Skip to main content

What is indie rock? It started off as referring to music released by independent labels, free from the reigns of corporate titans like Capitol, Columbia and Atlantic. The earliest champions of the genre refused to let a low budget stop them from recording their sound and distributing it to the masses (either completely DIY or via the help of a smaller, independent label), eventually garnering widespread appeal in their own right and proving the commercial viability of self-produced music. 

Though it’s hard to pin down what indie music sounds like, it can be marked by a DIY, lo-fi aesthetic featuring more creative experimentation outside of the cookie-cutter mold, coupled with an ethos of authenticity, depictions of life from an everyman’s perspective and lyrical content that may not appeal to a wide audience. Inevitably over time, many indie bands have gone on to release music under major labels—think Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and Modest Mouse—but are still classified as indie for upholding their early sound and independent attitude.

The origins of the genre are a sprawling patchwork with roots in the US, UK and New Zealand during the ‘70s and ‘80s. When asked who was the first indie rock band to ever do it, many point to Manchester pop-punk quartet The Buzzcocks, whose 1977 "Spiral Scratch" EP became the first successful independent record. Sparking a revolution, an eager scene of college bands formed the foundation for indie rock in the mid-1980s, including Pavement, R.E.M. and The Replacements. The movement gained even more traction in the late ‘80s, with acts like The Smiths in the UK and Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. in the US releasing era-defining records, along with indie icons The Stone Roses and The Cure ascending to international stardom as well. 

In the 1990s, the term “indie rock” started becoming interchangeable with grunge and alternative rock, with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam rising to the mainstream and further breaking the barriers of what independent artists could achieve. By the 2000s, the torch was passed to The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arctic Monkeys to further define the modern indie rock sound. Over the last few decades, a myriad of subgenres have evolved out of indie rock, spanning from lo-fi to emo, garage rock, indie pop, shoegaze, post-rock, math rock and much more. 

These days, “indie rock” prevails as a catch-all descriptor for an eclectic mix of musical stylings, and more so provokes a spirit and ideology of music as opposed to a cut-and-dry sound. Those who made and continue to make indie rock are not concerned with climbing the charts; in their earliest days, the spearheaders of the genre were making music to resonate with the misfits of the world—a lack of industry support being the last thing to stop them from doing so. If you’re a fan of music, you’ve likely come across indie rock that has left a mark on your heart in a way that no other mainstream music has. Thus, we implore you to check out some of these indie rock tattoos, and save a spot on your skin for one of your own, too.

SONIC YOUTH

Goo (1990)

Washing Machine (1995)

Sonic Nurse (2004)

PIXIES

Doolittle (1989)

NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)

MODEST MOUSE

Lonesome Crowded West (1997)

Building Nothing Out of Something (1999)

Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007)

NIRVANA

Bleach (1989)

Nevermind (1991)

In Utero (1993)

THE STROKES

Is This It (2001)

Is This It (2001)

The New Abnormal (2020)

ARCTIC MONKEYS

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006)

Humbug (2009)

Suck It And See (2011)

CAR SEAT HEADREST

Twin Fantasy (2011)

THE KILLERS

Hot Fuss (2004)

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM

LCD Soundsystem (2005)

INTERPOL

El Pintor (2014)

THE NATIONAL

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE

Transatlanticism (2003)

Plans (2005)

BRIGHT EYES

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (2005)

THE CURE

Pornography (1982)

Boys Don’t Cry (1980)

Disintegration (1989)

Wish (1992)

THE SHINS

Wincing the Night Away (2007)

SLEATER-KINNEY

Dig Me Out (1997)

YEAH YEAH YEAHS

Show Your Bones (2006)

DINOSAUR JR.

Without a Sound (1994)

SLINT

Spiderland (1991)

Spiderland (1991)

BUILT TO SPILL

The Normal Years (1996)

Keep It Like a Secret (1999)

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN

The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998)

THE REPLACEMENTS

Pleased to Meet Me (1987)

Let It Be (1984)

THE BUZZCOCKS

Love Bites (1978)

Singles Going Steady (1979)

ELLIOTT SMITH

Elliott Smith (1995)

Figure 8 (2000)

THE SMITHS

The Queen Is Dead (1986)

Meat Is Murder (1985)

THE WHITE STRIPES

Live Under the Lights of the Rising Sun (2014)