Alternative rock (also called alternative music, alt-rock or simply alternative) is a style of rock music that emerged from the independent music underground of the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. In this instance, the word "alternative" refers to the genre's distinction from mainstream rock music. The term's original meaning was broader, referring to a generation of musicians unified by their collective debt to either the musical style or simply the independent, DIY ethos of punk rock, which in the late 1970s laid the groundwork for alternative music. At times, "alternative" has been used as a catch-all description for music from underground rock artists that receives mainstream recognition, or for any music, whether rock or not, that is seen to be descended from punk rock (including some examples of punk itself, as well as new wave, and post-punk).
Alternative rock is a broad umbrella term consisting of music that differs greatly in terms of its sound, its social context, and its regional roots. By the end of the 1980s magazines and zines, college radio airplay, and word of mouth had increased the prominence and highlighted the diversity of alternative rock, helping to define a number of distinct styles (and music scenes) such as noise pop, indie rock, grunge, and alternative hip hop. Most of these subgenres had achieved minor mainstream notice and a few bands representing them, such as Hüsker Dü and R.E.M., had even signed to major labels. But most alternative bands' commercial success was limited in comparison to other genres of rock and pop music at the time, and most acts remained signed to independent labels and received relatively little attention from mainstream radio, television, or newspapers. With the breakthrough of Nirvana and the popularity of the grunge and Britpop movements in the 1990s, alternative rock entered the musical mainstream and many alternative bands became successful.
By the end of the decade, alternative rock's mainstream prominence declined due to a number of events that caused grunge and Britpop to fade and led to the hiatus of the Lollapalooza festival. Nevertheless, post-grunge remained commercially viable into the start of the 21st century, with the commercial success of Creed and Matchbox Twenty; Radiohead's critical acclaim, and the success of some post-Britpop groups like Coldplay. Emo attracted attention in the larger alternative rock world, and the term was applied to a variety of artists, including multi-platinum acts. During the late 1990s and 2000s, other alternative rock bands emerged, including The White Stripes, The Strokes and Arcade Fire.
Origin of term
Before the term alternative rock came into common usage around 1990, the sort of music to which it refers was known by a variety of terms. In 1979, Terry Tolkin used the term Alternative Music to describe the groups he was writing about. In 1979 Dallas radio station KZEW had a late night new wave show entitled "Rock and Roll Alternative". "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, dozens of small do it yourself record labels emerged as a result of the punk subculture. According to the founder of one of these labels, Cherry Red, NME and Sounds magazines published charts based on small record stores called "Alternative Charts". The first national chart based on distribution called the Indie Chart was published in January 1980; it immediately succeeded in its aim to help these labels. At the time, the term indie was used literally to describe independently distributed records. By 1985, indie' had come to mean a particular genre, or group of subgenres, rather than simply distribution status.
The use of the term alternative to describe rock music originated around the mid-1980s; at the time, the common music industry terms for cutting-edge music were new music and post modern, respectively indicating freshness and a tendency to re contextualize sounds of the past. Individuals who worked as DJs and promoters during the 1980s claim the term originates from American FM radio of the 1970s, which served as a progressive alternative to top 40 radio formats by featuring longer songs and giving DJs more freedom in song selection. According to one former DJ and promoter, "Somehow this term 'alternative' got rediscovered and heisted by college radio people during the 80s who applied it to new post-punk, indie, or underground-whatever music". At first the term referred to intentionally non–mainstream rock acts that were not influenced by "heavy metal ballads, rarefied new wave" and "high-energy dance anthems". Usage of the term would broaden to include new wave, pop, punk rock, post-punk, and occasionally "college"/"indie" rock, all found on the American "commercial alternative" radio stations of the time such as Los Angeles' KROQ-FM. The use of alternative gained further exposure due to the success of Lollapalooza, for which festival founder and Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell coined the term Alternative Nation. In the late 1990s, the definition again became more specific. In 1997, Neil Strauss of The New York Times defined alternative rock as "hard-edged rock distinguished by brittle, '70s-inspired guitar riffing and singers agonizing over their problems until they take on epic proportions".
Defining music as alternative is often difficult because of two conflicting applications of the word. Alternative can describe music that challenges the status quo and that is "fiercely iconoclastic, anticommercial, and antimainstream", but the term is also used in the music industry to denote "the choices available to consumers via record stores, radio, cable television, and the Internet." However alternative music has paradoxically become just as commercial and marketable as the mainstream rock, with record companies using the term "alternative" to market music to an audience that mainstream rock does not reach. Using a broad definition of the genre, Dave Thompson in his book Alternative Rock cites the formation of the Sex Pistols as well as the release of the albums Horses by Patti Smith and Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed as three key events that gave birth to alternative rock. Until recent years (early 2000s) when indie rock became the most common term in the US to describe modern pop and rock, the terms "indie rock" and "alternative rock" were often used interchangeably; whilst there are aspects which both genres have in common, indie rock was regarded as a British-based term, unlike the more American alternative rock.
