No Alternative: A map of the universe

I came of musical age during the so-called alternative era, when "alternative" was more of an actual alternative to the mainstream rock/pop of the early 90s. However, due to my relatively young age and the relative cultural backwater of my hometown, the movement was well on its way to mainstream-ization by the time it swung through my burg. The year was 1993 and at the tender age of 14 I had already developed a healthy disdain for popular culture in general. Ah, teenage rebellion.

With the exceptions of Guns n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion(s) and Nirvana’s Nevermind, I had paid little attention to popular music in the previous couple years. Glam rock had lost its appeal (and I had enjoyed Def Leppard as much as a pre-teen could) and I had never really gotten into hip-hop or R&B. All in all, I just didn’t listen to that much music.

But that changed during the summer of ’93. I had completed middle school and was well on my way to becoming a big, bad high school freshman in a handful of months. The prospect of a new environment with new people was a major catalyst for expanding my musical horizons that summer. But the most crucial factor was that my dad, after years of resistance, succumbed to the pleading of his children and subscribed to cable television at our house. I was then exposed to that bastion of cultural awareness… MTV.

I spent a good portion of that summer absorbed in the channel’s programming, from The Beach House to Alternative Nation (which was is full swing) to Real Word California (Venice).

I suddenly couldn’t get enough music and soon joined both the Columbia House and BMG Record Clubs. My first order of CDs included albums by R.E.M., Spin Doctors, Stone Temple Pilots and Blind Melon, all groups that were high on the charts that summer. It was a wonderful time of musical exploration. By the end of the year, I was acquiriing new albums at a rate of one per week, a pace I maintained throughout high school.

I fiercely bought into the "alternative ethos," particularly concerning issues of authenticity in music and the need to stay politically and socially aware. To this day, I endeavor to avoid overtly commercial aspects of American culture.

no alternative girl

I never did look good in flannel though.

But there is one record that had more influence on my musical directions for that year and those that followed. No other record comes even close to the effect that the No Alternative compilation had on me. It was like a map of the universe, a branching point for all that was well and good in the music world. Almost all the bands featured would go on to notoriety and in some cases, stardom during the subsequent years.

Matthew Sweet’s Superdeformed is an rousing punch of indie-pop-noise. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Glynis is a sweet sweet gem that ranks among my favorites in the band’s catalog. This album also introduced me to Sarah Mclachlan which would have made the album worth it alone. Soundgarden puts in an atypically-playful song with Show Me while Goo Goo Dolls present a misleadingly good song with Bitch seriously, I got bait-and-switched on that one. And even though I never managed to discover more of Pavement’s music (despite all the group’s cred), I still quite enjoy their ode to R.E.M.: Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.

Thirteen years later, this record still has power. In fact, a listen has stimulated a completely new and original interest in American Music Club, a band that never made it onto my radar beyond No Alternative.

And now that the term "alternative" has come and gone, been co-opted and is now as mainstream as it gets, I realize that the title is wrong. Alternative does exist, and it’s right here on this record.

April 10 – 91 songs played. 5 removed.

what a day! 91 songs played and 5+ hours of listening. that’s what i need to be doing everyday. it’s not likely to happen, but it is something to strive for.

also, it seems that this tunequest page has managed to obtain a google pagerank of 4 in just over a month. from what i understand, that’s pretty good, so huzzah for tunequest!

  • bjork [selmasongs]
  • blind melon [blind melon]
  • massive attack [blue lines]
  • danny elfman [batman returns]
  • matmos [a chance to cut is a chance to cure]
  • franz waxman [bride of frankenstein]
  • danny elfman [batman]
  • savath + savalas [apropa’t]

i’ve mentioned before about the randomness of the ipod and, despite allegations that the device isn’t very random in the first place, one shouldn’t read too much into supposed patterns of play.

nevertheless, it is disconcerting that my ipod chose to play not only danny elfman’s batman and batman returns, but a performance of the adam west batman theme by the royal scottish national orchestra. the ipod even tried to play batman again after i was forced to stop and restart at one point. it’s all randomly possible, i know, but is still wiggy. not that it matters, elfman’s batmans are classics and his theme is, of course, instantly recognizable. recommended all around. •

speaking of scores, i had pegged bride of frankenstein as one destined for my dust bin. after a careful listen though, i must say that i am fascinated by it. it was composed in 1935 and sounds much more like an orchestral suite or ballet than a film score. it turned out to be quite the highlight of the day. •

also some good trip hop by the likes of massive attack and some excellent spanish-influenced melodic downtempo by savath + savalas (aka prefuse 73 amongst other things). •

and a final note about blind melon, a group whose music it seems i should have outgrown by now. i’ve had the album for 13 years now, and it is inseparably linked to and trapped in time with the alternative explosion of the early 1990s. sometimes i think it’s time has just come and gone, but fads aside, it features song really decent songwriting with catchy hooks and impressive guitar noodling. blind melon’s debut is more mellow, groovy and musically complex than many of its contemporaries. though i feel like i should let it go, but just can’t seem to make myself do it. •