What is alternative music? Alternative music is notoriously tricky to describe. It is not rock music, it is not pop, it is…alternative. The genre also has an endless number of subgenres, from hardcore alternative to garage alternative.
While the genre is seemingly impossible to nail down to one category, alternative remains one of the most widely loved branches of music out there. Below are nine genre-defining alternative songs and the history of this mysterious corner of music.
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A good alternative music definition can be summed up as music outside of the mainstream realm. Alternative artists in the past were seldom heard on the radio and grew their fan bases through word of mouth or underground music clubs.
Until the 2010s, alternative music relied on independent record labels for production and representation.
Like the genre itself, the characteristics of alternative music are challenging to describe. However, some common traits are:
- Intricate guitar melodies
- Lyrics about social issues
- Layered instruments
These characteristics are different depending on the subgenre, but these are the roots of most alternative songs.
Here are nine examples of alternative songs that changed the music industry – starting from the origins of the genre and ending in the present day.
A perfect example of alternative lyrics discussing social issues and inner turmoil, “Once in a Lifetime” is a kitschy, non-stop thrill ride from start to finish. Released in 1981 by the Talking Heads, the song almost instantly rose to popularity on the alternative charts.
The lyrics are primarily questions that the listener cannot help but ask themselves. They explain the monotonous nature of life, the passage of time, and the existential panic that comes with age. For the alternative genre, this song demonstrates the power of innovative melodies, spoken lyrics, and questioning social norms.
“Once in a Lifetime” topped charts in the UK at 16. In the United States, the song did not perform as well as in the UK and peaked at 103. The UK was one of the first places alternative music took off, thanks to the punk scene. Alternative music is still one of the most loved genres in the UK.
Used as a self-acceptance anthem since its release, “People are People” by famed alternative musicians Depeche Mode is one of the most famous alternative jams of the 80s.
With a catchy, almost pop-like melody but socially aware lyrics, “People are People” is radio-friendly at first listen. But the more you pay attention, the more you realize that Depeche Mode is asking why people hate one another for being different.
This progressive bop launched to success in Europe and peaked the United States charts at number 13. Before it became successful, the song only got airplay on college radio and modern rock stations.
People are hard to define and do not fit in a box – much like the alternative genre itself.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” did not just define the alternative genre – it outlined a decade. The iconic Nirvana hit launched the grunge era of the 90s and led to an immense increase in the popularity of alternative music.
Loud, layered guitars mixed with the gritty voice of Kurt Cobain are hallmarks of the genre, and lyrics centered around social issues like gun violence turned this into one of the most well-known alternative songs today.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” charted at number one on the Billboard Alternative Airplay charts and number 6 on the mainstream charts. This song gave alternative music mainstream airplay, which gave the genre much more power than in previous years.
This song comments on the need for constant entertainment, entitlement and questions modern morality – pretty bold for a first single.
Finally, an alternative song by a woman! “You Oughta Know” is one of the most popular songs ever recorded, not to mention one of the most revolutionary. Alanis dives into subjects that women in the 90s did not usually talk about, like sexuality and anger.
This song became something of a feminist anthem, with its raw emotion and unyielding sarcasm. The lyrics are biting, the guitars are rough, and Alanis uses her voice to scream her passions out. Her lack of restraint shocked audiences but inevitably drew them in.
Jagged Little Pill, the album “You Oughta Know” calls home, became the best-selling female artist album of the 90s. This song allowed the alternative music scene to open its doors for women when the genre was previously almost exclusively male-dominated.
Audiences fell in love with the relatability of the lyrics. Everyone has that one person they feel bitter about – so crank up your stereo, sing these lyrics, and let off some steam.
Universally loved and still charting in some countries, “Mr. Brightside” took the world by storm upon its release in 2003. The first notes alone get people riled up, and seemingly everyone knows the words, no matter their age.
The Killers are arguably the most popular alternative band of the early 2000s, with their album Hot Fuss peaking at number 7 on the US Billboard charts. “Mr. Brightside” introduced a synthy style that was radio-friendly but still unique. The lyrics juxtapose the upbeat instrumentals with sharp quips and dismal imagery, yet, somehow, people still dance to it!
“Mr. Brightside” performed notably well in the UK, where it charted for a whopping five years and still gets tons of airplay on alternative music stations and pop stations. Many alternative fans consider this to be the start of an alt-music renaissance.
My Chemical Romance began shortly after 9/11 and gained popularity in the underground emo scene with their first venture, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love. The album was a gritty, bare-bones record that discussed themes of death, nihilism, and love.
MCR often tells stories with their music, and that continues through their second album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, and again with their chart-topping album, The Black Parade. The sort-of-title-track “Welcome to the Black Parade” became their first mainstream radio hit and peaked at number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. Most people recognize the song from the first delicate piano note!
