Alternative rock (also called alternative music, alt-rock or simply alternative) is a style of rock music that emerged from the independent music underground of the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. In this instance, the word "alternative" refers to the genre's distinction from mainstream rock music. The term's original meaning was broader, referring to a generation of musicians unified by their collective debt to either the musical style or simply the independent, DIY ethos of punk rock, which in the late 1970s laid the groundwork for alternative music. At times, "alternative" has been used as a catch-all description for music from underground rock artists that receives mainstream recognition, or for any music, whether rock or not, that is seen to be descended from punk rock (including some examples of punk itself, as well as new wave, and post-punk).
Alternative rock is a broad umbrella term consisting of music that differs greatly in terms of its sound, social context and regional roots. By the end of the 1980s, magazines and zines, college radio airplay, and word of mouth had increased the prominence and highlighted the diversity of alternative rock, helping to define a number of distinct styles (and music scenes) such as noise pop, indie rock, grunge, and alternative hip hop. Most of these subgenres had achieved minor mainstream notice and a few bands representing them, such as Hüsker Dü and R.E.M., had even signed to major labels. But most alternative bands' commercial success was limited in comparison to other genres of rock and pop music at the time, and most acts remained signed to independent labels and received relatively little attention from mainstream radio, television, or newspapers. With the breakthrough of Nirvana and the popularity of the grunge and Britpop movements in the 1990s, alternative rock entered the musical mainstream and many alternative bands became successful.
By the end of the decade, alternative rock's mainstream prominence declined due to a number of events that caused grunge and Britpop to fade and led to the hiatus of the Lollapalooza festival. Nevertheless, post-grunge remained commercially viable into the start of the 21st century, with the commercial success of Creed and Matchbox Twenty, Radiohead's critical acclaim, and the success of some post-Britpop groups like Coldplay. Emo attracted attention in the larger alternative rock world, and the term was applied to a variety of artists, including multi-platinum acts. During the late 1990s and 2000s, other alternative rock bands emerged, including The White Stripes, The Strokes, Interpol and Arcade Fire.