alternative rock

What Exactly Is Alternative Rock? A Completely Opinionated Guide

I have an on-again, off-again love-hate relationship with the genre tag of “alternative rock.” In my younger days, I loved it — I had an affinity for anything that was placed into that overflowing and rather vague bucket of alternative. Growing up in the 1980s, the thoughtful and poetic lyrics of many of the artists in the alternative category struck a nerve with me, but then again, anything would seem deep compared to the plethora of Top 40 gold like Paul Lekakis’s single “Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Room).”

In the United States, alongside traditional commercial radio stations that tracked the massive label hits, there existed college radio stations. Almost always located on a university campus, these outlets acted as an oasis for anything and anyone who did not fit neatly into the comfortable aesthetic of songs being played for the masses on larger stations. These spaces, along with local independent record stores (and sometimes Tower Records, to be fair), were the hubs of various subcultures that evolved around bands and specific music movements.

Around this time, I went to see one of my first concerts. It was PiL, The Sugarcubes, and New Order. The crowd was filled with post-punks, dance music aficionados, and freaks such as myself that liked Icelandic howling. What united us all was our devotion to finding and listening to music that was not in the mainstream.

Unlike today, where social media fights will break out over “is it emo or screamo,” all of us got on and shared a mutual respect for each other, as we were the few, the brave, the proud weirdos daring to not just accept what was spoon-fed to us. In the purest sense, alternative rock is that which cannot easily fit into any other genre that is being played on huge radio stations, usually but not always on an independent label, usually but not always a subculture or set of values shared by fans. If you saw someone wearing a Replacements or Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt circa 1987, you knew pretty much instantly there were mutual musical tastes, but more importantly, that you belonged to the same tribe, holding a world view that only those who liked these bands seemed to be able to tap into.

Then something huge happened: Major labels realized that they may be missing a cash cow by ignoring these groups with a built-in fan base. When leaders of the underground Sonic Youth released their 1990 album Goo on Geffen, everything changed. Suddenly, artists outside the parameters of what was considered bankable became sought after. Sonic Youth made it OK for other contemporaries — and new talent inspired by them — to consider going to one of the giant labels. The underground became “overground” with the breakthrough of Geffen label compadres Nirvana when they released grunge classic Nevermind in 1991; the record eventually threw claimed a top spot on the Billboard charts in 1992 and was selling 300,000 copies a week at the height of Nirvana frenzy, a number unfathomable just a few years before for a noisy rock band.

With the rise of Nirvana came, for a shimmering moment, the idea that the underground morals and ideas — feminism, LGBTQ rights, recycling — would become a shared set of expected norms for all. Yet the one-two punch of lead singer Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 and the vacuum of his passing led to the rapid decline of the values tethered to the music. Yet the popularity of the musical form itself continued to have its moment in the sun. For just over a decade, what had been championed by a handful of fans became what everyone listened to.

There is an argument that rock has gone back to being “alternative” in the present economy. The charts are filled almost exclusively with electronic pop tracks with a sprinkle of artists like Ed Sheeran. It will be interesting to see if the combination of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the internet, and streaming has permanently squashed all ideas of subcultures and their musical soundtracks, or if this moment will make such communities more important moving forward.

With that in mind, I present a thoroughly unthorough list of some key alternative rock albums and tracks to kick-start the new revolution.

Editor’s note: Keep in mind that the Discogs Database is powered by the hard work of our contributors. Some of these releases may not be classified under the alternative rock style. The list features this author’s listening recommendations. You can share your essential playlist with our List function.

It’s almost cliché to say, but this Andy Warhol-supported record inspired hundreds of would-be artistic kids to try their hand at doing something crafty, whether that be painting or picking up a guitar.

Key track: Check out a voice like no other, Nico, on a song that Lou Reed wrote just for her, “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”

The post-punk poster children from Manchester create a dark, doom-laden sonic masterpiece that provides a template for the confessional album.

Key track: Every track, in my opinion, is gold, but a great starting place for the newly initiated is the haunting “Shadowplay.”

This Cure release offers proto-goth, post-punk goodness with enough guitar twang and catchy choruses to hook pretty much anyone.

Key track: The underrated “Object.”

This is Violent Femmes’ debut album written almost exclusively when Wisconsin-reared lead singer Gordon Gano was still in high school. Punky, urgent, and instantly singable.

Key track: Warning — if you listen to “Add It Up” even once, it will be in your head for the rest of the day.

The beautiful, lush guitar sounds of Will Sergeant combine with frontman Ian McCulloch’s trademark caterwaul, creating cinematic gold.

Key track: Bleak yet voluptuous “The Cutter.”

Lyricist and lead singer Morrissey and genius guitarist Johnny Marr capture teen angst perfectly.

Key track: “I Want the One I Can’t Have” is the crushed-out anthem for any lovelorn creature.

This is the mini-LP debut marking the arrival of a brilliant, esoteric group. Screamy, crunchy walls of sound mix with a desperation and urgency rarely encapsulated so authentically.

Key track: Toss-up between the genius “The Holiday Song” and the close-to-the-bone “I’ve Been Tired.”

This self-titled release is a live album capturing the weird, hippy, drug-riddled world of the band. Beautiful lyrics combine with loud guitars.

Key track: The tearjerker “I Would for You” brings the rock ballad a nose-pierced twist.

American indie from the heartland.

Key track:  Mosh-pit favorite “Slack Motherfucker.”

Merging a glossy bit of glam with a large portion of cow-bell-driven electronica, Echoes brings the sensibility of grunge to danceable beats.

Key track: James Murphy-produced “House of Jealous Lovers” will have you air-cowbelling, whatever that looks like.

This is the indie EP by the New York trio before they hit major-label hugeness.

Key track: “Our Time” is raw, crunchy, and garage-y in all the best ways.

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