The foundations and frontrunners of alternative music

10 mins read

From the bands who lay the foundations of alternative music, to the current frontrunners in the sub-genres, the songs have a long and impactful history.

The term alternative music has meant a lot of things for different people over the decades, from escapism in the turmoil of society, to a way to breath new air into their lives.

The genre has many sub-genres, ranging from indie rock and grunge, to Britpop and shoegazing, the options are endless.

Enveloping a multitude of styles, moods and tempos, the style is mixed in with distortion, fuzz and and whole lot of chaos.

Distorted guitars were typically the forefront sound, accompanied by drums, bass. But then in the 21st century many bands adopted a new outlier, the keyboard.

Alternative music began around the 1970s, during which independent music was climbing.

The genre ‘alternative’ began due to a generational distaste and discontent of society and the typical commercial rock and pop being widely distributed.

They believed that by taking this route their music would be ‘unpopular’, but it turns out that was just its appeal.

The original influences for this new genre came from post-punk rock in the late 1970s from bands such as The Jam and The Velvet Underground.

From then it progressed into a more wider phenomenon, but still largely remained underground. Bands would present their music through college radio stations, constant tours and incredibly low-budget records.

Early on, the British alternative scene would quickly distinguish itself from what was occurring in the United States. They would intertwine more pop melodies into their tracks with heavy lyrics about pressing issues exclusive to the country.

Since radio and DJs such as John Peel weren’t afraid to broadcast this new sound, many US bands found fame whereas UK bands failed to make headway in the states.

Bands and artists such as The Cure, The Smiths, Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins dominated the other side of the 80s.

The Smiths. Credit: NME

In a decade dominated by electronic dance and pop, many ‘underground’ bands declared success in their music, but due many bands disbanding or exploring new music areas, the genre experienced a heavy decline in the mid to late 80s.

But by the 90s, immense levels of popularity were reverberated across the globe and ever since then people can’t seem to get enough.

Young artists in the prominent USA cities of Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and the UK city of Manchester wanted to fuse their stylistic alternative with reaching a larger audience, which led to record labels finally seeing the appeal.

Most notably Nirvana, hailing from Seattle, Washington, were largely known for introducing and popularising grunge and alternative sound, with their second studio album Nevermind reaching no.1 on the Billboard charts in January 1992.

After it reached the mainstream level, alternative music began to not feel so out of the ordinary, but many bands began to reject this newfound fame, wanting to try maintain their DIY ethos.

Other bands such as The Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam were able to build of this success created by Nirvana and really take the grunge sound outwith Seattle and into the untouched corners of the world.

Towards the late 90s, after a troublesome few years for the frontrunners, the style began to shift to a more post-grunge/post-Britpop focus.

Radiohead achieved critical acclaim during the decline of Britpop, with their album OK Computer still being named the no.1 album the last 50 years, 25 years on from its initial release.

Though in to the new millennium, a new sub-genre creeped in and overshadowed what was previously known. Emo music, mainly in the form of Paramore, My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco, blended rock with heavily emotional lyricism.

This genre was tediously affected by social stigma and controversy, leaving fans feeling that sense of isolation felt so many years ago by the original frontrunners.

Also during the 2000s, many bands began to strip back from the new sounds and reverted back to the prominent distorted guitars and infectious sombre melodies in what was known as post-punk revival.

Most notably, Arctic Monkeys received major commercial success through this genre, with their album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not becoming the fastest-selling debut by a band in UK chart history.

Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner performing at the 2022 Reading festival. Credit NME/Andy Ford
Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner performing at Reading festival 2022. Credit NME/Andy Ford

The 2010’s witnessed many bands fusing the traditional emphasis on guitar and drums with a keyboard, introducing listeners to an alternative pop feel whilst still keeping the emotional attachment to underground melodies.

Combined with the rise and era of social media, blogging and the subsequent cliques from the internet, many teens turned towards a new age of alternative music – soft grunge.

Commonly associated with being a product of Tumblr, artists such as The 1975, Lana Del Rey, The Neighbourhood and Cigarettes After Sex began to receive recognition, often due to the personal and confessional lyrics that resonated with misunderstood adolescents.

Towards the end of the decade, bedroom indie pop released from young independent artists spoke to a new generation of teenagers with their angsty lyrics and lo-fi production.

Mac Demarco, Clairo, Steve Lacy and girl in red, to name a few, are likely to credit their success to a society conditioned to be engrossed in social media, with many of their songs becoming major hits on platforms such as TikTok.

Fast-forward into the 2020s where music is becoming predominantly individual, with artists such as The 1975, Arctic Monkeys and even Taylor Swift dipping in and out of alternative sub-genres depending on their moods and inspirations of a specific time in their lives.

Sub-genres such as indie folk, dreampop, alternative dance and slow-core are all beginning to reach new levels of success.

Whilst typical pop music is still topping the charts, many music enthusiasts are indulging in the individualist lifestyle of the alternative genre, with teens swapping recommendations on social media and opting for vinyl and cassettes over the internet.

To this day, the energy and charisma of Do-It-Yourself music is valued by the entire alternative community, from post-rock bands still persisting, to upcoming bedroom indie angsty-teenagers dreaming of their own record.

But to predict what sub-genre or style will become the leading sound of the coming years is substantially difficult to state. Will it reach the mainstream level it achieved so many years ago? Or will the next generation favour a new genre of pop and bury alternative music altogether?

However, the music is infectious, mesmerising and creates meaningful communities for those feeling lost in present-day society, what’s not to love?

Alternative Album Recommendations.

Being Funny in a Foreign Language, The 1975

The Queen is Dead, The Smiths

Siamese Dream, The Smashing Pumpkins

So Tonight That I Might See, Mazzy Star

Stranger in the Alps and Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers

Skinty Fia, Fontaines D.C.

I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, The 1975

It Won’t Always Be Like This, Inhaler

Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division

This old dog, Mac Demarco

Grace, Jeff Buckley

Blue Weekend, Wolf Alice

Ultraviolence, Lana Del Rey

In Utero, Nirvana

Long lost, Lord Huron

Hypersonic missiles, Sam Fender

Songs of Her’s, Hers

Wild Heart, Current Joys

Featured image: Sam Fender via Twitter

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BA(Hons) International Politics and Languages
Politics and Music journalist

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