Saturday, April 11, 2009

WebSnacker's Guide to Alternative Rock/Alt.Rock

Everything You Wanted to Know About Alternative Rock

I was recently approached by a close pal for a written favor. Aware of my obsessive interest in ‘Alternative Rock’, he wanted me to help him compile ‘easy to understand’ descriptions of this genre (apart from other genres) for a Music oriented research project - something which I had already done for a pioneering P2P website, collaborating way back in late 2000 (and which has since then been consistently plagiarized).

The mini-guide below is a tweaked raw version of my original old material that has been revised and modified to reflect current musical trends - in the most popular genres of Alt. Rock/Alt.Pop. I have no formal certification in Music or Music studies so readers are advised to follow due diligence and common sense if you are considering this for official or academic use.

Alternative Rock – the Better Substitute for Regular Rock
Alternative or Alt. Rock is a very wide and rather fuzzy term. Originally, it started when Punk bands like the Fall, Echo and Bunnymen, and U2 took the musical experimentation of the punks to another level by further abandoning conventional rock instrumentation and song structure. Blues based rock was thrown out and replaced by moody synthesizers and a new guitar style that was lush and layered. This new music revolution ranged from the dark, depressing sounds of The Cure and Joy Division to the lighter synth pop of Depeche Mode to the more avant garde songs of bands like Public Image Limited and The Fall. Later day Post Punk bands like The Pixies and Dinosaur, Jr. created the blueprint for the Alternative Rock movement of the late eighties and nineties.

In the early ‘90s, thanks to the rabid success of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Radiohead and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (mostly Nirvana though), the lines between Alternative and Pop were getting blurred. Pop bands adopted Alternative trappings and Alternative bands were marketed to Pop audiences. Alt. Rock soon encompassed almost any post-punk, non-mainstream music, from Cure, REM and the Pixies to XTC to Dishwalla, VAST, Live and Toad, the Wet Sprocket. Now, everything from the faux arena Rock of Soundgarden (Audioslave) to the retro-pop of Barenaked Ladies and Smashmouth is classified as Alternative these days.

Since the Alternative Rock peak of the mid-90's and a current resurgence, many new alternative rock bands (and consequently new alternative radio stations) have evolved - in the direction of Modern Rock, or in some cases, Pure Indie Rock while a few focus exclusively on select Alternative Sub-genres like Indie Pop or on cult bands like Dinosaur Jr, Sugar/Husker Du, the Connells, the Devlins, Tortoise, Arcade Fire, Pineapple Thief, Kings of Leon, Mercury Rev and Stereophonics creating niche audiences of their own. However, even now, many mainstream Music Stations play Alternative Rock which is stylistically derivative of the Seattle grunge bands and twirly alternative purveyors of the 90’s, and to some extent, the punk/new wave artists of the late 80's, rather than the "underground" rock artists of the 60's and 70's. These stations are aimed primarily at teenage and indie audiences and feature mostly current single releases and popular alternative album cuts.

Popular Sub-Genres & Derivatives of Alt. Rock (in Alphabetical Order)

Adult Alternative - Adult Alternative was born in the mid-1990s, when the Alternative Rock and Grunge styles had gained such a level of mainstream acceptance that their influence was beginning to show in more subdued and less adventurous “VH-1” bands. The massively successful Counting Crows were one of the first Adult Alternative bands, and their success paved the way for even more successful bands like Hootie and the Blowfish, the Gin Blossoms and the Crash Test Dummies. This style still flourishes today and is diversely represented in Single artists and bands like Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Train, Paul Weller, John Mayer, David Gray, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant, Travis, the Wallflowers, Matchbox Twenty, Alanis Morissette, Vertical Horizon, the Cardigans, etc.

Alt. Country - Post or Alt. Country (also known as Americana, or American Roots) is Country music that is made and exists outside Country’s mainstream. Compared to conventional Country music, Alt. Country has varied influences like American Roots Music, Bluegrass, Rock & Roll, Rockabilly, Acoustic Music, Americana, Honky-Tonk and Punk Rock. It is still not largely made or distributed from the Nashville industry and it does not get enough airplay on commercial Country radio. For the most part, Post Country is closer to its traditional roots than is more mainstream Country. Everything from the Indie Rock country of WhiskeyTown, Palace and Wilco, Sun Volt, Uncle Tupelo to the twangy eclecticism of Lucinda Williams, Freedy Johnston, Lyle Lovett and K.D. Lang is classified as Post Country.

