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. Only way you can describe it, really. Also known as "indie" in the UK (in The United States, it describes a specific subgenre of alternative rock, the one that bands such as Pavement, The Decemberists, and Death Cab for Cutie play. Also like "alternative," the "indie" in this genre's name is not to be taken literally — many key Indie Rock bands have left their independent labels to sign to major labels and the term "Indie Rock" now describes the general aesthetic and overall sound these bands perform).
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, others frequently cite the Velvet Underground, who predate punk itself by a decade, as the actual first alternative band. There were also artists like David Bowie, Pere Ubu, Patti Smith, Scott Walker, Sparks and Television who were kicking around in the mid-to-late-70's doing stuff that wasn't quite Proto Punk nor Post-Punk, and would've been called "alternative" if they debuted with that kind of sound during or immediately before the early 80's. Additionally, some bands that started off in the 1970s performing genres like new wave, power pop, art rock, hardcore punk and post-punk eventually moved into alternative rock by the early 1980s. For instance, Talking Heads and The Cure never quite fit in with the punk scenes in New York and London, respectively, but quickly established themselves as watershed acts in the early years of alternative rock.
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, and Dinosaur Jr..
There was obviously an audience for alternative or college rock, but only a few of these bands got popular in the eighties. 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.
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 Brothers Records in 1988 on the condition they be given total artistic and creative control of their music... and the major label agreed.
Alternative Rock was also a really diverse field at this point, reuniting under the same umbrella a lot of subgenres, like:
- Big Country's Scottish/Celtic Rock
- The Blue Nile's jazzy, intricately produced Sophisti-Pop
- Cocteau Twins' Dream Pop
- Daniel Amos' unconventional take on Christian Rock
- The Fall's angular Post-Punk
- Kate Bush's lyrical Art Rock
- My Bloody Valentine's tranquil yet deafening when live Shoegazing
- Nine Inch Nails' angsty Industrial Rock
- 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. and The Smiths' Jangle Pop
- Sonic Youth's Noise Rock
- 10,000 Maniacs' folky Pop Rock
- They Might Be Giants' Geek Rock
- 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.
Then 1991 came, and everyone spontaneously decided to make alternative rock hugely popular in the mainstream by buying loads of copies of R.E.M.'s Out of Time, Nirvana's Nevermind, and Pearl Jam's Ten, bringing grunge into the limelight in the process. Into a place the musicians didn't want to be. Throughout the rest of the decade, other alternative rock bands were made hugely popular, including Radiohead (previously called On a Friday) and The Smashing Pumpkins. Although grunge itself died with 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, Celtic singer Loreena McKennit 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).
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 college 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.
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.
For a list of artists, see Alternative Indie.
The 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