Monday Mixtape: Alt rock classics (not by Nirvana)

    On this week’s Monday Mixtape Marco Cartolano recommends some of his favorite non-Nirvana alternative rock tracks from the '80s and '90s. (No, Hootie & the Blowfish didn't make the cut). You can listen to this mixtape on Spotify here. -

    [R.E.M. - “Radio Free Europe”]

    Hello everybody, and welcome to Monday Mixtape. I’m Marco Cartolano, and I love alternative rock. Alternative rock had its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s when small record labels would sign bands that rebelled against the arena rock of the ‘80s. While Nirvana helped bring alternative rock to the mainstream, there are so many other great alt rock bands that you should know about. Our mixtape starts with some weirdos from Athens, Georgia. R.E.M. helped usher in the alternative rock boom through constant touring and support from college radio. “Radio Free Europe” is an early single that was re-recorded for their first album, Murmur. It’s an energetic and anthemic track, which is especially impressive when you remember nobody understands what Michael Stipe is saying on the first R.E.M. album. Inspired by the jangly folk-rock music of acts like the Byrds, R.E.M.’s guitars feel colorful and propulsive on this early ‘80s track. R.E.M. would go on to become more successful in the ‘90s as the alt-rock scene started to flourish, and bands like Nirvana and Pavement cited them as an influence. It helped that Michael Stipe learned how to enunciate.

    [Pixies - “Debaser”]

    On the harder side of the alt-rock spectrum is Pixies. Their “loud-quiet” dynamic was another influence on Nirvana, so much so that Kurt Cobain admitted he was basically ripping them off. One of their most acclaimed songs, “Debaser,” feels like a rush of blood to the head. It brings the band’s punk influence to the forefront, and Black Francis’ vocals sound rabid. But, it features guitar overdubbing and sound dynamics that would not appear in most simplistic punk songs. Lyrically, it’s inspired by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s short film Un Chien Andalou, and you can hear Francis namedrop it in the chorus. It references the film’s surreal imagery, particularly a famous scene of someone’s eye getting sliced.

    [Sonic Youth - “Schizophrenia”]

    Sonic Youth expanded the potential of guitars with their experimental approach to rock music. The band eventually moved into a more conventional direction after their first couple of avant-garde albums. “Schizophrenia” demonstrates that more accessible side. The guitars are still dense, but they are not as punishing as they were on the experimental tracks from an album like Bad Moon Rising. Band members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon both have verses on this track, but their vocals sound more like they are simply talking as opposed to the more expressive punk vocals you hear from bands like Pixies. The song feels laid back, and it’s the perfect example of how alternative music can make for good chill out music too.

    [Pavement - “Cut Your Hair”]

    Cult favorites Pavement received their biggest taste of success with “Cut Your Hair.” The band brought a more polished sound for their second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain after their noisy lo-fi debut Slanted and Enchanted only received attention in indie circles. Ironically, the song that brought them the most success commercially savagely mocks the conformity of the music industry and bands who sell out. Stephen Malkmus sarcastically comments on these phonies, then starts screaming at them near the end of the track. In spite of the bitterness, the song has a catchy chorus of nonsense vocalizations. Musically, it has the distorted guitars that you would expect from a classic ‘90s indie tune.

    [PJ Harvey - “Rid of Me”]

    Let’s hop across the pond for the last three songs. British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey is not someone you should fuck with. On “Rid of Me,” she plays out revenge fantasies directed at men who hurt her before shrieking in the chorus that her exes aren’t “rid of her.” It’s one of the most savage breakup tracks I’ve ever covered on this show. While it’s a ferocious track, it also feels like Harvey is playing a character. She’s a natural performer, and her songs feel like if you set an intense stage play to punk. The instrumental mixes punk with the more deliberate pacing of blues for an eerie effect.

    [Belle and Sebastian - “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying”]

    Now for something a little more pleasant. Scottish band Belle and Sebastian play sweet chamber pop songs that hide cynical lyrics. The band is the definition of “twee.” On “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying,” the band uses bright guitars, aided by cellos and even trumpets, to lead what seems to be a cheery tune. Stuart Murdoch’s boyish vocals compliment the jaunty rhythm of the song. However, the song is actually about an idealistic artist trying to make good music when nobody cares about his work. He may be doomed to failure, but he knows that he needs to write songs to express his feelings and evoke an emotional response from his listeners. Yeah, not so pleasant now.

    [Radiohead - “Paranoid Android”]

    Finally, let’s talk about Radiohead. Your hipster friend’s favorite band pushed the boundaries of modern alternative rock in the 2000s, but they started to show off their experimental side with their last album of the ‘90s, OK Computer. “Paranoid Android” is a song made up of four parts. Influenced by Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and The Beatles’ “Happiness Is a War Gun,” “Paranoid Android” is a sprawling song that alternates from a slow, atmospheric beginning to a hard-rocking middle. Then, the song goes into a slow third section reminiscent of chord patterns in classical Baroque music. It ends on another hard rocking section. Thom Yorke’s slurred vocals transition from emotive yelps to angry snarls as he describes a bad experience at a bar and the alienating effect it has on him. It captures the sense of paranoia and disenchantment that Radiohead would later turn into electronic soundscapes on Kid A.


    [Reprise- “Paranoid Android”]

    And that’s all for Monday Mixtape. This week’s playlist will be available on Spotify at mondaymixtape. Make sure to subscribe to Monday Mixtape on Apple Podcasts so you get a notification every time we post a new episode. This has been Marco Cartolano for NBN Audio.

    [Reprise- “Paranoid Android”]


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