Sunday, November 25, 2007

Blender's 100 Best Indie-Rock Albums

Blender magazine recently published a list called "The 100 Greatest Indie-Rock Albums Ever". I enjoy these sorts of lists and wrote about their top 500 songs here.

I was interested in how they defined "indie" rock. I didn't like the Blender description so I went to wikipedia's entry which I thought made more sense. From their description, the key elements were 1) some sort of rock, generally guitar driven 2) artists signed to independent record labels 3) artists attempting to control the content of their work 4) often the work is "counter-cultural".

This definition is kind of interesting because it not only represents the type of music, but also the state that the band is when the album was recorded. For instance, under this type of definition, the FIRST Nirvana album (Bleach) would qualify for the list, but the latter albums (post major label signing) might not qualify. Nirvana is probably a bad example because under this definition "Bleach" qualifies, "Nevermind" doesn't, but their third album "In Utero" probably could if you stretched the definition a bit because they brought in an uncompromising producer (Steve Albini) and fought to make it as unprocessed as possible, which might overcome the major label "stigma".

Generally Blender did a pretty good job. The main albums that I like and would consider "indie" are here including:
  • #3 Replacements - Let It Be - a GREAT album, especially "I Will Dare". Their other albums were good up until that last crappy major label one, too
  • #4 REM - Murmur - before REM became a bunch of issue-driven freaks, you had "Radio Free Europe" and a bunch of tuneful mumbling
  • #5 Pixies - Surfer Rosa - Dan's favorite
  • #6 Arcade Fire - Funeral - I was really surprised by this choice... the rest I could "phone in" - but this is a great and unique album. Good for Blender. Saw them on PBS recently in "Austin City Limits" a great live show check it out or Tivo it
  • #11 Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime - famous generally for the Jackass theme off this album, these guys were pioneers but it takes a lot of effort to sit through this whole thing
  • #12 Dinosaur Jr - You're Living All Over Me - gets on the list for the title alone, one of the best rock titles ever. Also love "In A Jar" for insane bass riff and the nonsensical part where someone talks over the song in the studio. Skip the remake of the Cure song...
  • #13 - Husker Du - Zen Arcade - you'd get no argument from Dan or I on this one, a great album, the first side just one long song. I guess the only argument would be how this is ahead of New Day Rising, the album I'd probably put in the top #1 on this chart
  • #17 - White Stripes - White Blood Cells - good album but I have to fault them for not having a bass player (as an ex-bass player) - but they made up for it with their next album (non-indie since it was major label) with Seven Nation Army
  • #18 Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures - for the Goth's
  • #29 Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes - this album could be an entire post by itself. Simply a fantastic album end to end, totally original. Should be top 1-3 in my opinion, for Add It Up, Blister In the Sun, many more
  • #35 Liz Phair - Exile in Guyville - pretty dirty for a North Shore girl, lost my copy and never bothered to get another one
  • #38 Strokes - Is this It - I can't like those guys just because they have models "living all over them" to quote Dinosaur Jr
  • #40 New Order - Power Corruption & Lies - the ex-Joy Division guys just reform and create an entire genre of music out of thin air with "Blue Monday"
  • #43 Black Flag - Damaged - a great album, TV Party Tonight, and a ton of other songs. I have a hard time thinking of them as "indie"...
  • #46 Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand - another good album, very entertaining
  • #53 Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights - another good first album, the new Joy Division
  • #53 Smashing Pumpkins - Gish - the first album by Smashing Pumpkins, when they were independent, and before Billy Corgan was a pompous bag of wind
  • #59 Nine Inch Nails - Pretty Hate Machine - a fantastic album, if ranked on merit would be top 5 in this list. In some ways Trent Reznor is completely "indie", with his hatred of his record company, drug abuse, and self-loathing... but I just have trouble thinking of him as a jangly "indie" prototype guy
  • #61 LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem - another great album with "Daft Punk is Playing at My House" and other good songs but isn't this guy more of a DJ, not an indie?
  • #67 Husker Du - New Day Rising - a classic album, probably one of the best on the list. How was this not near the top? It was still on SST, not a major label. I remember being in high school and staring at this album cover, knowing it was hip, but not yet ready to buy it. Biggest Blender beef - didn't mention "Celebrated Summer" as a recommended download from this album
  • #77 Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I am, That's What I'm Not - have trouble understanding how some young lager louts out of modern England are indie... but another good album
  • #83 Misfits - Walk Among Us - OK, now if you are saying the Misfits are an indie band, why not GWAR? Come on... but I guess it is because the Misfits were 1/2 punk, 1/2 metal
  • #92 Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables - this is certainly an independent label (hell, they basically invented the independent label) and counter cultural... but "indie"? OK, well if you let in Black Flag, then you have to let in DK's, but is that right? If so, then this album needs to go way up the charts because it is a classic. Maybe it is down towards the bottom because Blender isn't sure, either?
What about the rest of the chart? Lots of bands I haven't heard of, or the country-fried indie stuff that I can't stay awake long enough to listen to.

