The future of music

What Is Alternative Music? 10 Best Examples

August 4, 2023
what is alternative music

Alternative music is a broad music genre that includes various kinds of musical styles that are not considered mainstream or popular.

The term “alternative” was initially used to describe music that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to the mainstream rock music of the time.

But since then, alternative music has grown to include many subgenres, such as alternative rock, indie rock, grunge, shoegaze, post-punk, and more.

In this article, we will explore what alternative music is with ten of the best examples of alternative music, spanning from the 1980s to the present day.

What is Alternative Music?

Alternative music is music that isn’t mainstream or is usually thought to be too unique or different for most people to like.

Alternative music is known for its emphasis on authenticity, creativity, and artistic integrity.

Many of its artists have built up cult followings because of how unique and different they are in how they write and perform songs.

The term “alternative” originally referred to music that was produced independently of major record labels, but it has since evolved to encompass a wide range of styles and sounds that fall outside of the mainstream.

The History of Alternative Music

Alternative music became a separate genre in the late 1970s and early 1980s when pop and rock music were the most popular. 

Alternative music has its roots in the punk rock movement of the mid-1970s. 

This movement fought against the commercialization of rock music and pushed for a more do-it-yourself and anti-establishment approach.

The punk scene gave rise to several alternative sub-genres, including post-punk, new wave, and indie rock.

In the 1980s, college radio stations and independent record labels gave new and experimental music a place to be heard. 

This made alternative music more popular.

Bands like R.E.M., The Smiths, and Sonic Youth became synonymous with the alternative sound and helped to define the genre.

In the 1990s, alternative music became more popular, partly due to the success of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, who were all part of the “grunge” movement.

Grunge was characterized by its heavy, guitar-driven sound and its rejection of the commercialization of rock music.

Towards the end of the 1990s, alternative music began to diversify, with the emergence of new sub-genres like trip-hop, shoegaze, and emo.

The 2000s saw the rise of indie rock bands like The Strokes and Arcade Fire, as well as the continued success of established alternative acts like Radiohead and Beck.

Today, alternative music continues to evolve and adapt, with new artists and sub-genres emerging all the time.

It is still a very important part of music and continues to challenge and push the limits of normal music.

Characteristics of Alternative Music

Alternative music is a diverse and constantly evolving genre, but several key characteristics are often associated with it which include the following. 

  • Non-conformity: Alternative music is often defined by its rejection of mainstream music conventions. It typically incorporates unconventional song structures, lyrics, and instrumentation. It often challenges societal norms and expectations.
  • Diverse influences: Alternative music draws from a wide range of musical styles and genres, including punk rock, post-punk, indie rock, electronic music, hip-hop, and more. This diversity of influences often leads to innovative and experimental music.
  • Emphasis on authenticity: Alternative music often emphasizes authenticity and sincerity, with artists frequently using their music as a means of self-expression and personal storytelling.
  • DIY ethos: Many alternative musicians embrace a DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos, often recording and producing their music independently or with small indie labels, and eschewing the polished, commercial sound of mainstream music.
  • Social and political consciousness: Alternative music often addresses social and political issues, with lyrics that touch on topics such as identity, inequality, and activism.
  • Experimentation and innovation: Alternative music often pushes boundaries and takes risks, with many artists experimenting with unconventional instrumentation, song structures, and production techniques.

10 Examples of Alternative Music

1. “Los Ageless” by St. Vincent (2017)

“Los Ageless” combines elements of rock, pop, and electronic music to create a unique sound that is both catchy and experimental.

The song was released in 2017 as the lead single from St. Vincent’s album Masseduction.

The lyrics speak of “Los Ageless”, a term coined by St. Vincent to describe the endless pursuit of youth and beauty in Los Angeles

The lyrics touch on themes of aging, vanity, and the culture of Los Angeles.

In the music video, St. Vincent, whose real name is Annie Clark, goes through a series of strange and sometimes disturbing beauty treatments that also touch on these ideas.

St. Vincent has been praised for her innovative approach to music and her willingness to push boundaries.

She has won several awards, including a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2015 for her self-titled album.

“Los Ageless” is just one example of her unique style and willingness to experiment with different sounds and genres.

2. “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend (2013)

“Diane Young” was released in 2013 as a single from their third studio album, Modern Vampires of the City.

Vampire Weekend is known for its unique mix of indie rock, world music, and pop, which “Diane Young” shows with its driving rhythms, catchy hooks, and unique vocal style.

The song “Diane Young” has upbeat, jangly guitar riffs, a driving rhythm section, and strange lyrics that talk about youth, death, and fame.

