Alternative rock rose to prominence in the late 1970s as a subset of indie rock and mainstream rock. But what exactly is alternative music, and what makes a track fall under that category instead of general rock?
This is generally rock- or punk-inspired music that deviates from mainstream music through genre fusion. It is often released under independent labels and deliberately differs from popular genres, using unusual instrumental elements and practices. These top alternative songs were some of the most unique and influential of their time.
1. Loser — Beck
Beck’s 1994 hit Loser was extremely popular, peaking at number 10 on the Billboard charts. The song rose out of his time performing in bars and clubs while struggling to make a living; the singer would often come up with strange or bizarre lyrics to keep his audience’s attention. The track is a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating tune that has been called “stoner rap” and largely consists of meaningless lyrics. It helped establish him as one of the quintessential alternative artists of the 1990s.
2. Bastards Of Young — The Replacements
Bastards Of Young was released in 1985 and was completely unique in its time. Modern music critics have called it one of the most iconic punk rock songs of all time, though it doesn’t fit perfectly within the genre. As a result, it is usually categorized as an alternative track. The song’s lyrics are about feeling isolated after moving to a new city, with subtle criticism of the mainstream music industry throughout.
3. Zombie — The Cranberries
Irish band The Cranberries were in their heyday during the 1990s when they released the song, Zombie. The 1994 track is inarguably their most iconic, characterized by frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan’s wailing vocals on the chorus.
It is about the era known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland; most specifically, it was inspired by the deaths of two young boys in an I.R.A. bombing in England in the early 1990s. One of them was killed by a bomb that had been planted in a trash can while he was shopping for a Mother’s Day present.
4. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For — U2
Irish band U2 released their album Joshua Tree in 1987. It has been widely regarded as their best work and features some of their most iconic songs, most notably I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. It is the definition of alternative rock, with heavy influences from gospel music. The song was nominated for two Grammy Awards and has been counted among the greatest tracks of all time; it is also one of the band’s signature pieces and a standard at their live performances.
5. Creep — Radiohead
Mention Radiohead and the first song that pops into most minds is Creep. Released on the band’s debut album in 1992, it remains their top single. It wasn’t initially popular, but it eventually came to mainstream attention after heavy rotation on alternative radio stations. It gave them the reputation of being a “slacker” rock group, much like Nirvana or Beck. It’s no wonder that they quickly became synonymous with the alt-rock genre.
6. She’s Lost Control — Joy Division
British band Joy Division was an early exploration into alternative rock. They released She’s Lost Control in 1979. The title is meant to be understood literally, as it was inspired by a woman suffering from epilepsy. Frontman Ian Curtis, who was also epileptic, witnessed the woman have recurrent seizures and later learned that she had suffocated in her sleep while seizing. The track was about his own fear of suffering the same fate.
7. Man In The Box — Alice In Chains
Alice In Chains was one of the leading bands in the developing grunge scene of the 1980s and 1990s, but much of its music also falls under the broader category of alternative rock. Their 1990 hit Man In The Box was one of their most successful singles, even receiving a Grammy Award nomination. The song was inspired in part by the modern meat industry and was partially a commentary on government censorship. It has become one of the band’s signature tracks.
8. Here Comes Your Man — Pixies
Here Comes Your Man was an alt-rock song that managed to find mainstream success, climbing to number three on the Modern Rock charts. Though this universal appeal helped make Pixies successful, it made the band members initially unwilling to record the track. They managed to find the line between alternative and pop music with this song about experiencing an earthquake and feeling powerless to fight against nature.
9. Head Like a Hole — Nine Inch Nails
Head Like A Hole falls in an odd space between rock, electronic dance music, and indie, earning it an alternative label. The track, released in 1990, was an instant success and remains one of the band’s best-known songs. It solidified them as a pioneer of industrial rock, with its high energy and aggressive vocals and lyrics. The aggression was a key part of the track’s inspiration, with Trent Reznor saying that he felt like he needed to take his music in a stronger direction, especially with his worries about their record label.
10. Smells Like Teen Spirit — Nirvana
Often hailed as the anthem of Generation X, Nirvana’s 1991 song Smells Like Teen Spirit propelled the band to international fame. The track is all about defying authority, as evidenced by the music video, which is almost as famous as the song itself. The video depicts a school of teens turning a high school assembly upside down when they decide to rebel en masse. This is consistently cited as one of the best and most influential tracks in the history of rock and roll; it has also been inducted into the Grammy Award Hall Of Fame.
11. 1979 — Smashing Pumpkins
Smashing Pumpkins rose to fame in the early 1990s with their album, Siamese Dream. Two years later, they released another successful LP, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. The most acclaimed single on the album was 1979, a song about adolescence and growing up. Frontman Billy Corgan chose the title because 1979 was the year that he turned 12, and he considered it the year that he began to become an adult. It was nominated for a host of awards and is known as one of the band’s most successful singles.