Brit Pop/Brit Rock - Brit Pop/Brit Rock began in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s with groups like the Stone Roses, the Charlatans, Happy Mondays and later Inspiral Carpets, Primal Scream, Manic Street Preachers, Lush and many more. It began to flourish in the mid ‘90s with the success of bands such as Blur, Oasis, Gene, Boo Radleys and Pulp with Manchester being its epicenter. Brit pop/rock is guitar-based, but it ranges from the Disco-Funk of the Stone Roses to the Beatles-wannabe Rock of Oasis and to the Piano Rock of Starsailor. Brit Pop/rock is defined more by its reliance on "rock star" attitude and image, and its disinterest in US chart success, than by a particular sound. Its successful practitioners include the Suede, the Smiths, Elastica, Echobelly, Morrissey, Coldplay, Robbie Williams, Supergrass, Ocean Colour Scene, Powder, Shed Seven, Sleeper, the Verve and most recently Keane.

Chamber Pop - Chamber Pop (aka Baroque Rock or Baroque Pop) is carefully orchestrated music that attempts to apply the principles of Chamber music to Indie Pop mixing Indie Rock, Post Rock and Avant Classical interludes. The style is most easily identified by the use of instruments not commonly used in Rock music, such as string and horn sections, organs and flutes and even theremin and singing saw. Chamber Pop groups also take a more deliberate approach to songwriting, having been influenced by Cabaret musicians like Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel, as well as ‘60s and ‘70s rock anomalies like Lee Hazlewood, Nick Drake and Scott Walker. Lambchop, Tindersticks, Jeremy Enigk, the later work of Nick Cave and even Low and Belle and Sebastian have strong Chamber Pop elements. Other notable examples include Sufjan Stevens, Elvis Costello, Arab Strap, Mazzy Star, the Divine Comedy, Beulah, John Vanderslice, Smog, Cousteau and Mojave 3.

Emo – Sandwiched between Hardcore Punk and Pop Punk, "Emo" or "Emo-core" is short for Emotional Hardcore. The term began as a derogatory one but has been proudly and vehemently claimed by lovers of this dynamic, intensely emotional splinter genre of Hardcore. Really good Emo is characterized by sudden, surprising shifts in rhythm, ragged, screamingly emotional vocals, pretty instrumental breakdowns, slightly unconventional song structures, and a decidedly un-punk embrace of poppy elements. Sunny Day Real Estate made a couple of amazing Emo records, and The Get-Up Kids and The Promise Ring are pretty good too. Other good examples of Emo include Jimmy Eat World, Pedro the Lion, Further Seems Forever, Finch, Alkaline Trio, Dashboard Confessional, Jets To Brazil, Starting Line and also Modest Mouse. Emo would be a great genre had it not given birth to Math Rock, one of the coldest and most annoying of all of the post-punk splinter genres.

Experimental Rock - Progressive Rock, Noise Rock, Proto-punk and Experimental Rock bands that experiment extensively with styles, textures, sounds and production techniques - but still maintain a rock structure and stay within the rock idiom - can be called Experimental Rock. Of course, almost all of the greats have been at least somewhat experimental... Sgt. Pepper's, Pet Sounds and even Exile On Main Street were revolutionary records, but this term is reserved for those that have been truly out there on a consistent basis. Lots of Prog Rock bands like Pink Floyd and King Crimson have aspects of experimental rock but the real stuff started with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and includes everything from No Wave to latter Tom Waits, Pere Ubuto Wire, Oingo Boingo, Sonic Youth and even Mr. Bungle. Other Examples include the Butthole Surfers, Ween, Pram and Sigur Ros – Iceland’s darlings.

