10 Indie Artists Who Will Change Your Life
When Natalie Portman’s character Sam delivered to Zach Braff’s Andrew that memorable line about the then Shins tune ‘New Slang’ in the 2004 movie ‘Garden State,’ she perfectly captured a powerful feeling that all music lovers feel at one time or another. (“You gotta hear this one song — it’ll change your life, I swear,” was Sam’s instantly quotable dialogue, in case you’ve somehow forgotten it.) Of course all music lovers also have their own particular tastes, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if fans of ‘Garden State’ have a certain predilection for that amorphous genre known as indie rock; after all, the flick’s soundtrack, which won Braff a Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack for a Motion Picture, was up to its ears in indie. Countless indie bands have undoubtedly changed countless lives over the years, but we can’t name them all, so on the following list we recommend 10 of our all-time favorites. And yes, two of them just happen to appear on the indie-centric soundtrack to Braff’s latest film, ‘Wish I Were Here,’ which opens in select theaters July 18.
Guided By Voices
Talk about indie rock changing lives: Thirtysomething English teacher Bob Pollard’s own life took a complete 180 in the early ’90s when his band Guided By Voices, after years of toiling in obscurity in their hometown of Dayton, suddenly became anointed indie-rock royalty thanks to lo-fi classics like ‘Bee Thousand’ and ‘Alien Lanes.’ ‘I Am a Scientist’ was probably the closest they ever got to an alt-rock radio hit — and trust us, it wasn’t that close — but the band certainly won over a dedicated cult following that worships GBV to this day.
After defining the sound of the indie underground in the ’80s with iconic discs like ‘Sister’ and ‘Daydream Nation,’ Sonic Youth branched out in the ’90s: signing to a major label, becoming mentors to a then-up-and-coming band called Nirvana, even headlining an indie-centric version of Lollapalooza in 1995. Their 15th and likely final album, 2009’s presciently titled ‘The Eternal,’ was followed two years later by the heartbreaking news that principals Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were breaking up after nearly 30 years of marriage.
Neutral Milk Hotel
It’s a story so bizarre we couldn’t make it up: A singer from Athens, Ga., released with his band Neutral Milk Hotel a concept album about Anne Frank in Nazi Germany to mixed reviews, tours exhaustively for a year — and then basically disappears. Gradually, ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ catches fire, and pretty soon it’s being hailed as a timeless must-have. But despite calls to re-form his band, Jeff Mangum became the J.D. Salinger of indie rock — until, that is, last year, when he finally (and triumphantly) again shared NMH and its ‘Aeroplane’ with the world on one final tour.
Every so often, a musician comes along with such a unique and masterful way of expressing himself that he’s labeled the voice of a generation. That’s pure hyperbole — even Kurt Cobain disdained the notion — but Elliott Smith certainly had a gift for putting powerful feelings and emotions into words in a way that connected with his fans in the most profound of ways. Smith issued seven stellar albums (two posthumously), but it was the song ‘Miss Misery,’ which he performed at the 1998 Oscars after receiving a Best Original Song nomination, that was his best known.
If only one picture could accompany the “indie rock” entry on Wikipedia, a shot featuring the preppy mugs of Pavement would be as good a pick as any. Touching on influences that ran the gamut from obscure post-punk (the Fall, Swell Maps) to jangly “college rock” (the Replacements, R.E.M.) and plenty in between, frontman/chief songwriter Stephen Malkmus and his band of pranksters churned out insanely catchy tunes at a prolific rate, yet often hid their gems under sheets of unlistenable noise (their early lo-fi stuff) or behind perplexing brain-teasers-cum-lyrics (pretty much anything they put out). No matter: Pavement’s music was truly some-life changing stuff.
Sure, they were often dismissed as booze-swilling Midwest malcontents known for live performances that ran the gamut from inconsequential and inconsistent to utterly chaotic, but few other bands could rock out as loudly and lively as the Replacements did when they really had their s— together. Frontman Paul Westerberg was as wild as they came, but still managed to deliver all the earnest passion in the world when he wanted to.
For all the ups and downs in the personal life of Chan Marshall — or Cat Power, as the 42-year-old indie-folk chanteuse goes by onstage and on record — she’s mustered a remarkably consistent output of work. From her days fronting a darkly disturbing lo-fi trio in the early ’90s and turn-of-the-millennium work with Aussie instrumentalists the Dirty Three to her collaborations with alt-rock stars like Eddie Vedder and flirtations with Southern soul backed by Memphis session pros, Cat Power has churned out the occasional gem of a collaboration — much like her title track contribution to ‘Wish I Were Here’ with Coldplay.
Morrissey is a man of undeniable conviction — if you doubt us, familiarize yourself with the rumor that he once turned down $75 million to reunite the Smiths — and it’s that unbendable resolve that has always made him such an intriguing and polarizing figure. His skills as a singer and lyricist no doubt have helped his cause along the way, of course, but it’s the intersection of these traits with those of the other members of the Smiths that fueled such a cathartic era for the band, easily one of the most provocative British acts during its brief run in the ’80s.
The ’80s were a different era for the genre now known as indie rock. Back then, when it was more commonly called college rock or underground rock, and it definitely lived up to its name — it truly was still underground. Take, for instance, Husker Du, who were immensely influential and critically acclaimed in certain circles, but virtually unknown in the music mainstream, despite putting out a pair of classic albums on a major label at the end of their career.
The Shins’ career didn’t begin when the song ‘New Slang,’ from their debut album ‘Oh, Inverted World,’ appeared on the soundtrack to the 2004 movie ‘Garden State.’ But the additional exposure its scene-stealing appearance brought certainly hasn’t hurt the band’s rise. Several lineup changes have altered the Shins’ personnel in the intervening years since, with frontman James Mercer remaining as one of the few constants and a songwriting force behind subsequent releases like their latest full-length, 2012’s ‘Port of Morrow.’ The Shins also wrote and recorded a new song titled ‘So Now What’ for Braff’s latest directorial performance and starring vehicle, ‘Wish I Was Here.’