The State of Alternative: A Conversation

Music is always moving and evolving with the times, and as it pertains to the genre of alternative, it evolves rather quickly. So to help analyze the genre, I’ve recruited James from the Appetite for Distraction Alternative Top 10 Countdown to help me look into where alternative music is, where it’s going, and who is leading the way. Hope you enjoy.

Right now, where do you think Alternative music is in the realm of music in general?

James: I think that it must be very hard for radio programmers to decide what qualifies as “Alternative” these days.

You have bands like The Black Keys, Cage the Elephant, and Jack White playing what amounts to garage rock (bigger, fuzzier guitars. simple, blues-based rock and roll).

Then you have bands like Grouplove, Walk the Moon, and Of Monsters and Men bringing the sort of hippie, jammy, collectivist group-sing-along vibe….

Gotye was on the top of the chart (here, when I say “the chart”, I mean the Alternative Songs chart, even though he also topped the Hot 100, which is what most people would probably mean by “the chart”) for weeks and he’s basically playing Peter Gabriel music!

At the end of the day, I guess I’m not sure how we even come to define “Alternative”, let alone where it sits in the general realm of music. It certainly isn’t as clear as it was 15 years ago.

Alan: I think the alternative genre now is probably in its next prime. 2012 has been HUGE for the genre and its artists, including bands like fun., Black Keys, and Gaslight Anthem. It seems like being instrumental, efficient, and “real” is coming back, which is one of the best things the music scene can do right now.

If we go back years ago, some of the biggest musical acts were bands, like Blink 182 and Sum 41. But when popular music decided to change its sound to something more danceable, more electronic, bands got the blunt end of the stick. Now, there are some acts that evolved with the times, but most that stayed with the music have gotten better over time. Some of the best albums of the past five years have been alternative darlings (like Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, and Black Keys), and with that kind of exposure only helps these bands get to the heights they are at now.

One thing that I have to commend alternative artists for is bringing emotion to music again. I’m tired of hearing a blasting dance pop song with sad, “my hearts in pieces” lyrics. If you are going to sing about something sad, let the music reflect it.

I agree about how the radio doesn’t really get alternative. The local “alternative” station here has bands like Shinedown, Seether, and Five Finger Death Punch on the rotation, and I personally feel that they are so out of place next to artists like The Strokes or more recently The Killers. It’s broad about the way they pin that genre to groups and artists, but when we as consumers digest it, we can clearly be the better judges to where artists or bands fall in the musical atmosphere.

Where do you think it will go in another couple of years?

James: It will only get more diverse.

Alan: That’s no joke. If you look at some of the best artists this year, they are nowhere close to each other sonically. Alabama Shakes, fun., Passion Pit, The Shins, even Fiona Apple all have their unique sounds prominently displayed on their sleeves, and it makes for us the consumer enjoyable listening experiences that in no way mirror the former(s).

James: So true. These days, we have the technology to basically customize the exact kind of stuff that we want to be listening to at any given moment. If I want to hear the hits of 1966, I can. If I want a band with a girl lead singer that sounds like My Bloody Valentine turned into a dance band, I have Sleigh Bells.

Who do you think will help pioneer alternative music going forward?

James: The newcomers.

I have a Year-End Countdown that I have been doing on my podcast at the end of the year (That’s when you do all your year-end stuff if you have a blog) for two years now. It compiles all of the data from the chart over the course of the year and ranks songs by how long they were in the top 10 and what their average position was.

The first year, the #1 song was “Lay Me Down” by The Dirty Heads featuring Rome Ramirez from Sublime with Rome.

Last year, #1 was a Foo Fighters song, but #2 was “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People.

What this says to me is that the songs that are going to move the genre (again, if you can call it a genre these days) along are the ones by the NEW bands.

Foo Fighters, Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers will always have a place on the chart, but they’re not going to move it forward. You know?

Alan: I do, but I wish I didn’t agree with you. It does seem like some bands like the ones you’ve mentioned do have a reserved spot – even if they don’t really deserve it. Even some more recent bands like Panic! At The Disco can’t get on the charts, and that’s not because they are not putting out some good material. Instead, it seems like the charts are reserved for newer artists and will be Hall of Famers later down the road.

