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What is Alternative Music? Full Explanation With Examples

The real definition for alternative music is just music that isn’t made by anyone in the mainstream and music that doesn’t follow specific templates to mainstream music styles. Pretty much anything can be a type of alternative music if it’s outside the social norms of its genre. Alternative can also refer to any music that is made independently, in the same vein as the punk rock movement of the 1970s.

In this article, we’ll try to define the ambiguous title of alternative music, go through the history of the two main alternative genres that we have today, and go over some of the most important bands in the alternative music scene. 

Alternative Definition And Genres

In music, alternative is a really simple concept that can get messy and confusing quickly. By definition, alternative music is produced by performers who are outside of the musical mainstream. It’s typically more eclectic, original, and challenging than most popular music and it’s usually distributed by independent labels instead of major ones.

Urban Dictionary describes it as a less intense version of rock and a more intense version of pop. Alternative music typically strays away from the general lyrics of the genre and might include musical techniques from outside of their native genre. There are very few creative limits on alternative musicians, and their music doesn’t fit into neatly categorized boxes. 

We also have to talk about the fact that alternative music, as a term, covers an incredibly long list of subgenres.

There’s pretty much an alternative genre for every genre of music. The two biggest ones with the most popularity are, without a doubt, alt-rock and alt-pop, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only two. Hardcore alternative, alt-Christian, garage alternative, goth rock, grunge, new wave, punk, shoegaze, steampunk, indie, and the list goes on.

When actually discussing genres that are considered to be alternative, you can shorten the list to alt-pop and several subgenres of alt-rock. Those two are the ones recognized as archetypal genres today, thanks in large part to the popularization of alternative music in the 90s.

Next: Top alt rock bands of all time (our list)

The History Of Alternative Music

Looking at the history of alternative music, we’ll mostly be focusing on just rock and pop since those two are the main genres that fit into the alternative categories (yes, I know, alternative doesn’t fit into categories, it’s too cool). This is mainly to help keep things simple and look at the two biggest movements in alternative music, both of which have found legitimacy in underground and mainstream music circles.

Part One: Rock

Alternative rock music started in the 1970s in the independent music underground. Before the term “alternative rock” got popular, it went by quite a few different names. Terry Tolin used the term Alternative music as early as 1979 to describe a group on the radio, while “college rock” was another term used for it since alt-rock was tied into college radio stations and known for being popular with college kids. By the 1980s, post-modern and new music was used to describe alternative rock. Most of the DIY, home-recording, and small music labels began publishing indie rock groups that came out of the punk subculture in the US at the time.


Sounds, Cherry Red, and NME magazines began publishing charts based on small record stores called the “Alternative Charts,” with the first national chart distribution being labeled the indie charts. By 1985, the term indie wasn’t used anymore for alt-rock, instead describing a specific genre instead of a distribution status. 

One of the first bands to get the alternative label was Camper Van Beethoven, named an alternative/indie group. For a while, alternative just referred to rock acts that intentionally stayed out of the mainstream and weren’t influenced by heavy metal ballads, new wave, or pop-like dance anthems. Eventually, alternative owls include new wave, pop, punk rock, post-punk, and college or indie rock. It wasn’t until 1991 that Spin magazine noted that the sound that had been considered alternative rock had potential and was popular even in the mainstream. 

Neil Strauss of the New York Times gave us an accurate (if not judgemental) definition of alternative rock in 1997, “hard-edged rock distinguished by brittle, 70s-inspired guitar riffing and singers agonizing over their problems until they take on epic proportions.” 

Early alt-rock bands produced music through independent labels in much of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Some of those indie bands would go on to sign record deals with major labels and turn into huge influences on the music scene (Red Hot Chili Peppers are a notable example here, along with Jane’s Addiction and Dinosaur Jr.). 

Alt-rock really started as a mainstream music genre in the 90s and you can only point to one band for truly popularizing it as a genre. Nirvana’s release of Smells Like Teen Spirit in 1991 put alternative rock on the map and kicked off the phenomenon that was grunge music. Their album Nevermind shocked the music industry by selling over 400,000 copies before Christmas of that year and was truly something more in the music world. It was the turning point of rock music, away from the hair metal and glam rock that had dominated for so long, and made the alternative scene culturally relevant. 

Nirvana’s breakthrough success is the trigger that popularized alternative rock in the 1990s. They opened doors for other grunge, indie, and alt-rock bands to get more playtime on radio stations, with the New York Times stating in 1993 that alternative rock doesn’t sound so alternative anymore. Not every alt-rock band was happy to go mainstream, with many rejecting record deals in favor of artistic authenticity.

