Radio-Friendly Unit Shifters

From the Cure, to Nirvana, to Limp Bizkit, to Phoenix– a look at the history of Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart and the ever-shifting definition of “alternative.”

In an issue dated September 10, 1988, Billboard quietly launched a 30-position chart toward the back of the magazine. Arriving near the end of a decade that had seen left-of-center music called everything from “post-punk” to “new wave” to “indie” to “college rock,” the editors of the music-industry tip sheet went with the most neutral, business-friendly term they could think of: Modern Rock Tracks.

It was an oxymoron– a chart to track music loved by an audience that didn’t want to be charted. Depending on your point of view, Billboard was either exceedingly late to the party or weirdly prescient. By 1988, college radio had been carving a path through youth culture for about a decade, with CMJ chronicling its “hits” since 1978. Punk and its immediate offshoots had come and gone: The New Romantic-driven “Second British Invasion” of the early 80s was spent as a pop force, and even second-generation punk bands Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Hüsker Dü were already broken up; so were the Smiths. Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press, bible of left-of-the-dial music, had ceased publication four years earlier. MTV had already cycled through one late-night showcase of indie-leaning videos, “The Cutting Edge”, and was onto its second, “120 Minutes”, which launched in 1986.

On the other hand, as of September 1988, R.E.M. had only just signed to a major label; Nirvana was still weeks away from issuing its first single; and Perry Farrell was merely the twitchy frontman of an L.A. band with a titillating album cover. The first Hot Topic store was a year away from launching. Three years before the first Lollapalooza, and well before anyone on Madison Avenue had latched onto the “a” word– before a single snide Gen-Xer had thought to ask, “Alternative to what?”– Billboard‘s Modern Rock Tracks chart announced that mass-market alternative culture was open for business.

Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks tally was an oxymoron– a chart to track music loved by an audience that didn’t want to be charted.

Billboard was so synonymous with pop music, and the pop single in particular, that the very idea of a chart built just to track rock music was a relatively new concept. Obviously, guitar rock had been on its flagship Hot 100 pop chart for decades. But only in 1981 had the magazine begun to separately chart non-singles or “tracks”– the sorts of deep cuts that would get played on album-oriented rock radio on the FM band. By waiting until ’81 to launch its Top Tracks chart– later renamed Top Rock Tracks and, by the late 80s, Album Rock TracksBillboard missed the 70s heyday of AOR.

Modern Rock Tracks was only Billboard’s second discrete rock chart of any kind and, like Album Rock Tracks, was an all-radio chart designed to track any song receiving spins, whether or not it was issued as a single. The chart covered a specific sliver of the radio dial, the roughly dozen college stations with large audiences, and another 18 “commercial alternative” stations (itself a relatively new category).

If nothing else, a chart like Modern Rock Tracks probably needed to exist to finally accord some music-biz stature to a slew of artists who were rock legends but had rarely graced a Billboard chart. Imagine you’re Lou Reed or John Lydon— you’ve fronted bands that helped invent whole categories of rock, but you’ve got no million-selling albums to show for it (Lydon’s work in the Sex Pistols took until the 1990s to crawl to platinum). Within a year of the Modern Rock chart launching, Reed had his first No. 1 song, and so did Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. The phrase “No. 1 song” had never appeared in a sentence with these guys’ names (except maybe a sentence about the Sex Pistols getting robbed of one in England).

Indeed, the whole chart felt like a cultural corrective. One look at that first Modern Rock chart in September 1988 will draw a wistful tear from anyone nostalgic for 80s postmodern pop. The sheer variety was remarkable: reggae and rock-steady beats from the likes of Ziggy Marley, UB40, and Ranking Roger; comeback singles from 70s punk veterans Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, and Graham Parker; coffeehouse folk from Tracy Chapman, Toni Childs, and Joan Armatrading, alongside the pop-friendlier boho-folk of 10,000 Maniacs and Edie Brickell; Irish rock from Hothouse Flowers and In Tua Nua, and Aussie rock from INXS, Crowded House, Paul Kelly and Hunters & Collectors. And, dominating the chart, so many gothy, dancey, eyeliner-bedecked UK acts: the Psychedelic Furs, the House of Love, the Primitives, the Escape Club, Icicle Works, Shriekback, Big Audio Dynamite, and– sitting on top like a goth godmother to all– Siouxsie Sioux, with the Banshees’ “Peek-a-Boo”, Billboard’s first Modern Rock No. 1.

