A while back, I wrote about Death Cab For Cutie and how they helped usher in the indie-rock explosion of the mid-to-late 200os. By the early 2000s indie rock was moving towards a more sincere and emotional viewpoint than the cynicism and irony of 90s indie icons such as Pavement. Death Cab was a prime example of this, even if Ben Gibbard’s sweet melodies sugarcoated his bitterness and melancholy outlook on life. The Shins were another group who eschewed irony and the noise of their indie forefathers, instead of opting for a soft rock-pop sound reminiscent of The Beach Boys.
For a good few years, this change in style went largely un-noticed. With their arena-ready anthems, Coldplay seemed to be the only band with a more sensitive outlook to be played on the radio. Mainstream interest seemed to focus on the last remnants of nu-metal, post-grunge and the garage rock revival.
The indie-rock explosion of the 2000s wasn’t ushered in by a defining album the way that Nirvana’s Nevermind had for 90s rock. Instead, it was through film and television most notably the soundtrack for Garden State and guest appearances by indie bands on The O.C. In Garden State, Natalie Portman’s Sam declares that The Shins will “change your life”. In retrospect (and even back then) her statement seemed a bit like hyperbole. The Shins weren’t wholly original to be life changing, but their inward gaze combined with their sincere sensibility perfectly fit Zach Braff’s tale of confused 20-somethings in the 2000s.
With the exception of Coldplay and the Simon & Garfunkel inclusion (a nod to The Graduate) all of the artists on the soundtrack had a limited audience. Even 70s singer-songwriter Nick Drake (who went largely unnoticed during his short lifetime) was given wider exposure as a result of being included on the album. The album’s most memorable track is probably Iron & Wine’s cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” which was also included in a famous M&M’s commercial that came out around the same time.
Whether audiences truly related to the music on its own or solely based by Braff’s brilliant use of it throughout Garden State can be debated. But there’s no denying that either way a chord had been struck with audiences, or the album has since gone gold. Braff would receive a Grammy for the soundtrack in 2005, making him probably the first person to ever receive a Grammy for making what was essentially a mix-tape.
The OC probably had a wider effect on indie rock. I know several people who claimed that they only watched the show to see (or hear) what new music would be on the show from week to week. Death Cab For Cutie, The Killers, Bloc Party, Feist, Franz Ferdinand, Rooney, The New Pornographers, and Phoenix and countless others were all featured on the show – some multiple times. Since the show was a huge hit for Fox, these artists achieved recognition that would otherwise not have been available to them.
2005 was probably the year that indie-rock truly explored. The Killers weren’t exactly indie-rock, but they had an indie sound and with the help of “Mr. Brightside” they seemed to be everywhere that year. The labels noticing a trend that could be marketable, signed Death Cab For Cutie and the band released their major-label debut Plans that fall which peaked at number 4 on the Billboard charts. The band was also nominated for a Grammy in 2006 for “Best Alternative Album”. While it was certainly “alternative” to what was taking place on the radio, indie rock was beginning to prove itself to the masses.
Naturally, there was a cultural shift. In spite of (or perhaps as a result) this exposure, “indie” styled bands would soon find their albums being sold at places such as Starbucks which previously only seemed to sell albums by non-threatening classic rock artists and compilations. You know something has changed when 30-something mothers ask you at Starbucks if you’re selling the new Shins album. (True story.)
So what does all this mean? A few weeks back, I argued that the world would never see a world wide life-altering album like Nirvana’s Nevermind. I still stand by that point. Single albums don’t seem to capture the world’s attention like they used, but if nothing else the Garden State soundtrack and the OC prove that if great music is given its due, people will pay attention.