The name "alternative rock" essentially serves as an umbrella term for underground music that has emerged in the wake of punk rock since the mid-1980s. Throughout much of its history, alternative rock has been largely defined by its rejection of the commercialism of mainstream culture, although this could be contested ever since some of the major alternative artists have achieved mainstream success or co-opted with the major labels from the 1990s onwards (especially since the new millennium and beyond). 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 The New York Times in 1989 asserted that the genre is "guitar music first of all, with guitars that blast out power chords, pick out chiming riffs, buzz with fuzztone and squeal in feedback." Sounds range from the gloomy soundscapes of gothic rock to the jangling guitars of indie pop to the dirty guitars of grunge to the 1960s/1970s revivalism of Britpop. A notable characteristic of alternative rock is the transgressive nature of the lyrics. More often than in other rock-styles since the mainstreaming of rock music during the 1970s, alternative rock lyrics tend to address topics of social concern, such as drug use, depression, suicide, and environmentalism. This approach to lyrics developed as a reflection of the social and economic strains in the United States and United Kingdom of the 1980s and early 1990s.
By 1984, a majority of groups signed to independent record labels mined from a variety of rock and particularly 1960s rock influences. This represented a sharp break from the futuristic, hyper-rational post-punk years.
Throughout the 1980s, alternative rock remained mainly an underground phenomenon. While on occasion a song would become a commercial hit or albums would receive critical praise in mainstream publications like Rolling Stone, alternative rock in the 1980s was primarily featured on independent record labels, fanzines, and college radio stations. Alternative bands built underground followings by touring constantly and by regularly releasing low-budget albums. In the case of the United States, new bands would form in the wake of previous bands, which created an extensive underground circuit in America, filled with different scenes in various parts of the country. Although American alternative artists of the 1980s never generated spectacular album sales, they exerted a considerable influence on later alternative musicians and laid the groundwork for their success. By 1989 the genre had become popular enough that a package tour featuring New Order, Public Image Limited and The Sugarcubes toured the United States arena circuit.
In contrast, British alternative rock was distinguished from that of the United States early on by a more pop-oriented focus (marked by an equal emphasis on albums and singles, as well as greater openness to incorporating elements of dance and club culture) and a lyrical emphasis on specifically British concerns. As a result, few British alternative bands have achieved commercial success in the US. Since the 1980s alternative rock has been played extensively on the radio in the UK, particularly by disc jockeys 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 music press, and many alternative bands had chart success there.
American underground in the 1980s
Early American alternative bands such as Dream Syndicate, 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, Murmur (1983), entered the Top 40 and spawned a number of jangle pop followers. One of the many jangle pop scenes of the early 1980s, Los Angeles' Paisley Underground revived the sounds of the 1960s, 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 record labels SST Records, Twin/Tone Records, Touch and Go Records, and Dischord Records presided over the shift from the hardcore punk that then dominated the American underground scene 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 diversified their sounds and became more melodic. Michael Azerrad asserted that Hüsker Dü was the key link between hardcore punk and the more melodic, diverse music of college rock that emerged. Azerrad wrote, "Hüsker Dü played a huge role in convincing the underground that melody and punk rock weren't antithetical." The band also set an example by being the first group from the American indie scene to sign to a major record label, which helped establish college rock as "a viable commercial enterprise." By focusing on heartfelt songwriting and wordplay instead of political concerns, The Replacements upended a number of underground scene conventions; Azerrad noted that "along with R.E.M. [The Replacements] were one of the few underground bands that mainstream people liked."
By the late 1980s, the American alternative scene was dominated by styles ranging from quirky alternative pop (They Might Be Giants and Camper Van Beethoven), to noise rock (Sonic Youth, Big Black, The Jesus Lizard) and industrial rock (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails). These sounds were in turn followed by the advent of Boston's Pixies and Los Angeles' Jane's Addiction. Around the same time, the grunge subgenre emerged in Seattle, Washington, initially referred to as "The Seattle Sound" until its rise to popularity in the early 1990s. Grunge featured a sludgy, murky guitar sound that synthesized heavy metal and punk rock. Promoted largely by Seattle indie label Sub Pop, grunge bands were noted for their thrift store fashion which favored flannel shirts and combat boots suited to the local weather. Early grunge bands Soundgarden and Mudhoney found critical acclaim in the U.S. and UK, respectively.
