Your Guide to the Essential 2000s Alternative Songs
Ah, the 2000s… a time when we had finally figured out a definition of what “alternative music” was, just in time for that definition to lose all meaning. The true origins of alternative music go back to the 1970s and come from a subculture of musicians who produced music despite flying below the radar of the mainstream music industry. Punk was alternative. New Wave was alternative (for a while at least), but the term “alternative” didn’t really become part of the cultural lexicon until the 1990s when you had a strange collision of commercial rock music (think: Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, U2, etc.) and bands that were more rough around the edges (think: Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Radiohead, etc.)
The thing was, though, these new bands were becoming awfully popular with mainstream audiences, and labels and radio stations were having trouble coming up with a category for them. Just calling them “rock” didn’t acknowledge that they sounded a little different, but there just didn’t seem to be another appropriate word. This genre was simply too varied to settle on a single word. So, instead of thinking of something interesting, we settled on “alternative.” What was it an alternative to? We were never really sure.
By the 2000s, alternative had gone mainstream and 2000s alternative songs were all over the map. Some were big and glossy, while others were stripped down and lo-fi.
Either way, this is your guide to understanding what alternative music is, and the essential songs for your alternative playlist.
Early 2000s alternative songs
By the early 2000s, the term “alternative” was becoming more and more meaningless, but that’s really just because more and more or the bands we had considered to be alternative were now mainstream, and the alternative label was being applied more broadly. Alternative didn’t simply mean, “sounds kinda like Nirvana.” It had spread to all kinds of subgenres and could be applied to pop-punk acts like Blink 182 as easily as it could be applied to folk/Americana heroes, Wilco.
“Everything in its Right Place” by Radiohead
At this point in the game, it had become clear that early 2000s alternative songs were simply the ones the cool kids listened to. And this was perhaps best personified in a track that came along right at the beginning of 2000. Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place.” By 2000, Radiohead had become fairly mainstream and they were looking forward to getting out of their record deal with Capitol.
The dreamy intro to “Everything…,” played on a Prophet Five synthesizer, was a distinct departure from the band’s last record, the often-brash sounding OK Computer. But with one track Radiohead showed the world that they had evolved into a very different band. When it comes to early 2000s alternative songs, this is a great place to start.
“Fell in Love with a Girl” by the White Stripes
Not all 2000s alternative songs were lush dreamscapes, though. The White Stripes had released their first record in 1999, but it was 2001’s White Blood Cells that gained them widespread attention.
Up until that point, the idea of a band consisting of just guitars/vocals and drums meant you only had half a band. But the White Stripes proved that sometimes less is more. They also reminded listeners what they loved about late 70s punk bands since the definition of punk had shifted from The Ramones and The Clash to Green Day and Blink 182. There was a simplicity and a rawness to what the Stripes were doing, and in just two minutes, they turned out an early 2000s alternative classic. It also didn’t hurt that the video for the song was brilliant LEGO animation by celebrated director Michel Gondry.
“Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
It seems like everyone remembers the first time they heard this track by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. So simple, and yet so powerful at the same time. The song itself wasn’t necessarily the most representative of the rest of the band’s output, but it was still a fascinating introduction to an equally fascinating band that featured punky guitar, a drummer who plays like Stewart Copeland, and the intense mystery of Karen O on vocals. What did the song mean? What were these maps? Is maps a person? We never really knew, and it never really mattered.
“I am Trying to Break Your Heart” by Wilco
Picking one track off of Wilco’s iconic 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t easy. It’s one of those albums that is perfect all the way through, and it cemented Wilco as one of the top alternative bands of the 21st century.
This album opener, and easily one of the most interesting 2000s alternative songs, is a cluttered mishmash or percussion instruments that lead to Jeff Tweedy’s dry, rough vocals. It’s an abstract masterpiece that lets the listener know that the band has left its more traditional roots rock behind in favor of something more experimental.
Popular 2000s Alternative songs
By the 2000s, alternative no longer meant “underground” or “obscure.” There were plenty of popular songs that earned the label “alternative” as well. So, let’s take a look as some popular 2000s alternative songs.
