The terms alternative rock and alternative music1 were coined in the early 1980s to describe punk rock-inspired music genres which didn't fit into the mainstream genres of the time. At times it was used as catch-all phrase for rock music from underground artists in the 1980s and rock music in general in the 1990s. More specifically, it is made up mostly of genres that appeared in the 1980s and became popular or well known by the 1990s, such as indie rock, post-punk, gothic rock, and college rock. Most alternative bands were unified by their collective debt to punk, which laid the groundwork for underground and alternative music in the 1970s. Though the genre is considered to be rock, some of its genres were influenced by folk music, reggae and jazz music among other genres.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s only CFNY, a commercial radio station in Toronto, Ontario, regularly broadcast alternative rock in North America. By 1982, a handful of college radio stations, like Danbury, Connecticut's WXCI, broadcast alternative rock in the United States. Most commercial stations, CFNY being a notable exception, ignored the genre. It was played extensively in the UK, particularly by DJs such as John Peel (who championed alternative music on Radio One), Richard Skinner, and Annie Nightingale. As alternative rock became more popular in the mid-1980s, it spread widely to other college radio stations, leading to the use of the name "college rock" in the United States. In the UK, it became the predominantly popular form of rock for young people, and many alternative bands had chart success. Finally, in the late 1980s in North America, commercial stations such as Boston, Massachusetts's WFNX began playing alternative rock. By that time, CFNY's format was moving away from alternative as university radio stations took over the genre. Outside of North America, Triple J, a government-run radio station in Australia, started broadcasting alternative rock from 1975 in Sydney. In 1990 it began broadcasting nationally, though with a more "watered down" format.
Notable alternative bands of the 1980s include R.E.M., Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü from the United States, and New Order, The Smiths, and The Cure from the United Kingdom.
Although these groups never generated spectacular album sales, they exerted a considerable influence on the generation of musicians who came of age in the 80s. Alternative music and the rebellious, DIY ethic it espoused became one of the inspirations for grunge, an alternative sub-genre created in the 80s that created a large movement in mainstream music in the early 90s. Led by the popularity of Nirvana, the grunge movement took alternative rock into the mainstream. While "alternative" was simply an umbrella term for a diverse collection of underground rock bands, Nirvana and similar groups gave it a reputation for being a distinct style of guitar based rock which combined elements of punk and metal; their creation met with considerable commercial success.
By the mid-90s, alternative was synonymous with grunge in the eyes of the mass media and the general public and a supposed "alternative culture" was being marketed to the mainstream in much the same way as the hippie counterculture had in the 1960s (the existence of any such culture is debatable, and is often seen by some fans of the music to have been a creation of the media). By this time, however, alternative bands who were leery of broad commercial success had developed indie rock, a new genre that espoused a return to the original ethos of alternative music.
In the first decade of the 21st century, mainstream rock has continued to evolve beyond alternative's 80s roots and low-fidelity ethos. Today's most popular rock music acts, typified by youth oriented modern rock groups such as Linkin Park, incorporate complex electronic beats and highly produced albums, but owe a heavy debt to their metal and grunge influences. In spite of being influenced by alternative rock, many fans of the genre do not see these bands as being alternative, but instead as part of the nu-metal genre.
- The term "alternative music" is particularly favoured over "alternative rock" in British English, while "alternative rock" is favored in American English. The term underground music is sometimes also used, though more often used in reference to the music of little-known artists.
Last updated: 10-23-2005 17:45:05