When the 1980s neared its end, alternative rock emerged from the underground and took center stage. It has been decades since alternative rock’s arrival and it has since become one of the most recognizable genres, with many bands following the genre.
It may be difficult to gather together all the alternative rock bands in existence, even the best ones. Instead, we have cultivated the following list of our favorite alternative rock bands of all time:
Nirvana was formed by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic in 1987 in the suburbs of Washington. They had multiple drummers, including Chad Channing and Dave Grohl. They were the first alternative rock band to bring the subgenre “grunge” to the mainstream.
Nirvana seamlessly blended pop melodies and punk aesthetics, leading the 90s into a new style and subculture. Their hits include “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Something in the Way,” and “Come as You Are.”
Next: The best 90s bands (our list of top 1990s rock bands)
2. Sonic Youth
After forming in New York City in 1981, Sonic Youth emerged from the experimental music scene before creating traditional alternative rock. The band formed with Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and later Steve Shelley.
Sonic Youth has been known for their unique and unorthodox use of guitar tunings and using items like screwdrivers and drumsticks to alter the tone of their instruments. The band has been known for reimagining how the guitar should sound and what it can do.
Sonic Youth would go on to create a major thrust forward in all of alternative and indie rock. They are known for such hit songs as “Kool Thing,” and “100%.”
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Radiohead is an English band formed in 1985 including Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Philip Selway. Through their album “OK Computer,” they created an album with unusual and complex production while writing about alienation in the modern day.
The band found its way into US charts through their single “Creep,” after constant rejection in the UK and popular music. Radiohead would go on to create the album “The Bends,” in 1995, which is seen as a modern masterpiece (although, not even close to as iconic as later albums from the band).
Indeed, Radiohead are giants in music and are one of the greatest bands of all time.
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4. My Chemical Romance
From Newark, New Jersey, My Chemical Romance would form in 2001 with band members Gerard Way, Ray Toro, Frank Iero, and Mikey Way. The band is most known for their goth aesthetic, and their loud and quiet dynamics. They are considered one of the most influential bands in the modern punk and emo scene.
Until 2019, the band was on hiatus but they have remained relevant even to this day.
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5. Talking Heads
At the forefront of the avant-garde and rhythm experimentation, are Talking Heads. They formed in 1975 in New York City with David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison. The short-lived band would go on to create four albums in under four years.
Talking Heads created hits like “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down The House,” and “Once In A Lifetime.” During their hiatus and after their eventual breakup, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth would create a husband-and-wife duo as the Tom Tom Club.
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6. The Sugarcubes
The Sugarcubes were an Icelandic band that was active from 1986 to 1992. The band consisted of Björk Guðmundsdóttir, Þór Eldon, Einar, Örn Benediktsson, Margrét Örnólfsdóttir, Bragi Ólafsson, and Sigtryggur Baldursson. The band was at the forefront of the punk scene in London and in Iceland.
Their single “Birthday,” received international success with their pop melodies and Björk’s distinct vocals. They would go on to create singles like “Hit,” and “Leash Called Love” on their final album “Stick Around For Joy.”
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7. The Cure
The Cure is an English band that formed in 1978. The band included various band members, with Robert Smith being the only consistent and constant member. The Cure is known for their goth aesthetic with pop melodies and rhythms.
The Cure found commercial success after their singles such as “Close to Me,” “Just Like Heaven,” and “Friday I’m in Love.”
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8. Joy Division
Though short-lived, Joy Division was an English rock band that became influential to most musicians in the modern day. The band consisted of Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris.
Early recordings of the band were influenced by punk rock music but they soon developed their distinctive sound that could be heard in their hit song “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The lead singer Ian Curtis would struggle with depression and epilepsy, committing suicide before their international tour in May 1980.
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Tool is a Los Angeles band that started in 1990 with Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, and Danny Carey. The band originally started with Paul D’Amour on the bass but was later replaced in 1995 by Justin Chancellor.
Tool’s incorporation of visual arts and very long albums would go on to influence other artists in the industry. The band incorporates progressive rock, art rock, and psychedelic rock into their music. Their most notable songs are “Third Eye,” “Lateralus,” and “Sober.”
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10. The Clash
The Clash was an English band that formed in 1976 in London. The band started with Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Nicky Headon. They have been seen as “The Only Band That Matters,” and have contributed to the subgenres of post-punk, new wave, and punk.
