Define “Alternative”

Brian C. Poole
6 min readSep 1

Alternative music has always been more of a philosophy than a distinct genre.

Trends and tastes change over times, but the classic approach to alternative involves artists with a sense of adventure and innovation, doing things with music that aren’t necessarily what the mainstream is up to at the moment. Not always; plenty of acts have enjoyed success at alternative radio while also achieving broad success at mainstream rock and pop outlets. And while a variety of sounds classically make up the alternative milieu, there have been periods where outside influences narrowed the scope and overran modern rock playlists with styles more typically found on their hard rock siblings.

Even with the changing trends of alternative stations over time, some acts that have landed on the alternative chart would surprise listeners.

Ace of Base

“All That She Wants” (#17, 1993)


For a moment in the early ’90s, this Swedish synth-pop band became the global bane of parents of pre-teen girls, whose ubiquity could feel downright punishing. Already a success elsewhere in the world, “All That She Wants” was one of the group’s early forays into the U.S. market, at a time when synth-pop and international dance cuts received a warm welcome from American modern rock stations. Once the group crossed over to conquer the U.S. mainstream it didn’t bother catering to alternative outlets, which were moving toward a harder edged sound anyway. Timing was everything for this cut; synth-pop and electronic music always make a comeback with alternative radio, even if there are periods where those styles get de-emphasized, and this single landed during an “on” phase, when their style of music could still get a shot at the format and before their mainstream ubiquity made them unlikely to appeal to modern rock tastemakers.


“Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” (#6, 1989); “Caribbean Blue” (#3, 1992)

Brian C. Poole

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting