Genre||Indie Rock, Post-Punk Revival, Garage Rock, Alternative Rock|
Though often known for dominating the “Tumblr era” of alternative rock music in the 2010s, Arctic Monkeys were highly influential much earlier, releasing an abundance of influential indie rock albums throughout the 2000s.
Long-time friends Matt Helders (drums), Alex Turner (vocalist), and Andy Nicholson (bass) formed Arctic Monkeys and played their first gig together in 2003 at The Grapes at Sheffield city center. The band recorded a handful of demos and caught the attention of BBC Radio, as their Myspace page created by fans had become relatively popular. They released their debut EP in 2005, Five Minutes with Arctic Monkeys, which led them to perform at the Reading and Leeds festivals.
The band released their debut studio album in 2006, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which sold over 350,000 copies during its first week, the fastest-selling debut studio album by a band in England. The album was released in the US a month later, debuted at number 24 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, and sold over 30,000 copies during its first week, the second fastest-selling debut indie rock album in the US. Though music critics in the US were hesitant about Arctic Monkeys due to the UK’s critics notoriously “over-hyping” bands in the past, the band proved to be a major success during their debut North American tour.
Arctic Monkeys’ follow-up album in 2007, Favourite Worst Nightmare, garnered even more attention, though the band’s hype began to die down slightly with the release of their albums Humbug (2009) and Suck It and See (2011), though they continued to tour extensively. The band saw their biggest mainstream success yet with the release of their fifth studio album in 2013, AM. Featuring the smash hit singles Do I Wanna Know, Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? and R U Mine?, the band garnered wide attention from younger audiences, with NME describing the album’s legacy as “the soundtrack for countless nights out, hook-ups and comedowns in every town and city of this country by the end of the 2010s.”
Described as a staple in the indie, garage, and psychedelic rock scenes, Arctic Monkeys have become one of the most important bands of the 2010s with punk poet John Cooper Clarke stating that the band is “the nearest thing to the Beatles,” while Vice stated that they are “probably the UK’s biggest, most culturally important band.”
9. The White Stripes
|Frontman||Jack White (1997 to 2011)|
|Years||1997 to 2011|
|Genre||Indie Rock, Garage Rock, Blues Rock|
Formed out of Detroit, Michigan by husband and wife music duo Jack and Meg White, The White Stripes became a smash hit in the early 2000s, helping to define a new era of indie rock.
After meeting in high school, Jack and Meg married in 1996 and began playing music seriously together the following year in hopes of forming a two-piece band, with Jack as the vocalist and guitarist and Meg as the drummer. The duo began performing shortly after and made a name for themselves in the underground garage rock scene before releasing their debut single, Let’s Shake Hands, with Italy Records.
The band signed to Sympathy for the Record Industry in 1999, releasing their eponymous debut studio album which gained little recognition. Despite divorcing in 2000, the pair decided to continue on as The White Stripes and released their second studio album, De Stijl (the style) which despite being relatively unsuccessful has been considered by many as a cult classic because of its simplicity and authentic garage rock sound.
The White Stripe’s breakthrough success came in 2002 with the release of their fourth studio album in 2003, Elephant, which has been regarded by numerous music publications as one of the most important albums of the decade, with Rolling Stone listing the album as the fifth-best of the 2000s. Having earned a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album at the 46th Grammy Awards, Elephant reached number 6 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and its leading single, Seven Nation Army, won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song the same year.
The band saw continued success with their follow-up albums Get Behind Me Satan (2005) and Icky Thump (2007) before disbanding officially in 2011. Though the band hasn’t toured or released music since the release of their 2007 album, they remain one of the most influential of the decade and one of the greatest duos of all time for their masterful combination of blues, garage, and alternative rock and iconic red, white and black clothing that defined the band’s iconic style.
|Frontman||Liam Gallagher (1991 to 2009)|
|Years||1991 to 2009|
|Genre||Britpop, Indie Rock|
Perhaps the most influential Britpop band of all time, Oasis has sold over 70 million records across the globe and has earned numerous accolades, making them one of the most successful and best-selling alternative music groups of all time.
