I’ve always loved music. Could be because I grew up in a family with lots of musicians (rock and jazz). Or, maybe it’s because music has played such a large part in our lives — both playing and listening. Perhaps it’s simply a coincidence.
Regardless, over the years my taste in music has varied. I remember in elementary school when I first started finding music that wasn’t something my parents were already listening to, thanks to my boombox and the old Washington D.C. station 105.1 FM WAVA (when it was a rock station, not a Christian station).
Michael Jackson’s Thriller (released in 1982) and Whitney Houston’s Whitney Houston (released in 1985) were my first two vinyl album purchases (with a little help from my parents). I was first and fourth grades, respectively.
By fifth grade I had moved on to Bon Jovi, after hearing a few songs (okay, “Livin’ on a Prayer” hooked me) on a kid’s Walkman en route to a class field trip.
Sure, as middle school rolled along, I listened to my share of New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, and Debbie Gibson, too. I just wasn’t quite as enamored with them as some of my splatter-paint doused, Jordache-wearing friends were. Which is probably why, when NKOTB went back on tour recently, I was like, “Meh.”
In high school I fell head-over-heels for grunge and alt rock, and soaked up everything having to do with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and also R.E.M., U2, DMB, Indigo Girls, Jeff Buckley, They Might Be Giants, and so many other ’90s bands.
I rediscovered my parents’ old vinyl collection, and became enamored with Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, CSN (and Young!), Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other greats from the ’60s and ’70s.
This mish-mash of musical taste followed me through college, and still lives on today.
If you’re a passenger in my car, you’ll likely be subjected to my Mumford & Sons Pandora station, which has everything from that band to The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Billy Joel, Radiohead, The Shins, Sarah McLachlan, and a slew of other singers/songwriters.
It’s the connection of singer/songwriter that remains consistent throughout my years of honing in on my musical taste. True musicians; not pop stars.
(Though sometimes the two can be the same, I’d argue that you can definitely have a pop star who’s not a musician, just like you can also have a musician who’s never a pop star.)
And so, in my adult life, I’ve found a genre that’s been woven into the grand virtual playlist in my head. I’m not even sure what to call it. Is there a name?
8 Indie Folk Alt-Rock Musicians To Add To Your Playlist
1. Mumford & Sons
Chances are, you already have these guys in heavy rotation, but if not — add them!
I first heard “Little Lion Man” on DC101 back in 2009, when they played it as part of the “indie music you haven’t heard yet” on Elliot in the Morning. (Thank you for that, Tyler.) I really liked Mumford & Sons’ first release, Sigh No More. And, I LOVED their second release, Babel (pronounced bay-bull).
If you get the opportunity to see Mumford & Sons live, do it. They’re amazingly talented, and super humble! The first time I saw them was at Merriweather Post Pavilion, back in 2011, before the release of Babel. At the time, Marcus said, “We’ve never played a place this big before. It’s amazing!” As he looked out onto the pavilion and up into the lawn.
Merriweather’s not that big. Time’s have certainly changed for them, as they probably sell out venues more than double its size these days.
Marcus Mumford sings, plays a drum, and a guitar for most of the songs (all at the same time!), along with a slew of other instruments. Winston Marshall just may be the craziest, most talented banjo player you’ve ever seen.
They easily fall in to my top three bands to see live. Also, they’re still in their 20s. I know. MIND. BLOWN.
Plus, they’re British. Swoon.
And, they have a sense of humor. This is one of my favorite videos (they’re not even in it; though you’ll recognize the actors!):
PS: As much as I try, I’m not digging their latest release, Wilder Mind, which was an intentional departure from their regular music’s sound and style. I appreciate that Mumford & Sons wanted to stretch themselves musically, and it’s cool that they can sound SO different. But, no.
2. The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers fall into a similar indie folk category as Mumford & Sons, but with a little more bluegrass and a slight southern (North Carolina, to be exact – you’ll hear it in words like time) twang. Yes, there’s a banjo. And a piano. And guitar. There’s also a stand up bass, and they all hop around instruments like musical geniuses.
Plus, their lyrics and songwriting are quite eloquent, and catchy — a difficult combo, even for the best of musicians.
Like “I and Love and You” (from the album of the same name):
And, “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” (also from I and Love and You):
That last video is from Another Day, Another Time — a documentary style performance show, based upon the music from the movie Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s amazing, and includes other familiar folk/alt-rock artists like Marcus Mumford, Oscar Isaac, The Punch Brothers, and others.
3. Vance Joy
After getting “Riptide” stuck in my head for three days last year, I decided to find out more about Australian singer/songwriter Vance Joy (another 20-something).
Talk about catchy; his songs lull you in, making your heels tap, head bob, and your thumbs drum along with his lilting, folky acoustic guitar rhythm.
Like my current favorite, “Mess Is Mine,” from dream your life away:
You’re tapping your foot, right?
4. Ray LaMontagne
You probably know Ray LaMontagne from the use of his song in this television commercial.
And while it may seem like that’s a song from a different era, recorded decades ago, it’s actually not. The album Trouble hit the market in 2004, and Ray LaMontagne is a ripe, young 42 years old today (which means he was only 30 when he recorded that album!). An old soul.
I can thank Pandora for introducing me to Ray LaMontagne outside of that commercial, and Wiki for the rest, which includes that fact that he lives a very private life with his family (wife and a couple kids) in a western Massachusetts farmhouse.
Soulful, catchy, smooth.
5. Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor might not be as folksy as some of the others I’ve mentioned. I find her lyrics sometimes confusing — almost quirky — and yet the tunes are so catchy. She’s often just singing with her piano, which I happen to love.
Also, if she sounds familiar, but you can’t quite place why, this could be it (from Chronicles of Narnia).
6. Eddie Vedder
I know, I know. Pearl Jam. I
loved love them, too.
I’ve grown to appreciate Eddie Vedder’s solo work as much as the band’s; maybe more. His contributions to the soundtracks for I Am Sam, and the Eat, Pray, Love are terrific. And, his first solo studio album was the soundtrack for Into the Wild, and it is simply haunting, especially if you’ve seen the movie (also wonderful, by the way). He won a Golden Globe Award for the song “Guaranteed” from the album, and the album itself was also nominated for an award.
This song, though, is my favorite:
I listen to those Into the Wild songs now and I can picture each scene of the movie, just as if I’m watching it again, over and over and over.
7. Ingrid Michaelson
Or, because out of everyone else on this list, she flirts with being a pop star the most. My tween daughter’s a fan, so there’s that.
I really like Ingrid Michaelson though, pop star or not. She has a smooth, dreamy voice that’s not too cutesy. And her lyrics are fun and relatable!
He hooked me immediately, and I left that night with a copy of the CD that stayed on repeat play in my car for months afterward.
His sound is very folk-like, and he manages a depth and angle to it that’s hard to replicate. Even now I hear newer artists who sound similar, and I always wonder, “Who came first?”
Here’s an old favorite; it’s a duet with his sister from his debut album Grace & Speed:
The rest of that album? Spectacular.
There are so many great artists out there. Who would you add?
Subscribe here to have delightfully chic (and sometimes snarky) opinions on must-have experiences delivered straight to your inbox!Note: Our posts might contain affiliate links. In case you don't know what those are, let us break it down for you. You buy the things we recommend; we get some cash. And when we say cash, we really mean change. Like, thirty-one cents. Fortunately, every little bit helps and we appreciate that you like what we like.