Alternative rock is the catch-all term used to describe unconventional or non-mainstream rock bands from the 80's and 90's. Much like your parents, it had its early roots in punk rock and many altrock bands sold out at their first opportunity.
Altrock loosely spawned from the still-sweaty loins of punk rock in the early 1980's, probably when the circle-pit stopped briefly between songs. You know, when the guitar player broke a string and then the singer punched some guy who was totally looking at his girl, all while the bassist is undergoing an existential crisis because he hadn't been hugged enough as a child This break was just long enough for a few musicians to smarten up and realize that they could get more chicks by being sensitive instead of always-angry, an epiphany that would also regrettably lead to emo.
A handful of American hardcore punk bands began a shift into a more melodic style of songwriting, now writing about more girl-friendly topics instead of how Reagan is an asshole and the cops are out to get them because they don't have jobs. If there's one thing I've (regrettably) learned about girls, it's that they like a guy who has a job - and musician in a hardcore punk band just doesn't cut it with most of them. Notable among these groups were Husker Du and The Replacements, both from Minneapolis. Bands like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth also emerged at this time, further merging the musical aesthetic of punk rock with mellowed-down pop, and often adding an element of noise into the mix. The Velvet Underground, who had partially laid the groundwork for punk rock in the first place, were also hailed as a major influence by many emerging altrock bands of this era. The term "alternative rock" was not yet in use, however, and wouldn't be until the mid-80's when it began to be used by college radio DJ's. Until then, these bands were generally referred to as college-rock, probably because of all the college girls they were now having sex with. Foresight, gentlemen!
Husker Du, in a time before the mustache was even considered ironic.
So far I've only talked about American bands. This is because the English are a horrible people with no sense of culture and no musical identity of their own.
As evidenced by Gary Glitter...
Just kidding! The bands of the U.K. were making similar strides at this time, though mostly in a darker, shall we say... gothier... direction. Bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cure initially had at least one foot in the punk scene but gradually branched out to define new genres of their own. These new styles of music would eventually fit under the cozy umbrella of alternative rock, and would prove crucial in the marketing plans of the fine people who make clove cigarettes, absinth, and clothing made out of very tight black vinyl.
...and whatever can make Robert Smith's hair do that.
Goth rock wasn't the U.K.'s only contribution to alternative rock, however. Scotland's Jesus & Mary Chain and later Ireland's My Bloody Valentine would arrive on the scene to perform musical fellatio on the memory of The Velvet Underground. Much like their American counterpart Sonic Youth, these bands were blending ambient soundscapes of noise into their pop, a concept that would be featured in a great deal of altrock to follow. Unfortunately for those of us with some sense of decency, these musical developments would eventually pave the way for hipsters - the altrockers of the 21st century.
Alternative rock continued to grow in popularity through the rest of the 80's and finally blew up in the 90's. In 1991 Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell created Lollapalooza, an annual music festival showcasing alternative bands. Lollapalooza quickly became the Mecca of alternative rock, if Mecca featured tons of weed and half-naked girls. Essentially, Lollapalooza became the best Mecca. While Farrell was focusing his energy on this new festival, his guitarist, Dave Navarro, was busy getting married and divorced numerous times. This demonstrates that alternative rockers were beginning to act in suspiciously rockstarish ways. Navarro's third marriage, this time to Carmen Electra, proves that you don't even need to write particularly good music to have sex with Carmen Electra. Food for thought, no?
Carmen Electra: Only marginally relevant, but this article needed more boobies.
Also in 1991, which would prove to be a pivotal year for altrock, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind. Utterly depressing in a way usually only reserved for British bands, the album struck a chord with the youth of the day in a manner that antidepressants should have. The album's success skyrocketed Nirvana into mainstream popularity and proved to the record labels that alternative rock can make money. This led to the almost instant popularization of grunge, a new subgenre of alternative rock, and ushered in a wave of major label record contracts with formerly underground bands. By the end of the decade, alternative rock would be on par with mainstream rock in popularity, and the success would eventually kill Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.
Some people just aren't very good with money.
These days altrock has made a comeback after the terrifying era of nu-metal and gangsta rap. Nirvana and The Smiths may be depressing, but that stuff was balls-caught-in-a-vice depressing in the sense that it made you want to kill everyone for being so damned stupid. If we could build a time machine and go back to nuke one era, it would have to be that one. Bands like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol now carry on the musical tradition of altrock, though the preferred term these days seems to be indie rock - apparently because the pants are once again tight, and that makes a difference. Whether you like the music or not, it is almost impossible to argue with the fact that these new alternative bands bring together the hottest girls and give the rest of us a glimmer of hope that we might get to score with some of them. For that, alternative rock, we salute you - with our boners!