We asked our global community of musicto curators the question: "What is Alternative Music?" This playlist is the response. Curated by Jane from Music to Play In Your Vintage Mustang.
Before its commercialization in the early to mid-90s, alternative music was the real thing. At least it was the most important thing to me. I specifically remember the moment, in 1980-something, when I was finally able to tune into Toronto’s CFNY FM station from my small tourist town north of the city. I was so excited that I bought a pack of 90-minute Maxell tapes and spent every free chance I had recording whatever alt songs — like them or not — that Alan Cross, Martin Streek, and other DJs would spin. It would be at least three years before my parents got their stereo back.
Alternative music was a bit of a catchall in the 80s, though. It could be rock, it could be punk, it could be experimental pop, it could even be something more industrial. But one thing it was not: being played on top-40 stations. And at its bare bones, alternative music was exactly that for me: non-standard or unconventional music, not on a Casey Kasem list.
I realize this was an over-simplification, but as CFNY DJs introduced me to everything from Skinny Puppy to Siouxsie & The Banshees, and even pre-famous Sinead O'Connor, this is how I defined it. And yet, after its indoctrination into the mainstream in the early 90s, I found the term more than a little hypocritical and problematic, hiding the diversity of genres behind that label. But that’s a whole other can of worms more worthy of a dissertation, or at least a very long conversation with “alternative” musicians.
Alternative Music is code for “real art”, the secret password to the speakeasy that caters to clientele dedicated to the self-made craft over the self-supported career. These are the true creators, the ones who do more than make art. They invent it. They take pride in their ability to forge a path through dense woods, until that path becomes the preference over the previously established.
When I first heard the term “alternative”, it was in the early 90’s. Nirvana and the Grunge Movement. De La Soul and Jazz Rap. They each took a genre and completely changed the sound, and in a monsoon collapsed the old path (hair band rock and gangsta rap). Very quickly, what was labeled “alternative” became the path of choice.
What we don’t realize, these aren’t new paths, alternative music is often just a return to a prior generational sound. In hip hop, Tyler, The Creator and Childish Gambino are actually 70’s funk and R&B. In rock, Billie Eilish and Twenty One Pilots are actually 80’s EDM pop. Old, boarded up paths that have been reopened to the public.
Alternative music is our way to recycle and rebrand the past for new generations. It’s how we pretend we’re not in the sports bar repurposed as a speakeasy. A Creative labeled as “alternative” simply has the awareness and tools to walk down a forgotten and neglected trail. A trail that if marked correctly, will soon become the new popular route.
I think alternative music is the sound of artists who dare to go beyond what's expected and have to escape the mainstream to do it. Even if it later manages to become the standard, alternative music is originally the product of the quest for real expression some artists have that makes them follow their voice even if it just doesn't fulfill the expectations of the market.
Alternative music is a dissident voice, a different statement, a surprise, a dare. It is the voice of the different, the ones who think outside the box.
Certainly in the U.K. if you ask the average person, what is alternative music, the short reply will be rock music from the 90’s on independent labels, but to me this is only a small part of the story, when it begins and what genres it encompasses is open to interpretation and depending on your your place of birth, your background, your knowledge of the many kinds of music, you may not even be aware of musical genres and scenes that could arguably be classed as alternative. In keeping with my own interests I’ll pick out just one of many I could suggest, never considered mainstream in fact never really heard of outside Italy until the 90’s but it went on to influence modern day music in many ways and is still arguably Italy’s only ever modern day musical export.
The music was from a scene out of Italy now called ‘Cosmic Disco or Afro Cosmic’ it’s a long story but basically music played in Italian nightclubs in the late 70’s - early 80’s that incorporated more jazz, funk and soulful sounds but could be anything from US 70’s disco, funk and jazz fusion, Brazilian or African jazz, German electronic music, rock and new wave from across Europe, could be described as deep, tribal or organic, the music played could be anything from Gilberto Gil to Mike Oldfield, reggae or more well known tracks by Peter Gabriel played at the wrong speed.
