When There Was No Alternative

All it took was a clever spin on the distribution of indie music. By maintaining this idea that the popular music of the day was “alternative,” it gave it all that sense of indie cred (or at least it did to dumb 14 year-old). MTV packaged their promising young bands — who in actuality already had their major label deals and by all intents and purposes, made it — in a clever format called the “Buzz Bin” where viewers felt they were part of the unearthing of these upcoming artists. Ultimately, people saw through the ruse, and recognized that alternative was the most mainstream going, but nobody really cared. The music was good.

What really made whole alternative phenomenon tick was how integrated the movement became across various media. For example, when I think about the most ubiquitous albums of the period, there was Pearl Jam’s Ten, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, but three others call attention to how widely the reach became: Singles, Reality Bites, and No Alternative.

These three albums were as universal to the ’90s generation as, so they say, Frampton Comes Alive was to the ’70s – and they were compilation albums. The first two, Singles and Reality Bites, came from the two hit films that helped solidify the alternative decade, and really drove alternative into the mainstream. The third, No Alternative, came out in 1993 as a massive scale Arista release compiled by Paul Heck and Chris Mundy, which pitted a “who’s who” of this alternative music scene against a common enemy, AIDS.

When people think about their musical tastes of previous periods from their lives, it’s almost like looking at an entirely different person, or at least an outdated version. They laugh at the stuff they used to listen to, as though it was a mullet or a handlebar mustache. It’s as though after having grown up musically, and learning to appreciate things like technical ability, complexity, time signatures, the older stuff becomes just a phase. For every song that still stacks up to the modern tastes, there’s one where folks wonder what on earth they were thinking. As much as Invisible Touch was strong back in the day, it’s not exactly in heavy rotation on the iPod today.

Yet, sometimes there exists some  pride there too, which brings us back to No Alternative. Back then, the album was all about the Smashing Pumpkins’ contribution Glynis and the Urge Overkill song Take a Walk. Personally, the former came from my absolute favorite band at a time when both Gish and Siamese Dream were played on repeat. Glynis was one of the best Pumpkins songs of any, and I loved that they stashed it away on this compilation. Urge Overkill, on the other hand was a band I didn’t know much about, other than a familiarity with their name and nifty logo. In their case, No Alternative really helped make a name for them. And other tunes struck a chord too, like Soul Asylum’s cover of Sexual Healing and the Beastie Boys’ collaboration with DJ Hurricane, It’s the New Style.


But what’s even more interesting than going back to those tunes on the album that got the heavy rotation, is to look at what else is there. A number of songs jump out  today, such as a tremendous cover of John Fogerty’s CCR song, Effigy, by none other than Uncle Tupelo as well as Pavement doing Unseen Power of the Picket Fence in an homage to Michael Stipe and R.E.M. Of course, there are the heavy hitters of the era like Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana (who provides their contribution via a hidden track), but how about the stuff that makes you say, “Wow, they were on here?” Sarah McLachlan, Bob Mould and Jonathan Richman are names that mean something now, but to a teenager in 1993, not so much.

Perhaps better than any other individual artifact of the alternative revolution, No Alternative captured it all in one place, over the course of one 21-song cassette (or 19 tracks on the compact disc). In a sense, it serves as a lasting icon for the genre, not only for what it was, but also for what it is now.

In the end, in all its comical irony, the alternative genre just goes to show that nothing has changes and that history repeats. The mass marketability of “alternative” not only still exists today, but it gets bigger by the day. “Indie” bands like Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire both hit number one on the Billboard 200 this past year, and a simple click of the TV remote reveals countless syncs from indie bands on the most mainstream of television shows and commercials. What it all boils down to is the fact that as with any art, musicians will always look in new directions, as they too will look back at their influences. It’s a simple cycle – like capri pants and bell bottoms – it comes and goes. Everything is alternative, until it isn’t.

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4 Responses

  1. Compilation discs from the early and mid ’90s exposed me to so many incredible acts I probably wouldn’t have found as quickly if left to my own devices.

    Anyone ever hear Stanley, Son of Theodore?


    There wasn’t a clunker on that disc and you felt as if you had stuck your toes into every nook and cranny of the “alternative” world by the time you hit the final track. I must’ve been the exact target audience for Epic/Columbia as I bought a number of albums from the bands on Stanley such as Sun 60, Poi Dog Pondering, the Indigo Girls and Big Audio Dynamite over the next few years.

    Thanks for bringing back great memories, Ryan

    Moving between each trackEach track From the electro-funky Big Audio Dynamite II to Sun 60’s thrash-pop to

  2. Steve, regarding the AV Club, somebody actually said the same thing on my facebook that this was basically a rip off of a segment over there. For what it’s worth, I swear on my life that I didn’t know about a similar article that they ran.

    So while this may not be all that “original,” I promise you that it is 100% original in the sense that it came only from my own thoughts.

    This isn’t my job, but I do take it seriously. I hope you believe me when I say I would never, ever, ever rip off somebody else’s ideas.

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