The term “alternative music” was first used in the 1980s and 90s to describe rock music bands that broke away from the more traditional rock and roll genre. Early alternative rock was often ignored by the commercial music industry, making it a true alternative for music lovers. It was rarely played on mainstream radio stations or on MTV.

In the 1980s, alternative music generally referred to punk rock bands. Yet in the 90s the alternative scene began to change when a new sound, known as grunge, emerged from Seattle, Washington.


With murky, distorted guitars and angst-filled lyrics, grunge rock bands condemned commercialism. Grunge lyrics often speak of alienation and social discontent. Ironically, grunge rock took the world by storm, gaining attention from the music industry, which was quick to capitalize on alternative rock’s new popularity.

More than a music genre, grunge influenced clothing styles and attitude. Generation X slouched back to grunge rock while wearing flannel shirts over sloppy tee shirts and baggy jeans. This form of alternative rock music spoke to the generation’s rising disenchantment with the current state of society.

As mainstream music took notice of the grunge sound, previously unknown alternative rock bands gained international fame. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Soundgarden were among the early alternative rock bands to reach widespread popularity.

Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind, was the first alternative rock album to gain national recognition with hits such as Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come as You Are. The same year, Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, continued to draw fans to the Seattle grunge sound.

As the popularity of alternative rock music continued to grow, more alternative bands were signed to major music labels. This widened the base of alternative rock music with exposure to bands such as Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, and Rage Against the Machine.

Grunge dominated for only a few short years. In 1994, fans mourned the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and grunge music gradually began to fade. Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun was one of the era’s last grunge rock hit singles. Yet that didn’t diminish the popularity of alternative music.

In 1995, the music-heavy movie Empire Records featured an alternative rock soundtrack with bands such as The Cranberries, Better than Ezra, and Gin Blossoms. The mid-1990s also brought punk rock music to a wider audience with the rise of alternative bands like Green Day and The Offspring.

As the 1990s progressed, the sounds of grunge and early alternative rock music continued to influence the sound of rock. Grunge had opened the door for other types of alternative rock music which gained popularity in the late 1990s, such as post-punk revival, alternative metal, industrial, and punk blues.

However, alternative music brought into the mainstream ceases to be an “alternative” music choice. The music that stayed underground became known loosely as indie rock, although the term includes many punk-derived musical sub-genres.


Internet and satellite radio stations bring indie music to a larger audience, giving fans a chance to experience non-local alternative rock bands without subjecting them to the commercialization that killed the grunge bands of the 1990s. 

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