This list of acts doesn’t just prompt nostalgia in Gen-Xers of a certain vintage. It marks the last throes of a vibrant post-new wave music culture. That debut Modern Rock chart offered not only eclectic music but also half-decent racial balance and strong gender balance, including a woman-fronted band at No. 1. In short, the Modern Rock chart’s first week was, arguably, the most interesting in its history. But it wasn’t the last interesting week on the chart, and it definitely wasn’t its cultural peak. That would come later, in the 90s, at the height of Alternative Nation.

The 25-year history of this Billboard chart– which since 2009 has gone by the name Alternative Songs— is punctuated by moments of deep relevance and long stretches of near-irrelevance. Even if you are now a hardcore indie-music fan who wouldn’t listen to Jane’s Addiction or Tori Amos even at gunpoint, chances are the bands on this chart were your gateway drugs into non-Top 40 music.

For our walk down Modern Rock Memory Lane, I’ve divided the chart’s history into mini-eras, three to six years in length, each with a prevalent cultural theme along with a few Modern/Alternative chart-toppers that are representative of that theme. As a bonus, I’m also including a special list that, um, honors a certain deathless California punk-funk band that has scored at least one No. 1 song in literally every era; rock radio programmers have been using them to fill airtime for decades. Many, many hours of airtime.

Listen to the key tracks listed below in chronological order with this Spotify playlist.

1988–1993: The Sun Never Set on the British Empire

  • Key Modern Rock No. 1s: The Cure, “Fascination Street” (1989, 7 weeks); Kate Bush, “Love and Anger” (1989, 3 weeks); Peter Murphy, “Cuts You Up” (1990, 7 weeks); Depeche Mode, “Enjoy the Silence” (1990, 3 weeks); Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now” (1991, 5 weeks); R.E.M., “Losing My Religion” (1991, 8 weeks); Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, “So You Think You’re in Love” (1991, 5 weeks); Morrissey, “Tomorrow” (1992, 6 weeks); New Order, “Regret” (1993, 6 weeks)
  • Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1: “Give It Away” (1991, 2 weeks)

If you asked a hipster teen in 1989 or 1990 what their favorite music sounded like, they’d point you toward something Brit-accented, wry, and probably a little mopey. No U.S. chart will ever be more dominated by limeys than the Modern Rock chart was in its first half-decade.

During this five-year period, of the 82 songs that topped Modern Rock, only 24– less than one-third– were by American acts. In 1990 and 1991 in particular, Billboard might as well have titled the chart “Hot Anglophile Favorites”; British and Irish acts controlled the chart for 35 weeks the former year, 41 weeks the latter (and in 1990, the chart was led by Australians– INXS, Midnight Oil, and the Church– for four more weeks). So great was the Brit hegemony that acts as quirky as Ian McCulloch, XTC, and World Party spent a month each on top.

That’s not to say American acts were completely out of favor, particularly if your band was from Athens, Georgia: R.E.M. racked up four No. 1 hits in this period, the B-52’s three. The Replacements stayed together just long enough into the Modern Rock era to score a sole No. 1 before imploding, and Suzanne Vega landed one before her career began its 90s downturn.

What about the breakthrough of grunge, you’re wondering? Sure enough, in November 1991, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit No. 1. And then it was promptly evicted one week later, by U2’s “Mysterious Ways”. This is actually fairly representative of how slow-moving radio programmers reacted to The Year Punk Broke: unwilling, at first, to mess with the Cure/Depeche/Morrissey axis that defined the format. As late as 1993, Pearl Jam’s iconic grunge anthem “Black” was peaking at No. 20 the same week the chart was topped by a forgettable Jesus Jones song. By the end of that year, however, the pendulum began swinging away from the Brits.

