Out of a mix of rhythm and blues, country-western, and gospel came rock and roll. Music historians can’t seem to agree who created the first true rock and roll song, but some of the early acts to pioneer the genre include Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and of course, Elvis Presley. In 1955, Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” became one of the highest-selling rock and roll songs, and some music historians think of it as the song that brought rock and roll into the mainstream. Whoever was first, there’s no denying that a new sound was invented in the early 1950s in the American South—guitar-driven songs with a heavy backbeat borrowed from the blues, and lyrics that channeled youth and rebellion.
Over the next decade, rock and roll spread across the Atlantic Ocean to Great Britain, where groups like The Beatles, The Hollies, and The Rolling Stones experimented with new sounds and brought them to the U.S. in what is now referred to as the “British Invasion.” Meanwhile, in Southern California, surf rock, characterized by an electronic guitar-driven sound heavy with reverb, was also taking off. Although much of surf music was originally purely instrumental, the Beach Boys’ and their lush vocal harmonies are probably what first comes to mind when people today think of surf music.
Since then, rock has splintered into more sub-genres than you can shake a stick at: glam rock, psychedelic rock, folk rock, progressive rock, post-punk, shoegaze… That being said, here are a few of my favorites:
Hard, fast, in your face – these are the hallmarks of punk. In the 1970s, punk rock developed as many artists tried to capture the rebelliousness that had characterized early rock and roll. Early punk featured a raw, stripped-down sound without complicated instrumentation; aggressive authenticity and realness were the goals. In addition to being a particular style of music, punk also constituted a counterculture and way of life that still inspires people today.
Grunge was born in the mid-1980s in the Pacific Northwest. Building off punk and heavy metal, grunge was dominated by a distorted guitar sound, discordant harmonies, and angsty, even nihilistic lyrics. Another trend within the genre is the stop-start song format; Nirvana employed this technique in many of their songs. Similar to how the Beach Boys are synonymous with surf music in many people’s minds, Nirvana became the epitome of grunge to many.
“Alternative” is a massive, sprawling genre that covers a broad variety of sounds, but in essence, it refers to the rock music spawned by the punk subculture and the independent, underground bands and artists active in the 1980s. DJs at college radio stations during this time were using the term to describe new, underground music outside the commercial mainstream, such as the Pixies and R.E.M. In the early 90s, Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell used the term “Alternative Nation” to describe the crowds at the Lollapalooza music festival. Other critics see Nirvana and the explosion of grunge in the early 90s as the moment when alternative music became an identifiable genre.