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Top 100 Songs
More than 30 different lists were aggregated to create this list. Alternative is a widely defined collection of rock music which stretches from the garage bands of the 1960s to the indie scene of today. It generally is used to describe groups which are more left of center, but often these bands– such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, and R.E.M. – move to the forefront of mainstream rock.
A brief history of the genre shows its origins to come out of the D.I.Y. aesthetic that accompanied rougher sounding, experimental bands who came out of the 1960s. Groups like the Velvet Underground and The Stooges provided a raunchier and rawer alternative to mainstream rock like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
By the mid-1970s, groups like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones spearheaded the punk scene, which grew out of angry working class kids looking for a musical outlet. By the close of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, new wave groups like The Cure, Depeche Mode, and New Order emerged at the forefront of a more accessible, electronically-driven, and ready-for-video format. The college rock scene quickly grew out of that, also lending audiences to groups like U2, R.E.M., and The Smiths.
By the end of the 1990s, grunge became the dominant form of rock music with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam at the helm. They revived some of the punk and D.I.Y. ethos of the 1960s and 1970s, while also crafting big songs which echoed some of the big-anthem classic rock of those decades.
Since grunge, there hasn’t been one dominant form of alternative – or what became known as “modern rock.” Groups like Green Day and Blink-182 created punk-pop while The White Stripes and The Strokes reminded listeners of the garage rock of the 1960s. Artists like Radiohead and Beck reminded listeners of the experimental nature of the genre.
So what is alternative rock exactly? It’s hard to say. This list taps into all the forms referenced above and more. I’ll just let these songs tell you what alternative is.
Click here to see other genre-specific song lists.
1. Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
11. Smashing Pumpkins “Today” (1993)
21. Beastie Boys “Sabotage” (1994)
31. R.E.M. “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
41. U2 “One” (1992)
51. Pearl Jam “Even Flow” (1991)
61. Soft Cell “Tainted Love” (1981)
71. Nirvana “In Bloom” (1991)
81. Alice in Chains “Man in the Box” (1991)
91. Pearl Jam “Yellow Ledbetter” (1992)
First posted 6/14/2012; last updated 5/30/2020.