12. Say It Ain’t So — Weezer
Say It Ain’t So is often considered the quintessential Weezer song. Released in 1994, it was a mix of punk and emo-inspired music; this eclectic mix puts it squarely in the alternative genre. Though the music video wasn’t very popular, especially in contrast to several of their previous videos, the song climbed to the top of the charts. It was inspired by frontman Rivers Cuomo’s fears about his parents’ marriage while he was still a teenager.
13. Celebrity Skin — Hole
Celebrity Skin was just one track on Hole’s acclaimed 1998 album of the same name, but it was by far the most famous. The song was an observation about living your life in the spotlight, which frontwoman Courtney Love definitely understood. It was a major success, spending 26 weeks on the charts. The track also drew heavily on literary references, including Dante and Shakespeare.
14. You Oughta Know — Alanis Morrisette
Alanis Morrisette released several albums through the start of the 1990s, but it was until 1995’s Jagged Little Pill that she made her breakthrough. The album featured several songs that would become standards through the rest of her career, including Ironic and You Oughta Know. The latter was the start of her switch from pop to alt-rock, which would define her ongoing career. This was one of the singer’s most successful singles.
15. Everlong — Foo Fighters
One element of alternative music is certainly exploring the unique, thought-provoking, or the bizarre. Foo Fighters’ 1997 single Everlong certainly fits the bill in this regard.
The song was inspired by frontman Dave Grohl’s new relationship as he navigated a divorce. It included backup vocals recorded over the telephone and a spoken-word story about a child waking his father up, which is combined with two whispered tracks including a personal letter and a tech manual.
16. When I Come Around — Green Day
Green Day is largely associated with the early 2000s when the band saw the success of singles such as Boulevard Of Broken Dreams and Wake Me Up When September Ends. But they deserve praise for their single When I Come Around, which was officially released in 1995. The track topped both the alt-rock and mainstream rock charts and is considered one of the band’s best songs of the 1990s, along with Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).
17. Give It Away — Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Hot Chili Peppers were extremely influential on the alt-rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s, contributing a fusion of rap rock, funk rock, and other genres. Their 1991 single Give It Away was their first number-one hit, topping the charts around the world. The music video, which was played regularly on MTV, only added to the song’s popularity, and the band won a Grammy Award the following year.
18. Touch Me I’m Sick — Mudhoney
Grunge band Mudhoney isn’t as widely remembered as contemporaries such as Pearl Jam or Nirvana, but they remain one of the most influential bands of the 1980s and 1990s. Hits such as Touch Me I’m Sick helped shape both the grunge scene and the developing alt-rock genre. Recorded in 1988, the song had a rough, “dirty” sound that became typical of grunge throughout the following decade.
19. Teen Age Riot — Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth’s Teen Age Riot became one of their signature songs and was noted for its strange, distorted instrumentalization and seemingly random, wandering lyrics. The track has an element of psychedelic rock; the band members deliberately mistuned their instruments to achieve the strange backing of the song. This became such a standard for them that it would become the last track they played live before disbanding in 2011.
20. Jeremy — Pearl Jam
Jeremy is considered one of Pearl Jam’s most iconic songs, but it stirred controversy when it was released in 1991. The track is based on two stories but was mainly inspired by the story of a teenage boy who shot himself in front of his high school class. Though it has been praised as an essential part of the band’s legacy, the son and its accompanying music video shocked the public in the early 1990s. It was heavily censored when it aired on MTV for gore and violence.
21. I Wanna Be Adored — The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses released I Wanna Be Adored as the first single on their first album, setting a strong precedent for their future work. As it turned out, the 1990 song was their biggest hit, particularly in the US where it climbed to number 18. The lyrics only consist of a few lines, and the track’s popularity mainly came from the unique and attention-catching instrumentalization of the single.
22. Wuthering Heights — Kate Bush
British singer Kate Bush’s music is notoriously difficult to categorize, which, in some ways, is the definition of alternative. Her 1978 song Wuthering Heights is just as weird as it is intoxicating, a retelling of the classic novel. The track is written from the perspective of Cathy Earnshaw, Heathcliff’s dead lover, as she haunts the English moors asking for him to let her back into Wuthering Heights. The singer’s witchy and eerie vocal performance is mesmerizing.
23. Semi-Charmed Life — Third Eye Blind
Third Eye Blind came to widespread attention with the release of their 1997 hit Semi-Charmed Life. The song straddled the line between alternative and popular music, making it a hit on the mainstream charts. It has been called one of the most essential tracks of the 1990s. Despite its catchy hook, the song is actually about a person struggling with an addiction to crystal meth and how it affects their perception of their own life.
