Garage rock is a subgenre of rock music that emerged in the 1960s and is characterized by its raw, unpolished sound and do-it-yourself ethos. Yet despite its distorted sound and ostensibly simplistic song structure, the genre has served as an avenue in which some of the most entertaining and influential rock bands have expressed themselves.
With the 50th anniversary of The Stooges’ classic record, Raw Power, the significance of garage rock (and its many revivals) has to be acknowledged. In this list, I don’t seek to reexamine the canon or involve every great garage-rock record. Rather, the list is a safety net for those who are curious enough to delve into the exciting genre.
I didn’t include projects from Iggy Pop & The Stooges, The White Stripes or Arctic Monkeys – please listen to these groups if you find these recommendations enjoyable.
The Strokes – Is This It
Leading the garage rock revival of the early 2000s (and inspiring the work of many rock outfits later on) were The Strokes, hailing from NYC. They incited a bidding war between record labels with their 2001 EP, The Modern Age. But few could have predicted the immediate impact on the rock scene when they returned, in the same year, with Is This It.
Is This It, which features completed versions of the songs from the EP, is a remarkable debut. Managing to fuse rough, fuzzbox distortions with genuinely pleasant guitar and vocal melodies, The Strokes’ sound was a fresh reimagining of garage rock. Out of all of the projects on this list, Is This It is certainly the most accessible, especially if you enjoy the music of Paramore and The Arctic Monkeys.
The guitars, played by Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., accommodate Julian Casablancas’ crooning voice on a spectacular level. From “Someday,” whose uptempo riffs manifest the nostalgic lyrics, to the guitar melodies that emulate Casablancas’ alternating delivery on “The Modern Age.”
It is no easy feat: Casablancas’ voice, when severed from the instrumental, sounds unnatural and downright awful. Together, however, they result in some of the best garage rock of the 2000s.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever To Tell
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs is another group from NYC, but they serve as a darker counterpoint to The Strokes’ Is This It. Lead vocalist Karen O’s relentless delivery, alongside Nick Zinner’s piercing guitar riffs and Brian Chase’s pulsating drum beats, drives the sound of their 2003 debut, Fever To Tell. Whereas Casablancas often conveyed a sense of disappointment around adulthood, Karen O evokes a dangerous excitement and curiosity.
At least in the first half – an exploration of young romance and freedom. The back of “No, no, no,” however, bleeds into “Maps,” a desperate plea to a lover who has already stepped out of the door. The songs that follow continue the transition from love to heartbreak, with “Y Control” suggesting resentment and regret. “Modern Romance” is both depressive and cathartic, as Karen O supplants her feelings of hatred with acceptance and apology.
In the closer, “Poor Song” (which mirrors the intro, “Rich”), she manages to enter a new intimacy, incorporating the lessons she took from her previous relationship. Fever To Tell is more conceptual than it is given credit for, and the band’s musical variation on the project – taking inspiration from punk to R&B – underscores the creative roots of garage rock.
The Centurions – Surfers’ Pajama Party
The Centurions’ 1963 live album, Surfers’ Pajama Party, is not a garage rock album. It is surf rock, and it comprises select tracks you may have heard in the background of Quentin Tarantino’s movies. My justification for its incorporation is that garage rock borrows heavily from the buoyant guitar riffs and basslines of surf outfits. The band that will follow in this list takes particular influence from the genre.
But early garage rock bands have frequently suffered complaints of being too raw and ear-grating. To ease yourself into the genre, I recommend first delving into The Centurions’ collection of accessible surf instrumentals – featuring only minimal but entertaining vocals. By appreciating the inextricable bond between surf and garage rock, rougher outfits (such as The Sonics, Iggy Pop and Charles Megira) become more enjoyable.
Above all, Surfers’ Pajama Party is an enjoyable and easy-to-listen-to album, and it is thereby a possible gateway for many into the garage rock sound.
The Sonics – Here Are The Sonics
Garage rock was perhaps at its rawest before the number of revivals. Released in 1965, The Sonics’ Here Are The Sonics is a seminal and influential album in the broader rock scene, from garage to punk to alternative rock. Gerry Roslie’s voice is both energizing and unnerving, frequently meshing with the distorted instruments of his band. On “Have Love Will Travel,” a cacophonous cover of the Richard Berry song, his screech transitions almost seamlessly into the saxophone solo (played by Rob Lind).
Of course, the songs are usually simpler than their 2000s counterparts, but the band was remarkably innovative for their time. “Psycho” is a structurally dynamic track, incorporating familiar surf rock riffs; and garage rock has come to be associated with teenage frustration and sexuality by virtue of playful songs such as “Money” and “Walkin’ The Dog.”
Garage rock was also noisier in the ’60s, however, which is why I left The Sonics til the end. By no means is it inferior to the rock albums above; rather, it is probable that some may not be able to appreciate the harsher sounds of the project. They will overlook, unfortunately, the unique character of Rosalie’s vocals and the lively instrumental rhythms.