Surprise! Alternative Tops the CHR Charts

Portugal The Man Feel It StillThere was a time not that long ago when it was still possible that neither “Feel It Still” by Portugal, The Man nor “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons would be a CHR hit. Both were inherently poppy records, but the Alternative chart was mostly poppy records and few of them were crossing over. Imagine Dragons had also jeopardized their status as “the Alternative band that has pop hits” with a mediocre second album. Today, they have believers; nine months ago, nobody would have bet their life on the band.

But last week, “Feel It Still” was the No. 1 Mainstream CHR single. This week, “Thunder” replaced it. Alternative’s streak will likely end with Camila Cabello’s “Havana” becoming the next CHR chart-topper, but Walk the Moon’s “One Foot” just had an explosive CHR week with a gain of 859 spins. This week, “One Foot” was CHR’s second most added song, while the third most-added was the indie-pop “Best Friend” by Sofi Tukker, now scaling both the pop and Alternative charts.

The musical burst of activity coincides with a surge of Alternative activity on the FM dial. Three days before “Thunder” went to No. 1, Entercom launched new Alternative stations in its new markets of New York and Dallas. A few days later, iHeart Media brought Alternative back to Detroit, where longtime 89X had moved in the direction of Active Rock. That change happened about six months ago, but there was no urgency about filling the hole until now.

Any resurgence of Alternative radio will inform the pop charts, and create lateral support for possible crossovers at Adult Top 40 and CHR. But these two particular chart developments have been in the works for several months. So why would an Alternative hit replace another one at the top of the charts now?

Because the labels asked. Regular readers know that this is often the explanation of what makes it to radio. “Feel It Still” and the Imagine Dragons hits were worked to Adult Top 40 and CHR whereas, say, “High” by Sir Sly was not. They sound like the most obvious choices now, but that’s partially because we’ve heard them in a pop context.

Conversely, Harry Styles’ “Kiwi” doesn’t sound like anything on CHR. (It doesn’t sound much like what’s on Alternative either, but it lands closer to Kaleo than Cabello.) But “Kiwi” was put forth by a major-label pop artist and Top 40 is at least giving it a shot. Up until now, I’ve been dubious about the industry’s attempts to liken Styles to Oasis and David Bowie. But I recognize and appreciate his salute to glam/Zeppelin.

Because CHR was ready to listen. When I wrote a few weeks ago about the recent product morass at CHR—no tempo, too many songs concentrated in one or two styles, midpack ratings in most markets—the response I got from a surprising number of programmers was, “I know, right?” It has reached the point where it’s hard for even CHR PDs not to welcome something different.

Because it isn’t such a musical stretch. “Thunder” is better and bouncier than a lot of its peers, but it’s still the same sort of trap pop that dominates CHR radio. “Feel It Still” has the same throwback feel as Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Walk The Moon is the latest in a series of bands from 3Oh!3 to Cobra Starship to Neon Trees who morphed their teen punk sound to turbo-pop.

There’s no derision intended in any of those descriptions. Alternative has been pop music for more than a decade now. In fact, while grunge and nu metal were big (and lucrative) aberrations, they were aberrations nevertheless in the 40-year history of Punk/New Wave/Modern Rock/Alternative. Cage the Elephant came to rock radio with the AC/DC soundalike “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” but their current Alternative hit, “Whole Wide World,” is a remake of a nearly 40-year-old song from new wave’s early days. And in between those two versions, it was covered by the Monkees. 

The biggest influence on today’s CHR chart music is Midnight City” by M83.  Whether CHR was looking for something slightly different, or more of the same, it could have been finding Alternative crossovers at a steady clip for the last 18 months. But the labels weren’t asking and CHR programmers didn’t yet feel the need to look outside their own walls.

There’s more waiting to happen. AJR’s Alternative chart hit, Sober Up,”  is no less of a pop song than the ones they’ve charted with at Top 40, it’s just the one on which Rivers Cuomo appears. Dirty Heads’ “Vacation” would sound great on pop radio. Alice Merton’s “No Roots has been a pop hit in other places around the world. Thirty Seconds to Mars’ “Walk On Water is this week’s Alternative No. 1. It received one CHR spin last week, but I predict a time around February 2018 or so when PDs look back and wonder why they waited.

If programmers want to hear these songs in a pop context, check out CKOI Montreal.  When I last wrote about CKOI, they were playing “Thunder” as a power in August; (they’ve since moved on “Whatever It Takes,” the next Dragons single). CKOI was also where I first heard “No Roots” on the radio. By a new artist and on an indie label, it was easier for Merton to develop at Triple-A in the U.S., but it’s no less a pop hit for that, and hearing it on CKOI proved it. Now CKOI is playing AJR, Linkin Park, Vance Joy, and Theory of a Deadman, all alongside Ed Sheeran, Pink, and Khalid.

As a trend, the magnitude of either Alternative crossover or a boom for Alternative radio is still in the early part of its trajectory. I think there’s more growth ahead, but how much ultimately doesn’t matter for CHR now. If Top 40 played a few more Alternative crossovers at any given time, it would be better and more diverse. Those songs don’t even have to take slots from other genres. At a moment when there are (at best) twenty viable currents at the format, there’s room to expand. Alternative doesn’t have to become the dominant flavor at CHR for the first time in 22 years; but it ought to be consistently represented again.

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  1. scott lowe says

    I agree with a recent quote from Paul Tollett, CEO of Goldenvoice/Coachella who said, “Twenty years ago, alternative artists grew slower, but there is no underground anymore. It’s all kind of pop, in a way…”. Platforms like Soundcloud, Spotify and social media help create artist awareness at a much faster rate than before. Lately, it seems radio airplay comes last, even at Alternative radio.

    I also agree with Sean that Alternative has been pop music for more than a decade and it has a big influence in the sound of today’s CHR music chart. I think it is partially due to producers like Jack Antonoff and Greg Kurstin working with the likes of Taylor Swift, P!nk and Ellie Goulding, while in-between such projects as St. Vincent, Foster The People and Beck.

  2. paxman356 says

    I have both of these songs in my iTunes, but only as a 4 star. The only two post summer 5 star songs I’ve bought is Lauv’s “I Like Me Better” and Louis Tomlinson feat. Bebe Rexha and Digital Farm Animals “Back To You”.

    Sean, I have a question. Since I’m married to a Dutch lady, I’ve followed the Dutch charts. There are some good Dutch artists that do their songs in English that nobody here in the states has heard of. A good example of this is Trijntje Oosterhuis’ “Knocked Out”, which is Ron Gerber’s favorite song of 2012. The big reason she wouldn’t make it here is that nobody would be able to pronounce the name, but bands like Racoon, Kensington, Caro Emerald, and Anouk wouldn’t be chart toppers here in the states, but could have a lot of chart success if distributed here. My question is, why aren’t they?

  3. musiconradio says

    I agree, maybe 20 viable currents. I cringe when we go for weekly ads.

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