Goth Rock - At core, "Gothic" refers to the New Wave - Synth Pop style invented by second-generation British Punk bands like Joy Division, the Cure and Bauhaus, music that embraced darkness of theme and excessively morbid imagery, but the Gothic style is actually quite broad and has serious cultural antecedents in the work of writers like Mary Shelley and Horace Walpole. The pop "Gothic" style has deeply influenced our culture and is today represented in the music of a wide variety of bands, from Depeche Mode, Dead Can Dance to Marilyn Manson touching fringes of Industrial Rock and New Wave Euro Metal. At its worst, Gothic music is laughably hackneyed: a collection of clichéd lines about vampires, blood, and creatures of the night. At its best, Gothic music can be terrifying, swooningly romantic, and exorcisingly powerful all at the same time. Famous practitioners of Gothic Rock include Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cult, Type O Negative, Killing Joke, Skinny Puppy and Switchblade Symphony.

Grunge/Post-Grunge - Grunge Rock began in the late ‘80s and redefined the Alt.Rock genere. It originally comprised of stoner Punk, combining the sound of early Black Sabbath with Punk attitudes, angst-filled lyricism, speed (in some cases) and DIY aesthetics. Indie record label Sub Pop and bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Temple of the Dog, Mudhoney, the Melvins, Tad, and early Screaming Trees, Soundgarden and Paw typify the fuzzed out, stop/start, buzz rock sound of grunge. Most of these artists were associated with Seattle and after Nirvana’s success Grunge became synonymous with "The Seattle Sound."

After the success of Nirvana and the cult popularity of its frontman Kurt Cobain, a slew of commercial friendly Grunge and "Post-Grunge” bands popularized this genre even further. The first wave featured bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins, Creed, Hole (fronted by Kurt Cobain’s girlfriend/wife – Courtney Hole), L7, Everclear and Babes in Toyland while the second wave bands featured Bush, Silverchair, Candlebox, Our Lady Peace and Grinspoon. However, hardcore Grunge soon suffered a slow death and was replaced with Post-Grunge rock acts, many of whom exist even today. Most recent and (successful) examples of these post-grunge bands or those with discernible grunge influences include 12 Stones, Foo Fighters, A Perfect Circle, Hinder, Breaking Benjamin, Hoobastank, Switchfoot, Incubus, Staind, Nickelback, Audioslave, Cold, Papa Roach, Godsmack, Semisonic, Alterbridge, Seether, 3 Doors Down, Saliva, Redd Kross and Tantric.

Indie Garage - The mid ‘80s saw the beginnings of an Indie Garage Rock revival mixing Indie Rock, Garage Rock, Noise Rock, Lo Fi &Proto-punk. Notable bands that comprise this sub-genre include the MonoMen, the Chesterfield Kings, Flipper and Meat Puppets. Garage Rock bands tend to suck once they get famous and learn how to play their instruments. Nevertheless, they occupy a niche and latter day famous examples include Brian Jonestown Massacre, White Stripes, Red Elvises, the Replacements and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Indie Folk - There are many Indie artists (Mary Lou Lord, Vic Chesnutt, Shannon Wright, Cat Power, etc) who play music that could be described as “Folk” but often isn’t because of the connotations that term has gathered over the years. The music they play is in fact Folk, but it is so different from the music of more well-known Folk artists like Joan Baez and Greg Brown that a separate clarifying term is helpful when talking about their work. That term is Indie Folk. Blending Lo-Fi, Indie Rock and regular Folk music, Indie Folk songwriting tends to be more complicated and experimental than mainstream Contemporary Folk, and Indie Folk recording is usually far less slick than its mainstream counterpart. Additionally, most Indie Folk musicians would try to rip your throat out if you called them “Singer-Songwriters.”. Beck, Rufus Wainwright & Bon Iver are prominent examples though you can also add Elliott Smith, Red House Painters, Kristin Hersh and Billy Bragg.

