21 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Alternative Rock Bands

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Tired of run-of-the-mill rock music? Done with the doldrums of mainstream music? Then you might just be ready to dive into the world of alternative rock!

The genre has existed since the 1980s and spawned some of the most innovative and influential songs in music history. Still, it’s hard to pin down precisely what alt-rock is.

Despite the many variations, all alternative rock takes the basics: guitar, drums, and the like. Then it adds in influences from other styles, such as punk rock or folk, among others.

But the best way to understand alt-rock is by listening. And you can start with 21 of the most famous alternative rock bands below.

1. Nirvana

The first band on our list is perhaps the most influential alt-rock band of all time, Nirvana. The year 1987 witnessed the birth of this band. Their musical style is grunge, punk rock, hard rock, and alternative rock.

Nirvana exploded onto the mainstream just a year later with the classic song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This came from their smash-hit album Nevermind, which articulated the mixture of grimness and irony for which Nirvana has been known.

All in all, Nirvana had five #1 hits on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. They became one of the best-selling bands of all time. In addition, their success made alternative rock even more popular.

2. R.E.M.

Our next alt-rock band is R.E.M., one of the flagship groups of the alternative rock movement. Founded in 1980 and remaining active for 31 years, R.E.M. has proven to be one of the best-selling alt-rock bands of all time.

R.E.M. is noteworthy for creating a bridge between the tried-and-true sounds of mainstream rock and the more edgy work that would come as alt-rock took off.

Most people know R.E.M. for their smash hit “Losing My Religion.” But they display a wide range of musical creativity. You can see that in several songs, from the early “Radio Free Europe” to the mournful “Night Swimming” and peppy-apocalyptic “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”

3. U2

The next group on our list, U2, might come as a surprise. After all, it was founded in the ’70s and might be considered a more mainstream rock band.

The band made its first splash with songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” The fab four of Irish rock took a turn for the alternative in the early 1990s.

No album demonstrates this better than Achtung Baby, arguably the pinnacle of U2’s alt-rock work. That said, Bono’s band of merry musicians turned back to mainstream pop-rock in the early 2000s and found great success in doing so.

4. Cage The Elephant

With Cage the Elephant, we take a jump into the alt-rock history of the twenty-first century. The band was formed in 2006 and found enormous success with their self-titled debut album. The most successful singles from the album are “In One Ear” and “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.”

Cage the Elephant’s sound offers a mix of catchy lyrics, heart-pounding instrumentals, and memorable melodies. This is why the band’s songs have appeared in countless TV and film soundtracks since their debut.

That said, don’t just listen to the singles. The band has continued to innovate its sound with each new album, arguably peaking in 2013’s Melophobia.

5. Radiohead

Another foundational band in alt-rock music history is Radiohead. Though Radiohead was formed in 1985, it first found global appeal with its 1993 hit “Creep.” From there, the band established itself as an alternative icon, perhaps second only to Nirvana.

The legendary band has released nine studio albums. Nearly all of these have achieved meteoric success. But Radiohead’s music is more than just popular. It’s profoundly influential.

The three studio albums released in the 1990s – Pablo Honey, The Bends, and OK Computer – had a massive impact on alt-rock musical stylings and themes. For many, these albums gave voice to the societal angst at the heart of the American experience in the ’90s.

6. Weezer

The boundaries between alt-rock and punk are blurry. But if there’s a bridge between the two, it’s certainly Weezer.

Notably, the band has been in existence for over 30 years. Within that period, they cemented themselves as a titan among alt-rockers. What made that possible is also one of their greatest achievements: their power to evolve.

Their self-titled debut album and follow-up, Pinkerton, articulated an eclectic sound. Think of music that merged the intensity of Metallica with the lyrical poetry of the Velvet Underground. Weezer’s work in the 2000s, including the so-called Red Album and Green Album, pivoted to a more pop-punk sound.

Finally, Weezer’s work since the 2010s has pivoted to more self-referential and idiosyncratic sounds. This includes the all-cover-song Teal Album and baroque pop OK Human. No matter the phase, though, Weezer remains one of the eternal innovators of alt-rock.

Related: Check out our list of bands like Weezer here.

7. Violent Femmes

The next band on our list is Violent Femmes. Though the band’s musical style is alternative rock, it skews toward the folk side of things. Thus, one of their other genre designations is folk punk.

