5 Indie Bands That Shaped the Alternative Music Scene

There’s a lot of debate about the definition of alternative music. It describes music contrasting with mainstream genres in instrumentation, lyrical content, and rejection of major record labels and marketing. The term is broad, and fans have debated who qualifies since the 1980s. These indie bands are only a handful of the ones in existence. Still, they undoubtedly had a massive effect on alternative music as we know it today.

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1. Jane’s Addiction

Jane’s Addiction formed in 1985 amidst the burgeoning (but still broadly unknown) alternative music scene. The band became significant when they signed a major label, a rarity for indie bands in those days. Jane’s Addiction helped spread the popularity of alternative music and started the annual Lollapalooza festival that continues today. Inspired by indie precursor bands like The Velvet Underground and Joy Division, Jane’s Addiction led the growing alternative scene through the early 1990s. The airing of their music videos “Stop!” and “Been Caught Stealing” on MTV helped further popularize alternative music in the mainstream. Jane’s Addiction gets a nod as one of the most influential indie bands because they opened the door for so many others. 

2. R.E.M.

R.E.M. was one of the early indie bands to attract widespread success. Formed in 1980, the band spent most of the decade playing in the underground alternative scene. It wasn’t until 1987 that they scored a big hit (“The One I Love”) and signed a major record label the following year. Despite this, their early years and continuing commitment to the counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s have earned R.E.M. a reputation as an authentic indie band. They played a massive role in drawing public attention to alternative music, especially after the success of songs such as “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion.” 

3. Radiohead

Ask anyone to name the best indie bands of all time, and Radiohead will probably be the first one. The group represents everything alternative music is, from their unique approach to songwriting to their 2007 album In Rainbows, quietly released online for free. Formed in the U.K. in 1985, Radiohead signed their first major label in 1991 and became the worldwide face of indie music. Despite their time as a global sensation, the band has remained committed to the alternative music scene. It has never become a “sellout,” according to hardcore indie fans. Yet almost everyone knows songs such as “Creep” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” 

4. The Smiths

In some ways, the English band The Smiths was the prototype for the modern indie band. They formed in 1982 and became a massive influence on the indie rock movement in the U.K. Though they were popular in their home country, they never managed to become a worldwide success—which, for some people, further proves that they deserve a spot in the indie hall of fame. The Smiths fused old and new musical styles, including 1960s rock, then-modern punk, and more. It was a decided rejection of the dominant electronic pop in mainstream music. Their introspective lyrics, which included commentary on politics and society, marked them as a decisive standout. 

5. Nirvana

It seems strange to classify Nirvana as indie these days when they are arguably one of the most famous bands of all time. Even frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide at 27 couldn’t damper their legacy despite their subsequent splintering. But Nirvana undoubtedly started as an indie band and made a conscious effort to retain their ties to the counterculture even while exploding in popularity. Whether Nirvana truly counts as an indie band is still the topic of hot debate since they did sign a major label. Whatever side you take, there is no denying Nirvana’s colossal influence on spreading and popularizing alternative music by shining a light on the grunge/indie rock scene. 

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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