Indie Pop/Dream Pop – Originally from the UK, Indie Pop embraces the basic tenets of Pop songwriting but filters them through the warped sensibilities of tuneful Indie Rock. The result is pleasant ear candy that is smarter, more experimental, and more emotionally realistic than the typical dross on the radio. Distinguished examples include Aztec Camera, Blur, Cocteau Twins, the Smiths, Lush, Sia Furler, Ivy, Stereolab, Postal Service, the Cardigans, Ben Kweller, Club 8, Imogen Heap, High Llamas, Apples in Stereo, Iron & Wine, Broken Social Scene, Hanson, Belle and Sebastian, Luna the Lemonheads and Ladybug Transistor.

Indie Rock - Indie Rock refers to the wide musical landscape maintained by Alternative bands that have remained underground and on independent labels and the widespread commercial co-opting of Alternative music. Though there is no particular Indie Rock sound, it stretches to two extremes from pop to rock and is typically guitar-based and made either with a Punk-inspired Do-It-Yourself (DIY) aesthetics or melodious rocking aural delights. Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, Nada Surf, Superchunk, Beat Happening and Shellac are examples of big name Indie Rockers. Other examples include Arcade Fire, the Auteurs, Badly Drawn Boy, Bright Eyes, British Sea Power, Neutral Milk Hotel, Promise Ring, the Radio Dept, Death Cab for Cutie, the Flaming Lips, Crayon and the Decemberists.

Jam Rock - Jam Rock is hippie music that relies on extended impromptu "jams" at the end of or instead of songs. Jam Rock begins with Psychedelic Rock (Grateful Dead), but it takes many different directions from there including Acid Rock, Folk Rock & Bluegrass. Much Jam Rock is Blues based, such as the Allman Bros. Band, but much is Jazz and Funk-influenced, such as Phish. The ultimate Jam Rock band was the Grateful Dead, who combined Folk and a little Jazz with Psychedelic Rock. Other bands rely on bastardized Bluegrass techniques and instrumentation. These bands such as the String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon, are often referred to as Newgrass. Current and notable examples include Ben Harper, Dave Matthews Band, Carbon Leaf, Deep Banana Blackout, Disco Biscuits, Blind Melon, Polyphonic Spree, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic, Lotus, Animal Liberation Orchestra, Dada and Sound Tribe Sector 9

Jangle Pop - Jangle Pop is a kind of Folk Rock/‘60s Pop, Indie Rock, Post Punk, Lo Fi, Folk Rock hybrid popularized by the Byrds, but it is typically executed with an underground aesthetic. The prime Jangle Pop example is R.E.M. (before their switch to Warner Brothers), Gin Blossoms, Camper Van Beethoven, the Connells, the Primitives, Teenage Fanclub and other bands including the Bangles, Belly, Uncle Green, Dream Syndicate, Game Theory, the Go-Between, House of Love, Loud Family, the Ocean Blue, the Railway Children, the Rembrandts, Love Tractor, the Feelies, the Soft Boys & Throwing Muses

Lo Fi - Lo Fi Indie Rock (or blended Indie Garage, Jangle Pop, Indie Folk, New Psychedelia) is recorded on four track and other amateur (i.e. cheap) equipment in order to maintain a rough, immediate sound. Lo Fi bands strive for a sound far removed from over-produced slick studio recordings. Reaching towards the aesthetic of early Blues field recordings, Lo Fi acts like Animal Collective, Archers of Loaf, Beck, Beat Happening, Beta Band, Bon Iver, Bonobo, Built To Spill, Coco Rosie, Devendra Banhart, Folk Implosion, John Frusciante, Of Montreal, Okkervil River, Pavement, Pedro the Lion, the Shins, Swell, Yo La Tengo, Smog, and, to a lesser extent, Sebadoh, are noisy and chaotic but often full of simple, pretty melodies.

Modern Rock - Modern Rock is just that - modern rock music. More specifically, this term refers to the genres of rock that influenced or were influenced by the advent of punk, from the Big-Star-crafted American-punk-influencing Power Pop to the post-punk sounds of New Wave, the forefather of Alternative, a genre that, in the early 90s, crashed into the rocks of commercialism and cracked into the two halves of fiercely uncommercial Indie Rock and radio-friendly Alternative, Adult Alternative, and Grunge.

