The 100 Most Underrated Indie Rock Songs

These indie rock songs deserve more love.

cory-jonesby cory-jones

This list was written with John Sellers. He wrote a book about indie rock.

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There’s a lot of things in this world that we don’t understand. For instance, why the world loves Black-Eyed Peas, but yet 95% of the public has never heard of 95% of the bands on this list. In an effort to change that, we wanted to point out some songs that deserved more. All 100 of these songs are awesome. And all 100 of these bands need to be more popular.

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100. “Magnet’s Coil” (1994)
Sometimes I’ll hear a song and gush, “That’s going to be a massive hit.” I’m still saying that about “Magnet’s Coil,” arguably the catchiest two-and-half minutes of prolific Dinosaur Jr. bassist and Sebadoh head honcho Lou Barlow’s wonderful life. And I’ll probably be saying it forever, because it’s not like songs from 1994 chart very often these days.

99. “Everybody’s Down” (2007)
No Age
Is it too early to anoint a 2007 song a classic? And is there any special equipment required to anoint stuff? Frankincense? Myrrh? I have no clue. Suffice to say, No Age is hereby doused in some sort of holy liquid for giving us the lo-fi blood-letter “Everybody’s Down.”

98. “Rave Down” (1991)
Few music magazine boners have been more bonerific than SPIN’s decision to put Teenage Fanclub’s awesome Bandwagonesque at the top of its “20 Best Albums of 1991” list, ahead of even awesomer LPs by Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, Pixies and a few others. Possibly an even bigger boner: The list completely snubbed Swervedriver’s unheralded debut, Raise – containing this raucous shoegaze classic – yet ranked an album by P.M. Dawn at number ten. (The word “boner” is fun, by the way. Try it!)

97. “Helicon 1” (1997)
I can’t rightly say whether the hypnotic instrumentals originating from the direction of the Scottish crew Mogwai sound more transcendent when heard under the influence of weed. But I can tell you that the tsunami of sound that blasts my face at precisely 2:54 into “Helicon 1” gives me the munchies.

96. “Made of Stone” (1989)
The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses are huge in the UK. But, immediately after Coachella organizers announced the festival’s 2013 headliners, American youngsters flooded Twitter streams everywhere with, essentially, “Who the fuck are the Stone Roses?” “Made of Stone,” from the re-united Manchester group’s seminal self-titled debut, is one answer to that perplexing question.

95. “Skip Tracer” (1995)
Sonic Youth
On the list of musical third bananas, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo ranks somewhere behind George Harrison and ahead of Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich. But we’re giving him center stage here for his spoken-word contribution to SY’s Washing Machine, which contains the impressive lyric, “We watched her fall over and lay down/Shouting the poetic truths of high school journal keepers.”

94. “Brassneck” (1989)
The Wedding Present
I may not know what the word “brassneck” means, but I’m pretty certain that “Brassneck” can be defined as “a song that I just listened to 37 times in succession because it is fucking amazing.”

93. “Mexicola” (1998)
Queens of the Stone Age
Quibble, if you must, with our inclusion of stoner rock on a list celebrating indie rock, but we suggest you listen to this grungy behemoth at top volume until you’ve sufficiently chilled out enough to realize that you forgot to thank us for putting a Josh Homme gem on this list.

92. “Cath Carroll” (1993)
Theory that probably doesn’t track: “Cath Carroll” is to Unrest as “Alex Chilton” is to the Replacements. Regardless, the British music critic and post-punk singer Cath Carroll is now a friend of mine, even though I’ve only met her via the stalker-y lyrics of this sprightly homage by Unrest’s Mark Robinson, who totally deserves a stalker tribute of his own.

91. “Color Me Impressed” (1983)
The Replacements
Speaking of the Replacements, here’s an unassailable tune by the Replacements. No, it’s not the anthemic “Alex Chilton,” which certainly doesn’t help my precious Unrest theory, but “Color Me Impressed” will need all the support it can get when I finally get around to launching the campaign to make it the mayor of Minneapolis.

90. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” (1972)
Big Star
And speaking of Alex Chilton, the Big Star big dog, who sadly passed away in 2010 at age 59, shall receive a spot of his own on this list by virtue of being the de facto grand poobah of indie rock. A tellingly indie factoid about Big Star: Despite its aspirational title, the band’s dazzling debut album, #1 Record, sold fewer than 10,000 copies upon initial release. Everyone’s familiar now with “In the Street,” thanks to That ’70s Show, but pretty much every track Chilton and friends ever recorded will kick your ass, especially this power-pop classic that maybe ten people have ever talked about.

89. “Happy” (2003)
The Wrens
Every now and then, I like to imagine the conversation that might have occurred when producers from NBC’s sad-sack 2008 Knight Rider revamp approached the Wrens to ask for permission to use the stand-out track from the New Jersey’s group’s oft-forgotten Aughts classic Meadowlands. The Wrens: “Wait, David Hasselhoff’s not even in it?” Knight Rider producers: “No, he isn’t, if you can even believe it. But, hey, Val Kilmer is doing the voice of KITT.” The Wrens: “Sold.”

88. “Raisans” (1987)
Dinosaur Jr.
Two facts about this bodacious deep cut from You’re Living All Over Me, Dinosaur Jr.’s most enduringly perfect album: 1. “Raisans” is not how you spell “raisins.” 2. “Raisans” will be played at my funeral if I ever die.

87. “Quicksand” (1996)
Someone needs to create a graph charting the intersection of bands that have been signed to the Matador Records label and bands that have recorded with Steve Albini. Chief among bands that fall into both camps is Silkworm, a massively undervalued and tragically defunct Chicagoland band that was partial to boozy lyrics and killer riffs. I mean, just listen to this goddamn song.

86. “Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead” (2003)
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
And while you’re at it, also tell Balgeary that guitar god Ted Leo should be a lot more famous, in part because of how superbly the dude shreds.

85. “Seed Toss” (1991)
Here’s one of those Keanu Reeves conspiracy theories for you to chew on: What if the eternally underrated North Carolina band responsible for this epically underrated track off the ridiculously underrated 1991 album No Pocky for Kitty had elected to call itself Underrated instead of Superchunk, thereby making the group both underrated and Underrated?

84. “Broke” (1996)
Modest Mouse
Admittedly, Modest Mouse’s debut single isn’t hugely underrated in the great scheme of things, thanks to the Washington band’s ascendency circa the cross-over 2004 hit “Float On.” But considering that a song as easy on the ears as “Broke” would have been number one for 50 weeks in a row in a world where any of us had any brains, we’ll go ahead and include it anyhow.

83. “So Far Gone” (1991)
Teenage Fanclub
Released on a merely above average EP in that brief window between Teenage Fanclub’s twin towers of 1990’s A Catholic Education and 1992’s Bandwagonesque, “So Far Gone” may seem to be easy to overlook. Not so. It’s called a playlist, -look into it. [Note: This is currently not on Spotify. Click the link to watch it on Youtube.]

82. “Time Machines” (1999)
Lexo and the Leapers
For every song that Bob Pollard has released over the years with Guided By Voices, as a solo artist, and in countless side projects, he’s probably done two of his signature leg kicks. If you’ve never witnessed Pollard in action, “Time Machines,” from the ultra obscure one-off Lexo and the Leapers experiment, is basically the sonic equivalent of one of those thousands of leg kicks. It is also an extremely good song.

81. “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate” (1982)
Mission of Burma
I haven’t done any research or anything, but I’m pretty sure that this post-punk smackdown by the hugely influential (and predictably under-appreciated) Massachusetts band Mission of Burma is the best song to namecheck Tulsa in its lyrics.

80. “Magic Bumrush Heartz” (2008)
The Library Is on Fire
Forgive this analogy if you’re an actual meth addict, but here’s hoping that this Nirvana-infused bong hit will be your gateway drug into the irresistible meth habit that is the DIY oeuvre of the Brooklyn power trio The Library Is on Fire.

79. “Staples” (1992)
Buffalo Tom
The awesomeness of this early-’90s alt-rock staple (pun intended!) needs no explanation. Somehow it seems more useful to mention that Buffalo Tom is one of Jon Stewart’s favorite bands.

