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As you may have realized if you've read a few of my other posts, I grew up in the "Alternative Era", when suddenly underground bands were thrust into the limelight and 80s hair metal faded into the background (some might say, thankfully). Alternative will always hold a special place in my musical pantheon because it is a genre that includes many of the bands that were my first "favorites". These are the bands that made me the music fanatic I am today by drawing me in during those difficult years of adolescence.
All that nostalgia is great, albeit a bit sappy, but I will admit it has left me a little jaded towards the genre of alternative and I mean the original alternative artists, or at least the originals to earn that label, not the mainstream "alternative" of today that has been labeled such by record labels and marketers, but doesn't resemble the original musical style at all. For the longest time, these original alternative artists were permanently engraved in my brain as a symbol of my youth, and a clichÃ© of the era during which I grew up. This made some of these artists especially difficult to listen to now and even more difficult to view them through new eyes.
For some unknown reason though, for the past 6 months or so, that's exactly what I've been doing... sort of rediscovering alternative, and viewing it through new eyes. I've come to some conclusions and have been so thoroughly re-inspired by these artists that I thought I would share 10 of them that might re-inspire you to check out some of these bands either for the first time, or again through new eyes.
This first piece will focus on 5 bands that I'm sure anyone who's at all familiar with this original alternative movement can name not only songs by, but probably albums by. The second half will deal with 5 bands that are still probably recognizable, but never made as much of a break into the mainstream.
1: Alice In Chains
Along, with Nirvana, Alice In Chains is the band that I most identify with the "grunge" movement. Although they were cut short at their peak due to the tragic death of lead singer Layne Staley, the Alice in Chains catalog is dense with great music. It might seem like the obvious choice, but I'm especially partial to Dirt, the band's most well known album. When I first heard this album, I identified immediately with the bleak, tortured soundscapes, balanced on a metallic and punk infused edge... it was just the quintessential grunge sound. Listening to this work now has been one of my more exciting rediscoveries as I now feel that I couldn't really understand where this album was coming from when I was younger. Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell create the perfect representation of Staley's ongoing heroin addiction. It sucks you in and puts you into the addicts shoes in a very intense way that is extremely powerful and compelling from start to finish. Definitely an album (and a band) that has a much stronger impact once you've gained some experience to really understand what's it's about and the pain it embodies.
I think my first real experience with "alternative music" was listening to Soundgarden. I don't know what attracted me to them initially, but I do recall listening to "Black Hole Sun" almost daily at one point. What I notice most about listening to this band these days is how much of the more subtle aspects I missed the first time around. The combination of hard hitting rock riffs and lead singer Chris Cornell's powerful vocals is still a stinging combination to this day, making albums like Badmotorfinger and Superunknown incredible on first listen. Really digging into them though, reveals a complexity, both musically and intellectually. They have a bit more psychedelia to them than I seem to remember and when you add in a subtlety ironic touch of humor in their lyrics, Soundgarden create something that is much more than it appears on the surface... something adventurous, maybe with just a touch of social comment mixed in, all wrapped up in a hard hitting, rock and roll exterior. Great stuff to be sure.
3: Pearl Jam
Of these bands, Pearl Jam is the one that made the easiest transition back into my regular listening patterns. Even back in the day they were known for intensely powerful songs... like "Jeremy" still one of the most chilling songs ever written in my opinion... incredible live shows, and maybe a strong commitment to changing the world for the better. That's still true and the ideology is still the first thing that comes through when I listen to a Pearl Jam album to this day, even their more recently works. Listening to an album like Ten though, for the first time in a while, that topics discussed and the complete statement the band is making hit home even harder, especially in today's social climate. This leaves me thinking that I'm not only thankful that a band like Pear Jam is still around these days, but also that I don't understand why they're aren't more bands like them when they've been around for so long, making such amazingly heartfelt and passionate music and inspiring others to do the same.
