Last updated on November 18, 2023 by Liza Hawkins
There are so many great artists out there, it’s easy to get stuck in a genre listening to the same-old, same-old! To change things up, here are some great indie folk alt-rock artists to add to your playlist.
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Where It Began
I’ve always loved music. Could be because I grew up in a family with lots of musicians, 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, and Don & Mike ran with the morning show).
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 classmate’s Walkman, enroute to a 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 bands, and soaked up everything having to do with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, with healthy doses of R.E.M., U2, DMB, Indigo Girls, Jeff Buckley, They Might Be Giants, and so many others from the ’90s.
I rediscovered my parents’ old vinyl collection, and drunk up 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 a shuffle of my Pandora stations, which has everything from Gregory Alan Isakov and Mumford & Sons 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?
11 Indie Folk Alt Rock Artists to Add to Your Playlist
Gregory Alan Isakov has been playing live for decades (which seems odd to say since he’s actually two years younger than me!) — particularly a staple in and around Colorado, where he lives just outside Boulder.
Around 2015, Pandora started serving up three songs in frequent rotation: “That Moon Song,” “Stable Song,” and “Time Will Tell” (the last was also featured in a Subaru commercial). Interest piqued.
It wasn’t until a few years later during a road trip that I really dove deep into his music, and now I can say he’s one of my absolute favorites. He’ll be the first to say his songs are sad, and he’s right — they are kind of melancholy. It’s a mixture of his tone and drawl, it’s a little weepy and a full of chord changing swells, but somehow despite all that I find myself smiling through many of his tunes. They manage to feel uplifting, rather than depressing.
Gregory and his bandmates are the sort you need to catch live, and the same goes for listening to his tunes otherwise — whether it’s his collaboration with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, countless times at Red Rocks, or other performances via radio stations, festivals, or on and on and on.
He also does frequent collaborations with other artists, both well-known and local favorites on tour. No matter who’s on stage, they always seem to be having an amazing time together and with the audience!
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 album 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. Times have certainly changed for them, as they probably sell out venues more than double its size these days. Or, appear in prestigious slots, like Saturday Night Live!
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, but picks up other instruments too — like that SNL performance where he swapped the banjo for a guitar.
But more about that banjo playing…
They easily fall in to my top three bands to see live. Also, they’re babies! Born in the late ’80s. 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 third 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. I’m patiently waiting for a “returned to their roots” album.
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 and performers like Marcus Mumford, Oscar Isaac, The Punch Brothers, Jack White and more.
After getting “Riptide” stuck in my head for three days, I decided to find out more about Australian singer/songwriter Vance Joy (another ’80s baby).
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 another favorite, “Mess Is Mine,” from dream your life away:
You’re tapping your foot, right? Or “Georgia”:
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 40-some-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.
I started listening to Feist sometime in 2007, if memory serves. It was the song “1234” that hooked me, and then the rest of The Reminder album was just as good. Folksy, a little dreamy, with swells that ebb and flow. Really good background music during the workday or if you want something soothing while pulling weeds, cleaning the house, or some other mundane task.
Just for funsies, Feist also created a version of “1234” just for Sesame Street in 2008, calling it her “career highlight.”
Super cute, right?
7. Eddie Vedder
I know, I know. Pearl Jam. I 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 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.
Like Ray LaMontagne, you might recognize Ingrid Michaelson from a commercial. Specifically, this Target commercial.
Or, because out of everyone else on this list, she flirts with being a pop star the most. My teen 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!
I first heard Vandaveer live at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Md., when he opened up for Stephen Kellogg (and the Sixers, at the time).
He hooked me immediately, and I left that night with a copy of the CD, his debut album Grace & Speed, 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 Divide & Conquer:
The rest of that album? Spectacular.
Eric Hutchinson is a D.C. “local,” but somehow I only first heard him by way of Pandora, years ago. He’s a vibrant singer in the vein of Jason Mraz, but without all the “skiddly-do-waddly-wop” scat stuff that Jason Mraz sometimes gets mired in (especially live). One person I read called it “intelligent pop,” which is a great way to phrase Eric Hutchinson’s music!
He’s a singer/songwriter and a piano man who also plays guitar. He’s upbeat and has a reputation of putting on a great live show, which I can totally see despite having not been to one of his shows — his songs played live are my favorites.
And a piano man! Here’s another fun oldie-but-goodie:
My daughter makes fun of the fact that she knows Lord Huron from the dance scene in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and I happen to also like Lord Huron — including “The Night We Met,” from Strange Trails, which I liked before that show came out last year, thankyouverymuch.
Probably why their songs have been chosen for so many onscreen soundtracks, including Shameless, Longmire and The Originals — and, yes,13 Reasons Why.