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Alternative Rock

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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, straight Heavy Metal (and its variants), or any other form of rock that held a prominent mainstream presence before 1987-1991. 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, Joy Division, XTC, and The B-52s generally agreed to be "alternative" in some sense of the term (and if not that, they're typically considered major influences on alternative rock). There are no real set explicit differences between post-punk and early alternative music; A large number of post-punk and early new wave acts - including nearly all of the bands listed above - would more explicitly adopt alternative rock as the 80's went on, further muddying the distinction, and post-punk music would form the backbone of early alternative radio playlists. Some first generation punk bands like X and Siouxsie and the Banshees would also evolve their sounds towards alternative music during the 1980s. Much of the early alternative scene in the United States evolved from local hardcore punk scenes as bands began to add melody, pop song structure, sophisticated lyrics, and more accomplished musicianship to their sound. The 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad is considered an essential tome on the early history of alternative rock in the United States aside from R.E.M., and in particular focuses on how alternative evolved from punk.


However, alternative rock can traces its roots well past punk, and the two genres share many of the same influences. The Velvet Underground, is in hindsight often considered to be the first alternative rock band, and they predate punk itself by a decade. There were other artists like Hasil Adkins, Captain Beefheart, Can, Robert Wyatt, The Shaggs, Scott Walker, Tom Waits, and King Crimson who were kicking around in the late '60s and early '70s doing stuff that would've been called "alternative" if they debuted with that kind of sound during or immediately before the early '80s. Also, there were several artists, such as David Bowie, Frank Zappa, The Fugs, The Stooges, Roxy Music, Patti Smith, Sparks, Television, Tom Petty, 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.. The passionate cult followings these artists generated caused commercial radio to take notice, with pioneering stations like L.A.'s KROQ and Boston's WFNX offering a more polished take on alternative rock radio, while also regularly adding local and lesser known acts into their playlists just like the college stations did.

The alternative scene of the 1980s was dominated by medium-sized independent or semi-independent labels who often promoted the artists on their rosters as a unit, sometimes highlighting a specific sound or local scene that was heavily represented among those acts. The best known American alternative labels of this time included I.R.S. Records, Sub Pop, SST, Twin/Tone, Dischord, K Records, Enigma, Sire Records, Bar None, Touch and Go Records, Slash, Epitaph, Restless, Sympathy for the Record Industry, and Elektra Records. In Britian, where indie labels and scenes had flourished in the punk and post-punk eras, the most important alternative labels were 4AD Records, Factory Records, Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet, Mute Records, Fiction, Creation Records, Caroline, Postcard, One Little Indian, Cherry Red, Sarah Records, Fire Records, and Cooking Vinyl.

American fans heavily coveted import or stateside releases by the British labels, and the Brits often recognized the top American acts. Audiophiles sought imports for improved sound quality because stateside releases of British albums tended to be mastered from multi-generation safety tapes. The Rhode Island band Throwing Muses were one of the first American alternative groups to garner a British following, and were signed to 4AD in 1986 as their first American act, later joined by fellow New Englanders Pixies. Other examples include R.E.M. being critical darlings in the UK from the get-go (and eventually establishing a large fan following outside of the US eastern seaboard as well) and New Order becoming so well-known among the American urban scene that they eventually acquired a major label deal with Quincy Jones' Warner (Bros.) Records-backed Qwest Records in 1985 (as well as their predecessor Joy Division being a posthumous critical darling in the American music press). Additionally, The Smiths and Depeche Mode established prominent footholds on the American west coast, owing to their regular airplay on KROQ and its NorCal counterpart, KITS. Import Filter tended to apply, as the best alternative bands were often distributed by major labels overseas. I.R.S. Records proved to be the most popular of these labels in the US, as not only did they have R.E.M. on their roster, but also mainstream leaning acts like Buzzcocks, The English Beat, and The Go-Go's in addition to offbeat college radio favorites like Wall of Voodoo and Oingo Boingo. One I.R.S. act, the quirky husband-and-wife duo Timbuk3, were among the first college rock bands to break onto Top 40 radio, with their 1986 classic "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades". In the UK, meanwhile, Factory, Mute, and Rough Trade all simultaneously emerged as the "Big Three" of the British alternative scene, with their idiosyncratic approaches to the movement, favoring of artistic creative control (to the point where Factory never signed formal contracts with their artists— which came back to bite them when they ran out of money and unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a buyout with London Records, leading to their bankruptcy in 1992), and strong public and commercial presences cementing them as the most important and influential alternative labels east of the Atlantic.

There was obviously an audience for alternative or college rock on both sides of the Atlantic, 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); there were also odd cases where an artist's sound was both commercially successful and decidedly alternative in ethos, but wasn't recognized as alternative rock until decades later (Talk Talk, latter-day Talking Heads). 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). The other two major bands were already distributed by other Warner subsidiaries in the U.S., with the Cure on Elektra Records and Depeche Mode on Sire Records. Of the major labels, Warner seemed to invest the most in alternative that decade, as despite their notorious penny-pinching in all other areas (which had already become the subject of mockery among the likes of Devo and Frank Zappa, who had repeatedly butted heads with Warner execs in the past over more commercially risky endeavors like a contract-rushing quadruple-album), the label still had a reputation for being willing to take risks on less commercial acts and were still keen on demonstrating it.

