Top 20 Alternative Rock Songs of All Time

Alternative Rock
Alternative Rock. Photo by Bodo23 / Getty Images
01
of 20

Depeche Mode - "Personal Jesus" (1990)

Depeche Mode Personal Jesus
Depeche Mode - "Personal Jesus". Courtesy Mute

The British electronic music band Depeche Mode released "Personal Jesus" as the lead single from their album Violator. Prior to its release, they had a string of six consecutive top 10 albums at home in the UK but had never reached higher than #35 on the US chart. Violator became a huge breakthrough release ultimately reaching #2 in the UK and #7 in the US. 

"Personal Jesus" is a song about individual people being a Jesus figure for others providing hope and care. The song has a bluesy swing that distinguishes the sound from most other electronic pop. The song hit #3 on the US alternative chart, landed at #28 on the pop chart and was a top 10 pop smash in multiple countries around the world. 

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02
of 20

Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991)

Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit
Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Courtesy DGC

Seattle-based grunge-rock band Nirvana were surrounded by huge music media buzz when they released "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the lead single from their Nevermind album. Lead vocalist Kurt Cobain said the song was an attempt to write a song in the style of fellow alternative band the Pixies. The song's aggressive guitar riff is instantly recognizable.

The moment when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke into the pop top 10 is acknowledged by many observers to be the point at which alternative rock entered the pop mainstream for the first time. Amid massive critical acclaim, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" reached #6 on the pop chart and hit #1 on the alternative chart. It was a top 10 hit in many other countries around the world. It earned two Grammy Award nominations including for Best Rock Song.

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03
of 20

R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion" (1991)

R.E.M. Losing My Religion
R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion". Courtesy Warner Bros.

R.E.M. were already celebrated as one of the top American rock bands before "Losing My Religion." They hit the top 10 on the album chart with their 1987 release Document, their 1983 debut Murmur was seen by many critics as one of the top rock debuts of all time, and the singles "The One I Love" and "Stand" both reached the pop top 10. However, "Losing My Religion," the first single from their album Out Of Time, took the group to an even higher level.

The term, "losing my religion," comes from Southern linguistic expressions and means losing one's mind or temper. The main riff in the song is memorably played on the mandolin. The song was accompanied by a striking music video directed by Tarsem Singh. It is modeled after a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" about an angel crashing into a small town.

"Losing My Religion" hit a new pop peak for R.E.M. landing at #4. It also topped the alternative chart. The album Out of Time hit #1. They earned two Grammy Awards including for Best Pop Performance By a Duo Or Group With Vocal. The music video won the MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year.

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04
of 20

U2 - "Mysterious Ways" (1991)

U2 Mysterious Ways
U2 - "Mysterious Ways". Courtesy Island

In the late 1980s, U2 were arguably the world's biggest rock band. Their album The Joshua Tree was a worldwide smash, and they followed it up with another #1 hit around the world Rattle and Hum. For the next collection Achtung Baby, the band turned in a darker direction incorporating elements of alternative rock and industrial dance music. The second single "Mysterious Ways" was seen by many as emblematic of the group's new directions.

"Mysterious Ways" had its origins as an improvisation called "Sick Puppy." The group struggled with finishing the song but singer Bono says they ended up with one of their funkiest recordings. "Mysterious Ways" hit #1 on the alternative chart and became the group's fourth top 10 pop hit reaching #9 in the US. 

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05
of 20

Radiohead - "Creep" (1993)

Radiohead Creep
Radiohead - "Creep". Courtesy EMI

"Creep" was released as the debut single by a young band in the UK named Radiohead. It was the beginning of the career of one of the most critically acclaimed alternative rock bands of all time. Reportedly, the song was written with inspiration from a girl that singer Thom Yorke followed around who unexpectedly appeared at one of their performances. 

When first released in the UK in 1992, "Creep" was not a hit. BBC Radio 1 said it was "too depressing." Later in 1992, "Creep" unexpectedly became a hit in Israel. Then it became a hit in other countries around the world and ultimately the US as well. "Creep" hit #2 on the US alternative chart and broke into the pop top 40. When re-released in the UK in 1993 it reached the pop top 10. 

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06
of 20

Nine Inch Nails - "Closer" (1994)

Nine Inch Nails Closer
Nine Inch Nails - "Closer". Courtesy Interscope

The music of alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails is heavily influenced by industrial dance music. They broke into the alternative radio top 40 with the songs "Down In It" and "Head Like a Hole" from their debut album Pretty Hate Machine. However, it was "Closer" from the second album The Downward Spiral that presented a definitive Nine Inch Nails sound generating both admiration and controversy. 

