The roots of alternative rock in the 1990s began with “alternative” groups in the 1980s which bridged into the 1990s. Significant early “alternative” bands like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth started as local, indie bands, celebrating post-punk sounds, combined with the gritty chords of heavy metal and socially aware lyric issues (drug use, environmentalism, AIDS, and others). Their success on the local level brought touring, national attention, major record contracts, and eventually the commercial success that they seemed to embrace and reject simultaneously. In contrast with the polished (and sometimes outlandish) costumes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, these alt-rock bands preferred the earthy look of plaid shirts, tattered jeans, and combat boots or well-worn sneakers. Their music, lyrics, and appearance were striving to achieve a stark contrast with the ’80s pop-rock look and sound.
Musically, these ’80s alt-rockers blended elements of funk, rock, metal, and rap together in their recipe of non-pop concoction. Early pioneers, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, merged funk and punk into a rock/rap stew. Consider their 1989 song, “Higher Ground,” which begins with a funk bassline and builds layers of gritty funk, angry punk, and rock riffs as it unfolds. Thick textures of low-range rhythm and lead guitars are alternately laid on the bass line. Amidst the drive and pounding riffs and heavy backbeat rhythms, the vocal line never descends to grits or growls but remains somewhat sanitized as almost a “pop-sung” layer of the song.
Although the alt-rock band R.E.M. originated in the ’80s, in 1991, they helped Nirvana mainstream the sound of the alt-rock movement with their album Out of Time and its single “Losing My Religion.” The album was also the first winner in a new Grammy category created in 1991 – Best Alternative Music Album. The new category recognized the wave of music emanating from college campuses and radio stations. It was the ’90s echo to the ’60s hippie movement of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
By the early 1990s, the alternative rock movement was no longer a carefully guarded underground secret. Alt was now mainstream. Even the staunch newspaper The New York Times, in February 1993, admitted that the trend was for major record labels to have under contract
“a handful of guitar-driven bands in shapeless shirts and threadbare jeans, bands with bad posture and good riffs who cultivate the oblique and the evasive, who conceal catchy tunes with noise and hide craftsmanship behind nonchalance.” (Pareles, Jon; February 28, 1993, “Great Riffs. Big Bucks. New Hopes?”)
However, the conundrum of the alt-movement existed. While shunning pop artists’ sound, material trappings, and commercial stature, they had been embraced, almost against their will, into popular culture. How can an artist simultaneously excoriate vulgar materialism’s movement and be hailed and rewarded by the same mainstream? More than one indie-rock artist struggled with this seeming cultural/commercial hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, new voices emerged determined to express their artistic independence in the 1990s.
From Chicago came Smashing Pumpkins, one of the most important alt-rock bands of the ’90s. Led by lead singer, guitar player, and songwriter Billy Corgan, the Pumpkins fused elements of metal, with a variety of rock sounds (traditional-, psychedelic-, art-, prog-) into complex artistic recordings that were layers of dream-like overdubs. Following the grand path of groups like the Beatles, Queen, and Electric Light Orchestra, Smashing Pumpkins seemed on a quest for the quintessential rock recording. These complex studio experiments resulted in alt-rock recordings, which earned them multiple awards, charted singles, and sold over 30 million albums.
Heavily influenced by the rock styles of the ’70s, the Stone Temple Pilots not only emulated the sounds of the Beatles, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, and others but covered their songs in the early years of the band. KISS, The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith were also early influences. Then, it is no surprise that S.T.P. would borrow from traditional ’70s rock when crafting their path. Though starting as part of the grunge movement, as they developed their craft, their creativity took them away from that sound towards a series of albums, each possessing unique characteristics. This continual evolution reflected their refusal to be pigeon-holed into any one particular sub-genre of rock. In this, their path was one of the most genuinely independent of the ’90s. From grunge to funk to psychedelic rock to jangle pop, Stone Temple Pilots rejected creative complacency. For example, one of their earliest songs, “Plush” (1993), was a fusing of multi-textured layers of funk, psychedelic, jangle pop, and traditional rock structure. Sometimes considered a “Pearl Jam- spin-off,” S.T.P. created their own alt-rock/post-grunge path with success through the ’90s and early ’00s.
Throughout the ’90s and into the ’00s, alt-rock groups occupied the charts. Groups like Weezer and The Verve straddled the indie-rock/pop charts at the end of the ’90s. The geekiness of Weezer belied their ability to craft a power rock song with just enough beat and bass to drive forward, but not so much to cover a hook-filled melody. Their 1994 “Buddy Holly” was more retro rock than retro punk and launched them to national awareness and popularity. The Verve, a British indie band formed in 1990, struggled for chart success and recognition for years but finally achieved it with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” in 1997. The nature of true indie-creativity is heard in their use of a symphonic string section to create the hypnotic riffs instead of a rhythm guitar.
Perhaps the most commercially successful indie-rock band of the late ’90s was a band from Orlando, Florida – Matchbox Twenty. Though only releasing four albums when most contemporary bands had released twice as many, Matchbox Twenty’s four albums of original material (in addition to one compilation album) have been phenomenally successful – all going gold or platinum. Their debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, certified as 12x platinum in sale in the United States alone. From this debut album, “Back 2 Good” signaled the arrival of a less-grunge, more-pop/rock form of alternative sound. It was less about distorted guitars and jackhammer beats and more pop-like vocals, arpeggiated guitar chords, and laid-back bass lines.
The alt-folk-rock group 10,000 Maniacs, with lead singer Natalie Merchant, broke on the charts in the late ’80s and early ’90s with albums as Our Time in Eden in 1992.
The alt-rock sound, which began as a reaction to the end of pure punk in the early ’80s, had evolved beyond the punk-funk sound of garage bands playing high school parking lots and small clubs. Those groups who experimented with ingredients derived from metal, funk, punk, and traditional rock in the ’80s, like R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers, had helped launch two waves. The first was the indie-rock sound of the mid- to late-90s, with bands such as Smashing Pumpkins and Matchbox Twenty. The second wave would eventually be known as the “Seattle Sound” of grunge.