A few years in to the new millennium, many of us were getting fed up with ossified corporate radio playlists and the hostile stupidity of the Bush years, so we took to the internet to find music that felt smart, empathic and honest. What we found was called indie rock, because whether the bands liked it or not, they were going to be primarily defined by the fact that they released music via independent labels—except that many of them, such as the Strokes and the Flaming Lips and eventually Death Cab for Cutie, actually released music through major labels, which made the genre name confusing at best, and actually pretty meaningless. But the name stuck. Almost as soon as it became a thing, there was a backlash, and by the middle of the decade, the subgenre was bigger than any of the artists had imagined—or possibly wanted. And now some of the biggest names in the genre are asking each other if the scene is dead.
No point in longing for the halcyon days of The O.C. and guitars dominating Coachella, but now we find ourselves in a situation where many of the biggest names in ‘00s-era indie rock are releasing new albums, including Dirty Projectors, the Shins, David Bazan (the man behind Pedro the Lion), Grandaddy, Tim Kasher (Cursive), Spoon, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, Minus the Bear, the New Pornographers, Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. How are we supposed to view this mini-resurgence?
Moments end. That’s why they are so special while they’re happening. And though most of the big indie acts of the '00s (give or take California bummer-pop kings Grandaddy, whose album Last Place came out early this month) never really went away, at some point the shine started to fade. Detractors complained that these bands never really rocked hard enough and could get a bit (or a lot) too “NPR dad mode.” A decade ended and fans grew up, got into their careers and didn’t quite live and breathe this stuff anymore, and the next generation was more into pop and rap. No one wants to like what their older brother liked.
When the wave crests, an artist has two main options: Adjust with the times (the U2 approach) or stay the course, naysayers and trends be damned (the Pearl Jam approach). Based on the new albums that rulers of '00s indie have released, most of the artists, or at least the six we check out below, chose a path somewhere in the middle of the two positions: adjust just enough to stay fresh, but don’t do anything too radical. It turns out to be the smart choice.
Most of these artists are following the lead of Spoon, who by their fourth album, Kill the Moonlight, had mastered the art of subtly reinventing themselves so that they are always sounded like the Spoon we know and love, but are also just different enough to keep things interesting. Sometimes the Austin band sounded ragged and minimal, other wiry and tense, and on their new single “Hot Thoughts,” they’re more synth-drunk and in love with negative space than they’ve ever allowed themselves to be; it’s not a drastic change, but it’s yet another new shade for them.
For his third (and best) solo album We All Want the Same Things, Hold Steady leader Craig Finn has abandoned the stripped down, lyrics-first approach of his previous sidework, and has given himself permission to make an album as large-sounding as his primary band; there’s meatier guitars and stacks of wheezing keyboards, with one song (“Birds Trapped in the Airport) even sounding like a Postal Service collaboration—a truly unexpected look for classic-rock acolyte Finn.
Conor Oberst has struggled to find his footing since the days when Bright Eyes unexpectedly landed on the Billboard Top Singles charts, often burying strong songs under layers of fussy production, and his 2014 solo album Upside Down Mountain edged scarily close to Adult Contemporary. He seemed to reset himself with last year’s barebones stunner Ruminations, and with the companion album Salutations (which features full-band recordings of the acoustic Ruminations, plus a few addition songs), he’s found the right balance of giving his insightful songwriting some muscle without losing the intimacy that first made fans fall for him.
One of the most surprising albums out this Spring is The Tourist by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a group notorious for blowing up during the height of the indie blog boom years, only to face near immediate backlash. Like fellow blog-rock survivors Los Campesinos!, who also have a strong new album, Sick Scenes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sound weathered and confident a decade later, but have managed to hold onto their knack for playful melodies and candy-coated keyboard lines.
As always, classic overachiever David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors has worked the hardest of his peers to differentiate himself. Following the end of his romantic relationship with former bandmate Amber Coffman, Longstreth disbanded the lineup that made their 2009 mainstream breakthrough Bitte Orca, recording his self-titled new album by himself and a rotating door of collaborators. Heavy on the ghostly vocal samples and discordant, forlorn arrangements, it’s a break-up album that often plays like the Weeknd for conservatory students.
But the most unexpected reinvention comes courtesy of the Shins, which has basically just been songwriter James Mercer for the past several years. The scene in Garden State wherein Natalie Portman played Zach Braff the Shins’ "New Slang” helped cement the indie-rock boom, and also threatened to turn Mercer’s project into a punch line, an easy target for those who found his wistful songwriting a bit too precious and self-congratulatory. Though he’ll always be a wallflower at heart, with the fifth album Heartworms, Mercer demonstrates an unexpected taste for widescreen pop, psychedelic guitar-rock riffs and danceable grooves on songs such as “Painting A Hole.” Sure, this will sound good at the coffee shop, but some of this might actually make a party playlist.
None of these albums will trick you into thinking it’s 2007 all over again, and the young turks are one more soundtrack placement away from toppling the old order once and for all. But the best releases embrace the knowledge that time has passed, and that’s fine. There’s an easy, earned confidence that comes from realizing that you managed to stick around, and you can just make music for the fans that also stuck around while someone else has to worry about being the voice of a generation. Free from the pressure to seize a cultural moment you didn’t ask for, these artists are now free to just do what they want, which is why people liked them in the first place.