Does Alternative Radio Need to Rock More? Or Are We Just Going Back to the Way It Was in the Beginning?

If you’ve had a listen to any alt-rock radio across North America over the last 18 months or so, you might have thought to yourself “Where did all the guitars go? Where’s all the anger?”

I mean, just look at the Top 10 most played songs at Alternative right now.  Kongos. Fitz and the Tantrums. Bear Hands. Bastlle.  Phantogram.  Coldplay.  This isn’t what Alternative used to be.

Well, no it isn’t–and yes, it is.

When commercial alt-rock radio began coalescing in the 1980s, the textures of a typical station’s playlist were wide and varied.  Yes, there were guitar-based bands (Psychedelic Furs, Clash, U2, Love and Rockets, Billy Idol, the Cult), but there was more to the format than that.

Electronic music was huge (Depeche Mode, OMD, Tears for Fears).  Singer-songwriters were often celebrated (Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, Bruce Cockburn, Tracy Chapman). There was more than enough dance music to go around (Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Erasure) and plenty of pop of all varieties (General Public, The Cure, The Smiths).  And then there were the left-field entries.  If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember that Level 42 was an alternative band in the 80s.   Grace Jones, UB40,  Jane Siberry.  Fishbone. Run-DMC.

Back then, alt-rock was an attitude and a spirit, not a sound.

But then along came grunge and the textures changed.  Instead of the wide palette of sounds one heard in the 80s, things became more homogeneous in the 90s. Detuned guitars delivered with plenty of aggro was the order of the day.  Not that this was entirely a bad thing–damn, 90s music was good–but I’m also of the mind that in retrospect, grunge was the worst thing to ever happen to alt-rock.  Grunge and its progeny proved to be so popular and powerful that it re-created alt-rock in its own image.

That’s what I’d like you consider when you listen to alt-rock radio today.  Could it be that the format is finally widening to become as inclusive as it once was?  Guitars are great, but there’s more to the alt side of things than just songs played with dropped-D tuning.

I’m not the only one who has been musing about this.  Check out what Sean Ross has to say on the subject in Billboard.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

3 thoughts on “Does Alternative Radio Need to Rock More? Or Are We Just Going Back to the Way It Was in the Beginning?

  • April 28, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    Well said Alan. I miss the variety of the 80’s . As much as I loved the grunge sound , diversity is what is at the heart of alt music.

  • Pingback: Alternative rock radio, The Pretty reckless and The Orwells. | The Morning After

  • April 28, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    The first wave of grunge was brilliant music, no question, but it also damaged alternative as a whole, because grunge’s decline into second or third or tenth rate dreck in the later 1990s — all those bands that imitated the sound of Ten and Superunknown, without actually picking up any of the creative depth that made those albums worth imitating in the first place — was what killed the genre. It became frankly tiresome to listen to alt-rock radio in the late 1990s, because almost every new band sounded the same but except for Radiohead none of them were actually any good anymore.

    And that, in turn, set the stage for the early 2000s rise of “indie” — which was really, in a lot of ways, just a revival of “alternative as it existed before Seattle bands became a thing”, which had the long-overdue effect of reopening the spectrum of influences that a rock band was allowed to draw from. Suddenly you could do new wavey DOR again, or introspective folk rock, or densely layered shoegazer rock, or straightahead jangle pop. It started off mostly under the radar, but that creative refermentation began influencing more and more new bands, and that eventually became impossible for radio to ignore anymore.

    Which is exactly the trajectory that alternative took in the 1980s while mainstream arena rock was becoming stale and burning out. Go figure, huh?


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