Rediscovering: No Alternative

Well, the Ramones album we covered last on Rediscovering was 74 minutes of a band with a solid 25 in them at best. This next album’s 74 minutes of a whole slew of bands! …With a solid 25 minutes in them at best. I get ahead of myself here. This Rediscovering will take us further into music history land than our usual, given the legend status this particular compilation’s developed and the long, curious history of the organization behind it. Believe me, the history is way more interesting than the album.

No Alternative

It’s a Red Hot kinda evening, kids, so grab a partner you trust and gather around. Let’s talk the infamous 1993 benefit compilation No Alternative.

My previous experience, if any

My path first crossed No Alternative in our local used record store, as many future Rediscovering albums do. Being a pretty avid Nirvana fan, I was long aware that quietly tucked away at the end of this disc was what would be one of Nirvana’s final songs, “Sappy”, which is still absolutely my favorite song on here and one I’ll talk about later on. Every so often, I’d try to listen to this one for the other songs and, despite its status as a landmark 90’s rock record, I always found it really dull to listen to. Still, couldn’t say for sure without giving it the time of day. In the pile it went.

Red Hot

The history lesson

So the short of it: No Alternative was compiled by an organization known as Red Hot, who formed in the days of the AIDS epidemic. Rather than act as a traditional nonprofit, Red Hot acts as a creative production company, using pop culture and new technology to reach audiences who wouldn’t normally be receptive to traditional AIDS awareness campaigns, like the black community, the gay community, and younger folks who gravitated more towards MTV than the evening news.

Red Hot were hitting it out of the park pretty much right out of the gate. Their first release was a Cole Porter tribute record called Red Hot + Blue, attracting the likes of David Byrne, U2, Sinéad O’Connor, the Thomson Twins, Tom Waits, and inexplicably, Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry together to contribute original, exclusive work to the project. ABC aired a special about it. It sold a million worldwide. Truly, a good cause could pay off, and the age of the benefit compilation had begun.

And here’s the aforementioned special. Bless Red Hot, archiving all this themselves on Vimeo.

By the time No Alternative rolled around, Red Hot had their sights on MTV, Ground Zero for the (ridiculed in the CD booklet) so-called alternative rock explosion that was long underway. The packaging was distinctive. The sharp black-and-white motifs, the bullseye, those album covers, the attitude of the thing–it was the 90’s, dammit, and this absolutely reeks of it.

A No Alternative t-shirt
This is the back of the shirt, the front of it has just the bullseye.

Again, check the booklet, emphasis theirs:

This is NOT an alternative rock collection. “Alternative” rock does NOT exist. It is a MYTH on par with Elvis sightings, QUALITY airline food and STRESS-free relationships. NO, what you’re listening to is simply nineteen songs. It is our BELIEF, however, that these songs simultaneously create one BEAUTIFUL clamor and SERVE as a soundtrack to this suspended moment in TIME. […] It is the BANDS making up No AlternativeALONG with dozens of OTHERS, whether they’re reinvigorating rock and ROLL or HELPING to TRANSCEND musical and cultural BOUNDARIES–who have helped AWAKEN the world to the FACT that music NOT only HAS the POWER to SPEAK TO a GENERATION but FOR a generation.

And they had the bands! Talking Heads and Blondie were pretty big, but for No Alternative, they had bands at their peak of relevance. Smashing Pumpkins had just tossed Siamese Dream to the wind. Soundgarden weren’t far off from their crossover success months later. The Beastie Boys had been tearing up the rap world for years by this point. Even the smaller bands were by no means nobodies–hell, The Breeders just crossed over that year with “Cannonball”. Uncle Tupelo would supernova not long after and produce none other than Wilco in the aftermath. A pre-“Name”, pre-“Iris” Goo Goo Dolls show up for a bit.

One page of No Alternative's CD booklet

But never too far from the point of the compilation does No Alternative stray. While you might’ve bought it for the bands, the booklet was here to remind you of a real, honest crisis, an outbreak of a deadly virus that the kids who were listening to these bands might very well have seen take their friends or dealt with themselves. These days, caught early enough, we can fight off HIV, but back then, there really was no alternative–safer sex, perhaps being pickier about partners, and not sharing needles. No Alternative helped keep the AIDS epidemic in the public consciousness well into the 90’s.

These days, when someone refers to Red Hot, No Alternative tends to come with it. The zeitgeist around this album has refused to fade in the years since–case in point, it was reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day 2013. Not many benefit compilations before or after it have that honor, and yet it sold like the dickens then and sells like the dickens now.

Red Hot still exists today, and apparently their most recent compilation (well, before I checked–they literally just released a new one as of a few months ago), a tribute to the Grateful Dead featuring artists like The National, Mumford & Sons, and Courtney Barnett, sold better than No Alternative did back in the day. Must be all those streaming numbers.


And here’s where I break from the public. This didn’t do a lot for me. It’s not totally devoid of highlights, but man, this thing feels so mild and overlong as a whole.