I wonder how these new artists will fare once they put out a second album. Will Foster the People be as big as they were if they put out a new album tomorrow? When Imagine Dragons puts out a traditional full length later this year, will it be anywhere close to how successful their six song EP is doing right now? I don’t doubt that they will put out some pretty good material, but like other bands that have come before them, I feel like they might not reach the heights that they have already gotten.

But for who I think will move the genre forward? Honestly, it’s pretty up in the air. I would be lying to myself if I didn’t add any of my favorites like Brand New (PLEASE I need a new album) and My Chemical Romance to who I think will carry the alt-torch going on, as well as Silversun Pickups, MGMT, and even fun. if the public still want to back them in a couple of years.

Do you have anyone specific to throw in here?

James: Very good point about Foster the People’s second album. And I have HUGE doubts about Imagine Dragons’ ability to have more than one hit.

I think (even though they’re not newcomers) The Black Keys are going to be around for a while.

I believe in Nate Ruess (from fun.) and his ability to craft quality pop songs. He did it in The Format and he’s doing it in fun. And I think that, now that he has the public’s attention, he’s not going anywhere. Or maybe I’m still just over the moon about “Some Nights”. What a killer song.

I think they’ve done what needs to be done to stick around in the public eye. Release a good song, and then release and AMAZING song. Prove to us that you can do this more than once.

Did you hear that “Some Nights” is going to be at #1 this week, making fun. the 3rd band ever on the Alternative Songs chart to have their first 2 singles go to #1? The others are Green Day and Alanis Morrisette.


I’d love Rise Against to make the tiny jump from where they are now to HUGE. They’ve had some big songs, but I know they can move several steps higher.

Was the last Brand New album good? I don’t think I ever listened to it. For me, Your Favorite Weapon and Deja Entendu were the peak, but I’d love to be told that I’m wrong.

Alan: Well good news…you’re wrong. Their third album, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me is their CURRENT peak. Their latest album, Daisy, was still good, but TDAGARIM is their best outing in my opinion. If you want to feel all the things, get listening to that third album.

James: Ok, I listened to TDAGARIM today (we talked a little about this on Twitter) and it’s good and I actually surprised myself with how familiar I was with the songs. But I think a key factor that lead me to prefer Deja Entendu is that I associate it with many happy memories. I think this is actually one of the things that Alternative Stations rely on. The bands we remember from our youth and bands that sound like them.

Which is a key distinction between Alternative Radio and Alternative music. Alternative music is far more diverse than Alternative Radio.

What do you think about the resurgence of 90’s bands (Bush had a #1 song on the Alternative Songs chart late last year, The Offspring have a top 10 song (again, on the Alternative Songs chart), etc.)?

Alan: I feel like there is always going to be a market for 90’s bands, like The Offspring and like Bush. I mean, I’m incredibly excited for the new Ben Folds Five album coming out this September. But in turn, they need to be putting out quality work to be anywhere close to being as relative as they once were.

James: I’m so stoked for that new BFF album, too. Have you heard the song that they released? “Do It Anyway”? It’s pretty great.

To your point, I completely agree. The quality needs to be there. If you’re just going to put stuff out to put stuff out, don’t bother.

The new Smashing Pumpkins album (Oceania) is simply so great. It bums me out that some people aren’t giving it a chance. It’s Billy Corgan actually having a good time making music, which is so fun to hear.

Does “Alternative” really have any meaning anymore? Could we just as easily call it something else? What is it the alternative to in a time where I could write, record, and put out an EP tomorrow?

Alan: Ok, I don’t really understand the last question…so I’ll come back to it.

I’d like to think that alternative still has a meaning. There are still bands out there that sounds like nobody else, like Animal Collective and TV on the Radio that really cannot be called anything else other than alternative.

However, it seems like if an alternative band were to become incredibly popular, they will just end up being labeled pop. For example, the band fun.. I still call them alternative, because there is no band out there right now that sounds like them and do it well. However, people are labeling them as pop, because of how popular they have become.

