Guitar School presents the top 20 alternative albums of all time!
What do the Red Hot Chili Peppers have in common with Devo? Each group’s music is so disparate, it’d be silly to even compare them, let alone group them together with 18 other bands that sound nothing like each other. So how could the esteemed editors of Guitar School put two such dissimilar bands together on a list of top 20 “alternative” albums of all time? And what makes a band alternative, anyway? Flannel shirts? Cheap guitars? Grainy black-and-white videos?
The Red Hot Chili Peppers share the same stage with Devo because their music, like all the bands on this list, share two basic values. First, like a handmade guitar, their music is not intended for mass consumption. Alternative music is created by artists for themselves; the fans are secondary. Though this might sound callous to the people that are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of an act, alternative groups boast the most devoted followings of any genre of music. It takes guts to listen to Dwarves records when all your friends are watching Def Leppard videos, and it takes a special fan to drive all night to catch the only All gig in a 1,500 mile radius. The Def Leppard fan can their band on television, radio and in countless magazines. Alternative fans must actively seek the objects of their affections, sometimes writing their own newsletters and fanzines.
Second, like computers, if you can buy it in a store, it’s already obsolete. Real cutting edge music can only be found in bedrooms, clubs, on scratchy tape dupes passed from friend to friend and in A&R reps’ garbage pails. None of the bands on this list are considered cutting edge today, but they were when they started. These bands changed the face of today’s popular music, as the band’s who are playing tonight at your local pub will change tomorrow’s.
The albums on this little list used to belong exclusively to the fans, now they belong to the world. They have inspired and will continue to inspire musicians who aren’t satisfied with playing the same old thing.
01. R.E.M. Murmur, IRS, 1983
Commercial alternative music wouldn't be where it is today if not for R.E.M.'s Murmur. Initially embraced by college radio, Murmur eventually forced pop music programmers and record company execs to acknowledge the power of the non-commercial airwaves. As a result of R.E.M.'s burgeoning college audience, the album unintentionally spearheaded a movement of indie bands into mainstream acceptance. As an album, Murmur features the unique, and now instantly recognizable, combination of Michael Stipe's mumbley/drone-y vocals, Peter Buck's Byrds-like jangle and the band's lyrical style and imagery. Like R.E.M.'s previously released single, "Radio Free Europe," Murmur contains the perfect blend of humble Southern roots, pop melodies and swirly guitar rock. Recorded when the band was still unfazed and uninhibited by commercial success, Murmur is arguably one of R.E.M.'s most creative and influential releases.
-- Sarah Silver
02. SEX PISTOLSNever Mind The Bollocks, Warner Bros., 1977
Volumes have been written about the Sex Pistols' meteoric career in England -- their outrageous publicity stunts, their violent behavior and drug abuse, and bassist Sid Vicious’ alleged murder of his girlfriend and subsequent suicide. But in the years since the band's brief assault on the British music scene, precious little attention has been paid to their music.
The fact is, Never Mind The Bollocks is one of the best, most intense, most ferocious rock albums ever. Bollocks shows the Pistols to be an incredibly tight, driving band, with blistering guitar, a rock-solid rhythm section and the absolutely unique and soaring vocals of Johnny Rotten. Released when rock was drowning in its own musical excess, the Pistols took the stripped-down music of the New York Dolls and the Stooges and elevated it to an anarchic, cathartic level, inspiring thousands of bands in England and abroad. (After seeing the Pistols, Joe Strummer immediately quit his r&b band and formed the Clash.) To this day, Bollocks is an extraordinary musical and social statement, and required listening for all students of alternative music.
-- Eli Attie
03. RAMONES Ramones, Sire, 1976
The Ramones' 1976 debut is arguably the most important album in the history of the American punk movement. Though no member could be classified as a great musician, the band empowered young musicians with a do-it-yourself mentality and an anti-establishment attitude. Four chords and three minutes were all the Ramones needed to create infectious melodies-grungy power-pop with an energetic beat. While it would be a year or two before the Ramones scored hits with "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Rock 'N' Roll High School," their debut album symbolized a breakdown in the rules of conventional rock that laid the foundation for hundreds of bands to come.
-- Sarah Silver
04. BEASTIE BOYS Licensed To III, Def Jam, 1986
Now that rap music has finally gained mainstream acceptance, it may be hard to view Licensed To III as a ground-breaking album. After all, these three white, middle-class New Yorkers (one is the son of prominent playwright Israel Horowitz) can't hold a candle to Public Enemy or N.WA. when it comes to understanding the urban experience. But what the Beastie Boys lacked in intensity, they more than made up for in cheeky, brash humor and invention. Licensed To III is both highly listenable and highly entertaining, and by becoming rap's first commercial blockbuster, it paved the way for the African-American rap artists whose music the Beasties admired and imitated.