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, acts who signed with majors in their wake such as R.E.M. and Jane's Addiction achieved gold and platinum records, setting the stage for alternative's later breakthrough. Some bands such as Pixies had massive success overseas while they were ignored domestically.
In the middle of the decade, Hüsker Dü's album Zen Arcade influenced other hardcore acts by tackling personal issues. Out of Washington, D.C.'s hardcore scene what was called "emocore" or "emo" emerged and was noted for its lyrics which delved into emotional very personal subject matter (vocalists sometimes cried) and added free association poetry and a confessional tone. Rites of Spring has been described as the first "emo" band. Former Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye founded Dischord Records which became the center for the city's emo scene.
British genres and trends of the 1980s
Gothic rock developed out of late-1970s British post-punk. With a reputation as the "darkest and gloomiest form of underground rock", gothic rock utilizes a synthesizer-and-guitar based sound drawn from post-punk to construct "foreboding, sorrowful, often epic soundscapes", and the genre's lyrics often address literary romanticism, morbidity, religious symbolism, and supernatural mysticism. This genre among bands that took inspiration from late-1970s British post-punk groups, Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Bauhaus' debut single "Bela Lugosi's Dead", released in 1979, is considered to be the proper beginning of the gothic rock genre. The Cure's "oppressively dispirited" albums including Pornography (1982) cemented that group's stature in that style and laid the foundation for its large cult following.
The key British alternative rock band to emerge during the 1980s was Manchester's The Smiths. Music journalist Simon Reynolds singled out The Smiths and their American contemporaries R.E.M. as "the two most important alt-rock bands of the day", commenting that they "were eighties bands only in the sense of being against the eighties". Reynolds noted that The Smiths' "whole stance was predicated on their British audience being a lost generation, exiles in their own land". The Smiths' embrace of the guitar in an era of synthesizer-dominated music is viewed as signaling the end of the new wave era and the advent of alternative rock in the United Kingdom. Despite the band's limited chart success and short career, The Smiths exerted an influence over the British indie scene through the end of the decade, as various bands drew from singer Morrissey's English-centered lyrical topics and guitarist Johnny Marr's jangly guitar-playing style. The C86 cassette, a 1986 NME premium featuring Primal Scream, The Wedding Present and others, was a major influence on the development of indie pop and the British indie scene as a whole.
Other forms of alternative rock developed in the UK during the 1980s. The Jesus and Mary Chain's sound combined the Velvet Underground's "melancholy noise" with Beach Boys pop melodies and Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production, while New Order emerged from the demise of post-punk band Joy Division and experimented with techno and house music. The Mary Chain, along with Dinosaur Jr., C86 and the dream pop of Cocteau Twins, were the formative influences for the shoegazing movement of the late 1980s. Named for the band members' tendency to stare at their feet and guitar effects pedals onstage rather than interact with the audience, shoegazing acts like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive created an overwhelmingly loud "wash of sound" that obscured vocals and melodies with long, droning riffs, distortion, and feedback. Shoegazing bands dominated the British music press at the end of the decade along with the Madchester scene. Performing for the most part in The Haçienda, a nightclub in Manchester owned by New Order and Factory Records, Madchester bands such as Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses mixed acid house dance rhythms with melodic guitar pop.
Popularization in the 1990s
By the start of the 1990s, the music industry was enticed by alternative rock's commercial possibilities and major labels actively courted bands including Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dinosaur Jr., Firehose, and Nirvana. In particular, R.E.M.'s success had become a blueprint for many alternative bands in the late 1980s and 1990s to follow; the group had outlasted many of its contemporaries and by the 1990s had become one of the most popular bands in the world.
The breakthrough success of the band Nirvana led to the widespread popularization of alternative rock in the 1990s. The release of the band's single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from its second album Nevermind (1991) "marked the instigation of the grunge music phenomenon". Due to constant airplay of the song's music video on MTV, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week by Christmas 1991. The success of Nevermind surprised the music industry. Nevermind not only popularized grunge, but also established "the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock in general." Michael Azerrad asserted that Nevermind symbolized "a sea-change in rock music" in which the hair metal that had dominated rock music at that time fell out of favor in the face of music that was authentic and culturally relevant.