The Clash’s music includes tones and rhythms from reggae, dub, funk, ska, and rockabilly. The interdisciplinary band is most notable for their song “Rock the Casbah.” They would eventually disband in 1986 due to Nicky Headon’s personal hurdles with addiction.
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Most known for their song “Black Hole Sun,” Soundgarden found its way to becoming a household name after being formed in 1984 in Seattle, Washington. The band started with Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, and bassist Hiro Yamamoto. The band would eventually add Matt Cameron as the drummer and replace Yamamoto with Ben Shepherd.
Along with Nirvana, Soundgarden guided grunge music to popularity in the 90s. It is estimated that they have sold over 30 million records worldwide.
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12. The Smashing Pumpkins
The Smashing Pumpkins are an American band from Chicago. The band formed in 1988 with Billy Corgan, D’arcy Wretzky, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin. Since its formation, the band has gone through different line-up changes.
The band is known for its dense and guitar-heavy style with elements of goth, heavy metal, dream pop, and psychedelia. They are most known for their hits, “Starla,” “Today,” and “1979.”
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13. The White Stripes
After forming in Detroit, Michigan in 1997, The White Stripes became a popular rock duo including Jack White and Meg White. Within the garage rock scene, the band rose to popularity after 3 albums and multiple singles.
Their most notable single, “Seven Nation Army,” included distorted vocals and a bass-like guitar riff. The band would draw attention from their most popular albums, “White Blood Cells,” and “Elephant.”
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The Pixies formed in 1986 in Boston, Massachusetts with Joey Santiago, Black Francis, Kim Deal, and David Lovering. The band has undergone lineup changes since 2013.
The alternative rock band is known for including punk and surf rock in their music. They are most known for their tone dynamic of “loud-quiet-loud” within their song structures. They are most known for their songs “Where is My Mind,” and “Hey.”
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The Ramones formed in New York City in 1974, and are often regarded as one of the best and most important bands of all time. The band became highly influential in the United States, South America, and throughout Europe.
The band began with Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Ramone, and Tommy Ramone. Inspired by The Beatles, they would go on to create punk music that broke boundaries, commenting on daily society. The Ramones are most known for their single, “Blitzkreig Bop.”
16. Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are a Los Angeles band that formed in 1983. The band started and began with Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Chad Smith, and John Frusciante.
The band would go on to incorporate elements of funk, punk, and psychedelic rock. They are known as one of the most successful bands in history by constantly leading the Billboard charts. They are most known for their song, “Californication,” and “Can’t Stop.”
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17. Foo Fighters
In 1994, Foo Fighters began as a one-man project by Dave Grohl once Nirvana disbanded after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Grohl would later add Nate Mendel, William Goldsmith, and Pat Smear.
The band is seen as a global icon and would continue to make grunge and alternative rock music that Nirvana would not have. The band is most known for their songs “Everlong,” “The Pretender,” and “Best of You.”
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Gorillaz is a virtual band that formed in 1998 with the musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. The London band would create a fictional universe that would be displayed with the band’s music in music videos, interviews, comics, and short cartoons.
Through collaborations, Gorillaz has worked with dozens of artists, creating postmodern and art-pop hits. The band is most known for “DARE,” and “Feel Good Inc.”
The experimental punk band, Fugazi, is an American band that formed in 1986 in Washington D.C. The band began with Ian Mackaye, Guy Picciotto, Joe Lally, and Brendan Canty. They are known for their DIY style and ethical stance on business and the music industry.
The band would create the hit song “Waiting Room,” and break the boundaries of what the punk genre was and is.
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20. My Bloody Valentine
The Irish alternative band, My Bloody Valentine, has been creating shoegaze hits since 1983. The band consists of Bilinda Butcher, Colm Ó Cíosóig, Kevin Shields, and Debbie Googe. The band is known for its dissonant guitars, layered vocals, and unique production.
Their most popular album, “Loveless,” would go on to be widely believed to be one of the greatest albums of all time.
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Of course we couldn’t forget Weezer on this list! They’re one of the quintessential 90s alternative rock bands!
Weezer is a Los Angeles band formed in 1992 with band members, Rivers Cuomo, Patrick Wilson, Brian Bell, and Scott Shriner. They are most known for their singles “Say it Ain’t So,” and “The Sweater Song.”
Their music would combine modern pop melodies with light guitar and bass riffs to create an alternative rock landscape, and they’ve stuck around ever since.
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