1993–1996: When Alt Became Pop

  • Key Modern Rock No. 1s: Nirvana, “Heart-Shaped Box” (1993, 3 weeks); The Lemonheads, “Into Your Arms” (1993, 9 weeks); Beck, “Loser” (1994, 5 weeks); Green Day, “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around” (1994–95, 5 and 7 weeks, respectively); the Cranberries, “Zombie” (1994, 6 weeks); Live, “Lightning Crashes” (1995, 9 weeks); Alanis Morrisette, “You Oughta Know” (1995, 5 weeks); Bush, “Glycerine” (1995, 2 weeks); Oasis, “Wonderwall” (1995–96, 10 weeks); Butthole Surfers, “Pepper” (1996, 3 weeks); Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (1996, 6 weeks)
  • Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1s: “Soul to Squeeze” (1993, 5 weeks); “My Friends” (1995, 4 weeks)

If you lived in New York City in the middle of 1994 and flipped your radio dial to Z100, one of the highest-rated Top 40 stations in the country, you might hear the usual Madonna and Bon Jovi fare… and then the Offspring, Veruca Salt, or Hole. This was what made the mid-1990s in America so surreal: It wasn’t just that alternative music competed effectively with the middle of the road– it became the road. In 1987, it was possible to make your parents uncomfortable by owning a Butthole Surfers album; in 1996, you could hear that band in drive time.

Modern Rock Tracks was now, in essence, our bastard Top 40; appropriately enough, the chart expanded to 40 positions in 1994. And the music on it was way more home-grown. The shift toward American artists was swift: From 1994 to 1996, only seven British or Irish acts, total, topped Modern Rock, and one-third of these No. 1 songs were by Bush, the most American-sounding of UK acts. Britain’s mope king, Morrissey, did manage to score his final Modern Rock No. 1 in 1994, but only by turning up the guitars. England’s “Britpop” movement came and went, with only two Oasis No. 1s to show for it here, and a No. 2 for Elastica— no major Blur hits, and no Pulp at all. (Injustice!)

Kurt Cobain, of course, largely sparked this alt-revolution. But what has gone relatively unremarked in the received wisdom on 90s rock is that, on the radio, it was the mid-decade wave of pop-punk and alt-pop bands– not the other grunge bands– who benefited most from Nirvana’s breakthrough. Pearl Jam scored a scant two No. 1 hits during alt-rock’s peak (“Daughter” and “Who You Are”, one week each), Soundgarden couldn’t get past No. 2, and even Stone Temple Pilots found their singles stuck behind the likes of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Meanwhile, Green Day and the Offspring broke through with No. 1s in 1994 and spent the next decade and a half as radio staples.

It should be noted that women did quite well during this period: All three of Alanis Morissette’s first U.S. singles reached No. 1, Juliana Hatfield and Tori Amos scored one apiece, and even Liz Phair managed a Top 10 hit. This is only notable because women artists were about to experience an appalling drought on alternative radio. After Tracy Bonham’s “Mother Mother” departed the penthouse in June 1996, no solo woman would top this chart for more than 17 years; during that period, only three songs by bands with so much as a female singer (Garbage, Hole, and Evanescence) would make it to the No. 1. These stats belie the much-bandied “Lilith Era” timeline– Sarah McLachlan’s all-female tour wouldn’t kick off until 1997, but by that point the bro-ification of alternative radio was well underway.

