From its underground origins in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to its mainstream breakthrough in the ‘90s, alternative rock has long been a favorite of the youth. No matter the style you prefer, we are going to rank the best alternative rock bands ever.
Without further adieu, let’s look at those bands who stand above the rest.
It’s hard to argue against Radiohead as the greatest alt band in history. They have made waves critically and commercially since the 1990s, and the band has revamped its style with nearly every new album they produced.
Led by frontman Thom Yorke and backed by Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Phillip Selway, Radiohead exploded into international fame with their 1997 album OK Computer. Since then, they have experimented with everything from electronic music to orchestral scores. “No Surprises” remains one of the band's most loved songs from OK Computer.
Few bands have had the meteoric rise of Seattle’s Nirvana. The trio of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl brought alternative rock to the mainstream. Perhaps the only reason the band doesn’t take the top spot is their short existence, with only eight active years and three albums.
Nevermind and its hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” catapulted Nirvana to an overnight phenomenon in 1991. Critics credit the band with creating the grunge movement. Today, Nirvana’s influence is still felt despite their short tenure together. In all, the band has sold an estimated 75 million records.
R.E.M. scores high on this list for being one of the first acts to don the alternative rock label. The band, which for most of its existence consisted of frontman Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry, got its start in college and became underground hits in the 1980s.
The 1990s saw R.E.M. begin to achieve mainstream success, particularly with their albums Out of Time and Automatic For the People from 1991 and 1992, respectively. “Losing My Religion” found plenty of airplay on the radio, cementing R.E.M. as a face of alt-rock.
4. Sonic Youth
Much like R.E.M., Sonic Youth stands as a pioneer of the alternative rock genre and has continually enjoyed success since its debut in 1981. Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley make up the core group of the band, with other musicians having short tenures.
Sonic Youth spent much of the 1980s as underground darlings before breaking out in the mainstream in the ‘90s and ‘00s. The band’s 1988 album Daydream Nation is one of the greatest alternative rock albums ever recorded; the single “Teen Age Riot” is a fan favorite and the last song the band ever played together.
5. My Chemical Romance
My Chemical Romance, made up of Gerad Way, Ray Toro, Frank Iero, and Mikey Way, defined a generation. MCR was instrumental in popularizing the emo subgenre of alternative rock and created an entire culture around their music. The band still maintains popularity with millennials and Zoomers.
The band quickly found success and reached the mainstream in 2006 with their album The Black Parade. The single, “Welcome to the Black Parade,” became one of the most enduring songs of the 2000s and made the band a cultural icon for years to come.
6. Talking Heads
Talking Heads was a foundational band in the developing independent music scene of the 1980s and defined what critics came to call alternative rock. The highly experimental band consisted of David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison.
Remain in Light from 1980 is often considered the band’s opus and one of the best albums of that year. It brought musical conventions from across the world and is best remembered for its single “Once in a Lifetime.”
U2 is perhaps Ireland’s most famous band, and the group was highly influential throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Consisting of The Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr., the band is best remembered for its distinctive guitar tracks and introspective and spiritual lyrics.
Though regionally successful in the early 1980s, the band broke out in a big way in 1987 with their seminal album The Joshua Tree. Its singles “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You” catapulted the band into international stardom.
Coldplay has done it all: selling out countless shows, earning Grammy consideration, and even playing at the Super Bowl. Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman, and Will Champion founded the band in 1996 and quickly broke into the mainstream.
The band’s first success came with their single “Yellow.” In 2008, Coldplay earned its first Grammy nomination with the album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. The album saw them take a bold new musical direction, and its title track made it number one in the United States.
9. The Smashing Pumpkins
The Smashing Pumpkins remain one of the most popular acts of the 1990s, and the band reached such popularity that they snagged a guest appearance on The Simpsons. The band had many members revolve in and out, but the constants were Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky.
The band’s most celebrated album is 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double album packed with various styles of music. The single “1979” is a song about adolescence.
Pixies never achieved superstar success, but chances are your favorite band is a big fan of Pixies. Originally consisting of Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering, and Kim Deal, Pixies was responsible for shaping the early sound of alternative rock with their punk influences.
Today, most critics agree that Pixies' best album was Doolittle in 1989. Before that though, the band created one of its most famous songs, “Where Is My Mind?” Moviegoers may remember it as being featured in the cult classic, Fight Club.
11. Foo Fighters
Formed out of the tragedy that ended Nirvana, Dave Grohl has been rocking with Foo Fighters since 1994. Despite having a founding Nirvana member at the helm, Foo Fighters' music has much more in common with hard rock than the melancholy of Nirvana’s grunge.
After an initially shaky start, Foo Fighters found mainstream success with their second album, The Color and the Shape. Critics and fans consider the album the band’s best work, and it features the fan-favorite song “Everlong.”
12. Dinosaur Jr.
While Dinosaur Jr. never hit the same commercial highs as some of the other bands on this list, they were a beloved and influential part of the 1990s alternative rock boom. J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph founded the band in 1984, and they incorporated a style of music borrowing from the past and present.
The band reached its highest commercial success in 1994 with the album Without a Sound. It quickly became the best-selling record the band had put out, and its single “Feel the Pain” remains a favorite of fans.
Soundgarden has always existed on the heavier side of alternative rock, and the band was an early example of the burgeoning grunge scene. Soundgarden had various members throughout the years, with Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, and Matt Cameron being the most common bandmates over the years.
Though already beloved in their native Pacific Northwest, Soundgarden achieved breakthrough success in 1994 with its album Superunknown. On the album was the band’s most well-remembered song, “Black Hole Sun.”
14. Jane’s Addiction
Jane’s Addiction found great success in its initial days from 1985 to 1991. The band, composed originally of Dave Navarro, Stephen Perkins, Perry Farrell, and Chris Chaney, became a cult favorite for their mixture of styles.
