Top 10 Influential Figures in Alternative Music

Proclamations of the 'best' records have their own criteria, classic album lists surely informed by those bands who weren't just beloved in their day, but who've proved to be influential over time. But what if the importance of influence was total, and the only criteria by which we were measuring artists by was how influential they've proved to be, and will surely continue to be? Then you might have a list a little like the below. These are the artists who, in my estimation, have done more to influence the shape of alternative music history more than any other. PS: I almost decided to include the Nuggets compilation as its own entity, but decided to stick to actual people.

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Phil Spector

Photo of Phil Spector
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

You'd think all the tarnish on Phil Spector's name —the marriage-as-prison and spontaneous adoptions recounted in Ronnie Spector's memoir Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, the paranoia, the gun obsession, the procession of wigs, the creepy mug-shots, the small fact he's currently serving an 18-year stint for murder— might, these days, taint Spector's music. But, due to their greatness, Sepctor's pop-song productions remain unsullied by scandal. Spector's pioneering approach was dubbed the 'wall of sound,' with guitars, orchestras, echo chambers, and reverb built up into mini-symphonies inspired by Wagner. His most eternal contribution may, however, be the simple drumbeat to "Be My Baby," one of the most imitated in music history.

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The Beach Boys

Though the Beach Boys dwell in the realm of 'straight' pop music, there's no one band whose specter so hangs over the musical underground. It begins with their singular vocal harmonies, dazzling five-part performances of tonal purity and bittersweet quality. Then there was the studio devotion of Brian Wilson; the brains behind the bubblegum band a classicist —a student of 19th century composers— but also a progressivist, loading his songs with innumerable sonic details and component parts that, somehow, existed in harmony. Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' 1966 magnum opus, is an eternal wellspring of inspiration, fueling the dreams of every home=producer with a multi-track, ambition, and a sense of the psychedelic.
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The Velvet Underground

What's more iconic: the Velvet Underground, or the Velvet Underground's influence? Their music is amazing; 1967's immortal The Velvet Underground and Nico a landmark —a pop-cultural rupture— that continues to be felt to this day. But the Velvet Underground's influence has become so pronounced that it is its own influence; a stock short-hand to explain the legends of unpopular yet enduringly meaningful artists in all disciplines. The much-repeated refrain goes like this: though the Velvet Underground didn't sell many records in the years (1965-1970) they were together, every person who bought an album started their own band. And the wise thinker who first made such a sage claim? Brian Eno.
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Brian Eno

A more obvious pick would be David Bowie, but so much of what audiences think of as classic Bowie —constant reinvention, concept-driven, studio-tinkering, sexually-ambiguous— ably applies to Brian Eno, the one-time Roxy Music keyboardist who was Bowie's collaborative partner on that classic run of Berlin albums in the late '70s. Admittedly, much of his career time has been sunk in making mediocre U2 records, and his recent digital experiments have been more miss than hit. But Eno's legacy is mighty: a string of awesome singer-songwriter albums in the '70s (highlighted by Another Green World), the 'invention' of ambient music, and his Oblique Strategies Cards, lateral-thinking aids for stuck studio musicians that never go out of style.

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Kate Bush

The influence of Kate Bush is inescapable. She's an artist constantly covered by an array of bands —from disco to noise bands and everyone in between— and eternally cited as a source of inspiration, and her idiosyncratic voice is on hand as a constant comparison for any female with a slightly kooky, odd delivery. But beyond those basics, why is Bush such a persistent figure? Y'know, aside from the fact that she's amazing? It's likely in the way that Bush casually united high and low art realms; authoring chirpy, melodic, audience-friendly pop-songs whilst working with intellectual lyrical concepts and overarching themes. She was also a music-video pioneer, seeing it as another medium through which she could forge arch-artistic ideas. And, like, I mentioned that she's amazing, right?
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Joy Division

Peter Hook is almost deserving of his own entry, here. The Joy Division bassplayer's unique approach to his usually-anonymous four-stringed instrument —playing urgent melodic patterns with a brutal pick, the instrument resounding loudly as opposed to fading into the background— is instantly identifiable as his style, even when it's being played by someone else. And Peter Hook bass-lines are often played by someone else: they're widely imitated to the point of omnipresence. Beyond that, there's also Martin Hannett's masterful production, Unknown Pleasures' near prefection, Ian Curtis's dead-zone moan, the band's stylish wardrobe, and a host of snarling, spartan songs covered by bands brooding and obscure from here to eternity.

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Gang of Four

The least famous name on this list are, in such, the most disproportiantely influential. Gang of Four's early run of records are undoubtedly really good; their debut, 1979's Entertainment!, is really great. But its influence has been utterly spectacular. Who did it influence? Well, how about the entire American rock underground of the '80s: Fugazi, Big Black, The Minutemen, REM, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana all amongst the band's most vocal fans. When the '00s came around, the influence of Gang of Four was suddenly everywhere: disco-punk acts like The Rapture, Out Hud, !!!, and LCD Soundsytem were obvious devotees, and English post-punk revivalists Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party bordered on Gang of Four tribute bands.

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Plenty of people loved The Pixies in their day: they were one of the most successful indie-rock bands in America, had a rabid following in Europe, and made fans of folk as famous as U2. But their legend has spiraled radically since they broke up in 1993, with their 1989 magnum opus, Doolittle, now generally regarded as one of the very best records ever made; its worshippers many. But their influence has an interesting wrinkle, too: Kurt Cobain confessed that Nirvana were out to basically 'rip off' The Pixies, which means the millions of moaning imitators that sprung up in the wake of Nevermind were, in all their Cobain homage, really paying tribute to The Pixies. More »

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My Bloody Valentine

With each passing year, several thousand more press releases make reference to My Bloody Valentine's immortal 1991 LP, Loveless. And it's not just shoegaze imitators or '90s revivalists who are in thrall to Kevin Shields 'fluff on the needle' sound, but a whole host of bands who don't really sound like MBV, but still feel like spiritual antecedents of their aura. Loveless is now regarded a classic of studio craft on par with Pet Sounds, and to take influence from it is to imbue one's own music with a sense of ambition. The record has become a touch-stone for any one-man-band bunkered down in a home-recording studio; layering on instruments in pursuit of the mystic, trying to make their own masterwork via sonic smoke-and-mirrors. Long may Loveless's reverb ring out.

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Björk Guðmundsdóttir has spent so long at the cutting edge of songcraft that now anyone making pop-songs from avant-garde electronic elements is compared to her. While any female singing over crinkly beats is bound to be compared to Björk, not to mention any with a strange voice, her cultural influence seems grander than that. For any artists interested in wedding innovation and experimentation to accessible modes of song-form, Björk is a monumental figure of worship; a veritable goddess of the secretly-avant-garde. She also stands as a defiant, undeniable example of an artist who continues to seek out amazing, idiosyncratic, brilliant collaborateurs whilst forever remaining in charge of her output; her every LP a study in her own eccentricities.