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Alternative rock

Background Information

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Alternative rock
Stylistic origins Punk
Hardcore punk
Cultural origins early 1980s United Kingdom and United States
Typical instruments Electric guitar – Bass – Drums
Britpop – College rock – Dream pop – Gothic rock – Grunge – Indie pop – Indie rock – Noise pop – Paisley Underground – Post-rock – Shoegazing – Twee pop
(complete list)
Fusion genres
Alternative dance – Alternative metal – Psychobilly – Industrial rock – Madchester – Post-punk revival – Riot Grrrl
Regional scenes
Massachusetts – Seattle, Washington – Illinois – Maryland – Manchester, England
Other topics
Bands – College radio – History – Independent music – Lollapalooza

Alternative rock (also called alternative music, alt-rock or simply alternative; known primarily in the UK as indie) is a genre of rock music that emerged in the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. The term "alternative" was coined in the 1980s to describe punk rock-inspired bands on independent record labels that did not fit into the mainstream genres of the time. As a musical genre, alternative rock consists of various subgenres that have emerged from the independent music scene since the 1980s, such as grunge, Britpop, gothic rock, and indie pop. These genres are unified by their collective debt to the style and/or ethos of punk, which laid the groundwork for alternative music in the 1970s.

Though the genre is considered to be rock, some of its subgenres are influenced by folk music, reggae, electronic music and jazz among other genres. At times alternative rock has been used as a catch-all phrase for rock music from underground artists in the 1980s, all music descended from punk rock (including punk itself, New Wave, and post-punk), and, ironically, for rock music in general in the 1990s and 2000s.

While a few artists like R.E.M. and The Cure achieved commercial success and mainstream critical recognition, many alternative rock artists during the 1980s were cult acts that recorded on independent labels and received their exposure through college radio airplay and word-of-mouth. With the breakthrough of Nirvana and the popularity of the grunge and Britpop movements in the early 1990s, alternative rock entered the musical mainstream and many alternative bands became commercially successful.

The term "alternative rock"

The music now known as alternative rock 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 the tastes of college students. In the United Kingdom the term "indie" was (and still is) preferred; by 1985 the term "indie" had come to mean a particular genre, or group of subgenres, rather than a simple demarcation of status. "Indie rock" was also largely synonymous with the genre in the United States up until the genre's commercial breakthrough in the early 1990s, due to the majority of the bands belonging to independent labels.

By 1990 the genre was called "alternative rock". The term "alternative" had originated sometime around the mid-1980s; it was an extension of the phrases "new music" and "post modern", both for the freshness of the music and its tendency to recontextualize the sounds of the past, which were commonly used by music industry of the time to denote cutting edge music. 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 rock radio formats by featuring longer songs and giving the DJs more freedom in their song selections. One former DJ and promoter has said, "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 . . ." Thus the original use of the term was often broader than it has come to be understood, encompassing punk rock, New Wave, post-punk, and even pop music, along with the occasional "college"/"indie" rock, all music found on the American "commercial alternative" radio stations of the time such as Los Angeles' KROQ-FM. The use of the term "alternative" gained popular exposure during 1991 with the implementation of alternative music categories in the Grammy Awards and the MTV Video Music Awards, as well as the success of Lollapalooza, where festival founder and Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell coined the term "Alternative Nation".

Defining music as "alternative" is often difficult because of two often 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."


One of the first popular alternative rock bands, R.E.M. relied on college radio airplay, constant touring, and a grassroots fanbase to break into the musical mainstream.

"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. Throughout much of its history, alternative rock has been largely defined by its rejection of the commercialism of mainstream culture. 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 dirty guitars of grunge to the gloomy soundscapes of gothic rock to the guitar pop revivalism of Britpop to the shambling innocence of twee pop. More often than in other rock styles, alternative rock lyrics tend to address topics of social concern, such as drug use, depression, 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.

