What Are The Ingredients In This Nasty Soup We Call “Modern Rock”?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the narrative surrounding the ‘90s alternative rock boom, and how oversimplified it’s become over the years. Too often, we get a simple line like “Nirvana changed everything,” and if we’re lucky, a little follow-up along the lines of “Limp Bizkit ruined everything.” So I decided to identify the scenes, subgenres, and trends that most influenced the Modern Rock charts over the past two decades; I figured I’d come up with a dozen or so. Instead, I ended up with almost 30, which I’ve broken down below. (I’m sure in the comments we can argue about which ones I left out, or which bands shouldn’t have been lumped together.)College Rock (U.S. Division) Key bands: R.E.M., The Replacements, XTC, The Pixies Era of dominance: 1988-1992 Defining hit: The Pixies, “Here Comes Your Man” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: R.E.M., “Supernatural Superserious” By the time Billboard began publishing a Modern Rock singles chart in 1988, there was already a clutch of American bands getting consistent radio play. And for the first few years of the chart, jangle ruled the roost.College Rock (U.K. Division) Key bands: U2, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Love And Rockets, New Order Era of dominance: 1988-1993 Defining hit: The Cure, “Wish” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Depeche Mode, “Wrong” The divergent paths of U2 and R.E.M. since the early ‘90s kind of tell the story of how American college rock’s Brit equivalent was always better suited for stadiums and/or enduring cults.The Last Gasp Of The Old Guard Key bands: Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock Era of dominance: 1988-1992 Defining hit: Lou Reed, “Dirty Blvd.” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Elvis Costello, “Complicated Shadows” Yeah, there was a full year or two after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when these guys were still charting consistently, but ultimately Nirvana’s ascent killed off more than just hair metal.The Pre-Lillith Fair Chick Singer Boom Key bands: Tori Amos, Suzanne Vega, Sinead O’Connor, Kate Bush Era of dominance: 1988-1994 Defining hit: Tori Amos, “Cornflake Girl” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Paramore, “Decode” Now, the only female singer-songwriters that can get Modern Rock airplay are M.I.A. and Katy friggin’ Perry, and all the girls with guitars and pianos and mainstream aspirations have fled to VH1.Pre-Grunge Heavy Alt-Rock Key bands: Jane’s Addiction, Social Distortion, Living Colour, Faith No More Era of dominance: 1988-1992 Defining hit: Jane’s Addiction, “Stop” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Avenged Sevenfold, “Scream” I’m glad that these bands all at least have one signature hit I hear on the radio every week, because it’s nice to be reminded that there wasn’t some kind of vast unfilled niche between R.E.M. and Poison before Nirvana showed up.Seattle Grunge Key bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains Era of dominance: 1991-1995 Defining hit: Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Pearl Jam, “Brother” After the last round of tracks from Vitalogy and Unplugged In New York ran their course, the hits kinda dried up, but those four years produced the biggest chunk of recurrent radio staples of any of these scenes. And Nirvana changed everything, y’know.The Earnest Funkateers Key bands: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, 311, Sublime, Incubus Era of dominance: 1991-present Defining hit: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, “Give It Away” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: 311, “Hey You” Guitar bands that throw some combination of rapping, DJing, slap bass, and groovy good-vibes balladry into their sound may be the surest thing the Modern Rock format has ever known. The demand may fluctuate, but overall these kinda guys will never go out of style.West Coast Punk-Pop Key bands: Green Day, Offspring, Rancid, NOFX Era of dominance: 1993-1995 Defining hit: Green Day, “Basket Case” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Rancid, “Last One To Die” As a dedicated grunge kid, this stuff really got on my nerves at the time, but now I can admit Dookie was a pretty great record.The Industrial-Rock Crossover Key bands: Nine Inch Nails, Filter, Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills Era of dominance: 1994-1997 Defining hit: Nine Inch Nails, “Closer” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Hollywood Undead, “Undead” Après Reznor, le deluge, but most of them sucked and didn’t stick around for very long, so good riddance.The Post-Grunge A-List Key bands: Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, Foo Fighters, Radiohead Era of dominance: 1993-present