The band was formed as the Rain in 1991 by guitarist Paul Arthurs, bassist Paul McGuigan and drummer Tony McCarroll who recruited the Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel, who changed the band’s name to Oasis. Noel had written an abundance of music and became the band’s frontman and sole songwriter. The band was discovered by record producer Alan McGee in 1993 who signed the band to Creation Records. They released their debut studio album the following year, Definitely Maybe.
Definitely Maybe, considered the band’s breakthrough album, featuring the hit singles Supersonic, Live Forever, and Shakermaker which propelled the band into mainstream success. The album was critically acclaimed almost immediately and was praised for its differences from the grunge scene that was dominating alternative music in the US during the time. The album was featured on Rolling Stone Magazine’s most recent 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list, coming in at number 217 and in 2006 was listed as the third-best British album of all time by NME.
Oasis’ success only continued with the release of their follow-up album in 1995, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which has since become the fifth-best-selling album in British music chart history and the best-selling of the decade. Featuring the iconic alternative rock anthem Wonderwall, the album sold over 350,000 copies during its release, and over 20 million since. The album was received well critically, with Rolling Stone stating that the album is “a triumph, full of bluster and bravado but also moments of surprising tenderness,” and that it “capped a true golden age for Britpop.”
Though Oasis disbanded in 2009, they are still considered one of the most influential British bands and indie rock bands, inspiring the music and culture scenes of the 1990s and early 2000s often referred to as the Cool Britannia era. The band has also notably inspired a slew of artists, such as The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Alvvays, and Deafheaven, all of whom have recalled Oasis as a major component of their musical upbringings.
7. The Stone Roses
|Frontman||Ian Brown (1983 to 1996, 2011 to 2017)|
|Years||1983 to 1996, 2011 to 2017|
|Genre||Indie Rock, Alternative Rock, Dance-Rock, Madchester|
Known as one of the founding brands of the Madchester scene that dominated England throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Stone Roses has been regarded as one of the most prominent alternative English acts of all time for their innovation in the psychedelic and alternative rock genres as well as electronic dance.
The Stone Roses formed in 1983 by vocalist/bassist and guitarist Ian Brown and John Squire became a near-immediate success at the time of their fruition with the release of their eponymous debut studio album in 1989, which has since been regarded as one of the greatest British albums of all-time. Though not commercially successful right away, the album was praised highly by music critics and journalists, with Mojo stating that it “set the tone for rock music in the 90s.” The album has been ranked across a variety of “best of” lists throughout the years, earning the “greatest album ever” award at the NME Premier Awards show in 2000.
The band’s follow-up album in 1994, Second Coming, received relatively mixed reviews despite being commercially successful, selling over one million copies worldwide. Though the band had already been regarded as massively influential, their five-year gap between albums and lack of touring likely contributed to the album’s criticism, though it was praised by the Los Angeles Times who was in favor of Squire’s “inspired guitar work.” The group disbanded shortly afterward, though they reunited in 2011 and toured relatively extensively until 2017 when they officially disbanded.
Despite having only one truly successful album, The Stone Roses have been regarded as massively influential in the alternative rock boom that spawned the grunge scene in the 1990s, inspiring Noel Gallagher of Oasis who stated that “when I heard Sally Cinnamon for the first time, I knew what my destiny was.”
6. Dinosaur Jr.
|Frontman||J Mascis (1984 to 1997, 2005 to Present)|
|Years||1984 to 1997, 2005 to Present|
|Genre||Indie Rock, Noise Rock, Lo-Fi, Alternative Rock|
Formed by legendary guitarist J Mascus, Dinosaur Jr rose to prominence in the early 1990s and became known for their 60s and 70s inspired classic rock sound that utilized an abundance of distortion and feedback, with became a major trend in the alternative rock scene of the 90s.
