Alternative Rock

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Alternative rock (also called alternative music[1] or simply alternative) is a branch of the rock music genre that became widely popular in the 1990s. It was a term that was liberally used to describe the bands involved in the early 1990s phenomenon of independently recorded music gaining profound commercial success. As a specific genre of music, alternative rock does not refer to one specific style of music, and numerous, diverse sub-genres fall under the umbrella of the "alternative" title. From various music scene locales, collectively known as the alternative music scene, genres such as grunge, indie rock, Britpop, gothic rock, indie pop, and many others have developed. These genres are unified by their collective debt to punk; in the 1970s, punk's style and/or ethos laid the groundwork for alternative music.[2] Independent record labels were established during the punk era, which created an alternative outlet for musicians who did not coincide with major label agendas.

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.[3] At times, alternative rock has been used as a catch-all phrase for rock music from underground artists in the 1980s and all music descended from punk rock (including punk itself, New Wave, and post-punk). Ironically, alternative became the general term for almost all rock music in the 1990s and 2000s, and took on a connotation that drastically differed from what it originally meant. Thus, when referring to alternative, the connotation changes with respect to the time period.

The Term "Alternative Rock"

"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.[4] "Alternative" as a defining musical term had originated sometime around the mid-1980s[5] and was an extension of the phrases "new music" and "post modern."[6] It does not refer to any particular musical style, but connotes an underground status on an independent record label and not in the mainstream.

The meaning of the word changed due to one critical turning point: the breakthrough of Nirvana into the mainstream, commercial market. The music known as alternative rock, before Nirvana's commercial breakthrough, 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 its appeal to the tastes of college students. In the United Kingdom, the term "indie" was preferred. After the dilution of the original meaning of alternative rock in the early 1990s, "indie" would refer to the genre that would maintain the independent, underground ideologies that were no longer attributed to alternative. "Indie rock" is still sometimes used to describe the alternative rock of the 1980s, but as a genre term, indie generally refers to alternative music that stayed underground after alternative's mainstream breakthrough.[7]


The Beginnings

When referring to alternative rock as an alternative musical form, its roots could be traced back to the late 1960s. Bands like the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, MC5, and the Silver Apples provided an alternative type of music that differed from the majority of the musical acts of their time, in both sound and content.[8] The term alternative had not yet been coined to define this contrasting type of music, but those bands were the forerunners of the alternative sound. This trend of alternative music was explored further by artists in the 1970s, such as David Bowie, T-Rex, Can, Neu, Kraftwerk, Television, and the New York Dolls.[9] The dawn of punk in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought a major turning point in alternative music and in the music industry as a whole. Not only was there an alternative form of musical and stylistic expression, but an alternative mode of production, in the form of independent record labels.

Before this time, the only way for music to be produced and recorded was through major labels. As this self-sufficient culture was being developed, a philosophy that coincides with the culture was created and passed on. Throughout much of its history, alternative rock has been largely defined by its rejection of the commercialism of mainstream culture, an attitude inherited from the punk era. The original alternative scene was in fact an alternative to the mainstream acts of the time, which usually meant the artists within the alternative scene did not receive nor want much attention from major labels. Alternative was initially intended to connote status, not style. As such, there is no set musical style for alternative rock as a whole. The artists were linked by an ideological desire to pursue the independence of the underground music scene. Alternative bands during the 1980s generally played in small clubs, recorded for independent record labels, and spread their popularity by word of mouth.[10]

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.[11] Minneapolis bands Hüsker Dü and the Replacements were indicative of this shift. Both started out as punk rock bands, but soon expanded their sounds and became more melodic,[12] 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. In 1984, SST Records also released landmark alternative albums by the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, who mixed punk with funk and country, respectively. Those that eventually signed to major labels, such as Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, did not break through to the mainstream and were thereby able to keep their hip credentials alive.[13] Without mainstream success, they were still considered to be part of the underground scene.

