A term used when looking at a stone and talking about a different stone... Ow, okay, just kidding.
Rock that is alternative. Weird. Different, somehow. Alternatively, you could define the term as any form of rock that doesn't fit the criteria for "classic" first-wave rock, Progressive Rock, Punk Rock, Post-Punk, hard rock, or straight Heavy Metal (and its variants). Also known as "indie" in the UKnote .
The general consensus is that alternative rock evolved from Post-Punk back in the early '80s, with R.E.M.'s 1981 debut single "Radio Free Europe" typically being regarded as the de-facto starting point. However, many would argue that post-punk itself was technically alternative music, with artists like Wire, Talking Heads, The Cure, and Joy Division generally agreed to be "alternative" in some sense of the term (and if not that, they're typically considered major influences on alternative rock). However, others frequently cite the Velvet Underground, who predate punk itself by a decade, as the actual first alternative band (and a few point to the even earlier work by Hasil Adkins). There were also artists like Captain Beefheart, Can, Robert Wyatt, The Shaggs, Scott Walker, and Tom Waits who were kicking around in the late 60's-70's doing stuff that would've been called "alternative" if they debuted with that kind of sound during or immediately before the early 80's. Also, there were several artists, such as David Bowie, Frank Zappa, The Fugs, The Stooges, Roxy Music, Patti Smith, Sparks, Television, Pink Floyd and even The Beatles, who whilst weren't really alternative acts in general, recorded material that would serve as major building blocks for what would become alternative in the future.
For the rest of the eighties, it blossomed underground, and was truly "alternative"; if you were bored of all that tiresome Hair Metal, you could just switch on the college campus radio station and hear the music of moderately obscure bands like R.E.M., The Smiths, The Replacements, The Fall, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen and Dinosaur Jr..
There was obviously an audience for alternative or college rock, but the only way college radio acts got popular in the eighties was to either make your sound more mainstream friendly (Tears for Fears, U2), have a Black Sheep Hit (Simple Minds, Was (Not Was)), or already be a commercially successful musician who just happened to get popular on college radio (Peter Gabriel, Sting). Between 1987 and 1989, however, the genre started breaking through to pop radio, with bands like R.E.M., The B-52s, The Cure, Midnight Oil, New Order and Love and Rockets all reaching the Top 40. Other more accessible alt-rock acts, like 10,000 Maniacs and Jane's Addiction, also found their way into the mainstream by the end of the '80s even if they didn't crack the Top 40. The biggest acts that had started playing clubs in the early '80s were playing stadiums by the end of the decade. For instance, Depeche Mode sold out the 90,000 seat Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California in June 1988, which acted as a watershed moment for the rise in popularity of left-of-center college radio acts in the United States.
R.E.M., The Cure, and Depeche Mode became three of the biggest names in rock music by 1989 without any of them compromising their alternative ethos; R.E.M. even signed to Warner (Bros.) Records in 1988 on the condition they be given total artistic and creative control of their music... and the major label agreed (which, tellingly, was the only reason why R.E.M. signed onto them instead of onto other labels offering much more lucrative deals).
Alternative Rock was also a really diverse field at this point, reuniting under the same umbrella a lot of subgenres, like:
- Beastie Boys' Alternative Hip Hop
- Big Country's Scottish/Celtic Rock
- The Blue Nile's jazzy, intricately produced Sophisti-Pop
- Cocteau Twins' Dream Pop
- The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees' Goth Rock
- Daniel Amos' unconventional take on Christian Rock
- Faith No More and Jane's Addiction's heavy and varied Alternative Metal
- The Fall and Talking Heads' angular Post-Punk (post-punk is typically described as an ancestor genre to alternative rock, though as mentioned before, some analysts see enough of an overlap to consider the former a subgenre of the latter)
- Half Man Half Biscuit's unconventional take on Comedy Rock
- The Jesus and Mary Chain's catchy yet discordant Noise Pop
- Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Japan's (and later solo David Sylvian's) richly-layered and lyrical Art Rock
- Ministry and Nine Inch Nails' angsty Industrial Rock
- My Bloody Valentine's tranquil yet deafening-when-live Shoegazing
- New Order and Depeche Mode's melodramatic and poppy Alternative Dance
- Phish's improvisational Neo-Psychedelia
- The Pixies' surfy Indie Rock
- Red House Painters' depressing Slowcore
- R.E.M., The Smiths, and 10,000 Maniacs' Jangle Pop
- Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails' Industrial
- Sonic Youth's Noise Rock
- Talk Talk's first forays into Post-Rock
- They Might Be Giants' Geek Rock
- Tin Machine's Hard Rock-influenced proto-grunge sound
- The Melvins, Nirvana and Soundgarden's actual grunge sound
- Swans' indefinable "industrial noise alt experimental rock something" sound
- U2's first huge misstep
And many others.