Alternative Rock was also a really diverse field at this point, reuniting under the same umbrella a lot of subgenres, like:

And many others.

Aside from the US and UK, significant alternative scenes formed all across the world. Australia proved to be a significant hotbed for the style, with artists like Midnight Oil, The Go-Betweens, Hunters & Collectors, The Hoodoo Gurus, The Birthday Party and their singer Nick Cave, garnering cult popularity in the United States. New Zealand's distinct "Dunedin Sound" style, led by The Chills, proved to be influential on later indie rock. Argentina's Soda Stereo and Brazil's Legião Urbana became South America's most popular and influential alternative groups. Canada's alternative scene typically had a folky or country oriented sound, but most of the popular early bands there like The Tragically Hip, 54-40, and Blue Rodeo, tended not to crossover to the States or UK as successfully as the Aussie bands did. Ireland's U2, who never really fit well with either the new wave or post-punk scenes and quickly becoming one of the most popular bands in the world, adopted alternative rock as their style in the late 1980s. The Sugarcubes were the first band from Iceland, in any genre, to experience international commercial success as they became one of the most popular early alternative bands in both the US and UK, and they were also the launching pad for lead singer Björk's long and influential solo career.

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 Airplay) 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. The first few episodes were focused on "Light Rotation" videos, until producer (and later host) Dave Kendall refocused the show on the underground. Still, Sunday midnight airings relegated it to only the most dedicated (and those who kept VCR recordings). In the fall of 1987, as the genre picked up traction, MTV saw fit to create a specialty rotation for emergent artists called the "Buzz Bin" (retitled Buzz Clips in 1991, and finally Buzzworthy in 1998), which would mostly be home to new videos from alternative acts, and would have a notable impact on their fortunes, with many even entering heavy rotation on the channel. In addition to the weekly 120 Minutes, MTV aired a nightly alternative block, Post-Modern MTV, from 1988 to 1990. Another nightly show devoted to the genre, Alternative Nation, aired on MTV from 1992 to 1997. In 1996, MTV debuted MTV2, which in its early years was largely devoted to alternative music.

By this point, this style of music needed an overarching name to describe the varied and distinct artists that had become associated with it. Terms such as "college rock" (named after the place where it was most commonly found), "modern rock" (the term that had had risen in the radio business to describe the commercial format playing this music), "new music" or "new pop" (favored by print journalists and used to describe a whole range of synth and guitar bands, from mainstream new wavers like Duran Duran to cult names like The Fall), "post-punk" (although this term was later exclusively used to describe a separate but related genre), and "techno rock" (describing, specifically, alternative bands that used synthesizers and/or dance beats, like The Cure and New Order) were all used to varying degrees. "Alternative rock" however, became the predominant term used by the early 1990s. The term "alternative music" was coined by music writer Terry Tolkin in 1979 and later became used throughout the music industry. By 1991, the term had become mainstream, particularly after Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction used it to describe his travelling Lollapalooza festival, which helped define the genre in the early '90s. As an aside, Tolkin later became an influential A&R rep for Elektra Records, and help sign several of the alternative artists on that label's roster in the 1980s and '90s.

Three 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. Secondly, 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 . Lastly, the alternative dance subgenre had a major mainstream breakout in the United States following the commercial and critical success of New Order and Depeche Mode, with groups like Jesus Jones and EMF scoring major pop hits with a sound that mixed rock guitars with the latest acid house dance beats.

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. And yet poetically, driving the final stake into the waning Hair Metal scene that, much like most of the mainstream pop acts of yesteryear, was considered pompous and superficial. Throughout the rest of the decade, other alternative rock bands were made hugely popular, including Radiohead, BECK and The Smashing Pumpkins. The alternative rock bands that broke through in the early 90s paid plenty of respect to the artists that had influenced them, which inspired several new wave acts of the '80s 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-'90s, 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. Additionally, many commercial modern rock radio stations, which had previously been fairly adventurous in the styles and subgenres they had featured on air, eventually found their playlists pared down to mostly heavy guitar-oriented alt-rock bands by the late '90s.

The lack of originality on alternative radio caused indie rock, an outgrowth of the late-'80s 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. In the 1990s, the indie label scene changed entirely; While some older names like Epitaph, Sub Pop, Beggars Banquet, and 4AD continued to be major players, other important labels like IRS and Creation folded. In their place came new labels that similarly emphasized their roster as a unit. Labels that rose in prominence on the indie scene in the 1990s include the aforementioned Matador, Merge, Kill Rock Stars, Elephant 6, Bong Load, Domino, Saddle Creek, Polyvinyl, Jagjaguwar, Carpark, Thrill Jockey, Warp, Barsuk, Fueled by Ramen, XL, and Jeepster.

Another Alternative offshoot that became popular in the mid '90s 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.