Group leader Trent Reznor says the song is a meditation on self-hatred and obsession. It is often misinterpreted as simply being about sex and lust. The lyrics were censored by silencing certain words when played on the radio. The accompanying music video, with Trent Reznor wearing fetish gear in bondage and a monkey tied to a cross was immediately controversial. However, it received strong support from MTV. "Closer" climbed to #11 on the alternative chart and just missed the top 40 of the pop chart. Although not the group's biggest commercial success, it is widely recognized as a definitive Nine Inch Nails song.

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07
of 20

Green Day - "Basket Case" (1994)

Green Day Dookie
Green Day - Dookie. Courtesy Reprise

The song "Basket Case" was written about Green Day lead vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong's struggles with anxiety. He wasn't diagnosed with a panic disorder until years later. He told VH1, "The only way I could know what the hell was going on was to write a song about it." Observers have noted that the chord structure of "Basket Case" closely resembles Pachelbel's Canon.

"Basket Case" was released after the group's singles "Longview" and "Welcome To Paradise" both broke into the alternative top 10. "Basket Case" spent five weeks at #1 on the alternative chart and reached a new peak of #26 at mainstream pop radio. The song helped turn the Dookie album into a punk landmark. "Basket Case" earned a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group.

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08
of 20

Soundgarden - "Black Hole Sun" (1994)

Soundgarden Black Hole Sun
Soundgarden - "Black Hole Sun". Courtesy A&M

Along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains, Soundgarden was one of the seminal bands of the Seattle grunge scene. They gained greater attention in the wake of Nirvana's commercial success. The top 40 chart success of the group's third album Badmotorfinger paved the way for Superunknown and the single "Black Hole Sun." Superunknown debuted at #1 on the album chart.

"Black Hole Sun" was only the third single released from the album, but it soon became a signature song for the band. The group's lead vocalist Chris Cornell said that it was sort of a surreal song playing on the title in the lyrics. He told interviewers that he wrote "Black Hole Sun" in fifteen minutes. The song went to #2 on the alternative chart, but the extended period of success made it the biggest hit of the year on the chart. "Black Hole Sun" also broke into the top 10 at mainstream pop radio. The song won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance.

 

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09
of 20

Alanis Morissette - "You Oughta Know" (1995)

Alanis Morissette You Oughta Know
Alanis Morissette - "You Oughta Know". Courtesy Maverick

Successful female solo artists are rare in alternative rock, but Alanis Morissette quickly became the most successful solo female ever on the alternative chart. She had moderate success with her first two albums released in her native Canada as a teenager. However, it was not until she joined forces with songwriter and producer Glen Ballard for her Jagged Little Pill album that she became a household name. "You Oughta Know," the first single released from the album, immediately notified audiences that Alanis Morissette had switched gears from mainstream pop to confessional alternative rock.

Rumors have floated through the years about the identity of the male mentioned in the song, but Alanis Morissette has refused to talk about the details. "You Oughta Know" caught on quickly when championed by Los Angeles' influential alternative rock radio station KROQ. It reached #1 on the US alternative chart and broke into the top 10 on the mainstream pop chart. The song paved the way for Jagged Little Pill to be one of the biggest hit albums of all time.

 

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10
of 20

Oasis - "Wonderwall" (1996)

Oasis Wonderwall
Oasis - "Wonderwall". Courtesy Creation

Oasis instantly became pop stars at home in the UK with their debut album Definitely Maybe and the single "Live Forever" broke into the alternative top 10 in the US. However, it was the single "Wonderwall" from their second album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? that turned them into international superstars. In 1996, Oasis' Noel Gallagher said the romantic song was about his girlfriend Meg Matthews. However, later, after they divorced, he said it wasn't about her and instead was about an "imaginary friend."

Co-producer Owen Morris encouraged the use of a technique known as "brickwalling" to increase the loudness of "Wonderwall" and give it an intense feeling. "Wonderwall" soared to #1 on the alternative chart in the US, and it reached the pop top 10. Oasis became international stars when the song reached the pop top 10 in countries around the world. It has become a favorite rock song to be played at wedding receptions.