Noticing this new trend in rock music, as well as the sizable increase in alternative-formatted radio stations, Billboard magazine launched the Modern Rock Tracks (now Alternative Songs) chart in September 1988. The history of this chart and its importance in tracking the history of the genres and the trends within it can be found here. MTV got on board with alternative music much earlier than Billboard did, launching the 120 Minutes block in 1986. The program, which ran until 2003, showcased alternative music videos, interviews, news and live performances.
Two major events in 1990 are credited for setting the stage for alternative's breakout success throughout the decade. First, the establishment of Interscope Records allowed younger and newer artists to find success in the music industry. Although Interscope catered to all kinds of genres, it gained prominence within alternative circles as bands such as Bush, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, and Primus would make their breakthrough albums there. Later, the Milli Vanilli lip-syncing scandal significantly damaged the reputation of mainstream pop music for over half-a-decade, resulting in many pop acts that weren't Madonna or Michael Jackson (pre-1993) falling out of favor with listeners and leading to an increase in demand for more authentic fare over the manufactured acts that dominated many radio stations throughout the '80snote .
Then 1991 came, and with the chart-topping R.E.M. album Out of Time and inaugural Lollapalooza serving as heralds of even bigger things to come, Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten became breakout successes, bringing the grunge subgenre, and Seattle, into the mainstream. Into a place the insular, attention-shy musicians didn't want to be. Throughout the rest of the decade, other alternative rock bands were made hugely popular, including Radiohead, Beck and The Smashing Pumpkins. It even inspired several new wave acts of the 80's nominally associated with alternative whom had fallen out of favour, including Duran Duran and The Human League, to be more understated to fit the new decade. However, this came at the expense of less grunge-sounding subtypes of alternative rock falling by the wayside, as record labels sought to capitalize on Nirvana's overnight success. Although grunge itself died soon after Kurt Cobain, alternative rock itself continued to be popular until... well, today. In fact, it is probably the dominant form of rock music in the mainstream right now.
In the mid-90's, a contrived search by major labels to find "the next Nirvana" saw most of the international underground scene trawled, which briefly did see a bunch of varied genre bands being signed to major labels as "alternative artists," such as Japanese experimental band Boredoms, Art Punk group Butthole Surfers, Oklahoman Psych-Punkers The Flaming Lips, and the Swing Revival or Ska Punk fad bands. However, once majors and rock radio began to embrace Post-Grunge, these artists were dropped in droves, with few exceptions (such as The Flaming Lips). It wasn't smooth sailing for the artists that weren't dropped by their major labels, either. Following departure of key personnel, the previously artist-friendly Elektra Records garnered the industry nickname "Neglektra", with acts like The Afghan Whigs, They Might Be Giants and even Metallica reporting that they felt mismanaged and underpromoted by the label. Most of these artists did not feel compelled to re-sign a new contract with their labels when their deal was up with them, and many returned to independent or self-run labels for the rest of their career.
The lack of originality on alternative radio caused indie rock, an outgrowth of the late-80's alternative sound, to basically become the new "alternative". In the same period, indie rock's figureheads, the California band Pavement, became celebrities of the underground with each of their albums garnering critical success. They even had a minor hit with "Cut Your Hair", all without betraying their underground roots or signing to a major label — they had all they ever needed at the indie label Matador. Guided By Voices also became an unlikely success story, at least for a while.
Another Alternative offshoot that became popular in the mid 90's was Britpop, which sounded refreshing to American underground rock fans when compared to the popular American Post-Grunge bands at the time. However most of Britpop was virtually ignored by most American rock fans with the exceptions of several Oasis songs (most notably "Wonderwall" and "Champagne Supernova"), Blur's "Song 2" and The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony". Blur, along with two other Britpop bands, Super Furry Animals and Pulp, became critically adored cult heroes in the United States and often played on underground radio. That change in tastes is a stark one, considering that British bands were all over alternative radio just a few years beforehand.
