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.

March 20 – 41 songs played. 8 removed.

contrary to what one may think, given conventional wisdom, weekends are not the boom time of music listening that one would expect them to be. lots of free time should equal lots of play time. but of course there are commitments and chores and errands and all kinds of other activities that get in the way. i’m certain it would not be good for my marriage if i spent all our time together wearing ipod ear buds. it turns out so, this past weekend, i didn’t listen to a single song. but i did get re-acquainted with an old friend called deep space nine, and that counts for something i guess.

onward to today. well, unlike friday, today’s tunequest felt like a chore. i’ve got nothing against any of the music here; i just wasn’t in the mood for most of it. looking over the list though, i must say such feelings were mostly unwarranted.

  • guns n roses [appetite for destruction]
  • geinoh yamashirogumi [akira symphonic suite]
  • 10cents [buggin’ out]
  • christopher franke [babylon 5: whatever happened to mr. garabaldi]
  • berlin philharmonic performing r. strauss’ ‘also sprach zarathustra’
  • smashing pumpkins [bullet with butterfly wings]
  • mouse on mars [bib]single

ah appetite for destruction. a classic. and to this day, i have no idea why my parents let me listen to it. i was only ten years old or so when it came out. my only conclusion is that they must have thought i was too young to really understand what the songs meant. and it’s true. it wasn’t until i rediscovered the album in college that i gave the lyrics some serious consideration and there is some seriously mature themes. i guess ignorance was bliss in this case. but thinking back, i can’t help remember the times i listened to it in the van with my mom, just be-boppin along and she didn’t say a thing.

also in today’s play count, i must put in a good word about the smashing pumpkins. while the band were pretty decent musicians in their own right, they were also particularly good at covering other peoples songs. pisces iscariot has a cover of the animals ‘girl named sandoz’ and fleetwood mac‘s ‘landslide’ both of which i think sound better on that record than they do on the originals. similar story with the bullet with butterfly wings single (expanded version from the aeroplane flies high box set) which is a collection of five cover tracks by the cars, alice cooper, blondie, missing persons, and the cure. once again, i think the pumpkins exceed the cars on ‘you’re all i’ve got tonight’ and rock the house with alice cooper’s ‘clones (we’re all).’

also sprach zarathustra, better known as the theme from 2001: a space odyssey. there’s actually a lot more music after that first movement and the berlin philharmonic put out a great performance of it all.