Top 10 Classic Indie-Rock Records

When writing about the Pavement reformation, I used the loaded term 'classic indie-rock' a bunch. Initially, it was —like so much classic indie-rock itself— filled with with sarcasm, but over time I warmed to using it earnestly. The explosion of reissues and reformations spoke to the sainted status that once-mildly-popular LPs had accrued over time; the exaggerated disparity between The Pixies' popularity when-they-were-together vs 20-years-later speaking of alternative music's own culture of milestones and nostalgia. If the late-'60s/early-'70s delivered the landmarks of classic-rock, what else would we call those defining discs of the late-'80s/early-'90s?

01
of 10
Dinosaur Jr 'You're Living All Over Me' (1987)

Dinosaur Jr 'You're Living All Over Me' (1987)
Merge
You're Living All Over Me wasn't the first alternative record. Or, even, the first that could be considered a 'classic.' But it is a landmark in many ways: both in its own awesomeness (still sounding great to this day), and in the way it marked a subtle seachange in American alternative music. Though it was recorded for that old grand dame of hardcore, Los Angeles' SST Records, You're Living All Over Me veered radically away from the fast, loud, angry template, into realms of melancholy, harmony, and sweet charm. It was debatable whether there was even anything punk about it: J Mascis famously called his band's brand of music 'ear-bleeding country,' and he wielded his axe like an acolyte of Neil Young, not some fumbling punk amateur. The 'classic indie-rock' era had dawned...

02
of 10
Sonic Youth 'Daydream Nation' (1988)

Sonic Youth 'Daydream Nation'
Sonic Youth 'Daydream Nation'. DGC
If you're charting the changing of the musical guard, Daydream Nation is the first light of a new dawn, the first flutters that signaled a new epic. New York noiseniks Sonic Youth had, across their first five albums, slowly and steadily worked their way up from the underground, building a fervent following with unending touring. That slow growth kicked into a new gear with this mighty double-album, which was so wildly acclaimed and universally beloved that it, inevitably, caused a seismic cultural shift. That occurred after the band were wined, dined, and signed by the major-label suits at Geffen. The coolest indie band in the world 'selling out' was a sign o' the times, a landmark event that portended the alternative-rock revolution.

03
of 10
Nirvana 'Bleach' (1989)

Nirvana 'Bleach'
Nirvana 'Bleach'. Sub Pop

Call it revisionist history, but I debated whether or not to put Kurt Cobain and co on this list. After all, when Nevermind dropped in 1991, Nirvana were instantly transformed from Pacific North-west upstarts to the bona fide Biggest Band in the World. Much to the horror of alternative-music elitists, who now had to share that cool band they dug with millions of heavy-metal meatheads. But all the mall-shoppers who turned Nirvana's nasty debut, Bleach, a bizarre shade of retroactive platinum didn't do much to make this sound mainstream. Recorded on-the-cheap and suitably swift, Bleach brays, barks, and bleeds into the red. And, whilst it's a balls-to-the-wall Cobain's caustic caterwauls delivering a sarcastic, subtle critique of masculinity that, post-popularity, grew grimly ironic.

04
of 10
The Pixies 'Doolittle' (1989)

The Pixies 'Doolittle'
The Pixies 'Doolittle'. 4AD

It's the album that defines the very concept of 'classic indie-rock.' It's a one-album classic indie-rock radio-station: all hits, all the time. "Debaser," "Wave of Mutilation," "Here Comes Your Man," "Monkey Gone to Heaven," "Mr. Grieves." It's a crazy run of killer songs all stuffed on the one album; everything that made The Pixies great condensed into 38 endlessly-enjoyable, compulsively-relistenable minutes. Doolittle was beloved in its day, but it's reputation grows in leaps and bounds with every passing year; the record now in the debate for greatest-of-all-time status. When The Pixies toured Doolittle in its entirety for its 20-year anniversary, ticket-buyers went crazy, cementing its mint status in classic indie-rock's industry of nostalgia.

05
of 10
The Breeders 'Pod' (1990)

The Breeders 'Pod'
The Breeders 'Pod'. 4AD

Coming fresh off Doolittle, The Pixies were at the peak of their powers, but Kim Deal wasn't enjoying it much. The band's bassist —who'd authored their beloved single "Gigantic"— was feeling stifled by the increasingly-controlling creative environment of Black Francis's band, so she used some Pixies down-time to start her own. But rather than just some side-project lark, The Breeders were seriously good: dark, atmospheric, ragged. They quickly became their own imposing institution; feted for greatness by a young, impressionable Kurt Cobain. You could argue that Pod's successor, the platinum-selling '93 LP Last Splash, better fits the 'classic indie-rock' criteria. But Pod persists, culturally, years later, because it's the better LP.

