Hi-Fi Lo-Fi: 20 Years of the Best-Sounding Indie Rock

The members of Big Thief, clockwise from front: Adrianne Lenker (guitar, vocals), James Krivchenia (drums), Max Oleartchik (bass), and Buck Meek (guitar, backing vocals). Photo: Michael Buishas.

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 flatpick 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.


When the Cat Power album The Greatest came out on Matador in 2006, it opened singer/songwriter Chan Marshall's work to a new fanbase. Her previous work was often described as tortured if not deranged, but the songs on The Greatest, while still deeply sad, seem calm and organized, sporting a country flair. They also have terrific sound, thanks to the southern-soulful Memphis Rhythm Band, longing string arrangements by Harlan T. Bobo, and production by Stuart Sikes. Fogged by the gentlest of reverb, Marshall's husky voice blends beautifully with Ray Brewer's fiddle on "Empty Shell," while "After It All" features a twangy piano sound conjuring up a dimly lit Memphis bar.


Austin-based band Spoon's sixth studio foray, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007, Merge), has a happier emotional profile than Cat Power. It also represents a turning point for the band, particularly in terms of sound. The confluence of flamenco-influenced guitar strums and claps with solid rock drumming on "The Underdog" and the contrast between the main electric guitar and its muted, slightly delayed reflection on "Don't Make Me a Target" are but two examples of the sonic ingenuity of this self-produced record. "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case" is the most surprising track, with its combination of tambourine and koto.


At the start of recording sessions for their 2008 release Missiles, on Dangerbird Records, The Dears almost ceased to be. Five of the seven members walked out, leaving only the husband-and-wife founders, guitarist/singer Murray Lightburn and keyboardist Natalia Yanchak. Undeterred, they corralled a new lineup plus a dozen or so brass and string players to make their fourth album. The mix, by Roberto Arquilla, Drew Malamud, and Lightburn, focuses on rich, subtle effects like the seamless, beat-by-beat motion between instruments on the melancholy "Dream Job" or the disconcerting interplay between close-miked voice and the distant acoustic guitar on the title track.


Named after a small island near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the 2009 release Veckatimest (Warp Records), by Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear, takes the listener into the mind of singer/songwriter Ed Droste. Chris Taylor, the bass player, is also the band's producer. Co-mixing engineer Gareth Jones helped develop a densely textured soundscape. To make this record, the musicians holed up at a studio in the woodsy Catskill Mountains; the resulting sound world gives a sense of being surrounded by nature's ruthless interplay of life and death, like flowers growing from decaying logs. Droste's thin, clear tenor acts as a shaft of light through the leaves. Composer Nico Muhly contributes powerfully still arrangements for string quartet and chorus, most memorably on the album's closer, "Foreground."


The list stays in Brooklyn for The National's High Violet (2010, 4AD), the third time the band's production was assisted by Peter Katis, also mentioned above for his work with Interpol.


eugovector's picture

A very nice list. I would also offer a few treasures that have never left my rotation:

My Brightest Diamond - All Things Will Unwind (I like it, though not the critical and cultural darling of some of the other choices),

Feist - The Reminder (a keen argument for the recording space as an instrument),

Santigold - 99c (yeah, it's samples AFAIK, but expertly constructed and even the "grimey" bits sound Hi-Fi).

rschryer's picture

I wonder how long it took them to get that Bat for Lashes cover just right.

Shahram's picture

Thank you for doing this - there are some really good selections in here. One of things that pushes me away from Stereophile is the dearth of exactly this kind of music in gear reviews. You knocked it out of the park with the Grizzly Bear and Big Thief selections - these albums sounds freaking amazing on a good stereo.

I'm a massive indie music fan and audiophile, so of course I have a few opinions of my own. A mix of Folk Rock, Art Rock, and Electronic:

Wilco - A Ghost is Born (2004)
Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost (2011)
Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (2009)
Caribou - Our Love (2014)
Bill Callahan - Dream River (2013)
Four Tet - New Energy (2016)
Kevin Morby - Singing Saw (2016)
James Blake - The Color in Anything (2016)
Jonathan Wilson - Dixie Blur (2020)

stereophileuser2020's picture

Finally, an article that discusses music that's not classical, Norah Jones, Pink Floyd, or Steely Dan.

Shahram's picture

Don't forget Diana Krall...

funambulistic's picture

Grateful Dead reissue reviewed on the very next article posted after this...

Siegfried's picture

half I know and love; half I'll explore then. Just listened (once again) to Minimalist Dream House by Katia and Marielle Labèque, of classical fame, & friends and wonder if you would consider their interpretations of Eno, Suicide, Radiohead etc as fitting here or the contrary

downunderman's picture

Having done the winnowing you will also have come across great albums that are hard to listen to on an ongoing basis because of poor production/mastering choices. That is a list I would like to see also

cognoscente's picture

always nice such a list to discover good music, thanks for sharing. For those who want to discover more (literally) good sounding indie music, in no particular order:

Wildflowers by Nicolas Jaar on Sirens (deluxe edition)

Limit To Your Love by James Blake on James Blake

Lights On by FKA Twigs on LP1

xanny by Billie Eilish on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Dancing and Blood by Low on Double Negative

Not The News (Clark Remix) by Thom Yorke, Clark on Not the News Rmx EP

Paper Trails by Darkside on Psychic

Meathook by The Cure on Three Imaginary Boys [Remastered Deluxe Edition]

Loves Missing by Iggy Pop on Free

No One Knows by Queens Of The Stone Age on Songs For The Deaf

Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes on Elephant

Killing In the Name by Rage Against The Machine on Rage Against The Machine

Missiles (live) by The Sound on The Dutch Radio Recordings

Cheers, enjoy

tabs's picture

Just wanted to compliment Anne on assembling such a well-curated list. I know (and agree on!) about 2/3rds of the list, which makes me excited to try some of the others pronto. I Am a Bird Now, Haunted Man, Too Bright, these are my bread and butter. For what it’s worth, The Weather Station’s new album, Ignorance, has my vote for 2021. I can’t get enough.