Alternative rock

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical genres, styles, eras and events

Alternative rock
Stylistic origins: Punk, Post-punk, Hardcore
Cultural origins: early 1980s United Kingdom and United States
Typical instruments: Guitar - Bass - Drums
Mainstream popularity: Limited prior to the success of grunge and Britpop in the 1990s. Widespread since then, although many artists remain underground.
Derivative forms: Indie - Grunge
Britpop - College rock - Dream pop - Gothic rock - Grunge - Indie pop - Indie rock - Noise pop - Paisley Underground - Post-rock - Shoegazing - Twee pop
Fusion genres
Alternative metal - Gothabilly - Industrial rock - Madchester - Post-punk revival - Riot Grrrl
Regional scenes
Massachusetts - Seattle, Washington - Illinois - Maryland - Manchester, England
Other topics
Bands - College radio - History - Indie (music) - Lollapalooza

Alternative rock (also called alternative music or simply alternative) is a genre of rock music that emerged in the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. The name "alternative" was coined in the 1980s to describe punk rock-inspired bands on independent record labels that didn't fit into the mainstream genres of the time. As a specific genre of music, alternative rock consists of various subgenres that have emerged from the indie music scene since the 1980s, such as grunge, indie rock, Britpop, gothic rock, and indie pop. These genres are unified by their collective debt to the style and/or ethos of punk, which laid the groundwork for alternative music in the 1970s.

Though the genre is considered to be rock, some of its subgenres are influenced by folk music, reggae, electronic music and jazz among other genres. At times alternative rock has been used as a catch-all phrase for rock music from underground artists in the 1980s, all music descended from punk rock (including punk itself, New Wave, and post-punk), and, ironically, for rock music in general in the 1990s and 2000s.

The term "alternative rock"

The music now known as alternative rock was known by a variety of terms before "alternative" came into common use. " College rock" was used in the United States to describe the music during the 1980s due to its links to the college radio circuit and the tastes of college students. In the United Kingdom the term "indie" was preferred; by 1985 the term "indie" had come to mean a particular genre, or group of subgenres, rather than a simple demarcation of status. "Indie rock" was also largely synonymous with the genre in the United States up until the genre's commercial breakthrough in the early 1990s due to the majority of the bands belonging to independent labels.

By 1990 the music was being termed "alternative rock". The term "alternative" had originated sometime around the mid-1980s; it was an extension of the phrases "new music" and "post modern", both for the freshness of the music and its tendency to recontextualize the sounds of the past, which were commonly used by music industry of the time to denote cutting edge music. Thus the original use of the term was often broader than it has come to be understood, encompassing punk rock, New Wave, post-punk, and even pop music, along with the occasional "college"/"indie" rock, all music found on the American "commercial alternative" radio stations of the time such as Los Angeles' KROQ-FM. The use of the term "alternative" gained popular exposure during 1991 with the implementation of alternative music categories in the Grammy Awards and the MTV Video Music Awards, as well as the success of Lollapalooza, where festival founder and Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell coined the term "Alternative Nation".


"Alternative rock" is essentially an umbrella term for underground music that has emerged in the wake of the punk rock movement since the mid 1980s. Throughout much of its history, alternative rock has been largely defined by its rejection of the commercialism of mainstream culture. Alternative bands during the 1980s generally played in small clubs, recorded for indie labels, and spread their popularity through word of mouth. As such, there is no set musical style for alternative rock as a whole, although common traits among many alternative bands and subgenres include distorted or jangly guitars. Sounds range from the dirty guitars of grunge and the gloomy soundscapes of gothic rock, to the guitar pop revivalism of Britpop and the shambling innocence of twee pop, to name just a few examples. Lyrics in alternative rock songs typically address topics of greater social concern, such as drug use, depression, and environmentalism, an approach that developed as a reflection of the social and economic strains in the United States and United Kingdom of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In the early 1980s a handful of college radio stations, like Danbury, Connecticut's WXCI, and WPRB in Princeton, NJ, and Brown University's WBRU broadcast alternative rock in the United States. Most commercial stations ignored the genre. Alternative rock became more popular and spread among other college stations in the mid-1980s, which served as one of the major outlets of exposure for the music. Alternative rock was played extensively on the radio in the UK, particularly by DJs such as John Peel (who championed alternative music on BBC Radio 1), Richard Skinner, and Annie Nightingale. Artists that had cult followings in the United States received greater exposure through British national radio and the weekly press, and many alternative bands had chart success there. Finally, in the late 1980s in North America, commercial stations such as Boston, Massachusetts's WFNX and Los Angeles, California's KROQ began playing alternative rock, pioneering the modern rock radio format. Outside of North America, Double J, a government-funded radio station in Sydney, Australia and the Melbourne based independent radio station 3RRR began broadcasting alternative rock throughout the 1980s. In 1990, Double J, now known as Triple J, began broadcasting nationally, albeit with what some perceived as a watered down format. On television, MTV would occasionally show alternative videos late at night during the 1980s. In 1986 MTV in the United States began airing the late night alternative music program 120 Minutes, which would serve as a major outlet of exposure for the genre prior to its commercial breakthrough in the 1990s.