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11
of 20

Foo Fighters - "Everlong" (1997)

Foo Fighters Everlong
Foo Fighters - "Everlong". Courtesy Capitol

In the wake of the death of Nirvana lead vocalist Kurt Cobain, the group's drummer Dave Grohl put together Foo Fighters, initially a one-man project with backup band. Through the years, it has become a stable band. The self-titled first album was a success and included three top 10 charting alternative hits. The second album The Colour and the Shape did even better breaking into the album chart top 10 and including the top 3 alternative hit "Everlong."

The song was written in the wake of Dave Grohl's breakup with his girlfriend Jennifer Youngblood. He was falling for Louise Post of the band Veruca Salt when he wrote the lyrics. "Everlong" reached #3 on the alternative chart and #4 on the mainstream rock chart. It also broke into the top 20 on the UK pop singles chart. Foo Fighters have become one of the most consistently successful bands on the alternative chart. The album The Colour and the Shape earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Album. It didn't win, but the band later won the award four times.

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12
of 20

Marcy Playground - "Sex and Candy" (1997)

Marcy Playground Sex and Candy
Marcy Playground - "Sex and Candy". Courtesy Capitol

The band Marcy Playground were named after the Marcy grade school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is an alternative school attended by the group's founder John Wozniak. The group's self-titled debut album included one of the biggest pop one-hit wonders of all time. The lead single "Sex and Candy" quickly caught the attention of alternative rock audiences. It was celebrated for revealing a softer, more gentle side of alternative rock.

"Sex and Candy" climbed to the top of the alternative chart and spent over three months there. It also reached the top 10 on the pop chart. The group's self-titled debut album broke into the top 25 of the album chart and earned a platinum certification for sales.

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13
of 20

blink-182 - "All the Small Things" (1999)

blink-182 All the Small Things
blink-182 - "All The Small Things". Courtesy MCA

blink-182 carved out their own corner of the alternative rock world with energetic live shows and a penchant for sophomoric toilet humor. The group were originally known simply as Blink, but when an Irish band of the same name threatened to take them to court, they added the 182 with no particular meaning. blink-182 are considered one of the seminal bands in the development of pop punk.

The group's first two albums had limited success, but the song "All the Small Things" helped turn their third Enema Of the State into a hit. "All the Small Things" was written with inspiration from punk legends The Ramones and in honor of vocalist Tom DeLonge's future wife Jennifer Jenkins. The production was put together by Jerry Finn in a deliberate effort to come up with a catchy single. The effort worked. "All the Small Things" hit #1 on the alternative chart and top 10 on the pop chart. Enema of the State also broke into the top 10.

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14
of 20

Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Scar Tissue" (1999)

Red Hot Chili Peppers Scar Tissue
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Scar Tissue". Courtesy Warner Bros.

Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of the most successful alternative rock groups of all time. They have sold more than eighty million albums worldwide. The album Californication was the group's third consecutive top 10 charting release. It featured the return of guitarist John Frusciante replacing Dave Navarro. It also marked a shift in the band's sound to a more melodic rock sound and lyrical concerns beyond the highly sexual material of the past.

"Scar Tissue" introduced the new album, the band's first studio release in four years, and it was a big success. The song spent a then-record of sixteen consecutive weeks at the top of the alternative chart. It hit the top 10 on the pop chart and earned the group's first Grammy Award for Best Rock Song. The slide guitar solos in the song were celebrated by critics. Californication reached #3 on the album chart and was certified multi-platinum for sales.

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15
of 20

White Stripes - "Seven Nation Army" (2003)

White Stripes Seven Nation Army
White Stripes - "Seven Nation Army". Courtesy XL

The duo White Stripes were critically acclaimed from the release of their first studio album, and that reputation only grew with each successive release. "Seven Nation Army" was released as the first single from their fourth studio album Elephant, and it became a significant commercial breakthrough. The duo said the guitar riff used in "Seven Nation Army" was being saved in case White Stripes were ever asked to do a James Bond theme song. The title of the song is what Jack White of the White Stripes called the Salvation Army as a child.

"Seven Nation Army" was instantly embraced by rock critics. It soared to #1 on the alternative chart and became the first White Stripes song to reach the Billboard Hot 100 peaking at #76. The album Elephant became the duo's first to hit the top 10 and won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album while "Seven Nation Army" was named Best Rock Song.

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16
of 20

Linkin Park - "Numb" (2003)

Linkin Park Numb
Linkin Park - "Numb". Courtesy Warner Bros.