Nirvana's surprise success with Nevermind heralded a "new openness to alternative rock" among commercial radio stations, opening doors for heavier alternative bands in particular. In the wake of Nevermind, alternative rock "found itself dragged-kicking and screaming ... into the mainstream" and record companies, confused by the genre's success yet eager to capitalize on it, scrambled to sign bands. The New York Times declared in 1993, "Alternative rock doesn't seem so alternative anymore. Every major label has a handful of guitar-driven bands in shapeless shirts and threadbare jeans, bands with bad posture and good riffs who cultivate the oblique and the evasive, who conceal catchy tunes with noise and hide craftsmanship behind nonchalance." However, many alternative rock artists rejected success, for it conflicted with the rebellious, DIY ethic the genre had espoused before mainstream exposure and their ideas of artistic authenticity.
Other grunge bands subsequently replicated Nirvana's success. Pearl Jam had released its debut album Ten a month before Nevermind in 1991, but album sales only picked up a year later. By the second half of 1992 Ten became a breakthrough success, being certified gold and reaching number two on the Billboard 200 album chart. Soundgarden's album Badmotorfinger, Alice in Chains' Dirt and Stone Temple Pilots' Core along with the Temple of the Dog album collaboration featuring members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, were also among the 100 top-selling albums of 1992. The popular breakthrough of these grunge bands prompted Rolling Stone to nickname Seattle "the new Liverpool." Major record labels signed most of the prominent grunge bands in Seattle, while a second influx of bands moved to the city in hopes of success.
At the same time, critics asserted that advertising was co-opting elements of grunge and turning it into a fad. Entertainment Weekly commented in a 1993 article, "There hasn't been this kind of exploitation of a subculture since the media discovered hippies in the '60s." The New York Times compared the "grunging of America" to the mass-marketing of punk rock, disco, and hip hop in previous years. As a result of the genre's popularity, a backlash against grunge developed in Seattle. Nirvana's follow-up album In Utero (1993) was an intentionally abrasive album that Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic described as a "wild aggressive sound, a true alternative record." Nevertheless, upon its release in September 1993 In Utero topped the Billboard charts. Pearl Jam also continued to perform well commercially with its second album, Vs. (1993), which topped the Billboard charts by selling a record 950,378 copies in its first week of release.
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 1990s. As a reaction, a flurry of 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 Pulp, Blur, Suede, and Oasis was the British equivalent of the grunge explosion, in that the artists propelled alternative rock to the top of the charts in their home country. Britpop bands were influenced by and displayed reverence for British guitar music of the past, particularly movements and genres such as the British Invasion, glam rock, and punk rock. 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 soon eclipsed the other band in popularity with its second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (1995), which went on to become the third best-selling album in the UK's history.
Long synonymous with alternative rock as a whole in the US, indie rock became a distinct form following the popular breakthrough of Nirvana. Indie rock was formulated as a rejection of both alternative rock's absorption into the mainstream by artists who could not or refused to cross over, and a wariness of its "macho" aesthetic. While indie rock artists share the punk rock distrust of commercialism, the genre does not entirely define itself against that, as "the general assumption is that it's virtually impossible to make indie rock's varying musical approaches compatible with mainstream tastes in the first place".
Labels such as Matador Records, Merge Records, and Dischord, and indie rockers like Pavement, Superchunk, Fugazi, and Sleater-Kinney dominated the American indie scene for most of the 1990s. One of the main indie rock movements of the 1990s was lo-fi. The movement, which focused on the recording and distribution of music on low-quality cassette tapes, initially emerged in the 1980s. By 1992, Pavement, Guided by Voices and Sebadoh became popular lo-fi cult acts in the United States, while subsequently artists like Beck and Liz Phair brought the aesthetic to mainstream audiences. The period also saw alternative confessional female singer-songwriters. Besides the aforementioned Liz Phair, Lynda Thomas, PJ Harvey and the massively successful Alanis Morissette fit into this sub group.
During the latter half of the 1990s, grunge was supplanted by post-grunge. Many post-grunge bands lacked the underground roots of grunge and were largely influenced by what grunge had become, namely "a wildly popular form of inward-looking, serious-minded hard rock."; many post-grunge bands emulated the sound and style of grunge, "but not necessarily the individual idiosyncracies of its original artists." Post-grunge was a more commercially viable genre that tempered the distorted guitars of grunge with polished, radio-ready production. Originally, post-grunge was a label used almost pejoratively on bands that emerged when grunge was mainstream and emulated the grunge sound. The label suggested that bands labelled as post-grunge were simply musically derivative, or a cynical response to an "authentic" rock movement. Bush, Candlebox and Collective Soul were labelled almost pejoratively as post-grunge which, according to Tim Grierson of About.com, is "suggesting that rather than being a musical movement in their own right, they were just a calculated, cynical response to a legitimate stylistic shift in rock music." Post-grunge morphed during the late 1990s as post-grunge bands such as Foo Fighters, Creed and Nickelback emerged.