J Mascus and bassist Lou Barlow played together in hardcore punk band Deep Wound before forming their own band together in 1984. They released their debut studio album the following year, Dinosaur, which was relatively ignored commercially and by music critics. While playing a gig in New York City shortly after the release of their debut album, local noise rock band Sonic Youth declared themselves as fans of the band, inviting them to open for them on their 1986 Northeastern and Northern Midwest American tours.
The band’s follow-up albums You’re Living All Over Me (1987) and Bug (1988) gained moderate attention, though the band began seeing more success with the release of their fourth studio album in 1991, Green Mind, under Sire Records. After seeing more positive reception at their live shows, the band released their fifth and most successful studio album in 1993, Where You Been, which reached number 50 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart. Featuring the iconic indie staples Start Choppin’ and Out There, the album was extremely successful critically and has since been regarded by many as the bands best work and one of the best examples of 1990s alternative rock.
Dinosaur Jr. saw more success with their follow-up album in 1994, Without a Sound, which features one of their biggest hits to date, Feel the Pain. The single peaked on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart at number 4, the band’s biggest commercial hit. The band split in 1997 before reuniting in 2005, releasing a handful of albums throughout the late 2000s and 2010s. Their most recent album, Sweep It Into Space, was released in April 2021 and the band embarked on their current tour in September 2021.
5. The Strokes
|Frontman||Julian Casablancas (1998 to Present)|
|Origin||New York City, New York|
|Years||1998 to Present|
|Genre||Indie Rock, Post-Punk Revival, Garage Rock Revival|
Fronted by legendary vocalist Julian Casablancas, The Strokes defined the indie rock sound of the 2000s with their iconic debut studio album in 2001, Is This It, which solidified the band as one of the key players in the early-2000s indie rock revival.
Teenagers Julian Casablancas, Fabrizio Moretti, and Nick Valensi began playing together in 1997 and rehearsed relentlessly, forming The Strokes within the next two years and performing constantly across New York City. The band played their first official show as The Strokes in 1999 and released their debut EP, The Modern Age EP, in 2001 which resulted in record labels starting the largest bidding war over any band in a number of years.
The Strokes released their debut studio album shortly afterward, Is This It, and featured the singles Last Nite, Someday, and Hard to Explain. The album was an immediate commercial and critical success, reaching number 33 on the US Billboard 200 and was named the “best album of 2001” by numerous publications, including Time, Billboard, NME, and Entertainment Weekly, while Rolling Stone raved about the album’s release, stating that it is “the stuff of which legends are made.” Described as indie rock, garage rock, and post-punk revival, the album went on to define the modern rock sound, with The Observer stating the album’s release was a “world-changing moment.”
Ever since The Strokes debut, they’ve continued to pioneer the modern alternative rock sound with their follow-up albums Room on Fire (2003) and First Impressions of Earth (2006) while their most recent album The New Abnormal (2020) has grown to become a favorite among fans and critics. Now regarded as one of the most influential bands of all time, The Strokes remain one of the most influential acts of the early 2000s, with novelist Lizzie Goodman writing in her novel documenting the New York City music scene, stating that the band is “as influential to their era as the Velvet Underground or the Ramones were to theirs.”
4. Sonic Youth
|Frontman||Kim Gordon (1981 to 2011)|
|Origin||New York City, New York|
|Years||1981 to 2011|
|Genre||Indie Rock, Noise Rock, Experimental Rock, Post-Punk|
Perhaps one of the earliest indie rock bands, Sonic Youth emerged from the New York City no-wave art and music scene, becoming one of the most influential noise-rock bands that truly experimented with classic rock guitar.
Vocalist Kim Gordon and guitarist Thurston Moore formed Sonic Youth together after performing in separate bands in the late 1970s, the Coachmen and CKM, respectively. The band recorded their eponymous debut EP under Neutral Records which was relatively unsuccessful, though it received positive reviews from music journalists. The band’s earlier work throughout the early to mid-1980s drew inspiration from post-punk and helped develop the iconic no-wave sound and became synonymous with the noise rock scene made popular by bands like the Butthole Surfers and Big Black.
