Ten Albums That Define Alternative Music
A ranking of the ten most important albums in the history of alternative music with a short commentary on each and an unbelievable Peal Jam bias included for no extra charge.
The following is a ranking of ten albums that have defined alternative music, the loosely defined genre that came to the forefront of the American popular music scene in the early nineties. There is no real definition of what alternative music is- it is defined in the same “know it when you see it” way that the U.S. Supreme Court defines pornography. Alternative music as a genre is implicitly linked with classic rock, grunge, punk, techno, and even hip-hop. Furthermore, it is an evolving genre, changing as artists push the limits of the “alternative” label applied to them and their music. In ranking these albums, I have attempted to look beyond the Seattle bands that brought alternative music its popularity and give credit to those artists whose work has fundamentally changed what we call alternative music.
1. “Freedom” by Neil Young
Despite what some Nirvana fans might say, this is the album that started it all. Neil Young is the grandfather of grunge. “Freedom,” which Young released in 1989, was the first true alternative album. It seems a stretch to call an album by someone Young’s age alternative, but the label is applied to the music, not the artist. The edgy guitar-driven songs on “Freedom” set it apart from Young’s other albums, which tend toward the mellow folk rock end of the spectrum. If “Freedom” is the first true alternative album, “Rockin’ in the Free World” is the first true alternative song. Almost as a compromise to his CSN&Y fans, Young put two versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on “Freedom,” a mellow live acoustic version and a more energetic and less refined studio version. “Rockin’ in the Free World” was a largely forgotten song by the time Nirvana released “Nevermind,” but it was revived by Pearl Jam, who frequently plays it live and played it with Young at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. Thanks to a little campaigning by Pearl Jam, “Rockin’ in the Free World” has been able to take its much-deserved place as an alternative anthem for the ages.
2. “Ten” by Pearl Jam
This is far and away the best album of what is traditionally called the alternative genre. In eleven songs, it encompasses the extremes of tempo, volume and style that are included in the genre. From the mellow “Release” to the contemplative “Black” to the powerful “Even Flow,” this album has it all. More than any other quality, true emotion makes “Ten” the best album of its genre. No lead singer has ever poured his soul out on a record like Eddie Vedder does on “Ten.” “Alive,” the band’s first single, is the story of Eddie’s mother telling him that the man he has known as his father is not and that Eddie’s real father died when Eddie was a young boy. “Ten” is also significant because it launched Pearl Jam to the forefront of the alternative music world, a place the band still occupies today. Of the five Seattle bands that popularized the “Seattle sound” (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Candlebox, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden,) Pearl Jam is the only band that it still alive and well. They have born the torch of alternative music into the new millennium, and do not seem posed to relinquish it anytime soon.
3. “The Joshua Tree” by U2
This is the album that provided a much-needed counterbalance to the soaring popularity of late-eighties guitar rock. With “The Joshua Tree,” U2 proved that melody and popularity are not mutually exclusive qualities for an album. Thanks to them, groups like the Dave Matthews Band, whose sound does not fit into any mold, can be accommodated under the umbrella of alternative music. “The Joshua Tree” contains some of the best of what could be called soft alternative. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “With or Without You” and “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” paved the way for songs like Pearl Jam’s “Nothingman” and Live’s “Lightning Crashes.” It was U2 that showed us that good alternative music does not have to be loud, thus broadening the entire genre.
4. “Nevermind” by Nirvana
“Smells Like Teen Spirit.” These might be the four most significant words in the history of alternative music. Without this one song, we might not even have heard of alternative music. The “Seattle sound” might have fizzled out in Seattle clubs. But thankfully, Nirvana released a second album. Their first album, “Bleach,” was nothing special. But its modest success convinced Geffen Records that, with a decent studio budget and enough publicity behind it, a new Nirvana record could be a success. Never did David Geffen imagine that the album he bankrolled would define an entire generation. “Smells Like Spirit” somehow captured the mood of the early-nineties youth. With his apathetic chorus of “Here we are now, entertain us,” Cobain puts into words a discontented, disconnected and disinterested youth culture. The rest of the songs on “Nevermind” (and pretty much all of Nirvana’s other songs) are nothing special. (**Editor's Note** The previous statement is both ridiculous and offensive) But “Smells Like Teen Spirit” alone makes Nirvana one of the most important bands and “Nevermind” one of the most important albums in the alternative music history.
