An Attempt at Defining Indie Music in the 2010s

Grimes. Photo: Scott Dudelson/WireImage

As the 2010s come to a close, the importance of the trajectory of indie music in the 2000s has become increasingly clear and undeniable. The decade served as a bridge-gap between the late-’80s-to-late-’90s era in which “indie” was “indie rock” — connoting both a business ethos and a predominantly guitar-based sound — and the catchall lifestyle music of the 2010s, a decade in which the “rock” element was slowly sheared away and “indie” as a genre designator took on a sonically broad application, often used to define music being released through labels and methods miles away from the DIY of indie’s early days.

Sitting firmly in the middle of those two eras is the 2000s, a decade in which the rock side of indie was still flourishing while other sounds and subgenres were taking hold in indie’s DNA. This period of in-between sea change was a byproduct of the nebulous and increasingly marketing-focused indie culture that was forming, a result of a variety of factors ranging from the proliferation of tastemaking mp3 blogs and buzzy teen-drama TV syncs to the gradual emergence of festival culture (the latter element essentially being exported from the U.K., the music rags of which having long adopted “indie” as a sonic catchall years before the term’s eventual American meaninglessness). Four particular years from the 2000s stand out as indicative of the changes taking place that would form the shape of indie to come.

There was the “new rock” explosion of 2001, a fast and furious post-9/11 guitar-fest which elevated classically retro luminaries like the White Stripes, the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol along with decade-defining luminaries like the Shins, Spoon, and Death Cab for Cutie; after six years of six-stringed reveries, 2007 marked the next turning point in indie’s decadelong evolution, with landmark releases by Panda Bear, LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A., Dan Deacon, Of Montreal, and Animal Collective that reflected the gradual and global genre-splice that indie was increasingly resembling. Along with the instant-classic debut from clever, style-hopping fabulists Vampire Weekend, the following year represented the peak of bloghouse, a once-derided but increasingly prescient party-dependent flood of electronic pop and dance music that gave indie kids something to do at shows besides stand still with their arms crossed — and then there was 2009, a high-profile graduation of sorts for some of the decade’s biggest indie artists (Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors) that cemented them as the genre’s practical equivalent of stadium acts.

What makes these four years of paradigm shifting all the more remarkable in their occurrence was the fact that it was easy to recognize almost all of these shifts as they were taking place. But even with the hindsight that typically accompanies the end of a decade, it’s nearly impossible to identify a single year from the 2010s that’s had a similar impact — a 12-month span claiming a spate of indie-centric releases arriving with serendipitous simultaneousness as its own, offering some sort of general definition as to what the increasingly undefined genre represents in terms of sonic trends. Rather than being the decade when indie lost its way, the 2010s will likely be looked back upon as the decade when indie was simply everywhere — a market-driven ubiquitousness featuring stars of varying sizes working in myriad subgenres, hopping in and out of mainstream pop’s lens when it suits them.

This isn’t to say that 2010s indie hasn’t had its own paradigm shifts — they’ve simply been untethered to any sort of temporal definition, a reflection of the endless-scroll feeling that streaming services and small-font festival-bill placements alike have imbued upon modern-day tastemaking and curation. After making small waves in the still-hermetic world of dance music with a string of abstract EPs, James Blake released his landmark self-titled debut LP in 2011, an alluring blend of electronic textures and straightforward songwriting that created a legion of imitators and, aided by his work on pop albums from heavy hitters like Beyoncé and Travis Scott, eventually cemented him as one of the decade’s most quietly influential musicians. Many early practitioners behind the electronic-pop subgenre of chillwave — which rose to prominence in the early months of 2010 — didn’t stick around long enough to leave a lasting legacy, but its faded-Polaroid aesthetic and reflections on millennial burnout still reverberate through indie’s ecosystem to this day.

