By 1984, a majority of groups signed to independent record labels were mining from a variety of rock and particularly 1960s rock influences. This represented a sharp break from the futuristic, hyper rational post-punk years.
Throughout the 1980s, alternative rock was mainly an underground phenomena. While on occasion a song would become a commercial hit or albums would receive critical praise in mainstream publications like Rolling Stone, alternative rock in the 1980s was primarily relegated to independent record labels, fanzines and college radio stations. Alternative bands built underground followings by touring constantly and regularly releasing low-budget albums. In the case of the United States, new bands would form in the wake of previous bands, which created an extensive underground circuit in America, filled with different scenes in various parts of the country. Although American alternative artists of the 1980s never generated spectacular album sales, they exerted a considerable influence on later alternative musicians and laid the groundwork for their success.
Early American alternative bands such as R.E.M., The Hits, The Feelies, and Violent Femmes combined punk influences with folk music and mainstream music influences. R.E.M. was the most immediately successful; its debut album, Murmur (1983), entered the Top 40 and spawned a number of jangle pop followers. Alternative and indie pop movements sprang up in other parts of the world, from the Paisley Underground of Los Angeles (The Bangles, Rain Parade) to Scotland (Aztec Camera, Orange Juice), Australia (The Church, The Triffids), and New Zealand's Dunedin Sound (The Clean, The Chills).
American indie record labels SST Records, Twin/Tone Records, Touch and Go Records, and Dischord Records presided over the shift from the hardcore punk that then dominated the American underground scene to the more diverse styles of alternative rock that were emerging. Minnesota bands Hüsker Dü and The Replacements were indicative of this shift. Both started out as punk rock bands, but soon diversified their sounds and became more melodic.
By the late 1980s, the American alternative scene was dominated by styles ranging from quirky alternative pop (They Might Be Giants and Camper Van Beethoven), to noise rock (Big Black, Swans) to industrial rock (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails) and to early Grunge (Mudhoney, Nirvana). These sounds were in turn followed by the advent of Boston's the Pixies and Los Angeles' Jane's Addiction.
American Alternative Rock bands of 1980s included Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Minutemen, R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, and Sonic Youth which were popular long before the Grunge movement of the early 1990s.
New singers and songwriters included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Mark Heard, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones, Terence Trent D'Arby, Stevie Nicks, Suzanne Vega, Cheryl Wheeler and Warren Zevon. Rock and even punk rock artists such as Peter Case, Phil Collins and Paul Westerberg transitioned to careers as solo singers.
In the late 1980s, the term was applied to a group of predominantly female U.S. artists, beginning with Suzanne Vega whose first album sold unexpectedly well, followed by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Nanci Griffith, k.d. lang and Tori Amos, who found success first in the United Kingdom, then in her home market.
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