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 1980s and laid the groundwork for their success.[14] 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. [15] In the late 1980s, the U.S. 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. College radio stations served as one of the major outlets of exposure for the music, which is why the music was deemed "college rock." In the early 1980s, however, only a handful of college radio stations, like Danbury's WXCI from Western Connecticut State University, WPRB in Princeton, New Jersey, and Brown University's WBRU, would broadcast alternative rock in the United States, but its influence spread to more college stations by the mid-1980s. 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, restricted to cult followings in the United States, received great exposure through British national radio and weekly press, and garnered chart success in Britain.[16] Outside of United States and the UK, Double J (now "Triple J"), a government-funded radio station in Sydney, Australia and Melbourne-based independent radio station, 3RRR, began broadcasting alternative rock throughout the 1980s, spreading alternative rock's influence. Some bands, like the Pixies, had massive success overseas while being ignored domestically. [17]

By the end of the decade, a number of alternative bands began to sign to major labels. While the early major label signings of Hüsker Dü and the Replacements met with little success, the late 1980s’ major label signings of R.E.M. and Jane's Addiction brought gold and platinum records, setting the stage for alternative's later breakthrough.[18] Commercial radio stations, such as Boston, Massachusetts's WFNX and Los Angeles, California's KROQ, finally caught on to the trend and began playing alternative rock, pioneering the modern rock radio format. Greater support would generate as the buzz spread to television. MTV would occasionally show alternative videos late at night during the 1980s; in 1986, MTV began airing the late night alternative music program, "120 Minutes," which would then become the major outlet for the genre's exposure prior to its commercial breakthrough. By the start of the 1990s, the music industry was abuzz about alternative rock's commercial possibilities and actively courted alternative bands including Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana.[19]

The Age of Alternative Rock

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth

Grunge, an alternative subgenre created in Seattle, Washington in the 1980s that synthesized heavy metal and hardcore punk, launched a large movement in mainstream music in the early 1990s. 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, and Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger. Nirvana's surprise success with Nevermind heralded a "new openness to alternative rock" among commercial radio stations and fans of more traditional rock sounds, and opened doors for more hard rock-oriented alternative bands.[20] The popular and commercial success of Nirvana's Nevermind took alternative rock into the mainstream, establishing its commercial and cultural viability.[21] 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. The explosion of alternative rock was aided by MTV and Lollapalooza, a touring festival of diverse bands that helped expose and popularize alternative groups such as Nine Inch Nails, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Hole.

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 that combined elements of punk and metal. Many alternative artists rejected success, for it conflicted with the rebellious, DIY (Do It Yourself) punk ethic and their ideas of artistic authenticity that the genre had espoused prior to mainstream exposure.[22] This is when the split in alternative rock had occurred; the genre that was once a single entity, had divided into a mainstream form ("alternative") and an underground form ("indie").

By the mid-1990s, "alternative" was synonymous with "grunge" in the eyes of the mass media and the general public. A supposed "alternative culture" was being marketed to the mainstream in much the same way as the hippie culture had been in the 1960s. 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 labeled "alternative" by the music industry, despite the fact that their music did not derive from punk or post-punk influences.[23] Indie rock would become the genre that embodied the original, independent 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.[24]

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. [25] 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 twenty-first 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, such as 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.

International Alternative Rock

In the 1990s, indie rock lost prominence in the UK with the decline of the Manchester scene and shoegazing's lack of glamour; the tide of grunge from America dominated the British alternative scene and music press in the early 1990s.[26] 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 and wished to "get rid of grunge" and "declare war on America," taking the public and native music press by storm.[27] Dubbed "Britpop" by the media, this movement represented by Oasis, Blur, Suede, and Pulp was the British equivalent of the grunge explosion, [28] 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 rivalry 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;[29] 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 influences from American alternative rock.[30] 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.[31] Recently British indie rock has experienced a resurgence, spurred in part by the success of the Strokes. 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.

Elsewhere in [Europe]], 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.

With a history of support for alternative rock, 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 a musical style developed around the university city of Dunedin and the Flying Nun Records label. The genre had its heyday during the mid-1980s and produced bands such as the Bats, the Clean, and the Chills.