Nirvana - The Man Who Sold The World (MTV Unplugged)

Today, alternative rock music has its own Billboard charts, is played alongside classic rock music on radio stations, and is more of a set of subgenres with slightly off-mainstream sounds than big commercial bands.

Alternative rock spawned quite a lot of subgenres, so here’s a list of what is generally considered to be alternative rock subgroups to help keep you from getting confused later when we discuss bands with more specific labels than just “alternative rock bands.”

  • Alternative rock
  • College Rock
  • Experimental Rock
  • Goth Rock
  • Grunge
  • Hardcore Punk
  • Hard Rock
  • Indie Rock
  • New Wave
  • Garage Rock
  • Progressive Rock
  • Punk
  • Shoegaze
  • Steampunk

Part Two: Pop

Up until the late 1970s, indie pop and alt-pop had the same origins as alternative rock music. Alt-pop emerged from the early indie music scene and punk genres of the mid-1900s. The best way to define alternative pop today is that it’s a style of pop music that has broad commercial appeal, but it’s produced by figures outside of the mainstream music circle. It typically has some homemade elements, stemming from its roots in the lo-fi, indie, and punk scenes. 

There weren’t a ton of acts in the early days to find mainstream success with alt-pop sounds. Siouxsie and the Banshees are a notable outlier, finding plenty of success during the 80s. It wasn’t until the late 90s and early 2000s that alt-pop found solid ground and an established place in the music world. 

Before talking about alt-pop today, it’s a good time to note the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s. It started as an underground feminist punk movement in Olympia, Washington. The whole thing was essential a subculture movement devoted to feminism, punk music, and politics. It really came out of the indie rock scene but was also one of the starting spots for the true alt-pop genre of music. 

Riot Grrrl: The '90s Movement that Redefined Punk

Many of the songs developed during the Riot Grrrl movement dealt with issues like domestic violence, rape, racism, the patriarchy, classism, and female empowerment. The bands noted to have been a part of it were almost entirely female, and the punk scene gave them an outlet to express anger, rage, and frustration. All of those emotions were typically reserved for male musicians and songwriters, with women traditionally avoiding them. 

Bands like Blondie, Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland, The Donnas, Bikini Kill, and Bratmobile were integral parts of the movement. But while it started out relatively small, Riot Grrrl would go on to become an international movement, jumping over to Europe and other countries. It turned into a grassroots movement that established local chapters, had meetings, and did its best to educate and influence. Riot Grrrl’s chapters looked to end forms of prejudice and oppression, especially in the music world. They helped organize women in music and support art by suppressed groups of people like women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and minorities. 

Acts like Avril Lavigne, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, and Billie Eilish are the best examples of alt-pop stars as of today.

Next: Top female punk bands of all time

Important Alternative Bands and Artists

Nirvana

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video)

If you couldn’t tell from the history of alt-rock, we can’t talk about alternative music without discussing Nirvana. They literally and legitimately pioneered alternative rock and brought it to the mainstream music world, and were the first band to make alternative rock seem like a commercially viable genre for record studios. 

The band was formed in 1987 by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. In 1990, they would recruit Dave Grohl as their full-time drummer, and their lineup was set. Nirvana was an established part of the Seattle grunge scene thanks to their first album Bleach, but their mainstream success came in after signing with DGC Records in 1991 and releasing Nevermind. Smells Like Teen Spirit took the world by storm and subsequent singles like Lithium and Come As You Are pushed the album up the charts and officially ended the dominance of hair metal. 

Kurt Cobain’s unfortunate passing meant the band only had a three-year run in the mainstream music world, but they would still go on to become one of the best-selling bands of all time with over 75 million worldwide record sales. They charted five number-one on the Billboard Alternative songs chart and four number-one albums on the Billboard 200. Nirvana was even inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

Next: Nirvana’s greatest hits – top songs list

Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters - Everlong (Official HD Video)

After Nirvana ended, Dave Grohl wasn’t done making music. The Foo Fighters started off as a one-man project with Grohl as the sole member and picked up the alt-rock sound where Nirvana left off. They would continue evolving over time, bringing us massive hits like Everlong, Learn to Fly, The Pretender, and Times Like These.

Foo Fighters are one of the most successful rock acts in history, racking up 15 Grammy Award wins, five of which were for Best Rock Album (even with an alternative rock style, who would have guessed). They were also the first-ever recipients of the Global Icon award at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards and earned an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, their first year of eligibility. 

Next: Best alternative songs of all time

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Californication (Official Music Video) [HD UPGRADE]

The Red Hot Chili Peppers started out as an indie band that made it into the mainstream thanks in part to Nirvana opening the door, but mostly on the merits of their insane talent as musicians. It’s hard to describe their music as anything other than alternative, even if alternative rock is just one of the elements they use when producing music. Funk metal, rap rock, rap metal, nu metal, punk rock, psychedelic, funk, and hip-hop are all genres the band takes inspiration from to craft their one-of-a-kind style. 

