“Alternative” is a genre of rock and roll that is outside of the mainstream. Its roots are in the late 60s and 70s and rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. Alternative bands usually arise on independent record labels and often are hard to pin down in terms of mainstream genre. There are many sub-categories of Alternative Music including grunge, indie rock, indie pop, Britpop, shoegaze, electronica, dreampop, alt-country, alt-hip hop and college rock, to name a few.
Below is my list of the top 100 alternative bands of all-time. It’s difficult to determine whether a band is alternative. For instance, is U2, with its huge mainstream commercial success an alternative band? Same thing for Coldplay – are they alternative even though they are so mainstream now? How about The Ramones? Are they alternative or are they a punk rock band? The dividing line between punk and alternative can be a thin one, especially for late 70s and early 80s bands. (I chose to exclude all three of those bands.)
My list is based on looking at a lot of top alternative bands lists as well as my own views. I have attempted to rank the bands in terms of their influence as well as success (this is not a list of my favorites). The list has an indie rock slant to it because of my own preferences. It is hard to rank bands and the entire list is an “ish.” Would love to get your opinions!
1. Nirvana. In 1991 I was a Junior at the University of Missouri and often walked down to a little bodega called the Lee Street Shop that sold these things sort of like sloppy joes called “Lee Street Burgers” (I wasn’t a vegan back then). I remember waiting in line to buy a Lee Street Burger and hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time over the store’s stereo. I was blown away. I asked the cashier “what is this crazy, amazing music?” She told me what it was, I wolfed down my Lee Street Burger, skipped my afternoon class (a common occurrence) and drove to the record store and bought Nevermind on CD.
2. The Pixies. We generally like music that sounds like music that we already like. Click here for more on that. Prior to the Pixies I listened mainly to classic rock. I started listening to the Pixies in college and I found their music to be jarring and different. I didn’t love it at first, but the more I listened to them the more I liked the music. Thus, the Pixies were my main gateway into alternative music. The Pixies were hugely influential in the development of Alternative Rock.
3. Radiohead. People tend to either love or hate Radiohead. Their music is complex, often noisy with unusual drum syncopation. They are amazing musicians and their music is regarded as very “musical.” Radiohead takes effort to listen to, but is incredibly rewarding if you put in the effort.
4. The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The first time I heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers I was slightly intoxicated at a fraternity party in 1991. I remember thinking “wow, these guys really don’t give a f*ck!” I think that’s a key aspect to alternative rock – you make music for music’s sake and don’t worry about whether it is commercially successful. Sometimes it ends up being commercially successful as is the case for all these bands in the top 10 or 20 of the list. While a band’s music can change and mature, a key question is whether they “sell out” – do they start giving a f*ck?
5. Sonic Youth. Formed in 1981, Sonic Youth was prolific, releasing 15 studio albums, seven EPs, six live albums and nine experimental albums over their 30-year career. They were key in creating the alternative genre, bridging the gap between punk and alternative rock in their early albums. Their music is usually very noisy and discordant and can be hard to listen to at times. They were hugely influential and paved the way for many other bands to experiment with noise and disharmony. Here’s a short but fun video:
Here’s another Sonic Youth video because they deserve two videos:
6. The Cure. The Cure was one of the first alternative bands to crossover and have mainstream success. They were influential in paving the way for alternative British Pop. Their work spans alternative sub-genres such as goth, emo, and electronic-infused pop.
7. REM. Active from 1982 to 2011, REM was prolific, releasing 15 albums and an EP. They started as a little know band played on college radio stations and releasing albums on a tiny independent label. They achieved great commercial success in the 1990s with a run of hits including Losing My Religion which peaked at No. 4. While I respect REM a lot and they deserve a top ten spot, I have a bit of a bad taste for REM given that their song Stand was my Hell Week song as a fraternity pledge. The song was played super loud every-day all-day and periodically we had to do the “stand dance” that is shown in the song’s video:
8. The Smiths. The combination of Morrissey’s unique voice and Johnny Marr’s clean guitar chords give The Smiths a unique sound. The band only stayed together for five years but produced four amazing albums. They were bigger in their home country of Britain, but were also big in the U.S – especially for angst-filled teenagers. Here’s a great article interviewing the author of a 700-page biography of The Smiths on what made them so great: article.
9. Velvet Underground. There is some dispute about when the genre of alternative rock actually began and which band was the first of the genre. Many believe that Velvet Underground, fronted by Lou Reed, was the first alternative rock band – in any event they were very influential for the bands that ended up being alternative pioneers. Active between 1965 and 1973, VU created some great music that still gets airtime today.
