Music in the ‘90s: When Alternative Became Mainstream

[30 September 2012]

By Dave Whitaker

I’m a Billboard magazine junkie. Every week I peruse the charts, eager to track music’s latest hitmakers. Lately, however, I’ve experienced a heavy dose of déjà vu. Among the pop and rock entries are songs and albums by Green Day, Matchbox 20, the Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette, No Doubt, the Offspring, and Soundgarden.

Others who’ve unleashed new product this year include Fiona Apple, the Counting Crows, the Cranberries, Eve 6, Everclear, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, and Soul Asylum. Look for new stuff from Alice in Chains and the Wallflowers by year’s end. That would be the year 2012, not 1996.

It’s enough to make one believe the ‘90s never ended. Oh sure, most of those acts peaked over a decade ago, but their refusal to go away hints at a still-present passion for the alternative scene which became the mainstream music of the ‘90s.

That decade, a mere dozen years in the rear view mirror, proved a particularly productive era for sending album sales into the stratosphere. Less than 200 albums have sold 15 million or more worldwide (Dave’s Music Database blog, “The World’s Top 100 All-Time Best-Selling Albums,” 20 February 2012), but an astounding eighty albums released in the ‘90s make the cut. They cross multiple genres including rap (MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Kid Rock), country (Garth Brooks, Shania Twain), R&B (Boyz II Men, TLC), pop (Michael Jackson, Madonna), bubblegum (Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys), adult contemporary (Celine Dion, Michael Bolton), and rock (Metallica, Guns N’ Roses).

However, the decade’s most dynamic trend was the rise of alternative rock. If there’s any doubt as to the genre’s impact, check out this list of the “Top 100 Albums of the 1990s” (Dave’s Music Database Facebook page, 16 February 2011) in which albums are ranked by aggregating multiple best-of lists alongside sales figures, chart data, awards, and ratings; 9 of the top 10 albums and more than half the overall list fall under the alternative rock banner.

In the ‘80s, the genre was as a niche market confined to airplay on college radio stations. However, at the dawn of the ‘90s, genre stalwarts like U2 and R.E.M. had surfaced as bands capable of selling out major arenas and racking up millions in album sales (both have albums from the ‘90s on the list).

In 1991 and 1992, Nirvana and Pearl Jam (also on the list with ‘90s albums) didn’t just become the flagbearers for grunge, but the entire alternative rock scene. When Nirvana’s Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson on the album chart in early 1992, it was clear the “alternative” tag was looking a little silly. A once niche market had become the market.

However, the moniker remained – and a multitude of other “alternative” albums comfortably found a home in the 15-million club. Here’s a glimpse at five of the acts who joined the club via 1990s releases and how they are still impacting the charts today.

Green Day

Then:
In 1996, Green Day were just putting the chart run of Insomniac to bed. While the album generated a couple #3 alt-rock hits, it was a let down from 1994’s Dookie. Three #1 alternative hits (“Longview,” “Basket Case,” and “When I Come Around”) sent the album into the stratosphere, hitting 20 million in sales worldwide.

Now:
Two more albums followed before Green Day woke up and reasserted itself with a pair of rock operas (American Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown). The group now has the #1 rock song (“Oh Love”) as they prepare to launch a triple-album extravaganza.



Matchbox 20

Then:
Matchbox 20 released its debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, in 1996. Over two years, they milked it for five songs (including “Push,” “3 A.M.,” and “”Real World”) which hit the top ten on one chart or another. The album peaked at #4 and sold 15 million worldwide.

Now:
After a couple more outings, Matchbox 20 went on hiatus for a decade. They trotted out an obligatory anthology and frontman Rob Thomas had a successful stint as a solo act. However, the 22 September 2012 issue of Billboard loudly trumpeted the band’s return – with the #1 debut of new album, North.



Alanis Morissette

Then:
Alanis began 1996 with “Ironic,” the fourth single from Jagged Little Pill. It became her third #1 on the alternative charts (after “You Oughta Know” and “Hand in My Pocket”) and was a #2 pop airplay hit. “You Learn” topped the airplay chart and “Head Over Feet” went to #3. Pill secured a dozen weeks atop the Billboard album chart on its way to 33 million sales worldwide.

Now:
A week before Matchbox 20 topped the Billboard album chart, Alanis made her own entrance into 2012 with the #5 debut of Havoc and Bright Lights. It is her fifth studio release since Pill. All have been top ten efforts.


No Doubt

Then:
Gwen Stefani and Co. closed out 1996 with the #1 album (Tragic Kingdom) in the country. Their blend of ska and pop landed three top-ten alternative hits, but it was the ballad, “Don’t Speak,” which exploded at pop radio and topped the pop airplay chart for 16 weeks.

Now:
The group followed with two more studio albums before going into hibernation. In the interim, the group followed the Matchbox 20 blueprint. Stefani released a couple solo albums while the group appeased fans with a hits collection. No Doubt is back on the charts now with “Settle Down,” the song preceding their Push and Shove album, another September 2012 release.


Red Hot Chili Peppers

Then:
In 1996, the Peppers were working singles from One Hot Minute, the follow-up to their breakthrough, Blood Sugar Sex Magik.  When that album launched – coincidentally on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind (24 September 1991) – the Peppers blend of funk, metal, and rap had built a small but loyal audience over the course of three albums in the 1980s. Thanks to “Give It Away” (#1 alternative), “Under the Bridge” (#2 pop), and other hits, Magik racked up 15 million in sales worldwide. 

Now:
Six studio albums have followed since Magik. All have been multi-platinum top-five efforts. 1999’s Californication was another entry into the 15-million-selling club. Proving they still have clout, their 2011 album, I’m With You, hit #2 and produced the group’s twelfth #1 modern rock hit (“The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie”) and two more top ten hits this year.



* * *

Whether it’s the Peppers or Alanis, the continued presence of ‘90s icons in today’s musical landscape makes the case that the decade was more than grunge. It was the decade when the music once on the fringes became the soundtrack for the masses. Sure, they aren’t selling 15 million albums anymore, but no one else is either these days. Well, except Adele. Tune back in 15 years or so for my reflection on how Adele helmed the neo-soul movement of the early 21st century.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/163289-the-1990s-when-alternative-became-mainstream/