06
of 10
Pavement 'Slanted and Enchanted' (1992)

Pavement 'Slanted and Enchanted'
Pavement 'Slanted and Enchanted'. Matador
When Pavement reformed in 2009, the internet nearly exploded: ridiculous excitement and hype heralded the band's reunion after a decade apart. For a crew whose shrugging, smirking, sarcastic slackerdom made them an uncomfortable fit for even the mild celebrity they achieved in their day, the notion of Pavement as a touring behemoth ready to make a crazy loot seemed ill-suited. But, then, there they were: headlining festivals, pleasing millions. The second time around was a ridiculous, riotous success, which feels like some sort of definitive ideal for 'classic indie-rock' acts. Slanted and Enchanted has become, in the two decades since, utterly bullet-proof: that Pitchfork 10.0 the modern-day equivalent of undeniable classic status.

07
of 10
Liz Phair 'Exile in Guyville' (1993)

Liz Phair 'Exile in Guyville'
Liz Phair 'Exile in Guyville'. Matador

The alternative music revolution was, in keeping with rock'n'roll's long-standing masculine hegemony, a boy's club. Liz Phair stood out not just due to her gender, but by way of her fearsome lyricism; which boasted, with a blue streak, of casual sexual encounters and the emotions —sometimes giddy, sometimes destructive— that came with. The Chicago-based songwriter wasn't peddling riot-grrrl agit-prop, but employing candor and confession to uncomfortable extremes, sparing no intimate details. Two decades later, Exile in Guyville's sassiness plays as cutesy and fun, but back in the day it detonated a pop-cultural blast: verses like "I just want your fresh young jimmy/Jamming, slamming, ramming in me" provocative challenges to rock orthodoxy.

08
of 10
Archers of Loaf 'Icky Mettle' (1993)

Archers of Loaf 'Icky Mettle'
Archers of Loaf 'Icky Mettle'. Merge
Archers of Loaf were never quite on the level of popularity/acclaim/cachet as any of the other band's on this list, but when they announced their reunion in 2011 after 13 years of downtime, it felt like the final domino falling into place: the classic indie-rock industry could coax any band out of retirement, and have it be both big news and brilliant idea. Listening back to Archers of Loaf's debut album with two decades of hindsight reveals that the band —who were feverishly loved by alt-rock kids back in the day— actually really were really good. Well, at least on Icky Mettle. The record rolls on the back of odd, angular, coiled-up riffs and Eric Bachmann's braying vox, but earns its keep by its brilliant, glinting melodies. And "Web in Front" is a Side 1 Track 1 hall-of-famer.

09
of 10
Superchunk 'Foolish' (1994)

Superchunk 'Foolish' (1994)
Superchunk 'Foolish' (1994). Merge
By their fourth LP, Foolish, Chapel Hill's Superchunk had already earned themselves a place at the indie-rock-heavy-hitters table. The hard-working outfit had cranked out three energetic albums driven by buzzsaw guitars and Mac MacCaughan's hoarse wail. But on Foolish, things changed a little, with more raw emotion and introspection leaking into their spiky sound, leading to their most complex and satisfying disc. MacCaughan was working through his break-up to band-mate/bassist/business-partner Laura Ballance, and doing so in song gave added depth and poignancy to Foolish. It was Superchunk's first full-length on their own home-grown label, Merge, which, over time, would release future indie-rock classics by Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Spoon, Destroyer, etc.

10
of 10
Sebadoh 'Bakesale' (1994)

Sebadoh 'Bakesale'
Sebadoh 'Bakesale'. Sub Pop

Sebadoh sarcastically satirized the very notion of 'classic indie-rock' in '91, with their, um, classic indie-rock single "Gimme Indie Rock." Lou Barlow's broadside railed at the upward mobility luring indie acts away from the underground, and was perhaps leveled at his former (and future) Dinosaur Jr leader, J Mascis, who'd freshly signed to Warner not long after booting Barlow from the band. By 1994, Barlow seemed less embittered: his once scatter-shot recording project, Sebadoh, having grown into its own definitive indie-rock act, with the brightly melodic Bakesale catching the combo in prime form. The alterna-crossover was long since old news by then; Kurt Cobain's death the end of an era. Which, with decades of hindsight, we can now call the 'classic indie-rock' era.