Radio: Alternative Ballads
by Dan Weiss | January 29, 2015
Is it ironic that the kinds of music created to rebel against the mainstream — from punk to the very term "alternative" rock — have developed their own sense of "pop"? Since ballads and slow jams are usually love songs (or out-of-love songs) and are usually more focused on melody and romantic grandeur than force or subversive irony or corrosive humor, they tend to be universal. But truly great musicians write great soft songs to match their more revolutionary loud stuff: For every "Smells Like Teen Spirit" there's an "All Apologies.” (And for every "London Calling" there's a "Lost in the Supermarket.”) Many would argue that the best songs by some of the loudest bands in alternative rock are their slow ones: Pearl Jam's folksy "Off He Goes" and anthemic goof "Yellow Ledbetter" are stunners, while Stone Temple Pilots' self-loathing "Creep" and whimsical "Sour Girl" helped differentiate them early on from other grunge bandwagon-riders.
Few would argue that Red Hot Chili Peppers rap better than they croon, with "Under the Bridge" and "Californication" in their catalog. Sebadoh's Lou Barlow was always too soft-spoken to be a true noise maven, quite aside from his way with amazing ballads like "Too Pure" and "On Fire.” Radiohead's spooky dirges like "Karma Police" and "Pyramid Song" have proven every bit as important to their dystopian legacy as their techno-destructive experimentation. Even recent talents as weird and wonderful as tUnE-yArDs have true highlights that amount to soul ballads, like the sex-positive "Powa" and the body-image empathy call ["Fiya."] So here's a whole station of songs, all of which achieve a balance — once seemingly impossible — between the twin desires of expressing rough angst and writing pretty.