1997–1999: Faux-ternative

  • Key Modern Rock No. 1s: Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life” (1997, 8 weeks); Matchbox Twenty, “Push” (1997, 1 week); Sugar Ray, “Fly” (1997, 8 weeks); Marcy Playground, “Sex and Candy” (1997–98, 15 weeks); Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris” (1998, 5 weeks); Barenaked Ladies, “One Week” (1998, 5 weeks); Everlast, “What It’s Like” (1998–99, 9 weeks); Lit, “My Own Worst Enemy” (1999, 11 weeks)
  • Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1: “Scar Tissue” (1999, 16 weeks)

What had made the mid-90s remarkable was how alt-rock redefined what pop music could sound like. By the late 90s, pop struck back– not just on Top 40 radio, which went scurrying away from alternative toward the loving embrace of teen-pop, but even on rock radio, where so-called alt-rock bands were essentially pop acts in tattooed-and-gelled drag. It was the last time bands like Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind, and Sugar Ray could call themselves “alternative” with a straight face.

This Faux-ternative period wasn’t without its pleasures; if you can resist the charms of White Town or Semisonic, you are a stronger person than I. But with the grunge explosion now more than five years in the rearview, the late 90s marked a long hangover for Modern Rock, a parade of pan-flash bands that could ride one massive radio hit to a platinum album before facing oblivion. In 1998, Marcy Playground set a then-record for longevity on the Modern Rock list with 15-week topper “Sex and Candy”; they enjoyed one short-lived Top 10 followup, and then were kissed off by radio programmers just one album later. The Verve Pipe, Harvey Danger, Eve6— all gold or platinum-sellers, and all clogging up used-CD bins since 1999.

(The absurdities of this period, when alt-culture voraciously chewed up and spit out bands, were captured by a pair of delightful chronicles that, coincidentally, both came out in 2004 and are well worth your time: Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter’s memoir So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, and the documentary DIG! about never-was bands the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre.)

However fleeting the success of these bands, at root you could still draw tenuous connections between most of their radio hits and the post-new wave culture the Smiths and the Pixies codified. But that wouldn’t last. For hints of where alternative was headed, look to a pair of Modern Rock No. 1s that bookended the late 90s– hits that now, with hindsight, seem ominous: Sublime’s sun-kissed “What I Got” (late 1996, 3 weeks) and Creed’s messianic “Higher” (1999, 3 weeks). Each of these relatively mellow samples of backward-ballcap rock was a Trojan Horse for the next wave to come.

1999–2002: The Mook Shall Inherit the Earth

  • Key Modern Rock No. 1s: 3 Doors Down, “Kryptonite” (2000, 11 weeks); Papa Roach, “Last Resort” (2000, 7 weeks); Fuel, “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” (2000–01, 12 weeks); Crazy Town, “Butterfly” (2001, 2 weeks); Staind, “It’s Been Awhile” (2001, 16 weeks); Nickelback, “How You Remind Me” (2001, 13 weeks); Linkin Park, “In the End” (2001, 5 weeks); Puddle of Mudd, “Blurry” (2002, 9 weeks)
  • Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1s: “Otherside” (2000, 13 weeks); “Californication” (2000, 1 week); “By the Way” (2002, 14 weeks)

Possibly the most loathed period for music of the last half-century, the rap-rock years– when looked through the prism of the Modern Rock chart’s evolution– are a logical endpoint to a decade when alt-culture steadily de-wussified itself. Fans of Kurt Cobain have long asserted that he doesn’t deserve blame for the bands that kept his aggression while discarding his sensitivity, but the fact is, just as grunge gave rock radio a handy way to reassert its rebel cred in 1991, so too did Angry White Boy rock give its fans license to break with the past. Or maybe just break Stuff.

This mini-era will forever be synonymous with the dreaded Limp Bizkit, but that’s not entirely fair. (Just mostly fair, because after Woodstock ’99, who doesn’t want to blame Fred Durst for things?) The Limpsters scored one lone Modern Rock chart-topper, December 1999’s “Re-Arranged”, which was actually one of the less belligerent rock hits of the period. Their peers in aggro bro-itude, Korn, had an even more modest chart presence– a handful of Top 10 hits, none peaking higher than 1999’s “Freak on a Leash” (No. 6) or 2002’s “Here to Stay” (No. 4).

