For all the earworm bass thump and outsider nihilism, Portugal. The Man’s surprise hit has followed one festering industry trend: alternative rock’s splinter from its signature instrument. The “Feel It Still” hook is all bass in the table-setting opening verse, punctuated later by brassy horn toots. Guitar is barely audible, save for spidery little solos that connect one part of the chorus into the other. It’s a complete role reversal for the instrument’s traditional place in a rock song.
This is hardly an isolated incident. An exhaustive analysis of what’s dominated the Alternative Songs chart since its 1988 inception reveals a striking dip in electric guitar-driven songs across this decade. As Billboard's weekly account of American alternative stations, the chart has reflected numerous trends -- from '80s college rock to sugary late-‘90s post-grunge to early ‘00s nü-metal -- but remained tethered to the electric guitar through its first two decades. Fifteen and even ten years ago -- in 2002 and 2007’s year-end tallies, respectively -- 38 of 40 tracks featured prominent electric guitar.
But five years ago, 2012’s year-end charts had that number down to 27, with Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and fun. and Janelle Monáe’s “We Are Young” claiming the top two spots. That same year, Muse began a record-setting 19-week run atop the chart, with what was essentially an electro-R&B song performed by a rock band. In this week’s tally, it’s down to 19 out of 40. Imagine Dragons’ pounding synthscapes and the Lumineers’ twee acoustic strumming currently define the format more than anything akin to a band Dave Grohl’s ever played in.
"What resonates with our listeners is just a well-crafted song with good lyrics," says Jeff Regan, program director for SiriusXM's tastemaking Alt Nation channel. "What's behind it -- whether it's guitar, a pre-programmed EDM beat or a pop alt-y beat -- is kind of secondary."
While Mainstream Rock Songs, alt radio's more traditional cousin, remains heavy and riff-focused (vets like Theory of a Deadman and Papa Roach populate its top 5), stations like Alt Nation refuse to let go of pop's cultural zeitgeist. “I’d be willing to play anything and everything," says John O'Connell, program director for 104.3 The Shark, a Miami alt station that's spun the Chainsmokers, The Weeknd and Childish Gambino this year. “One thing alternative really isn't to me isn’t these days, is rock," O'Connell says. "The bands that've stuck by the rock side of alternative are struggling right now."
O'Connell notes the role Miami's diverse population plays in the eclecticism, and to be fair, The Shark is among the country's most musically omnivorous alt stations. But there are reasons a DJ Shadow song featuring Run the Jewels has been scaling Alternative Songs the past seven weeks. “Over the past year, I think we’ve played more pop-oriented tracks than ever before," says Lesley James, program director for CD102.5. Overall, the Columbus, Ohio station skews alt-traditional, as tracks from Cage the Elephant, Spoon, and the Foo Fighters currently occupy its heavy rotation. "But I’m always looking for guitar," James assures.