What does Alternative music mean to you? Some people say it’s a subgenre of rock. Some say it’s used interchangeably with Indie music. It took me a while to understand what it is about a track or a song which makes it so anti mainstream and different from your regular pop or a rock song. Alternative music today has transcended and seeped into every music genre that there is from – jazz to rock to hip hop to electronica. It either sticks to the musical styling of either one of these or is a result of the culmination of all of these genres. It’s very interesting how varied an alternative track can sound. Today, it does not make sense to term alternative music as strictly underground music that does not receive the fame and recognition as pop music does. Sure, pop music will continue to rule the charts as it is supposed to do so but if we take a closer look at the timeline of alternative music, it has had a popular reach amongst listeners since the late 80s. Today, with easy and accessible music streaming from apps like Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, we have the highest number of Alt buffs and Indieheads talking about bands like Alt J to individual artists like St. Vincent and Ty Segall all over the internet.
The birth of Alternative music, like any other genre is difficult to pinpoint as becoming of a particular noticeable sound in the world of music is conducive and inter connected. But it is safe to say it all starts with Punk Rock music. Bands like The Sex Pistols who claimed to be the greatest band in the world at the time to The Ramones and The Clash, Black Flag, Dead Kennedy’s and The Stooges in the 70s mastered the art of the dirtiest but the slickest form of rock and roll. Tracks were sub 3 minutes with mindless anti authority lyrics with a deeply passionate and an overwhelming urge to play loud and beautiful riff styled guitar and aggressive drumming. As compared to the 60s and the early 70s of poetic and sublimal bluesy classic rock sounds of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Doors, Punk was a stripped down effort which resonated with a lot of people at the time of worldwide political instability and distrust among commoners. By the late 70s, punk music started disintegrating into a post punk movement which was derivative of the attitude that punk had but was a mellowed down version of it. Joy Division comes to mind when the post punk movement is mentioned. Songs were lyrically top notch with themes of nihilism and depression and a basic palette of blue and grey all over them. This is when things started turning into a very ambitious direction in rock music. Punk was an after effect of some of the greatest classic rock bands in history which came from the jazz and blues and post punk was a watered down less angsty punk rock.
Rock music still could be categorised in three to four subgenres until the 80s. Guitars, Bass and Drums were primarily the only rock instruments used by musicians. An underground sound started building up which would be termed “college rock” as these bands and their tracks would be largely played only on college radio stations. This helped the underground bands of the 80s to garner support from college listeners all over the world. Strangely, keyboards started becoming a common addition to the set up of these bands which led to the birth of synth pop. After Ian Curtis’ unfortunate suicide, the remaining members of the band formed a completely alternative sounding synth pop outfit called New Order. It was certainly a newer than ever approach. With the inclusion of keyboard tunes to a former rock and roll idiosyncrasy, rock sounded edgier and kitschy with colourful aesthetics. This was also the era when music videos became a common phenomenon. Bands like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Devo became a common household name in music. Disco merged with rock which defined the “new-wave” movement. The two other similar sounding bands of the era – The Cure and The Smiths were somewhat pitted against eachother by their fans, The Cure were the leaders of the Goth movement which was characterized by Robert Smith and co’s gothic style. Their music was dark, mysterious and a brooding pop kind. On the other hand, The Smiths were one of the most prominent figures of Alternative music. The musical mogul, Morrissey and the jangly guitar playing by Johnny Marr complemented eachother to make some of the most notable and influential indie rock bops. Ironically, The Smiths hated keyboards. Other notable bands of the 80s include Pixies, Sonic Youth and Echo and the Bunnymen.
With the break of the 90s, America finally had their biggest punk movement with the onset of grunge. Grunge was a mix of punk rock and hard rock but had equal weightage on lyrical prowess. Mudhoney were the pioneers of grunge lighting it’s fire in the late 80s. With the release of Nevermind in 1991, Nirvana took Alternative music to the very top. It was an album which was near perfect and most definitely, one of the best rock albums of all time. Parallely, grunge bands like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam co defined the genre along with it’s torch bearers, Nirvana.
Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide brought the entire Alternative world to a stand still and the magic of grunge started fading quicker than expected. Brit-poppers like Oasis, Blur and Pulp stole grunge’s thunder and owned the rest of the decade.
With the onset of the 2000s or the naughties, radio friendly version of genres from the past became a trend. Foo Fighters formed by Dave Grohl, the former drummer of Nirvana led the post grunge movement along with Bush and Seether. Revival in Garage Rock was brought about by The Strokes and bands like the Vines and Swedish rock and rollers, The Hives. The Strokes along with Radiohead, in my opinion was one of most creative and influential bands of the 00s. “Is this it” remains one of the greatest debut albums in rock history. Greenday, MCR, Blink 182 also adopted a more pop influenced punk rock leading to the rise of pop-punk. Radiohead on the other hand went where no brit-pop band was able to go. They were easily one of the most experimental acts since Pink Floyd and the Beatles. With 10 albums, they had inculcated jazz, rock, blues, electronica and everything in between.
Soon enough, the internet age came upon us and more specifically the internet famous bands like the widely celebrated , the Arctic Monkeys, The Killers and The Kooks cited The Strokes as one of their biggest influence and it’s easy to see why.
While most of the Alternative acts have stuck to sounds derivative of the earlier years, there have been niche bands like Modest Mouse, Alt J, The National who practice strictly original music making and have created an authentic image in the scene over the years. Alt J sounds like a quirkier Radiohead and the National sounds like a moodier Smiths. A few new age Alternative bands inspired from the 2000s Alternative rock are The Foals, Animal Collective, Orwells and Twenty One Pilots who are one of the most diverse duo out there today often bring touch of rap, rock, reggae and electronica in their music.
Apart from Alternative rock, there is new Alternative Rnb, Rap and electronica coming together forming a more wholesome musical experience.All in all, the journey from the very beginning has been beautiful to my ears and it simply must go on. Ultimately, Alternative music is not just a subgenre or an individually recognised genre, but a sum of a culture which includes music, fashion and a statement, more importantly a voice and reason of it’s own.
Here are 12 shortlisted Alt AF tracks curated by me.
- Joy Division – Transmission https://youtu.be/6dBt3mJtgJc
- The Cure – Boys Don’t cry https://youtu.be/9GkVhgIeGJQ
- The Smiths – Panic https://youtu.be/wMykYSQaG_c
- Echo and The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon https://youtu.be/LWz0JC7afNQ
- Pixies – Debaser https://youtu.be/PVyS9JwtFoQ
- Nirvana – Territorial Pissings https://youtu.be/x6XBlkvTmv8
- Radiohead – Paranoid Android https://youtu.be/fHiGbolFFGw
- The Strokes – Last Nite https://youtu.be/TOypSnKFHrE
- Alt J – Tessellate https://youtu.be/Qg6BwvDcANg
- The National – The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness https://youtu.be/2O6duDDkhis
- Frank Ocean – Nights https://youtu.be/5qS-C__sMds
- Tyler, the Creator – Tamale https://youtu.be/OxlJLz9M8hQ