It seems like there is a line between pop music and alternative music now that is perpetually crossed by a new single or a new album that happens to be doing very well. I don’t necessarily think that’s fair to change a band’s status in the realm of music just because they so happen to do really well on the charts.

James: I think you’ve laid it out pretty well right there about fun. The need to label something’s genre is a tough line to walk. I think that genres are so interbred and mixed these days that you’re either going to paint with too broad a brush (AWOLNATION and Rise Against in the same genre?) or you’re going to split hairs over hyphenation (rap-rock, dance-pop, dance-rock, folk-alternative, etc) and the point of a genre is lost.

I think that “Alternative” started off as being the alternative to the popular songs on the radio. In the 80’s it was a lot of Poison and Spandau Ballet (hair metal and new wave) and this music was the alternative to that.

Also, I feel like radio stations are responsible for a lot of this labeling. So, if you were an Alternative station, you didn’t play classic rock and you didn’t play Top 40. So this is what you played. Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart is compiled entirely from airplay and so, in my mind and on my podcast, at least, radio is still very much influencing my definition of “Alternative”, but you’re right. MGMT, Silversun Pickups, Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, etc. all count as “Alternative” in my mind.

But I think the word itself is wrong. What my third question was trying to ask was, If I, not being any sort of musician or having any background in the music industry, could write, record, and release an album tomorrow, what exactly is “Alternative Music” the alternative to? There’s a connotation of Alternative being the same as Underground and I think, in the context of ANYONE being able to release music if they want to, what we think of as “Alternative” is a lot closer to “Mainstream” than anyone (myself included) wants to believe.

Alan: When it comes to making something and declaring it alternative, I feel like it would take in a lot of factors. Some would probably include voice and singing ability, instrumentation (actual, not computer programed), and delivery. No band that is labeled alternative is perfect, and I don’t think that they ever have to be. Maybe you don’t like Nate Ruess’ voice, but it arguably gives fun. that big wow factor to their music. It’s no where perfect, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not good.

I think that’s what alternative might be, different and imperfect.

Right now, there are two big waves going through the distribution of music, mainly in the alternative genre. One) Bands like Green Day and Coheed and Cambria are putting out multiple albums in a very short time frame, and Two) Bands like Ben Folds Five and Circa Survive are making their albums and delivering them straight to the consumer via PledgeMusic or through their own personal websites. Do you see any of these methods growing moving forward?

James: Back in the mid-2000’s, I think it was 2004, Bright Eyes put out I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn on the same day. And even then, it wasn’t entirely novel, as Nelly had released Sweat and Suit in a similar fashion months earlier.

I think that that kind of thing can really come across as a cheap marketing ploy. In the case of Nelly and Bright Eyes, the albums were vastly different in their content and so, instead of making one weird, eclectic album (or double album), the albums were released separately. And that makes sense to me.

I don’t know if Green Day or Coheed and Cambria plan on having hugely different albums from one to the next. I somehow doubt it. But, I suppose it’s a better idea than trying to release a double or triple (?!!) album all at once.

I am ALL FOR self-release/distribution. If you can release it without a label, do it. There’s a rap label in Minnesota called Doomtree (and I love them), but basically it’s just 7 friends that occasionally collaborate, but mostly just release each other’s records. The profits from Release A fuel the production of Release B and so forth.

In the age of the Internet that we live in, there’s no reason for having record labels as we knew them in the pre-2000’s.

Alan: I agree, self distribution is probably the best thing in music right now. However, I feel like a band or artists needs to have that giant fan base to really get over. Although Circa Survive has a relatively big market thanks to magazines like Alternative Press backing them, their next album (Violent Waves, out August 28th) might not be as big of a seller if it was to be backed by a big label.

I don’t know why it wouldn’t be…since they are only pricing the album at $5 digitally, $10 if you want it both digitally and physically as a disc.

