The Incremental Evolution of Indie Rock

Like R&B, indie rock is a genre whose current iteration bears zero aesthetic relation to its original incarnation. In fact, indie rock holds the rare distinction of being perhaps the only genre that has gradually mutated into the complete ideological inverse of everything it once stood for, while still retaining its name. As an alternately tuneful and experimental offshoot of hardcore, indie rock began as a fuzz-blasted assault on both the sleek veneer and materialist values of glossy ’80s mainstream pop, but these days, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between modern indie rock and the smooth sounds emanating from your parents’ favorite Lite-FM station. So how the hell did we get from the circle-pit fury of Black Flag to the artful adult-contemporary pop of Bon Iver? This playlist attempts to chart a linear, song-by-song course through three and a half decades of knotty aesthetic evolutions.

Each track here is a link in a chain, one that built upon the innovations of its immediate predecessor and subtly pushed the ball forward into new directions. The leap from the snow-blind squall of early Dinosaur Jr. to the delicate pop of Elliott Smith isn’t quite so dramatic when you consider the ways Pavement, Sebadoh, and Guided by Voices squeezed melody from noise in the interim. And likewise, the chasm between the orchestral pomp of Arcade Fire and the gleaming synth-pop of M83 seems less daunting when you look at how bands like Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors melted down indie rock’s molecular structure with digital textures and R&B beats.

These days, the term “indie rock” has effectively been rendered meaningless on both a musical and philosophical level, given that once-rigid aesthetic divisions have dissolved and every artist on the totem pole is now a slave to streaming stats. So let this playlist serve as a lifeline and anchor to an era when a band could really be your life, and not just an algorithm-generated background soundtrack to one.