The Best Alternative Songs in Music History

Alternative music is music that exists outside what you would consider the traditional, mainstream music genres that are already established, such as pop, rock, RnB and country. As such, it has given music fans some of the most unique, memorable and indeed ‘alternative’ songs that have ever been produced. Let’s take a look at what the alternative music genre is and how it came to prominence, document some of the best alternative musicians and of course list the best alternative songs that have delighted music fans of all tastes over the years!

What is Alternative Music?

“What is alternative music?” – this is the question that is likely on your lips as you begin reading this post. The truth is, there is no conclusive answer to just what alternative music is. That’s because it is exactly that – alternative. An alternative to the established, traditional genres of music that currently exist in the space. That is perhaps one of the main reasons for its popularity – alternative music provides fans with something different than what is in the mainstream and many people find this appealing as music is a form of escape for them.

The Alternative Music Genre

When people think about the alternative music genre, they probably think about artists and songs that they have never even heard of and that are really left field. However, that isn’t always the case. Although alternative music is a diversion from what we call the ‘mainstream’ music environment, some of the best alternative songs have been created by well-known and celebrated artists such as Nirvana, The Killers, Radiohead, Coldplay, Neil Young, The Mars Volta, Pink Floyd and Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath.

There is a bit of a pattern here in that these artists are what you would describe as very definitive, individualistic and have their own unique style - nonconformists, if you like. It should be said that alternative music is probably everything that pop music isn’t. Pop music refers to whatever music is popular and trending on the music charts, and while alternative music is not meant to mean the opposite of popular it is certainly the opposite of the mainstream. It is often necessary to seek out alternative artists or songs because they are not blasted out on traditional forms of media such as TV or radio as much as, say, a pop song would be.

With that being said, many people nowadays use the term “alternative” when they want to describe newer forms of rock music; modern rock if you would. Alternative music is also commonly used as a broad music category that includes various sub-genres such as indie rock, alternative rock, and indeed alternative. Having established this, you may be forgiven for thinking alternative music has a bit of an identity crisis as it can't be pigeonholed into any particular category but this only adds to its unique appeal with millions of fans.

Because it does not conform to one specific genre, hence the name alternative, alternative music is often associated by its fans more loosely with a variety of sub-genres that are probably far too numerous to list, but include; alternative country, alternative folk, alternative rock, brit-pop, emo, gothic, grunge, indie rock, industrial, shoegazer, post-rock, punk-rock, new wave and nü-metal amongst others.

What are the Best Alternative Songs?

There have been so many iconic alternative songs over the years, bringing an enormous amount of pleasure to fans of alternative music who like something that isn’t just mainstream. The unique nature of alternative music has provided for some songs that have withstood the test of time and cannot simply be placed under one genre. They are beloved to their fans and remain cherished years after they were released and stormed the alternative charts.

We have chosen some of our favorites from the last 30 years of alternative music below.

Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991)

You simply couldn't have a best alternative songs list without arguably the greatest alternative tune of all time. Nirvana were really in their prime when they released "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and lead vocalist Kurt Cobain was at the peak of his powers.

As soon as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke into the pop top 10, that is the moment that many observers point to as being when alternative rock entered the pop mainstream for the first time. The song was an enormous success and was a top 10 hit in many other countries around the world as well as having success at home in the States. It regularly tops the discussion for the top alternative song ever released and has stood the test of time today to be played in clubs, homes and cars all over the globe.

R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion" (1991)

R.E.M. were already celebrated as one of the top American bands before "Losing My Religion." However, this track from their iconic album Out Of Time, took the group to an even higher level in the hearts and minds of alternative music fans everywhere.

Without doubt one of the best alternative music songs of all time, "Losing My Religion" hit a new alternative chart peak hitting number one and smashing rivals out the water. For their work, the band earned two Grammy Awards including for Best Pop Performance By a Duo Or Group With Vocal as they continued to dominate the period and cement their legendary status.

Radiohead - "Creep" (1993)

Radiohead never did things by the book and that is the true mark of a great alternative band. The hit single "Creep" was released as the debut single by the end fledging band from the United Kingdom, but was not a hit originally. It was the beginning of the career of one of the most critically acclaimed alternative rock bands of all time. True to alternative form, the band said that the song was written with inspiration from a girl that singer Thom Yorke followed around who unexpectedly appeared at one of their performances.

However it came about, we're glad it did as it provided us with a true classic and set the stage for what was to come from one of the greatest alternative bands of the last 30 years.

Green Day - "Basket Case" (1994)

Another classic and truly one of the best alternative songs pre-Millennium. True to its unique name, the song "Basket Case" was apparently written about Green Day lead vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong's struggles with anxiety and mental health.

"Basket Case" was released in 1994 and spent five weeks at 1 on the alternative chart, although only reaching a peak of 26 at mainstream pop radio (what do they know..). The song helped catapult the popularity of Green Day and was, for many, the first true hit they heard from the band. Given its success, "Basket Case" earned a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group and is often looked back on with extreme fondness by all lovers of alternative music.