While the Beasties' music has improved and matured with each subsequent album, none of their later efforts captured the fun, effortless aura of Licensed To Ill. This is certainly one of the ultimate '80s party albums, and an enduring time capsule as well.
- Eli Attie
5 - THE REPLACEMENTS
The Replacements proved once and for all that you don't have to know how to play an instrument to be in a rock 'n' roll band. Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Soul Asylum and many others owe a great debt to this Minneapolis quartet. Hootenanny captures Paul Westerberg and his drinkin' buddies in their youthful innocence, creating brilliant music by singing about everyday events like running a red light ("Run It") or reading the personal ads ("Lovelines"). "Hootenanny" is '50s folk slang for a creative jam session. Hootenanny is just that: reckless abandon, high energy, great riffs, experimentation and inspired lyrics. It takes guts' to record a song with each member playing the others' instruments. These guys didn't care. They were having too much fun crankin' it in the basement. "Label wants a hit/And we don't give a shit" they sing in "Treatment Bound." That's the true spirit of rock and roll.
A double album of unparalleled brilliance and might, Damaged will forever be the battle cry of those who struggle to overcome themselves. Black Flag is one of the few bands to successfully temper hurt with humor. In doing so, they create true art.
Though singer Henry Rollins will probably be the best remembered artist to come out of Black Flag, the band was really a showcase for guitarist Greg Ginn's ideas. Ginn, the true father of American punk, had a hand in the careers of five of the bands on this list, but his crowing achievement was Black Flag. This album will continue to inspire musicians for generations to come.
7 - THE CLASH
London Calling established the Clash as punk rockers with drive and intelligence. Where their first album, The Clash, dabbled in different styles, London Calling incorporated them all into a slash-and-burn guitar attack. The Clash touched the nerve of a generation with lines like "I wasn't born so much as I fell out." Following on the heels of the self-destructive Sex Pistols, the Clash offered a toned-down version of that implosive rumbling. The band released seven albums before Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Nicky Headon went their separate ways.
- Beth Renaud
8 - TALKING HEADS
Speaking In Tongues
This is the Talking Heads' most cohesive album, in which they definitively shaped late-'70 suburban white noise into an internationally inspired rock hybrid. From the CBGB stage onward, David, Tina, Chris and Jerry progressively changed art school punk into a commercially viable, challenging and uplifting musical form. Each consecutive album they released showed a different level of expression, and Speaking In Tongues was their most independent creation. The band took charge in the early '80s, ending a lengthy collaboration with Brian Eno, and beginning several solo projects- like the Tom Tom Club. Since Speaking In Tongues, only "Little Creatures" has come close to its focus. Last year's double-CD best-of compilation, with the new track "Sax And Violins," put the finishing touches on a band that helped open our own popular music borders. "Burning Down The House"'s cascading toms and ranting vocals is one example of how Speaking In Tongues translated the language of funk and African music into a dialect that everyone could appreciate.
9 - SONIC YOUTH
Blast First, 1988
Listening to this album reminds you of the days when Sonic Youth were still the world's scariest band. It has plenty of pure screeching noise and some of the Youth's best songs. Back in the days when nobody imagined that they would be MTV regulars and play arena rock tours, Sonic Youth was made music wilder than anything since the Stooges, and reminded people that pure feedback is a good thing. Sonic Youth was something to listen to in a dark room late at night, but Daydream Nation shows off their rock n' roll side too. Everybody from U2 to R.E.M. to Neil Young (and, of course, all the Sub Pop bands) want in on what Sonic Youth had going then, but Daydream Nation is the real thing.
- John Pillarella
10 • THE SMITHS
Hatful Of Hollow
Rough Trade, 1984
These 16 tracks embody the essence of the "alternative/indie" esthetic: low-tech production (recorded with little or no overdubbing) and heartfelt, urgent songs that directly connect with the fears, hopes and dreams of youth. Released at the height of Smiths-mania in England, Hatful Of Hollow is actually a compilation of songs pulled from BBC radio sessions, previously released singles and B-sides. These fresh and simple early recordings display the full breadth and vision of the Smiths.
Though much attention is given to singer Morrissey's plaintive voice, it's guitarist John Marr's adventurous song structures and masterful flat-picking technique that make this record essential. Though all the songs are gems, standout tracks include "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" and "How Soon Is Now."