One of the biggest subgenres to breakout around the same time was Pop Punk. While alt-radio was largely cold on Punk Rock as a whole during its early years (aside from acts associated with Post-Punk and The Ramones), the breakthrough of Green Day with their 1994 smash album Dookie gave way to the success of The Offspring, blink-182, Sum 41, and many more bands. While the genre was met with plenty of backlash from "real" punk rockers and underground alt-rock fans over its perceived commercialized sound and childish lyrics, pop-punk still maintains a dedicated following to this day despite its cyclic mainstream popularity.

In the mid-2000s however, many American alternative stations decided they had grown tired of spinning Nu Metal and Post-Grunge (and to a lesser extent Pop Punk) 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 or "AAA," an eclectic format which catered those who wanted a lighter side to the alt-rock scene or missed the singer-songwriter days of the 1970s, while incorporating other genres including folk, blues and even classic rock. Despite being self-consciously "mellow" like adult contemporary stations, AAA aspired to a level of artistic credibility. The format birthed a mini-genre of alt-rock that saw considerable success with acts like Matchbox Twenty, Goo Goo Dolls, Sarah McLachlan, Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow and former 10,000 Maniacs frontwoman Natalie Merchant, while older acts like R.E.M., U2, and David Byrne also found homes there, with older material by these artists mixed in. Additionally, artists who were popular on the touring circuit but weren't often played on mainstream alt-rock radio, like Jack Johnson and the Dave Matthews Band, became major hitmakers on AAA radio. The format was tuned into the Americana, Alternative Country, and indie rock scenes much earlier than alternative radio was, with bands like Wilco and Spoon gaining traction there first while studiously avoiding the hard rock dominating other alternative stations in the late '90s and early 2000s. Indeed, AAA stations are seen as "tastemakers," as new artists have become popular on these stations before breaking through to the mainstream. The format is a Lighter and Softer counterpart to active rock, playing classic and contemporary artists, though the balance of classic to modern music varies from station to station. For these reasons, AAA might be the Spiritual Successor to the original "freeform" stations of the late '60s and early alternative rock stations. The format has particularly thrived on noncommercial stations. Among the American public radio stations that carry a music format, AAA is the most common behind jazz and classical. Even public stations that primarily carry a news and information format will often offer this format on an alternate HD Radio channel or web stream. World Cafe, originating on NPR member station WXPN in Philadelphia, is a syndicated show of the format which is carried on many NPR stations that otherwise don't offer a music format. Since many of these public stations are affiliated with universities, it also brings alternative rock back to its College Radio roots, though the staffers and on-air talent are usually professionals rather than students.

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 rock history for most of the '90s and 2000s 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.

At the same time, the tech-savvy indie audience also largely migrated away from terrestrial radio to internet radio stations, which could be even more uncommercial than public stations and some of which, like Pandora, could be customized to a listener's exact tastes. The other way the internet emerged as a tastemaker was the rise of online music news and review sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum, as well as the emergence of MySpace (and, later, Bandcamp) as a music promotion tool. Acts like TV on the Radio and Vampire Weekend were able to build followings on the internet and cross over to the mainstream using all of these sites.

At the same time, indie, being one of the few genres to embrace vinyl in the '90s and early '00s when pretty much the only people buying new vinyl were hipsters, audiophiles and DJs, helped usher in the revival of interest in the format starting in the late '00s. Independent labels, alternative rock artists and fans were among the biggest supporters of that format before vinyl became a mainstream format again, associating the dominant CD format with consumerism out of anti-commercial values and Gen Xer '60s/'70s nostalgia. Pearl Jam's Vitalogy was only available on vinyl for the first two weeks of its release, after major labels had largely abandoned the format. Vinyl stuck around as a mainstream format longer in the U.K. and Europe than in the U.S., which furthered its connection with indie music. The Alternative Dance subgenre, with its close ties to club and DJ culture, also had a natural affinity with vinyl.

As the 2000s made way into the 2010s, 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. Adult alternative and indie rock continue to be popular, but neither has filled the cultural position alternative rock once held. These days, alternative rock is more "dormant" than "dead," but apart from the few and far-between likes of Twenty One Pilots 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. Only a handful of alternative groups, such as The 1975, Paramore, Arctic Monkeys, and Vampire Weekend, saw mainstream commercial success in the 2010s, and mostly with their albums and concert tours than with their singles. Some new bands that appeared during the 2010s, like Alt-J and Car Seat Headrest, have been critically acclaimed and have been highly popular online, but have not reached the mainstream popularity or recognition that bands of their ilk would have had 20 years prior. Some lament this lack of headway, while others take advantage of it, with acts like Red Vox choosing to deliberately limit their exposure to keep their popularity from exploding to a level they wouldn't be able to handle. Maybe someday alternative rock will make a mainstream comeback, but when— or even if— that will happen cannot be determined.

Often (duh) characterized by the Perishing Alt-Rock Voice and its close relative such as Yarling.

For a list of artists, see Alternative Indie.

Alternative rock genres

The term covers many, many different subgenres, including but not limited to:

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