Rolling Stone started doing their “Greatest _____ of All Time” publicity grabs in 2003. As I’ve stated before though, it’s easy to be cynical. I’m glad they do them. They stimulate discussion and are celebratory in nature, which is a good thing. Their albums list was the first one, followed by their songs list the following year, and the year after that they published a list of the 100 greatest artists of all time, which I remember largely ignoring. I actually hadn’t looked at it in several years until just now, and I remember now why I dismissed it upon its unveiling. I felt that alternative rock, my favorite music, was short-changed on the list. I had felt similarly about the albums and songs lists, but the artists list was particularly severe. You see, if you believe Rolling Stone‘s version of rock history, alternative rock was Nirvana and nobody else, which couldn’t be more untrue. Yes, Nirvana brought alternative rock into the mainstream, but that’s hardly the whole story, and for Rolling Stone to say (or at the very least, imply) that Nirvana is alternative rock’s only major contribution is revisionism at its worst.
I suppose U2 is an alternative band, since they developed after the punk explosion, and they’re listed at #22, followed by Nirvana at #30. Radiohead placed at #73, followed by the Beastie Boys at #77, Guns N’ Roses at #92, and Nine Inch Nails at #94. Those are the only artists on the list I have ever heard on alternative rock radio, and I’ve heard U2 and Guns N’ Roses far more frequently on classic rock radio. That leaves Nirvana, Radiohead, the Beastie Boys and Nine Inch Nails, hardly a representative sample of alternative music. No Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Violent Femmes, Jane’s Addiction, the Smiths, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Pavement, Sonic Youth, the Cure, Pixies, Metallica, Oasis, Blur, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, the Smashing Pumpkins, Tool, Incubus, Sublime, Coldplay, the Strokes, the White Stripes or Beck.
Most of those artists probably aren’t deserving of a spot on the list, but to me the most glaring omission is R.E.M., since I consider them to be the greatest alternative band of them all. (Yep. I said it.) Alternative rock grew out of the punk of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and R.E.M. was really the first band that was wholly alternative. And for my generation, alternative has been the only kind of rock we have ever known. The Millennial Generation, commonly referred to as Generation Y, was born between 1982 and September 11, 2001. (The year 1982 is chosen as the start year because there is thought to be a generational difference between those who graduated high school before 2000 and those who graduated in or after 2000.) The reason why I bring up this generational junk is that two important albums came out in 1983, U2’s third album, War, and R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur.
When those two albums were released in early 1983, right after the first Millennials entered the world, alternative rock as we know it was born. It’s also worth pointing out that alternative peaked from 1991–1994, right in the middle of the roughly 18-20 year generational period. I don’t think anyone would disagree that by 2001 alternative rock was on its last legs, as nü metal’s inexplicable popularity was finally nearing its merciful end. Fascinatingly (and disappointingly), alternative music has made zero progress since 2001. Every time I turn on alternative rock radio, I always shake my head that the same derivative post-grunge is making the rounds. (Actually, the new stuff they’re finding is worse than derivative, if that’s possible.)
In many ways, the 2000s mirrored the 1980s: mainstream music plummeted in quality, awful production techniques became the norm, and the indie scene thrived in the underground. The kind of music we now refer to as “alternative rock” was called “indie rock” (or “college rock”) back in the ’80s, and R.E.M. was the biggest indie rock act. Document was their last album released on an indie label, but it was their first produced by Scott Litt, who would go on to produce their next five albums for Warner Bros., starting with Green the following year. But perhaps most importantly, R.E.M. paved the way for other indies (such as Nirvana a few years later) to get signed by major labels by proving that there was a market for alternative music. Document was the first alternative album to get everybody’s attention, industry-wise.
Thank God it did.