So if Korn and Limp weren’t actually omnipresent on the radio at the turn of the century, why did it seem like they were? Because every other band on alt-rock radio was copping bits of their style: Papa Roach and Staind, the self-righteous self-pity; Fuel and Puddle of Mudd, the amelodic grunting; Crazy Town, the paper-thin hip-hop signifiers. (Durst himself actually mentored both Staind and PoM.) Of the lot, L.A.’s Linkin Park distinguished itself by fusing some modest techno flourishes with the self-flagellating lyrics and crunch of rap-rock to emerge with an actual career once the fad passed.

If we can be grateful to rap-rock for anything, it’s that it led to its own corrective, in the form of the garage-rock revival of the early 2000s. Unfortunately, as the nascent blog era’s first major hype, nu-garage proved to be more chatter-generator than radio presence, although the “The” bands did make dents on the Modern Rock chart. The Strokes’ “Last Nite” reached No. 5; the Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So” made No. 6; the Vines’ “Get Free” hit No. 7; and the White Stripes, the fad’s most enduring band, only reached No. 12 with “Fell in Love with a Girl”. Jack and Meg would do better (and become more interesting) in the mid-aughts.

2003–2008: The Oligopoly

  • Key Modern Rock No. 1s: Foo Fighters, “All My Life” (2002–03, 10 weeks); Linkin Park, “Numb” (2003–04, 12 weeks); Incubus, “Megalomaniac” (2004, 6 weeks); Green Day, “American Idiot” (2004, 6 weeks); Foo Fighters, “Best of You” (2005, 7 weeks); Incubus, “Anna Molly” (2006–07, 5 weeks); Linkin Park, “What I’ve Done” (2007, 16 weeks); Foo Fighters, “The Pretender” (2007, 18 weeks); Incubus, “Love Hurts” (2008–09, 3 weeks)
  • Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1s: “Can’t Stop” (2003, 3 weeks); “Dani California” (2006, 14 weeks); “Tell Me Baby” (2006, 4 weeks); “Snow (Hey Oh)” (2007, 5 weeks)

If I had to pick an absolute nadir for alternative rock as a format, it wouldn’t be the maligned rap-rock years, which for all their obnoxiousness at least offered a goofy sense of misplaced conviction. No, it would be the mid-aughts– alt-rock’s very own Corporate Rock era. Actually, that analogy is an insult to late-70s rock, because even the age of Styx, Boston, and Journey offered more sonic variety. Dave Grohl is a nice guy, but I’m not sure he’s written anything as enduring as “More Than a Feeling” yet.

Blame the explosion of the iPod and iTunes, which hollowed-out listenership among young men, the very consumers who fled record stores first. Rock radio programmers scrambled to retain the dudes who weren’t permanently attached to white earbuds and could still be counted on to tune in. The result: a Modern Rock penthouse with a lock that, seemingly, only five American bands had the keys for: Foo Fighters, Green Day, Linkin Park, Incubus, and, yes, the Chili Peppers. During the six-year period from 2003 through 2008, this five-band oligopoly controlled the No. 1 spot 152 out of 313 weeks– a preposterous 49% of the time.

It was the era of the known quantity: Any act providing the right mix of familiarity and “edge” would be rewarded with permanent residence, and dominant songs would lodge at No. 1, or in the Top 10, for months on end. Nine Inch Nails and Weezer, two bands with respected 90s legacies, actually had their biggest Modern Rock successes in this period, with some of their least challenging music– three No. 1s for Weezer from 2005 to 2008 (including such fan-dividers as “Beverly Hills” and “Pork and Beans”), and four straight for NIN from 2005 to 2007 (including “Every Day Is Exactly the Same”— you can say that again, Trent).

Relief came only occasionally, from rock’s most palatable, blog-friendly fringes. Jimmy Eat World’s two No. 1s, “The Middle” (2002, 4 weeks) and “Pain” (2004, 1 week), planted a flag for emo before Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco took the movement deeper into pop. Jack White survived the garage fad to become an actual rock star, scoring No. 1s with both the White Stripes (2003’s “Seven Nation Army” and 2007’s “Icky Thump”, 3 weeks each) and the Raconteurs (2006’s “Steady As She Goes”, 1 week). Modest Mouse’s post-indie chart-topper “Float On” (2004, 1 week) still looks like a fluke a decade later, albeit a happy one. And My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” (2006, 7 weeks) offered a welcome infusion of pomp and style the chart sorely needed.

