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Sunday, April 24, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Adult Alternative Pop/Rock
Adult-alternative pop/rock is a term that came into vogue following the coining of the term "alternative rock" in the early 90's. It's really a new name for an old concept; that of soft-rock.
In the 70's, soft-rock was a catchall term that referred to the melodic strain of bands that played rock, but of a mellower, non-threatening nature. Among such bands were Wings, Fleetwood Mac, Bread, and the like. Soft rock also encompassed singer/songwriters of the era, including Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Al Stewart.
It was music that was suitable for the workplace, or as an accompaniment to housework, or as a background to conversation. It wasn't loud, it wasn't aggressive, its musical concerns focused on melody and, to a lesser degree, lyrics. Unlike the pop of the 60's, which was what the people who didn't like rock listened to, 70's soft-rock audiences had rock listening experience. The audience tended to be somewhat older and more female than rock listeners at large, although some soft rockers had large teen appeal, too.
Since many of these artists shared many musical qualities, and they all had middle-of-the-road approaches, the catchall phrase became a useful designation, if not a true organic genre. A mention of "soft rock" today still conjures up images of mid-late 70's music for most people.
The term faded from use as rock's mainstream appeal waned in the early 80's. The basic concept, however endured. Renamed "adult contemporary" the new designation still meant lightweight melodic bands, like the Phil Collins-led Genesis, or tuneful singer/songwriters like Cyndi Lauper. The hipness factor was upped a little from the 70's, as some of the performers had quirky edges, and modern (especially synthetic) instrumentation was used. Light urban R&B like Whitney Houston gave the playlists a shade more color than the 70's counterpart had. But as rock lost its grip on the mainstream, adult contemporary lost a connection to rock listeners; it had once again become a music for people who didn't especially like rock.
In wake of the invention of the term alternative rock, following the explosion of independant acts getting mainstream exposure following grunge's emergence, a new radio format developed.
Once again, it was designed with melodic inoffensiveness in mind; suitable for any occasion where the music mustn't dominate. It drew from the melodic bands of its day, and the singer/songwriters, who were flourishing for the first time since the 70's. It was distinctly modern and up-to-date, but it wasn't overly challenging or threatening. It also was particularly popular among an older, more feminine listenership, but had its teen support, too. It has come to be known by the somewhat unwieldy term "adult alternative pop/rock".
It was instantly radio friendly music; smooth, melodic, and mellow. It had edges, showing a hip progression from the 70's and 80's, but the edges were crafted delicately, or sanded down do they wouldn't hurt anyone. Some of the artists were nakedly ambitious in their quest for mainstream success, others were reluctant anti-heroes, like pop/rock Cobains.
The progression of pop from the 60's to 70's to 80's demonstrated a widening of available styles and sounds, and the 90's continued this progression. Stars of the adult/alternative pop/rock world included a new generation of singer/songwriters, Tori Amos, Jewel, Fiona Apple among them) and melodic rock groups (the Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms, the New Radicals among them). R.E.M.'s success among older audiences made tuneful roots-rock a componant of the designation (Counting Crows, Hootie And The Blowfish), mild trip-hop (Portishead, Beth Orton) also qualified.
In many respects, the 90's version of soft rock was the best ever; the alternative renaissance in rock had left audiences with more sophisticated tastes than in the 80's; the sonic palette and vocabulary had grown immensely over the decades too. Some adult/alternaitve pop/rock artists produced consistently interesting work. Others, as in all decades prior, produced catchy claptrap, or fruity and over-earnest confessionals. There really was something for everyone within the format; some that clicked with rock fans, others that didn't.
Again, it really isn't a genre in the organic sense; it's an extraneous designation, one made unfairly at times. But as a catchall term, it is extremely useful. Because of its broad definition, there are dozens of artist who also could merit inclusion on this list.
