From Slint to Wu Lyf: 10 indie bands the world didn’t hear enough of

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The music business is not a meritocracy. In fact, contrary to many conspiracies, hot takes and mild waffle, it is largely governed by luck. You’re either in or you’re out, and if the moment you’re out coincides with other fractures, then the whole band can crack. Hell, even The Beatles had moments in the shade. As John Lennon once explained, ”There was periods when The Beatles were in, The Beatles were out, no matter what we were doing”. 

So, it’s not all that surprising that certain great bands don’t survive the capricious melee of modern music. Alas, that doesn’t mean that all of the bands featured on this list are still struggling to gain a foothold in the music business. Ironically, in the constant reappraisal of music, each of them at least has some degree of gathering respect, but there are just as many people who would probably give you a blank expression if you mentioned them in the same breath as R.E.M or Pixies.

Despite their lack of commercial success or their own self-destructive tendencies, these artists had the songwriting talent to rival any of their contemporaries. They might only have had the prolonged exposure that they deserved. or any exposure at all for that matter, but they prove that the following Brian Eno quote applies to more than The Velvet Underground: “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years.”

He famously continued: ”Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”

If the rest of the world wouldn’t let them into their hearts, at least let this list be an incentive to check out the best indie music that history forgot, mistreated, or fate failed to sustain. It’s hard getting exposure in the music business, but if these bands are any indication, it’s that not being at the top of the charts doesn’t make you a bad songwriter.

10 underrated indie bands:

10. Suicide

In the 1970s, rock and roll had a somewhat complicated relationship with synthesisers. For some, they were new tools that could bring new music ideas to the forefront, and for the purists, they were the death of true music that was causing everything wrong with the scene. Even if you hated the synthesised side of rock and roll with every fibre of your being, you couldn’t deny Suicide were doing something different when they first emerged on the scene.

In an era still populated by art-punk bands like Devo, this electronic duo created some of the most abrasive rock and roll ever conceived. Say what you want to about how the synthesiser makes everything sound artificial, but that cold and calculated sound is what makes a song like ‘Frankie Teardrop’ so unsettling over its elongated runtime.

In fact, maybe it was that darkness that got them booted from the mainstream. They might have had excellent songs, but their emergence around the same time as glam punk led to them getting lost in the shuffle, leading to the duo forming other projects and only returning to Suicide on occasion. It’s hard to make the case that they deserved to be featured on radio stations with something this unsettling, but when someone like Bruce Springsteen has to give it up to your work, you’re definitely doing something right.

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9. Love and Rockets

For most artists trying to make a name for themselves, it all comes back to the songs. It’s nice to have tracks made up of jams every now and again, but it doesn’t mean a thing if there isn’t a compelling melody to hold everything together. And even if you do have decent hooks sprinkled throughout the madness, bands like Love and Rockets still couldn’t manage to catch a break in their prime.

While their unique brand of post-punk and electronica felt like the great gap between rock and roll and avant-garde music, most people would have rather put on bands like Joy Division or Talking Heads in their prime. They may have soldiered on throughout the 1980s, but any reunion albums have been shelved in favour of touring, with Daniel Ash kickstarting everything back up in 2007 and again in 2023.

Although they couldn’t get arrested at the time, they did have a few champions, with Kurt Cobain applauding them as one of his favourite bands once Nirvana hit it big. Their music isn’t exactly for everyone, but if you were into bands like The Cure before they adopted their sonic sheen, this is probably where you can scratch that musical itch.

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8. The Replacements

Thank god for the world of college rock. Before there was the alternative scene of the 1990s, the world of underground radio stations helped keep obscure bands afloat and even managed to champion bands like R.E.M in the mainstream half the time. That part of the rock scene still had some clout in the late 1980s, but The Replacements managed to have some of the best songs and the worst streak of bad luck in rock and roll history.

Outside of being the most lovable drunks that anyone had ever heard, records like Tim and Let It Be deserve a spot next to The Queen is Dead by The Smiths and Out of Time by R.E.M as classics of the era. By the time the band got to enjoy their success, they always stuck their foot in their mouth, either turning in disastrous live performances or falling apart right as their offspring in Seattle started making waves.

Even when they had success lined up for them, like their performance on Saturday Night Live, the band always ended up coming out as slightly underwhelming, including being banned from the show for Westerberg swearing on camera. While former members Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson have at least carved out a decent niche in rock history, there’s a good chance that initial magic is gone now.

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7. The La’s

In terms of rock and roll history, the beginning of the 1990s feels like a wasteland for the genre. There were still “bands” per se, but when you looked at the quality of the charts, who the hell really cared anymore? Grunge hadn’t hit yet, and Britpop was still a pipe dream, but Lee Mavers may have started to make British pop cool five years before it was popular on The La’s debut record.

While there are traces of bands like The Smiths here and there on their debut, there are also a handful of tricks that would become commonplace in Britpop later, from the Beatle-esque melodies to talking about leaving for somewhere else on ‘Doledrum’ and ‘Way Out’. Right as the band could capitalise on their momentum, Mavers decided that he was better off fine-tuning his sound until it was absolutely perfect.

Spending week after week in the studio and on the road, songwriter John Power had had enough, eventually getting into a fight with Mavers onstage before leaving the group. Although Power would go on to form Cast and Mavers went down his creative rabbit hole, never to return, The La’s missed their golden opportunity to sit things out and become one of the all-time greats of Britpop.

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6. Slint

Rock is not always meant to be a nice listening experience from back to front. If genres like metal, hardcore punk, or industrial music have taught us anything, it’s that there’s a way to find a sort of beauty every time you see a band go into the studio and reveal some of the darkest sides of their personality. Although Slint may have started out in the post-hardcore scene, what they did on albums like Spiderland transcended what everyone thought about the genre.

