By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
If you don’t work in Alternative radio, you’ve heard its music in uneven doses at best in recent years. Lots of Twenty One Pilots. An occasional X Ambassadors. Maybe Bastille next. Or Kaleo. There’s been a lot of good, pop-flavored music for years (Weathers, Saint Motel, the new Empire of the Sun) hasn’t traveled to the pop hemisphere yet.
If you do work in Alternative radio, you’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of songs that satisfy individual coalitions, but not all of them. There are ‘90s eminences that are still or newly active (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Blink-182, Weezer). There are Triple-A crossovers. There is EDM-flavored music that sounds “pop” to rock fans, but not to the outside world.
Alternative’s biggest moment came a little over two decades ago when the format was able to rock on its own terms. Eventually the bands that worked for both the true-alt and guitar fans turned from Nirvana and the Chili Peppers to Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down, and then into the rap/rock music that true-alt people tolerated grudgingly at best. In the early ‘00s, White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” was a uniting moment for the coalition. But eventually, Alternative stopped worrying too much about the guitar-rock audience, once it realized that there was at least modest success without them.
Recently, I suggested that current rock radio might be better off as one format again. There are a handful of Alternative outlets, such as KTBZ Houston, that straddle the coalitions. In general, however, it’s hard to find new coalition acts at Alternative, and hard to find new product whatsoever at Active Rock.
So where are the rock hits?
They’re in Canada. And I’ve saved that for paragraph six because I’ve noticed over the years that when I write about Canada, readers sometimes get the mistaken impression that I am writing only for Canada. But don’t glaze over. I’ve got music to play you, after you consider the following.
Alternative is typically a 5-6 share format 12-plus in Canada’s major-markets. Alternative is not typically a 5-6 share format in America.
Mainstream Rock in Canada remains healthy as well—to some extent because it never really hardened into Active Rock. In the U.S., there are very few WMMR Philadelphia-type middle-of-the-rock outlets. In Canada, it’s the rock format that most markets have.
What propelled these observations into an article, though, was looking at Canada’s Alternative chart this Sunday. On that day, four of the five top Alternative songs were Canadian. The fifth was Twenty One Pilots. Broadcast regulations guarantee a certain amount of on-air real estate for Canadian content, but they will not get you four out of the top five. Canadian CHR PDs are thrilled to have Shawn Mendes, Drake, Alessia Cara, and the Weekend, but at the moment, only one of their top five songs is Cancon.
All four of the songs sound like hits to me. All four songs, in their own way, straddle alternative and guitar rock in the way that has been so elusive for rock radio here. None would sound bad on CHR or Adult Top 40, although only two of the four are the sort of record that you could currently have any expectation of hearing on pop radio here.
When I tweeted the observation about the top 5 earlier this week, it set off a dialogue between CFEX (X92.9) Calgary PD Christian Hall, fans of the various bands, and some of the bands themselves. There were, in total, about 100 responses in a day or so. That’s not the level of fan response I get writing about, say, Maroon 5, but it’s far more than my typical radio observations. And it became clear that U.S. fans of an act like the Arkells notice when their bands get even a spin or two on a U.S. station.
Canada has always done melodic rock well. New wave hit the mainstream several years ahead of America, so even the corporate rock bands of the early ‘80s had modern rock elements and were hard to pigeonhole. There’s also been a trend of acts with Triple-A or Alternative footing pivoting to make decidedly poppier records (Tegan & Sara, Serena Ryder), and some Alternative crossovers to Canadian CHR radio (Coleman Hell, Strumbellas) that haven’t yet happened here.
And there has always been a foundation for Alternative music. Of the four bands in question, three are from the Toronto-area (including one from Hamilton). That market has had Alternative radio continuously throughout the 35-year-plus-history of the format, first with CFNY and now CIND (Indie 88) as well.
So start your listening:
Arkells, “Private School”
Arkells, “My Heart Is Always Yours” – “Private School” is a former Alternative No. 1 hit. “My Heart” is climbing the charts now. “My Heart” is poppy in a way that wouldn’t sound out of place today on WWFS (Fresh 102.7) New York. “Private School” isn’t easily categorized, but the hook (“private school girls/and private school boys”) is high-concept. They are on indie Last Gang/eOne (which just serviced “My Heart” here) in the U.S., but on Universal in Canada.
Sam Roberts Band, “If You Want It” – Fifteen years ago, Roberts became a star in Canada with the opening barrage of “Don’t Walk Away, Eileen,” which sounded like the great missing Tom Petty single, and “Brother Down,” which sounded like nothing else. In the U.S., Roberts somehow wound up on the non-commercial Triple-A track, and yet he’s definingly Mainstream Rock at home. In the last few years, his music has become anthemic again, first with “We’re All In This Together” and this current No. 2 Alternative hit. Roberts is also on Universal Canada at home, but indie Paper Bag here.
July Talk, “Push + Pull” – It starts as indie rock. It ends as active rock, although it never loses its bounciness. Another former Alternative No. 1, this is out in the U.S. on Island. It’s playing on WEDG Buffalo, N.Y.—a market that has, along with Detroit, often been the first U.S. stop for Canadian acts. But it’s also on The Project 100.7, iHeart’s Cincinnati Alternative outlet.
USS (Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker), “Work Shoes” – They’ve been a Canadian Alternative chart fixture for a while with a publicly declared mission of splitting the difference between Nirvana and EDM. This one lessens the density of their previous hits with a relatable lyric that could as easily be on Country radio; (the “work shoes” of the title are being kicked off at the end of the day). It is not a record that sounds like Twenty One Pilots, but it has the same ticking-multiple-boxes appeal of that band’s recent hits. And if it arrived at American radio as the next Twenty One Pilots single, it would be inescapable on both Top 40 and Alternative within weeks.