Defining hit: Smashing Pumpkins, “Today” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Weezer, “Troublemaker” Once Cobain checked out and Pearl Jam set about becoming the world’s biggest cult band, there were a lot of guitar bands of widely divergent sounds and origins angling to fill the void, intentionally or unintentionally. But only a handful ended up with a sustained, successful run, and a large permanent fanbase, if not a Nirvana-sized legacy. Some of these bands are still chugging along like efficient hit factories; some of them could probably easily make hits again whenever they get their shit together to do so.One-Album Wonders Key bands: Bush, Live, Third Eye Blind, Candlebox, Soul Asylum Era of dominance: 1994-1996 Defining hit: Live, “Lightning Crashes” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Gavin Rossdale, “Love Remains The Same” These are the bands that briefly joined the above described A-list, landing four or five huge hits off of one album (usually but not always their debut), but proving unable to hack it in the long run. They’re the ones with ‘greatest hits’ albums that are 60% comprised of songs from the same album.Rappin’ Whitey Key bands: The Beastie Boys, Beck, Everlast, Eminem Era of dominance: 1988-present Defining hit: Crazytown, “Butterfly” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Asher Roth, “I Love College” One of the sturdiest constants in the history of Modern Rock radio: If a white guy decides to rhyme over guitars, one drop of airplay guarantees years of request line calls, whether it’s the Flobots or Dynamite Hack’s version of “Boyz In The Hood.”The Indie Rock Bubble Key bands: Sonic Youth, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Meat Puppets Era of dominance: 1990-1994 Defining hit: Pavement, “Cut Yr Hair” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Silversun Pickups, “Panic Switch” I can remember very clearly in the summer of 1994 being inundated with Green Day and Offspring, and finding solace in the occasional spins of “Bull In The Heather,” “Feel The Pain,” “Backwater,” and Frank Black’s “Headache” that kind of pointed the way towards what I’d spend a lot of the next few years listening to.The Birth Of Adult Contemporary Alternative Key bands: Counting Crows, Collective Soul, Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox 20 Era of dominance: 1993-1996 Defining hit: Verve Pipe, “The Freshmen” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Counting Crows, “When I Dream Of Michaelangelo” Like the female singer-songwriters that preceded them, these candy-asses ruled alt-rock airwaves for a few years; when got a little too schmaltzy, Hot AC was waiting for them with open arms.Stealth Hippies Key bands: Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Phish Era of dominance: 1991-1996 Defining hit: Blues Traveler, “Runaround” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Dave Matthews Band, “Funny The Way It Is” For a while they blended in with the alt-AC crowd, but eventually we heard the noodling and smelled the patchouli, and made them get their own Lollapalooza.Britpop’s Failed Invasion Key bands: Oasis, Blur, Elastica Era of dominance: 1995-1997 Defining hit: Oasis, “Wonderwall” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Snow Patrol, “Take Back The City” Cool Britannia came over here with a full head of steam, but other than a couple of ballads by the monobrowed Gallagher mooks, it never really translated to stateside success. Meanwhile, Damon Albarn’s shots at American radio recurrent immortality were a 2-minute blast of Big Muff riffage and some hooks he sung while dressed up as a cartoon monkey.Alternapop Key bands: Sugar Ray, Smashmouth, Fastball, Semisonic, Everclear Era of dominance: 1996-1999 Defining hit: Smashmouth, “Walking On The Sun” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: The All-American Rejects, “Gives You Hell” Former Idolator regular Anthony Miccio likes to throw around this term a lot, and it’s effective enough that I’m going to go ahead and nick it from him here. In the aftermath of arty collage-types like Beck and the Beastie Boys, we suddenly got a lot of goofballs in shades making shiny videos directed by McG, with clunky hip hop-inspired beats and laid back riffs. The summer of ’97 was pretty horrific if you ask me, but a few of these songs have aged well.Third Wave Ska Key bands: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris Era of dominance: 1995-1997 Defining hit: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Uh…. none. No Doubt only had one foot on board to begin with, so it was easy for them to jump ship to superstardom while everyone else more committed to skankin’ went down with the boat.The Godforsaken Swing Revival Key bands: The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Brian Setzer Orchestra Era of dominance: 1997-1998 