Out of the top 5, what's #1? Pavement - Slanted and Enchanted. Boring. I had a CD of this and lost it and never even thought to replace it. It sat unopened for a long time. But in some ways this is the prototypical slacker indie album, boring and obscure to all but the initiated, and loved by critics.

#2 is Sonic Youth "Daydream Nation"... Sonic Youth has some OK albums until they intentionally got obscure, kind of like Neil Young when he was sued by his own record company for doing the same.

What else is missing? It depends on your definition of "indie". If it includes the Misfits, well then it probably ought to include the first Metallica Album "Kill Em All". But "bad case makes bad law", and so I won't go down the metal route to look for the missing. Let's figure the Misfits are there for their punk side, not metal side.

I would say that the first Beck album "Mellow Gold" with the track "Loser" has to be on this list, maybe right near the top. It probably didn't make it because by then he was signed to Geffen records, but come on...

I think Wilco ought to be here somewhere, along with Son Volt, if you are including boring critic-driven stuff that seems indie. I am too indifferent to note which albums and where but they sure seem indie.

So what would the top indie records be? It depends on how you are evaluating them.

If it is true "indie-ness" meaning critics loved them, they were kind of whiny and droning, and their music had not too much grand impact, well then you have to like the #1 choice Pavement, and throw in Sonic Youth too, and Yo La Tengo and the rest of that.

Once you start bringing in the UK bands, which don't seem too indie to me, then you have to start adding the Smiths, New Order and Joy Division right to the top, along with a bunch of other ones I don't know much about.

As far as the US "indie" scene AND albums you might want to listen to, then you have Husker Du, the Pixies, the Replacements, early REM, and Violent Femmes. Since they included Nine Inch Nails on the list, you need that first album which is great end-to-end (although I never think of them as "indie").

If you are going to start picking up the punk albums and calling them "indie", then you need to add Black Flag (although TV Party does sound a bit dated) and the Dead Kennedys at a minimum to your own list.

For rebellion, Dead Kennedys have to move to the top. DK invented the independent label, one that is still thriving today (here is a link to the FAQ's on their Alternative Tentacles site, very funny, note that about 1/2 way down someone asks the question "Is Jello Biafra gay?" and they answer "no", that is punk). They also got sued by everyone and had internal legal conflicts that they never sorted out.

The point of a list is to take a large, abstract topic and attempt to bring order to that topic, weighting factors that maybe shouldn't be weighted, yet trying to cover all the bases. And probably to start people talking, or thinking.

From that aspect, this list succeeded.


Dan from Madison said...

Funny on that Pavement disc. I bought that I think when I was in school or just after since I liked the song "cut my hair". I stumbled on it as I was going through my CD's (which, by the way are all leaving my house in a huge plastic sack). I popped it in and it still stinks. I still wonder why I bought that one.

johnnyj said...

Hmmm, good post Carl...Pavement is (was) popular back in college and I have most of their cd's. "Slanted Enchanted" is in no way their best but the critics love it. Lead singer Stephen Malkmus has put out some excellent solo efforts and still plays sold-out shows in Seatown...

I've never considered Pavement or Black Flag "Indie" but I guess it's up to the critics. If it were up to me the Pixes would be in the top spot.

ef said...

Hi. Nice blog.

I defense of Pavement: I love that album, but I also love My Bloody Valentine and the Fall. If you're not into those, their sound may not be your cup of tea.

I think also Pavement's number one since they were so influential, even though all music is referential in some ways. I don't think of them as "slacker" so much as UVA guys who read John Ashebery(sp?) and listened to Echo and the Bunnymen...and the Fall..They were smart and some of their songs are almost pastiches--but their music's also really free.

They were also "indie" since they started on Drag City Records.

As for the list, glad to see: Pavement, Galaxie 500, Young Marble Giants, and Neutral MIlk Hotel. Wish I saw: Camper Van Beethoven and Stone Roses(although they were on a bigger label I think)

CC said...

Really interesting post. Know what you mean about the problems of defining "indie" - loads of acts on independent labels don't have an indie sound, while some of the indiest sounding bands on the list have since signed to major labels.

You've probably seen loads of articles like the above Blender one where they name the best albums or films of all time, then thought… who makes this up?! The new Poll The People is the first global evolving poll where you can have your say to create the definitive list of greatest albums, books and films.

It doesn’t end there, though. You can create your own Top 5 category – your Top 5 cartoon characters, your Top 5 beaches, your Top 5 mineral waters (Top 5 indie albums, of course!)… or anything else you can think of, from the sublime to the ridiculous! Check out and rate other people’s Top 5s and hook up with people of similar tastes.

There is also a growing number of celebrity Top 5s on the site which offer a great insight into their influences, so if you’d like to know which albums Paul Weller rates, Nick Hornby’s favourite books, or James King’s top films, look no further.