In the mid-2000's however, many American alternative stations decided they had grown tired of spinning Nu Metal and Post-Grunge (and to a lesser extent Pop Punk, which had become popular in the mid 90's) and began to play music from a handful of indie rock influenced bands that retained the original alternative sound instead of bands such as Creed and Nickelback. Music magazines called this movement "The Return of Rock", which was led by a handful of new young bands whose names all began with "The": The Hives, The Vines, The Donnas, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, The Mooney Suzuki, The Music, The White Stripes and The Strokes. Most of these bands— with the noteworthy exception of The White Stripes— have since fallen out of favor partially due to Critical Dissonance, but their success allowed Alternative radio to take a chance on other Indie Rock music, such as Death Cab for Cutie, The National, and Modest Mouse. Meanwhile, most of the folkier, softer or college-rock artists in the alternative scene largely migrated to a new radio format called adult album alternative, which catered those who wanted a lighter side to the alt-rock scene or missed the singer-songwriter days of the 1970s. The format birthed a mini-genre of alt-rock that saw considerable success with acts like Matchbox Twenty, Goo Goo Dolls, Sarah McLachlan and Counting Crows, while older bands like R.E.M. and Phish also found homes there. The format was tuned into the Americana and indie rock scenes much earlier than alternative radio was, with bands like Wilco and Spoon gaining traction there first.
Radiohead also remained wildly popular throughout the world, influencing bands that were heavily indebted to their sound. Some, such as Muse, Coldplay and Snow Patrol, made major commercial inroads in the United States.
Although Post-Grunge bands like Three Days Grace still have some popularity on alternative radio, it's currently becoming a more indie friendly territory (compare this more hard rock driven list of #1 singles on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart from 2003 to the indie friendly #1s on the same chart in 2012). The stations that never played the hard stuff, mostly independently owned, continue to be the major exporters of new music to American alternative radio. Post-Grunge and Nu Metal are still popular with rock fans, but you're more likely to hear those bands on an "Active Rock" station (you know the ones, those stations that play harder new rock in addition to Classic Rock).
Emo became a very big scene following the success of bands such as Weezer, Jimmy Eat World, My Chemical Romance, and Fall Out Boy. While it was a great scene while it lasted it was opposed on all sides by traditionalist punk rockers and emo haters in general. While it had some bands that aren't everyone's cup of tea, it was a vibrant and vital part of alternative rocks history for most of the '90s and 2000's and it shouldn't be dismissed due to the negative connotations people have chosen to label the name with. Recently it has made a form of comeback in the form of the Defend Pop Punk scene.
As the 2000's made way into the 2010's, alternative rock— and rock as a whole— faded from the public eye. The factors behind this are plentiful and cover too many topics for this wiki to cover alone, but the two biggest ones seem to be not only radically changing demographics in music listening, but also the creative stagnation of mainstream rock, with post-grunge and post-punk revival outstaying their welcomes in the US and UK, respectively, leading to public backlash. With no new forms of rock appearing to give a breath of fresh air, music listeners generally gravitated away from the supergenre altogether, leading pop, hip-hop, and electronic music to rush to fill the resulting vacuum. These days, alternative rock is more "dormant" than "dead," but apart from the few and far-between likes of Ed Sheeran and Imagine Dragons— all of whom bring together so many different styles that whether or not they count as "rock" is still an intense subject of debate— the genre remains relegated to cult followings and nostalgia stations. Maybe someday alternative rock will make a comeback, but when— or even if— that will happen cannot be determined.
For a list of artists, see Alternative Indie.
Alternative rock genresThe term covers many, many different subgenres, including but not limited to:
- Alternative Country
- Alternative Dance
- Alternative Hip Hop (to a degree)
- Alternative Metal
- Baroque Pop
- Dream Pop
- Emo Music
- Goth Rock
- Indie Rock
- Jangle Pop
- Math Rock
- Noise Rock
- Noise Pop
- Pop Punk
- Post-Punk (although for most of the 80's Post Punk = Alternative Rock)
- Space Rock