The song’s lyrics are not clear and can be interpreted in different ways, but they are thought to be about the death of actress Diane Young and the idea of mortality.

The chorus features the repeated refrain “Baby, baby, baby, you’re gonna live forever,” which seems to contrast with the song’s themes of mortality and the fleeting nature of life. 

The song’s title is a play on words, as “Diane Young” sounds like the phrase “dying young.”

Overall, “Diane Young” is one of Vampire Weekend’s best songs and a popular example of alternative music from the 2010s.

3. “Jesus Christ” by Brand New (2006)

Brand New is an American rock band that formed in 2000, and “Jesus Christ” is a track from their 2006 album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.

The song “Jesus Christ” has haunting vocals, lively instrumentals, and lyrics that make you think about doubt, guilt, and faith.

The song’s chorus is, “Jesus Christ, I’m alone again, so what did you do those three days you were dead?” “Because this problem’s gonna last more than the weekend” has been interpreted by many fans as a reflection on the singer’s struggles with faith and his questioning of the existence of God.

It is a staple of the alternative music scene because of how raw and honest it is about people’s struggles.

The song has been praised for its emotional depth and powerful lyrics, as well as its ability to connect with listeners on a personal level.

It has become one of Brand New’s most popular songs and has been featured on numerous alternative music playlists and radio stations.

4. “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance (2006)

Welcome to the Black Parade” is a song by American rock band My Chemical Romance, released as the lead single from their third studio album, The Black Parade, in 2006.

The song was written by the band members Gerard Way, Ray Toro, Frank Iero, Mikey Way, and Bob Bryar.

The song is a rock opera that tells the story of “The Patient,”  a character who is dying of cancer and is visited by “The Black Parade,”  a group of death-related figures who lead him to the afterlife.

The song’s lyrics are filled with imagery and metaphors and are meant to be interpreted as a celebration of life and the power of the human spirit.

The song has a theatrical, orchestral sound, with influences from glam rock and punk.

The song was a commercial success, reaching the top 10 in multiple countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States.

It is one of My Chemical Romance’s most famous and well-known songs, and many other artists have covered it.

5. “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers (2003)

“Mr. Brightside” was written by lead vocalist Brandon Flowers and guitarist Dave Keuning, and it was produced by Jeff Saltzman and The Killers.

The song appears on the band’s debut studio album, Hot Fuss.

The song is about a jealous and insecure narrator who suspects his partner is cheating on him.

He is plagued by obsessive thoughts about her being with someone else, but he is also hopeful that they can work things out.

The lyrics convey a sense of both desperation and resilience, as the narrator struggles to come to terms with his feelings and maintain his optimism.

The Killers’ use of synthesizers and other electronic instruments was unusual for a rock band and helped push the limits of what was considered alternative music in the early 2000s.

“Mr. Brightside” became a massive hit for The Killers, peaking at number ten on the US Billboard Hot 100 and reaching the top spot on the UK Singles Chart in early 2004.

The success of “Mr. Brightside” also helped pave the way for other alternative rock bands, opening up a wider audience for the genre.

The song’s popularity led to a lot of covers and remixes, and fans of alternative music all over the world still love it.

6. “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette (1995)

“You Oughta Know” was released in 1995 as the lead single from Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill

The song was a huge hit right away, and it helped the album become a huge commercial success.

It was written by Morissette and Glen Ballard and produced by Ballard.

“You Oughta Know” features a driving beat, distorted guitars, and Morissette’s powerful vocals, which range from delicate whispers to angry screams.

It became a huge hit for Morissette, reaching the top 10 in several countries.

The song’s raw, emotional lyrics explore the pain and anger of a failed relationship, and Morissette’s unapologetic delivery struck a chord with listeners who were hungry for more honest, authentic voices in popular music.

She sings about how he has moved on with someone else, but she still can’t let go of the pain he caused her.

In addition to its musical and lyrical qualities, “You Oughta Know” also helped redefine what was considered “alternative” in the mid-1990s.

At the time, male voices and guitar-heavy rock bands ruled alternative music, but Morissette’s honest songwriting and outspoken feminism made it possible for other women to make their mark in the genre.

7. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (1991)

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a major departure from the popular music of the time, which was dominated by hair metal and pop music.

Nirvana’s raw sound and unapologetic lyrics struck a chord with a generation of disaffected youth who were looking for something authentic and genuine.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as the lead single from the band’s second studio album, Nevermind.

The song was written by the band’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, and produced by Butch Vig.

The title and lyrics of the song came from Cobain’s anger at the mainstream music industry and the youth culture of the time.

