31 Best Alternative Songs

Best Alternative Songs

Stemming from the explosion of college radio stations in the '80s, alternative music is an amalgamation of rock-centered musical expression outside of the tidy confines of mainstream constraints.

While the term is vague, the alternative rock sound is unmistakable. Read on for our list of the best alternative songs.

1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Song year: 1991

Nirvana's classic single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” changed the game for alternative music in the '90s. What was once an underground college radio sound was suddenly thrust into the mainstream and would spawn thousands of imitators.

Many bands on this list wouldn't be if it weren't for the impact of this grunge punk song. It's an essential part of the history of music. The song is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

2. “Cannonball” by The Breeders

Song year: 1993

Ex-Pixies bassist Kim Deal's band, The Breeders, were swept up in the alternative music frenzy of the '90s, helping their single “Cannonball” become an unlikely hit.

With its plodding bassline and slinky guitars, the song was an anomaly even for its time. It shouldn't be a surprise, though. Deal's tenure in the highly influential '80s alternative band The Pixies foreshadowed this success.

3. “Loser” by Beck

Song year: 1993

No song captures the zeitgeist of alternative music and culture like Beck's breakout single, “Loser.” The song is a mixture of folk, rap, and rock that is so casually self-deprecating that it comes across as cavalier.

The single would be the beginning of a very successful career for Beck that has seen the artist experiment with multiple genres while always maintaining his alternative spirit.

4. “Song 2” by Blur

Song year: 1997

Britpop stars Blur never intended to release the single “Song 2.” The track was a biting jab against the recording industry and their record label. When the band played the song for the executives, they thought it would upset them. Instead, they loved it.

The single's ragged guitars and simple, sing-along refrain were tailor-made for alternative music. The band remains an enduring part of the '90s Britpop genre, but this single stands out as a classic alternative track.

5. “Karma Police” by Radiohead

Song year: 1997

While the single “Creep” positioned Radiohead as possible grunge superstars, the release of their classic album OK Computer signaled the band was going for a much more complicated sound. As evidenced by the haunting single “Karm Police,” the band was keen on exploring themes of disenfranchisement within society.

From its piano and acoustic guitar intro to the morse code-sounding guitar feedback that swirls and distorts in the outro, this song captures the anxiety-riddled sound that Radiohead was beginning to perfect.

6. “1979” by The Smashing Pumpkins

Song year: 1996

The Smashing Pumpkins' ode to youth, “1979,” is also their highest-charting single. The song was the first signal that the grunge adjacent shoegaze group would begin experimenting with samples and loops to augment their sound.

While the band has many successful alternative radio hits, the critical consensus of their sublime “1979” makes it their signature song.

7. “Everlong” by Foo Fighters

Song year: 1997

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl wrote the band's classic single “Everlong” while sleeping on a friend's floor and pining for a member of the alternative rock band Veruca Salt. While this relationship would eventually fizzle out, the track remains an iconic alternative track.

As the drummer for Nirvana, Grohl was no stranger to success. But with “Everlong,” he cemented himself as a  stellar songwriter in his own right.

8. “Where is My Mind?” by Pixies

Song year: 1988

While never released as an official single, the Pixies' “Where Is My Mind?” has become one of the most enduring and iconic songs of the pre-grunge alternative era.

Thanks to a high-profile placement in the 1999 film Fight Club, the song has earned an extended second life. The band found itself with a new audience and renewed interest, spawning a reunion in the new Millennium.

9. “I Wanna Be Adored” by The Stone Roses

Song year: 1989

British rock band The Stone Roses' eponymous debut album was a precursor for the Britpop movement of the '90s. With their rock and roll aesthetics filtered through an English lens, their first album is one of the best British records of the era.

The record's stand-out track is “I Wanna Be Adored.” The single charted in the U.K. and U.S. with its plodding bassline and angelic guitar effects.

10. “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain

Song year: 1985

The Jesus and Mary Chain's single “Just Like Honey” is a shoegaze-esque blast of distortion over doo-wop-inspired drums and whispered vocals.

The song's ability to rein in its aggressive rock elements into three minutes of melodic bliss has made it a favorite of alternative rock fans for over three decades. It has appeared in several films since the turn of the century, proving its universal appeal transcends the era.

11. “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements

Song year: 1985

Minneapolis punk rockers The Replacements slowly shed their hardcore background and would go on to write some of the most iconic alternative rock songs of the '80s. Among these, “Bastards of Young” stands as the groups shining moment.