78. “Falling Away” (2001)
Preston School of Industry
All-too-brief Pavement reunion aside, Stephen Malkmus has received far more attention than his former bandmates since the Matador group’s 1999 breakup. This is in no way surprising. But put “Falling Away” in your pipe and smoke it, as it’s one of the best songs ever written by Pavement second fiddle Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg. [Note: This song is currently not on Spotify. Click the link to watch it on Youtube.]

77. “Carry the Zero” (1999)
Built to Spill
Regardless of whether it’s true or not that “Carry the Zero” is the most underrated song of all time – and something this legitimately epic has to at least be in that conversation – I’d be stupid if I didn’t use this space to point out how effective math humor can be when composing lyrics.

76. “Church on White” (2001)
Stephen Malkmus
There are days when I’d willingly take the position that this reflective, riff-filled highlight from Malkmus’s first post-Pavement album ranks among his five greatest tracks ever. And then there are others when “Church on White” wouldn’t crack the top 50. The guy has written way too many amazing songs.

75. “Manta Ray” (1989)
The Pixies
Back when this Doolittle-worthy track was relegated to the flip side of the “Monkey Gone to Heaven” single, college kids who didn’t have the spending money to burn on every single interesting release coming down the pike faced significant challenges if they wanted to dive more deeply into a band’s catalog. I was one of those clowns, so please pity me for two seconds, and then head over to YouTube to give this formerly black-market B-side an immediate listen.

74. “Monkeys” (1980)
Echo & the Bunnymen
Not that it will affect your enjoyment of this stand-out track from Echo and the Bunnymen’s debut album, Crocodiles, but you’re listening to what may well be the second-best song with monkey in its title, after “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (our insincerest apologies to Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, et al.).

73. “Dennis and Lois” (1990)
Happy Mondays
Pure speculation here, but I’m thinking Dennis and Lois may have been the names of 24 Hour Party People subject and Happy Mondays mucky-muck Shaun Ryder’s horny pet turtles.

72. “Slice of Life” (1983)
Behold, one of the handful of Bauhaus tracks not featuring Peter Murphy’s unmistakably haunting vocals. Perhaps he was practicing hanging upside down like a bat while the other guys cranked this bad-ass tune out.

71. “The Queen of Eyes” (1980)
The Soft Boys
The prettiest tune on Robyn Hitchcock’s old band’s cult classic Underwater Moonlight, “TQOE” is roughtly two minutes of Byrds-y jangle and harmony – until you realize that the lyrical object of Hitchcock’s affection, described as having “a carapace shell and black lace thighs,” wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie.

70. “Tom Boy” (1992)
Bettie Serveert
Unless Van Halen qualifies, I am pretty sure Bettie Serveert is the best Dutch band ever. But even if the former Matador recording artists faced serious competition for that crown from groups not abbreviated VH, the bold chords and hummable verses that propel “Tom Boy” through time and space would surely help them carry the day.

69. “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” (1996)
Neutral Milk Hotel
Although this song is sad and beautiful and all, it’s most notable for introducing us to the slang term “gardenhead,” which is akin to “pothead,” only regarding someone who does a variety of drugs instead of just marijuana.

68. “Plants and Rags” (1992)
PJ Harvey
An early Polly Jean Harvey entry in the Most Depressing Song of All Time sweepstakes, the folkish “Plants and Rags” stands apart from the more bombastic work she was doing at the outset of her career. Yet, somehow, it still rocks as hard as nearly any song in her canon.

67. “The Dog-End of a Day Gone By” (1985)
Love and Rockets
Roughly every 37 days, I find myself wondering when this ethereal, reverb-laden track from Love and Rockets’ debut album will turn up on a Sofia Coppola soundtrack.

66. “What’s the World” (1983)
In the States, James is known as the one-hit wonder behind the alternative chart-topper “Laid.” But the band’s sizable UK success traces all the way back to this debut single about the perils of the music industry, a song that one-time tourmates the Smiths quickly made their own.

65. “Can’t Be Sure” (1989)
The Sundays
The very first single from the outfit fronted by wistful, chipmunk-cheeked Harriet Wheeler may have been eclipsed by the chart success of its painfully lovely follow-up, “Here’s Where the Story Ends.” But this one is better.