New Psychedelia - The late 90s saw a renewed interest, on the part of the Indie Rock community, in the Psychedelic Rock of 60s bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys (as well as lesser-known bands like the Zombies, the Incredible String Band, and Sagittarius). This was brought about almost single-handedly by a loosely organized, and artistically prolific, group of Athens, GA artists and friends called the Elephant 6 collective that mixed Indie Rock with Lo Fi elements.

Early releases by the Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, and the amazing Neutral Milk Hotel garnered truckloads of critical acclaim for the collective, and releases by Dressy Bessy, Elf Power, the Minders, and Beulah followed not long after. Stylistically, the Elephant 6 sound diverged wildly, but all of the bands had in common an ecstatic, joyful approach to making music, an eschewal of cynicism and irony, and a love for bizarre instruments and analog equipment. In the Elephant 6 bands, as well as non-E6 psych purveyors like the Flaming Lips and the Ladybug Transistor, the array of modern Psychedelia has become just as broad and impressive as it was in the 60s. Other examples include Super Furry Animals, Cornelius, Starlight Mints, the Sunshine Fix, Oneida, the Four Corners & Whistler.

Noise Rock – Blurred between Indie Garage, Indie Rock & Experimental Rock, Noise Rock relies on alternative tunings, feedback and cacophonous sounds orchestrated into discordant anti-songs. Though it has existed since the 70s, the Boredoms, Royal Trux, and Guitar Wolf were the original noise bands. However, the credit for actually popularizing this genre goes to Sonic Youth, Fugazi & Helmet. Other popular Noise Bands include Butthole Surfers, Ween, Drive like Jehu, Codeine, the Boredoms, Spectrum, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, My Bloody Valentine, Born Against, Lightning Bolt, the Jesus Lizard, Swans, Velocity Girl, the Birthday Party and my personal favorite – Catherine Wheel.

Post Rock - Post Rock is an experimental form of Indie Rock combining elements of Noise, Free Jazz, Space Rock, Indie Rock, Chamber Pop and Electronica. Tortoise and Slint are forerunners of this genre that includes bands like Air, Mogwai, Album Leaf, the Sea and Cake, Four Tet, Isotope 217, Plone, Clinic, Calexico, Gastr del Sol, A Minor Forest, the Notwist, Piano Magic, Bedhead, Slowdive, King Black Acid, Mercury Rev, Medicine, and Explosions in the Sky

Power Pop – A popular sub-genre of Alternative rock and Alternative Pop, it includes elements from New Wave, Pop Punk, Hard Rock and Punk Rock. Power Pop takes crisp vocals, Hard Rock guitars and wraps ‘em up in delicious Pop harmonies. Old bands like Duran Duran, Roxette, the Smithereens, Big Star and Cheap Trick typify this sound as do modern Alt. Rockers like Better Than Ezra, Teenage Fanclub and Tal Bachman.

While its artistic impact has waxed and waned over the decades, Power Pop is among Rock's or rather Alt. Rock’s most lasting secondary genres covering a variety of trends and diverse set of bands as varied as Lightning Seeds, A.C. Newman, Pink, All-American Rejects, American Hi-Fi, Artful Dodger, Ash, Avril Lavigne, the Posies, Sloan, Semisonic, Dandy Warhols, Bracket, Material Issue, Altered Images, Todd Rundgren, Matthew Sweet, the Knack, Squeeze, Sugarcult, Superbus, Don Dixon, Enuff Z'nuff, Fastball, Juliana Hatfield, Katy Perry, the Loud Family, Nick Lowe, the New Pornographers, Rick Springfield, Swirl 360, the Vapors, Veruca Salt, Weezer, Wheatus and XTC.

Riot Grrrl – Riot Grrrl is a hybrid between Hardcore Punk, Punk Rock, Pop Punk and Indie Rock. First arising in the late ‘80s through a network of new bands, labels and fan-published ‘zines, Riot Grrrl is typified by a loud, abrasive Punk Rock sound and attitude, and aggressive feminist politics. Drawing inspiration from early girl-punks like the Raincoats and Yoko Ono (believe it!), Riot Grrrl constructed a new ethos of empowerment and creation, making it OK for girls to scream, rock, and do it themselves. Sleater-Kinney and Hole are the best-known Riot Grrrl bands apart from L7, Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland and also Chicks on Speed, Luscious Jackson & Le Tigre.

