Before It Was Cool: 5 Classic Albums That Foreshadowed the Rise of Indie


How did the hipster burn his tongue? He drank his organic fair trade coffee before it was cool.

With that out of the way, here are five albums from the 60’s and 70’s that were highly influential on different indie scenes of the 80’s, 90’s, and today. Think of these as proto-indie records, and tell me if you can think of any more albums like these in the comments.

1. The Velvet Underground (1969)

by The Velvet Underground

1968’s White Light/White Heat saw The Velvet Underground playing the part of a ferocious noise band, ripping apart expectations of what pop music was supposed to sound like. But if you ask me which incarnation of The Velvet Underground was most influential towards indie music, I would have to say the one that’s present on their 1969 self-titled “gray album”. The VU took a complete left-turn here, creating a record heavy on awkward, confessional, and achingly soft ballads that bring to mind acts like Elliott Smith and Yo La Tengo, not to mention the entire Juno soundtrack.

2. Close to You (1970)

by Carpenters

I can’t think of any other band that underwent the same journey as the Carpenters. In the 70’s they were seen as one of the defining artists of mainstream soft rock. Karen and Richard Carpenter’s squeaky clean image and fairly unadventurous music made them a band for the square crowd. In the words of John Fogerty, “If you’ve got three guys out on the ballfield and one of them started humming [a Carpenters song], the other two guys would pants him.” But throughout the 90’s and 2000’s, a massive critical reevaluation befell the band, as Karen Carpenter was recognized as a great vocalist and a number of hip indie bands like Sonic Youth came forward and named the Carpenters as an influence. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how the quiet, mellifluous music of the Carpenters was a touchstone for the twee movement, and the indie genre as a whole.

3. Ram (1971)

by Paul and Linda McCartney

The coolest thing about Beatles solo records is hearing each Beatle in isolation and discovering the elements that each one brought to the table when The Beatles were still a functioning unit. On Paul’s second solo album, it’s evident that he infused The Beatles with a playful, abstract take on rock music that was indebted to Tin Pan Alley pop. While most critics (and John Lennon) hated Ram back when it was first released, it’s clear now that the record’s lo-fi, fuzzy, and liberated sound was one of the earliest forays into what would become indie pop. The album gives off a vibe of lovable sloppiness and has a tossed-off nature (much like Paul’s first album) that belies the finely tuned songcraft underneath. In retrospect, Ram was a pretty successful venture, as the melodies still crack after all these years, and its influence reigns on. I mean, tell me “Smile Away” doesn’t sound like a classic fuzz folk track à la Neutral Milk Hotel (a band which I will hopefully get to see live next month!)?

4. Radio City (1974)

by Big Star

This album was borne out of frustration at the poor sales of Big Star’s debut, the ironically titled #1 Record. It finds Big Star halfway between the shiny power pop of their debut and the dark, schizophrenic rock of their third record. Essentially, it’s the perfect combination for dejected pop fans to fall in love with and subsequently form bands of their own. R.E.M., anybody? Okay, so R.E.M. are more alternative than indie. Still, I can hear Broken Social Scene and Pavement in the grooves of this record. Radio City is a strange, yet strangely addictive record that is clearly written from an outsider’s perspective, which is virtually the definition of indie.

5. Tusk (1979)

by Fleetwood Mac

One word to describe this record: indulgent. There had always been an experimental undercurrent to Fleetwood Mac’s music, but on Tusk, the band truly let this part of them loose. Well, at least Lindsey Buckingham did. His more edgy compositions seem even more bizarre when placed next to Stevie Nicks’ and Christine McVie’s relatively standard songs on this double album (which is also indulgent in that it may have worked better as a slimmed-down single album). On songs like “The Ledge”, Buckingham put forth the atmosphere of a frenzied campfire sing-a-long, and some of his other tracks took influence from the burgeoning new wave scene, with decidedly odd results. It all comes to a head with the title track, which features the USC Trojan Marching Band, and cannot really be described without having listened to it. Hundreds of indie bands clearly did that very thing, as Tusk is rife with songs and sounds that likely inspired indie bands like Arcade Fire to incorporate folksy chanting, epic indulgence, and unabashed weirdness into their music.

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  1. Great list – you’ve given me something to ponder today!
    I haven’t heard Radio City yet (really enjoyed #1 record though) and any record that has Pavement & REM element sounds perfect to me

  2. Blimey, Noah, if you’re going that far back the list would be endless. So much great music of the 70s was recorded in a hurry and sort of lo fi. My nomination for the first actual indie album, the one that – for me – presaged it all, would be The Pixies Surfer Rosa. They took the Sex Pistols back-to-the-garage, don’t-need-to-play approach, and then played the hell out of it, and on great songs too. They also put the seal of approval on the whole quiet-loud, quiet-loud thing that Nirvana got credit for. But maybe that’s a whole other blog post…..

    1. I can see where you’re coming from. But, I chose these albums because they contain certain atmospheres and feelings that strongly remind me of the indie music that came later. Also, I was positioning these as sort of proto-indie records. For example, think of The Stooges in relation to punk. You can’t cell them a punk band (because punk wasn’t around when The Stooges were at their peak), but you can say that they had a huge influence on punk. To me, the Pixies aren’t an indie band, they’re alternative. The first indie record (in my opinion ) was probably The Smiths’ debut in 1984.

  3. Got a couple of wild cards for you:

    Captain Beefheart – Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Inspired Pere Ubu, The Fall, Hampton Grease Band, PiL, Gang of Four, R. Stevie Moore. This guy is as indie as you can get and still be a major label artist.

    Peter Hammill -Nadir’s Big Chance. The first album as referred to by the artist himself as a punk album. This was in 1974. Someone prove me wrong here 😉

    Can – Tago Mago. Need I say more?

    Totally agree with you on Tusk btw. Camper Van Beethoven would also agree. Buckingham is a genius.

    1. I’ve heard of captain beefheart (trout mask replica usually appears in greatest albums lists), but it’s not on spotify so I haven’t been able to listen to it. Him and Zappa are two artists I really have to get into. Experimental rock is something that I haven’t explored too much yet, which is why the albums on this list are mostly pretty mainstream. But with your recommendations, I think I have a good place to start. Thanks!

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