The lyrics of the song center around a character named The Patient, who is gaining acceptance of the fact that death is inevitable. While that sounds pretty dismal, the song sounds relatively upbeat, with fast guitars and booming drums layered over a distinct-sounding voice.
My Chemical Romance is one of the most popular and loved bands of the 2000s and beyond, and this song continues to have audiences singing every word.
A much softer side of the alternative genre but still a hallmark of the alt scene, “Jesus Christ” by Brand New explores in-depth ideas like spirituality, loneliness, and love. Melodic guitars lay under lyrics that sporadically crescendo and decrescendo, making the listener feel as confused as the speaker himself.
Brand New, despite never being a huge mainstream success, is one of the most beloved alternative bands ever. “Jesus Christ” is the second single from their album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, their best-performing album that peaked at 31 on the Billboard 200 charts. Critics considered this album to be one of the best records ever made.
“Jesus Christ” explores the existential, profoundly personal realm of alternative music. It shows that the genre does not have to be constantly high-energy but can sit back and reflect with just as much conviction. Questioning the meaning of life, what happens after death, and the existence of Christ, the song will make you think, guaranteed.
Ironically fun, fast-paced, and snarky, “Diane Young” is probably the happiest song ever composed about death. A play on words of the phrase dying young, Vampire Weekend uses imagery like a burning Saab and driving cars into a black night to set the chaotic scene. It sounds morbid, but the upbeat drums and fast-moving lyrics keep audiences dancing to this day.
The lyrics reference political leaders like the Kennedy family and John Kerry, another hallmark of the alternative music genre. However, the song is not about politicians but rather the innate human fear of dying young. Layered, distorted vocals surround the chorus, and a rapid beat makes for a chaotic romp that deserves airplay on the highest volume possible.
“Diane Young” charted at 31 on the Billboard Hot Alternative charts, becoming one of the most iconic Vampire Weekend songs.
A single from her Best Alternative Album-nominated Masseduction, “Los Ageless” explores the devastating realities of a world overcome by indulgences. “Los Ageless” was also named one of the 25 best rock songs of 2017.
St. Vincent is one of the most innovative musicians of the 2000s and beyond, utilizing electronic sounds and classical influences to create a style all her own. Throttling violins, her feminine, breathy voice, and the sheer musicianship of her craft all reflect on what makes alternative music so beloved.
Her previous albums, Strange Mercy and Marry Me, were successful with critics, but Masseduction was her first success with larger audiences. She draws influence from disco, synth-pop, and electronic music to form a critique on modern life.
“Los Ageless” is a slow-burning, slightly sarcastic jam with vibrant guitars and an almost lucid feel. The lyrics criticize the glorification of Los Angeles and how looks and fame are unattractive if in overabundance. The song gained even more relevancy as influencer culture became the forefront of modern social media.
While alternative bands are the norm, there are a few individuals that stand out in the genre. Below are five alternative musicians that have changed the game in some way.
Morrissey and his associated act, The Smiths, were one of the first alternative music groups. Morrissey is an English singer/songwriter known for his droning voice and morbid lyrics.
His writing is one of the reasons alternative music is associated with lyrics surrounding social unrest and nihilism. Some common themes of his songs are:
Called the most influential artist of all time by some, Morrissey is absolutely an alternative music legend. A decent number of the bands listed above consider him a significant influence, such as My Chemical Romance and Brand New.
Thom Yorke is somewhat of a musical genius, having composed songs for his band and several feature films. Radiohead is a beloved alternative band that has seemingly been around forever yet continues to grow its fanbase.
Known for his honest, androgynous, and haunting voice, Thom Yorke has written some of the main alternative hits of the past 20 years. “Creep” remains the reigning champion of Radiohead singles, but songs like “Karma Police” and “No Surprises” made their way to the top 40 hits as well.
Thom Yorke is a staple of the alternative genre because of his constantly evolving style. From the electronic vibes of Ok Computer to the sullen In Rainbows, no two songs written by Yorke are ever the same.
He is an excellent representation of the genre because of his innovative style and audacious musical choices.
Easily recognizable due to her flaming red hair (which has since become blonde, orange, pink, and so on), Hayley Williams is an alternative music vocal powerhouse. Her distinct voice is incredibly diverse in its ability, and her vocal range is one of the best in the industry. She can reach the coveted whistle note!
Most notably known as the lead singer of the band Paramore, Hayley Williams delivers high-energy performances and awe-inspiring vocals. She is also one of the most well-known female alternative musicians, a genre that is still generally dominated by men.
In 2020, Williams released her first solo project titled Petals for Armor I, an experimental, imagery-filled exploration of heartbreak and trauma. “Simmer”, the first single released from the album, peaked at number 7 on the rock and alternative charts.
