Why Foreign Acts Dominated the Alternative Songs Chart From the Start, & Why the U.S. Caught Up
Americans dominate the Alternative Songs chart now. But it wasn't always this way.
When Billboard's Alternative Songs airplay chart began in 1988, the first No. 1 was "Peek-a-Boo," a quirky dance-rock number from Siouxsie & the Banshees, a band that had scored moderate success on charts prior to the creation of the tally. Led by Siouxsie Sioux, the group formed in London over a decade before its first No. 1 hit Stateside and had become a reliable hitmaker in its home country prior to its first U.S. inroads.
At No. 2 on that first chart (dated Sept. 10, 1988) was Big Audio Dynamite, another London-born act (formed by former Clash member Mick Jones), with "Just Play Music!" The Primitives, from up the country in Coventry, England, was No. 3, while UB40 and Chrissie Hynde were No. 4, the former from even farther north in Birmingham, England. Jamaica's Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers slotted in at No. 5, while London's Shriekback, The Psychedelic Furs and The Escape Club were at Nos. 6, 7 and 8, respectively. "What's the Matter Here?" from 10,000 Maniacs, out of Jamestown, N.Y., marked the highest-ranking song by a fully American act on the chart, at No. 9.
The point? Alternative Songs may have been a chart that reflected radio in the United States, but make no mistake: Americans weren't exactly reaping the benefits from day one.
That's changed, certainly. Of the 12 songs to reach No. 1 on Alternative Songs thus far in 2018, only two (Alice Merton's "No Roots" and Muse's "Thought Contagion") are from non-American acts. In 2017, of nine songs to reach No. 1, just one, Rag'n'Bone Man's "Human," originated outside the U.S.
But in the chart's earliest days, it took until the fifth leader for an American act to crown Alternative Songs. "Orange Crush," by R.E.M., out of Athens, Georgia, followed Siouxsie & the Banshees, Big Audio Dynamite, The Psychedelic Furs and U2, ruling the list for eight weeks beginning Nov. 26, 1988.
Don't think for a second that R.E.M.'s two-month triumph opened the floodgates for Stateside acts to rule alternative radio, though. In 1989, once "Crush" relented, 17 songs led Alternative Songs in its first full calendar year. The breakdown: nine leaders from England, one from Scotland and one from Australia, for a total of 11 foreign acts at No. 1. The U.S. scored six, with R.E.M. returning to the top of the chart with "Stand," while Lou Reed, The Replacements, Camper Van Beethoven and two songs from The B-52s also ruled.
Things were even bleaker for Americans in 1990, when 17 songs again led the list. This time around, American-formed acts landed only four No. 1s, two of which were from Jane's Addiction. And in 1991, when the chart yielded 15 No. 1s, American acts scored only three.
It wasn't just a trend atop the chart, either. In 1988, of 31 songs to reach Alternative Songs' top 10, 29 percent were from American bands and acts, and one of those, the aforementioned "Breakfast in Bed" from UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, was merely one-half American, as Hynde is from Akron, Ohio. By 1989, the percentage was up to 38 percent; better, but still with a ways to go. Acts like Kate Bush, Tears for Fears and XTC reigned while Americans were novelties among the chart's highest reaches.
Fast forward to the present. In 2017, a whopping 78 percent of Alternative Songs' top 10 songs were recorded by Americans, and that number is nearly identical thus far in 2018.
The reasons for the shift, and for the largely European dominance early on, are easy enough to pinpoint.
By the onset of Alternative Songs in September 1988, much of what the world knew as alternative was indeed coming from abroad. The so-called Second British Invasion of the early- to mid-'80s had helped to define the early airwaves of MTV, which was airing music videos from acts that either came to find success on Alternative Songs or at least helped inspire those that would. The then-pop-centered Billboard Hot 100 was already seeing a rise in these acts, as was the relatively new Mainstream Rock Songs chart, which launched in 1981. Alternative was often fairly poppy, yeah, but it wasn't exactly the hair metal and arena rock it was sometimes being played alongside, either. It had its own sound, and the folks creating that sound were generally from places outside America.
So when Alternative Songs premiered, it made sense that the chart was largely British-influenced. The list began by tracking a handful of radio stations denoted as college rock, which was playing quite a bit of the alternative rock and new wave typical of the format's early days, along with commercial alternative stations that were, of course, going to play the heavy hitters that already existed. Bands like R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs, veterans such as Lou Reed and Patti Smith, they were present, yes. But if your local alternative station conducted an on-air interview with one of the acts it was playing at that time, chances were you were going to hear someone speaking with something other than an American accent.
The shift began at the tail end of 1991. Even though the chart saw only three American-made No. 1s that year, they included two of the final four chart-toppers that year: Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away" and, more tellingly, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the latter heralding the age of grunge. Not that grunge overran the chart in 1992, per se, but among 18 No. 1s that year, for the first time, half came from American acts; some veterans (Reed, R.E.M. and co.), some newbies (Soul Asylum, Cracker). Even Faith No More, taking a page from Nirvana's decibel count, led the list with "Midlife Crisis."
Grunge, originating in Seattle, thus essentially killed the non-American alternative radio star.
Come 1994, just three of the 17 No. 1s were from acts outside the U.S. Canadians Crash Test Dummies' "MMM MMM MMM MMM" (which was at least still North American) and The Cranberries' "Zombie" out of Ireland were right at home with the new guard (Nirvana, Live, Green Day and more); only Morrissey's jangly "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" might have fit in snugly with the chart's earliest days.
What's most interesting about American acts' sizable dominance on Alternative Songs nowadays is that it comes at a time when one could argue that the format is heading back toward the sounds of the chart's onset. Guitars -- at least, loud, prominent riffs and reverb -- are being traded for synths, keyboards, sometimes even programmed drums, as musicians can more easily create beats on a computer than form a band. The chart currently operates in an era in which EDM acts like The Chainsmokers and Marshmello can find Alternative Songs success by virtue of simply collaborating with some of the format's more recognizable voices, such as Coldplay's Chris Martin and Bastille's Dan Smith, rather than making marked shifts in how they create music; radio spins coming to them, not the other way around.
Does that mean that we'll see acts from abroad represented more significantly on the chart going forward? Not necessarily. New wave, synthpop and the like may have been most associated with groups outside the U.S. in their infancy, but North America is just as much a player in the genre now as compared to before.
Of course, we're in an age when budding musicians worldwide have access to the same creative tools, as well as essentially the same library on Spotify, YouTube and other wide-ranging platforms. As acts like The 1975 and Lorde have shown more recently, if Alternative Songs' chart-toppers continue down to find U.S. success, fans of the format may see an uptick in acts from across the ocean.