Rock Genres: The Many Sounds of Contemporary Styles

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Rock encompasses many styles, which helps keep the music from ever running the risk of growing stale. Here's a look at some of the most popular subgenres as well as a list of the key artists in each.

Alternative Metal

The original ‘70s metal bands, such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, gave way to many different strains in the ‘80s. In contemporary rock, alternative metal is a convenient term to categorize like-minded groups that feature furious solos and accelerated tempos.

Though not as extreme in their approach as so-called death metal acts, which chronicle life’s penchant for war and murder, alternative metal bands embrace abrasive sonic textures within the traditional rock framework. In keeping with their label, these artists also demonstrate a desire to be an “alternative” to old-school metal, adding studio experimentation and occasionally drawing from punk and hip-hop in their arrangements.

Key Artists: Tool, Staind, Korn

Hard Rock

What makes one band “rock” and another “hard rock”? Generally, it’s the group’s musical approach. Hard rock groups emphasize pounding drums and loud guitars. Additionally, hard rock artists value volume and up-tempo urgency over soothing melodies and calmer rhythms. An easy way to distinguish between the two genres is that hard rock is the sort of music you’d put on at the gym to get your adrenaline pumping before your workout.

Sometimes, confusion can occur when hard rock bands do the occasional ballad. But even in this case, the typical hard rock artist performs the ballad in a sonically aggressive way, often with a powerful chorus highlighted by electric guitars. Also, hard rock artists do a ballad as a change of pace from their regular up-tempo material as opposed to it being a staple of their repertoire.

Key Artists: Velvet Revolver, Hinder, Buckcherry


When people hear the term “industrial” applied to rock, they generally assume it’s a harsh, unpleasant musical form full of discordant noise, synthesizers and drum machines. Admittedly, that stereotype does a decent job of encapsulating this subgenre, but it should be noted that industrial can also be accessible, using unconventional instruments in a mainstream rock setting.

Industrial acts often use this severe sonic palette to illustrate the disharmony of contemporary life, with its growing reliance on technology and de-emphasis on human connection. Even when these artists shape their material into a pop structure, the prevailing mood is one of distrust and anxiety. To be sure, industrial is definitely not ideal background music for paying bills or going for a pleasant Sunday drive.

Key Artists: Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, White Zombie


Grunge was a ‘90s offshoot of punk and metal that was popularized by Seattle bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But though the first wave subsided by the middle of that decade, a new batch of bands soon followed, adopting grunge’s earnest introspection and heavy guitars.

Post-grunge bands tend to sound like a modern-day updating of the old Seattle groups, usually featuring a vocalist who sings primarily about his self-doubts and personal issues. As opposed to other popular strands of rock, post-grunge focuses on mid-tempo arrangements. Musically, these bands split the difference between plaintive ballads and aggressive rockers, resulting in songs that combine the two extremes into a sad-eyed, propulsive middle ground.

Key Artists: Nickelback, Creed, Shinedown, Tantric


A style popularized at the end of the ‘90s, rap-rock merges the two genres into a combustible new sound featuring turntables, guitars and rapped vocals. An extension of the unlikely hit duet between Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” in 1986, rap-rock sometimes touches on the political protest of ‘80s hip-hop but more often simply combines the belligerence of both musical styles.

Beyond integrating hip-hop conventions into the mainstream rock format, rap-rock groups also often reflect cultural elements of hip-hop’s genesis in urban centers such as New York City. It’s not uncommon to see these bands featuring graffiti-style logos and turntable scratching.

Key Artists: Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine