Alternative metal (sometimes called nu-metal) has been an evolving hard-rock genre for over two decades. If you’re new to the music, where should you start? Right here. These 10 tracks highlight the different styles and sounds that make up alt-metal.
In the late 1980s, there weren’t many African American rock bands, let alone ones that incorporated lightning-fast guitar solos and politically-conscious lyrics. But then came Living Colour and their breakthrough single, “Cult of Personality,” a snarling tune about the seductiveness of power. Guitarist Vernon Reid instantly became one of his generation’s most revered players.
Is “Epic” rap-rock or alt-metal? It’s both, which highlighted the massive appeal of Faith No More – they simply refused to be typecast into any one sound. Guitarist Jim Martin provides the searing riffs, and singer Mike Patton goes back and forth between rhyming and wailing. “Epic” made you bang your head, but it also suggested that metal could be weird, funny and still intensely powerful.
Alt-metal heroes Tool came to the world’s attention with “Sober,” the band’s first single from their full-length debut, Undertow. The ensuing years may have diminished this song’s creepy unease, but it can’t be overstated how genuinely chilling and gripping “Sober” was for its time. Frontman Maynard James Keenan showed here that he was a master of menacing atmosphere, and his band flexed their dexterity on a track that repays repeat spins with extra musical layers.
Korn followed Faith No More’s lead in crafting alt-metal songs that flaunted their weirdness, never better than on “Freak on a Leash.” Frontman Jonathan Davis seems to be having a nervous breakdown on the mic, while the guitars alternate between crushing riffs and funk-based grooves. “Freak on a Leash” is a profoundly odd song, which makes it even more surprising how well it did on the charts.
Papa Roach started out in the early 21st century as a rap-rock band, although they later distanced themselves from that sound for a more conventional hard-rock approach. “Last Resort” was their peak from that time, a perfect distillation of the nu-metal template that was an offshoot of alt-metal. The guitars are aggressive and streamlined, the vocals are full of barely-contained adolescent rage, and the whole song is constructed to sound great on the radio.
A song that’s loved and hated in equal measure, “It’s Been Awhile” marks the exact moment that alternative metal embraced the power ballad. Staind’s Aaron Lewis pours his heart out over acoustic guitars in the verses before surging power chords take over for the chorus. The song was a massive hit, partly because of its very successful formula and partly because the frontman’s intimate candor spoke directly to a lot of his fellow troubled souls.
One of alternative metal’s most thoughtful bands, System of a Down blew minds with “Aerials,” a searching, epic song whose philosophical lyrics are as baffling as the music is rich and transporting. System of a Down’s career was a testament to pushing the envelope creatively, and the moody strings and operatic guitar riffs of this track elevated alt-metal to a new artistic zenith.
Chevelle came onto the scene as alt-metal and mainstream hard rock were beginning to become indistinguishable from one another. “Send the Pain Below,” one of Chevelle’s first hit singles, finds singer Pete Loeffler channeling Tool, Filter and Helmet in his angst-ridden vocals. Chevelle harness alt-metal’s menacing guitars, but you’ll notice that the aggression is tempered by melodic interplay between the band members.
Arguably the most popular alternative metal band out there currently, Disturbed cemented their position with 2008’s Indestructible and its lead single, “Inside the Fire.” The demonic guitars recall primo Metallica, and the track’s overall energy feels like a train barreling down the tracks right at you.
Slipknot illustrate how alt-metal can be both ferocious and accessible on this lead single from All Hope Is Gone. “Psychosocial” is a marvel of merciless drums and fiery guitars, and yet the song is really catchy. Frontman Corey Taylor goes back and forth between bellowing and singing, and the song matches his push-pull intensity. Even after all these years as a popular genre, alternative metal still has plenty of life left in it.