The song’s melody and heavy guitar riffs helped establish Nirvana as one of the leading bands of the grunge movement in the early 1990s.

It peaked at number one on the Billboard Alternative Airplay charts and number six on the Mainstream charts.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” also paved the way for other alternative bands to achieve mainstream success, and it continues to be a touchstone for modern rock music.

8. “People Are People” by Depeche Mode (1984)

“People Are People” was released in the 80s as a single by the electronic rock band and later appeared on the album Some Great Reward.

The song’s driving rhythm, powerful lyrics, and use of electronic instrumentation were all hallmarks of the emerging alternative music scene.

The song’s lyrics explore themes of discrimination, intolerance, and inequality and suggest that despite our differences, we are all fundamentally the same.

The song’s chorus, which repeats the title phrase, is a call for empathy and understanding: “People are people, so why should it be / You and I should get along so awfully?”

This message of tolerance and unity resonated with many fans of alternative music who were seeking music that spoke to their own experiences of feeling like outsiders or misfits.

The song’s music video, directed by Clive Richardson, features the band performing in front of a wall of TV screens displaying images of war, violence, and social unrest.

The video’s imagery reinforces the song’s message of the need for greater understanding and empathy between people.

Overall, “People Are People” is an excellent example of the kind of music that defined the alternative music genre in the 1980s.

Its mix of electronic instruments, powerful lyrics, and a message about social issues helped make Depeche Mode one of the most important bands of the time.

9. “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads (1981)

People often say that “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads is one of the best examples of alternative music because it shows how the band combines new wave, post-punk, and world music influences in a unique way.

It was released in 1980 on the band’s album Remain in Light.

What sets “Once In A Lifetime” apart from other songs of its era is its innovative use of African rhythms and percussion, which was not commonly heard in Western pop music at the time.

The lyrics describe a sense of existential crisis and the feeling that life is passing by too quickly.

The song describes the feeling of being trapped in a mundane, routine life and the sudden realization that we only have one chance to live.

The music video for the song, which shows Byrne’s unique dance moves and strange visuals, also became a symbol of alternative culture.

“Once In A Lifetime” shows how good the band was at making catchy, unusual pop music that went against the norms of the time and helped define the 1980s alternative music scene.

10. “1979” by The Smashing Pumpkins (1996)

“1979” is a great example of the alternative rock movement of the 1990s, which was characterized by songs with introspective lyrics and experimental sounds that mixed different music styles.

It was released as a single from the band’s third studio album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, in 1996.

“1979” touches on themes of teenage angst, disillusionment, and longing for a sense of belonging.

It reflects on youth culture and the feeling of being disconnected from the world as one grows older.

The lyrics describe cruising around town with friends, listening to music, and getting into trouble, all while feeling like an outsider looking in.

The chorus of the song emphasizes the longing for a sense of belonging and a desire to recapture the feelings of youth.

“1979” was a commercial and critical success, reaching the top 20 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

Top 5 Alternative Musicians

Although alternative bands are common, the genre also has a few standout performers. 

The five alternative musicians listed below have all influenced the alternative genre in some way.

Lorde

Lorde is a singer-songwriter from New Zealand.

Her first album, Pure Heroine, was released in 2013 and gained her a lot of attention.

Born Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor in 1996, Lorde began writing music at a young age and was discovered by a Universal Music Group talent scout at the age of 12.

Lorde’s music is often categorized as alternative pop or indie pop and is known for its moody, atmospheric sound and introspective lyrics that explore themes of youth, identity, and social commentary.

She has cited a wide range of musical influences, including artists like Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, and Kanye West.

In addition to her successful debut album, Lorde has released several other critically acclaimed projects, including the albums Melodrama (2017) and Solar Power (2021).

She has also won several awards, including several Grammys and a Brit Award.

Lorde is also known for her strong social media presence and outspoken views on issues such as feminism and environmentalism.

She has used her platform to advocate for causes such as climate change awareness and LGBTQ+ rights.

Jack White (The White Stripes)

Jack White is an American singer, songwriter, and guitarist, best known as the lead vocalist and guitarist for the alternative rock band The White Stripes.

He was born John Anthony Gillis on July 9, 1975, in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in a working-class family.

White began playing the guitar at a young age and was influenced by blues, country, and rock music.

In the late 1990s, he formed The White Stripes with his then-wife, Meg White.

Over the years, The White Stripes released several critically acclaimed albums, including White Blood Cells (2001), Elephant (2003), and Icky Thump (2007).

They won several Grammy Awards and were known as one of the most innovative and influential rock bands of the early 2000s.

Aside from his work with The White Stripes, Jack White has also been involved in several other musical projects.

He formed the band The Raconteurs in 2005 and has released several albums with them.

He has also put out several solo albums, such as Blunderbuss (2012), Lazaretto (2014), and Boarding House Reach (2018).

Jack White has had a significant impact on alternative and indie rock music over the past two decades, and his influence can still be heard in the work of many contemporary artists today.

Hayley Williams (Paramore)

Hayley Williams is an American singer, songwriter, and musician, best known as the lead vocalist of the alternative rock band Paramore.

She was born on December 27, 1988, in Meridian, Mississippi, and grew up in a musical family.

Williams formed Paramore in 2004 when she was just 15 years old.

Over the years, Paramore has released several successful albums, including Riot! (2007), Brand New Eyes (2009), and After Laughter (2017).

Williams’ unique voice and songwriting style, which often focused on youth, identity, and relationships, helped make Paramore one of the most popular and influential alternative rock bands of the 2000s and 2010s.

In addition to her work with Paramore, Williams has also pursued a solo career, releasing her debut solo album, Petals for Armor, in 2020.

The album showcased a more experimental, introspective sound than her work with Paramore.

She has been an advocate for mental health awareness and LGBTQ+ rights and has used her platform to speak out on social and political issues.

Hayley Williams is known as one of the most talented and influential alternative rock singers of her generation. 

Her contributions to the genre continue to inspire and influence a new generation of musicians.

Thom Yorke (Radiohead)

Thom Yorke is an English musician, singer, and songwriter, best known as the lead vocalist and main songwriter of the band Radiohead.

He was born on October 7, 1968, in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England.

Yorke formed Radiohead in 1985 with his schoolmates in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

The band gained international recognition with their 1993 album Pablo Honey, which featured the hit single “Creep.”

Their 1997 album OK Computer cemented their reputation as one of the most innovative and influential rock bands of their time.

As a songwriter, Yorke is known for his introspective lyrics, haunting melodies, and experimental soundscapes.

He has released several solo albums, including The Eraser (2006), Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014), and Anima (2019).

He has also collaborated with several other artists, including Björk, PJ Harvey, and Flying Lotus.

Yorke’s work has had a big impact on alternative and experimental music, and it continues to inspire and challenge both musicians and listeners.

Morrissey (The Smiths)

Morrissey is an English singer, songwriter, and author, best known as the lead vocalist and lyricist of the band The Smiths.

He was born Steven Patrick Morrissey on May 22, 1959, in Davyhulme, Manchester, England.

Morrissey formed The Smiths in 1982 with guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce.

Some of their best-known songs include “This Charming Man,” and “How Soon Is Now?” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side.”

Morrissey has also courted controversy throughout his career, with his outspoken views on politics and society often landing him in hot water.

Different people and groups have said that he is racist, homophobic, and sexist, but he has denied these claims.

Even though he has been in a lot of trouble, Morrissey is still a big deal in the music world, and his songs are still popular with fans all over the world.

Where is Alternative Music Now?

Alternative music has evolved and diversified since its origins in the 1970s and 1980s.

Streaming platforms have become a dominant force in music consumption, and this has had a significant impact on the way alternative music is discovered and consumed.

In particular, niche and underground artists can now reach a wider audience through platforms like Spotify and Bandcamp, which has led to a more diverse and decentralized alternative music scene.

Many alternative artists are trying out new sounds and styles, pushing the limits of what “alternative” music is usually thought to be.

This has led to the rise of subgenres like bedroom pop, emo-rap, and hyper-pop, which combine elements of electronic music, hip-hop, and other styles.

Social and political issues are increasingly finding their way into alternative music.

Many artists are using their platform to speak out about issues like climate change, racial injustice, and LGBTQ+ rights, and this has led to a wave of politically charged alternative music.

Despite the rise of streaming platforms, the live music scene remains an important part of alternative music.

Many alternative artists are known for their energetic and engaging live performances, and festivals like Coachella, Glastonbury, and Lollapalooza continue to draw large crowds of alternative music fans.

Overall, alternative music remains a vibrant and dynamic genre, with new artists and sounds emerging regularly and established acts continuing to experiment and evolve their sound.

What is Alternative Music – Final Thoughts

Alternative music remains a vital and innovative force in the contemporary music landscape.

The genre has grown and changed over time, taking on a wide range of styles and subgenres while keeping its experimental and non-conformist spirit.

It has given people with different opinions a chance to be heard.

With the prominence of streaming platforms and social media, alternative music has become easier to find, allowing alternative artists to find wider audiences. 

After reading through our post, we hope that you’re left with a better sense of what alternative music is. 

You may also like: Best Alternative Songs of All Time

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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