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Sunday, August 21, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Alternative Rock
Alternative rock. On the surface, the term seems ridiculous. Alternative to what? Other rock? How useful can a genre distinction be if it encompasses Green Day, R.E.M., Nine Inch Nails, and the Foo Fighters? What is this thing called Alternative Rock? Where does it come from? Does it mean anything?
Alternative rock actually does mean something in the loosest general way, and also does come from somewhere, although it has always been nebulous and vague.
The short version of the story is simple; In the 1990's alternative rock essentially meant what was called both indie rock and college rock in the 80's. The term became necessary with the grunge explosion; which saw indie acts like Nirvana wind up with major labels. It came to represent both indie rock and graduates-of-indie rock, and essentially was "alternative" to major-label acts and, of course, it was an alternative to classic rock, which had been overplaying the same 100 tracks for over a decade.
Bands like R.E.M. were retroactively tagged "alternative rock" because of their indie pedigree. Bands like Smashing Pumpkins qualified, despite signing with a "major" at the start, because of sonic attitude, which was at odds with mainstream product. It included any major rock subgenre; the country-rock of Uncle Tupelo, the rap-metal of Rage Against The Machine, the folk stylings of Jeff Buckley, the lo-fi of Pavement, the sunshine 'n' lollipops Collective Soul and the dark and doomy Soundgarden all fit into this broad demographic, as did many other disparate musics.
However, alternative rock, despite being silly as a designation of anything, actually was a paradigm shift of monumental proportions in rock history; it truly represented a breaking point where Generation X's music gained formidable presence on the radio airwaves, breaking the stranglehold influence the Baby Boom held on radio programming. For the first time since the new wave days of the early 80's, there were entirely new rock stations devoted to an entirely new generation of rock. And most of it really was rock, with guitars, and bass, and drums, and attitude, and moments of poignancy, moments of tragedy, moments of heroicism, moments of bathos. It was a purely rock 'n' roll experience for a new generation, something that had not always been assured no matter how often the Baby Boom told itself there'd be a market for "Stairway To Heaven" in the 21st century.
For classification purposes, the "alternative rock" era is usually considered to have begun in 1991, when Nirvana broke, although many retroactively apply it as far back as 1988, when R.E.M. signed with Warner Brothers.
While the grunge explosion touched off the alternative rock landslide, it wasn't the only factor in play. Package festival tours, a 1990's take on touring that combined cutting-edge music with an outdoors faux-Woodstock experience, were instrumental in promoting a disparate set of performers to a key demographic, the Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. tours being a couple of the biggest. The term "Alternative Culture" came to be bandied about in mainstream media, popularizing an idea just as it had with hippidom in the 1960's. Like the hippies, "alternative culture" was an invention of the media, it didn't really exist as any tangible thing.
By the mid 1990's, alternative rock was the biggest thing going; classic rock looked quaint in comparison. Adult contemporary radio underwent a similar paradigm shift, creating what became known as adult alternative pop/rock, the alternative version of "soft rock".
In the 00's, the term itself seems dated; "alt-rock" sounds so 90's. Rock itself has been undergoing some thin years, and the lines between major and indie are ever more blurred. The biggest paradigm shift rock has seen in the 00's is the concept of downloading, legal or otherwise, which once again fundamentally changes how listeners are exposed to music. It seems likely that the actual days of "alterative rock" may already be over, or are in their twilight. This sets an approximate time-line of about 1988-2000, maybe a year or two further into the 00's.
Will Generation Y undergo a similar rock 'n' roll renaissance? Although it sometimes seems unlikely, don't count rock out; it has been presumed dead every 5 years or so ever since Elvis went into the army.
Some important/influential alternative rock artists/songs include:
1. R.E.M.: Orange Crush iTunes
Might as well begin here. In 1987, R.E.M. delivered their final album to I.R.S. records, after spending most of the decade as the ultimate college-cult band. They signed with Warner Brothers right after they had their first-ever top-10 hit, "The One I Love". Their first album for Warners might be considered the start of alternative rock as an idea, even if the term hadn't yet been coined. "Orange Crush" was a big FM radio hit, reaching #1 on both the Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock Billboard charts, making it a cross-generational crossover, yet the band was a new-ish (to the public at large) "indie" act; a first. The song itself was unlike standard 1988 radio fare; a fuzzy-worded anti-war sounding tune, with idiosyncratic Peter Buck guitar and sound effects, it stood in contrast to mainstream rock like Guns 'n' Roses. R.E.M. would go on to become one of the biggest selling acts of the 1990's, despite their humble beginnings.
2. Nirvana: Come As You Are iTunes
Nirvana represents the other launching pad for alternative rock. After recording their debut for Sub Pop, the band signed with Geffen (with Sonic Youth helping to broker the deal) and became the most enormous thing in rock since punk. What probably helped alternative rock become what it did was the fact that in discovering the Sub Pop roster (late, as usual) the major labels didn't just stumble upon a treasure trove of bankable, credible bands; they also discovered a scene and a lifestyle. Nirvana, perhaps unjustly, became emblematic of the grunge scene, which as we all know now, spelled their doom. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke them through big-time in 1991, reaching #6 on the pop charts; "Come As You Are", the follow-up single from Nevermind was the one that convinced America the first one wasn't a fluke. The "I swear that I don't have a gun" refrain on this track gives it a whole menacing edge in light of subsequent events, but even when it was new, it was a shocker for its relentless bad-buzz lyrics, ominous arrangement, and sonic wallop.
3. Smashing Pumpkins: Cherub Rock iTunes
Smashing Pumpkins made it necessary to bend the rules in what "alternative rock" was supposed to mean, opening a floodgate for other dubious applicants. After only one indie single, Smashing Pumpkins signed with Virgin records, a major player. Not wanting to give the impression of being a manufactured major-label band, the deal was kept quiet, and the band released its debut album Gish on the little-known Caroline label in 1991. It was a clever ruse, except that Caroline was owned by Virgin records, and despite its appearance as an indie label, it was in fact a major. The ruse didn't take long to figure out, but it did leave a question to be answered: was Smashing Pumpkins alternative rock? The answer lies in their music; far from mainstream convention, painstakingly overdubbed by an auteur, Smashing Pumkins were indeed an alternative to mainstream rock. Their next album, Siamese Dream, appeared in 1993 on Virgin proper, and kicked off with the intense "Cherub Rock" notable for its sheets of wall-of-sound built upon layers of distorted guitar.
4. Radiohead: Creep
If R.E.M., Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins helped define the genre, Radiohead's "Creep", a surprise 1993 hit from their debut Pablo Honey, helped define the audience. Featuring Thom Yorke's angst-ridden and cynical vocal, with a bass and drums groove with loud crunchy guitars, it became something of an anthem to loserdom, finding resonance with the ever self-depreciating and irony-loving Generation X. Beck mined a similar theme with "Loser". Radiohead would ultimately seem hellbent on displacing the audience this song won them; their subsequent releases grew increasingly experimental and electronica-influenced in a manner similar to Wilco's odd evolution. Any of Radiohead's later experimental albums like OK Computer and Kid A would have to be considered alternative rock as well, late 90's variety.
5. Beck: Where It's At iTunes
Always present in indie rock, and its son alternative rock, was the vague notion of DIY. Don't wait for a label to sign you; make your own records; distribute them, promote them, manage yourself, etc. without having to ink a deal with the devil. The logical extension of this were the assorted 4-track home recorders scattered in basements and garages around the country, who ultimately became known as lo-fi. Beck was one of the most inventive and gifted home-recording artists, recording his first cassette at home and releasing it himself in 1988. Beck's subsequent success and longevity also had to do with the mind boggling array of musical styles he could credibly perform in, ranging from folk to blues to hip-hop to psychedelia to r&b to country and beyond. He scored first with "Loser" in 1993, but had his greatest moment with Odelay, released in 1996. Aside from the inventive arrangement and production, "Where It's At" gives little indication of the rest of the album, arguably the most eclectic to make the top-20 in the 90's. A turntable based hip-hop rock anthem, it is nothing if not "alternative".
6. The Breeders: Cannonball iTunes
One of the first alternative rock bands to flame out, the Breeders, from Dayton, OH, got off to a very promising start. A "supergroup" of sorts formed by bassist Kim Deal (Pixies) and Tanya Donnely (Throwing Muses), it ultimately was led by Deal and her sister Kelley Deal when Donnely left to form Belly. The band had a hard-rock guitar-based sound (Deal switched to guitar with the Breeders) with some 60's pop influence and a punky delivery, and had a knack for willfully quirky lyrics and arrangements. Last Splash was their 1993 sophomore album, and peaked at #33, powered by the singles "Cannonball" and "Divine Hammer", both of which got intense airplay on alternative rock stations. "Cannonball" was the big hit, peaking at #44 on the pop charts and #2 on the Modern Rock charts. Melody Maker and NME both picked it as song of the year, and its woozy guitar line was one of the year's most memorable. Unfortunately, Kelley Deal was arrested for drug possession in 1994, starting a long, bumpy recovery process that ultimately precluded her from rejoining the band. The follow-up to Last Splash was released in 2002, without Kelley, nine years after the last Breeders album, by which point most of their audience had moved on.
7. The Verve: Bittersweet Symphony iTunes
The mercurial Verve only managed three studio albums together during their 1993-1998 run, but each are among the best British alternative rock albums of the 1990's. Originally lumped in with the shoegaze and space-rock movements, the Verve developed a remarkably textured, psychedelic but hard rocking sound that had become wholly their own by the time they released their final album, Urban Hymns, in 1997. They seemed poised for international stardom; the album peaked at #23 in America, and "Bittersweet Symphony" was a an alternative rock/adult alternative pop/rock crossover that reached #12 on the pop charts. A stunningly gorgeous number, it is built around a recurring sample of a snippet of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time", and features a good, cynical Jagger-esque vocal from Richard Ashcroft. Unfortunately, they were sued by the Rolling Stones' label for the sample, and ordered to forfeit 100% of the royalties from this song. This undoubtedly hieghtened tensions between Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe, who had been at each others' throats before. The band dissolved in 1998, leaving behind this elegant recording. And three excellent albums.
8. Jane's Addiction: Jane Says iTunes
Jane's Addiction, from Los Angeles, was one of the first wave of late 80's bands that came to define the parameters of alternative rock; their breakthrough single, "Jane Says" a remarkable and poignant song about substance abuse and mental instability and featuring a complex arrangement of instruments including steel drum. It was also virtually ignored by mainstream rock stations; it became an enormous hit on L.A.'s influential indie/alt-rock radio station KROQ, before eventually catching fire nationally on college stations in 1988. Led by Perry Farrell's abrasive but sensitive vocals and Dave Navarro's guitar, the band was enormously popular locally, and eventually their debut album, Nothing's Shocking spent 35 weeks on the charts. However, the real contribution to alternative rock was Farrell's 1991 invention of the Lollapalooza tour, originally conceived as a farewell tour for Jane's Addiction. Lollapalooza grew into an annual behemoth, and became the nation's primary showcase for up-and-coming alt-rockers.
9. My Bloody Valentine: Come In Alone iTunes
My Bloody Valentine is the type of group that cannot be avoided when talking about alternative rock, despite the fact that comparatively few people have ever heard them. Part of the Velvet Underground-Sonic Youth-Jesus And Mary Chain noise pop continuum, flagship shoegaze band, influential cousins to space rock and dream pop, My Bloody Valentine has become something of a template dozens of alternative rock groups have applied when constructing their sound. Masterminded by American-born, Irish-raised guitarist Kevin Shields, the band's legacy rests upon two virtually perfect albums that are essentially experiments in textured noise, tempered with pop sensibility and a willful disregard for convention. "Loveless", from 1991, is their masterpiece; one the band never released a follow-up to. "Only Shallow" was the leadoff track, and gained the most airplay, although "Come In Alone" may be the most exquisite numner, featuring the alluring vocals of Belinda Butcher, and an elegiac, almost mournful sound. Derided as unlistenable by some, those who really tune in will find something magical.
10. Camper Van Beethoven: Eye Of Fatima Pt. 1 iTunes
Camper Van Beethoven, the second oldest band on this list, date back to the jangly, tuneful piece of irony "Let's Take The Skinheads Bowling" in 1985, although their biggest album, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, their first for major-label Virgin, came out in 1988, and it and its follow-up (the band's last for 14 years) Key Lime Pie were college rock staples just as alternative rock was being born. Famously eclectic, mixing elements of garage rock, ska, country, folk, psychedelia, roots-rock, the band stands as a major influence to later bands of similar aesthetic, Pavement among them, and spawned its own alternative rock success with lead singer David Lowery's next band, Cracker, which hit with "Low" in 1993. The band's debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory is arguably their best, as it shows off all of their disparate styles with giddy naivete, although Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart is probably their most accomplished and accessable.
