Radio Hits One: Foster The People, Cage The Elephant Lead The Charge Of New "The" Bands
Back around 2001, a Transatlantic cabal of music critics led a media hype machine declaring that rock was "back." To further this thesis, it grouped together a disparate set of bands offering variations on the stripped-down "garage rock" template who were often cheekily referred to as the "The" BandsThe Strokes The White Stripes, The Vines, The Hives, and so on. I always thought that was kind of a silly way to label those bands, since a huge number of band names have always started with the word "The," with a slightly smaller subset of that group naming their bands "The [blank]s."
Looking at Billboard's year-end Alternative Songs chart for 2011, however, you might wonder if a decade later we quietly experienced a new wave of "The" Bands, only this time with names that had words on both sides of the "the." The top two spots on the chart are occupied by Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks" and Cage The Elephant's "Shake Me Down", with Young The Giant's "My Body" at No. 14. Like the "The" Bands of 2001, there's not much uniting them other than the fact that they're all fairly new (only Cage The Elephant enjoyed any chart hits prior to 2011) and offering major-label-sanctioned, radio-friendly versions of musical and vocal styles usually associated with indie rock.
Those three "The" Bands are also among the only relatively new faces on a year-end chart that's otherwise heavy on bands that peaked during alternative rock's commercial heyday of the 1990s. The top 20 includes songs by The Foo Fighters (twice!), The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, Blink 182, Bush, and the extremely distasteful Bradley Nowell tribute act Sublime With Rome. Even one of the relatively younger acts on the chart, The Black Keys, was lumped in with the tail end of the garage-rock revival.
Since I covered this back in June, the Foo Fighters/Foster The People dichotomy has only intensified. Times critic Jon Caramanica recently declared 2011 "The Year When Rock Just Spun Its Wheels" in a fairly scathing takedown of the artistic and commercial relevance of major-label rock that served equal scorn to the uninspiring new bands and the veterans overstaying their welcome.
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Artistically, that's up for debate, though I won't put up too much of a fight: I enjoyed the latest Foo Fighters album and a fair share of the songs on the year-end chart, and I thought Caramanica overlooked the very promising major-label act The Joy Formidable, whose single "Whirring" wound up at No. 25. Commercially, though, it's pretty hard to argue that rock isn't at a low ebb of mainstream visibility. Only two songs on Billboard's Year-End Hot 100 were primarily rock radio hits: "Pumped Up Kicks" was at No. 13, while "Animal" by Neon Trees, who could be called the Foster the People of 2010, was all the way down at No. 97. (In 2010, "Animal" had a year-end ranking of No. 61.) A third song shared by the Hot 100 list and the Alternative list is Adele's "Rolling In The Deep," which doesn't really count since it was a hit on virtually every radio format last year. By comparison, 16% of the Year-End Hot 100 are country songs. 2011 did see an uptick in bands making that chart's top 10, but besides Foster The People they were strictly pop radio phenomenons like Maroon 5, OneRepublic, Cobra Starship and Hot Chelle Rae.
One of the few new names on the year-end Alternative chart that doesn't have the word "the" in it is AWOLNATION, whose creepy, lurching synth-rocker "Sail" gradually became one of my favorite songs of 2011. I'm curious how many other critics besides me put it on their ballots for the Voice's Pazz & Jop poll, but I'm guessing it won't be many: this deeply uncool band is signed to Red Bull's record label and is fronted by Aaron Bruno, formerly of the post-grunge rockers Hometown Hero. Over the course of the year, I came to view "Sail" as kind of the flipside of "Pumped Up Kicks;" like "Kicks," "Sail" filters bedroom synth-pop through a more mainstream aesthetic with much darker, more atmospheric results.
"Sail" was also one of 2011's most remarkable slow burners on the charts. It came out at No. 6 on the year-end chart despite never peaking higher than No. 5 on the weekly chart, where it's currently hanging tough at No. 12 after a staggering 48 weeks. And while AWOLNATION hasn't enjoyed Foster The People's pop crossover, they've proven to have an exceptional sleeper hit on the Hot 100 as well; for months, I kept noticing "Sail" on the lower reaches of the chart, and despite being on there for 20 weeks it never peaked higher than No. 82.
Curious for more information about how rare AWOLNATION's chart run was, I sent an email to Billboard chart analyst Gary Trust. In his response, Trust revealed only six other songs that had stayed on the Hot 100 as long as "Sail" without climbing higher than No. 82:
"I'd Rather," Luther Vandross (No. 83, 2002) "Shake That Monkey," Too Short featuring Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, (No. 84, 2004) "Give It to Her," Tanto Metro & Devonte, (No. 85, 2002) "Guilty," Gravity Kills, (No. 86, 1996) "Stupid Girl," Cold, (No. 87, 2003) "Don't Call Me Baby," Madison Avenue, (No. 88, 2000)
One key difference between these six songs and "Sail": they all predated the iTunes era. While "Sail" has had an impressive radio track record, it's also sold three-quarters of a million units. Like many of their young rock-radio contemporaries, AWOLNATION may never enjoy a gold plaque for an album, but they've gotten themselves a gold single at a time when it's pretty difficult to do that without making the kind of leap to Top 40 stations that Foster The People have achieved.
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