Some of their most famous songs are really works of art. Think of “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone.” Both of these blend the head-banging power of punk with the acoustic instruments of folk and the more mellow beats and rhythms of reggae.

These influences are evident both in Violent Femmes’ first period of activity, which stretches from the 80s to 2000, and their newer period, which has seen two studio albums since 2016.

8. The Smashing Pumpkins

If there were a Mount Olympus of alt-rock bands, then The Smashing Pumpkins would most certainly be sitting on a godly throne. The band was considered one of those who popularized this genre.

What makes The Smashing Pumpkins so interesting? They bring a different approach to alternative rock than we’ve seen on this list so far. While bands like Weezer, Nirvana, and Radiohead drew on punk in developing their musical style, The Smashing Pumpkins made inroads into postpunk, psychedelic rock, and gothic rock.

But listening to The Smashing Pumpkins is not just an intellectual experience. Songs like “Zero,” “1979,” and “Bullet with Butterfly Rings” were so appealing as to appear on pop music stations.

9. Red Hot Chili Peppers

The next seat in alternative rock immortality belongs to Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of the best-selling bands of all time. Formed in 1982, Red Hot Chili Peppers is a band of abundance. They’ve had 14 members, 14 #1 singles, 13 studio albums, and 120 million records sold.

For all their popularity, the band’s style is a bit challenging to pin down. Their various albums have drawn on a huge array of influences. These include metal, rap rock, punk rock, psychedelic rock, and hip hop.

You can hear these diverse influences in singles like “Californication,” “Dani California,” “Snow,” and more.

10. Arctic Monkeys

The English rock band Arctic Monkeys is one of the defining alternative rock bands of the aughts. They hit the scene right in time for the early-2000s explosion of the Internet. The band is famous for its staccato vocals and complex lyricism. Both of these persisted across the band’s seven albums and five EPs.

In keeping with their place in alt-rock history, Arctic Monkeys sampled several different influences throughout their albums. They were able to channel the history of the genre into cohesive music. Some of their influences include punk, post-punk, and psychedelic rock.

If you want to take a sample from Arctic Monkeys’ discography, put “A Certain Romance,” “505,” and “Star Treatment” on your queue.

11. The White Stripes

The American rock band The White Stripes are the smallest alternative rock band on this list. They consist of just two members – Jack and Meg White.

But that certainly did not stop the duo from achieving success with their songs. Within the years they were active, they blended the traditional stylings of alt-rock with the genres of folk, country, and blues. One of their most famous songs, “Seven Nation Army,” reflects these influences.

Of their six studio albums, three won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. The Rolling Stone also ranked them the sixth greatest duo of all time.

12. Foo Fighters

Without a doubt, Foo Fighters is one of the most important alternative rock bands of all time. It was originally formed as a solo project by Dave Grohl, former drummer of Nirvana after the latter disbanded.

Poignantly, Grohl began the band as a sort of catharsis, a way of returning to music following Kurt Cobain’s death.

Following Grohl’s solo debut, he expanded the band to include a shifting cadre of musicians. Their style was influenced by Cobain’s styling on Nirvana. It often alternates between subtle lyricism and soaring instrumentals. To get a sense of Foo Fighters’ best, listen to “Everlong,” “Learn to Fly,” and “Best of You.”

13. The All-American Rejects

Continuing our sporadic tour of the mid-2000s alt-rock scene, we come to The All-American Rejects. Although they formed in 1999, they became one of the defining groups of the aughts. They blasted the airwaves with smash hits, including “Dirty Little Secret,” “Move Along,” and “Swing Swing.” 

As with other bands, there’s something noteworthy about The All-American Rejects’ style. They combined the profound lyricism of emo music with the powerful instrumentals of pop-punk.

The very act of bundling it, though, is what gives the band its unique alt-rock style. They refused to let their band fit into neat musical categories.

14. Third Eye Blind

You might not think of Third Eye Blind as belonging to the same level of alt-rock godhood as Nirvana or Foo Fighters. However, the band is still significant for helping alt-rock fuse with pop-rock.

In a way, listening to Third Eye Blind can give you a cipher for decoding the alt-rock/pop-punk fusion of the early 2000s. The band tends to bring exuberant instrumentals that conceal the often grim subject matter at play in their lyrics.

This blend is evident in hit songs such as “Jumper,” “Semi-Charmed Life,” and “How It’s Going to Be.”

15. Pixies

The next entry on our list is Pixies, an alternative rock band formed in 1986. They’re notable for bridging the gap between the early alt-rock of the ’80s and the more mature alt-rock of the ’90s.