64. “Feather of Forgiveness” (1996)
Don’t bother trying to figure out whether the angular, super-sonic riffs produced by the North Carolina eccentrics on this track fall into the “math rock” category. It will hurt your head far less to simply crank up the volume and enjoy.

63. “My Slow Descent into Alcoholism” (2000)
The New Pornographers
Any song bearing this title would warrant a listen, even if it were a song by Warrant. But proof that the New Pornographers elevate this Canandian corker beyond its funny name can be found in the intense urge to guzzle mass quantities of Labatt while listening to it.

62. “Sound of Music (Peel Session)” (1979)
Joy Division
Rest assured, this lumbering, sinister guitar party that also perfectly encapsulates Ian Curtis’s lyrical and vocal chops has nothing to do with Julie Andrews.

61. “Silent Places” (2006)
Baby Dayliner
One day, I hope to solve the mystery surrounding the general populace’s near-shunning of Baby Dayliner. The investigation will center on why “Silent Places” never went viral. Star witness: Entourage‘s Adrian Grenier, who makes a cameo in the song’s video.

60. “Harold and Joe” (1990)
The Cure
So, the only thing that allowed me to get over the trauma of having seen the Information Society in concert that one time was playing this chill “Never Enough” B-side on a loop on the drive back from the venue. [For some reason I can’t find this on Spotify. Click the link to watch it on YouTube.]

59. “Turn It On” (1994)
Flaming Lips
Before they became irretrievably offbeat, Wayne Coyne and crew were more prone to throwing down, as demonstrated on this crunch-tacular tune from the same album that brought you “She Don’t Use Jelly.”

58. “Hairstyle of a Smug Bastard” (1998)
The Beatnik Filmstars
Congratulations to Beatnik Filmstars, a prolific British band so obscure that this one-minute burst of GBV-style sweetness is the only member of our Underrated 100 whose fans haven’t gotten around to uploading it to YouTube.

57. “Lonesome Tonight” (1984)
New Order
For those of us who got into New Order via Joy Division, the songs on which Bernard Sumner jams out on his guitar tend to have the best staying power. And he totally jams out on this buried treasure found on the second disc of the Substance compilation, if “jams out” can be applied to a New Order song.

56. “Narrow Your Eyes” (1992)
They Might Be Giants
They Might Be Giants have a well-deserved reputation for writing “funny” songs. But their catalog is also full of songs that have heaps of sadness to them. “Narrow Your Eyes” is one of those songs.

55. “Psychic Hearts” (1995)
Thurston Moore
If indie rock had a TV show, this would be the theme song. Thurston’s entire solo album (of the same name) is so vastly underrated that a good number of Sonic Youth fans haven’t discovered it yet. Your marching orders are to listen to it if you haven’t heard it.

54. “Ocean Breathes Salty” (2007)
Sun Kil Moon
Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek has a knack for taking very good songs and turning them on their head. Without falling into the lazy cliché of saying he makes them better, he rearranges them, adds his very awesome voice to make you think completely differently about the original. And that’s exactly what he did with Modest Mouse’s fast-paced “Ocean Breathes Salty.”

53. “Bathtub” (2012)
There’s never been a song that better illustrates how cruel we are to the people who have crushes on us (if we don’t have a crush on them back.) We’re not bad because of it – it’s just who we are.

52. “Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl” (2003)
Xiu Xiu
I once interviewed Jamie Stewart, the creative force behind Xiu Xiu and he said, “You either really, really love Xiu Xiu, or you really, really hate Xiu Xiu.” And he was right. But if more people heard this song, I’m guessing he’d have a few more of the former fans (and maybe even a few more of the latter.) Either way, the world could use a little more Xiu Xiu.

51. “Strawberry Hill” (1993)
Red House Painters
Mark Kozelek is awesome. And his band, The Red House Painters were the ultimate shoegazer, slocore – whatever you want to call it – band of the early ’90s. For some reason, they never broke through into the MTV world, but that just made anyone who found him feel like they were part of a secret club.

Click here to see 50-1 of the Most Underrated Indie Rock Songs of All Time