10 Essential Indie Artist Major Label Debuts

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There comes a time in the lives of many indie rock bands where they will be faced with the dilemma of whether or not to make the leap to a major label. And with contract issues and large sums of money, it’s not always easy, often a question of resources versus independence, financial security versus creative freedom. It doesn’t always work; there are albums that we may never see reissued, and there are others that may never be released in the first place. But again, some of the artists once associated with the standard-bearers of underground music — like Sonic Youth or The Flaming Lips — found themselves with decades-long tenures on a major label. While sometimes the combination of left-wing talent and great industry resources doesn’t always result in something big, there is a long line of major-label debuts that represent a major turning point for a band. Here are 10 of our favorites.


1990 ; DGC

The lively youth – Go

Goo is technically Sonic Youth’s first major label, but its release represented something of a revamp after the band’s distribution issues with Enigma Records – an independent label with major distribution – and their 1988 album. Reverie Nation. After spending $30,000 on this album and not seeing the commercial performance live up to its critical acclaim, the band struck a deal with Geffen Records that would last over two decades, starting with Goo. The album, while still filled with loud panics and buzzing vocals from the band, it saw them make the most of their newfound resources, with tracks like “Kool Thing”, featuring an appearance by Chuck D, predicting the grunge explosion always slightly too early. –Jeff Terich


1991; Sire

Dinosaur Jr. – green spirit

When green spirit released in 1991, Dinosaur Jr.’s central nervous system was already frayed. Vocalist, guitarist and songwriter J. Mascis took on much of the load, having just fired bassist and fellow songwriter Lou Barlow. Drummer Murph only played on three tracks. Yet the early days of the Massachusetts indie rock band are awash in mud, heavy doses of distortion, and layers and layers of solid melodic riffs. Mascis’ deadpan vocal delivery, as if he had just been dragged out of bed, provides a subdued emotional bandage that anyone can relate to. Songs about dysfunctional relationships, confusion, and inner fears are punctuated with monumental, heartbreaking guitar solos. “Wagon,” about Mascis trying to reach his girlfriend and only finding a locked door, is emblematic of a tumultuous band with as much potential to influence genres like shoegaze and grunge as it does to implode at any time. moment. -Emily Reily


1992; Warner Bros.

Flaming Lips – Punched to death in the head of the future

More noise pop than rock, the debut of The Flaming Lips at Warner Bros. are easily one of the strongest in their entire catalog. Melodic but still sonically incandescent, the album oscillates between a powerful mixture of samples and the cacophonic strangeness of the old school Flaming Lips. But this time, for every face-melting riff, there’s an accompanying ear verse from a choir. Unforgettably, Wayne Coyne’s distinct profile of searing guitar work, strangled percussion and over/under-voiced vocals shines brightly on the first track, a perverted doo-wop noise affair with an unforgettable title: “Talkin’ ‘ ‘Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everybody Wants to Live Forever).’ Regardless of the greater support behind the album, the band still manages to craft pure weirdness on ‘Frogs’ and the Dadaist prologue to future endeavors,” Felt Good to Burn”. It effectively became the last hurray for the band’s first wave, and a sign of how bright and weird things were. – Brian Roesler


major label releases afghan whigs
1993; Electra

The Afghan Whigs – gentlemen

gentlemen is the unforgettable result of Elektra’s gamble on a post-punk/R&B/grunge outfit from Cincinnati, whose previous (and possibly later) release was released via Seattle-based indie institution Sub Pop. Greg Dulli delivers uncomfortably revealing, disgusting and sometimes hateful lyrics in a ragged but captivating voice. “Debonair” is the banger, caustic riffs of Rick McCollum and John Curley/Steve Earle (not this a) rhythm section under Dulli as he improbably spins lines like “And he ain’t bleeding, and he ain’t breathing / He locked his jaws and now he swallows!” in rallying cries. But “My Curse” is the heart of the record, the mostly toxic confession gentlemen tries to fight against nihilistic hedonism. It’s so self-abnegative that Dulli wouldn’t sing it himself, crediting the vocals to Marcy May of Scrawl. When the record ends with a Tyrone Davis cover please followed by an instrumental dirge, you’ve been through so much dirty laundry it’s almost a mercy killing. – Liam Green


