How Rise Against's 'Savior' Nearly Became Billboard's Biggest Alternative Hit Ever -- Without Ever Reaching No. 1

This week, Billboard celebrates the 30th anniversary of our Alternative Songs chart. Here, we take an extended look at the unusual run of Rise Against's "Savior" on the chart in the late '00s, and how it ended up becoming one of the biggest hits in Alternative Songs history.

If there’s any moment in Rise Against’s career that might have predicted the Chicago punk rockers’ 2009 hit “Savior,” it’s the release of “Swing Life Away,” the second single from 2004’s Siren Song of the Counter Culture.

That may be a strange thing to say, since sonically, the songs couldn’t be much different. “Swing” is a restrained acoustic ballad featuring minimal percussion and other instrumentation. “Savior,” on the other hand, sports one of Rise Against’s most electric choruses to date, coupled with a bombastic drum beat and breakneck guitar riffs. “Savior” is the kind of song you’d play after “Swing” in a live show to get the audience back on its feet and dancing.

But in 2005, when “Swing” was released as a single,” Rise Against was not known as a radio band. They were loud, political, gritty, at times abrasive. “Give It All,” the predecessor to “Swing” and the band’s first charting Billboard single (No, 37, Alternative Songs, January 2005), was a clear link to the rockers’ hardcore punk beginnings. Despite its strong, singalong hook, it didn’t exactly hint at arena-ready choruses. “Swing” not only sported an even catchier chorus and a more accessible sound due to its acoustic presentation, but its lyrics – musings of proletarian life from one’s front stoop – were relatable from many walks of life. There was an ounce of social commentary, sure, but it was hardly overt.

“Swing” peaked at No. 12 on Alternative Songs, Rise Against’s first top 20 single. Its next album, 2006’s The Sufferer & The Witness, pushed the band into the top 10, thanks to the Nos. 7 and 6 peaks of “Prayer of the Refugee” and “The Good Left Undone,” respectively. Along the way, Rise Against had begun to find its voice on rock radio: often politically charged lyrics paired with impactful hooks, songs that radio programmers were more than happy to slot in among the Linkin Parks and Papa Roaches of the day.

But enough about that. “Savior" is the second-biggest song in the chart’s 30-year history, according to Billboard’s 300-song ranking of Alternative Songs’ most essential songs in celebration of its 30th anniversary. It’s only behind Muse’s “Uprising,” released the same year, and beat out songs such as Portugal. The Man’s 20-week No. 1 “Feel It Still” and hits from Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers, the top two acts on the corresponding all-time artists list for the 30th anniversary. And it did so without ever rising above No. 3 on the weekly chart.

Why “Savior,” though? What about this song makes it not just Rise Against’s biggest song ever on a Billboard chart but also a track that’s only exceeded by Muse’s “Uprising” in terms of overall performance in the chart’s 30-year history? Why not “Re-Education (Through Labor),” the lead single from 2008’s Appeal to Reason, released two singles before “Savior”? Or “Help Is On the Way,” the first track released to radio after “Savior,” which peaked one spot higher at No. 2 in April 2011?

Make no mistake: longevity is a key factor. On Billboard’s airplay and hybrid charts (such as Alternative Songs or the Billboard Hot 100), songs either fall off a ranking because they simply didn’t have enough metrics to remain or because they fell below a certain threshold after a set number of weeks (in order to keep the charts unclogged from huge hits that happen to stick around somewhere between No. 10-30, let’s say, for months on end). Most songs go away after about 20 weeks, give or take a few.

“Savior” didn’t do that. It followed the usual trajectory of most singles by established acts at the start, steadily climbing until reaching No. 3 in its 22nd week -- maybe a long trip to its peak, but nothing unprecedented.

Most songs continue to fall once their peak is reached. “Savior” didn’t do that. Other songs vaulted past it toward the top of the chart and subsequently fell, with newer tracks replacing them. Muse’s “Uprising” was replaced atop the list by another Muse single, “Resistance.” The usual cycle of hits atop the chart continued. But there was “Savior” the entire time, wavering anywhere between No. 3 and No. 6 among most-played songs in the country. Stations weren’t abandoning the song; sure, they weren’t necessarily playing it more often, but it remained a staple of many of their rotations.By April 2010, over four months after it initially peaked at No. 3, “Savior” was back at No. 3 yet again, and it continued to hover in that area in the months that followed.