The band’s breakthrough came later in their career with the release of their sixth studio album in 1990, Goo, released under Geffen Records. The album largely explored pop culture and female empowerment while maintaining its signature layered sound and alternating guitar arrangements. It was the band’s most successful to date and has since been regarded as one of the more important indie and alternative rock albums of all time, appearing on Rolling Stone’s most recent 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time List at number 358.
Sonic Youth only continued to garner major success throughout the 1990s, releasing their seventh studio album in 1992, Dirty, which was stated as “much-needed proof that the old-fangled concept of a rock guitar band can still result in vital, undeniably moving music” by Entertainment Weekly. The band also saw success with their follow-up albums Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994), Washing Machine (1995), and A Thousand Leaves (1998).
The band continued to make music throughout the early to mid-2000s, though it wasn’t as successful as what the band had created in the 90s. After being married for 27 years, Moore and Gordon separated and as a result, Sonic Youth disbanded officially in 2011. Despite the band’s break-up, they remain one of the most influential alternative bands of all time, having been credited with pioneering the noise and alternative rock genres. Overall, Sonic Youth is easily one of the best indie rock bands of all time and certainly deserves a spot toward the top of this list.
3. Joy Division
|Frontman||Ian Curtis (1976 to 1980)|
|Years||1976 to 1980|
|Genre||Post-Punk, New Wave, Gothic Rock, Indie Rock|
Despite being a band for a mere four years, Joy Division was one of the most unique music groups to emerge during the latter half of the 1970s, helping define the post-punk sound. The band’s blossoming career was cut short at the dawn of the 80s following the tragic death of frontman Ian Curtis, who has since become a legendary figure in post-punk history.
Childhood pals Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner were heavily inspired to create their own band after attending a Sex Pistols show, resulting in Hook begging his mother for a bass which he received shortly afterward. The duo soon recruited fellow concert-goer Terry Mason as their drummer and vocalist Ian Curtis who responded to an advert that the band placed in search of a frontman. Originally named Warsaw, the group performed for the first time at Electric Circus, supporting other acts such as the Buzzcocks. Music journalists from NME and Sounds were in attendance and wrote positively about the band.
In 1977 Warsaw finalized their band with drummer Stephen Morris and changed their name to Joy Division the following year to avoid being confused with the punk band Warsaw Pakt. The band recorded their debut EP shortly afterward, An Ideal for Living, and performed on television for the first time on So It Goes, where they performed the iconic track Shadowplay. Joy Division saw their major breakthrough in 1979 after the release of their debut studio album, Unknown Pleasures, which has been, practically unanimously, highly praised by music critics since its release and subsequently named one of the best and most influential albums of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine, NME, AllMusic and Spin.
The band recorded their second and final studio album in March of 1980, Closer. After struggling with an uncontrollable bout of seizures and marriage problems, frontman Ian Curtis committed suicide at the age of 23 just two months following the recording of the album. Curtis’ death shook the band and their fans, and the group unanimously decided that they would not continue on as Joy Division without Curtis. The band released Closer in July of that year, which was believed by Curtis as their “artistic pinnacle.” The album stands as one of the most important of all time and their most defining work, with music critic Mark Fisher stating that it is “the crown jewel of post-punk.”
Joy Division remains one of the most defining bands of the 1970s for their iconic melancholic gothic overtones and dance rhythms, directly influencing numerous artists such as The Cure, Interpol, Soundgarden, and U2. AllMusic has referred to the band’s legacy, stating that they “became the first band in the post-punk movement by emphasizing not anger and energy but mood and expression.”
|Frontman||Black Francis (1986 to 1993, 2004 to Present)|
|Years||1986 to 1993, 2004 to Present|
|Genre||Indie Rock, Alternative Rock, Noise Pop|
Though not popular in the mainstream at the time of their upbringing, The Pixies became one of the most influential indie bands towards the latter half of the 1980s, inspiring a major shift in popular music towards alternative rock which dominated the 1990s by bands such as Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead.
