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Rock that is alternative. Weird. Different, somehow. Only way you can describe it, really. Also known as "indie" in the UK (in the US, it describes a different subgenre of alternative rock, the one that bands like Pavement, The Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie play. Also like "alternative", the "indie" in this genre's name is not to be taken literally - many key indie rock bands have left their independent labels to sign to major labels and the term "indie rock" now describes the general aesthetic and overall sound these bands perform).
Alternative rock evolved, presumably, from Post Punk back in the early eighties, although The Velvet Underground is often cited as the first alternative band and they predate punk itself. For the rest of the eighties, it blossomed underground, and was truly "alternative"; if you were bored of all that tiresome Hair Metal, you could just switch on the college campus radio station and hear the music of moderately obscure bands like REM, The Smiths, The Replacements, The Fall and Dinosaur Jr.. There was obviously an audience for it, but only a few alt-rock bands got popular in the eighties. Among these popular bands were the previously-mentioned REM (the key band of the whole genre) and The Cure.
Alt-rock was also a really diverse field at this point, reuniting under the same umbrella a lot of subgenres, like:
- Cocteau Twins' Dream Pop
- The Fall's angular Post Punk
- Kate Bush's art pop
- My Bloody Valentine's Shoegazing
- New Order's quirky dance pop
- The Pixies' surf-punk
- Red House Painters' depressing Slowcore
- REM's jangle pop
- Sonic Youth's Noise Rock
- Ten Thousand Maniacs' folky pop-rock
- They Might Be Giants' geek rock
When the nineties came, everyone suddenly decided to spontaneously make alternative rock hugely popular in the mainstream by buying loads of copies of Nevermind and Ten and bringing Grunge into the limelight. Into a place the musicians didn't want to be. Pretty soon, other alt-rock bands were made hugely popular, including Radiohead, and The Smashing Pumpkins. Although grunge itself died with Kurt Cobain, alt-rock itself continued to be popular until... well, today. In fact, it is probably the dominant form of rock music in the mainstream right now. Which is why so many people stopped calling it "alternative".
In the mid-90's, a contrived search by major labels to find "The next Nirvana" saw most of the international underground scene trawled, which briefly did see a bunch of varied genre bands being signed to major labels as "alternative artists", such as Japanese experimental band Boredoms, art punk group Butthole Surfers, Oklahoman psych-punkers The Flaming Lips, Celtic singer Loreena McKennit and the Swing Revival or Ska Punk fad bands. However, once majors and rock radio began to embrace Post-Grunge, these artists were dropped in droves, with few exceptions (such as The Flaming Lips).
The lack of originality on alternative radio caused indie rock, an outgrowth of the late-80's alternative sound, to basically become the new "alternative". In the same period, indie rock's figureheads, the California band Pavement, became celebrities of the underground with each of their albums garnering critical success. They even had a minor hit with "Cut Your Hair", all without betraying their underground roots or signing to a major label - they had all they ever needed at the indie label Matador. Guided By Voices also became an unlikely success story, at least for a while.
Another Alternative offshoot that became popular in the mid 90's was Britpop, which sounded refreshing to American underground rock fans when compared to the popular American Post-Grunge bands at the time. However most of Britpop was virtually ignored by most American rock fans with the exceptions of several Oasis songs (most notably "Wonderwall" and "Champagne Supernova"), Blur's "Song 2" and The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony". Blur, along with two other Britpop bands, Super Furry Animals and Pulp, became critically adored cult heroes in the United States and often played on college radio. Even when Radiohead became popular in the US, they were mostly seen as an "album band" and most rock stations were content playing their earlier hit "Creep" and maybe "Karma Police" late at night so it wouldn't get in the way of the constant stream of Seven Mary Three, Tonic, Candlebox and other faceless Post-Grunge acts.
In the mid-2000's however, many American alternative stations decided they had grown tired of spinning Nu-metal and Post-Grunge (and to a lesser extent Pop Punk, which had become popular in the mid 90's) and began to play music from a handful of indie rock influenced bands that retained the original alternative sound instead of bands like Creed and Nickelback. Music magazines called this movement "The Return of Rock", which was led by a handful of new young bands whose names all began with "The": The Hives, The Vines, The Donnas, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, The Mooney Suzuki, The Music, The White Stripes and The Strokes. Most of these bands - with the noteworthy exceptions of The Strokes and The White Stripes - have since fallen out of favor partially due to Critical Dissonance, but their success allowed Alternative radio to take a chance on other indie rock music, like Death Cab for Cutie, The National, and Modest Mouse
Radiohead also remained wildly popular throughout the world, influencing bands that were heavily indebted to their sound. Some, such as Muse, Coldplay and Snow Patrol, made major commercial inroads in the United States.
Although post-grunge bands like Three Days Grace still have some popularity on alternative radio, it's currently becoming a more indie friendly territory. The stations that never played the hard stuff, mostly independently owned and New England stations like WBRU and WFNX (until it's 2012 sale to Clear Channel), continue to be the major exporters of new music to American alternative radio. Post-Grunge and Nu Metal are still popular with rock fans, but you're more likely to hear those bands on an "Active Rock" station (you know the ones, those stations that player harder new rock in addition to Classic Rock).
This indie boom did come with some problems: Kings of Leon, a former Return of Rock offshoot, recently became successful in the US by watering down their sound. To contrast, Muse, a Radiohead influenced progressive rock band have also recently gained some popularity in the US without changing much of the sound they've had for a decade.
The term covers many, many different subgenres, including but not limited to:
Yeah, too many to list.