Rock en Espanol - Rock en Espanol also known as Latin Alternative is a movement of alternative rock bands from everywhere from Texas to Mexico to Argentina who sing in Spanish and play all styles of modern rock, often with touches of traditional Latin rhythm, Hard Rock and Pop thrown into spice things up. From pop in Spanish, to hybrids of Anglo rock and elements of traditional and popular Latin music, Rock en Español is the sound of young Latin America like Divididos, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Charly Garcia, Herodes del Silencio, Mana, Ricardo Arjona, Soda Stereo & Jarabe De Palo.

Ska & Ska Punk - Ska is the direct musical forerunner of Reggae and is a sublime alternative combination of Jamaican (African) folk traditions, Calypso and American ‘60s R&B. Ska is horn heavy and relies on a syncopated rhythmic structure in which only the upbeats are played upon. Ska has experienced many revivals and permutations in the form of New wave, 2 Tone bands and the Ska-Punk/Alternative Ska of the nineties, but the basic Ska blueprint is the Skatalites, who were the Studio One band for a number of years. Rancid, Toots and the Maytals, the Toasters, Camper Van Beethoven & Bodysnatchers are other good examples.

Mixing Ska with elements of Pop Punk, Rock Steady, Punk Rock and Reggae, Ska Punk takes the British Mod-Ska of early ‘80s 2-tone bands like Madness and the Specials and charges it up with Punk speed and guitar riffs. The Clash did this way back in ’77; Fishbone did it throughout the ‘80s followed by recent contemporaries like No Doubt, Operation Ivy, Buck O’ Nine, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, Sublime, the Pietasters, Save Ferris, Goldfinger, RX Bandits and Instant Winner.

Space Rock/Progressive Alt.Rock - Mesmerizing, droning and sedative, this is post-punk Psychedelia vacillating between Space Rock, Indie Rock, Chamber Pop, Electronica, Ambient, Post Rock, Indie Pop, Film Scores and Modern Rock. Major groups include Pink Floyd (the pioneers), Bark Psychosis, Mogwai, Bowery Electric, Seefeel, Labradford, Spaceman 3, Babylon Zoo, Ride, Muse, Bardo Pond and Spiritualized.

Surf Rock – Integrating early Rock & Roll with Rockabilly, the first Surf rock single belongs to guitar virtuoso Dick Dale, whose “Let’s Go Trippin” set the instrumental mold - reverby and cascading guitar washes over propulsively simple rock beats - that many surf rock bands, from the Ventures to the Surfaris, were to follow. Jan and Dean and especially the Beach Boys took Surf to the next level, wrapping the style around skillfully written pop songs sung in gorgeous, complex harmonies. A Niche genre, other famous examples include the Dead Kennedys and the Reverend Horton Heat.

The New Wave and Synth Pop genre has been intentionally left out and will be covered later. Critical feedback requested. References and Credits will be added later in the final file. I will also upload a MP3 Sampler of Alternative Hits in the next few days.


  1. Google landed me on this page and it is well written. Was wondering why you have left out Punk Rock, Skate Punk and Pop Punk ? or bands like Green day and Offspring? Dont they qualify as Alternative?

  2. This is over thinking music and pigeon-holing stuff for the sake of it. It's also very US centric (especially when the whole essence of indie music came out of the UK!)
    Music is music... to quote Stevie Wonder, "there is no such thing as bad music , there is just music". And with that in mind this is a somewhat pointless and subjective piece of compartmentalisation.
    Sorry to be so hard, just think that what one person may consider to be 'post rock' another might see it is as 'indie pop' and the point is that it doesn't really matter either way.

  3. what about original purveyors like Neds Atomic Dustbin, Monster Magnet, Porno For Pyros, Ramones and many such bands. They definitely warrant a mention here.

  4. indeed researched well and written with analysis. In fact, you just cleared some of the confusion that I have always had with identifying many of the alternative genres. My fav though is post rock!

  5. awesome post! I learnt a lot in 10 minutes! thanks!


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