In 2004, Zach Braff made sure everybody knew about the shins. As Garden State's epitomized Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Natalie Portman insisted that their songs would "change your life". The film's soundtrack included two of the best tracks from the band's first album, and The Shins rose to fame as the darlings of indie rock. Their delicate chord progressions and whistled arpeggios rendered them preciously palatable to the budding hipsters of the mid-aughts. These teenage culture vultures had no idea that they were swallowing a sugar-coated distillation of an older sound. Since '92, the California indie rock outfit Grandaddy had been playing with sonic textures and melodic sweetness that The Shins would later echo. They hopped the charts over in the UK as modest college radio favorites, but never received the statewide praise that their poppier descendents managed a few years later. Maybe for The Shins it was a case of being in the right place at the right time--or of being listened to by the right NBC sitcom star at the right time. Grandaddy has since dissolved, and James Mercer of The Shins is currently doing more interesting work as half of the experimental pop duo Broken Bells. But listen to Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump or Sumday and you'll find that their dense melancholia has already aged far better than the later-released Shins albums.
In 2002, something beautiful bubbled up from the New York City underground. Five Manhattan boys performing as Interpol signed to Matador Records and released a six-song self-titled EP. Later in the year, they would release their debut full-length, the stunning Turn On the Bright Lights. The record received high critical praise in indie circles for its enigmatic atmosphere and sonic depth. Interpol planted the seeds of post-punk and let them blossom into something new, something denser, more melodic, more complex. Many critics compared them to Joy Division for Paul Banks's stiff baritone and Daniel Kessler's brittle downstrokes, but Interpol were interested in more ambitious song structures than those invented at post-punk's birth. Nimble basslines weave through cascades of guitar chords under Banks's enigmatic lyrics on Interpol's early songs. They were new and exciting, and two years later they were ripped off by The Killers. The Las Vegas band rose to extraordinary success on their vacant New Wave puppetry. Lead vocalist Brandon Flowers also imitated an Ian Curtis bark, though the lyrics spewed with it were far from oblique. The Killers made plenty of dollars on a slew of mediocre singles, and even they were soon imitated by the likes of the unspeakably bad darkwave duo She Wants Revenge. Interpol's dark, fresh take on the post-punk movement soon fractalled off into the nth layer of suck as lesser bands raked in more money than them. Probably out of spite, Interpol themselves went on to suck, too.
Iron & Wine
Again, we get to blame Zach Braff. Sam Beam made it onto the Garden State soundtrack alongside the Shins with his low-fi cover of the Postal Service's electropop hit "Such Great Heights". It was a pleasant if bland rendition of an excellent tune and it offered Beam plenty of well-deserved listeners. He had some great tracks on Iron & Wine's first two records, and Zach Braff granted them some additional recognition. But Sam Beam wasn't the first to carve out the indie folk niche--nor was he the first to rock a sweet beard while wielding an acoustic guitar and a grainy drawl. Will Oldham, best known as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, had been recording under various monikers since the early '90s. His subtle and infinitely creative Americana paved the way for the fame of his followers. Iron & Wine adopted a singular edge of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's multifaceted sound and went with it all the way to the bank. While Sam Beam may be the more accessible songwriter, he owes much of his chosen genre to the generally underappreciated Oldham, who continues to evolve his style with frequent records.
Sometimes it takes a little plagiarism to rise from the underground. Those three are my biggest qualms with current indie rock, but I'm sure I've missed some. Who's ripped off your favorites for profit and fame?