11 • THE CURE
Staring At The Sea/The Singles
A retrospective spanning the years 1979 to 1986, Staring At The Sea/The Singles allows the listener to hear the Cure's evolution from scrappy punk-pop to gothic dance rock - the style they pioneered. Led by guitarist/singer Robert Smith, the Cure emerged as alternative rock's "biggest" band, influencing groups from U2 to Nine Inch Nails. They're still the only "alternative" band to single-handedly sell out arenas and stadiums.
While Smith occasionally displays a romantic streak, it's his gloomy world view, angst-ridden vocals, and entwining phase-shifted guitar lines that create the Cure's trademark sound. The music on this record is as powerful, passionate and defiant as any you're likely to hear, taking on loneliness, social alienation and despair with a danceable beat. Just when you think that the band is headed for the abyss, tracks like "The Lovecats" and "Close To Me" allow the group's playfulness to shine through.
- Jamey Evans
12 • HUSKER DU
Husker Du's Zen Arcade blew away the overproduced dust that was suffocating punk rock in the mid-'80s. (And which, ironically, eventually destroyed the band.) The Minneapolis-born trio created a rage-fueled noise that belied the trio 's size, but couldn't hide a haunting, melodic thrust. Zen Arcade is pre-grunge grunge-the real, bullshit-free original. The album incited delirium in a generation that was hiding under the covers, scribbling suicide notes.
The double album was recorded in one take, and contains such classics as drummer Grant Hart's "Pink Turns To Blue" and frontman (now Sugar daddy) Bob Mould's "Pride" and "The Biggest Lie," as well as "Reoccurring Dreams," the infamous "long song" (13:50). Pure, bitterly honest, and beautifully loud, Zen Arcade exploded on a disintegrating scene like a heaven-sent bomb.
- Christine Muhlke
13 • THE MINUTEMEN
Double Nickels On The Dime
This double album by San Pedro's finest represents all the best mid-'80s SST rock has to offer. Funk, punk, jazz, country and beatnik combined to form over 40 songs that could change the world. Every track on this album sounds different from anything you've ever heard before. Only three good friends jamming in a garage could have written "Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing" or "This Ain't No Picnic" and then covered Steely Dan.
Mike Watt's bass playing may get the Red Hot Chili Peppers excited, but every guitarist should hear d. Boon's "econo" style. This album proves rock doesn't have to be corporate to be amazing.
- John Pillarella
The new center for interesting punk rock is Washington D.C., and Fugazi is the leader of that Dischord Records/Positive Force movement. They make music that's sometimes danceable, sometimes loud, sometimes slow, sometimes noisy, but always political and powerful. Ian McKaye (formerly of Minor Threat) may not play everything hard and fast anymore, but Fugazi's music can't be ignored.
You may not agree with all of their politics or attitudes, but you can't deny that Fugazi makes honest, uncompromising music unlike anyone else- and that's what "alternative music" is all about. Besides, Fugazi records are cheap--so what do you have to lose?
- John Pillarella
15 • JANE'S ADDICTION
Ritual De Lo Habitual
Warner Bros., 1990
As the band's last full-length recording before their breakup, Jane's Addiction's Ritual De La Habitual is not as musically ground-breaking as it is an important reminder of the influence of rock music on popular culture. It contained the band's first big video and radio hit, "Been Caught Stealing," and propelled the group from underground status to mainstream MTV acceptance as musicians and leaders of the alternative rock movement. Soon after the album's release, Perry Farrell, the band's controversial leader, announced plans for Lollapalooza, an unprecedented cross-cultural festival of new music, visual arts and free thought. The album and tour launched an explosion in MTV-land that has yet to be matched. While Jane's Addiction's self-titled first album, or even their Warner Bros. debut Nothing s Shocking, are considered "better" musical efforts, Ritual De La Habitual is a milestone for its lasting impression on the state of alternative music, and its impact in shaping a generation of thought.
- Sarah Silver
War is U2's sincere and emotional response to the religious/political violence in the band's own Northern Ireland. Containing such heartfelt anthems as "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," War established U2 as a leader in politically conscientious, cause-related music. It also laid the groundwork for the
band's rise to rock stardom.
The Edge's trademark guitar sound and Bono's intensely passionate vocals have made U2 one of the most popular arena rock bands. U2 has written and recorded some really great and moving songs, but it's almost distressing to listen to a stadium full of fans sing along to "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Somewhere along the line, the meaning gets lost.