Among the significant Adult Alternative Pop/Rock artists and songs:
1. Sheryl Crow: Every Day Is A Winding Road
Crow had a lot to prove when whe made her sophomore album. She had spent the better part of a decade working as a backup singer before releasing her successful Tuesday Night Music Club in 1993, which netted her three Grammys. She had gone through a bitter fight with her own bandmembers over songwriting credit. She received some bad press in the wake of a friend's suicide, and her boyfriend's accidental death. She fought with producer Bill Bottrell, and wound up producing herself. And she ultimately vinindicated herself with what still stands as the best album of her career, Sheryl Crow. Talking the trad-rock approach of her debut, and applying modern techniques borrowed from trip-hop and electronica ever so tastefully, she came up with an accessible, satisfying album that pleased the pop and rock audiences. "Every Day Is A Winding Road" is the hip, effervescent hit for the pop crowd, "If It Makes You Happy" a Stones-ey rocker for the rock bunch.
2. Natalie Merchant: Kind And Generous
Natalie Merchant originally came to prominence in the late 80's-early 90's jangle-pop band 10,000 Maniacs. Known for her rich voice, earnest, wordy lyrics, quirky delivery, and liberal politics, she didn't seem destined for mainstream success; when 10,000 Maniacs finally scored a #11 hit with a cover version of Patti Smith's "Because The Night", Merchant made good on a "two years notice" she had given, and left the band. Her solo albums consciously pursued a more sophisticated, adult sound than her previous band could muster, and she had a top-10 hit with the vaguely jazzy "Carnival". "Kind And Generous" from her second album Ophelia reached #1 on the adult charts, and remains her most popular solo song. This is one big irresistable juicy hook; while light in the lyric department (here a plus for Merchant, who can be wordy and dogmatic), it has a great feel good vibe, an instantly hummanble melody, and the sessionmen can really play, with a tuneful, jazzy style.
3. Counting Crows: Hanginaround
Counting Crows emerged suddenly in 1994, after having filled in for an absent Van Morrison at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 1993. Sounding very much like Van Morrison, with some of the Band thrown in, they specialized in a rootsy late-60's early 70's sound that immediately gained favor with older audiences who had given up on rock when the 60's ended. Adam Duritz was an expressive frontman, and his lyrics were rich, angst ridden, but also witty. "Mr. Jones" was their 1994 breakthrough, but "Hanginaround", from 1999, was a bigger overall hit, and is their best song. Guitar driven, slightly woozy, with a fat singalong chorus, and pretty good lyrics about being bored out of your skull, this struck a nerve with young audiences, too.
4. Dave Matthews Band: Crash Into Me
Somewhat difficult to pigeonhole, Dave Matthews, from South Africa, and his band fuse elements of pop, worldbeat, jam band, and roots rock into their approach, which has proven immensely successful; crossing over with several divergent audiences. This dabbler's approach, and the band's embrace by adult alternative radio also makes them a very disliked band in some quarters, and their frequently hook-less songs tend to ebb and flow in the background without commanding attention, which is why the adult format loves them. "Crash Into Me" was a #1 adult alternative hit in 1997, and is emblematic of their style; a bluegrass acoustic guitar strums ringingly in the background as Matthews delivers vague, impressionistic lyrics in a languid, jazzy croon. It's pretty and romantic. If you hate them, this won't win you over.
5. Goo Goo Dolls: Name
Veteran band Goo Goo Dolls, from Buffalo, began life as something of a poor man's Replacements, and eventually softened the edges to the point where they became major hitmakers in the latter half of the 90's, scoring especially big with the acoustic ballads "Name" and "Iris" in 1996 and 1998, respectively. Their discography reaches all the way back to 1987 and First Release, a sloppy-sounding thrash punk record recorded for Metal Blade records. By 1993, they had become a credible power-pop band, and Superstar Car Wash became their first charting album; "Name" was an across-the-board rock/alternative/adult hit from the 1995 followup, A Boy Named Goo.
6. Gin Blossoms: 'Til I Hear It From You
The Gin Blossoms story is not a happy one. Originally formed in Tempe, Arizona as a power pop band, the band went through several key lineup changes before their debut EP Up & Crumbling was released in 1991. Their 1992 debut album, New Miserable Experience, was a surprise breakout hit, reaching #30 on the Billboard album charts, and spawning the hit singles "Hey Jealousy" "Found Out About You" and "Allison Road", all tuneful power-pop rockers with some real guitar grit, and the melancholy voice of singer/guitarist Doug Hopkins, who wrote the first two. Hopkins, unfortunately, had been kicked out of the band for alcoholism and depression problems just prior to the album's release, and after it became a hit, he commited suicide by shooting himself in the head. "'Til I Hear It From You", co-written by Marshall Crenshaw with bandmembers Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson and featuring Hopkins, became the band's biggest hit of their career in 1995 following its inclusion in the film Empire Records, although it didn't appear on a Gin Blossoms album. The band recorded a sophomore album without Hopkins that reached #10 on the charts in 1996, but broke up after that.
7. The Cranberries: Linger
The Irish Cranberries originally mixed an abrasive guitar sound reminiscent of the Smiths with a softer dream-pop lilt, fronted by the mildly celtic vocal stylings of Dolores O'Riordan. "Linger" was the song that got her the job with the band; responding to an ad for a female singer for the band, she took a demo of the song home and added lyrics and vocals to it. A rough version was released to local record stores; a lush, re-recorded version apperars on their 1993 debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?. Featuring O'Riordan's rich, keening vocal and unabashedly bittersweet strings, this became an enormous hit after MTV picked it up months after its release.
8. Alanis Morissette: Thank U
Morissette, from Ottawa, Canada, created a sensation with her American debut CD, Jagged Little Pill, in 1995, at the tender age of 21. She already had released two albums in Canada, Alanis in 1991 (when she was 17) and Now Is The Time in 1992. Anything but tender, her breakthrough single "You Oughta Know" was almost as foreboding and scary as "Gimme Shelter" in its sonic assault; the ferocious lyrics of a woman scorned and her passionate, snarling vocal hit a real nerve and catipulted her to stardom. The album produced an amazing six hit singles, and was a daunting effort to follow up. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, released in 1998, and a #1 album, did fail to reach the astronomical sales figures of the debut, but it did contain this hit, one of her absolute best. "Thank U" benefits from a change from the anger of the debut; delicate, elegiac, regretful, vulnerable, resonant and sung with passion by Morissette, it is a good example of the depth of her talent, and why she shouldn't be written off as "that angry chick".
9. Fiona Apple: Fast As You Can
Apple was only 19 when her debut album Tidal was released, but her throaty vocals and pop sense carried a maturity befitting a much older woman. "Fast As You Can" from her follow-up, is a spare, almost stream-of-consciousness piano-driven number that sounded quite unlike anything else on the charts in 1999. The full title of her 1999 album was When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and if You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and if You Fall It Won't Matter, 'Cuz You'll Know That You're Right, which perhaps unintentionally reveals Apple's weak spot; a tendency towards overearnest wordiness, and a certain preciousness that did belie her tender years to a degree. Strangely, despite the album peaking at #13 on the charts, there has been nothing since then from her.
10. Tracy Chapman: Give Me One Reason
Tracy Chapman helped to revive the popularity of the guitar-and-vocal style of singer/songwriter in the 1980's, after the style had been in steady decline since the mid-70's. Scoring with "Fast Car" in 1988, she bacame a favorite of aging liberal baby Boomers seeking a catchy sound with quasi-political lyrics, and also left-leaning college students of the late 80's who favored the melodicism of R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs. She also placed albums on the R&B charts, almost an impossibility for a singer/songwriter. She was hitless for 7 years, however, when she struck with "Give Me One Reason" a gritty piece of bluesy R&B that recalls 60's era Aretha Franklin. The single reached #3, and the album #4. Chapman's star has since receded again.
Listen to Counting Crows: 'Round Here [live in Paris] (1994)