Sure, they still brandished guitars and were playing the kind of heavy rock and roll that most people expected, but the intricacies of their playing helped pave the way for what would become the next waves of emo and math rock. Even though there are some challenging guitar passages across their catalogue, you have to wonder whether half of it is by design and how much of it is the raw emotion coming from them assaulting their instruments.

Although Slint were proud of what they created, the lack of enthusiasm led the band to break things off right after Spiderland was released, but not without getting a few applicants for a female singer such as PJ Harvey. While they never managed to get another album off the ground, the end result feels like something out of a particularly disturbing Salvador Dalí painting. It’s absolutely grotesque in some respects, but you can’t bring yourself to look away, either. 

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5. The Rapture

The 2000s tend to be its own unique animal for indie music. Ever since grunge demystified everyone’s preconceived notions of what the genre was supposed to be, the number of ratty garage bands that came out in the wake of acts like The White Stripes seemed to be taking things back to the genre’s DIY roots. If Jack White had half of the scene’s attention, The Rapture gave the new millennium the modern answer to a band like Talking Heads.

While Luke Jenner never had the same nervy energy as David Byrne, The Rapture took the aesthetic of Talking Heads by never resting on their laurels. There would always be a groove behind whatever they were doing, but Echoes showed them to be the kind of band that wasn’t afraid to take on any sound as long as it worked in the context, which makes sense why they ended up working with Danger Mouse later.

Since the band’s inception, they have fallen apart after the communication breakdown between the group and their frontman, Luke Jenner, but they have been able to get the ball rolling again since 2019. And if you look at where the indie scene has been going as of late, albums like Echoes are still being felt in Parquet Courts on their output as well. 

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4. CSS

The world of Sub Pop was never bound to be just the “grunge” label for long. Ever since Bruce Pavitt started the whole thing back in the late 1980s, they prided themselves on being at the forefront of all great indie music, no matter where it came from. Now that one of their success stories turned into one of the biggest musical movements, it was time to go in a different direction, and CSS is about as far away as you could possibly get from the likes of Soundgarden.

Adopting the sounds of samplers and sequencers, a lot of the band’s best songs tend to sound like the strange tangents that you would hear out of your favourite bands, only done with a lot more charm. While no one would have said that genres like synthpop were the best fit for indie musicians, it works shockingly well here, especially when you see that the band aren’t taking themselves that seriously. The music was pristine, but CSS helped remind all of us of a core lesson about rock and roll: it’s about having a good time.

After the release of their third album, Planta, the band would go on indefinite hiatus but have since resurfaced, launching a tour in 2024 surrounding the 20 year anniversary of their debut. Any new music is still up in the air, but it’s nice to relive that magic on the live stage again.

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3. Good Shoes

After the 1990s, Britpop tended to die a pretty ugly death. There were still a few great bands to go around, but once people heard Be Here Now by Oasis, we had to all collectively realise that the indie scene had jumped the shark and it was time to move on. That didn’t mean the new bands went away; they just had to get a little bit more edgy, and Good Shoes took the same hooks as Britpop and put a post-punk energy to them.

When looking at the two albums that have been released, much of their best stuff seems to take the old-school style of punk rock and put a pop sheen to it. Throughout songs like ‘Morden’, Rhys Jones sounds like he’s trying to do everything he can to push himself towards the next line, yet still manages to sound like the most laid-back singer in the world while doing it.

After bassist Joe Cox left in 2008, though, the band would soldier on releasing one-off singles as well as the album No Hope No Future in 2010 before going radio silent ever since. The Britpop bubble promised a lot more than it ultimately gave us, but for someone ingrained in the indie scene, this was the answer to The Jam that not enough people gave a chance to.

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2. Larrikin Love

All good songs start off in the folk tradition before anything else. Even though there have been countless artists that have extracted songs out of jams, the only way to know if a song is a keeper is by trying to get the same emotion across with just an acoustic guitar. It may seem like the harder task half the time, but Larrikin Love made their first waves by turning in songs with punk fury and a folksy twist.

While we only had them around for one album, The Freedom Spark is a case of putting a folk heart into modern indie rock and roll. Compared to every other punk band that came afterwards, half the songs feel much more worn in than any of their contemporaries, as if they studied the craft of Bob Dylan and combined it with the disaffected attitude of Pixies as well as the snarl of someone like Pete Doherty for good measure.

Before fans even got to enjoy it, though, the group was done, announcing their breakup only weeks before The Freedom Spark dropped in 2007. Considering that many bands have learned to embrace rootsy rock and roll with punk, half of the indie scene is living in a world Larrikin Love helped invent.

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1. Wu Lyf

Most people don’t go to indie rock just to hear the same kinds of tunes over and over again. This is what’s happening in the underground, after all, and more often than not, you’re going to want to hear something that is unlike anything that the charts have to offer. While post-rock was still a relatively new term around the 2000s, Wu Lyf created songs that your mind’s eye wasn’t ready to hear yet.

While anyone who has ever heard them would call their music heavy, hearing the guitars and ambience wash over you across Go Tell Fire to the Mountain is one of the most serene experiences you can have wearing headphones. Even when the vocals come in, it still feels like you’re being tucked into bed as the rest of the band are flying off the handle. Music had already been geared towards contradictory genres working together, but it took us almost half a century for someone to capture the energy of a band like The Velvet Underground this well.

Just like The Velvets, that trademark fire was too good to last, with lead singer Ellery Roberts posting on his socials that the band was dead to him before wiping their Facebook page in the early 2010s. Still, it’s better to have had that slow burn than never to have gone on the journey at all.

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