Although 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. The popular and commercial success of Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind took alternative rock into the mainstream, establishing its commercial and cultural viability. 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. However, many of these artists rejected success, for it conflicted with the rebellious, DIY ethic the genre had espoused before mainstream exposure and their ideas of artistic authenticity. As many of the genre's key groups broke up or retreated from the limelight, alternative rock declined from mainstream prominence.

In the first decade of the 21st century, mainstream rock has largely moved beyond alternative's 1980s roots and low-fidelity ethos. Today's most popular rock music acts, typified by youth-oriented modern rock groups such as Linkin Park that owe a debt to both metal and grunge, incorporate complex electronic beats and a sophisticated production style. Many alternative rock fans do not see these bands—despite their debt to the genre—as alternative, but rather as nu metal acts. In 2004, alternative rock received renewed mainstream attention with the popularity of indie rock and post-punk revival artists such as Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand, respectively.

Alternative rock in the United States

In the 1980s, alternative rock in the United States was primarily the domain of college radio stations. Most commercial stations ignored the genre. On television, MTV would occasionally show alternative videos late at night. In 1986, the network began airing the late-night alternative music program 120 Minutes, which would serve as a major outlet for the genre before its commercial breakthrough in the following decade. Ultimately, in the late 1980s, commercial stations such as Boston's WFNX and Los Angeles' KROQ began playing alternative rock, pioneering the modern rock radio format.

The 1980s underground

Early American alternative bands such as 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 was a 1960s revival, 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 labels SST Records, Twin/Tone Records, Touch & 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, culminating in Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and The Replacements' Let It Be (both 1984). They were critically acclaimed and drew attention to the burgeoning alternative genre. That year, SST Records also released landmark alternative albums by the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, who mixed punk with funk and country, respectively.

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth

R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü set the blueprint for much of the decade's alternative, both sonically and in how they approached their careers. 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, Camper Van Beethoven, Dinosaur Jr, and Throwing Muses as well as post-punk survivors from Britain. Another major force was the noise rock of Sonic Youth, Big Black, Butthole Surfers, and others. 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 the Pixies had massive success overseas while they were ignored domestically. 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, fIREHOSE, and Nirvana.

Grunge and the "Alternative Nation"

Grunge was a subgenre of alternative rock created in Seattle, Washington, in the mid-1980s. Grunge was based around a sludgy, murky guitar sound that synthesized heavy metal and punk rock. In the early 1990s, it launched a large movement in mainstream music. The year 1991 was very significant for alternative rock, especially grunge, with the release of Nirvana's second and most successful album, Nevermind; Pearl Jam's breakthrough debut, Ten; Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger; and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik. 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 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. 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." Alternative bands who were leery of broad commercial success and stayed underground were termed "indie rock" and developed movements such as lo-fi, a genre that espoused a return to the original 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.

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. 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". By the start of the 21st 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, the garage rock revival of The White Stripes and The Strokes and the neo-post-punk sounds of Interpol and The Killers achieved mainstream success. Due 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."

Alternative rock in the United Kingdom

British alternative rock is distinguished from that of the United States 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 DJs 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 press, and many alternative bands had chart success there.

Genres and trends of the 1980s

Gothic rock developed out of late-1970s British post-punk. Most of the first goth bands, including Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and The Cure, are labeled as both post-punk and gothic rock. 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." Gothic rock began to develop into its own in the early 1980s with the opening of The Batcave nightclub and the emergence of a goth subculture. By the mid-1980s, goth bands such as The Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, and Fields of the Nephilim achieved success on the UK pop charts. Meanwhile Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Cure moved away from goth, broadening their sound and becoming internationally successful by the start of the 1990s.

Robert Smith of The Cure rejects the genre labels like alternative, gothic rock, and college rock applied to his band. He has said, "Every time we went to America we had a different tag [. . .] I can't remember when we officially became 'alt-rock'".