I’m on the fence about what Green Day and Coheed is doing. This could be a great thing and help usher in a wave of continuous music…or it will flop as each album that comes out sounds the exact same as the former. I have a little bit more faith in Green Day than I do in Coheed, but who knows. I hope they surprise me as to how good they sound; I wouldn’t mind being wrong about this.

James: Absolutely. Both bands can release AMAZING stuff, but they’ve also put out their share of dross.

Recently through YouTube, shows like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo become streamable to people who couldn’t make it to the show. Although that is nice for us, does it help or hurt the bands/artists who are playing?

James: I think that when it comes to festivals like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, more exposure can only help a band.

In fact, I know there are some bands, like the Smashing Pumpkins, that even support taping their shows and posting them on the Internet. And I can kinda get that. First, it’s not like the quality is going to be anywhere near the same and second, if someone loves the band, they should be able to commemorate their experience. And if someone hasn’t heard the band and hears the bootleg and likes it, well hopefully they’ll buy an album or a ticket or a tshirt or whatever.

But yeah I think streaming of those shows is definitely a good thing. Unfortunately, I can foresee the people who put on those shows starting to charge for streaming. I haven’t heard anything at all in this vein, but it makes sense, because it basically makes it possible to sell oodles more tickets.

Alan: I agree that streaming shows are good for us, but I can’t imagine it actually helping the artists any. I got to go to Warped Tour this summer, and a lot of what bands make in terms of money comes from the merch that they sell at the shows. Now, some don’t really need it, but supporting your favorite bands even a little bit is a good thing.

James: Absolutely, but you gotta remember that the folks that are streaming wouldn’t be buying merch either way. And this way, they’re at least catching a performance and maybe staying tuned after their favorite band plays and hearing the next band that maybe they’ve never heard before and then the next time the band rolls through their town, they buy a ticket and buy some merch.

Alan: I get that, and as a music commentator I hope that happens. However, I know of a lot of people who will just stream something online in the comfort of their houses instead of actually seeing large bands like (at least tonight) Red Hot Chili Peppers perform at Lollapalooza. Again, they don’t really need the money, but all the smaller bands at that show might. And having a band go down because they cannot afford to go back in the studio is a sad truth that happens – not too often, but it does.

James: Absolutely. It is awful when it’s a financial reason that keeps a band from releasing new music.

But I think we have to draw a line between touring festivals like Warped Tour and one-venue shows like Lollapalooza. I would have LOVED to have gone to Lollapalooza. That rap group I talked about, Doomtree, played today (Saturday) and I would have loved to see them and all the rest of the bands, including RHCP. But I don’t live near Chicago and I certainly can’t afford to fly there AND purchase the ticket.

So streaming shows that won’t ever be coming to a town near you makes sense. And streaming Warped Tour wouldn’t.

But the point you made is exactly why I think that the bigwigs (I imagine stuffy old white guys in suits for some reason. Must be something from television and movies) will catch on soon and start charging like 10 bucks to stream Lollapalooza.

I wish money and music didn’t have to be so intertwined.

If you wanted to listen specifically to “Alternative” music, where would you go. I’m not talking iTunes library. What online music sources would you use?

Alan: My first answer is my iTunes library…so there’s that.

My second answer is Spotify. Although some people use it solely as a way to get around buying an album, I find it useful as an “advanced preview.” I am a giant consumer of music, so going into a Best Buy or something like that with the knowledge that something is good or not is something that I try to do often. A one minute preview is nice and all, but getting to hear an album in its entirety is a blessing. It saves me money, and continues to help shape what I find acceptable in my personal library.

James: I agree that finding a place to listen to a whole album can be really helpful when it comes to purchasing music. I haven’t tried Spotify yet. I definitely will do Pandora, but that doesn’t help me discover new music. I guess my podcast, music that is sent to me for review, and are where i get most of my new music. Oh, I also have an 18 year old sister. And that is very handy.

Alan: Friends and family are probbly the best references you can have. Without them, I would have never gotten into Ben Folds, River City Extension, and recently Perfume Genius.

What was your first “Alternative” album? How did you find out about it and what made you want to purchase it as your first?

