The Ongoing History of New Music, Episode 813: The 90s, Part 3: Grunge

Up until the 1990s, the second of the rock universe known as “alternative” was all over the place. There wasn’t anything anyone could call a defining sound. If it was left of centre, weird to mainstream music fans and ignored by the media, then it qualified as “alternative.”

If you remember the late 80s–the decade in which the word “alternative” began to be used to describe a certain rock aesthetic–you’ll remember that so many artists were thrown into this category. Can’t categorize a song or an artist by tossing it into any of the regular buckets? Then there was the alternative bucket. And it filled up quickly.

Singer-songwriters. Indie pop artists. Industrial bands. Groups with synthesizers. Goth groups. Extra-noisy guitar bands. Punk and all its flavours. Even rap was “alternative” for a while in the 80s. Hey, it was new, weird and hated by the mainstream. Ergo, alternative!

There were so many different sounds, textures, moods and looks that just trying to come up with an actual definition of “alternative music” was impossible. We argued over what that word meant. The only thing we could agree upon was “I can’t tell you exactly what ‘alternative music’ is, but I know it when I hear it.”

Come to think of it, today’s alt-rock is a lot like what we had at the end of the 80s: a vast variety of sounds that were adventurous, different and sometimes weird.

But then along came something that codified everything, something around which everything else could coalesce and organize. And once that happened, alt-rock was unstoppable–for a while, anything.

Part 3 of our series on the 90s is all about the dominant and defining alternative sound of the decade: grunge.

Songs heard on this show:

Mudhoney, Touch Me I’m Sick

Mother Love Bone, Stargazer

Temple of the Dog, Hunger Strike

Pearl Jam, Even Flow

Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

Soundgarden, Rusty Cage

Sloan, Underwhelmed

Smashing Pumpkins, I Am One

Pearl Jam, Last Kiss

Need a playlist to go along with this show? Eric Wilhite has supplied one.

Don’t forget that you can get the podcast version of this podcast through iTunes or wherever you get your on-demand audio.

The Ongoing History of New Music can be heard on the following stations:

We’re still looking for more affiliates in Calgary, Kamloops, Kelowna, Regina, Saskatoon, Brandon, Windsor,  Montreal, Charlottetown, Moncton, Fredericton, and St John’s and anywhere else with a transmitter. If you’re in any of those markets and you want the show, lemme know and I’ll see what I can do.

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.

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