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.