HI-FI LO-FI
Stereophile|October 2021
20 YEARS OF THE BEST-SOUNDING INDIE ROCK
ANNE E. JOHNSON

AS THE TITLE OF A FAN BLOG PUTS IT, INDIE IS NOT A GENRE. IT IS POTENTIALLY EVERY GENRE. IT’S AN ATTITUDE, AN APPROACH, A COMMITMENT TO SELF-EXPRESSION WITHOUT REGARD TO, OR IN SPITE OF, MAINSTREAM DEMANDS. IT’S THE BLEND THAT NOBODY CAN LABEL, THE OUTRÉ, THE AHEAD-OF-ITS-TIME, THE DEFIANTLY RETRO.

AS EMOTIONALLY SATISFYING AS THAT WIDE-RANGING DEFINITION IS, THE RECORDING OF INDIE MUSIC OFTEN PAYS THE PRICE IN SOUND QUALITY. MANY INDEPENDENT ARTISTS CAN’T AFFORD TO DO IT RIGHT, DON’T KNOW HOW, OR HAVE DECIDED THAT TOP-NOTCH PRODUCTION AND ENGINEERING REPRESENT THE ESTABLISHMENT AND THEREFORE HAVE NO PLACE IN THEIR ART.

Indie music is often not taken seriously by home audio aficionados. After all, the indie scene is the birthplace of lo-fi and bedroom pop, recordings made on someone’s home recorder, often literally in their bedroom. Yet lo-fi does not mean the sound is bad; it’s just a different idea of what music should sound like. Think of the production as another instrument, a part of the performance. And consider how easy it is to install top-quality recording equipment in one’s bedroom studio these days.

The purpose of this article is to recommend indie recordings that can be enjoyed by audiophiles. Quality of sound is not always an indicator of quality of music, or vice versa, but happily the two elements do sometimes coincide. This is not strictly an overview of the best indie music of the past two decades, but it does include some of the best indie music. The research involved was joyous. Choosing just one record to represent each year was heart-wrenching. May the results enhance your listening collection.

Welsh band Super Furry Animals started in the 1990s at the height of indie Britpop. Using cutting-edge technology to harken back to a distinctively analog 1970s prog-rock sound, Rings Around the World (2001, Epic) was famously the first album ever to include a DVD with the CD. But the real goods are in the original 20 audio tracks, produced by Chris Shaw, a pioneer with Pro Tools mixing. “‘More is more’ was the rallying cry,” lead singer Gruff Rhys once told an interviewer, but this record reaches beyond preposterous bombast. Shaw and his team built sound-sculptural tributes to disco laced with reggae on “Juxtapozed with U,” to Hollywood’s studio heyday on “Shoot Doris Day,” and to George Martin’s string experimentation for the Beatles on the sonically stunning opener, “Alternate Route to Vulcan Street.”

A notable indie listening experience need not be built from a thousand different sounds; it might instead be the result of brilliantly balancing a limited sonic palette. Interpol is a four-member band from New York. Turn on the Bright Lights (2002, Matador), their debut, acknowledged the importance of punk to the indie scene without turning out a scream-fest, tapping instead into the rich melodicism of Radiohead and REM. The record was made in the home studio of producer Peter Katis, who helps singer Paul Banks’s voice express the lonesome melancholy of the big city in “NYC” while turning up the anger in Samuel Fogarino’s pounding drums just enough on “Say Hello to the Angels.”

While it’s fair to associate indie rock with artsy introspection or punk rage, some bands have managed to create music that retains genuine independence and uniqueness while adding an element of pop. One such group is The Shins, whose second album, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop), was a standout for sound in 2003. It helps that lead singer/songwriter James Mercer has a huge pitch range and that his songs have interestingly angular melodies, but the co-production efforts by the band and Phil Ek give the classic rock quartet intense vitality. The flat pick strumming against acoustic strings that opens the album on “Kissing the Lipless” perks up the ear, as do details like a voice doubled for a single syllable and the dissolution of pianolike keyboard sounds into chimes.

2004 was a year for high-octane punk-influenced indie, like My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and Jimmy Eat World’s Futures, albums from which audio connoisseurs might reasonably fear damage to their equipment and ears. Sure, Arcade Fire’s Funeral offered richer lyricism, but its sound was not as exceptional as its songs were good. While The Libertines’ eponymous second album is hardly a bouquet of delicate spring flowers, it couches the post-punk genre in sound production thoughtful enough to earn trust from those with sensitive hearing. In other words, you can turn it down a bit and still reap the full impact. Produced by Mick Jones of the Clash, The Libertines (Rough Trade) has quieter moments: “Music When the Lights Go Out” has the lull of an Everly Brothers number contrasting phrases in a harsher minor.

The word “mystical” rarely has real meaning, but the unclassifiable music by Antony and the Johnsons on I Am a Bird Now (2005, Secretly Canadian) seems to be visiting from another plane. The liquid amber voice of Antony Hegarty, who has since changed her name to Anohni, is akin to a magical force, the sonic colors it refracts captured splendidly in this production by the singer herself. Her organ and keyboard playing plus a range of orchestral instruments bring a velvet texture to “You Are My Sister,” a duet with Boy George. Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed also appear.

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