Although alternative artists of the 1980s never generated spectacular album sales, they exerted a considerable influence on the generation of musicians who came of age in the 80s and laid the groundwork for their success. The popular and commercial success of Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind took alternative rock into the mainstream, establishing its commercial and cultural viability. As a result, alternative rock became the most popular form of rock music of the decade and many alternative bands garnered commercial and critical success. However, many of these artists rejected success, for it conflicted with the rebellious, DIY ethic the genre had espoused prior to mainstream exposure and their ideas of artistic authenticity. As many of the genre's key groups broke up or retreated from the limelight, alternative rock declined from mainstream prominence.

In the first decade of the 21st century, mainstream rock has continued to evolve beyond alternative's 80s roots and low-fidelity ethos. Today's most popular rock music acts, typified by youth-oriented modern rock groups such as Linkin Park, incorporate complex electronic beats and highly produced albums, but owe a heavy debt to their metal and grunge influences. In spite of being influenced by alternative rock, many fans of the genre do not see these bands as being alternative, but instead as part of the nu metal genre. However, in 2004 alternative rock received renewed mainstream attention with the popularity of indie rock and post-punk revival artists such as Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand, respectively.

Alternative rock in the United States

Early American alternative bands such as R.E.M., The Feelies, and Violent Femmes combined punk influences with folk music and mainstream music influences. R.E.M. was the most immediately successful; its debut album 1983's Murmur entered the Top 40 and spawned a number of jangle pop followers. One of the many jangle pop scenes of the early 80s, Los Angeles' Paisley Underground was a revival of 60s sounds, incorporating psychedelia, rich vocal harmonies and the guitar interplay of folk rock as well as punk and underground influences such as The Velvet Underground.

American indie labels SST Records, Twin/Tone Records, Touch & Go Records, and Dischord Records presided over the shift from the hardcore punk that dominated the American underground scene at that point to the more diverse styles of alternative rock that were emerging. Minneapolis bands Hüsker Dü and The Replacements were indicative of this shift. Both started out as punk rock bands, but soon they expanded their sounds and became more melodic, culminating in Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and The Replacements' Let It Be, both released in 1984. The albums, as well as the follow-up material, were critically acclaimed and drew attention to the burgeoning alternative genre. That year SST Records also released landmark alternative albums by the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, who mixed punk with funk and country, respectively.

R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü set the blueprint for much of alternative rock of the 1980s, both sonically and in how they approached their careers. In the late 80s, the US underground scene and college radio were dominated by college rock bands like the Pixies, They Might Be Giants, Dinosaur Jr, and Throwing Muses as well as post-punk survivors from Britain. Another major force was the noise rock of Sonic Youth, Big Black, Butthole Surfers, and others. By the end of the decade, a number of alternative bands began to sign to major labels. While early major label signings Hüsker Dü and the Replacements had little success, late 80's major label signings R.E.M. and Jane's Addiction achieved gold and platinum records, setting the stage for alternative's later breakthrough. Some bands like the Pixies had massive success overseas while being ignored domestically. By the start of the 90s the music industry was abuzz about alternative rock's commercial possibilities and actively courted alternative bands including Dinosaur Jr, fIREHOSE, and Nirvana.

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth
Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth

Grunge, an alternative subgenre created in Seattle, Washington in the 80s that synthesized heavy metal and hardcore punk, launched a large movement in mainstream music in the early 90s. The year 1991 was to become a significant year for alternative rock and in particular grunge, with the release of Nirvana's second and most successful album Nevermind, Pearl Jam's breakthrough debut Ten, Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Nirvana's surprise success with Nevermind heralded a "new openess to alternative rock" among commercial radio stations and fans of more traditional rock sounds, and opened doors for more hard rock-oriented alternative bands in particular. While "alternative" was simply an umbrella term for a diverse collection of underground rock bands, Nirvana and similar groups gave it a reputation for being a distinct style of guitar based rock which combined elements of punk and metal; their creation met with considerable commercial success.

