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learn why indie rock is great

A guide by "jctkd" (Washington, DC)

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Congratulations on finding this guide! No doubt, by clicking on the link to this guide you have proven yourself more worthy of life than those who skipped over it. Before I begin, I would like to compliment you on the positive-ness of the two assumptions I have made about you on the basis of your clicking on the link to this guide. First, you must have remotely good taste in music to ever have even been on a page that had such a link. Second, you must want to learn about good music, and in my humble opinion, people who want to learn about good music are good people. However, if you desire to learn about indie rock because you want to be different, stop reading and shoot yourself now.
So then, with the niceties out of the way, what exactly is this thing called “Indie Rock?” Well, my friend, the most accurate definition I can think of for indie rock is “the best kind of music.” Quite a declaration, is it not? But don’t worry, I will justify myself, and should I be even only slightly capable of forming coherent sentences, you too will realize the superiority of indie rock over any other kind of rock, and even most kinds of food.
Now for some useful terms. All rock music that is not indie rock shall henceforth be referred to as “commercial rock,” and all rock music that is not commercial rock shall henceforth be referred to as “indie rock.” Don’t get that confused, buddy. I would also like you to realize that this guide is better than other guides, no matter what they may be guiding you to. Most guides I have read are capable of declaring nothing more profound than “this band has a guitarist,” or “this song has lyrics.” Once I read one that declared not only did the song actually have lyrics, but those lyrics were also good. Be forewarned, however, for such insightful guides are few and far between. The beauty of this guide, fair reader, is that I am going to base my opinions on actual aspects of the music.
Let’s begin with what makes the badness of commercial rock so bad. As I see it, there are two problems with commercial rock: 1) it is overly simple, and 2) it is held together by vocals. Now what could I possibly mean by “overly simple?” Well, this means that commercial rock has essentially some drums, then a guitar playing some chords, and a singer. For those of you who are not too musically inclined, chords are essentially different notes put together that sound good, for example, C, E, and G. Commercial rock is simple in that all of those notes come from the same instrument, thus producing badness and monotony. This problem is surely a product of the second problem with commercial rock, the over-reliance upon vocals to make a song memorable. You see, those marketing geniuses of the commercial rock industry have noticed, whether you have or not, that people like to sing along to memorable melodies. Hence, the most important factor of a commercial rock song is the melody of its vocal part. For some reason, people don’t seem to realize that instruments, what with their capability of making different notes and all, can also produce melodies just as memorable. Sometimes a band will rely upon melancholy lyrics to produce such thoughts as “gee, that is sad,” hoping to drive their song up the charts. In sum, the badness of commercial rock is due to the simplicity of instrumental parts that are held together by nothing more than vocal melody.
Now on to the greatness of indie rock! Essentially, there is one unifying notion that perfectly defines the greatness of indie rock: complexity. Indie rock does typically rely upon the same instruments as commercial rock, by virtue of said instruments being the building blocks of rock music; however, it uses them in a good way, rather than a bad way. Remember chords? Those things with different notes that sound good when put together? Well, indie rock uses those too, but differently. Rather than playing all notes on one guitar, it is much more likely to hear one part of the chord in one instrument, another part of it in another instrument, and so on, producing infinite levels, or at least three levels, of greatness. Now for a quick example. Let’s use good old C major, which is made up of C, E, and G. In a layered song the guitar may play the following notes: C, F, A, C, E, A, C, E. The bass may play these notes: E, B, G, B, C, E, B, G. Finally, another guitar or something may play the following: G, B, D, G, E, A, C. Note that all three strings of notes begin with a different component of the C chord, C, E, or G. Such matches can be found in many different corresponding notes of the above strings. When the instruments are structured in such a way, the unifying chords still exist, but are accompanied by these other aspects of greatness. As an added bonus, the vocal parts still contain great melodies, but without the purpose of carrying the entire song. So the vocals are yet another layer of greatness in the structure of your average indie rock song.
Please note that not all indie rock songs are structured this way. But please also note that this is good. When the above instrumental structure, or something similar is not used, the weight of the song is still distributed over each instrument/voice equally, rather than all of it being carried by a weird guy who can’t sing. Furthermore, remember that songs with vocal melodies are not bad, just songs that rely solely on vocal melodies are bad. Also remember that melancholy songs are not bad unless they are the used as a tool to reach a top hits list, or share any of the above qualities with commercial rock. Finally, everything in this guide is a generalization, but for some reason people think it is bad to generalize. My friend, it is not bad, and that is that.
Now that your tongue has been whetted, I bet your wondering which bands you should start with. Well, Built to Spill, Pavement, Modest Mouse, Belle and Sebastian, The Pixies, and The Strokes are wonderful places to start. And as an indication that more and more people are realizing the goodness of indie rock and the badness of commercial rock, The Strokes are actually popular! “Dramamine,” by Modest Mouse, “Car,” by Built to Spill, “Where’s My Mind,” by the Pixies, and “Cut Your Hair,” by Pavement are all wonderful examples of the layered quality of most indie rock. Great albums to start with in general are Built to Spill's There's Nothing Wrong With Love, Pavement's Terror Twilight, The Strokes' Is This It, and Modest Mouse's Lonesome Crowded West. Keep in mind, however, that any album by any of these bands is good. Also keep in mind that there are other indie bands besides these, which I will graciously let you, the reader, discover for yourself.
Well now, off to the listening station and happy indie rocking!

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1.  There's Nothing Wrong With Love  by Built To Spill
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2.  Terror Twilight  by Pavement
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3.  Is This It  by The Strokes
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4.  Lonesome Crowded West  by Modest Mouse
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"jctkd" (Washington, DC)
Qualifications: amateur music critic
Last updated: 4/13/02
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