debut of a major jawbox label
1994; Atlantic

Jaw box – For your own special lover

One confession: when I was asked to write about this album, I hadn’t listened to it in full for at least 20 years. But hearing hymn moments in songs like “Cooling Card,” “Savory,” and “Jackpot Plus!” felt like a joyous reunion with an old friend. “When you examined the wreckage, what did you see? Glass everywhere and wheels that always spin freely,” the opening lines of “Motorist” also succinctly comprise a distillation of the power contained within this post-hardcore DC team’s third LP, the energy emanating from every tangled melody, feedback chime and turn of phrase. For your own special lover shows a variety and artistry that not even Helmet could muster on their much-loved In the meantime album, with the kind of spotlight that Fugazi didn’t want to shine on himself. –Adam Blyweiss


the beginnings of a major label shudder at the thought
1994; Epic

Thrill to think – Pony Express Record

The most graceful leap from an independent label to a major label in the 1990s had to be Shudder to Think’s 1994 album. Pony Express Record. The band went from streaming music on Washington, D.C. institution Dischord to Sony’s Epic affiliate, not just without a whiff of sales, but with an ear toward more cutting-edge sounds. The album sounded more polished, production-wise, but the flamboyant quirkiness of their songwriting remained intact without any compromise. The single “X-French Tee Shirt” is catchy, but even this somewhat commercial moment is dissonant and structurally unconventional – straddling a long, single-chord chorus. –Wil Lewellyn


the beginnings of a major label built to spread
1997 ; Warner Bros.

Built to overflow – Perfect from now on

The title of Built to Spill’s third album and first for Warner Bros. is taken from a line from his first track, “Randy Describes Eternity”. But it almost sounds more like a mission statement, a statement of self-actualization and dedication. It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the band’s major label pivot Boise, but the coincidence is hard to ignore. Where their lo-fi charm There’s nothing wrong with love more than compensated for its rambling sound with oversized writing, Perfect from now on Actually sounds Pretty close to perfection, Doug Martsch’s guitars soar and shimmer with the epic clarity of TV and the effects-laden psychedelic sensibility of their then-label mates The Flaming Lips. It sounded too rich and luxurious to still be called “indie rock”, even though it strayed too far from mainstream alternative rock to be called anything else. –Jeff Terich


elliott smith
1998; Dream works

Elliott Smith– XO

Once Elliott Smith found himself nominated for an Oscar for ‘Miss Misery,’ 1997’s hit song Goodwill huntingthe Portland singer-songwriter’s move to major seemed inevitable, however low-key his presence might seem. XOhis first of two albums for Dreamworks, makes the most of what a big record label budget will get you: string arrangements, lush studio sound, and the kind of beautifully orchestral sound that more than deserves its comparisons with animal sounds or the most ambitious Beatles material. Some of his greatest moments, like “Pitseleh” or “Tomorrow Tomorrow,” further prove that Smith was often at his best without any extras, but the climactic swell of “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands” offers a compelling counterpoint: He wore maximalism as well. -Jeff Terich


2000; Epic

Modest mouse – The Moon and Antarctica

The Moon and Antarctica found Modest Mouse at a crossroads. Predecessor The solitary
crowded west
crackles with ragged, minimalist rage, while the follow-up good news for people
who likes bad news
makes them a commercial power. The Moon and Antarctica is the
intermediate scene, a hybrid disc. It certainly feels like a major label debut, with layers of steel, fiddle and keys dampening Isaac Brock’s strident guitar more than ever. The same time, SolitaryThe weather-beaten roadtripper nihilism has not faded – the field has simply widened, from the American road to the cosmos. As Brock sings on the beautiful first track “3rd Planet”, “The universe is exactly the same shape as the earth, if you go straight enough you’ll end up where you were.” The Moon and Antarctica brims with that kind of restless, open-hearted contemplation, and its musical energy never wanes. For an electrifying hour, it offers a comprehensive look at what Modest Mouse can do. What’s not to like? –Casey Burke


tv on radio cookie mountain
2006; Interscope

TV on the radio – Back to Cookie Mountain

Following the tide of critical acclaim they had received via releases on indie powerhouse Touch and Go with 2003 Young liars and 2004 Desperate youths, bloodthirsty girlsradio tv dropped Back to Cookie Mountain through Interscope Records. Indeed, there were moments of magic in their early work – songs like “Staring At the Sun” and “Blind”, for example, serve as models for their dense, experimental approach to indie rock. But it was RTCM it found the group firing on all cylinders – as ability, ambition and big league backing seemed to coalesce in arguably their brightest moment. With debut single “Wolf Like Me” shining bright, Return to Cookies
Mountain
is television to radio in brilliant form. – J. Smith


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