Alternative rock band Linkin Park soared into the charts with their debut album Hybrid Theory released in 2000. It peaked at #2 on the album chart and became one of the top 10 selling albums in the US of the decade. After it generated three top 5 charting alternative hit singles, expectations were high for the follow up studio album Meteora in 2003. Linkin Park did not disappoint. "Numb" was released as the third single from the second album and is one of the most critically acclaimed of the band's career.

"Numb" reached #1 on the alternative chart and stayed there for twelve consecutive weeks. It also reached the top 5 at mainstream pop radio and the album Meteora topped the album chart. In 2006, Linkin Park reworked "Numb" with rapper Jay-Z for the track "Numb/Encore." It was a top 10 pop hit and earned a Grammy Award for Best Rap / Sung Collaboration.

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17
of 20

Muse - "Uprising" (2009)

Muse Uprising
Muse Uprising. Courtesy Warner Bros.

English rock band Muse have become one of the world's most commercially successful rock bands. They did not have any major hit singles in the US until their fifth studio album The Resistance in 2009. The previous album, 2006's Black Holes and Revelations, was a top 10 hit on the album chart. Muse led off The Resistance with the towering, martial single "Uprising." Many see it as having influences from both heavy metal and synth pop. 

"Uprising" became Muse's first #1 alternative hit in the US, and it soared into the pop top 40. The song also reached the top 20 at adult pop radio. The album The Resistance reached #3 in the US and hit #1 in many countries around the world. The Resistance earned a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album.

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18
of 20

Foster the People - "Pumped Up Kicks" (2011)

Foster the People Pumped Up Kicks
Foster the People - "Pumped Up Kicks". Courtesy Columbia

Indie pop band Foster the People emerged from Los Angeles, California in 2009 with one of the most impressive debut alternative rock singles "Pumped Up Kicks." The song was initially posted online for free download, and it gained enough attention that it earned the group a recording contract with Columbia Records. "Pumped Up Kicks" was written and recorded while Foster the People leader Mark Foster was working as a commercial jingle writer.

"Pumped Up Kicks" hit #1 on the alternative chart and spent eight weeks at #3 on the pop chart. It also broke into the dance, adult pop, and even adult contemporary charts. "Pumped Up Kicks" earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Duo or Group Performance and the album Torches was nominated for Best Alternative Album.

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19
of 20

Imagine Dragons - "Radioactive" (2013)

Imagine Dragons Radioactive
Imagine Dragons - "Radioactive". Courtesy Interscope

"Radioactive" was first released on Imagine Dragons' major-label debut EP Continued Silence. Then it was later included on the full-length debut album Night Visions. It was released to alternative radio in October 2012, but it didn't get an official pop release until the following April. The slow rise of "Radioactive" set an all-time record for the longest climb to the top 5 on the pop chart in history. It also set a record for the most weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 at 87. The big pounding sound of "Radioactive" was critically acclaimed. It spent a phenomenal 23 weeks at the top of the rock songs chart. "Radioactive" earned a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance and was nominated for Record of the Year.

 

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20
of 20

Twenty One Pilots - "Stressed Out" (2015)

Twenty One Pilots Stressed Out
Twenty One Pilots - "Stressed Out". Courtesy Fueled By Ramen

The duo Twenty One Pilots created a new sound in the alternative rock world. They draw inspiration from a wide range of musical genres including pop, hip hop, rock, and funk. Their first two albums had limited success in self-released form, but for the third album Vessel they signed with independent label Fueled By Ramen. With the assistance of two top 10 alternative hits "Holding On To You" and "House of Gold," Vessel broke into the top 25 on the album chart. The duo's sound matured on the follow up Blurryface.

"Stressed Out" is an irresistibly catchy song that discusses the trials and emotional pain of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. It climbed to #1 on the alternative chart and then all the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also a hit across adult pop, rock, and adult contemporary radio. "Stressed Out" won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Duo or Group Performance and was nominated for Record of the Year.

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Lamb, Bill. "Top 20 Alternative Rock Songs of All Time." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/best-alternative-rock-songs-4147392. Lamb, Bill. (2017, July 31). Top 20 Alternative Rock Songs of All Time. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/best-alternative-rock-songs-4147392 Lamb, Bill. "Top 20 Alternative Rock Songs of All Time." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/best-alternative-rock-songs-4147392 (accessed December 12, 2017).