Rolling Stone is the old geezer of rock magazines. Whether it’s still relevant is debatable, but it is certainly venerated on a social and, to a lesser extent, critical level. It was and is, in people’s memory, foremost among early rock magazines. Just the words “Rolling Stone” call to mind the music of the late 60s, which the magazine fetishizes to an almost myopic degree; within the top 20 albums on their “500 Greatest Albums List,” 11 are from the 60s (another 2 from the very early 70s). And when we say “the 60s” we really mean ’65-’69, as it was with Rubber Soul that modern rock began to emerge from rock ‘n’ roll.
That that period of five years could produce 11 of the 20 greatest albums of all time may seem inconceivable, but it reveals the meaning behind Rolling Stone’s preoccupation with the late 60s: Rolling Stone concerns itself principally with the development of rock. After all, it was not nearly as interested in Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, or any other rock ‘n’ roller as it was in the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix–all early rockers. If we consider that pop, jazz, folk, and classical are the four fundamental musical categories, then rock ‘n’ roll and rock must be separate subcategories of pop.
During the 1970s rock splintered into numerous factions. Of those factions the most instrumental to the next decade were punk, new wave, and post-punk, all products of the late 70s. These genres informed the development of alternative.
One could argue that alternative deserves its own category separate from rock (so that we would now have rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and alternative, not to mention electronic music and hip hop). But alternative developed fluidly from rock; there was no big bang moment, like the ones that had prompted the creation of rock ‘n’ roll and rock. Every 80s alternative band had its roots in previous rock music, despite certainly adding its own unique stuff to the mixture: the Replacements came from punk and rock, Husker Du from hardcore, the Cure from post-punk. REM, the Smiths, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Go-Betweens were all pop acts at heart. By the late 80s, alternative had been established as a definite genre, one which Sonic Youth solidified beyond all shadow of a doubt with 1988’s Daydream Nation. But as a mutation of what had come before, alternative was not in a category all its own.
It wasn’t until ’91, when Nirvana brought alternative to the fore with Nevermind, that a separate category was truly created. Once alternative was mainstream, it was no longer an alternative to anything–instead, it was all over the radio. Almost immediately, there was a retreat by artists “with integrity” back underground. What blossomed then was indie music.