When I covered The Fold Compilation, I made no bones about it. Some of it’s gonna fall flat with you. Which songs fall flat depends on the kind of listener you are. Perhaps it’s the passage of time, perhaps it’s simply my familiarity with this era of music, but No Alternative sticks weirdly safe to middle of the road 90’s modern rock sounds and styles. Matthew Sweet has the riffage, sure, but “Superdeformed” is by no means his best song or his best performance. “For All to See”, the Buffalo Tom track, is plenty upbeat and, again, has the guitars, but does it leave an impression? I can’t remember a damn thing about it.

There are a lot of interchangeable midtempo cuts on this thing. “Take a Walk” by Urge Overkill, Bob Mould’s “Can’t Fight It”, “Heavy 33” by the Verlaines–I could probably charitably call these songs growers, but I’m just gonna call them boring instead. I think I liked “Heavy 33” the most while it was on, being more trippy and reverberating than some of the other slower songs, but I’m not terribly sure I’d miss it if I never heard it again either.

Hell, sometimes No Alternative gets attention by being more funny than good. No song displays that better than the “oh my God you have to hear this” beacon of what-the-actual-fuck that is “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence” by Pavement. This is a song about R.E.M.. Literally, explicitly about the band R.E.M. in the least poetic words possible.

Flashback to 1983
Chronic Town was their first EP
Later on came Reckoning
Finster’s art, and titles to match
“So. Central Rain”, “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville”
“Harborcoat”, “Pretty Persuasion”
You were born to be a camera
“Time After Time” was my least favorite song
“Time After Time” was my least favorite song

And, dear reader! Just you wait for how Stephen Malkmus describes our Athens-bred quartet:

The singer, he had long hair
And the drummer he knew restraint
And the bass man he had all the right moves
And the guitar player was no saint

Now, I’m aware of Pavement’s status as one of those cool cult acts of the 90’s that helped to usher in the whole “lo-fi” thing, but not only is this thing not lo-fi–it’s just not very fucking good, and I don’t know if screaming repeatedly about “Time After Time” being your least favorite song on Reckoning (skipping Murmur, shame on you boys) counts as indie cool either.

A few songs later, Sarah “in the arms of the angel” McLachlan herself shows up on “Hold On”. If you’re like me, you’re currently marveling at the idea of Sarah McLachlan being indie. As for the song itself, it’s a dull, echoing instrumental with Sarah doing this breathy, struggling falsetto on top of it. It’s like a really awful Dolores O’Riordan impression. Utterly bizarre to listen to.

I did say there were some better-landing cuts on here though, so let’s balance it out some. Soul Asylum turns in a real curious and surprisingly listenable 90’s rock cover of “Sexual Healing” (which I suppose fits the subject matter). It’s nothing you can’t hear in its original on the ever-underrated Pod, but The Breeders contribute a live version of “Iris” that’s just a little roughier and eerier than its studio counterpart, and it was always nice to hear it again towards the end. American Music Club came up with a surprising favorite, the Beck-before-Beck-was-quite-a-thing deadpan rock of “All Your Jeans Were Too Tight”. Not bad at all.

The three songs that float the best on here by far are from three bands I was already well familiar with, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and of course, Nirvana. “Show Me” is one of those classic Soundgarden b-sides that sonically have nothing to do with their respective albums, but it’s a quick, fun listen. “Glynis” seems like a fairly cryptic tune with a slick groove until you learn of its origins, at which point it becomes a rather sad memorial for another musician who fell to AIDS–but with a slick groove.

But really, let’s talk “Sappy”. The verse after the chorus after the verse. I put three different versions of this thing on Sound of Dentage to show just how the song shaped up over time, and the version on here from the In Utero sessions is the most alive and amplified of the bunch. It seems like Albini’s non-production was the kick in the ass this little b-side needed to not only finally get released, but also to upstage every other song on the disc. This isn’t only the best version of it, it’s the best and least-compressed mix of this version. I probably would’ve bought it for that anyway, even if I knew I’d be rather middling on the disc as a whole.

For every time No Alternative gave me a good song though, I swear there was a matching moment where I was amusing myself at the rest of them. “Oh man, Bob Mould’s using a drum machine there!” “Oh shit, I hear Jeff Tweedy back there! He’s so young sounding!” “Why would they go with the most hip-hop Beastie Boys track possible for a compilation of rock songs? They cross over all the fucking time!” And I’d promptly forget it all immediately thereafter anyway.

It’s not even really that it was a different time, when people had far less access to music than they do now. The entire Rediscovering pile was bought on a whim at real record stores, on physical CDs I listened to in a big console stereo. I’m not really in a different position than any random music enthusiast in the 90’s was other than that I have the hindsight of how highly regarded No Alternative would become available to me.

I’m not here to dunk on a good cause, and apparently lots of people have fond memories of this thing, so who am I to say they’re wrong? On the music though, this is wasted on me. I’ll say this much: Patti Smith bringing the whole thing to a close with an acapella tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe gets your attention like not much else on the disc does, and the crowd loved it. I had more fun reading about Robert afterwards than I did listening to the CD that got me on the topic of him.

Are you keeping it?

No. (Alternative.)

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