Amy Ray and Emily Saliers first performed together in high school, but they only named themselves the Indigo Girls in 1985 and released their first album ‘Strange Fire’ in 1987. It was the release of their second album ‘Indigo Girls’ which launched them into the public recognition and set them onto a path which resulted in a string of albums through the early nineties where they could apparently do no wrong.
It was around 1990 that I first heard them – their exceptional harmonies and emotive songwriting readily differentiated them from most other bands within the folk-rock genre. In particular a tape of ‘Nomads Indians Saints’ occupied a regular slot on the living room hi-fi of our shared house and remains indelibly hard-wired to this day. This opportunity to compile a top 10 albums list was a great excuse to catch up with the entire back catalogue. The Indigo Girls have remained true to their sound throughout and their songwriting is consistent over an impressive 30 plus years, but they have not managed to attain the same heights that they positively owned in the early nineties. It seems fair to say that the Indigo Girls have a specific sweet spot that may not suit everyone but clearly works for many people given their success and longevity.
Number 10: Look Long (2020)
Not a bad effort given they are thirty years into a career and surely an indication that there may still be more to come. They recombined with the producer of ‘Come On Now Social’, resulting in album with a mixture of trademark folk and funkier, guitar-driven tracks. The difference between tracks written by Amy and those by Emily is more evident than on earlier works.
Number 9: Shaming of the Sun (1997)
It has a late nineties feel, with a jaunty up-tempo rocky sound where nothing is wrong. It has all the same signature songwriting and harmonies, but it seems like they were looking to change their sound and it doesn’t quite have the same originality and creativity as their earlier work, effectively serving to mark the end of their peak period.
Number 8: All That We Let In (2004)
A good solid album which doesn’t risk too much despite a briefly entertaining dalliance with ska rhythm. This is mostly on-point folk country rock showcasing their quality vocal harmonies and personal songwriting coupled with a quality backing band and no unnecessary instruments.
Number 7: Despite Our Differences (2006)
A label change prior to this release resulted in a brighter and tighter sound when compared to their previous album. This is probably as close as they get to a classic rock and roll album and is a fine album in its own right. This record would be higher placed if they were a lesser band or the competition for the top five was not being occupied by their earlier works.
Number 6: Come On Now Social (1999)
Recorded at the point in their career where they are consciously expanding their sound in a number of ways after ten years of successful albums and a distinctive style. ‘Go’ opens with their rockiest sound up to that point. This record sounds decidedly edgy in places and provides a deal of engagement and interest. They are obviously experimenting and a lot of this works well when compared to ‘Shaming Of The Sun’, their previous effort.
Number 5: Swamp Orphelia (1994)
A good album with strong songs, but it feels slightly over-produced throughout on the harmonies, where fills and additional instruments detract from their obvious strengths without adding anything significant. It is difficult to fault, but it doesn’t feel as good as the top three studio albums listed here. It is worth pointing out this album is sufficiently strong to have already been featured as a ‘Classic Americana Album’ for AUK. ‘Least Complicated’ and ‘Power Of Two’ are the best-known songs but ‘Dead Man’s Hill’ is a personal favourite.
Number 4: 1200 Curfews (1995)
Its inclusion in this list is arguably somewhat of a cheat, but this album captures Amy and Emily at a great point in their career with rockier band versions of many of their songs. It is a double live album from the ‘Swamp Orphelia’ tour and if you want to listen to a live greatest hits album, look no further. It has nearly all their best songs and some decent cover versions of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Neil Young as well as Buffy Sainte-Marie. This remains my most played Indigo Girls album, an easy choice if you just fancy listening to some Indigo Girls and don’t have any specific album in mind.
Number 3: Nomads Indians Saints (1990)
The first album of theirs that I grew to love. They have expanded their songwriting, the sound is halfway between a duet and a band with most of the best bits of both. The production style feels of its time and has evolved from their second album. ‘Welcome Me’ is a personal highlight, with ‘Hammer And A Nail’, ‘World Falls’ and ‘Pushing The Needle Too Far’ all being notable. The difference between the songwriting of Emily and Amy is less than on later albums and that closeness is apparent on every song. Although there are not many well-known songs on this collection, there is little filler and the result is a well-balanced record.
Number 2: Rites Of Passage (1992)
Their third release provided a tight band sound with a host of additional guests including Jackson Browne and David Crosby. There are some great songs with ‘Galileo’, ‘Ghost’ and ‘Jonas and Ezekial’ being particularly noteworthy. They managed to successfully add a whole bunch of stuff including strings without excessive studio polish removing the essence of their sound. The vocals are well mixed and the songwriting is reflective with some hints of them not taking themselves too seriously, although I remain unconvinced by the cover of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Overall this arguably remains their best band album and is well worth the time.
Number 1: Indigo Girls (1989)
Their first major-label release has a basic, raw sound and emotional intensity that is not easily surpassed. For this reason, if you want to experience what they do best, just stick this on. Anyone who survived the Nineties will have heard ‘Closer to Fine’, which remains their best-known song with ‘Kid Fears’ and ‘Love’s Recovery’ worth mentioning. It is more earnest and direct folk than their later works which many may prefer but the songwriting is poetic, the guitar is bright and immediate, vocals are clear and present and the result is engaging and emotive. That’s just about it and when done well, that’s about all you need.