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.

R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction

Back at the height of my R.E.M. days the mid-90s, Fables of the Reconstruction was my favorite of the group’s records from the IRS Records era. I hadn”t listened to it in years and now I suddenly remember why I loved it so much.

It’s mid-tempo and melodic, with a "sparkling" production value that’s professional but not too slick. And the songs themselves are compellingly well written, though Green Grow the Rushes is a bit of a downer. Making up for it though are Driver 8 and Can’t Get There From Here, which practically rock well, as much as R.E.M. could before Monster.

Interesting side note: The album artwork implies that the title of the record could also be Reconstruction of the Fables and is to designed to create an infinite loop: Fables of the Reconstruction of Fables of the Reconstruction of the… and so on.

A video for you: Driver 8 and Can’t Get There From Here, live on Tyne Tees The Tube TV show (circa 1985). Check out Micheal Stipes’ hair!

April 4-5 – 93 songs played. 3 removed.

if you’re into pictures and charts (and who isn’t?), i’ve posted some graphs of my progress.

  • r.e.m. [automatic for the people]
  • gustav holst’s suite no.1 in e-flat (performer unknown)
  • christopher franke [babylon 5: z’ha’dum]
  • berlin philharmonic performing dvorak’s concerto for cello and orchestra
  • mercury rev [deserter’s songs]
  • roni size [brown paper bag]single
  • yoko kanno [cowboy bebop]
  • john barry [dances with wolves]
  • camera obscura [biggest bluest hi-fi]
  • the faint [blank-wave arcade]
  • yoko kanno [cowboy bebop: music for freelance remixes]

switching gears now, i first heard of the faint when a friend convinced me to go to a show in fort walton beach, fl in the summer of 2001. tucked into the corner of a otherwise-empty, impossible-to-find hole-in-the-wall bar with about 20 other kids, the faint’s brand of synth-rock-with-so-much-pop-flavor-you-must-dance completely blew my mind. the group’s performance was amazing, with apocalyptic smoke and lights which gave an edge most sinister to a group whose make-up was pale and dress was black.

after the show, i briefly talked with the frontman. i forget what we spoke about, idle chit chat probably, but i found the experience a bit surreal. he was still all dolled up in his goth-stylings, but he was just sitting there, chatting it up,  arms folded, like a regualr-joe from omaha. i bought blank-wave arcade from him. •

quick notes:
holst’s suite no.1 is a good work, especially the third movement. but as i’ve mentioned before, i’m a sucker for a good march. mercury rev’s deserter’s songs is majestic and symphonic; it is the group’s finest recording. my youthful devotion to r.e.m. disappeared rather rapidly around the time new adventures hi-fi came out, but i still consider automatic for the people a classic.