Some of the decade’s defining indie-orbiting artists took years to deliver on the promise they initially hinted at, speaking to the general truth that the decade’s always-be-curating A&R approach made for fewer moments of collective full realization and more staggered developmental periods. After a wave of punishing hype, Odd Future — as gap-bridging of an act as there was in 2010s indie’s anything-goes days — spent much of the decade’s first half releasing subpar side projects further dampened by the shock-jock approach of their early years; after “breaking up” in 2015, the crew’s members have since become critically beloved artists in their own rights, even the once-abrasive, now-mellowed aggression of Tyler, the Creator. And that’s not even taking into account the career of Frank Ocean, an early Odd Future expat who’s become the practical mind, body, soul, and spirit of all millennial emotional concerns.

Electronic troublemakers PC Music caused a great deal of publicity-generating noise and not much else during their initial introduction around 2014; five years later, they’ve had a hand in some of the strongest work from pop-leaning indie alchemist Charli XCX and count one of the most fascinating experimental artists of the moment, Sophie, in their ranks. Spectral pop icon Lana Del Rey similarly survived alternating avalanches of buzz and bashing, with a chronologically upward-in-quality discography that reflects her current and hard-won critical-darling status; indie enfant terrible Grimes technically had two watershed moments, 2012’s Visions and Art Angels from 2015, neither of which were accompanied by scene-or-sound-adjacent artists that left a lasting memory.

The sensation that accompanied the release of Visions gestured toward the non-male and (Grimes excepted) nonwhite voices rising to greater prominence in indie, after what was practically decades of what amounted to noncoverage by music publications — a progressive movement encouraged by the social empathy of Obama-era America that remains owned by no particular year and is still ongoing. Purely on a musical level, synth-pop and other associated sounds of the ‘80s continued to ebb and flow through indie’s figurative and literal streams — from the sky-scraping music of Chvrches to Haim’s cool-handed soft-rock approach — as well as various strains of ’90s indie and alt-rock being rediscovered and faithfully recreated by younger generations. These are trends that were long in development pre-2010s and, for better or for worse, will seemingly be here to stay for eternity.

Part of 2010s indie’s resistance against neat, year-specific categorization can be owed to how we consume music — which underwent social and technological sea changes throughout the decade nearly unmatched by any other. The very nature of scenes and collectives became more diffuse as the myriad abilities to connect online developed; the gradual and continuing de-emphasis of the album as format — a decades-long happening that’s moved at a snail’s pace but has moved nonetheless — also plays a role, given that canonical years of indie’s past have been largely anointed as such due to albums released during that time.

This non-phenomenon phenomenon also occurred because of iconoclastic competition from the big leagues — I’m talking real-deal, mad-money pop music, which experienced a creative renaissance over the past decade and crossed over to previously cooler-than-thou listeners in a way that it simply hadn’t in the ’90s and 2000s. For its part, pop can count at least two years representing peak achievements and cultural time-stopping moments: 2013 saw the release of Chance the Rapper’s endearing, emotive Acid Rap (a record he arguably still hasn’t topped), the smeared-lens hip-hop of Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, Beyoncé’s industry-imploding surprise self-titled masterpiece, and Kanye West’s nasty and exhilarating Yeezus.

2016 represented a similarly game-changing moment for black pop at large; along with similarly indelible follow-ups from West (The Life of Pablo), Chance (Coloring Book), and Beyoncé (Lemonade), Rihanna delivered her most cohesive artistic statement to date with the stoned, vibe-y Anti, Solange’s A Seat at the Table represented a huge artistic leap forward and was accompanied by an instantly iconic stage show, while Frank Ocean’s long-awaited Blonde pulled off one of the decade’s most impressive about-faces by turning away from the lushness of his previous work with monastic, complex music that at times resembled late art-pop legend Arthur Russell.

You might notice that I previously mentioned Ocean in the context of indie. Even though his contemporaries vary in terms of their own ability to boundary-hop between big-stage pop and indie’s increasingly not-so-small-stage confines, his straddling is indicative of the borderless-ness that the streaming generation’s listening habits have engendered — and that genre-porousness may lay claim to the biggest factor in 2010s indie’s anno-resistant nature. How can it be possible to categorize anything if we’re still in the process of dismantling and reassembling the categories themselves?

An Attempt at Defining Indie Music in the 2010s