Alan: I had a bunch of music before diving into alternative, including classics like The Beatles and Queen. But when it came to my first alternative album, I bought Dashboard Confessionals’ A Mark – A Mission – A Brand – A Scar when it came out in 2002 (seems a lot longer in retrospective). But they kind of opened the door for me and that genre.

It’s funny, I heard about them and this album through MTV2 – when they would still air commercials for bands and albums (or play music). And through massive wearing down, I caved and went to Best Buy and bought it without hearing one song from them.

James: I bought that album on the last day of basically the worst job I’ve ever had. In between sophomore and junior years of college. I’ll always associate it with being FREE.

My first Alternative album was either To the Faithful Departed by The Cranberries or Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt because the Focus on the Family newsletter my mom got in the mail at the time said that they were OK. I had heard both bands on the radio, of course. And I had seen the video for “Spiderwebs” and gotten the weirdest crush on Gwen. I wasn’t sure if I thought she was cute or weird. I hadn’t yet found out that it can be both :)

Oh, and incidentally, I quickly learned that FOTF was a silly organization. They reviewed Let’s Face It by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (one of the most positive albums of all time) and basically only had good things to say. EXCEPT, one song had the lyrics “Somebody’s preference can drive some total stranger to make somebody somehow feel the wrath of their anger” which FOTF negatively viewed as condoning homosexuality. Later, my mom threw away my London Calling album because it had a bad word in it. I fished it out of MY OWN TRASH CAN (if she didn’t want me to have it, why didn’t she throw it out elsewhere?!) and vowed to be fine with this kind of stuff with my own kids. Which, of course, means my kids will HATE fun music.

If you were asked by some mysterious benefactor to compile a “Best of Alternative” CD (perhaps NOW! That’s What I Call Alternative), what 10 songs would HAVE to be on it? And when you’ve answered, I’ll pick 10 from what you didn’t pick!

Alan: Hmmm, this is a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. I mean, there is so much out there, getting them down to ten is a very hard thing. So, for my ten, I decided to do some recent favorites that I would have to put on a playlist like this:
-”Jesus Christ” by Brand New
-”Ice Cream” by Battles
-”Some Nights” by fun.
-”Holy Touch” by Foxy Shazam
-”Timelines” by Motion City Soundtrack
-”Shake Me Down” by Cage The Elephant
-”It’s Working” by MGMT
-”Will Do” by TV on the Radio
-”On Melancholy Hill” by Gorillaz
-”We Were Thinking Of Evolving (Wake Up)” by K Sera (This is a wild card for me. I’ve heard both of their EP’s and they are pretty fantastic. Cannot wait until a full project.)

James: Ok. I think I’m going to do five classics and five newer songs
-”Heart Shaped Box” by Nirvana
-”Good” by Better than Ezra
-”Mother Mother” by Tracy Bonham
-”Brain Stew/Jaded” by Green Day
-”La La Love You” by The Pixies
-”Lonely Boy” by The Black Keys
-”Whirring” (the long version) by The Joy Formidable
-”Chimera” by Smashing Pumpkins
-”Animal” by Neon Trees
-”Monte Carlo” by U.S. Royalty (which is on an amazing album called Mirrors)

Alan: Although we don’t see eye-to-eye on some things, I think that we can both agree that Alternative music is in a crazy place right now.

James: I don’t agree to that. Haha, just kidding. Yeah I think that it just goes to show that everyone experiences music through the filter of their life and it’s nice when we can have the common ground to have such an interesting and wide-ranging discussion on such a niche topic!

Alan: I agree one hundred percent. As this year goes on, and Alternative music (whatever your definition for that is) continues to prosper, we can sit back and enjoy the ride. And maybe in another year, we can look back on this post and wonder how either right or wrong we were.

But in closing: Here’s to the future of alternative music! May it be forever awesome.

You can download James’ “Appetite for Distraction Alternative Top 10 Countdown” for free from, and can follow him on Twitter @James80d. You can, of course, follow Having Said That on Twitter @IHavingSaidThat and myself @AlanHST.

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