Jack White is a man of many hats. From his alternative band The White Stripes to solo acts and more, he knows how to make hit after hit. Bluesy, loud, and borderline whiny guitars surround his high-pitched voice to create a sound that is all his own.
“Seven Nation Army” is by far his most popular feat, with the bass melody alone as a staple at sporting events, concerts, and just to get people pumped up. The smash-hit peaked at number 1 on the alternative charts and remains an anthem to this day.
While his most famous act, The White Stripes, is defunct, Jack White continues to make music on his own accord and with other musicians, such as his duet with Beyonce on her track “Don’t Hurt Yourself”. It seems as though anything he touches turns to gold, as none of his endeavors have flopped. It looks like Jack White is here to stay.
Ella Yelich O’Connor, known by most as Lorde, is a New Zealand-born prodigy. Having released her first album, Pure Heroine, when she was only 17, Lorde launched onto the scene with her song “Royals” in 2013. She has not slowed down since.
Her second album, Melodrama, is an alternative masterpiece. All of her songs comment on growing up, cultural standards, heartbreak, and isolation. She mixes her signature low voice with electronic beats and unique sound effects to send listeners to another world.
Lorde, now 25, is the youngest person ever to have a number-one single in the United States. She topped the charts at age 16 and shows no signs of holding back.
Alternative first became successful in the 1970s, where it stemmed from punk bands and underground artists. Most enthusiasts agree that The Velvet Underground sparked the genre with their album The Velvet Underground & Nico, and continued to gain an underground following throughout the 1980s.
Since alternative music has been often defined as music that goes against the mainstream of the time, it tends to be more experimental than the music of its time.
While bands like Boston were selling out stadiums by playing catchy and accessible hard rock in the late 70s, other lesser-known bands like Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees from the UK’s Batcave scene were playing a mix of Gothic rock and post-punk around that same time. This music was known for its dark atmosphere and generally macabre lyrics and imagery.
One of the most well-known songs of the genre, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” is notable for incorporating both sparse instrumentation and elements of dub music to create a foreboding sound. This idea of creating authentic music without being constrained by what is currently popular at the time was a defining characteristic of the punk scene, and these beliefs also followed into alternative music as a whole.
Despite growing in popularity, alternative music did not gain real commercial success until the 1990s. The 1990s were the most successful decade of alternative music at that point, with bands like Nirvana, Weezer, The Cure, and tons more. This was the first time alternative music was accessible for the general public and played on radio stations.
After the 90s, alternative evolved into countless subgenres, such as indie, indie pop, garage alternative, and synth-pop. Today, it is one of the widest umbrellas of music out there, and plenty of alternative musicians have incorporated other genres to create inventive new sounds.
Ironically, alternative music is more mainstream now than ever. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have made alternative music more accessible to the average listener. Some critics say that this is also because, in the 90s, alt music was considered alternative because it differed from the rock music of the 80s. However, in the 2000s and beyond, alternative music evolved into, well, anything.
This is what makes alternative music so beloved – it is for everyone. Artists like Twenty One Pilots are massive mainstream successes because they blend rock and hip-hop, while SoundCloud artists emerge daily with electronic bedroom-alt that delves into the funk genre.
That said, this is a catch-22. Alternative music is anything that is not mainstream, yet today it is usually thought of as mainstream. Now, artists have to compete much more aggressively for recognition in the alternative genre, as the scene is flooded with artists.
As previously mentioned, alternative music is pretty much anything you want it to be. Anything can label itself as alternative music, no matter the music type or the instruments used.
Some popular alternative acts in 2021 are:
- Imagine Dragons
- Twenty One Pilots
Most of these artists get wide radio airplay on pop stations and alternative/college radio stations alike.
Alternative music seems to be stemming from social media influencers, SoundCloud artists, and musicians with solo projects branching from their main acts. A few of the musicians mentioned on this list have since disbanded and then reunited, such as My Chemical Romance.
Solo artists are popping up more as well, with musicians like Olivia Rodrigo topping the charts. Even pop princess Taylor Swift has some songs that are on the alternative charts, like the piano ballad “Cardigan”.
The genre is continuing its expansion, and shows no sign of slowing down – alternative music connoisseurs may find this unappealing, but younger generations are getting into the underground music scene now more than ever before.
In short, alternative music is whatever you want it to be. Whether your taste is synthy, sugary pop, or aggressive pop-punk, the alternative scene has something you will like.
The beauty of this hard-to-define genre is the fact that you cannot define it. Everyone is welcome and embraced.
Alternative music gives people something they have never heard before, but most of all, it makes people feel like they belong. And, truthfully, that is what music is all about.