How the Original 1988 Alternative Songs Chart Helps Explain Where Alternative Music Is in 2018
This week, Billboard celebrates the 30th anniversary of our Alternative Songs chart. Here, we take a look at the 30 songs populating the original chart, dated Sept. 10, 1988, to show how where we're closer now to where we started with the chart than we have been in the decades in between.
You couldn't ask for a much more fitting No. 1 on the first-ever Alternative Songs chart than Siouxsie and the Banshees' 1988 hit "Peek-a-Boo."
By the late-'80s, the former first-wave U.K. punks had evolved into something stranger and more amorphous, and "Peek-a-Boo" was one of the weirdest songs to hit the Billboard Hot 100 (reaching No. 53) in '88: a warped, booming stadium-rock shuffle with a stereo-split verse that sounded like frontwoman Siouxsie Sioux arguing with herself, no guitar riff to speak of, a chorus hook sung as if it was being played in reverse, and a drum beat and horn riff that actually was played in reverse.
It wasn't punk. It wasn't even post-punk. It wasn't really indie or grunge or industrial or any other genre designation otherwise assigned to left-of-the-dial rock in the late '80s. What was it? It was alternative.
Of course, not so many people were calling it that back then -- the term existed in the '80s, but when the Alternative Songs chart first appeared in Billboard in September of 1988, it was called Modern Rock Tracks, to differentiate itself from the Mainstream Rock Songs chart, then named Album Rock Tracks and largely being commanded by Steve Winwood and Van Halen. "Alternative" mostly took root in common parlance around the turn of the '90s, with the formation of the epochal counter-culture festival Lollapalooza, and then the rise of previously underground bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam to blockbuster sales and MTV superstardom.
By that point, alternative rock had enough of a commercial core sound -- based on the guitar-driven grunge of those bands, and the many offshoot strains (post-grunge, pop-punk, Britpop) it either led to or directly inspired -- for it to be a relatively easily comprehended proposition as a radio format. But based on the first snapshot of alternative (or "modern rock") from that chart dated Sept. 10, 1988, the term could've meant absolutely anything.
There's a decent amount of the college-favored post-punk and indie rock that you'd expect to see on that first chart: The Psychedelic Furs' "All That Money Wants," The House of Love's "Christine," The Primitives' "Crash." But there's also dance-pop (Erasure's "Chains of Love," Information Society's "What's on Your Mind [Pure Energy]"), folk rock (Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' Bout a Revolution") and reggae (Ziggy Marley and the Tomorrow People's "Tumblin' Down," UB40 and Chrissie Hynde's "Breakfast in Bed"). And there are songs from iconoclastic icons of earlier generations like Debbie Harry, Patti Smith and Joan Armatrading, who just didn't seem to fit anywhere else.
And that's kind of what modern rock radio was back in the late '80s: a safe haven for artists who essentially had nowhere else to go on the FM dial. Some of them -- like Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians ("What I Am") and Escape Club ("Wild, Wild West") -- had enough pop appeal to eventually cross over to the world of top 40, but many of them -- like Shona Laing ("Glad I'm Not a Kennedy") and The Bible ("Crystal Palace") -- didn't. But modern rock radio stations like KROQ in Los Angeles and WLIR in New York gave them a platform to be different, and enough listeners were driven to it that in the decade to follow, the grunge sound that the format congealed around ended up boiling over into one of the dominant sounds of the entire era.
And for a long time after, once grunge displaced the jangly, poppy lean of the late '80s and first couple years of the '90s, the sound of the chart was a relatively fixed one. That's not to say that the bands were all of the same stripe -- Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis and The Cranberries all sounded fairly different from each other in the mid-'90s, as did Muse, The White Stripes and Linkin Park a decade later. But, with only the spare handful of notable exceptions each year, what populated the Modern Rock charts in the '90s and '00s were rock bands: guitar-bass-drum-based groups with multiple fixed members, playing rock music that sounded more influenced by The Clash, The Cure and Jane's Addiction than Def Leppard, Bon Jovi and Dire Straits.
But look at the chart this week, and it seems a lot like 1988 all over again. There are modern versions of folk-rock (Mumford & Sons, Hozier) and dance-pop (Marshmello, Bob Moses), as well as alt-pop miscellany (Billie Eillish, The 1975, Rex Orange County) that doesn't quite fit on top 40 radio yet. There's even some reggae influence again, courtesy of the Dirty Heads and ska-punk revivalists The Interrupters. There are still traditionally structured rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie and The Struts, but they're well outnumbered by production-heavy groups like AJR, Panic! At the Disco and Twenty One Pilots, who have either de-emphasized the guitar -- long the core instrument of the genre's sound -- or removed it altogether, in favor of synths, horns and big beats. Actually, a lot of the chart kinda sounds like "Peek-a-Boo."
How did the genre end up back where it started? Well, basically, the post-grunge era in rock ran its course -- from pop-punk to nu-metal to the new rock revolution to emo to stadium alternative to alt-folk -- until the genre's evolution finally died out altogether in the mainstream. For the first time since the late '80s, there's no commercially dominant brand of guitar-based alternative rock at the moment, no core for a radio format to wrap itself around, no bands to really play it safe with. For much of the '10s, alternative radio could lean on newer fare from standbys of the '90s and '00s, but now even the perennially reliable Foo Fighters failed to crack the chart's top five with any singles from their most recent album, and old-world alt icons like Beck and Weezer still present on the format have had to reinvent themselves to stay relevant. It's back to the wild west days of "Wild, Wild West" at alternative radio, and once again, just about anything that doesn't fit anywhere else tends to end up fitting there.
That's probably a scary thing for alternative radio programmers, but in many ways, it's a good thing for alternative radio listeners. For the first time in a long time, it feels like the format is taking chances on new artists again -- artists like Alice Merton, Two Feet and Lovelytheband, all of whom were totally unknown 18 months ago but had No. 1 hits on the format this year -- while also providing a launching pad for genre-blending, nu-alternative artists like Twenty One Pilots, Portugal. The Man and, in particular, Imagine Dragons to become crossover stars. The alternative world, which had become increasingly insular over the course of three decades, is finally starting to grow outwards again, in large part because it's shed any necessary association with the "rock" part of "alternative rock."
It's also worth noting that there's one important way in which 2018 alternative could still aspire to be even more like 1988 alternative: artist diversity. Of the 30 songs that comprise the first-ever Alternative Songs chart, 13 of them are by female or female-fronted acts -- including three of the top five (Chrissie Hynde, The Primitives and Siouxsie and the Banshees), and of course the No. 1 title -- compared to just eight of 40 on this week's chart, with none higher than No. 13 (Eillish, "You Should See Me in a Crown"). In addition, three of the top six artists on the '88 tally (Big Audio Dynamite, UB40 and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers) included members of color, while the only performer in the chart's top 10 this week who's not a white American is the Israeli-born Dennis Lloyd ("Nevermind," No. 4). We can only hope that as alternative radio continues to move towards the sonic inclusivity of the chart's early days, it begins to emulate its demographic inclusivity, as well.
Still, while this is undoubtedly a period of considerable destabilization in alternative, it very well may prove to be a healthy thing for the genre long-term -- a sort of refresh on the genre, in which artists and programmers will no longer be beholden to the bedrocks of alternative radio past, and can once again try anything and everything to see what works for 2018. Or at least until the next Nirvana comes back along.