Pixies represent one of the signature stylistic elements of 90s alternative rock: the movement from quiet verses to loud choruses and back again. In fact, they were considered responsible for popularizing this.

This motif is especially evident in their signature song, “Where is My Mind?” It proved to be so significant that it influenced monumental alt-rockers like Weezer, Nirvana, and Foo Fighters.

16. The Smiths

Many of you will agree that The Smiths are perhaps the apotheosis of early British alternative rock.

As you know, American alt music formed from the swirling mass of angst radiating over the Pacific Northwest. But the Smiths brought their alt sound to bear against the backdrop of British synth-pop.

The band famously derided this popular style. They aimed for more pared-down instrumentals and lyrics that were morbid yet humorous.

The Smiths famously split up in 1987 after just five years together. The band members eventually went on to pursue individual projects. However, you can still appreciate their distinctive style in songs like “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

17. The Cure

Our next band is The Cure, an English band formed in West Sussex. They are considered one of the founding groups behind the alternative rock genre, which is why, at 45 years old, they’re the oldest entry on this list.

Interestingly, when you listen to The Cure, you might not appreciate the fact that they contributed to the nascent culture of goth. After all, the loop of “Friday I’m in Love” playing in every grocery store in the world is certainly not goth.

Interestingly, The Cure had a darker, edgier sound in the early 80s. It would go on to influence bands like Interpol and the Smashing Pumpkins.

To get a sample of The Cure’s musical diversity, listen to “Friday I’m in Love” and songs from their album Seventeen Seconds.

18. Gorillaz

Imagine a list that features Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and four virtual characters. You have alt-rock in a nutshell. And the aforementioned virtual characters are Gorrilaz.

The “members” of Gorillaz are fictional characters created by Damon Albarn. They have an elaborate internal universe that plays out through comic strips, virtual concerts, music videos, and more.

Despite this backstory, Gorillaz produced some of the best alt-rock music of the early 2000s. They’re notable for their strange sound, which blends traditional rock elements with synthetic pop instrumentals.

To get a taste of their music, listen to “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.” The latter song topped Billboard‘s Alternative Songs chart for eight consecutive weeks.

19. Cake

While Cake is by no means a humble indie group, it is certainly one of the more underrated groups on this list. There’s a lot to love when you listen to a Cake song. From the abstruse and esoteric lyrics to the often-strange subject matter.

Many of the bands on this list came from a lengthy lineage of hard alternative rockers. But Cake adds in a medley of other fascinating influences. We have Hank Williams, mariachi, Brazilian, and Iranian films.

The band has a lot of successful albums and hits under its belt. “Sick of You,” from the Showroom of Compassion album, reached #4 on the Billboard Alternative songs chart. The album itself debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart.

20. Incubus

Our next band on this list is Incubus, founded in 1991 in California. Like many bands on this list, the band has its fingers in so many different genres that it is challenging to assign them to any single genre.

This is precisely what makes Incubus such a strong alt band. Its use of funk, jazz, heavy metal, hip hop, grunge, and other genres has made each new album a listening experience all its own.

Some of their smash hits that did well on Alternative charts are “Pardon Me” and “Drive.” The latter song peaked at #5 on the US Adult Alternative Songs and at #1 on the US Alternative Airplay charts.

21. Beastie Boys

Last but most certainly not least on our list is Beastie Boys, an innovative alt-rock group that helped popularize the genre of rap-rock.

Beastie Boys used to be a hardcore punk band. However, they favored hip-hop and rap-rock more. They were known to incorporate into their music the elements of these genres, along with funk, electro, and jazz.

The band’s career spanned decades, and they were eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. They were the third rap group to receive such distinction.

With diverse songs like “Intergalactic,” “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” and “Sabotage” under their belts, Beastie Boys is a must-listen for any alt fan.

Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Alternative Rock Bands

Throughout the years, more and more musical genres have been developed. That’s thanks to these bands whose creativity knows no limits.

But as you’ve seen, these bands do not just settle on one genre. They’re free to incorporate different elements into their songs.

As we’ve seen on this list, alternative rock is one of the most interesting musical genres out there. To listen to one alt-rock band is to listen to, well, one alt-rock band. But that means, dear reader, that there’s a whole world of alt-rock out there to explore!

In the meantime, we hope you liked our selection of songs on this list. These bands certainly deserve a listen.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.