20 albums that paved the way for alternative as we know it
After the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, it was clear that something was starting to emerge from the underground. As the genres of hair metal and pop rock dominated the charts, the rise of alternative rock gave a voice to people who might have been considered too strange for the early MTV generation. Years later, many early alternative albums feel like milestones in rock music as a whole, paving the way for bands coming up down the line. They may have just been playing from the heart, but these were the sounds of alternative music’s future.
R.E.M. – Murmur (1983)
This one practically goes back to the infancy of alternative music…college rock. During the era of Madonna and Michael Jackson, R.E.M.’s debut was exactly the kind of heart-on-your-sleeve record that seemed to speak to anyone who ever felt left out of the crowd. When you sing along to a track like “Radio Free Europe,” you start to realize that not being your typical rock star can still feel pretty damn awesome.
Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill (1995)
Since this was alternative rock, though, there was no reason for it to stay a boys’ club for too long. In the midst of the grunge bands coming out in the ‘90s, Alanis Morissette dominated the scene with her first proper adult album, with her unique delivery and songs that tapped into some of the harsher emotions that you didn’t know you wanted to feel. The ‘70s may have had people like Carole King, but this was Morissette reaching into your soul and putting a piece of your spirit into her music.
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
And here’s the one that started it all for so many of us. Just as the hair-metal movement was reaching its most ridiculous phase, here comes Nirvana's Kurt Cobain to demolish everything Sunset Strip stood for. Clad in flannel and wielding a ton of attitude, these are the songs that launched a thousand imitators and gave alternative rock a reason to dominate MTV.
PJ Harvey – Rid of Me (1993)
For every great songwriter in the alternative sphere, there are always a few whose songs mean absolutely nothing. In the case of PJ Harvey, this felt like the punk-rock update of someone like Patti Smith, using her guitar and rough voice to put a healthy dose of reality back into rock ‘n’ roll. Compared to the other riot grrrl acts around the same time, this is the kind of angry commentary that would make Bob Dylan proud.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
We wouldn’t have alternative music as we know it without hip-hop. The chart-topping success of the genre transformed the entire globe, but hip-hop never shed its ability to push musical limits while reaching back to the roots. Tribe set a course for an entire generation of artists who saw hip-hop as a natural extension of soul, jazz and other traditions rooted in African American vernacular music. Tribe casually mixed jazzy samples with some of the most chill beats ever put to tape, all while Q-Tip and Phife Dawg stay on point the entire way through. They may have made their masterpiece here, but this was only the start of Tribe going each and every place with a mic in their hand.
Green Day – Dookie (1994)
After grunge started to lose its steam after Cobain’s death, we were looking for something fun again. Enter some of the most lovable brats from the Bay Area, with Billie Joe Armstrong writing songs that were destined to become your favorite songs from the moment you heard them. Coming right after Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, this was the kind of teenage fun that the Ramones had only hinted at in punk’s golden age. Pop punk…you’re welcome.
Bikini Kill – Pussy Whipped (1993)
You can’t talk about ‘90s alternative without paying attention to riot grrrl. Bikini Kill brought another side to alternative music, mixing the frenetic energy of punk music with empowering messages of solidarity and defiance. It’s a difficult thing to pick a definitive Bikini Kill album since The Singles (1998) and The First Two Records (2014) also showcase the band’s vision in their early years. (It’s also difficult to pick any album above Sleater-Kinney’s Call The Doctor (1996) or Bratmobile’s Pottymouth (1993)). While it joins many sterling examples of the energy that came from the scene, Pussy Whipped captures the sound and the fury of punk rock at its finest.
Fiona Apple – Tidal (1996)
When talking about alt-rock, you can’t ignore the Lilith Fair crowd, especially when the album has this much power. Not willing to go along with the program of the music business, Fiona Apple held nothing back and managed to stomp on our hearts in the process. There might be even more glorious rock records from the late ‘90s, but it doesn’t matter to Apple. She’s got her own hell to raise with just a piano.
Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
The first time you hear Beastie Boys, you probably wouldn’t pick the guys who did “Fight for Your Right” to last for more than two years. On Paul’s Boutique, these New Yorkers set the benchmark for sampleadelic hip-hop, turning every single thing they listened to into pure magic. Just because there are more samples doesn’t mean the charm has vanished, and you can feel the fun-loving attitude from Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D on here. As much as people may have wanted a sequel to Licensed to Ill, it’s sometimes better to give the fans what they need.