“The Middle” by Jimi Eat World
This is one of those songs that seemed ubiquitous at the time. Even if you’d never heard any of Jimmy Eat World’s other songs, you definitely could not avoid this one. Part of the reason was that it was everywhere. Radio, TV licensing, the supermarket. There was just something so upbeat and catchy about this track, and it’s a bit surprising that none of their other songs became so well known.
“Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol
Another song that was part of your daily life in 2006, “Chasing Cars” by Scottish band Snow Patrol captured hearts far and wide with its simple guitar line and sensitive vocals. Does the track qualify as Emo? That’s a tough question considering the varying definition of the term, but this was certainly one of the tracks that inspired plenty of breakup tears and Myspace posts.
“Yellow” by Coldplay
I know what you’re thinking: How can Coldplay be considered “alternative?” They’re far too mainstream! But back when this song and their debut album Parachutes came out, Coldplay was emerging from the 90s brit-rock scene, and they were not yet trying to be a pop band. Instead, they seemed to be on a similar trajectory to Radiohead before they became more experimental.
“Yellow” was Coldplay’s breakout single, and it got them all the way to performing on Saturday Night Live. Then it became a massive smash that made Coldplay one of the biggest bands in the world almost overnight. So, while they may have gone in a somewhat different direction in recent years, we still think this qualifies as alternative.
“Island in the Sun” by Weezer
Despite the fact that Weezer established themselves as alternative darlings in the 90s, their 2001 Green Album saw the band take a more pop direction, and “Island” is probably the best example of that. Blending softer pop verses with conventional Weezer pop-punk choruses, this track cemented itself as a classic example of a popular 2000s alternative song. The Green Album may not have gotten the same critical review as its predecessor Pinkerton, but it sure sold a lot more copies.
Quintessential 2000s Alternative songs
These are the songs you immediately think of when you think of alternative music in the 2000s. These are the absolutely quintessential 2000s alternative songs.
“Paper Planes” by M.I.A
M.I.A wasn’t all that well known before this track came out in 2007, but that would soon change. This was one of those tracks that made you pay attention when you heard it because you hadn’t really heard anything like it before. The inventive use of samples along with lyrics that actually seemed to have something to say was a refreshing change, and as a result, this song was everywhere.
Perhaps most significantly, “Paper Planes” bridged the gap between indie-rock and hip hop in a way that seemed to create its own genre altogether. The use of gunshots as percussion underscored the fact that M.I.A had something serious to say.
“Mr. Brightside” by the Killers
The fact that this song is still unavoidable nineteen years after it dropped is proof enough that it is one of the quintessential 2000s alternative songs. While the Killers had been around for a few years before this track came out, this was the song that catapulted them to superstardom, and the reason is pretty simple: It’s just such a fun track.
It’s possible that the classic nature of this song is its simplicity as well as the fact that it has such infectious momentum that you can’t not start nodding your head. It makes you want to move your body. And it feels totally effortless, as though the band walked into the studio and played it in one take. The accompanying music video which features lead singer Brandon Flowers playing checkers with C-list actor Eric Roberts may be a bit of nonsense, but the song itself has proved to be a perennial favorite, and it will likely stay that way for many years to come.
“Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance
Another radio favorite that was unescapable in 2006, this track by My Chemical Romance attempted to do something a little different. It was theatrical in a way that other Emo bands were not. It was story based and reached for the kinds of musical heights that bands like Queen had mastered back in the 70s.
If you were a teenager or young adult in the 2000s, there’s a good chance this was on the “angst” playlist on your iPod click wheel, and years later it still endures as one of Emo’s grandest anthems.
“Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes
Yeah, we’ve got to recognize the Stipes again on this list because this may not have been their first hit, but it was definitely their biggest. By the time their album Elephant came out in 2003, the White Stripes had already established what they could do with one guitar and a drum kit, but this track took over the radio, and it’s still in pretty heavy rotation all these years later.
There’s something undeniably catchy about the way the songs starts. That bassline that comes to define the rest on the song followed by a quarter note kick drum and floor tom beat before Jack’s vocals kick in. The circular nature of the song keeps it catchy, but it really all comes down to that simple quarter note beat that carries the song and has solidified it as a stadium chant.
