The Essence of Indie: The Raw and Organic

There used to be a time when Indie meant something; when Indie was unknown bands with weird names that you heard on a college campus or sitting in a CD store in the $1 bin. But today, everything is “Indie” and we have more “Indies” than we know what to do with—Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Indie Rap, Low-Fi Indie, etc.. In short, Indie has become a meaningless add-on moniker to gives something credibility, as in “I’m not hipster”.

 I think it’s time to define Indie for what it is and what it means. We can’t use the technical definition–that the band is “independent or unsigned—since recognized indie bands are signed (see Cutie, Death Cab for). No, it’s time to define Indie by its unique lyrical and musical features. In short, what makes Indie, well, Indie, is its sound.

Though there may be many qualities that define the Indie sound, I think the characteristic allure evolving in today’s Indie song is its raw and grainy imperfection mixed with vocal harmonies that challenge the over-produced and orderly smoothness of mainstream music. The Indie sound is organic and challenges mainstream’s mass-produced sound with the feeling that the song could have been recorded anywhere and could change on any given listening. Case in point? The Lumineers’ Stubborn Love produced in a bus.

In essence, the Indie sound removes the barriers between listener and producer, and puts you in the experience of the music itself.  Rather than just singing along with a song, you get the feeling that your singing along adds to the song’s musical quality. (The Lumineers’ “Stubborn Love” is one such song). In short, the essence of Indie is its open-endedness in making music a co-created experience.

Some of my favorite Indie bands that demonstrate this organic edginess:

(Note: Some of these downloads are from Noisetrade, a free download site for promoting Indie bands. I highly recommend making a donation if you like the music.)

 The Lumineers

I have already mentioned the Lumineers, and their meteoric rise in mainstream might classify them as mainstream now, but, popular or not, their raw sound is Indie perfection.  Doubtless you know “Ho Hey” already, from its constant radio presence and last year’s Bing commercial.  My personal favorite is Submarines, but the entire album is worth buying.

Free Download: The Lumineers – Ho Hey; Slow it Down via Indie Rock Cafe

The Oh Hellos

I recently discovered this brother-sister duo on Noisetrade, and have been smitten ever since. Their sound is characterized by what I call an un-edited graininess to their vocal harmonies and musical arrangements. Their music is folksie yet tribal, and every song builds to an emotional avalanche at the end. They are a must-hear. See their track “The Valley” in the free download below:

Free Download: The Oh Hellos – Through The Deep Dark Valley (Album) via Noisetrade

Of Monsters and Men

Another well-recognized band, I’ve chosen this Icelandic marvel because of quirky chants that elicit singing along (as evidenced in numerous road trips in my Indie-mobile with 4 kids). What’s more, OM&M have some of the most intriguing subject matter for their lyrical productions, including Six Weeks, which is a recount of frontiersman Hugh Glass’s 6 week ordeal after a bear attack.

Free Download: Of Monsters and Men – Lake House via Indie Rock Cafe

Great Lake Swimmers

This one comes with a minor disclaimer, that I think their newest album went too mainstream folk/bluegrass (if there is such thing) for my tastes. But their Legion Sessions is a must-own for any Indie Collection. From the lyrical genius of Sill to the haunting undertones of Stealing Tomorrow from Today, this band clearly knows how to grab you emotionally and bury you in the music.

Free Download: The Great Lake Swimmers – The Legion Sessions via NoiseTrade

Other Favorites:

Freelance Whales – Generator 1st Floor

Thad Kopec – The World Was Young 

Sooner the Sunset – All Becaue of You 

The Walkmen – We Can’t Be Beat

Deadman’s Bones – My Body’s a Zombie for You

Ivan and Alyosha – On My Way

Jenny & Tyler – Fear Thou Not, Hold on Hope

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Defining the Essence of Indie

Maybe you’re like me. Whenever I say I’m an Indie music fan, or I announce my favorite bands include Mates of State, The Great Lake Swimmers, and Freelance Whales, I am usually met with a confused expression. I have even met the occasional inculto who denounces Indie music as boring, low-fi dribble that is hardly listenable. Maybe Indie is an acquired taste, or maybe, most people just haven’t been properly educated beyond the Nick and Norah’s Playlists of Hollywood or the occasional television commercial:

Or maybe, most people have been brainwashed by the catchiness of the otherwise monotonous melodies and lyrical dribble of the so-called “radio playable” mainstream.

Of course, Indie-lovers will disagree with the mainstream mumbo jumbo that Indie is just low-fi boredom. But the problem of Indie may be even more complex for us aficionados. After all, ask 100 Indie fans what Indie is, and you’ll get 100 answers. Heck, ask one Indie fan what Indie and you’ll get 100 answers, or 100 bands, whichever comes first. Either way, none of the above helps anyone answer the question: How does one know if one is listening to Indie.

Strictly speaking, Indie music is music developed and produced by Independent artists (those either unsigned or represented by an Independent label). This definition presents a further problem: What if an Indie band is signed by a non-independent record label. Does said band thus forfeit its right to be Indie?

Of course, that’s ludicrous. So the only other answer is that there must be an Indie-ness to Indie Music—an essence that qualifies it as Indie. After all, Indie is neither Alternative Rock nor Bubble Gum Pop, but yet there is Indie Rock and Indie Pop.

Clearly, there is a need to conceptualize “Indie”. And, of course, it has to be more than whether the music was featured on the Juno Soundtrack or whether the band’s name looks like it was derived from random Wikipedia pages (i.e. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Ha Ha Tonka, and Architecture in Helsinki).

The heart of Indie may be in its rejection of the mainstream mundane, and though this has led to numerous permutations of what could be considered Indie, in this wake of musical revolution, some hallmarks of Indie may be notable, including its vocal variety, fusion of musical styles, instrumental innovation, and lyrical superiority to mainstream radio-playability.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be devoting this blog space to building a case for what constitutes Indie-ness, complete with legally FREE DOWNLOADS, which is also a hallmark of Indie. Stay tuned.