5. “Purple” by the Stone Temple Pilots
The Stone Temple Pilots would have been one of the most successful bands of the nineties if Scott Weiland could have stayed out of rehab for three months. Their studio albums are among the best work put forth by an alternative group in the last decade, and their MTV Unplugged show highlights their overwhelming musical ability. Of their studio albums, “Purple” covers the widest range of styles and best shows STP’s ability. It fits into the classic mold of guitar-driven alternative music, but Scott Weiland’s vocals shine through and add a richness to STP’s sound that is not found on many alternative albums. In terms of pure vocal ability, Weiland has to be considered in the same class as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. It is unfortunate that Weyland’s drug problems have put his career and that of his band mates in jeopardy. But, no matter how the STP story ends, the band has at least left us with a shining audio record of their trials and tribulations.
6. “Automatic for the People” by REM
REM is without a doubt one of the most significant alternative bands. Their myriad albums have helped define the alternative sound, and the band has been at the forefront of the alternative scene since such a word has existed. Of their albums, “Automatic for the People” stands out. It is one of the more relaxed REM albums, with an almost sleepy mood and a soft quality. But its two singles, “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts”, are among the best songs of the last decade, and the rest of the album does not trail far behind. “Everybody Hurts” is one of the most emotional alternative songs ever, and one might only speculate about Michael Stipe’s inspiration for writing it. Michael Stipe is one of the most prominent homosexuals in the entertainment industry, and has no doubt felt some emotional pain over his sexual orientation. With “Automatic for the People,” REM has given us one of the best alternative albums ever and made a lasting impression on the music world.
7. “August and Everything After” by the Counting Crows
One would find it difficult to classify the Counting Crows’ sound. The Counting Crows supplement the usual guitar-driven alternative sound with a folk-influenced flavor. They are the best storytellers in the alternative genre, as exemplified by songs like “Mr. Jones” and “Round Here.” The Counting Crows have followed up on the success of their debut album with two more excellent studio recordings, and have solidified their place as one of alternative music’s most talented bands.
8. “Temple of the Dog” by Temple of the Dog
Never has a group of more talented musicians come together to make an album. After the tragic death of Mother Love Bone lead singer Andrew Wood, a few members of the budding Seattle alternative music scene decided to come together and make a record dedicated to Wood. These musicians included former Mother Love Bone members and future Pearl Jam members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, Soundgarden members Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron (Cameron is now a member of Pearl Jam,) and longtime Seattle guitarist Mike McCready, who would also join Pearl Jam. The quintet invited a little-known lead singer from the San Diego, California band Bad Radio to join them on the album. The man they invited was Eddie Vedder, who would go on to become Pearl Jam’s lead singer and the somewhat unwilling poster boy for alternative music. “Temple of the Dog,” which takes its name from one of Wood’s song lyrics, was simply an amazingly talented group. There is no better duet in alternative music than Cornell and Vedder’s “Hunger Strike.” Vedder’s powerful, low voice and Cornell’s piercing tenor compliment each other perfectly. Temple of the Dog was too good to last. Unfortunately, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam went their separate ways, and each enjoyed amazing success after breaking onto the national and international music scenes.
9. “Garbage” by Garbage
Where are the guitars? Are these sounds from some sort of synthesizer? You can’t do that. Garbage broke all the rules for their first album, and the end result was an album that pushed the limits of the alternative genre and blurred the lines between electronica, pop, techno, and alternative. Garbage definitely does not fit the mold. Their sound is almost too unique to describe. It carries the synthesized, produced quality of techno but adds a distinctly alternative vocal part. The best part about Garbage’s music is that, despite the production that goes into their studio albums, they can still reproduce the sound live. The members of Garbage are some of the most talented musicians in alternative music today, but they are also among the best producers. Their mouthpiece is beautiful lead singer Shirley Manson, whose haunting, enchanting voice brings to mind Fleetwood Mac vocalist Stevie Nicks. Garbage’s self-titled debut album paved the way for others to make a foray into techno, as the Smashing Pumpkins did for their “Adore” album. Garbage’s album expanded the horizons of its genre, and Garbage continues to innovate and prove that alternative music need not be played with only guitars and drums.
10. “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were the most important early-nineties alternative band outside of Seattle. The Chili Peppers were around five years before any of the Seattle bands, but it wasn’t until their 1991 “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” that they really saw commercial success. The almost-simultaneous release of “Blood Sugar Sex Magik,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and Temple of the Dog’s self-titled album pushed the budding alternative sound over the proverbial hump and launched its popularity as a genre. The Chili Peppers continue to be one of the most energetic and exciting alternative bands on the alternative music scene they helped to create.