While not describing a specific sound, exactly (though you'll hear a lot of fuzzy electric guitars), the subgenres that make up "indie rock" exist as a sort of parallel universe to the mainstream "alternative rock" that grew out of the early-'90s grunge explosion. An extension of the punk DIY ethos, what we generally refer to as indie rock developed in the late 1980s from the same musical influences that produced college radio playlists (R.E.M., XTC, The Smiths, Violent Femmes, The Cure, etc.). Despite being an amorphous jumble of (mostly) North American bands with weird names, there are nonetheless identifiable artists, albums, and record labels that give shape to this vibrant corner of music history.
Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997)
A perfect example of the kind of genre-hopping you'll find within indie rock bands, Yo La Tengo run the gamut from screechy avant-noise pop to jaunty little bossa nova tunes. The brilliant music video for "Sugarcube" functions as an indie rock manifesto (as well as an introduction to the alternative comedy then being pioneered by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of Mr. Show).
Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
Perhaps considered the Godfathers of indie rock, Pavement helped cut a divide between bigger alternative rock bands such as Smashing Pumpkins (see the lyrics to "Range Life") and this thing we call indie rock. Leader Stephen Malkmus delivers ascerbic lyrics in his sing-song voice through somewhat twisted song structures. Warning: does contain some cowbell.
Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand (1994)
With its ramshackle, tinny quality, this record is the very definition of lo-fi, but dig through the noise and you'll uncover the perfect pop melodies of "Tractor Rape Chain," "Echos Myron," "Gold Star for Robot Boy," and "Queen of Cans and Jars." Stick around for the acoustic beauty "Peep-Hole." Also recommended: the polished Isolation Drills, with Robert Pollard leading a completely different, heavier band.
Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (2006)
Once the very definition of "twee" (the band started as a college project and is named after a French children's book), this group of Scots diversified as the years went on, as evidenced by the variety of influences on their seventh record: glam, funk, swinging '60s pop, and more, with a sense of fun overriding the arch melancholy of their earlier albums.
The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic (2000)
Though they've released a string of strong records, this Canadian indie supergroup's debut is a great place to start. Featuring three heavyweight singer-songwriters in A.C. Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar, they belt out consistently catchy, power pop influenced, would-be hits such as "Letter from an Occupant," with enough complexity to keep the listener engaged upon repeat plays.
Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra, 1996)
This international group (featuring British, French, and American members) threw together a fascinating blend of guitars, vintage analog synths, strings, horns, and exotic percussion for this record, featuring their unusual blend of Krautrock and lounge influences along with occasionally Marxist lyrics. What else could you possibly want in a single album?
Built to Spill: Perfect from Now On (Warner Bros., 1997)
Making their major label debut after two independent releases, Doug Martsch & Co. crafted a dense, Guitar Hero-worthy record of long, meandering songs. Martsch's somewhat nasal, whiny voice and wall-of-noise approach had no place on the Billboard charts when the closest thing to rock at the time was Third Eye Blind.
The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros., 1999)
The Lips' masterful Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) was overlooked in the wake of the unlikely success of their novelty hit "She Don't Use Jelly," but they probably reached their apex with this slightly more serious album. The pseudo-orchestral bombast of opening tracks "Race for the Prize" and "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" announced a new direction for the band, long before they devolved into Miley Cyrus collaborators.
Modest Mouse: The Moon & Antarctica (Epic, 2000)
Modest Mouse are an odd duck. Somehow they had a massive hit with the infectious "Float On," but for the most part their music consists of Isaac Brock's quirky shout-singing over an unconventional tangle of boinging guitar sounds. They were picked up by the majors after their fine second record, and while this one sounds less rough around the edges, none of their character was lost.
Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch, 2007)
Born from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo (along with Son Volt), Wilco started life as the standard-bearers of alternative country rock before branching out in other, more exploratory directions. Sky Blue Sky finds a very different band at work, from the dueling guitar jam of Jeff Tweedy and new member Nels Cline on "Impossible Germany" to the relaxed domesticity of "Hate It Here."
Superchunk: Majesty Shredding (2010)
Members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance started this independent record label in 1989. Though better known for their earlier, punk-fueled classics like No Pocky For Kitty, this album finds the band rejuvenated after a nine year hiatus, launching into high-energy anthems "Digging for Something," "Crossed Wires," and "Learned to Surf," along with relaxed, introspective tunes like "Rosemarie."
The Magnetic Fields: Charm of the Highway Strip (1994)
Stephin Merritt does country, sort of, in this masterpiece of the unexpected. Imagine Johnny Cash fronting a synthpop band awash in reverb and you're only starting to get the idea. The clever wordplay feels more original than on his more blatantly Tin Pan Alley-inspired later work (check out the magnum opus 69 Love Songs for that and more).
Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
Taking folk rock in a bold new direction, leader Jeff Mangum's ragged voice soars over a sea of churning guitar, trumpet, singing saw, and other assorted oddities. Deeply emotional despite the psychedelic trappings. Though they only made two records, NMH has been touring in recent years, and are the standard-bearers of the eclectic Elephant 6 collective, along with the far more prolific Of Montreal.
Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
Spoon always seem to me like a bigger band than they are, but despite flirting briefly with Elektra in 1998 and occasionally popping up on film and TV soundtracks, they've spent most of their career on Merge. Led by Texas heartthrob Britt Daniel, and propelled by the thunderous drumming of Jim Eno, this record captures their sound as well as any, with standouts like the Motown-inspired "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb."
Sleater-Kinney: Call the Doctor (Chainsaw, 1996)
Following in the footsteps of Bikini Kill, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein unleashed a salvo of high-energy feminist punk rock, encapsulated in "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," and offset by the occasional moment of quiet beauty ("Good Things"). Check out the great documentary The Punk Singer for more about the riot grrrl movement, a vital blend of art and activism.
Tortoise: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey, 1996)
Take the more experimental moments from the Stereolab and Yo La Tengo albums and stretch them out to album-length instrumentals: there you will find the Tortoise. Somehow incorporating the composition structures and instrumentation of Steve Reich into rock and electronica, this band from Chicago define "post-rock," a subgenre that is closer to avant-garde jazz than traditional rock/punk/pop.
Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It In People (Arts & Crafts, 2002)
Featuring members of Stars and Metric (with help from Feist), BSS are another Canadian supergroup of sorts (they prefer "collective"), led by multi-instrumentalists Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew. Arrangements are dense with different layers and textures, the vocals mumbled or obscured by effects, resulting in songs suggestive of certain feelings rather than directly communicated ideas.
The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop, 2001)
The first time I heard this record I thought I was listening to The Zombies, only to find it was a new band on Sub Pop, the indie label that hit it big with Nirvana a decade prior. Zach Braff and Natalie Portman would help The Shins reach a much bigger audience, but before that they were simply a group making lovely, '60s throwback pop music with guitars and shimmering keyboards.
Death Cab for Cutie: Transatlanticism (Barsuk, 2003)
Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, Death Cab gained momentum with this, their fourth LP. From the epic, cautiously-celebratory "The New Year" to the more introspective "Title and Registration" and stomp-clap rhythm of "The Sound of Settling," Ben Gibbard & Co. showcase their cinematic storytelling with songs that offer a glimpse into the band's emo roots. See also: The Postal Service.
Archers of Loaf: Icky Mettle (Alias, 1993)
Full disclosure: "Web in Front" is one of my favorite songs of all time, and I have no idea what any of the words mean, but I dare you not to sing/chant/shout along. Eric Bachmann brings passion (and volume) to this collection of crunchy indie rock songs, which was reissued by Merge in 2011 with a bonus disc of singles.