Here Are 6 Truly Bizarre Debuts from 2000s-Era Indie Rock Bands

Revisiting the very weird seeds that sprouted a handful of decade-defining artists.
Here Are 6 Truly Bizarre Debuts from 2000s-Era Indie Rock Bands

Revisiting the very weird seeds that sprouted a handful of decade-defining artists.

Words: Mike LeSuer

photo by Natasha Aftandilians

May 06, 2020

TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe / photo by Natasha Aftandilians

Have you ever gotten hooked on a band somewhat late in their career and found that working your way back through their catalog feels like scrolling through new friends’ profile pictures on Facebook? The first few releases are familiar, and then you hit a gap spanning a significant period of time, revealing something almost totally unrecognizable on the next record—you really need to squint to convince yourself what you’re hearing is the same band NPR, Pitchfork, and that Anthony guy with the videos are all talking up at the moment. 

Maybe it’s some quarantine-inspired nostalgia kicking in, but I’ve spent the past few months listening through some albums I haven’t heard in a decade or so, and it’s re-sparked an interest in a few records which would feel a little like embarrassing yearbook photos if they didn’t hold up surprisingly well. Unlike Grammy-winners Arcade Fire’s 2002 passively chaotic single “Jingle Bell Rock,” these records, for the most part, contain so much of the personality these artists continued to exhibit on later releases, only with significantly less production value—and considerably lower stakes.

Chromatics, Chrome Rats vs Basement Rutz (2003)

Early Chromatics recordings are as barbed as their newer, more familiar work is smooth, countering the glossy electronics of Kill for Love with extremely raw post-punk in the group’s earliest iteration. Johnny and Ruth wouldn’t join the band for another three years when they dropped Chrome Rats in 2003, and Adam Miller instead employing members of punk groups like Gossip and Shoplifting to round out his project (Michelle DaRosa from Straylight Run also played bass during this period). Sort of a Theseus’ ship situation here, but yeah, technically the stripped-to-the-bone no wave of tracks like “Washed Up on a Beach of Infants” belong to the Chromatics canon. 

Grizzly Bear, Horn of Plenty (2004)

This album’s pretty well-known, but it’s always odd revisiting the eerie, cavernous, near-ambient debut from a band known for its lush, maximalist production that earned shouts from Jay-Z and Das Racist, and was sampled by G-Eazy, Childish Gambino, and Chiddy Bang in their heyday. Horn of Plenty is essentially the exact opposite of what the band accomplished on Veckatimest—an album that soundtracked a Hollywood movie—the subterranean, loosely hewn-together folk of the record matching the fireside shambles of early Woods albums. A few familiar constants—mostly vocals—tether the 2009 rework of “Deep Sea Diver” for the Dark Was the Night comp to the HoP original, though the compositions of this record are pretty far removed even from their 2006 follow-up.

Hot Hot Heat, Scenes One Through Thirteen (2002)

This is my favorite one to talk about—the same year Hot Hot Heat dropped their very-much-of-its-time debut, they also released a comp of pre-Make Up the Breakdown recordings chronicling their time as a nearly unrecognizable batshit synth-punk/no wave group. It’s highly obnoxious in all the best ways, disregarding most of the electroclash conventions established at the time by groups like The Faint and Fischerspooner, instead opting for a hardcore mentality the band obviously never revisited in their very mid-aughts indie rock career. “Word to Water” and “Haircut Economics” have more in common with the pre-Death from Above projects of Jesse Keeler than they do anything anyone in, like, Jet ever did.

The National, The National (2001)

The National’s self-titled debut is unique only in that it sounds exactly like the band continues to sound up until the present moment, only entirely devoid of their moody personality. It sounds like it came from some bizarro universe where they loosely committed to some alt-country bit, or, like, they’re singing Calexico songs at karaoke. “The Perfect Song” and “Pay for Me” exhibit an early preview of their capacity to pen memorable pop songs, only…without any sort of depth? Perhaps the weirdest cut is “29 Years,” which falls completely outside of the whole Americana thing (and debuts the bridge from “Slow Show”), and is instead one of the most striking minimalist lo-fi songs of the era. 

TV on the Radio, OK Calculator (2002)

I mean, first of all it’s called OK Calculator. Let’s see, what else…the song “Robots”? “Pictures of Oprah fucking robots for sale on eBay—$10”? This album only preceded the grimy, atmospheric art-rock of Return to Cookie Mountain by four years, but holy shit is this thing a different breed of bizarre. Some of these tracks were repurposed for later use, but the band—at the time just Tunde Adebimpe and Dave Sitek—were sort of just dicking around at this point, inadvertently recording timeless lo-fi bizarre bangers like “Bicycles Are Red Hot.” 

WHY?, Oaklandazulasylum (2003)

Before Alopecia, WHY? was solely the project of Yoni Wolf, one among a dozen or so white kids from small American cities releasing highly experimental hip-hop records through their label Anticon. Before enlisting a full band and writing albums about boners and hair loss, Yoni cobbled together an album of fragments of crude hip-hop demos, most tracks clocking in around two minutes (Yoni revisited this structure on last year’s AOKOHIO, a pivot back to solo recordings). “Dirty Glass” is memorably built upon samples from that plastic toy barn everyone in the ’90s grew up with, which makes all kinds of barnyard sounds, while “Bad Entropy” opens with a deadpan Yoni-ism: “I’m recording the vocals in my underwear.” FL