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Originally used to describe bands on independent record labels, “indie rock” has grown to encompass a musical style inspired by post-punk and power-pop mixed with lo-fi aesthetics.
The late 80’s through mid-90’s proved a watershed moment for indie bands, but for every American sensation like Pavement, Weezer or Sonic Youth, there were other equally talented acts that slipped through the cracks.
Let’s take a listen to 5 underrated indie bands well worth discovering.
Essential Tracks: ‘Nothing Lies Still Long’, ‘Don The Beachcomber’, ‘Swoon’, ‘Cloverleaf’, ‘Pound Cake’, ‘Revival’, ‘Saucer’, ‘Ether’, ‘Blacktop’
Essential Albums: ‘Flow’, ‘Interstate’, ‘Star City’
This Portland, Oregon four-piece forged cinematic instrumentals with Americana flair, but never received the widespread acclaim of similar groups like Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky.
Best known for their moody track ‘Nothing Lies Still Long’ (which was used on the HBO series ‘Six Feet Under’), they’re an obscure indie treat worth rediscovering.
As of 2015: the band called it quits in ’98, but former member Steve Fisk has had a successful recording career, producing acts including Soundgarden, Sleater-Kinney and Reggie Watts.
Essential Tracks: ‘Death of a Salesman’, ‘Stars Gone Out’, ‘Canada’, ‘Tonight’, ‘Blue Christmas’, ‘Laser Beam’, ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, ‘Half-light’, ‘California’, ‘Sunflower’, ‘Point of Disgust’, ‘Long Way Around The Sea’, ‘July’, ‘Dinosaur Act’, ‘Lullaby’
Essential Albums: ‘I Could Live In Hope’, ‘Long Division’, ‘Things We Lost in The Fire’, ‘Secret Name,’ ‘The Great Destroyer’, ‘Christmas EP’
While most rock bands pride themselves on creating an unholy racket, Minnesota three-piece Low pride themselves on living up to their moniker, playing delicate tunes as slow and quietly as possible.
This allows the vocal harmonies of guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker to take centre stage, holding hypnotic court with the listener.
Low also know their way around traditional holiday tunes, most notably ‘Blue Christmas’ and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’.
Their left-of-centre approach has resulted in a rich body of work championed (and covered) by the likes of Robert Plant, and deserving of wider acclaim.
As of 2015: the band is staying busy, with their most recent release being 2015’s ‘Ones and Sixes.’
Essential Tracks: ‘Technology’, ‘Silicon Teens’, ’Tunnel Song’, ‘My Pet Robot’, ‘Das Lifeboat’, ‘Runway’, ‘Tales From Tomorrow’
Essential Albums: ‘The Pulsars’
Consisting of brothers Dave and Harry Trumfio, The Pulsars resurrected 80’s synth-pop for the 90’s. Their self-titled debut featured earworms like ‘Suffocation’ and ‘Silicon Teens’, but success eluded them, and they folded in 2000.
Perhaps they were too ahead of the curve with their retro-New Wave aesthetic, a sound that wouldn’t find resurgence en masse until the mid 00’s.
As of 2015: besides a one-off reunion show in 2009, The Pulsars have remained dormant. Dave Trumfio is a successful producer, working with acts like Wilco and OK Go.
Essential Tracks: ‘Imperial Teen’, ‘You’re One’, ‘You hoo’, Butch’, ‘Balloon’, ‘Alone in The Grass’, ‘Blaming The Baby’, ‘Ivanka’, ‘Sugar’, ‘Teacher’s Pet’, ‘Fallen Idol, ‘Room With A View’, ‘Baby’, ‘Runaway’
Essential Albums: ‘Seasick’, ‘What Is Not To Love’, ‘On’, ‘The Hair The TV the Baby and & the Band.’
While Imperial Teen features Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum, their sound couldn’t be more dissimilar.
With songs tackling the death of Kurt Cobain (‘You’re One’), provocative gay anthems (‘Butch’), and hallucinogenic weirdness (‘Alone in the Grass’), the band is fearlessly inventive.
This is further borne out by their multi-vocalist/instrumentalist lineup (Bottum, Will Schwartz, Jone Stebbins, and Lynn Truell) resulting in catchy tunes with unpredictable elements.
As of 2015: the band’s most recent release is their 2012 album ‘Feel The Sound.’ Bottum also performed on Faith No More’s 2015 comeback album ‘Sol Invictus.’
Essential Tracks: ‘Burn That Bridge’, ‘Smell’, ‘Shrine’, ‘Kill Haole Day’, ‘Idaho’, ‘Delaware’, ‘Fur’, ‘Smooth Control’, ‘Teenage Loser Anthem’, ‘Drive By Kiss’, ‘Velocidad’, ‘Break Up With Your Boyfriend’, ‘Luster’
Essential Albums: ‘Encendedor’, ‘Ruby Red’, ‘Against The Stars’
This Honolulu by way of Boston group married Pixies soft-loud dynamics with New Order bass-lines, adding violin for good measure.
But despite super-catchy tracks like ‘Shrine’ and ‘Burn That Bridge’ and the powerful dual vocals of Dave Derby and Joan Wasser they never achieved the crossover success they deserved, and folded in 1998.
As of 2015: Wasser currently performs as Joan As Police Woman, and Derby and drummer Kevin March plays with NYC based indie poppers Gramercy Arms.
That concludes my list of 90’s Indie Bands well worth investigating. I’ve also included a handful of honorable mentions, which you can view below.
If you’re looking for where to start, crank up ‘Shrine’ or ‘Burn That Bridge’ by The Dambuilders. Why they weren’t massive hits is beyond me!
Now I turn it over to you: what unsung Gen-X indie bands do you hold dear? Be sure to tell me in the comments.
And if you’re looking other underrated bands in a similar vein to discover, be sure to read my list of Underrated 90’s Alternative Bands, Underrated American Shoegaze Bands and Underrated 80’s UK Post-punk bands.
Honorable Mentions: Satchel, Trans Am, Dig, Girls Against Boys, Jellyfish, The Posies, Tripping Daisy, Shudder To Think, Royal Trux
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