17 • RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Warner Bros., 1992
This album was the revitalized Chili Peppers' big commercial breakthrough-when America finally caught up to the band's So Cal surf funk. Def Jam founder and Beastie Boys producer Rick Rubin helped the Peppers focus on their strengths- lead singer Anthony Keidis' soul, new guitarist John Frusciante's rolling style and bassist Flea's irrepressible bounce. The Peppers have always been able to deliver a funk-groove that wrapped around the waist like a steel belt radial (without the white walls), but they did it on this album with renewed vigor and rawness. "Under The Bridge," "Give It Away" and "Breaking The Girl" bubble over with confidence and ferocious sexuality. MTY, the barometer of megapopularity, really got behind the band and helped beam their silver-coated video antics into nearly every home in the nation. In an even more telling move, the band's former label took to releasing a best-of mere months after "Under The Bridge" hit - echoing a move pulled with R.E.M. a few years back.
- Beth Renaud
18 • VIOLENT FEMMES
Slash/Warner Bros., 1982
A punk album with acoustic instruments? Only the Violent Femmes can sound heavy by playing softly. Thrash, bluegrass, folk, pop and third world influences permeate the 12 tracks of this debut. No other band sounds like the Violent Femmes. Brian Ritchie's Martin acoustic bass is devastating. Gordon Gano's lyrics and angst-ridden voice hit the heart harder than puberty hits a teenager's body. Tales of broken relationships, flipping the finger at authority and fighting with parents- you can't plan an album this good.
When Nirvana exploded onto the Billboard charts with this stunning major-label debut, their impact was so seismic, and so unexpected, the New York Times business section even put them on their cover. But while Wall Street analysts and industry moguls spent months offering six-figure contracts to anyone with a beat-up Jazzmaster and a plaid shirt, Nirvana's success did bring great music to a wider audience.
Beneath the thundering, distorted guitars and the angry, aggressive drums that have become de rigueur for the growing grunge set, Nevermind is actually a great pop album. Songs like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" capture the alienation and disaffection of the MTV generation, but they also have great hooks and melodies - and arrangements that are as carefully-crafted as any Beatles album. At the same time, Kurt Cobain's singing and songwriting show a talent and sensitivity few of his peers can muster. Even if Nirvana prove to be a one-trick pony, it's clear they have earned their place in alternative rock history.
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo.
Warner Bros., 1978
Punk and new wave professed to negate rock and roll's past, but Devo carried the philosophy to its extreme. This self-proclaimed "De-evolution Band" replaced rock's sensual and emotional postures with a geeky, intellectual stance that borrowed more from bad science fiction novels than rock lore. In fact, the highlight of this quirky, classic album is Devo's stiff-lipped rendition of the Stones' "Satisfaction," which transforms the ultimate ode to sexual urgency into a dry, mechanical cliché.
It is this sense of irony and humor that sustains much of Are We Not Men- and at every turn, Devo's wit and innovation is skillfully honed and polished by producer Brian Eno. At the time, Devo were so new and so strange, their future seemed limitless. But perhaps because they failed to re-invent themselves as successfully as they re-invented the music of others, this bizarre debut remained Devo's finest hour.
- Eli Attie
End Of Silence
When the majority of pop music is about hurting others, it's refreshing to hear an album that addresses a real problem: how people hurt themselves. Leave it to Henry Rollins to give it to us. A legend in his own time, Rollins performs with a power and intensity that's almost vanished in modern rock. Gap ads notwithstanding, the ex-Black Flag singer stands as the embodiment of the "alternative" ethic, touring constantly and making meaningful music. Of all the "old-school," early, 80s artists to reappear this year, he was the only one to make a real contribution. The honesty and energy of "End Of Silence" will be the ideal against which all future "alternative" efforts will be judged.
-Daniel B. Levine
Sire/Warner Bros., 1992
Ministry's sound is as beautiful as a car crash-the fusion of speed, chance, and fury. The result is a flaming, twisted, beautiful wreck that you can't help but gawk at. Al Jourgensen encases apocalyptic loops and samples in speed-metal cages, powered with sheer rage. Call it death-techno or speed thrash- Ministry creates a welcome hybrid. "Jesus Built My Hot Rod" is by far the most accessible and infectious cut. It's bound to earn a place in mosh pit infamy. "Scare Crow" recalls the Ministry of old (Does anyone remember when Jourgensen used to sing?) The mutated religious samples of the final two cuts are frighteningly apocalyptic-guaranteed to anger parents, scare neighbors, and estrange loved ones. Psalm 69 just goes to prove that Ministry is the natural choice to perform the anthem for Armageddon.