The band’s final album before breaking up for the first of many times was Ritual de lo Habitual. It cemented the band as a favorite of hipsters at the time and earned them commercial success. The album’s single “Been Caught Stealing” remains a favorite of fans.
15. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Despite their more eclectic nature, Red Hot Chili Peppers remain one of the most popular and well-known acts on this list. Today, the band is made up of Anthony Kiedis, Flea, John Frusciante, and Chad Smith. The band is famous for experimenting with many genres, such as funk and rap.
The band had its greatest success at the end of the millennium with its 1999 album Californication. Kiedis and gang followed it up with By the Way in 2002, which produced one of the band’s best songs, “Can’t Stop.”
16. Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam is often the recipient of derision and labeled as riding the coattails of the grunge movement. But this isn’t rooted in fact, as the band is one of the most critically and commercially successful acts of the 1990s. The band was founded by Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Mike McCready.
Though many of their later albums achieved great success, it is hard to argue against their debut from 1991, Ten, as the band's opus. It changed the perception of alternative rock forever and remains one of the defining records of the early 1990s. Singles like “Even Flow” and “Jeremy” still receive radio airplay.
17. Alice in Chains
Critics often label Alice in Chains as a grunge band, and while that’s true, they owe a lot of their style to 1980s hard rock and heavy metal. At its height, the band was made up of Mike Inez, Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell, and Sean Kinney. Uniquely, the band had two lead vocalists in Staley and Cantrell.
The band’s 1990 debut album Facelift was not initially popular until MTV began playing its single “Man in the Box” on regular rotation. From there, the band’s legend grew, and they produced popular records like Dirt and their eponymous third album.
18. Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse was born out of the grunge scene but embodied many influences from underground music of the 1980s. The band was made up of lead singer and guitarist Isaac Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green, and bassist Eric Judy for much of its existence. After years of releasing singles and playing in crowded bars, the band released its first album in 1996.
A longtime favorite of alternative rock and indie fans in the 1990s, Modest Mouse had a breakthrough record with 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News. The two lead singles from the album “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty” demonstrated a new sound for the band and received radio airplay.
Oasis is one of England’s most famous bands and was one of the biggest acts from the island nation. Liam Gallagher, Noel Gallagher, Paul Artuhers, Tony McCarroll, and Paul McGuigan made up the core of the band during its heyday, though many members came and went throughout the years.
(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? remains the band’s most well-remembered album, both for its quality and its part in the band’s rivalry with Blur. The record produced two of Oasis’s most classic songs, “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”
20. The Smiths
Sometimes remembered as being the R.E.M. equivalent in England, The Smiths carved out a legacy all their own throughout the 1980s. The Smiths existed only between 1982 and 1987, and the band was made up of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce, and Andy Rourke. Since their breakup, no band member has expressed interest in any form of reunion.
In 1986, the band members produced the album The Queen Is Dead. The record gave them their first taste of breakthrough success, and it remains their most well-loved album. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” remains one of the defining songs of British independent music.
21. Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails is more accurately a name for a musical project consisting of Trent Reznor. Though Reznor is the heart and soul of the band, he has been joined by several collaborators over the years, including Atticus Ross, the only other permanent member of the band. Critics have called Reznor's music “industrial,” and he takes inspiration from a range of sources.
NIN saw its biggest success in 1994 with its second album, The Downward Spiral. It is a heavy album, both sonically and lyrically. The album took inspiration from 1970s avant-garde albums, and its closer “Hurt” remains one of Reznor’s most popular songs.
22. Joy Division
Joy Division, in many ways, is a progenitor to the alternative rock movement, and many of the bands on this list cite Joy Division as an influence. Despite its looming influence, Joy Division only existed from 1976 to 1980 before disbanding. It was led by Ian Curtis, with backing from Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris.
Joy Division’s second and final album, Closer, was released after the death of Curtis. It saw the band have their first mainstream success, and its single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” remains one of the Joy Division’s most beloved songs. The remaining members went on to form New Order.
Few bands love being obscure and underground as much as Pavement did in its early days. Its members did next to nothing to promote the band, and they actively avoided speaking with the press or performing live shows. Despite this, the band of Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Scott Kannberg, Mark Ibold, and Steve West became popular amongst die-hard fans.
Pavement never achieved mainstream success, with their only moderately successful single being “Cut Your Hair.” But their debut album Slanted and Enchanted is still considered by fans and critics alike as one of the 1990s best records.
24. My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine was not particularly well known when the band released some of its most critically acclaimed work. Instead, the band has grown in legend over the years and remains many listeners' all-time favorite band. The band consisted of Kevin Shields, Colm Ó Cíosóig, Debbie Googe, and Bilinda Butcher.
Among fans, no album produces as much reverence as 1991’s Loveless. It is frequently found on lists of the greatest albums ever made and is considered the opus of the shoegaze subgenre of alternative rock.
25. They Might Be Giants
While alternative music may have a reputation for being dour and depressing, not every band in the wide umbrella is macabre. They Might Be Giants have their share of downer lyrics, but the band’s upbeat sound and prolific output have made them a popular group since the 1980s. Many members have rotated over the years, but the heart of the band is John Fansburgh and John Linnell.
Having produced 23 albums over its tenure, it is hard to pin down just one song or album that defines They Might Be Giants. Perhaps their most famous song is one of their first in “Don’t Let’s Start,” which showcases the duo's more playful nature.
Top Alternative Rock Bands Of All Time, Final Thoughts
Alternative rock has undergone many changes over the years and remains one of the broadest genres of music. With so much variety, it can be impossible to pinpoint the best alternative rock bands ever.
Did we miss your favorite band on this list? Let us know with a comment on your favorite alternative rock songs and bands.