The Shins wrote the rules for indie music

Rewind with The Shins' classic indie music.

By Gabrielle Lipton | March 5, 2010

Tags: Music Re-listen


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Once used to describe a small, specific genre of music, the term "indie" has expanded to encompass so much it is hardly definable anymore. Life was simpler when debates, such as to whether lo-fi, self-recorded folk-rock albums were their own genre, did not exist and when your grandpa's moth-eaten cardigans were considered unattractive by all rather than hipster by some.

But looking back to when indie was first blooming on the music scene, it had a definitive style, and one album that initially helped coin the term as we know it today was The Shins' Oh, Inverted World, released in 2001. With simple, chiming melodies that quirk their way into being catchy, this album brought attention to indie music in a way that appealed (and still appeals) to lovers and haters of Abercrombie and Fitch alike.

One reason for the album's popularity is undoubtedly James Mercer's voice. Captivating in a way difficult to pinpoint, it is neither nasally nor throaty as his long vowels frequently tread all the way up to a falsetto. Chiming in at the right moments, horns, strings, xylophones and tambourines keep the melodies as fanciful as his voice.

When Natalie Portman puts her airplane-pilot-sized headphones (then dorky but now indie, of course) on Zach Braff in the waiting room scene in "Garden State," she tells him the song he's about to hear will "Change your life, I swear." "New Slang" comes on, track six of Oh, Inverted World. Who didn't watch this scene and know exactly what he was feeling? The acoustic ballad is poetic and pensive in that indie-tastic way that is neither somber enough to be emo nor peppy enough to be pop. It's simply cool.

Likewise, the album holds its merit in being multi-faceted while still holding close to a distinct style. Songs alternate between upbeat and down-tempo, bright and cloudy — compare "One By One All Day" to "Your Algebra." But the songs branch well off one another, each with hints of both positivity and reflection, and the album plays smoothly from start to finish.

Puzzling over whether a band that only presses buttons is really a band, if flannel is now preppy and why Pitchfork went through such a crush on Antlers is tiresome work. Come back to the basics, the days when indie was peculiar music not heard on the radio, and that was enough. The Shins got it right — after all, they helped start it.

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