Less a sound than an attitude, the term alternative or alt rock once heralded a small army of acts that generated loyal, if little, followings with signature styles, road-honed musicianship and an affection for rock's original do-it-yourself attitude.
During the movement's heyday in the 1980s and early '90s, affection for an alt-rock act was like sharing a secret. Rarely signed to major labels and relying on word-of-mouth, their success or failure depended on fans.
Nirvana changed all that. The Seattle act, a prototypical alt-rock act, let the secret out when the band's second album, Nevermind, proved a watershed moment. Suddenly, acts that had toiled and toured in obscurity were caught signing absurd record deals, in the hopes that Nirvana's lightning could once again be bottled. It never happened, and the alt-rock revolution ended with fizzle.
Recently, there's been movement in the genre's molding bones. Young bands, looking to the past for inspiration, have resurrected the sounds, style and ethos of alt rock. Against all odds, they are again trying to change the face of rock.
Here are a few of the major players:
Combing raucous guitars with slinky, dance-ready drum and bass, Franz Ferdinand, named for the Austrian noble whose assassination set off World War I, is both infectious and incendiary. The Scottish act already is accepted as rock royalty and is beginning to make waves on this side of the pond.
SPIRITUAL forEbear: Gang of Four
For nearly 10 years, this Issaquah, Wash., band toiled in near-obscurity. Today, buoyed by the killer catchy and oddly angular single Float On, the band has become the darling of MTV and frontman Isaac Brock's uncommon vocal style has become a summer soundtrack.
SPIRITUAL FOREBEAR: Talking Heads
These rawboned rockers share little with fellow Swedes ABBA, with the exception of a penchant for matching stage outfits. Part punk rock and part pop, The Hives have gathered a critical and popular following thanks to electrifying live shows and songs that are much smarter than they sound.
SPIRITUAL FOREBEAR: The Stooges
WILCO: Although this band's roots in the decidedly twangy Uncle Tupelo often finds it filed under alt country, its recent albums Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born have been poppy. Sonically speaking, it's a little like one of the Carter family laying down tracks with The Beach Boys.
SPIRITUAL FOREBEAR: Big Star
HEAR THEM: Thursday, Sept. 24, Atlanta's Fox Theatre; Friday, Sept. 24, Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, N.C.; Saturday, Sept. 25, BTI Center at Raleigh, N.C., Memorial Auditorium
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: While the question of whether the Truckers' loose, loud redneck rock is meant to be ironic or affectionate or both remains unanswered, the following is true: The Athens, Ga.-based act writes great rock songs. They are a fixture on critics' year-end lists, and their popular perception is now beginning to catch up with the media-darling reputation.
SPIRITUAL FOREBEAR: The Replacements
THE WHITE STRIPES: By stripping rock down to its primal elements - guitar and drums - the Stripes managed to make music that sounds simultaneously old as the hills and firmly footed in the future. Now all but authentic rock stars, it might be argued, this act no longer qualifies as an alt-rock ensemble. Still, the duo's willingness to bang out the blues with abandon certainly speaks volumes about its iconoclast spirit.
SPIRITUAL FOREBEAR: Bo Diddley
THE STROKES: Many credit this noisy New York act for breathing new life into the idea of alt rock. Decidedly lo fi and more concerned with musical texture than lyrical coherency, this band went back to classic New York acts such as the Ramones and Blondie for inspiration.
SPIRITUAL FOREBEAR: Television
INTERPOL: Proving once and for all that there will always be a place in rock for dour, pasty-faced boys, Interpol unapologetically plays for the black-clad mobs that would have once knelt at the feet of The Cure. In fact, the New York act recently played some dates on The Cure's Curiosa tour.
SPIRITUAL FOREBEAR: Joy Division
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE: Death Cab, known for its intimate brand of guitar pop, was best known for its oddball name before being name-dropped - time and time again - on the television show The O.C. Able to straddle the line between idiosyncratic and hummable, the band possesses a certain sweetness that gives listeners something substantial to latch on to.
SPIRITUAL FOREBEAR: XTC
HEAR THEM: Wednesday, Oct. 6, Asheville, N.C., Civic Center, with Pearl Jam; Tuesday, Oct. 12, Variety Playhouse Atlanta
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.