11. Sonic Youth: Dirty Boots iTunes
Along with R.E.M. and Nirvana, Sonic Youth's signing with major label Geffen was a big deal. Sonic Youth, which had grown from the early 80's no-wave movement in New York City, was the epitome of an indie band. Noisy, undisciplined (at first), bohemian, they spent the 80's thumbing their nose at anything that remotely smelled like mainstream, and broke through with their 1988 release Daydream Nation, after building an audience for their aggressive noise-rock one brick at a time. Once signed by Geffen in 1990, they were instrumental in getting Nirvana signed there, which makes them as responsible as anyone for alternative rock. Sonically, they've always been radical, although with their first Geffen release they did clean up the sound somewhat and take a more focused, song-oriented approach. While some muttered sellout, their first Geffen album, Goo, released in 1990, is about as uncomprimising an album as any other band has released for a major label. "Dirty Boots" kicks it off, a garage rocker that recalls the Seeds and the Electric Prunes, while Thurston Moore contributes a laconic, almost lounge-lizardy vocal.
12. Pavement: Cut Your Hair iTunes
Speaking of laconic, Pavement was that in spades. Their 1992 debut album, Slanted and Enchanted was a milestone release that helped spearhead the growing lo-fi movement. Recorded mostly on 4-track with outdated equipment, singer/guitarists Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg cooked up a melange of Velvet Underground meets Uncle Tupelo, with the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the 1994 follow-up was even better, and earned them a major MTV hit with "Cut Your Hair". It enters with a noisy chime of guitars before Malkmus and Kannberg launch into a woozy verse puctuated by a brief, catchy chorus. Odd guitar twangs, silly falsetto vocals, and slacker lyrics give this song its character, and also displayed the band's inventiveness of arrangement in the absence of very much to work with. Pavement released five studio albums in the 90's before disbanding in 2000, but never quite became as huge as some had predicted; their cult remains very devoted.
13. Pearl Jam: Even Flow iTunes
Nirvana may have been the first grunge act to break nationally, but Pearl Jam has been the one grunge band to manage a long-term career. Part of it had to do with losing the grunge tag; as early as 1993 the lilting folk waltz "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" suggested their desire not to be pigeonholed as sludge. Their lone pure grunge album is their debut, Ten, released in 1991, and while it may not be their best album, it is an essential album on its own merits. Ten didn't really start selling until after Nevermind took off; however once it did, it peaked at #2. In some respects, Pearl Jam's success helped to validate Nirvana's; those skeptical of Nirvana were reassured by Pearl Jam's less punkier, more 70's rock influenced brand of grunge, and its existence was proof of a real "scene"; both bands' acceptance paved the way for overdue national recognition of Soundgarden. "Even Flow" was Pearl jam's big breakthrough single; a chugging hard rocker that displayed Eddie Vedder's forlorn bellow to great effect, exposing the alternative rock audiences to one of the most distinctive and expressive voices of the 1990's.
14. Primal Scream: Loaded iTunes
Primal Scream has led a very strange odyssey as one of the leading U.K. alternative rock acts. Originally formed in 1984 by Jesus and Mary Chain drummer Bobby Gillespie, the band dabbled in guitar-based jangle pop-styled rock and Stonesy post-punk before the Madchester explosion of the early 90's set dance-oriented rock bands Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses loose on the British indie scene. The band's third album, Screamadelica took its cues from these bands, and meshed it with their essentially rock base, coming up with a brand new dance/rock fusion epitomized by the 1991 single "Loaded" an irresistable sample-laden beat-driven tune with hard rock guitar; it made the crossover to America, making it one of the first rock-with-samples tunes to hit in America. Pramal Scream continues to release excellent albums, on an infrequent basis.
15. Galaxie 500: Fourth of July iTunes
Largely overlooked, minimalist and morose Harvard alumni Galaxie 500 were another early example of the new breed of alternative rock; their gentle, unconventionally melodic and strangely insular sound was far removed from the abrasive post-punk, or the earthy roots rock that characterized most 1980's indie releases. If My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth were about noise, Galaxie 500 was about quietitude and somber reflection. "Fourth of July" is the leadoff from their final and best album, This Is Our Music from 1990. With its sly Velvet Underground reference, its insistent momentum despite its sparse instrumentation, it is a culmination of their first two largely-ignored releases. Galaxie 500 has gotten some respect in recent years, following the reissuance of their catalog. In retrospect, they were key players in the dream pop arena, and had a hand in creating sadcore, both important, if somewhat arbitrary alternative rock subgenres.