24. Mr. Brightside — The Killers
It’s hard to categorize the 2004 hit, Mr. Brightside. The track contains elements of synth-pop, electronica, new wave, and rock. But what isn’t up for debate is its enduring catchiness, which is what makes it so perennially popular. It has been named on lists of the best songs of the 2000s and the best of the 21st century. Its popularity is evident in the fact that it periodically returns to both radio and streaming charts, even decades after its release.
25. This Charming Man — The Smiths
The Smiths’ 1983 single This Charming Man isn’t just an excellent alternative song; it was also a highly progressive track for its time. It has been noted for its commentary on the underground gay scene of the time, one that was more mature and settled than most other mainstream media depictions. The song was Morrissey’s attempt to project a new perspective into gay culture, from which he felt isolated. The result was a surprisingly genteel, old-fashioned love track.
26. Bitter Sweet Symphony — The Verve
UK bands contributed significantly to the alt-rock scene of the 1990s through the development of Britpop. The Verve was one of many influential Britpop bands, and their 1997 hit Bitter Sweet Symphony has been called one of the quintessential songs of the genre. The track was based on a string cover of The Last Time by The Rolling Stones. The band received several award nominations for the track, including a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance.
27. Plush — Stone Temple Pilots
Stone Temple Pilots were one of the earliest grunge bands to achieve mainstream success, and their breakthrough came with 1992’s Plush. The song was not only popular on the grunge scene but also climbed to number one on the mainstream rock charts. Though the band itself was generally classified as grunge, the track drew on musical elements from ragtime; this bizarre combination somehow worked—and this became a major hit. It won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance and is considered one of the biggest rock songs of the 1990s.
28. Blister In The Sun — Violent Femmes
Violent Femmes is generally classified as a folk punk band, but like many fusion groups, much of their music can be sorted under the category of alt-rock. They are best remembered for some of their early hits, such as 1983’s Blister In The Sun. Though the track was largely overlooked by the mainstream music industry, it has remained a staple of the early alternative genre. The lyrics are about a man struggling with heroin addiction as he tries, unsuccessfully, to pick up women.
29. Once In a Lifetime — Talking Heads
New wave band Talking Heads composed their music through a unique process; in the case of their 1980 hit Once In A Lifetime, it involved extensive jam sessions with inspiration from gospel music, afrobeat, hip hop, and religious rituals. The result was a track that has been called one of the most important in the history of rock and roll. The lyrics are a commentary on consumerism, the prosperity Gospel, and existential crises involving one’s purpose in life.
30. Losing My Religion — R.E.M.
R.E.M. was one of the most influential alternative bands of the 1980s and 1990s, but they are best known for their 1991 hit Losing My Religion. No one expected the song to be a widespread hit. The acclaimed music video aired extensively on MTV, which bolstered the track’s popularity. It won two Grammy Awards the following year for Best Pop Performance By a Duo and Best Short Form Music Video.
31. Connection — Elastica
Opinions are divided on whether Elastica’s 1994 single Connection falls under the category of Britpop, post-punk, or alternative. The song was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, rising to number two on the US Modern Rocks chart. It has been called one of the quintessential tracks of 1990s Britpop, marked by its lustful lyrics and frantically upbeat rhythm.
32. Fell In Love With a Girl — The White Stripes
The White Strips ruled the alternative scene in the 2000s, and Fell In Love With A Girl was one of their best. The song, released in 2001, existed in the space between garage rock and alt-rock. It was a major hit, with critics praising it for its intense energy. The music video is considered one of the best of the decade, receiving multiple awards for the unique use of LEGO blocks in a stop-motion style.
33. Hallelujah — Jeff Buckley
Hallelujah is considered one of Jeff Buckley’s most iconic songs. Amazingly, when Leonard Cohen composed the track in the 1980s, critics absolutely hated it. Yet somehow, when Buckley covered it ten years later, his version worked. His gentle vocals make the defeated lyrics absolutely heartbreaking, and the song became a hit. It was also famously featured in the 2001 movie Shrek, which only added to its popularity.
34. Don’t Speak — No Doubt
Don’t Speak is a classic breakup song, but it’s far from a cliche. The 1995 hit has been called one of the greatest alt-rock tracks of all time, earning two Grammy Award nominations including Song Of The Year. The track was released during Gwen Stefani’s time with the band, with her powerful vocals making the emotional ballad moving and evocative. It broke records at the time for spending 16 consecutive weeks at number one on the charts.
35. Cannonball — The Breeders
Cannonball isn’t as widely remembered as some of the other tracks on this list, but despite it, it reminds a classic alt-rock song. The band members originally intended for it to be an experiment in a grunge and reggae hybrid, which they called “grunggae.” The track was a hit, popularized by its heavy use of distortion, high-tempo percussion, and catchy hooks. It is widely remembered as The Breeders’ most successful single, hitting number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100.
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