Beck – Odelay (1996)
Of everyone on this list, Beck might be the one person who fits the alternative genre to a tee. Being one of the most eclectic musicians in the world, Odelay doesn’t care about staying in its own lane, whether it’s danceable songs (“The New Pollution”) or headbangers (“Devil’s Haircut”). Whereas most bands need tons of instruments to get their point across, having two turntables and a microphone will do just as well.
Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
And now we come to the biggest villain of hip-hop. MF DOOM managed to make something truly diabolical when he teamed up with Madlib. On the project, DOOM turns in some of the greatest bars of his career. Madvillain is a crash course on why he was one of the cleverest MCs to ever touch a microphone. For anyone even slightly familiar with the alternative side of hip-hop, this is the stuff of legend. Just make sure it’s in all caps when you spell it out.
Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994)
During the mid-‘90s, the most alternative thing you could hope to do was actually try to become a rock star. Having enough ego and attitude for three other bands, Oasis announced the Britpop movement with their debut record, with songs that sounded like they were ripped straight out of the ‘60s. Before any of the “Wonderwall” memes truly started to sink in, this was a band calling their shot as the biggest band in the world…and so it proved.
Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon: The End of The Day (2009)
Rock and hip-hop both have roots in the R&B traditions that paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll, soul and other genres. This doesn’t mean that crossovers between rock and hip-hop are always a seamless effort. That’s what makes Kid Cudi’s first breakout record a damn masterpiece. In between the hip-hop and soulful elements, this feels like the kind of rock-infused journey into the outer world that the album cover represents. This record remains the one to listen to when you want to blast off and leave your cares behind.
Linkin Park – Hybrid Theory (2000)
As the nü-metal scene started to reach its cultural height, Linkin Park practically set the whole genre on fire with this record, with songs that are as indebted to hip-hop and even pop as they were to the metallic riffs. Their pain may have been the product of some memes these days, but when you take a step back, the entire rock scene owes LP a “thank you” for making it OK to be this vulnerable.
Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)
You won’t find a more anti-mainstream record than The Downward Spiral. Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor tears his psyche to shreds across this record. Though the industrial scene had existed well before this, The Downward Spiral launched everything into high gear, with “Closer” becoming one of the least sexy songs about sex to reach the top of the charts. Despite this record being a masterpiece of the ‘90s, this is one instance where an album probably should come with a content warning.
Fugees – The Score (1996)
The ‘90s saw many developments in hip-hop, from the mainstream crossover success of the genre to the meteoric rise of gangster rap. In the middle of it all, you have the Fugees completely rewriting the book. On The Score, Wyclef Jean gets more and more introspective on every track as the world discovered the powerhouse that is Lauryn Hill. If you listen to modern hip-hop today, so many of the new faces went to the Fugees’ School of Songwriting.
Hole – Live Through This (1994)
Never before has a title been so perfectly made. After losing her husband just a few weeks prior, Courtney Love’s magnum opus hits that much harder, as she calls out everything that stands in her way and shows vulnerability underneath on songs like “Miss World.” This isn't your typical hard-rock outfit that was looking to destroy your eardrums though. Love aimed to be the woman with the most cake here, and she managed to walk away with the rest of the alt-rock crowd following behind her.
Gorillaz – Demon Days (2005)
With the Britpop movement firmly in the rearview, Damon Albarn teamed up with Danger Mouse and completely threw away the rules on this record. Hell, you could argue that this is one of the true albums that doesn’t have a genre, going with rock one minute and turning into a hip-hop jam in the span of just a couple of bars. Ultimately, Gorillaz's Demon Days truly represents what it means to be alternative.
OutKast – Stankonia (2000)
While many hip-hop fans turned to the East and West Coasts at the turn of the century, but Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s Stankonia made it clear that Atlantia was a capital for the genre. Turning their album sessions into jams, this is where each MC delivers the wildest rhymes of their career, even bringing genres like rock along the way on “Gasoline Dreams” and “B.O.B.” Given all of the changes in flow and attention to detail in this record, OutKast walked so people like Kendrick Lamar could run.
Weezer – Weezer (Blue Album) (1994)
You don’t get a better “revenge of the nerds” than this. At a time when everyone wanted to be a rock star, Rivers Cuomo embraced his inner geek. Weezer turned in one of the most enjoyable rock albums of the ‘90s. In between singing along to tracks like “Surf Wax America,” you may get your heart torn to bits on songs like “Say It Ain’t So.” This album doesn’t have any real agenda, but it doesn’t need to. Sometimes all you need is a bunch of people making some feel-good tunes to brighten your day.