The Billboard charts dated Sept. 25, 2010, was the final time “Savior” appeared on the Alternative Songs chart. It was at No. 9; falling below No. 10 would finally send it recurrent, meaning it would automatically come off the chart. Despite its age -- 65 weeks on the chart by this point -- it had actually gained nine percent in spins from the previous week. Nonetheless, it was gone the next week, supplanted by the ascensions of Kings of Leon’s “Radioactive” and Switchfoot’s “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues)” into the top 10.

Sixty-five weeks. That’s how long “Savior” stayed on Alternative Songs. That wasn’t just a chart record – it was eight weeks longer than any other song. It’s a record that holds to this day, though one song has since come close: Cold War Kids’ “First,” the No. 7 song on the all-time list, which spent 64 weeks amid a chart run that began in April 2015 and concluded in July 2016. It never quite won the race, but lord, did it run a lot of laps.

And that should in no way detract from its success, because it’s not a marker of anything but lofty achievement. As we’ve seen with other songs over the years that undertake improbably long runs on Billboard charts, even after the efforts from radio promoters and labels to take the song to the top of the tallies dry up, people still have to want to hear the song (whether it’s by streaming it or requesting it at radio), and on a radio front, programmers need to have a reason to keep playing it.

This is where “Swing Life Away” comes back in. It showed that Rise Against could be a major player in rock radio if it hit on the right formula: a good hook and instantly relatable lyrics. And while the band crafted plenty of the former in subsequent years, a defining aspect of “Savior” is that it isn’t political, it’s not angry. It’s about a relationship – in this case perhaps a romantic one, but applying something platonic to it isn’t farfetched.

“That's when she said, ‘I don't hate you boy/ I just want to save you while there's still something left to save,’” begins the chorus. “That's when I told her, "I love you girl/ But I'm not the answer for the questions that you still have.’" It’s a sentiment applicable to relationships the world over, buoyed by the consistently resurfacing refrain of “I don’t hate you” that returns on the bridge and outro. And despite the usage of first-person pronouns, the emotion is universal enough to avoid a specificity that might keep it from being relatable – kind of like, again, “Swing Life Away.”

Then there’s the music. “Savior” isn’t the kind of song you forget even after a few listens; frontman Tim McIlrath’s vocal over steadily picked electric guitar is immediately recognizable and attention-grabbing out of the gate. By 20 seconds in, the rest of the band joins in, sending the track on its whirlwind, frenetic pace, taking a breather only in the seconds before the chorus and on the bridge. Impressive electric and bass guitar work from McIlrath, then-new lead guitarist Zach Blair and bass guitarist Joe Principe abound (the electric guitar slides are a particularly nice touch), and Brandon Barnes keeps a feverish punk rhythm throughout. Easily shout-able, melodic backing vocals on the chorus pound home what’s already an earworm of a chorus.

Bear in mind, too, that “Savior” was the last single from Appeal to Reason. That ends up important because there was no single to replace it. A lead single from an album can be as huge as it wants to be, but eventually, a band’s gotta work its follow-up to radio, too. When this happens, radio programmers will often cut back on the previous single’s spin counts to avoid overload of an act on its airwaves. “Savior” was the third single from the album, and a fourth was not opted for, meaning the song could stick around longer without a shiny new Rise Against single to take its place.

So “Savior” had a lot working for it. But consider this, if you still need convincing: even once “Savior” finally fell off Alternative Songs, it wasn’t like it just went away. The song proceeded to spend 19 weeks at No. 1 (finally, a No. 1!) on the Alternative Songs Recurrents chart, which tracks play for songs no longer on the main list. It proceeded to remain on that chart for another year, finally falling below its 20-position threshold after the Sept. 24, 2011, list. It remains a part of many alternative stations’ libraries, at least those still favoring guitar-forward music. During the latest radio tracking week, it received just over 200 spins among the 60-plus alternative radio stations monitored by Nielsen Music, which would nearly be enough to put it onto the Alternative Songs chart right now if it was a new song.

Will Rise Against ever write another “Savior”? Doubtful, and maybe the band doesn’t even want to. At this point, the quartet has five Billboard 200 top 10s to its name and is still pumping out music that clearly connects; “The Violence,” the lead single from its most recent LP, 2017’s Wolves, peaked at No. 2 on Mainstream Rock Songs and No. 15 on Alternative Songs. Nothing since can claim it’s as hooky as “Savior,” nor has anything struck the blend of melody and hard rock that bands like Foo Fighters somehow continue to churn out.

But with “Savior,” at least, Rise Against scores Alternative Songs immortality. Hell, it took the chart so long to get rid of it, maybe it’s the definition of the word.

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