Oasis - "Wonderwall" (1996)

A controversial one here as some may not consider this truly 'alternative' music - but we certainly think it is. Oasis instantly became pop stars at home in the UK with their debut album Definitely Maybe. That said, it was the single "Wonderwall" from their next album What's the Story Morning Glory? that turned them into international stars and cemented its place as one of the greatest alternative songs of all time. "Wonderwall" shot to number 1 on the alternative chart in the US and received acclaim all across the globe.

blink-182 - "All the Small Things" (1999)

blink-182 are one of the most iconic bands of all time and are rightly considered one of the seminal bands in the development of pop punk. The group's first two albums had limited success, but the song "All the Small Things" helped turn their third Enema Of the State into a hit. "All the Small Things" was written with inspiration from punk legends The Ramones and in honor of vocalist Tom DeLonge's future wife Jennifer Jenkins. The production was put together by Jerry Finn in a deliberate effort to come up with a catchy single. The effort worked. "All the Small Things" hit number 1 on the alternative chart and top 10 on the pop chart.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Scar Tissue" (1999)

The band Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of the most successful alternative rock groups of all time. They have sold more than eighty million albums worldwide. The album Californication was the group's third consecutive top 10 charting release. It featured the return of guitarist John Frusciante replacing Dave Navarro. It also marked a shift in the band's sound to a more melodic rock sound and lyrical concerns beyond the highly sexual material of the past.

"Scar Tissue" introduced the new album, the band's first studio release in four years, and it was a big success. The song spent a then-record of sixteen consecutive weeks at the top of the alternative chart. It hit the top 10 on the pop chart and earned the group's first Grammy Award for Best Rock Song. The slide guitar solos in the song were celebrated by critics. Californication reached number 3 on the album chart and was certified multi-platinum for sales.

Linkin Park - "Numb" (2003)

Alternative rock band Linkin Park soared into the charts with their debut album Hybrid Theory released in 2000. It peaked at 2 on the album chart and became one of the top 10 selling albums in the US of the decade. After it generated three top 5 charting alternative hit singles, expectations were high for the follow up studio album Meteora in 2003. Linkin Park did not disappoint. "Numb" was released as the third single from the second album and is one of the most critically acclaimed of the band's career.

"Numb" reached #1 on the alternative chart and stayed there for twelve consecutive weeks. It also reached the top 5 at mainstream pop radio and the album Meteora topped the album chart. In 2006, Linkin Park reworked "Numb" with rapper Jay-Z for the track "Numb/Encore." It was a top 10 pop hit and earned a Grammy Award for Best Rap / Sung Collaboration.

Muse - "Uprising" (2009)

The legendary English band Muse have become one of the world's most commercially successful rock bands. They did not have any major hit singles in the US until their fifth studio album The Resistance in 2009. The previous album, 2006's Black Holes and Revelations, was a top 10 hit on the album chart. Muse led off The Resistance with the towering, martial single "Uprising." Many see it as having influences from both heavy metal and synth pop and is seen as one of the greatest alternative songs ever.

"Uprising" became Muse's first number 1 alternative hit in the US, and it soared into the pop top 40. The song also reached the top 20 at adult pop radio. The album The Resistance reached number 3 in the US and hit number 1 in many countries around the world.

Imagine Dragons - "Radioactive" (2013)

The iconic alternative track "Radioactive" was first released on Imagine Dragons' debut EP Continued Silence and it was released to alternative radio in October 2012, gaining immediate attention and cementing its place as one of the best alternative songs of the decade. The unforgettable pounding tune received acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and spent an amazing 23 weeks at the top of the rock songs chart. "Radioactive" earned a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance and was even nominated for Record of the Year. It continues to be played all across radio stations and streaming platforms and is fondly remembered by alt fans everywhere.

Best Alternative Artists

Great songs mean great artists, whatever the genre – and alternative music is no exception. Fans of this kind of music have been treated to some of the most legendary performers that have ever graced the music industry, some of whom are no longer with us but still deserve to be recognized as the iconic entertainers that they are. Check out our small list of just some of the best alternative artists we have had the pleasure of enjoying down the years.

The Strokes

The Strokes debut album Is This It came out to critical acclaim in 2001. It almost immediately was placed on several best album lists, with many calling it the best album of the decade and easily one of the best alternative rock albums of the 2000s. In 2020, the band decided to start fresh with a new album and proved once again they've still got it as an alternative force.

The album, entitled 'The New Abnormal' was a huge critical success that received Best Rock Album at the Grammy Awards that year and was a big win with alt fans the world over.

The Killers

What can you say about The Killers? Adored by lovers of alternative music, the band are ultimately known for their retro sound. Some of their legendary songs include "Mr. Brightside," and "Somebody Told Me" that are played over and over to the point that, if they weren't such great tracks, it would be annoying. The tracks have dried up a little in recent years, with the band seemingly enjoying the fruits of their labor, but alternative music fans worldwide will be hoping they release some more gloriously unforgettable material sometime soon.

White Stripes

The White Stripes were truly a one-off band that shined brightly for all too little time before their inevitable break up. The band gave alternative music fans countless unforgettable memories since forming in 1997 but disappeared in 2007. They officially broke up in 2011, leaving us all heartbroken. It was perhaps to be expected given the no-holds-barred ethos of the husband-and-wife band who lied about being brother and sister - all a little strange, but the music was truly unique and the memories forever.

Arctic Monkeys

Arctic Monkeys are now an established and iconic band, but it wasn't always like that. The band were another revolution at the time. They were an independent band that became a phenomenon thanks to crazy internet marketing and fan promotion. How glad we are!

After only about a year of performing, Arctic Monkeys had managed to find a devoted fan base. They distributed a demo CD that was given away at their gigs. Liking what they heard, people began to upload it to the internet. Fans burned new copies of their demo, giving them out. Word spread. Some devotees created a MySpace page to promote the band. Their debut single, "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor," was released only a few months later. It went straight to number one in the UK. The rest, as they say, is magnificent history. The band has been delighting alt music fans ever since with countless hit records and albums for the ages.

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