There is much debate about the definition of alternative music. Describes music contrasting with mainstream genres in terms of instrumentation, lyrical content, and rejection of major record companies and marketing. The term is broad, and fans have argued over who qualifies since the 1980s. These indie bands are only a small fraction of the ones out there. Yet they undoubtedly had a huge effect on alternative music as we know it today.
Videos by American songwriter
1. Jane’s Addiction
Jane’s Addiction formed in 1985 amidst the burgeoning (but still unknown) alternative music scene. The band came to prominence when they signed to a major label, a rarity for indie bands in those days. Jane’s Addiction helped popularize alternative music and started the annual Lollapalooza festival that continues today. Inspired by indie band predecessors such as The Velvet Underground and Joy Division, Jane’s Addiction led the growing alternative scene in the early 1990s. The airing of their music videos “Stop! and MTV’s “Been Caught Stealing” helped further popularize alternative music into the mainstream. Jane’s Addiction are recognized as one of the most influential indie bands because they opened the door for so many others.
REM was one of the early indie bands to gain widespread success. Formed in 1980, the band spent most of the decade playing the underground alternative scene. It wasn’t until 1987 that they scored a big hit (“The One I Love”) and signed to a major record label the following year. However, their early years and continued commitment to the counterculture of the 80s and 90s earned REM a reputation as an authentic indie band. They played a huge role in bringing alternative music to the public’s attention, especially after the success of songs like “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion”.
Ask someone to name the best indie bands of all time and Radiohead will probably be the first. The band represents all that is alternative music, from their unique approach to songwriting to their 2007 album In Rainbows, quietly released online for free. Formed in the UK in 1985, Radiohead signed to their first major label in 1991 and became the global face of indie music. Despite their time as a global sensation, the band remains committed to the alternative music scene. According to hardcore indie fans, it never became a “sell-out”. However, almost everyone knows songs like “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees”.
4. The Smith Family
In a way, the English band The Smiths was the prototype of the modern indie band. They formed in 1982 and had a huge impact on the indie rock movement in the U.K. Despite being popular in their home country, they never managed to achieve global success – which for some people further proves that they deserve a place in the indie hall of the glory. The Smiths combined old and new musical styles, including 1960s rock, then-modern punk, and more. It was a decisive rejection of the dominant electronic pop in mainstream music. Their introspective lyrics, featuring commentary on politics and society, marked them as a decidedly distinctive trait.
It seems odd to classify Nirvana as indie these days when they are arguably one of the most famous bands of all time. Not even frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide at 27 could tarnish their legacy despite their subsequent breakup. But Nirvana undoubtedly started out as an indie band and made a conscious effort to maintain their ties to the counterculture even as their popularity exploded. Whether Nirvana really counts as an indie band is still a hotly debated topic since they signed to a major label. Whichever side you take, there’s no denying Nirvana’s colossal influence on the spread and popularization of alternative music, shedding light on the grunge/indie rock scene.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images