Morrissey could bring in the goths, Johnny Marr could bring in the punks, but it was the chemistry they produced together that made the Smiths one of the more iconic bands of the 1980s. When that chemistry began to break down following Strangeways, Here We Come, just as the band was creeping into Top 40 territory in the U.S., the band called things off, leaving resentments between the two that linger to this day. But in addition to leaving a nearly perfect discography, along with a fanbase that would love them forever, everyone in the band benefited, with Morrissey launching a solo career that would occasionally rival his best work with The Smiths, and a now-sober Marr getting the #1 record he clearly deserved with Modest Mouse.
Steve Albini, for better or worse, was formative in defining the ethics of indie rock, and he set an example himself with his reason for disbanding his best-known band: it conflicted with his job. With a guitarist going to law school, an inability to find a non-robotic drummer and Albini’s interest in touring waning, Albini, convinced that being in a band should never be a job, left a growing cult base with the band’s most iconic album, Songs About Fucking. Of course, Albini was able to turn music into his most famous job, becoming a record engineer and mentor to Nirvana, the Pixies, the Jesus Lizard, Mclusky and countless more.
Nation of Ulysses
Many indie bands who called it quits right before Nevermind’s release would regret it for the rest of their lives. Not Nation of Ulysses, a band who’s militant commitment to their faux-revolutionary convictions would have inevitably been bastardized by anyone outside its target audience. After releasing the iconic Thirteen-Point Program To Destroy Ameica in July of 1991, Ian Svevonius, with the foresight that most of his peers lacked, immediately disbanded Nation of Ulysses following Punk’s break into the mainstream. By no means was this an end to Svevonius’s career, he formed The Make-Up, Weird War, and Chain and th Gang to adjust to the times, and went on to produce some of the more surreally brilliant interviews with musicians for VBS.TV.
As Malkmus himself will admit, Pavement started as a band designed to blatantly pander to rock critics, and it worked, with his attempt to recreate the crude recordings of his 80s heroes fostering the lo-fi movement and dominance of Matador Records that remains to this day. After coming the closest he’d ever get to being a regular songsmith with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement released solid if not exceptional albums in the mid-to-late 90s—right as mainstream rock was reaching a new low, and calling things off before the decade they dominated ended. To outsiders, the obsession many still have with Malkmus and Pavement is confusing, but if they’re reunion tour in 2010 proved anything, it’s that the band’s control of their body of work and legacy has made them more popular than ever.
Neutral Milk Hotel
The Jeff Mangum obsession of a generation of earnest coeds belittles the fact that there couldn’t have been a better time for Neutral Milk Hotel to disband. After On Avery Island reached a fever pitch of praise in the indie press in 1996, In An Aeroplane Over The Sea, initially seen as a somewhat peculiar follow-up to a much beloved debut, eventually came to be seen as a masterpiece of 90s indie rock, finding emotional resonance in the strangest of subject matters in ways a decade of indie kids couldn’t achieve. Mangum’s disappearance meant that he didn’t have a time to interfere (or care) about his growing reputation in the blog circuit, and that every time he did appear in public was a cause for celebration. In 2004, Arcade Fire signed to Merge primarily because of Neutral Milk, a development that ultimately helped redefine the business legitimacy of indie labels. That may not have happened if there had been another Neutral Milk album.
Formed at possibly the worst time any band could start a punk band, Mclusky lived and breathed the record industry’s collapse and put it to music in 2002’s Mclusky Do Dallas, a latter-day masterpiece of indie rock crankdom, sandwiched between two wildly attention grabbing but inconsistent albums. The band had their gear stolen around the same time that frontman Andy “Falco” Falkous’s patience for bassist Jonathan Chapple was wearing thin (a sentiment presaged by Do Dallas’s “ballad” “Fuck This Band.” and the band left before their crankiness turned into dickishness. A few years later, Falco would return with Future of the Left, a more experimental (and fun) band that would see Falco produce another resentful classic this time politically) with 2009’s Travels with Myself and Others.
Sleater-Kinney’s story is made all the more remarkable for the time they didn’t break-up. After the gushing plaudits the band received for its first two albums, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein called off their romantic entanglements just as drummer Laura Macfarlane left the country. Few bands would survive that drama, but grasping that the work they were doing was too important to abandon, Tucker and Brownstein enlisted their original, better drummer in Janet Weiss, and end up releasing Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney’s most iconic release and one of the better break-up albums ever released (mainly because both parties were represented). The band would go on to survive 9/11 the Bush Administration and motherhood to release 4 more great albums in the next 9 years, the last of which, The Woods, may have been their best and most influential. The rise of a generation of inspired female guitar rockers simply may not have existed Sleater-Kinney had disbanded 10 years earlier.
If Le Tigre failed to end at their peak, they ended in what may have been a more noble goal: attempting to bring their hybrid of radical lyrics and irresistible disco beats to a mainstream audience. After changing the face of punk on their self-titled debut and provided some of the more furiously brilliant releases of the decade’s first half with Feminist Sweepstakes and the From the Desk of Mr Lady EP, the band signed to the majors and reached an unprecedented level of ambition on This Island. It didn’t work, but tracks like “TKO” and “Viz” sound as fresh as ever (and got Kathleen Hanna a cameo on American Idiot‘s “Letterbomb,” a scathing critique on indie apathy that echoed Hanna’s Le Tigre lyrical assault). Ultimately Le Tigre’s attempt at the mainstream has made Hanna an enduring hero of 21st century feminism, while J.D. Sampson, near the verge of a nervous breakdown following This Island, has turned into a sex idol in the queer community after forming Men.
One of the peculiarities of the music blogconomy was that you no longer had to be young, loud, and snotty to be a success in the music industry. James Murphy, one of the more iconic rock stars of the 2000s, first turned heads at the age of 32, and in nearly unprecedented fashion, achieved his mainstream peak of his fame at the age of 40. The world-weariness that helped Murphy succeed as such a late bloomer also helped him realize that his appeal would be lost if he was doing the same thing any longer (he needed steroids just to get through recording This Is Happening), and his fans, world-wearily themselves, could shed a tear and talk forever about seeing LCD live for what they knew would be the last time. Murphy already had a highly successful indie label to play with after he put LCD to pasture, and if his work on the Greenberg soundtrack is any indication, Murphy’s creative juices are in no way dying out even if he’s mellowed.