The explosion of alternative rock was aided by MTV and Lollapalooza, a touring festival of diverse bands which helped expose and popularize alternative groups such as Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Hole. By the mid-90s, alternative was synonymous with grunge in the eyes of the mass media and the general public, and a supposed " alternative culture" was being marketed to the mainstream in much the same way as the hippie counterculture had in the 1960s (the existence of any such culture is debatable, and is often seen by some fans of the music to have been a creation of the media). During the 1990s, many artists who did not fit the "alternative" label were nonetheless given it by mainstream record labels in the hopes of capitalizing on its popularity. Some pop musicians, such as Alanis Morissette and Hootie & the Blowfish were given the label on the basis of nuanced differences from other pop artists. Many pop punk bands such as Green Day and The Offspring were also labeled "alternative". The most drastic mislabeling was given to African-American artists. African-American artists whose music did not fall into the genres of R&B, hip-hop, or pop, such as folk musician Tracy Chapman and heavy metal band Living Colour, were labelled alternative by the music industry despite the fact that their music did not derive from punk or post-punk influences. Additionally, post-grunge bands such as Third Eye Blind, The Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox Twenty took the tropes of alternative rock and commercialized them. Nevertheless, alternative bands who were leery of broad commercial success and stayed underground were termed "indie rock" and developed movements such as lo-fi, a genre that espoused a return to the original ethos of alternative music. Labels such as Matador Records, Merge Records, and Dischord, and indie rockers like Pavement, Liz Phair, Superchunk, Fugazi, and Sleater-Kinney dominated the American indie scene for most of the 1990s.

Alternative's mainstream prominence declined due to a number of events, notably the death of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain in 1994 and Pearl Jam's lawsuit against concert venue promoter Ticketmaster which in effect barred them from playing many major venues around the country. A signifier of alternative rock's declining popularity was the hiatus of the Lollapalooza festival after an unsuccessful attempt to find a headliner in 1998; the hiatus would continue until 2003. By the start of the 21st century many major alternative bands, including Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Rage Against the Machine, and Hole had broken up or were on hiatus. Meanwhile indie rock diversified; along with the more conventional indie rock sounds of Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, and Death Cab for Cutie, various strains of indie rock including the garage rock revival of The White Stripes and The Strokes as well as the neo post-punk sounds of Interpol and The Killers achieved mainstream success.

Alternative rock in the United Kingdom

Gothic rock developed out of late-70s British post-punk. Most of the first goth bands, including Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and The Cure, are labeled as both post-punk and gothic rock. Gothic rock began to develop into its own in the early 80s with the opening of The Batcave nightclub and the creation of the goth subculture. By the mid-80s, goth bands such as The Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, and Fields of the Nephilim achieved success on the UK pop charts. Meanwhile Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Cure moved away from goth stylistically and broadened their sound to become internationally successful by the start of the 1990s.

British indie rock and indie pop drew from the tradition of Scottish post-punk bands such as Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, utilizing jangly, shambling guitars and clever wordplay. The most popular and influential band to emerge from this lineage was Manchester, England's The Smiths. Led by the songwriting partnership of singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, The Smiths managed to score a number of hits and influence a generation of bands while signed to an independent label, Rough Trade Records. Their embrace of the guitar in an era of synthesizers is viewed to have signaled the end of the New Wave era in Britain; the band also managed to gain a sizable cult following in the United States. Indie rock bands such as The Housemartins, James, and The Wedding Present emerged in the wake of The Smiths. The Wedding Present also featured on the C86 cassette, a premium offered by the NME in 1986. Featuring an array of bands including Primal Scream, The Pastels, and the Soup Dragons, the cassette not only was a major influence on the development of twee pop but the British indie scene as a whole.

At the other end of the alternative rock spectrum, The Jesus and Mary Chain wrapped their pop melodies in walls of guitar noise, while New Order emerged from the demise of post-punk band Joy Division and experimented with techno and house music, forging the alternative dance style. The Mary Chain, along with the dream pop of Cocteau Twins and the space rock of Spacemen 3, were the influences for the shoegazing movement of the late-80s. Named for the fact that the bands often stared at their feet onstage, shoegazing bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, and Lush dominated the British music press at the end of the decade along with the drug-fueled Madchester scene. Based around The Haçienda, a nightclub in Manchester owned by New Order and Factory Records, Madchester bands such as The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays mixed traditional guitar pop, dance music, and rave culture, achieving massive mainstream success.