2009–2013: The Return of the New Wave

  • Key Alternative Songs No. 1s: Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (2009, 3 weeks); Muse, “Uprising” (2009–10, 17 weeks); Phoenix, “1901” (2010, 2 weeks); the Black Keys, “Tighten Up” (2010–11, 10 weeks); Cage the Elephant, “Shake Me Down” (2011, 6 weeks); Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks” (2011, 5 weeks); Gotye featuring Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used to Know” (2012, 12 weeks); fun., “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” (2012, 2 weeks and 3 weeks, respectively); Alex Clare, “Too Close” (2012, 4 weeks); the Neighbourhood, “Sweater Weather” (2013, 11 weeks); Lorde, “Royals” (2013, 4 weeks to date)
  • Inevitable Red Hot Chili Peppers No. 1: “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” (2011, 4 weeks)

When the history of alt-rock is written, maybe Phoenix’s “1901” should be accorded as much respect as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Though it’s not as great a song, in terms of culture shifts, all Nirvana did at the turn of the 90s was move alternative radio away from some pretty cool British bands toward a bunch of American ones. Phoenix, at the turn of the 2010s, arguably helped save alt-rock radio from itself.

Phoenix’s slow-breaking hit– it was released in February 2009 but reached No. 1 a full year later– had the hallmarks of a driving guitar jam. But it was also the new-waviest and, bluntly, girliest song to top the chart Billboard now called Alternative Songs in quite some time. True, Coldplay had already cracked alt-rock’s façade with their florid, poppy “Viva la Vida”, which reached No. 1 two summers earlier (2008, 2 weeks). But Coldplay were by then radio superstars being grandfathered in, and they didn’t do much to shift the chart’s direction. Phoenix were new, an acclaimed indie band (on mega-independent Glassnote Records), and they were French, for crying out loud.

Alternative Songs didn’t change overnight after Phoenix went to No. 1– plenty of turgid rawk continued to command the list. But the tempo and tone of the songs making the upper reaches began to evolve in an indier, even poppier direction. And some new chart-toppers, like Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man”, were probably better suited to a hoedown than the radio.

By 2011, however, the Alternative chart began doing something it hadn’t done since the 90s: break new acts at Top 40 radio. Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” was the year’s top Alternative hit and a Top Three hit on the Hot 100. In 2012, for the first time ever, Billboard’s No. 1 Hot 100 song of the year and top Alternative song of the year were the same: Gotye’s airy, lovelorn ballad “Somebody That I Used to Know”— the kind of ornate, mopey record alt-rock radio would have played to death in its late-80s, pre-Nirvana salad days. Back then, only a few Modern Rock hits were shared with Top 40 radio. Now, the Gotye song fit on both ends of the dial, along with fun.’s “Some Nights”, and Alex Clare’s “Too Close”, and Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound”.

The ultimate sign that the Alternative chart has come full circle to the early days of Modern Rock Tracks? A woman is finally No. 1. In August, Lorde’s “Royals” became the first chart-topper by a solo female artist since Tracy Bonham in 1996. It’s still No. 1 this week, appropriately enough, on the 25th anniversary of a chart that launched with Siouxsie Sioux’s record in the top slot. But is “Royals” a great moment for women, or a great moment for an “alternative” culture that long, long ago became middle-of-the-road? Does it even guarantee we won’t have to hear another phoned-in Red Hot Chili Peppers song during drive time? Nah– but if it means commercial alt-rock radio, or this chart, can resume its place as our bastard Top 40, we’ll take it.

Content retrieved from: https://pitchfork.com/features/article/9214-radio-friendly-unit-shifters-25-years-of-billboards-alternative-music-chart/.