Just when popular genres such as glam rock were ruling the charts in the late 80s, the world was first introduced to a complete one-of-a-kind subgenre of rock music. 

Now, as this genre started competing with the big sounds that were promoted by TV and radio, people started recognizing it as a counter-product, or an “alternative” to rock. 

However, being recognized as an “alternative” has always created an acute identity crisis for this rather beautiful sub-genre. So, what is “alternative” about this genre? Maybe the truth is that it serves as an appropriate alternative to orthodox music business practices.

So, in case you are wondering, “what is alternative music?”, allow us to take you to the roots of where it all started.

What is alternative music? - definition

How did it get this name?

Nowadays, the dictionary classifies alternative genre as a punk-rock subgenre that is also influenced by electronic music, reggae, jazz, and other popular styles. Here, the term “alternative” was a reference to post-modern fusion, considering how this genre maintains the freshness of modern music while adding the flavor of the past. 

However, the origin of this genre-bending sound is a lot deeper. For starters, did you know that initially, this genre was popularly referred to as “college rock”? 

Sounds familiar? Yes, this was how the United States used to recognize this type of music as in the early 80s. It was primarily due to its active link with the music preferences of the young college-going audience. Soon after, this genre gained the title of “indie music” or independent music during the mid-80s in the United Kingdom as it began to spread worldwide. 

However, this genre was finally labeled as “Alternative Music” in the early 90s when the Grammy Awards officially categorized this experimental music as an official subgenre. To make it even better, evergreen musician Perry Farrell introduced the term “Alternative Nation” during the world-famous Lollapalooza festival to introduce this genre to the masses. 

It was about time the audience fell in love with the alternative aesthetic of this genre, and then slowly, it made it to the big leagues. Alternative music was no longer an outcast in the rock genre, and it started to get the recognition that it deserves.

How was it first discovered?

Although it’s not quite hard to decipher how this genre got its name, how this particular genre-bending sound came into existence in the first place is still a mystery to many. 

So, as we continued to dig deeper, we found that although alternative music started getting popular in the 80s, it was originated far before.

Now, there’s always that one person in every group who’s more into “underground stuff” as it’s not made with the sole purpose of commercialization. Well, underground music culture isn’t new; it has been existing since the late 50s, or maybe even way before. 

And, what underground musicians mainly do is that they create authentic music that carries an emotional depth and resonates well with the audience. Although these may not be as appealing as the mainstream commercial sounds, it becomes an instant favorite to the listeners that have a sophisticated taste in music.

history and discovery

So, what is alternative music? It is an alternative to the popular rock-and-roll genre established by the independent musicians of the underground rock culture. It all started somewhere around 1965 when legendary bands such as the 13th Floor Elevators began to pioneer psychedelic-rock. Also, somewhere around that time, some iconic poets from New York decided to form a rock musical group and call themselves The Fugs. 

Coincidentally, 1965 was also the year when the first-ever independent album in the history of underground rock, “Black Monk Time,” was released. And somewhere between this chain of historical events that changed the American underground rock community forever, alternative music was born. 

How did it spread internationally?

Soon after this alternative aesthetic had left the listeners spellbound in the United States and the UK, it began to spread worldwide. For starters, Australia was one of the first countries to adapt to this music. Bands such as Dead Can Dance, The Go-Betweens, and others started to promote alternative music in Australia. 

Interesting fact- Its popularity spiked in Australia as their famous music festival “Australia’s Big Day Out” began to provide a stage to the local and international bands to perform alternative music.

Soon after, popular music bands such as The Arcade Fire, Broken Social Science, and others began to promote alternative music in Canada. At the same time, globally-renowned groups such as The Sugarcubes began to introduce Iceland to alternative music. It continued to expand even further, and alternative music established a worldwide audience in no time. 

What is alternative music?- sound

How would you define this sound?

Before we go any further with this, let us ask you something- what does music mean to you? If music is a means of self-expression to you, then you’ll love what alternative music sounds like.

The thing is, when artists begin to prioritize business over art, they lose the substance that makes music worth listening to due to the pressure of making it sound commercial. However, the sound of alternative music is precisely the opposite; it takes the musical models of the popular genres and holds on to its authenticity. 

The best way to explain it is by going back to the 80s and 90s, or the age of Alternative music. The mainstream audience was more inclined towards pop artists such as Madonna. Whereas, the underground audience was more attracted to the music made by less popular music bands such as Black Flag. If you compare the soundscape and dynamics of the songs made by these two different musical entities, you’ll find a huge difference.

However, it’d be somewhat unfair to say that alternative music has always stayed limited to the underground. With time, this genre started to develop its audience and began to hit the mainstream charts. To be more precise, alternative music band Sonic Youth had allegedly introduced the mainstream audience to alternative music by signing a major record deal.


The controversies behind Alternative music

Now many of us believe that after alternative music became mainstream, it lost the rebellious essence that the term “alternative” used to carry. It’s a fair point- what’s so “alternative” about alternative music anymore, then? 

However, it isn’t entirely true. Alternative music had undergone its most significant progressive change after it reached the masses. This helped evergreen musical bands such as Nirvana to enter their playlist. And, the rest is history.

So, even though it didn’t change the sound of alternative music, it gave people a more refined genre of music that resonated with their lives. Consequently, it began to intrigue numerous commercial music lovers to become more inclined towards the underground culture. 

The biggest names in Alternative music

Now, not every other band has been successful at making it big with alternative music, but the ones that could do it have created history. So, let’s have a look at some of the greatest alternative music bands that stood the test of time with their timeless classics.

Red Hot Chilli Peppers

No matter whether you’re into alternative music or not, it’s doubtful that you haven’t come across this name before. Red Hot Chilli Peppers is probably one of the biggest rock bands of all time, which was found in the late 80s. This band had established itself as one of the top-selling bands of all time by selling over 80 million records across the globe.


Various critics throughout time have regarded Nirvana as one of the most influential bands that have reshaped the dynamics of alternative rock with their musical genius. This band was led by frontman Kurt Cobain, and has inspired the world with evergreen hits such as “Smells like teen spirit.” 

Although this band was disassembled soon after the death of Kurt Cobain, it still lives on in our hearts.


Radiohead is probably the most brilliant example of how alternative music had crossed the boundaries of the United States and spread worldwide. This English band came into the spotlight in 1992 with their debut single “Creep,” and released their first album, Pablo Honey, a year later. And since then, alternative music has never been the same.

In a Nutshell

Do you, too, have a slightly different taste in music than the masses? Then, it’s quite apparent that you keep yourself updated on alternative music daily. I mean, why shouldn’t you? This genre was influenced by post-punk and punk rock to give the audience the best of both worlds. 

That being said, we certainly hope that you have found our detailed breakdown of alternative music of any help. So, which alternative music bands/artists are you a big fan of? Do not forget to let us know in the comments section below.

We’ll take your leave for now, but we’ll be back soon with more exciting content about music for you. Till then, stay connected.