I guess the reason to start listening to Pearl Jam again (if you ever stopped for any length of time) is not necessarily that you'll discover anything new... although there is a subtlety to their lyrical content that can go overlooked. Instead I think the reason is that in many ways they're more relevant than they've ever been in today's society and we should take what they're saying to heart.
4: Jane's Addiction
I'll admit that of the bands I chose for this one, I think Jane's Addiction was the most surprising to me. It's not that I don't love their work as I remember to this day when I first heard them and how I immediately bought every album I could find (a whole three). At the time though, what I didn't understand is why they would write some of their songs at all. Songs like "Standing In the Shower Thinking" and "Idiots Rule" from Nothing Shocking, seem deceptively simple conceptually and thoroughly devoid of any deeper meaning or intellectual thought on first listen. Now, so many years and so many listens to bands like T-Rex and the Frogs later, they make so much more sense as artistic statements. Sometimes simplicity is the most revealing and really songs like those I mentioned aren't really simple at all. I find Jane's Addiction to be far more artistic, far more conceptual and far more powerful than I first imagined... like I said, I was a little surprised. Plus add in the fact that they still are one of the most rockin' bands to come out of the alternative era and you have something that I think deserves a second listen... and a third or forth.
I am now going admit to the biggest sin someone who grew up during the alternative era can probably admit to... I wasn't into Nirvana that much. Yes, it's true... back in the day I was much more interested in the works of the Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden than Nirvana. I appreciated their songs, but didn't feel the connection I felt with some other bands... maybe because I wasn't as angry as some of my peers at the time. Truthfully, it's only just recently that I think I truly have started to recognize the genius and beauty of the writing of Kurt Cobain and I think that there is so much more to the music than most people realize. I remember back in the 90s how Nirvana was totally the band to listen to, as their angst, hard edge and raw intensity definitely appealed to the adolescent masses. I think that's what a lot of people my age identified with at the time, the pain and anger in their music. Listening to an album like In Utero now though, after most if not all of my angst has faded away, I find that I really connect with this band on a different level altogether. There's still a similar feeling as I get listening to Alice In Chains (one of experience aiding in understanding pain), but there's also a subtlety to Nirvana's works that I did not expect. I now hear far more social comment in Cobain's writing than I ever anticipated, and their appreciation of by bands like the Frogs and the Vaselines becomes far more apparent. Yes, the songs sound like direct interpretations of what Cobain was going through at the time, but at the same time there's subtle moments of commentary that speak volumes about music, society, art, emotion and so much more. When combined with the angst and the pain that is more immediately identifiable, makes the statement that much more powerful.
I don't know why people on an individual basis were necessarily so drawn to Nirvana back in the day, but I think that many fans thoroughly missed the subtle genius, the complexity and the intelligence of their music... a trend that I think continues to some extent to this day. If you only choose to reexamine one band from this list, make it Nirvana as I think there's so much more to this band than people realize.
Bonus: Smashing Pumpkins
I've written so much about the Smashing Pumpkins for this site that I won't bore you with too much again. The band definitely deserves mention as part of this piece though. I think as much as any band I've listed, maybe even more so, the music of the Smashing Pumpkins can be rediscovered over and over again, with new complexities found every time. I just recently rediscovered certain elements of Siamese Dream, and album I've easily listened to hundreds of times, and am still finding new things on every listen. Proof that even a band you think you know so well can surprise you after all these years.
Well those are the first 5(6) bands that I've chosen for this piece. Each has it's own merits and each has plenty of new things to discover... probably completely different things than I did. Maybe it's been a while since you had a listen to some of them, and maybe it's time to listen again and see what you hear this time. Here's hoping that I inspired you to do just that... take another listen. And if by some chance you've never really heard much by any of these bands, I think you owe it to yourself to take a listen and check them out.
Next I'll take a look at 5 bands that were just as important to the alternative movement as these 5, but didn't break through to the mainstream in the same way.
You can find part 2 of this piece here: 10 Bands to Rediscover Alternative: Part 2, The Supporting Cast