Overdriven guitars and pounding drums keep the band's punk spirit intact, while their lyrics of alienation, confusion, and ambition capture Generation X's youthful contradictions.

12. “Pepper” by Butthole Surfers

Song year: 1996

The Butthole Surfers were one of the wildest bands to come from the college radio era of the '80s. The band was well known for live performances that often featured the members barely able to play while tripping on acid.

Given the band's anti-establishment nature, it was unexpected when their single “Pepper” topped the Billboard alternative charts. The song's spoken verses explode into a psychedelic grunge chorus, making it creepy and catchy in all the right places and perfect for alternative radio.

13. “Stars” by Hum

Song year: 1995

Hum combines post-hardcore, emo, and shoegaze in their mid-'90s alternative classic “Stars.” The song's slow-building intro explodes into fuzzed-out guitars and pounding drums, splitting the difference between anthem and alternative ballad.

While the band would never reach the success of “Stars” again, the single is a lasting entry into the alternative rock canon and foreshadows the coming popularity of emo music.

14. “Say It Ain’t So” by Weezer

Song year: 1995

“Say It Ain't So” is the signature song of Weezer, one of alternative rock's greatest bands. The song's anthemic chorus and heavy metal-inspired guitar heroics frame the band's tale of addiction and broken home in a way that packs an effective emotional punch without feeling overwrought.

The song inspired the emo musical movement of the '00s. While emo music was around even before the band released the single, Weezer's pop-rock confessional gave future groups an emotional blueprint for rock.

15. “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush

Song year: 1978

Kate Bush's eclectic style is hard to define, making it the perfect candidate for the overarching alternative genre. Her late '70s single “Wuthering Heights” is a classic single that mixes baroque pop with art-rock.

The song is considered one of the best singles of the '70s. With its unique blend of styles, the track's transcendent style has lent it classic status.

16. “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers

Song year: 1997

Bob Dylan's son Jakob got into the family business with his alternative rock band, The Wallflowers. Their hit single “One Headlight” became a runaway hit, charting internationally and garnering the band two Grammy Awards.

Dylan's voice is reminiscent of his father's, and that iconically detached drawl gives the song's obtuse lyrics their emotional weight. Dylan's performance and the band's unique take on Americana make this single sound just as fresh today as it did over two decades ago.

17. “Do You Realize??” by The Flaming Lips

“Do You Realize” by The Flaming Lips

Song year: 2002

The Flaming Lips' single “Do You Realize??” captures the band at their most accessible while dealing with the touchy subject matter of mortality.

What could have become downtrodden or morose in less capable bands' hands is a life-affirming anthem from The Flaming Lips. With their eclectic instrumentation and ear for catchy melodies, this alternative meditation on life and death is one of the best singles of the '00s.

18. “Connection” by Elastica

Song year: 1994

Britpop group Elastica's song “Connection” is one of the most successful exports from the British wave of alternative bands, charting highly in the U.S. and Canada.

The song's guitar riff, an homage to post-punk band Wire,  blends perfectly with its synthesizers, making it an updated version of the terse punk sounds of the '70s. The song has become a favorite to use in recent films, introducing this classic alternative single to brand new audiences.

19. “Zombie” by The Cranberries

Song year: 1994

The Cranberries' hit single “Zombie” is a protest song written in response to a deadly bombing in the U.K. related to the Irish conflict known as The Troubles. While The Cranberries are Irish, they were appalled at the loss of young lives by the Irish attack on England.

With singer Dolores O'Riordan's lilting vocals floating over crushing electric guitars, the song became an international alternative hit single. The song's style and political messaging make it a classic distillation of '90s alternative music.

20. “Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M.

Song year: 1981

R.E.M. was a pioneering force in the creation of the alternative genre. Their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” managed to crack the Billboard charts and earn them a record deal, and the next several decades would see them rise to the top of rock music.

With a sound influenced by punk rock and the band's native Georgia, R.E.M. would see even greater success in the coming years. However, their debut single still stands the test of time as a clarion call for alternative music.

21. “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground

Song year: 1997

Marcy Playground dominated alternative radio with their 15-week number one single “Sex and Candy.” While the song drew comparisons to Nirvana, the psychedelically-tinged acoustic track is unique to the quirky sensibilities of the band.

Marcy Playground would never have another hit, but “Sex and Candy” remains a well-loved oddity representative of the free-wheeling alternative sound of the '90s.

22. “Celebrity Skin” by Hole

Song year: 1998

Co-written with The Smashing Pumpkin's Billy Corgan, Hole's hit single “Celebrity Skin” updated the band's grunge leanings into a slick alternative sound.