Despite several lineup changes since their formation in 1983, the Chili Peppers would go on to become one of the best-selling bands of all time with over 120 million worldwide record sales. They also hold numerous Alternative Airplay chart records with 15 songs reaching the number one spot, the most consecutive weeks at number one with 85, and the most top ten songs with 27. Thirteen studio albums, 3 Grammy Awards, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction, and a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are all testaments to how popular the Chili Peppers have been and how popular alternative music has gotten over time.

Next: The top alternative bands of the ’90s

Avril Lavigne

Avril Lavigne - Complicated (Official Video)

“Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?” Avril Lavigne hit the music world in 2002 with her debut album, Let Go, which consequently is the best-selling album of the 21st century by a Canadian artist. It earned her the title of Pop Punk Queen and played on the skate punk persona that was popular in the early 2000s. Complicated and Sk8er Boi are still popular songs today, meaning I guarantee if you play one at the bar, you’ll see plenty of people singing along. 

Lavigne is one of the most important figures of the alternative pop genre, mixing pop punk with alternative rock, post-grunge, and pop rock. Her success virtually paved the way for numerous female-led punk-influenced pop acts to find space in the early 2000s music industry. There’s of course plenty of overlap between alt-rock and alt-pop (if you hadn’t guessed) since they mostly had the same origins early on. Lavigne’s influence would go on to be a major inspiration for many of the 2010s emo subgenres that were also, you guessed it, alternative rock and pop music genres. 

Siouxsie and the Banshees

Siouxsie And The Banshees - Spellbound (Official Music Video)

Siouxsie and the Banshees were one of the first real alternative music groups to find any level of widespread success. Their run in the 80s made them a central part of the punk scene, continually evolving and pioneering part of the post-punk scene with the emerging gothic scene. Producing eleven studio albums and thirty singles, the band would find most of their success during the 80s, before Nirvana, before the Chili Peppers signed to a major label, and before anyone else was a mainstream example of popular alternative music. 

The White Stripes

The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army (Official Music Video)

The White Stripes are an American rock duo that found their roots in the Detroit music scene after they were formed in 1997. They’re one of the biggest contributors to the garage rock scene, a style of rock that’s mostly low fidelity and has a DIY ethos around it. It’s also almost always an indie style of music, with The White Stripes melding garage rock and blues influences into a raw, simple type of arrangement. Of their six studio albums, their last three each won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. What sparked their relative rise to prominence was the single Seven Nation Army.

The Strokes

The Strokes - You Only Live Once (Official HD Video)

The Strokes were one of the main influences of the early-2000s indie rock revival. Their first EP, The Modern Age in 2001, sparked a massive bidding war between major record labels. Their album Is This It was the record of the decade for many publications, and the group names Nirvana and Pearl Jam as their two biggest influences. Their legacy would influence other alternative music groups like The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, and Franz Ferdinand. 

Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish - bad guy (Official Music Video)

Songs like Ocean Eyes, Bad Guy, and No Time To Die have made Billie Eilish one of the best-known names in the music industry in recent years. Her short career has seen her win seven Grammy Awards, two American Music Awards, three MTV Video Music Awards, and both a Golden Globe and Academy Awards. She’s the youngest artist to ever win all four general field categories of Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year.

So even with those awards, why is she so important? Eilish incorporates pop, emo pop, electropop, goth-pop, experimental pop, indie pop, and alt-pop into her music to create a relatively unique style. It’s exactly the kind of style you can’t pin down and say “AHA, IT’S THIS!” She’s here on this list because she may be one of the most important artists in the alternative music industry today and the waves she makes in music are popularizing alternative sounds just like other groups in this section did before her.

Other Styles of Alternative Music

So look. It’s honestly a very complicated subject trying to dissect alternative music as a whole and distill it into something that’s actually digestible. Pretty much any music genre or style that doesn’t fit into a neat little category is potentially going to be deemed an alternative style of music. We have tons and tons of examples of this with all the various subgenres out there, but we’ll go over some of the ones with the most interesting histories. 

Black Metal

The black metal scene mostly took place in the Scandinavian countries during the 90s, though some bands are still active in it today. Black metal was an alternative form of metal music that came out of a mix of thrash and death metal, and just be aware now that it is brutal. This section is going to cover some heavy topics that you may find offensive or triggering including murder, suicide, assault, and anti-religious sentiments. I will be keeping descriptions simple and avoiding any major inclusions, but if that will bother you, I’ll ask you to skip ahead to glitch hop.