“Rebellion” by The Arcade Fire
There’s no chance that Arcade Fire is getting left off this list of 2000s alternative songs. Featured on Arcade Fire’s breakout record Funeral, “Rebellion” first gets your attention because of its throbbing four on the floor rhythm, but at the song goes on, it shifts from light to dark, major to minor, and finally crescendos into a fierce climax.
In many ways, Funeral was the quintessential 2000s alternative album because it influenced so much of what came after it. All those “hey ho” bands may not have existed were it not for the sound that the Arcade Fire pioneered on this record. And this is one song that remains perfect no many how times you return to it. It’s exciting and emotional, and the 2000s wouldn’t have been the same without it.
Forgotten 2000s Alternative songs
These are the songs that make you say, “oh yeah, I remember that song. I haven’t heard it in years.” To be clear, these are not “bad” songs. They’re just the ones you may not remember quite as well.
“Molly’s Chambers” by Kings of Leon
While you might not recall this Kings of Leon tune, it was the one that launched them before everyone in the world was singing along to “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody.” This track was featured on the first release by Kings back when they were a more country-rock influenced band, and they all looked like roadies for the Allman Brothers Band.
Both this song and the lesser known (for some reason) “Joe’s Head” introduced us to a group of brothers and cousins, and all of their rollicking glory. “Molly’s Chambers” jangled with southern intensity and the wild vocals of Caleb Followill. Had it not been for this track, there’s a good chance we never would have heard much else from Kings of Leon.
“Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio
TV on the Radio hasn’t been as active in recent years, but back in 2006 when Return to Cookie Mountain came out, this song was their big break. From its unnerving opening guitar lines to the slow build, there’s something quintessentially 2000s about the grit and intensity of this track.
In many ways, this was TV on the Radio’s “hit single” because their music generally was not radio oriented or “pop,” but at this point in time when radio was still relevant, having a hit was still important. Chances are, without this track, TV on the Radio would never have achieved such mainstream success.
“Transatlanticism” by Death Cab For Cutie
If you don’t get all the feels from Death Cab For Cutie’s “Transatlanticism” you must not have a heart. And yet, this track doesn’t seem to be very well remembered except among die hard DCFC fans. And that’s really a shame because it’s one of the most beautiful 2000s alternative songs.
Growing from simple piano and Ben Gibbard’s trademark soft voice, the track acquires Chris Walla’s simple, soaring guitar chords. But unlike so many songs that to build to something but don’t deliver, “Transatlanisicm” continues growing and building. It’s clear that this track was never intended to be a radio hit because it clocks in at over seven minutes, but it’s one of those songs you can just sit with and enjoy. And of course, once it reaches its thrilling climax, you realize why DCFC often closes their shows with this track. As one YouTube user commented: “This is the soundtrack for that apex point of all the emotions you’ve ever had.” It’ll give you chills.
Before we go: A brief word about Neutral Milk Hotel
Some readers might be yelling at their computer about the fact that, so far, this list of 2000s alternative songs hasn’t mentioned anything from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. Others might be wondering why we would include it because technically it came out in 1998. But here’s the thing: How many people really heard this album in 1998? Very few is the answer. Most of us discovered this album in the early 2000s, and so it always feels as though this record belongs more to the 2000s than the 90s.
But part of the reason we haven’t chosen a track from this record is because, how can you? It feels completely impossible to separate any of the songs on this record from the rest of the record because it feels like one, singular piece of music. And it’s a record that is either loved or loathed pretty much equally.
If you’re a fan, you know that this was the second and last record NMH released and it appears to be focused on songwriter Jeff Mangum’s growing obsession with Anne Frank. Both abstract and deeply personal, Aeroplane is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Gentle and deeply upsetting at the same time. Chaotic and intense at other moments. If you’ve never heard it, give it a try. Chances are, you’ll either love it or hate it. But either way, it is easily one of the most controversial and influential albums, not just of the 2000s, but of all time.
Here at Turntable, our goal is helping people find new music they love. Our other goal is to make it easy to share the music you find with your friends. So, start a new playlist today, and turn your friends on to what you’ve found.