Canadian band Arcade Fire

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.

Alternative's influence spread to Asia and nations like Japan and the Philippines have contributed great alternative acts. Japan has an active noise rock scene characterized by groups such as Boredoms and Melt-Banana. Indie pop band Shonen Knife has been frequently cited as an influence by American alternative artists including Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Underground, pop-influenced, alternative rock went mainstream in the Philippines during the mid-1990s. Alternative Filipino rock (Pinoy Rock) bands include Eraserheads, Yano, Parokya ni Edgar, Rivermaya, Sugarfree, and the Etchyworms.


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


  1. The term "alternative music" is particularly favored over "alternative rock" in British English (although the boundaries of the genre are slightly blurred with the inclusion of electronic music and hip-hop), while "alternative rock" is favored in American English. The term “underground music” is sometimes also used, though more often used in reference to the music of little-known artists. Additionally, "indie" is commonly used in the UK as a synonym for alternative rock.
  2. Alan di Perna. “Brave Noise—The History of Alternative Rock Guitar.” Guitar World. December 1995.
  3. Helen A. S. Popkin. “Alternative to what?” Retrieved June 21, 2006.
  4. Stephen Thomas Erlewine. “American Alternative Rock/Post-Punk.” All Music Guide. Retrieved May 20, 2006.
  5. Dave Thompson. "Introduction." Third Ear: Alternative Rock. San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 2000, p. viii.
  6. Simon Reynolds. Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978–1984. Penguin, 2005, p. 338. ISBN 0143036726
  7. Ibid., p. 391.
  8. “History of Alternative Rock Music.” Silver Dragon Records. Retrieved January 16, 2007.
  9. Ibid.
  10. "Rock Music." Microsoft Encarta 2006 [CD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
  11. Simon Reynolds. Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978–1984. Penguin, 2005, p. 390. ISBN 0143036726
  12. Stephen Thomas Erlewine. “American Alternative Rock/Post-Punk.” All Music Guide. Retrieved May 20, 2006.
  13. “Alternative/Indie-Rock Genre.” All Music Guide. Retrieved January 18, 2007.
  14. Michael Azerrad. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991. Little Brown and Company, 2001, pp. 3–5. ISBN 0316787531
  15. Stephen Thomas Erlewine. “American Alternative Rock/Post-Punk.” All Music Guide. Retrieved May 20, 2006.
  16. Katherine Charlton. Rock Music Styles: A History. McGraw Hill, 2003, p. 349.
  17. Stephen Thomas Erlewine. “American Alternative Rock/Post-Punk.” All Music Guide. Retrieved May 20, 2006.
  18. Michael Azerrad. Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Doubleday, 1993. ISBN 0385471998
  19. Ibid.
  20. Craig Rosen. "Some See 'New Openness' Following Nirvana Success." Billboard. January 25, 1992.
  21. Eric Olsen. “10 years later, Cobain lives on in his music.”, 2004. Retrieved June 21, 2006.
  22. J. D. Considine. "The Decade of Living Dangerously." Guitar World. March 1999.
  23. Reebee Garofalo. Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA, 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2005, pp. 367–368. ISBN 0131897853
  24. Michael Azerrad. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991. Little Brown and Company, 2001, pp. 495–497. ISBN 0316787531
  25. J. D. Considine. "The Decade of Living Dangerously." Guitar World. March 1999.
  26. Stephen Thomas Erlewine. “British Alternative Rock.” All Music Guide. Retrieved May 20, 2006.
  27. Ian Youngs. “Looking back at the birth of Britpop.” BBC News. Retrieved June 9, 2006.
  28. Stephen Thomas Erlewine. “British Alternative Rock.” All Music Guide. Retrieved May 20, 2006.
  29. “Queen’s ‘Greatest Hits’ top-selling album in UK.”
  30. John Harris. Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock. Da Capo Press, 2004, p. xix. ISBN 030681367X
  31. Ibid., pp. 369–370.

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