Post-rock was established by Talk Talk's Laughing Stock and Slint's Spiderland albums, both released in 1991. Post-rock draws influence from a number of genres, including Krautrock, progressive rock, and jazz. The genre subverts or rejects rock conventions, and often incorporates electronic music. While the name of the genre was coined by music journalist Simon Reynolds in 1994, the style of the genre was solidified by the release of Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996) by the Chicago group Tortoise. Post-rock became the dominant form of experimental rock music in the 1990s and bands from the genre signed to such labels as Thrill Jockey, Kranky, Drag City, and Too Pure. A related genre, math rock, peaked in the mid-1990s. In comparison to post-rock, math rock is more "rockist" and relies on complex time signatures and intertwining phrases. By the end of the decade a backlash had emerged against post-rock due to its "dispassionate intellectuality" and its perceived increasing predictability, but a new wave of post-rock bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Rós emerged who further expanded the genre.
In 1993, Smashing Pumpkins album Siamese Dream was a major commercial success. The strong influence of heavy metal and progressive rock on the album helped to legitimize alternative rock to mainstream radio programmers and close the gap between alternative rock and the type of rock played on American 1970s Album Oriented Rock radio.
After almost a decade in the underground, ska punk, a mixture of earlier British ska and punk acts, became popular in the United States. Rancid was the first of the "Third Wave Ska Revival" acts to break. In 1996, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, Sublime, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake and Save Ferris charted or received radio exposure.
Decline of popularity
By the end of the decade, alternative rock'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 the group from playing many major venues around the United States. In addition to the decline of grunge bands, Britpop faded as Oasis's third album, Be Here Now (1997), received lackluster reviews and Blur began to incorporate influences from American alternative rock. 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. In light of the festival's troubles that year, Spin said, "Lollapalooza is as comatose as alternative rock right now".
Despite alternative rock's declining popularity, some artists retained mainstream relevance. Post-grunge remained commercially viable into the start of the 21st century, when bands like Creed and Matchbox Twenty became among the most popular rock bands in the United States. At the same time Britpop began to decline, Radiohead achieved critical acclaim with its third album OK Computer (1997), and its follow-ups Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), which were in marked contrast with the traditionalism of Britpop. Radiohead, along with post-Britpop groups like Travis and Coldplay, were major forces in British rock in subsequent years.
In the mid-1990s Sunny Day Real Estate defined the "emo" genre for many. Weezer's album Pinkerton (1996) was also influential. By 2000 and on into the new decade emo was one of the most popular rock music genres. Popular acts included platinum selling success of Bleed American by Jimmy Eat World (2001) and Dashboard Confessional's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (2003). The new emo had a much more mainstream sound than in the 1990s and a far greater appeal amongst adolescents than its earlier incarnations. At the same time, use of the term "emo" expanded beyond the musical genre, becoming associated with fashion, a hairstyle and any music that expressed emotion. The term "emo" has been applied by critics and journalists to a variety of artists, including multi-platinum acts such as Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance and disparate groups such as Paramore and Panic! at the Disco, even when they reject the label.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, several alternative rock bands emerged, including The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol and The Rapture that drew primary inspiration from post-punk and new wave, establishing the post-punk revival movement. Preceded by the success of bands such as The Strokes and The White Stripes earlier in the decade, an influx of new alternative rock bands, including several post-punk revival artists and others such as The Killers, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, found commercial success in the early and mid 2000s. Owing to the success of these bands, Entertainment Weekly declared in 2004, "After almost a decade of domination by rap-rock and nu-metal bands, mainstream alt-rock is finally good again." Worldwide arena tours for alternative rock acts were culled to a few well-established players such as U2, Muse and Foo Fighters with American band Thirty Seconds to Mars experiencing a notable rise in popularity during the latter half of the 2000s. American rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers entered a new-found popularity in 1999 after the release of their album Californication (1999), with continued success throughout the 2000s.
Most references to alternative rock music in the United States past 2010 are to the indie rock genre, a term that previously had limited usage on alternative rock channels and media. While there have been conflicting opinions on the relevance of alternative rock to mainstream audiences beyond 2010, Dave Grohl commented on an article from the December 29, 2013 issue of the New York Daily News stating that rock is dead: "speak for yourself... rock seems pretty alive to me."