Before 1991, the world of alt-rock was a rich and diverse place. The number of sounds, textures, scenes, and genres that fell under the umbrella of music that qualified as “alternative” was almost endless.
For example, take a look at the top fifteen albums of 1987 at CFNY-FM (now 102.1 the Edge):
- U2, The Joshua Tree
- New Order, Substance
- REM, Document
- Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses
- The Cult, Electric
- The Smiths, Strangeways Here We Come
- Sting, …Nothing But the Sun
- Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
- Echo and the Bunnymen, Echo and the Bunnymen
- Blue Rodeo, Outskirts
- Pink Floyd, A Momentary Lapse of Reason
- INXS, Kick
- Pet Shop Boys, Actually
- Northen Pikes, Big Blue Sky
- Housemartins, The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death
Scrolling further down the list, we find Level 42, Suzanna Vega, Sinead O’Connor, The Grateful Dead, Rush, The Proclaimers, Yello and even Run-DMC. See what I mean about variety?
But when grunge appeared in 1991, there was a contraction of the alternative sound. Things quickly consolidated around big grunge guitars, ushering in a golden age for the Alternative Generation.
The problem, though, is that alt-rock–certainly alt-rock radio–has never really been able to move on from grunge. It continues to linger, with songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Jeremy” still forming the foundation of many an alt-rock radio’s gold library.
Question: When does this music become eligible for as classic rock? As much as I love big guitar rock and the great grunge of the 90s, when is it time to move on? Shouldn’t we be looking at bands like the Black Keys and Royal Blood as the heirs to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden? Or has there been such a paucity of material to replace the grunge gods that we have no choice but to keep going back to that well again and again?
AlternativeNation.net asks the same question.
1991: the year Grunge broke. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as a single in September, and everything changed. A manifesto for dissatisfied Reagan-era youth.
2018: Rock music is still in the remission its been in for a vague number of years. Everyone yearns for the glory days of rock to return. You still get some solid releases from legacy guitar acts like Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, STP. There’s plenty of quality underground guitar rock acts who never really make that leap outside of indie rag buzz, and we get some solid new acts like Royal Blood and Highly Suspect on a mainstream level. However, it seems like they never hit their career zenith and release an album the likes of Ten, Superunknown, Nevermind.
Something happened along the way that put a cap on rock music. We’ve had some little movements along the way (nu-metal, and the early 2000’s garage rock wave spearheaded by The White Stripes and The Strokes), but it just seems as though the rock scene is dead as a doornail in public eyes. We’ve haven’t experienced a “moment” in the vein of the British Invasion, or the Glam Metal explosion (maybe for the better), or the Grunge movement. Those three sweet years, 1991-1994, made as much noise as they possibly could before burning out with Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
In the years since, we’ve had a disgustingly hollow echo of the Grunge movement in the post-grunge craze, a scene that made such a vapid mockery of itself by 2010’s “Porn Star Dancing”, by My Darkest Days.
The good news is that texture and variety began to return to alt-rock with the rise of groups like Mumford & Sons starting in about 2008. A quick look at today’s charts features artists as different as AJR, Nathaniel Rateliff, Death from Above, Sheepdogs, Imagine Dragons and Walk the Moon. We’re not quite where we were in the late 80s, but we’re getting there.
Maybe grunge is dying off. It’s just taking a lot longer for those musical glories to pass on.