Defining hit: The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, “Zoot Suit Riot” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: … Thing is, the ska bands didn’t seem that bad once these guys came along.The “Electronica” Revolution Key bands: Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim Era of dominance: 1997-1999 Defining hit: The Prodigy, “Firestarter” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: another dead end here Obviously, the last decade of car-commercial beats and critical love for minimal techno confirms that Americans weren’t actually afraid of this stuff–but the attempt to retrofit it for stadium rock that was a bit wrongheaded.The Punk-Pop Resurgence Key bands: Blink 182, Sum 41, New Found Glory, Yellowcard Era of dominance: 1997-2004 Defining hit: Blink 182, “Dammit” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: All Time Low, “Dear Maria, Count Me In” During the years when Green Day’s popularity waned and The Offspring briefly became a weird Alternapop novelty band, a new breed of slightly more goofball pop-punk took over, with increasingly nasal vocals that set the stage for emo’s bid for the mainstream.Rap Metal Key bands: Rage Against The Machine, KoRn, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Linkin Park Era of dominance: 1996-2002 Defining hit: Rage Against The Machine, “Killing In The Name Of” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Linkin Park, “Bleed It Out” The earnest white rappers and alt-funk bands are still going strong, but I think this scene can be safely called over. Rage reunited, but just to play shows; KoRn and the Bizkit are irrelevant; and Linkin Park and Kid Rock are still making hits, but with as little rapping (or metal) as possible.Grunge, the Second Coming Key bands: Creed, Nickelback, Puddle Of Mudd, Seether, Staind, Godsmack Era of dominance: 1998-present Defining hit: Creed, “Higher” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Shinedown, “Second Chance” This lot has a cockroach-like resilience that their Seattle forebears never had, which is a shame for the rest of us.The Return Of Sunset Strip Decadence Key bands: Hinder, Buckcherry, Saving Abel, Theory Of A Deadman Era of dominance: 2005-present Defining hit: Hinder, “Get Stoned” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Theory Of A Deadman, “Bad Girlfriend” Motley Crue hasn’t quite reached the Modern Rock chart yet, but it’s filled with bands who tour with them and who, for all intents and purposes, have just updated their whole style for the wallet chain era.”The” Bands Key bands: The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives, The Vines Era of dominance: 2001-2002 Defining hit: The Strokes, “Last Nite” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Kings Of Leon, “Sex On Fire” Rock came back! And then it went away again, except for the White Stripes.Crossover Emo Key bands: Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Dashboard Confessional, The Used, Jimmy Eat World Era of dominance: 2002-2007 Defining hit: Fall Out Boy, “Sugar, We’re Going Down” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: My Chemical Romance, “Desolation Row” At one point, it seemed like emo–or at least a bunch of bands who get called emo but inevitably deny the charge–would take over. But Fall Out Boy went pop, MCR went classic rock, and most of the other bands that landed a few hits are ice cold now.The 21st-Century Indie Bubble Key bands: Modest Mouse, Death Cab For Cutie, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, Interpol Era of dominance: 2004-present Defining hit: Modest Mouse, “Float On” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: The Airborne Toxic Event, “Sometime Around Midnight” It’s hard to tell whether this bubble will last longer than the one that Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement benefited from a decade earlier, but the Pitchfork-to-KROQ farm team system seems to be getting only stronger over time.The New VH1 Wuss-Rock Vanguard Key bands: Coldplay, The Fray, The Killers, Maroon 5 Era of dominance: 2002-present Defining hit: Coldplay, “Clocks” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: The Killers, “Spaceman” Unlike Oasis and the Goo Goo Dolls, Coldplay and the Killers have found the trick to Modern Rock longevity: A palatable amount of U2-style artiness.Hard Rock Dinosaurs Sneaking In The Back Door Key bands: Metallica, AC/DC, Guns N Roses Era of dominance: 2008-present Defining hit: AC/DC, “Rock’n’Roll Train” Vestigial reminder in a recent hit: Metallica, “Cyanide” The once-thick line that divided alternative stations from “active rock” stations officially went from blurry to nonexistent last year, when these bands all showed up on the Modern Rock chart, most of them for the first time. If the chart doesn’t exist a few years from now, this will be why.