10. Talking Heads. David Byrne, frontman for the Talking Heads, is a musical genius and polymath, with acclaimed projects in film, photography, art, songwriting, opera and currently has a show on Broadway called American Utopia. The Talking Heads, formed in the late 1970s were pioneers in the alternative genre,
11. The Beastie Boys
12. Pearl Jam
13. The White Stripes
14. Joy Division
17. My Bloody Valentine. Creators of the “shoegaze” genre, My Bloody Valentine were extremely influential.
18. The Smashing Pumpkins
19. Foo Fighters
20. Wilco (link to IFOD on Wisdom of Jeff Tweedy)
22. Green Day
23. Nine Inch Nails
24. Rage Against the Machine
25. The Replacements
26. Violent Femmes
27. Depeche Mode
28. New Order
29. The Strokes
30. Stone Temple Pilots
32. Flaming Lips
33. Alice in Chains
34. Dinosaur Jr.
35.The Stone Roses
36. Arcade Fire
37. Modest Mouse. One of my all-time favorite music videos:
39. Vampire Weekend. Congrats to Vampire Weekend for their Grammy win last night!
40. Jane’s Addiction
42. Echo & the Bunnymen
43. P.J. Harvey
44. Siouxsie and the Banshees
47. Slowdive. Shoegaze pioneers – here’s their amazing performance live at KEXP:
48. The Black Keys
49. LCD Soundsystem
51. Public Image Ltd.
52. Faith No More
53. Queens of the Stone Age
54. Meat Puppets
56. Death Cab for Cutie
57. Wire. Sort of punk. Check out some Three Girl Rhumba:
58. Gang of Four
63. Husker Du
64. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
65. The Dandy Warhols
66. The National
67. The Breeders
68. Built to Spill
69. Franz Ferdinand
70. Yo La Tengo
71. Uncle Tupelo
72. Guided by Voices
73. Social Distortion
74. Massive Attack
75. TV on the Radio
76. The Cult
77. Cracker. Here’s some Eurotrash Girl:
78. Linkin Park
81. The Brian Jonestown Massacre
82. The Offspring
84. The Killers
85. Grizzly Bear
87. No Doubt
89. Belle and Sebastian
91. Neutral Milk Hotel
92. Kings of Leon
93. Silversun Pickups
94. Catherine Wheel
95. Cage the Elephant
96. The Afgan Whigs
98. The Arctic Monkeys
99. Blonde Redhead
Nice list. I also like Coldplay and Third Eyre Blind. But that’s just me.
What about Concrete Blonde, or Oingo Boingo, or Gary Numan, or the Cars?
Soundgarden is 46 and 50… you must really like them.
Ha. Thanks. I actually don’t like soundgarden.
I love the Beastie Boys as much as anyone, but they’re a rap group.
I guess I am a HATER, It may be showing my age but I guess I would of had more 90’s bands, Tool for 1, and way up there high, The Doors, plus more Alternative rock bands throughout the ages of the 60’s 70’s and yes the 80’s too, though I hated the commercial chart topping drum machine assembly line crap of that decade but the early 90’s was the response to that crap which was great but throw a lot of the bands that are just rehashed similar sounding stuff made in this era, The new dark age, I call it or The Information Super Nightmare Age LOL.
Do you have any problem with The Cranberries? are you a hater?
I’m not a cranberries hater. I totally should have included them.
Good one JJ! P!
Just thought I’d throw this out there. Hard to believe they were doing this in 1976. I don’t know how else you would describe this other than “alternative.” Split Enz – 1976. https://youtu.be/xozOG3Z3p3o
John – Just a few off the cuff reactions (it is a best bands list so I’m confident you weren’t expecting consensus). I think you’ve probably placed Depeche Mode somewhat low on this list. Some other bands I might offer up for your consideration (some of these blur then line between punk/alternative and new wave/alternative). I do think New Wave really was key to the roots of indie/alternative. The Decemberists, Bauhaus/Love and Rockets, Split Enz (check out their early mid-70s videos on YouTube, I think they have a claim at being one of the earliest truly alternative bands along with Velvet Underground), Flock of Seagulls, The Stranglers, The B-52s, OMD, Elvis Costello, The Psychedelic Furs, Devo, Ministry, XTC, They Might Be Giants, The War on Drugs). I believe at least one or two of those probably deserve a spot on your list. As always, I enjoy the iFOD.
Great points and comment. Thanks. Great point in new wave – I consider it the NYC style of punk but case can be made that it’s a genre in its own and was huge in the creating of alternative.
Hmmm….Joy Division above New Order….interesting….
I originally had them as one band but decided to split them. Thoughts?
As it should be