In a very quick description, black metal themes mainly centered around extreme anti-Christian sentiments, Satanism, ethnic paganism, violence, misanthropy, and doom. It mainly tries to stay out of the mainstream as an artistic choice and follows a relatively short list of traits that include shrieking vocals, heavily distorted guitars, lo-fi recordings, strange song structures, and very fast tempos. Many times the band members will also wear corpse paint, makeup meant to make them look like corpses. 

It wasn’t a big music scene, nor is it one of the best-selling ones. In the early days, almost everyone involved in black metal bands was involved with each other and worked together on different bands. Many of the “elite” members all knew each other and took part in a string of church burnings in Norway. Some of the bands brought controversy to themselves, whether by capitalizing on the suicide of a band member or quite literally murdering a member of another band. 

In one case, the band whose member was murdered featured bass lines on an album by the person who murdered their bandmate. You can find a more detailed description of the history here if that sort of thing interests you. 

Next: Really cool black metal bands

Glitch Hop

Have you ever seen a screen start glitching out on your phone or computer? If so, have you ever thought about creating a music genre centered around those glitches? I’m going to assume you haven’t but that’s one of the beautiful things about glitch-hop. It takes on the aesthetics of a glitch to blend lo-fi sounds, chopping, screwing, beat repeats, and other effects with hip-hop music. Many of the artists that have played it are in EDM and IDM circles like The Glitch Mob, GRiZ, and Flying Lotus.

Folktronica

Crazy name but a sweet sound. Folktronica is a little-known genre of music that works to blend electronic music with folk and acoustic styles to create something new. Bibio is one of the best representatives of the style, and they had a major influence on Boards of Canada whose album, The Campfire Headphase, is probably the best example of Folktronica. It’s not particularly new, electronic music has been around for a long time, but blending it with folk music to create a subgenre outside of the norms makes for a very interesting style of alternative music. 

Vaporwave

You could describe vaporwave as a micro-genre, but it’s also one of the most divisive, with people either loving or hating it. It’s a style of music that samples a wide variety of genres and uses software instruments to incorporate basically everything into it. You’ll see old 90s computer imagery on album covers, seemingly random 3D animations, and plenty of nods to cyberpunk themes in it. A lot of the music is just as much about the weird visuals as the actual music itself. 

Lo-fi Hip Hop

Also referred to as chill hop, lo-fi hip hop music is a form of downtempo music that combines some elements of hip-hop with music meant to help you chill out. It’s become majorly popular in recent years, especially with students, as it can actually help you study and reduce stress. 

Lo-fi hip hop originated in the beat-making scene and almost always has a low-fidelity quality that incorporates sounds like record scratches and cassette tapes. It’s an amazing kind of music to throw on in the background while you’re doing other tasks because it almost never has any lyrics. Think of it like the music you might hear when you walk into a bookstore. Calm, slow, and relaxing. I give you this very minimalist description while listening to the Lofi Girl livestream, a lo-fi hip hop radio on YouTube.

Next: Full detailed breakdown of LoFi music

Cute Metal

Kawaii core is what you get if you mix heavy metal music with anime and horror tropes. It combines elements of metal with J-Pop and really emerged in the 2010s when it began mixing the idol personas of Japanese pop music with the darker elements you expect to find in heavy metal music. Like beat drops? They’ve got plenty of them. One band to keep an eye out for in the genre has to be the Babymetal trio. One interesting Twitter thread saw fans attacking Rob Zombie (i believe) for supporting them, saying they weren’t real rockers and such. He darn near answered every mention on the thread with comments like, “They rock harder than you.”

Final Thoughts On Alternative Music

Some of my all-time favorite bands and music can be qualified as some form of alternative music, but it’s important to understand that the definition of it as a whole has changed as time has gone on. It’s not just indie music from independent labels that were produced in a garage. It’s also not the post-punk style of music that it originated from. 

For the most part, the two surviving alternative genres today are alternative rock and alternative pop. Both have spawned numerous subgenres, but they each have their own charts to track new music and came from similar origins. You can always find more subgenres and styles that qualify as alternative, but there is a simple definition you can use to decide if it’s alternative or not.

Alternative music allows for complete artistic freedom, can’t be put in a neat overarching box for its genre, and is usually made by someone outside of the mainstream music world who doesn’t follow strict templates for their work. 

Read Next:

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Best alt rock songs of the 1990s

1 thought on “What is Alternative Music? Full Explanation With Examples”

  1. It caught my interest when you informed us that alternative rock used to be called college rock since it was often tied into college radio stations and was known for being popular among college kids. It’s my sister’s debutante party this April, and we were thinking of booking a band to perform during the day of the party since we will be throwing her a big one. I’ll keep this in mind while I look for an alternative rock band in New York that we can book for the party soon.

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