Ch. 2: Alt-Rock Across Two Decades


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. 

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.

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