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Alternative rock refers to artists that are rooted in the style, sound and/or ethos of punk rock. It is essentially a continuation of the post-punk and new wave genres of the early 80's only even more fractured and diverse. The first wave of alternative rock included jangle pop, grunge, noise rock, and some of the more eclectic punk and hardcore bands. Most alternative rock bands in this wave were largely underground although some became cult hits(Pixies, The Replacements, The Smiths) and a few even gaining mainstream success(U2, R.E.M, The Cure). In 1991 bands like Nirvana, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam brought alternative to the mainstream. This second wave of alternative rock was much more polished, radio friendly and testosterone driven. Most of the more offbeat and experimental bands that were more in the sound or spirit of the alternative rock of the 80's became known as indie rock which was a largely underground style until the 2000's.
It is also important to notice that it can be total crap as well. Capitalism can sell everything and on the other hand pop can be alternative.
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