Alternative rock is often associated with the ‘90s grunge movement, when Nirvana’s Nevermind took center stage, leaving ‘80s hair metal trends in the dust. But, of course, the alternative music experience really started in the late-‘70s and ‘80s, when college radio embraced pretty much anything that mainstream radio wouldn’t—and that was a lot.
In honor of the pioneering bands that helped pave the way for the alternative sound, Gibson.com presents 10 Great Classic Alternative Rock Bands. What were your favorite early noise-makers? Give us your picks in the comments section below!
The Cure ruled college radio in the ‘80s, consistently spitting out a sound so unique and fresh, it was impossible to mistake it for any other band. The group surfaced from the late-‘70s punk rock culture and went onto craft dark, gloomy songs with spacey synths and gothic themes. The band eventually scored big in the U.K. and established itself as a major cult act in the U.S., influencing countless bands along the way.
These guys embraced ‘80s dance-pop music, but in the end, it was Depeche Mode’s dark, theatrical sound that situated them to be one of the biggest alternative bands of the ‘80s. Now, they’re back with a new album, 2013’s Delta Machine, and a major North American tour set for late summer.
Dinosaur Jr. rocked hard, with a blend of loud guitar noise, ear-splitting feedback and free-form noise. The band’s ‘80s records for SST helped pave the way for alternative rock’s mainstream breakthrough in the early ‘90s, although the guys never earned nearly as much visibility as the bands that broke during the Nirvana wave.
“Hungry Like the Wolf” hit-makers Duran Duran brought New Wave to the masses, largely thanks to MTV. The band’s supermodel good looks and glamorous fashion made them music video superstars. The band’s rise to the top was quick in the early-to-mid-‘80s, and even though the popularly didn’t last too long, they’re one of the few ‘80s underground bands who were able to achieve such mainstream fanfare.
Hüsker Dü helped change the sound and style of rock ‘n’ roll music in the ‘80s. The group had a special knack for writing songs with digestible pop structures and catchy melodies, but with a real punk edge. They were also one of the first ‘80s, post-punk bands to sign a deal with a major label and released their Warner Bros. debut, Candy Apple Grey, in 1986.
Following the death of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in 1980, the rest of the band regrouped to form New Order. The new project kept Joy Division’s post-punk aesthetic, but also incorporated the disco rhythms and electronic influence of the underground club circuit, offering a cool mesh of synth pop that brought New Order an abundance of success in the ‘80s.
R.E.M. are often considered the statesmen of the alternative rock movement. The band achieved superstar status and was one of the few underground ‘80s acts embraced by the mainstream. Their guitar pop-driven garage sound garnered them a cult following in the early-‘80s, as they toured incessantly and released a steady stream of albums, and the band went platinum by the late-‘80s. All the while, R.E.M. inspired a stream of ‘90s alternative groups.
The Smiths were the biggest British alternative rock band of the ‘80s, and they’re often credited for inspiring a new era—one that brought guitar rock into a scene that, at the time, was dominated by synth-driven aesthetics. Musically, the band achieved a cult following with their tight, melodic pop songs that were lively and dynamic.
By the end of the decade, Sonic Youth was a huge influence in the underground alternative world. In fact, the band was reportedly instrumental in getting Nirvana signed by Geffen, ultimately, to release Nevermind. Musically, Sonic Youth rose to the top with a mix of wild noise experimentalism, no wave and post-punk that was inventive and delightfully disordered.
“Blister in the Sun” songsters Violent Femmes garnered a cult following in the ‘80s with an angst-ridden, unrefined post-punk style and delivery. What really made them stand out was the band’s connection with young fans— kids who found comfort in the group’s tart, frustrated songs and coming-of-age themes.