Rock and Alternative Music are often seen as the same thing but are actually two distinct music categories, but there is certainly an overlap between the two, much like the overlap between Rock and Pop music. So, what’s the difference between Rock and Alternative Music, and how are they similar?
Rock refers to the broad genre of music with stylistic origins in jazz, rhythm-and-blues, folk, and country. Alternative music, in theory, is anything that doesn’t sound like the popular music of the day. Alternative Rock is the subgenre of Rock that emerged from Underground Rock of the late 70s.
Especially given that “Alternative Rock has a whole definition of its own, in addition to the separate definitions for “Rock” and “Alternative” music, before you can unpack the similarities and differences between Rock and Alternative music, you need to define the three separate concepts in detail.
Alternative and Rock are separate genres, and many see Alternative as a subgenre of Rock music, but there are several distinct differences.
Rock music, by most definitions, is the genre of music originating in the United States and the United Kingdom from the Rock ‘n Roll genre in the 40s and 50s and later developed into a range of styles from the mid-60s.
Rock music is also rooted in rhythm and blues and country music, which flourished throughout the 40s and 50s. Rock only really hit the mainstream as a popular genre when The Beatles took it to new heights during the Hippie movement. Other bands like The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Who elevated Rock music into new echelons, before the genre broke off into countless subgenres like Metal, Punk, Harcore, Soft Rock, among many, many others, including Alternative Rock
Rock music will always bear its status as a “classical” form of music, while Alternative music is, by virtue of being alternative (“other”), is, at its core, a creative pushback to prevailing trends. This also means that Alternative music.
“Alternative music” is an umbrella term for music that doesn’t get played on mainstream radio and isn’t distributed to mainstream audiences or simply music that doesn’t really fit into any genre.
In theory, Alternative music shouldn’t sound like any of the prevailing popular music at the time, meaning that Alternative music could not have been Rock music in the 1960s since the two were virtually synonymous.
Rather, Alternative music originated in the mid-60s, when Rock was king and reigned supreme. Alternative music emerged from the independent labels – the underground scenes – that produced a different sound to Rock music and was not targetted at a mainstream audience. Alternative and Alternative Rock are also not the same thing, and Alternative music doesn’t necessarily have to be a subgenre of Rock.
These days, many music libraries, charts, and labels would refer to an artist like Lorde as “Alternative, but she is by no means plays Rock music – she has a different sound to her contemporaries. Therefore, it’s important to look into the origins of the distinct category of Alternative Rock.
Alternative Rock music came of age in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s. It emerged as an underground combination of genres, including mainstream Rock music from the 70s, Punk, Post-Punk, and New Wave.
Some of the biggest Alternative Rock acts to emerge in the 80s include The Smiths and R.E.M. Many other bands that never spent much time at the top of the charts, such as The Cure, gained a large cult following.
In the 1990s, Alternative Rock, ironically, grew in popularity on an astronomical level, with Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, and Alanis Morissette all making up some of the most successful artists of the decade. Nirvana became one of the best-selling bands of all time, selling over 75 million copies of their albums.
As we entered the 2000s, Alternative Rock had developed its own subgenre, with Britpop bands dominating the scene in the United Kingdom, where Oasis, Blur, and other bands from the subgenre led the charts.
Nirvana remains the template for Grunge Music, which many other bands tried to replicate. Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden were all at the forefront of the new subgenres mainstream success in the early 90s.
Nirvana’s well-received acoustic sets also grew into Indie Rock, while the band’s drummer, Dave Grohl, would also be at the forefront of another emerging genre. Grohl’s Foo Fighters, Creed, Nickleback, and Collective Soul would form part of the Post-Grunge style’s most iconic brands.
Post-Rock also entered the airwaves through bands like Talk Talk, Slint, and Bark Psychosis formed part of the bands to create a new sound.
Other bands like Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt, Goldfinger, and Rancid would also sell millions of albums with their own unique styles that didn’t fit into the various, delineated subgenres but would still fall under the broader umbrella of Alternative Rock.
In the 2000s, bands like The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, 30 Seconds To Mars, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, and The White Stripes would lead the Alternative Rock scene in the early 2000s, but under more distinct labels.
More movements like Emo Music, Goth Rock, Metal, Garage Rock, Pop-Punk, and others would also develop out of the Alternative Rock scene and have a brief surge in popularity through the 2000s and 2010s. Today, however, there are so many categories, genres, and subgenres readily available to audiences. Most Alternative Rock bands achieve success by gaining popularity in the Underground scenes, such as College Rock, where they stay out of the mainstream. Their cult followings can often be the heart and the soul of the band.
As you can see, the categories of Rock, Alternative, and Alternative Rock are unique and overlap.
Most people tend to think of Alternative Rock as very guitar-focused instead of the vocal-centric Pop sounds that typically resonate with audiences. But if Alternative Rock is popular with audiences and bands achieve mainstream success? Can you really call them Alternative if they’re selling millions of albums?
And these days, you have bands like Twenty-One Pilots and Muse who incorporate other genres like Hip Hop, EDM, and Adult Contemporary, meaning the definition of Alternative Rock continues to evolve.
Sometimes it seems like record labels, streaming services like Spotify, and even musicians themselves seem to go with whatever they feel the music should go. But there is so much music these days, and it’s so diverse that they seem to get it wrong far too often.
So perhaps you can say that all of the definitions go out of the window sometimes, and, really, it all just falls under the category of Rock music. At the same time, Alternative is just a vague label that we give to a subgenre, which itself has splintered into several subgenres of its own. But, by definition, alternative means “not popular.” While there certainly are differences between Rock and Alternative music, the similarities between the two make them so hard to distinguish from one another.