Hole's Courtney Love addresses the cost of fame in the song's lyrics. It's a theme that Love was well-positioned to speak on after being widowed by rock superstar Kurt Cobain. The song seems prophetic now as Love would experience much notoriety as an actress during the end of the decade.

23. “Santa Monica” by Everclear

Song year: 1995

Everclear's brand of alternative rock always had more in line with the Pixies and '80s college rock than the grunge genre, and their single “Santa Monica” is an excellent example of their soft/loud dynamic.

While the band never officially released the song as a single in the U.S., radio DJs played the song enough for it to chart for three weeks in 1995. The song's success was just the beginning for the band, whose next release, So Much for the Afterglow, would sell over two million copies.

24. “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind

Song year: 1997

“Semi-Charmed Life” is Third Eye Blind's homage to Lou Reed, San Francisco, and crystal meth. Despite its illicit subject matter, the song's memorable guitar line and vocal hook helped it rise near the top of the Billboard charts while becoming synonymous with late '90s alternative music.

The single would become one of the most popular of the band's career, and its immense popularity was indicative of the shift away from grunge in the late '90s.

25. “The Killing Moon” by Echo & The Bunnymen

Song year: 1984

Goth and new wave came together for the elegantly disturbing sound of Echo & the Bunnymen's single “The Killing Moon.” The song's astronomical imagery comes to life with unique textures added by a cello and balalaika, two instruments not commonly heard in rock music.

The song's post-punk guitars and new wave synthesizers add to the eclectic mix of acoustic instruments that make this single a classic of early alternative music.

26. “Incinerate” by Sonic Youth

Song year: 2006

Sonic Youth were noisy pioneers of the art-rock variety of post-punk music. By the turn of the Millennium, the band softened their edges with the single “Incinerate.” Where earlier recordings from the group were chaotic and cathartic, this single is almost sublime in its intertwining guitar melodies and violent images of love.

While not as revolutionary as their previous work, the single is a well-deserved victory lap for a band that helped create the alternative genre.

27. “Fell In Love With a Girl” by The White Stripes

Song year: 2002

Along with The Strokes, The White Stripes hit the scene at a time when the American music landscape was fraught with artificially shiny bubblegum pop groups.

Their garage rock single “Fell In Love With a Girl” blew the doors wide open for rock and roll in the '00s and signaled a shift in sound for alternative music. The band would go on to even greater success in the coming decade.

28. “In the Meantime” by Spacehog

Song year: 1996

English band Spacehog's single “In the Meantime” has one of the grooviest basslines in alternative rock history. Over this boppy bassline, the band adds falsetto vocals and glam rock guitars, giving the song a unique and ear-catching flair.

The song became Spacehogs biggest single, cracking the top 50 in seven different countries. As nostalgia for the '90s has grown in popularity, the single has come back into the public's eye through features in film and television.

29. “Last Nite” by The Strokes

Song year: 2001

The Strokes' first charting single, “Last Nite,” was instrumental in revitalizing rock music and bringing the garage rock sound to alternative music. The song's Tom Petty-esque opening riff is full of the boundless energy felt before a night out, and the semi-distorted vocals sound as rough as the morning after.

The track is the band's signature song and is now considered one of the best songs ever by many music outlets.

30. “Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes

Song year: 1983

The Violent Femmes' brand of punk-inflected acoustic rock defies easy categorization, making the band the perfect candidate for the alternative moniker. Though their debut single, “Blister in the Sun,” did not hit the Billboard charts, it became a favorite on college radio and is now considered an alternative classic.

The Violent Femmes would never achieve mainstream notoriety, but their songs are frequently covered by other artists and used in film and television, cementing their status as alternative pioneers.

31. “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve

Song year: 1997

The Verve's single “Bittersweet Symphony” is a classic of '90s Britpop. With soaring strings courtesy of an orchestral cover of The Rolling Stones' “Last Time,” the band's anthem of life's emotional turmoil became a hit across the globe.

Unfortunately, the band was sued by The Rolling Stones after they neglected to clear the use of the sample. It would take over two decades before they would receive the rights, and the royalty money, for their iconic alternative hit.

Top Alternative Songs, Final Thoughts

While once an adjective, alternative music came to represent the diaspora of musical outcasts and misfits. With the collective audiences of these bands combined, a genre was born.

Grunge, punk, and new wave music all influenced what we consider the alternative to popular music. Ironically, this music became popular in its own right.

We hope you let your freak flag fly enjoying our list of the best alternative songs.

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