With the decline of the Madchester scene and the unglamorousness of shoegazing, the tide of grunge from America dominated the British alternative scene and music press in the early 90s. In contrast, only a few British alternative bands, most notably Radiohead and Bush, were able to make any sort of impression back in the States. As a reaction, a flurry of defiantly British bands emerged that wished to "get rid of grunge" and "declare war on America", taking the public and native music press by storm. Dubbed "Britpop" by the media, this movement represented by Oasis, Blur, Suede, and Pulp was the British equivalent of the grunge explosion, for not only did it propel alternative rock to the top of the charts in its respective country, but it centered it on a revitalization of British youth culture celebrated as " Cool Britannia". In 1995 the Britpop phenomenon culminated in a rivarly between its two chief groups, Oasis and Blur, symbolized by their release of competing singles on the same day. Blur won " The Battle of Britpop", but Oasis' second album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? went on to become the third best-selling album in Britain's history; Oasis also had major commercial success overseas and even charted hits in the United States.

Britpop faded as Oasis' third album Be Here Now received lackluster reviews and Blur began to incorporate influence from American alternative rock. At the same time Radiohead achieved critical acclaim with its 1997 album OK Computer, which was a marked contrast with the traditionalism of Britpop. Radiohead, along with post-Britpop groups like Travis and Coldplay, were major forces in British rock in the subsequent years. Recently British indie rock has experienced a resurgence, spurred in part by the success the Strokes achieved in the UK prior to their domestic breakthrough. Like modern American indie rock, many British indie bands such as Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, Bloc Party, and Arctic Monkeys draw influence from post-punk groups such as Joy Division, Wire, and Gang of Four.

Alternative rock in other countries

Canadian band The Arcade Fire
Canadian band The Arcade Fire

Australia has produced a number of notable alternative bands, including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Go-Betweens, Dead Can Dance, Silverchair, and The Vines. Much like America's Lollapalooza festival, Australia's Big Day Out festival serves as a touring showcase for domestic and foreign alternative artists. To the east, New Zealand's Dunedin Sound was based around the university city of Dunedin and the Flying Nun Records label. The genre had its heyday during the mid 80s and produced bands such as The Bats, The Clean, and The Chills.

Mainstream alternative rock in Canada ranges from the humorous pop of Barenaked Ladies and Crash Test Dummies to the post-grunge of Our Lady Peace, Matthew Good and I Mother Earth. In recent years cities like Montreal and Toronto have become important centers of Canadian indie rock, home to The Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Broken Social Scene, and numerous others.

The Sugarcubes were one of the first internationally successful bands from Iceland. After the band's breakup, vocalist Björk embarked on a solo career that incorporated influences including trip hop, jazz, and electronica in addition to alternative rock. Icelandic indie rock bands include Múm and Sigur Rós. Continental Europe has produced numerous industrial rock bands like KMFDM.

Japan has an active noise rock scene characterized by groups such as Boredoms and Melt-Banana. Indie pop band Shonen Knife have been frequently cited as an influence by American alternative artists including Nirvana and Sonic Youth.

Underground pop-influencd alternative rock went mainstream in the Philippines during the early to late 1990s. Alternative Philippine rock bands include Eraserheads, Yano, Parokya ni Edgar, Rivermaya, Sugarfree, and the Itchyworms.


  • Punk rock
  • Post punk
  • New Wave
  • Hardcore punk


  • Alternative dance
  • Alternative metal
  • Baggy
  • Britpop
  • C86
  • Christian alternative rock
  • College rock
  • Dream pop
  • Dunedin Sound
  • Geek rock
  • Gothabilly
  • Gothic rock
  • Grebo
  • Grunge
  • Indie pop
  • Indie rock
  • Indietronica
  • Industrial rock
  • Jam band
  • Jangle pop
  • Lo-fi
  • Madchester
  • Math rock
  • Noise pop
  • Noise rock
  • Paisley Underground
  • Post-grunge
  • Post-rock
  • Post-punk revival
  • Psychobilly
  • Riot Grrrl
  • Sadcore
  • Shoegazing
  • Space rock
  • Twee pop
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