One of it’s central characters was a DJ called ‘Daniele Baldelli’ and the sound really came to the fore in a club called Cosmic near Lake Garda, where it was anything goes musically and as alternative to any other music scene at the time as you can get, Baldelli claims at its height maybe only 20’000 people were switched on to the scene. When new releases of the US disco records ran out, Italian artists made their own known as a Italo disco and some of these records influenced the early house music scene and the whole period went on to influence many alternative sub genres of disco today from dark disco to space disco.
I think the definition has changed over time and would vary with who you ask. When I was a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s alternative was a style reflected by non mainstream rock bands like Teenage Fan Club, REM, and later Nirvana. When grunge opened things up and made that sound top 40 suddenly everything on the radio that wasn't classic rock or hip hop and was considered quirky or weird was alternative. Since then major radio stations around the world play just that music and there are thousands of bands cranking out records. So if everyone is doing it doesn't that make it pop instead?
Alternative Music was what I wasn’t - if I wa mainstream - with mainstream ideas and tastes - Alternative was anything but.
There is no such thing as Alternative Music. It is wholly unsatisfactory to define something according to what it isn’t, like the abject dimwit Baldrick in the classic British comedy Blackadder III summing up the meaning of the word “dog” in three succinct but unhelpful words: “not a cat”.
Alternative Music or Alternative Rock is the “not a cat” of popular music, neither electronica, reggae, rap, disco, country, folk, ambient, Latin, metal nor prog. It is definitely not classic rock, yet couldn’t exist without it, and somehow encompasses all of punk, a bit of ska and anything with guitar, bass and drums that doesn’t sound like it would ever have felt comfortable in the Top 40 singles chart.
Except, of course, that Alternative Music has been selling by the truckload since the Nineties. One minute Sub Pop is discovering the hidden gems of disenchanted youth in Seattle and the next minute Dave Grohl is touring the world’s enormo-domes entertaining the masses with catchy, melodic guitar-based rock that is still supposedly “alternative”. So, what makes the Foo Fighters any different to the Eagles, Foreigner and REO Speedwagon?
The answer, I think, is the connection between the artists and the audience - a shared experience of feeling like an outsider and embracing it, rather than fighting it. These are the freaky kids who were not popular at school. But as adults, they have found their tribe and owned their uncoolness, proving that weird is just another word for original.
There is no obvious musical thread linking The Smiths to Queens of the Stone Age to Radiohead to Ween to Ezra Furman, except that they are all daringly, magnificently mould-breaking, not because they try to be but because they could never be anything else.
To me it’s history - a memory - a remnant of a time where the status quo in the music industry was being challenged. With Punk in the vanguard - Alternative music reflected the masses in the middle - bored of being force fed and hungry for something else. It was literally different from everything you’d heard before, it didn’t fit the titles of the reporting channels and sure as hell didn’t lend itself to interpretive dance.
As for now - Alternative music is dead - there’s no need for it. With the production, manufacturing, distribution and marketing of music all unrecognizable to how they were over 20 years ago - there is no “alternative” - there’s just choice - almost infinite choice.
With that said - I loved it - and can’t wait for the current status quo to be challenged again and a new Alternative music to arise.
If this got you intrigued over “Alternative Music” check out this fabulous series by Jane, the playlist editor on her relationship with one of the most iconic alternative artists that ever lived: My Ultimately Alternative Relationship With PJ Harvey - Part 1
About the Playlist editor - Jane Asylum
When my mother wasn’t walking around the house belting out early 60s’ girl-band lyrics, she was collecting compilation albums, specifically from K-Tel. She may not have had the most refined taste, but she enjoyed variety, or at least that’s what I recall. I poured over them all, preferring some sounds to others. And when I found the perfect song, I’d play it over and over until ready to perform my latest theatrical dance incarnation.
With my family all gathered on floral grey sofas in our basement apartment, I’d set the vinyl on the turntable of a brown fibreboard stereo and not-so-carefully lower the needle. It would pop, screech, and crackle before any music spilled from the weaved-wheat speakers. My toes would press, lift, and sweep through the blue-green shag carpet, my arms would flail, and the music would bass and treble through my soul.
I’m no longer that 6-year-old doing private-audience interpretive dance routines, but my passion remains just as intense. I have no special superpowers as a curator — just my love of sounds and lyrics that transport, transform, move, and make your body groove.