British indie rock and indie pop drew from the tradition of Scottish post-punk bands such as Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, utilizing jangly, shambling guitars and clever wordplay. The most popular and influential band to emerge from this lineage was Manchester's The Smiths. The band managed to score a number of hits and influence a generation of bands while signed to an independent label, Rough Trade Records. Their embrace of the guitar in an era of synthesizers is viewed as signaling the end of the New Wave era in Britain. After The Smiths broke up in 1987, singer Morrissey embarked on a successful solo career. Indie rock bands such as The Housemartins and James emerged in their wake. The C86 cassette, a 1986 NME premium featuring such bands as The Wedding Present, Primal Scream, The Pastels, and the Soup Dragons, 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 wrapped their pop melodies in walls of guitar noise, while New Order emerged from the demise of post-punk band Joy Division and experimented with techno and house music, forging the alternative dance style. The Mary Chain, along with Dinosaur Jr and the dream pop of Cocteau Twins, were the influences for the shoegazing movement of the late 1980s. Named for the bandmembers' tendency to stare at their feet onstage, shoegazing acts like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, and Lush 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 drug-fueled Madchester scene. Based around The Haçienda, a nightclub in Manchester owned by New Order and Factory Records, Madchester bands such as The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays mixed acid house dance rhythms with melodic guitar pop.

Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis

Britpop and post-Britpop trends

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. In contrast, only a few British alternative bands, most notably Radiohead and Bush, were able to make any sort of impression in the United States. As a reaction, a flurry of defiantly 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 Oasis, Blur, Suede, and Pulp was the British equivalent of the grunge explosion. Centered on a revitalization of British youth culture celebrated as " Cool Britannia," it propelled alternative rock to the top of the charts in its home country. 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's second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, went on to become the third best-selling album in Britain's history. Oasis also had major commercial success overseas.

Britpop faded as Oasis's third album, Be Here Now, received lackluster reviews and Blur began to incorporate influences from American alternative rock. 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. Recently British indie rock has experienced a resurgence, spurred in part by the success the Strokes achieved in the UK before their domestic breakthrough. 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.

Alternative rock in other countries

Canadian band Arcade Fire

Australia has produced a number of notable alternative bands, including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Go-Betweens, Dead Can Dance, Silverchair, The Vines, and Eskimo Joe. Double J, a government-funded radio station in Sydney and the Melbourne-based independent radio station 3RRR broadcast alternative rock throughout the 1980s. In 1990, Double J, now known as Triple J, began broadcasting nationally. 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 based around the university city of Dunedin and the Flying Nun Records label. The genre, whose heyday was the mid-1980s, produced bands such as The Bats, The Clean, Straightjacket Fits and The Chills.

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 Band, and I Mother Earth. In Montreal, an indie infrastructure developed in the aftermath of economic and social trouble during the 1990s. The city is now home to many indie rock bands such as the Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and The Dears.

The Sugarcubes were the most successful band to emerge from Iceland. After the band's breakup in the early 1990s, 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 alternative styles and bands, from Germany's industrial rock and industrial metal acts such as KMFDM or Rammstein to more idiosyncratic bands like the Netherlands' The Gathering and Italy's Bluvertigo.

Japan has an active noise rock scene characterized by groups such as Boredoms and Melt-Banana. Indie pop band Shonen Knife have 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 1990s. Alternative Philippine rock bands include Eraserheads, Yano, Parokya ni Edgar, and Rivermaya.

Many bands active in Mexico in the early 1990s can be considered alternative rock, though they are generally grouped in the Rock en español genre. Fobia and Café Tacuba are two of the most popular bands. Argentina has many alternative rock bands. Groups such as El Otro Yo, Jaime sin Tierra, Bicicletas, Babasónicos, Peligrosos Gorriones, and Los Brujos emerged in the 1990s as part of the so-called Nuevo Rock Argentino (New Argentine Rock) movement. While alternative rock has not broken into the Argentine mainstream in a broad way, Babasónicos became one of the most popular bands in the country.

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