Ross On Radio: Is The Sound Of Summer At Alternative, Triple-A Now?

After Five Years of Pop, Could Summer 2014 Rock?

Is the sound of summer 2014 playing on an alternative or triple-A station now?

For the last five years, the song of summer has been either pure pop, rhythmic pop, or in that "turbo-pop" area in between: "I Gotta Feeling," "California Gurls," "Party Rock Anthem," "Call Me Maybe," "Blurred Lines." 

The last time a rock song came close to being the summer song was 2008, when Kid Rock's "All Summer Long" battled with "I Kissed A Girl." I scored it at the time for Katy Perry,  but either call would have been right. (For those with long, unforgiving memories, I also gave 2009 to the Black Eyed Peas for "Boom Boom Pow," not "I Gotta Feeling"; however, that changes nothing here.)

So it's interesting that alternative and triple-A radio have at least a half-dozen "rock" records, as loosely defined these days, that are poppy, uptempo, and would sound great on top 40 radio this summer. 

The poppier sound of alternative is well-documented and has been more than a decade in the offing. But triple-A's changes have contributed as well. As triple-A moves closer to both alternative and modern AC, the singer-songwriters based at that format have changed their offerings. Serena Ryder's "Stompa," a massive triple-A hit, was Adele influenced and explains why artists like Ray Lamontagne and Ingrid Michaelson don't sound nearly as pensive this time out.

"Stompa" would have sounded great at mainstream top 40 (as it did in Ryder's native Canada, but got no further than midchart at adult top 40. Undoubtedly, some of the songs cited here will get nowhere near top 40 either. And given the tortuous road for any alternative crossover, some may not get to top 40 until Labor Day. Bastille's "Pompeii" recently peaked at top 40, completing a nearly five month journey from alternative.

Among the songs that would sound great at top 40:

Kongos, "Come With Me Now"  -- Alternative PDs are capable of taking months to incubate a record, but made this one happen almost immediately on its U.S. release. Top 40 PDs rarely play anything before being asked, but three already have it in significant rotation, including KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas, often the pop/rock incubator among Clear Channel's major-market mainstream top 40s. And whatever the actual intent of the lyrics, it does have the same "like there's no tomorrow" call-to-action that has become part of the summer song DNA.

Fitz & the Tantrums, "The Walker" -- It's up. It's fun and bouncy. It has whistling. It's top five alternative, top 10 triple-A and top 15 at adult top 40.  It already has a number of spins at mainstream top 40, mostly small-market, but including KBKS (Kiss 106.1) Seattle. And it feels like one of those songs that could spring into action with warmer weather.

Black Keys, "Fever" -- They've gotten this far without a pop hit. It's not inconceivable that the audience that loved "Little Black Submarine" might feel betrayed. But when a band with an existing following finally distills what it does into something poppier, the results are often huge. And it's already No. 6 at alternative in less than a week.

Ray Lamontagne, "Supernova" -- The only thing more startling than a poppy Black Keys song is a bouncy, uptempo Ray Lamontagne song, and the Keys' Dan Auerbach was part of this one as well. Like Ryder, just reinventing himself at triple-A is a significant statement for Lamontagne. So far, the airplay hasn't even spread to adult top 40, and top 40 seems an unlikely home. But the video is just out, and wait until the syncs start.

Bleachers, "I Wanna Get Better" -- Jack Antonoff's side project fits better as a summer song musically than lyrically. But the Fun. guitarist has pulled off heavy and anthemic together before.

Cage The Elephant, "Take It Or Leave It"  -- It's only starting to scale the alternative charts now. And the previous single "Come A Little Closer," another long-running alternative hit, is still making its way at adult top 40. Also, not such a breezy lyric. But after five years of quietly supplying alternative with consistent hits, the pop hit intent is clearer than ever here.

This is by no means a definitive list. Foster The People, whose mix of poppy music/darker lyrics looms over a lot of what's on the alternative charts now, has one single peaking and another rising at alternative, but hasn't gone to pop with either. Bastille's follow-up, "Bad Blood," is also heavy lyrically, but that didn't stop "Pompeii," and the new one has reggae elements -- always welcome in summer. Coldplay's "Magic" will now be viewed through the filter of Chris Martin's separation from Gwyneth Paltrow, but certainly seemed engineered for pop nevertheless.

At top 40, the more traditional candidates for "Song of Summer 2014" are already starting to line up. Pitbull will be in play with "Wild Wild Love." WWCK (CK105) Flint, Mich., PD Jerry Noble, who called both "All Summer Long" and "Blurred Lines" early, has given an early endorsement to Katy Perry's "Birthday," which gets a boost from a handful of influential stations this week. But if any of these individually seem to be unlikely candidates for the summer song, in the aggregate they suggest that there could be a more pop/rock feel at top 40 in a few months. 


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