16. Nine Inch Nails: Head Like A Hole
Nine Inch Nails represented the most extreme nihilistic edge of rock in the 1990's outside of death metal. Essentially the one-man-group of Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails became the most popular industrial act in history, and made Reznor something of a dark alternative sex symbol. Reznor had been working in music since 1984; it was in 1988 that he began to piece together Skinny Puppy and Ministry influenced music that ultimately would carry the NIN banner. "Head Like A Hole" was his major 1990 breakthrough; it scored on the dance charts and Modern Rock chart. Reznor's brand of industrial music generally had a somewhat warmer and more humanistic element than those of his influences, and his pop sense gave them a structure that clicked with radio and audiences in way previous industrial artists could only dream of. Nine Inch Nails' commercial peak was the 1999 album The Fragile, one of the most abrasive albums ever to reach #1.
17. Red Hot Chili Peppers: Give It Away iTunes
Red Hot Chili Peppers have released major-label albums since their 1984 debut, which make them a suspect inclusion on a 90's alternative rock playlist. However, the band didn't break through until their cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" clicked in 1989, just in time for the alternative rock transformation that would ultimately provide them with the airplay venues they had previously lacked. Consequently, their 1991 album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was a monster hit, reaching #3. "Give It Away" is a smoldering piece of funk-rock that became a #1 Modern Rock track in 1992 and helped launch them into the alternative rock forefront. Despite some key personnel changes their formula remains fairly intact, and they remain one of the best selling rock acts on the planet.
18. Soundgarden: Rusty Cage iTunes
Soundgarden didn't break nationally until after Nirvana and Pearl Jam did, despite having been around longer than either, and sharing with Mudhoney claim to the kings of grunge label locally. Soundgarden was another indie act that was signed to a major at the turn of the 1990's, landing with A&M following their SST debut. Badmotorfinger, released in 1991, was their second A&M record, and is generally acknowledged as their best. Demonstrating a range far beyond the grunge/metal tag they usually got, "Rusty Cage" was dynamic enough and flexible enough to be covered by Johnny Cash to excellent effect. Badmotorfinger did gain them a breakthrought, peaking at #39; their follow-up, Superunknown reached #1, powered by "Black Hole Sun".
19. Green Day: Longview iTunes
In their own not-so-quiet way, Green Day has ultimately become a very influential group, particularly on late 90's and early 00's alternative rock. Simple punk revivalists themselves, they opened the door for neo-punk, metal punk, and third-wave ska; countless quasi-punk bands have been formed in their wake, on indie labels and major labels, essentially trying to repeat the basic Green Day formula. Their 1994 debut, Dookie, remains their definitive statement; at over 8 million copies sold, it trounced all sales records for punk, and helped legitimize punk as a radio-friendly 90's alternative rock form, most likely to the bitter chagrin of first-generation punks. Recorded for Reprise on a decent budget, how "punk" they really are remains the stuff of heated debate. Adolescent more than threatening, melodic more than menacing, it is punk with its rudest edges sanded off. But it is punchy, catchy music. "Longview" is probably the best from Dookie; it, "Basket Case", and "When I Come Around" were all #1 Modern Rock tracks.
20. Dinosaur Jr.: Freak Scene iTunes
Led by J Mascis, Dinosaur Jr. were a post-punk indie band of the late 80's who re-introduced guitar pyrotechnics to indie rock; Mascis followed his muse from punk to a Neil Young direction, specializing in feedback extravaganzas. "Freak Scene" is from their 1988 release on SST, Bug. "Freak Scene" is in fact an ode of sorts to the paradigm shift that was in motion before it had yet been given a name. It also represents the essential musical core of alternative rock; a blurring of the boundaries between punk and metal (unthinkable in the early 80's), hard-hitting garage rock three chord-isms, an angst-ridden slacker lyric, and a willful disregard for commercial notions of rock while retaining an undeniable catchiness. Dinosaur Jr. continued releasing albums through 1997, but none quite match this one for encapsulating alternative rock in the nutshell.
Sunday Morning Playlist is a weekly feature.
Listen to the Verve: Bittersweet Symphony (1997)