Vocalist Black Francis met guitarist Joey Santiago during their college years, forming a band together in early 1986. The duo was joined by bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering, and the Pixies soon came to fruition. The young band began playing small shows across Boston and were quickly discovered by record producer Gary Smith, who reportedly told the band that he “could not sleep until you guys are world-famous.”
The band was almost immediately signed to 4AD and released their debut work, a mini-LP titled Come on Pilgrim in 1987 which was followed by their iconic debut studio album the following year, Surfer Rosa. Produced by legendary record producer and musician Steve Albini, the album has become a trademark in the alternative rock genre and has been considered one of the most influential of the 1980s across all genres. At the time of its release, the album was praised highly by music critics from magazines such as NME and Q, though it didn’t garner much attention in the US until years after its release.
With songs like Where Is My Mind and Gigantic becoming alternative anthems, the Pixies released their next studio album in 1989, Doolittle, which has since been considered the band’s true breakthrough and staple album. Featuring a true mixture of the loud to quiet dynamic in tracks like Tame, the album became an immediate influence on the alternative rock genre as it rose to number 98 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart in the US. The album has since been featured on a variety of “best-of” lists, most notably as number 141 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list and as the second-greatest album of all-time by NME.
Since the Pixies’ debut, they have become one of the most important bands of all time, not only for the wave of alternative music that they went on to inspire but for their sheer innovation in music as a whole with their pioneering of the soft and quiet/loud and hard dynamic. David Bowie referred to the band’s legacy, stating that they made “just about the most compelling music of the entire 80s,” while Bono of U2 named them as “one of America’s greatest bands.” Kurt Cobain of Nirvana stated that their iconic hit Smells Like Teen Spirit was “an attempt to co-op the Pixies’ style.”
1. The Smiths
|Frontman||Morrissey (1982 to 1987)|
|Years||1982 to 1987|
|Genre||Post-Punk, Indie Rock, Jangle Pop, Alternative Rock|
Known for their poetic lyricism, chiming guitar, and sensitive melancholia, The Smiths is one of the most prolific indie rock bands of all time. They have inspired a variety of subgenres such as Britpop and notable indie artists Noel Gallagher of Oasis and John Squire of The Stone Roses.
The Smiths came to fruition in 1982 when Johnny Marr knocked on the door of his acquaintance Morrissey’s home, asking him to form a band. Morrissey was timid but agreed, and the duo began rehearsing together just days afterward. Joined by drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Dale Hibbert, the band played their first gig later that year, performing the songs Suffer Little Children and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
The band released their eponymous debut studio album in 1984 which peaked at number two on the UK Albums Chart. Featuring the notable tracks Reel Around the Fountain, Still Ill and Pretty Girls Make Graves, the album was a major stepping stone for the band, establishing their signature post-punk sound. They released their debut compilation album later that year, Hateful of Hollow, which featured some of the band’s popular non-album singles How Soon Is Now?, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and William, It Was Really Nothing.
The Smith’s second studio album in 1985, Meat Is Murder, was more political than their previous releases, though it continued to expand on the band’s post-punk sound with popular tracks such as The Headmaster Ritual and That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore. The band saw major success with their third album in 1986, The Queen Is Dead. The album received wide critical acclaim, reaching number 70 on the US Billboard 200 Albums chart. Featuring the hits The Boy with the Thorn in His Side, Bigmouth Strikes Again, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, and Cemetry Gates, the album has since been regarded as one of the most important of the 1980s, with NME listing it as the best album of all-time in 2013, while Rolling Stone listed the album at number 113 on their most recent 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list.
The band released their final studio album in 1987, Strangeways, Here We Come, and their final compilation album later that year, Louder Than Bombs. The Smiths disbanded due mostly to creative differences between Morrissey and Marr, both of whom embarked on solo careers shortly afterward.
The Smiths, despite creating music together for only five years, have been regarded critically and commercially as one of the most important indie rock bands of all time, with BBC News stating that they are “the band that inspired deeper devotion than any British group since the Beatles,” while Q stated that they were “the one truly vital voice of the 80s.”
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