As the ‘80s faded into the ‘90s, many so-called ‘Children of MTV’ and fans of punk, post-punk and new wave bands turned away from the Top 40, which had become increasingly dominated by hip-hop, R&B and dance-pop. College radio had always been an important factor for many music fans, but by the time the ‘90s rolled around there were major radio stations in just about every big market playing “alternative” music. More so than in the ‘80s, songs could be widely popular and culturally significant without ever making the Top 40 on the pop charts. Also contributing to this was the decline in the single format. Many major alternative hits of the ‘90s were never issued as a physical single, making them ineligible for the Billboard Hot 100 until a rules change years later. Alternative music reached its apex in the ‘90s, and the Modern Rock chart in Billboard was a good reflection of that.
This week 20 years ago, in the issue dated March 19, 1994, the Billboard Modern Rock Chart reads like a history of alternative music in the ‘90s. It’s amazing to see so many classics bunched together, and that is something you don’t see on the pop charts of this era — it’s more like the pop charts from ’83 and ’84 in that regard.
Here are the Top 25 tracks on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart 20 years ago this week:
The Charlatans were a British band that crossed over in the early ‘90s and had considerable success on the American Modern Rock Chart and on alternative radio. In 1990 they hit the Top 10 twice with “The One I Know” (#5) and “Then” (#4) but their biggest hit came in 1992 with the #1 Modern Rock hit “Weirdo.” “Can’t Get Out of Bed,” from the album Up To Our Hits, peaked at #6.
This week 20 years ago a trio out of the Bay Area in California made their first appearance on the Modern Rock chart with “Longview,” the first single from a little album called Dookie. “Longview” would eventually reach #1 and was the first of an incredible 30 hits for Green Day on the Modern Rock chart — including a remarkable 9 that reached the top: “Longview,” “Basket Case,” “When I Come Around,” “J.A.R.,” “Minority,” “American Idiot,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Holiday” and “Know Your Enemy.”
Arizona band Gin Blossoms were huge on not only alternative radio in the ‘90s but they also managed to get airplay on mainstream rock stations. They had major crossover pop hits with “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You,” “Til I Hear it From You” and “Follow You Down.” “Found Out About You” was their only #1 on the Modern Rock chart, and this week 20 years ago it paused at #23 on its way down. It’s from their album New Miserable Experience, which spawned an impressive 5 charting singles.
Another iconic song landed at #22 this week on its way out from a peak of #4. Smashing Pumpkins were one of the biggest alternative bands of the ‘90s, with 12 hits on the Modern Rock chart. Surprisingly, they only topped the chart once: with “1979” in 1996. “Today” was the follow-up to “Cherub Rock” and the second hit from their album Siamese Dream.
The appearance by Crowded House on the Modern Rock chart is a perfect example of how radio had changed since the ‘80s, when this Australian band was able to get major airplay on Top 40 stations. Those days were over, and alternative radio became a home for many artists who no longer fit into the Top 40 format. Crowded House scored 5 hits on the Modern Rock chart, including this one from the album Together Alone. This week it was on its way down from a peak of #8.
San Diego, California band Stone Temple Pilots were huge in the ‘90s on both Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock formats. They had 14 chart singles on the Modern Rock chart in the ‘90s, including this classic from their debut album Core. This week it paused at #20 on its way down from a peak at #12.
“Believe” was the only hit for the Los Angeles alternative-rockers Dig. The track, from their self-titled debut album, received a decent amount of MTV airplay, and reached #19 on the Modern Rock chart. Their next album Defenders of the Universe did almost nothing, which is a shame because it’s a killer rock album.
Ever since they were featured prominently in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance, Meat Puppets were suddenly generating far more interest in their own music. It helped that “Backwater” was possibly the most radio-friendly song of their career. Their 1994 album Too High to Die went gold, and “Backwater” would reach a Modern Rock peak of #11.
Another of the titans of ‘90s alternative rock, Soundgarden scored 9 hits on the Modern Rock chart during the decade. “Spoonman,” from their landmark album Superunknown, was their first. It would eventually reach #9.
German alternative rockers Fury in the Slaughterhouse crossed over to alternative radio in America with “Every Generation Got Its Own Disease,” from their album Mono. It peaked at #10.
After reaching a peak of #5, Bjork paused at #15 this week with “Big Time Sensuality,” one of two Modern Rock hits from her album Debut (“Human Behaviour” reached #2 in 1993). Soon her material because too obtuse for even alternative radio — her only other appearance on the chart was in 1995 with “Army of Me.”
Manchester, England-based rockers James released their debut album in 1986, but it wasn’t until “Sit Down” hit alternative radio in 1991 that they had much of an impact in America. They’d end up with four Modern Rock hits in the US, the biggest of which, “Laid,” was #14 this week, on its way down from a peak of #3.
On its way up to a peak of #8 is the third single from Siamese Dream, “Disarm” — their second appearance in the Top 25 this week. “Disarm” is an emotional ballad that benefited from heavy MTV airplay.
The only Modern Rock hit for Los Angeles-based alternative rockers Possum Dixon was “Watch the Girl Destroy Me,” from their self-titled debut album. It peaked at #9.
Yes, it was alternative radio that first latched onto Sheryl Crow. “Leaving Las Vegas,” from her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club, reached #8 on the Modern Rock chart, but only #60 on the pop chart. That would all change with her next single, “All I Wanna Do,” which became a cross-format smash during the summer of ’94.
From his album Vauxhall and I, Morrissey’s obsessive single “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” debuted this week all the way up at #10, on its way to the top of the Modern Rock chart. His only other #1 on the chart was the track “Tomorrow,” from his 1992 album Your Arsenal. On the strength of this single, Vauxhall and I became his biggest solo album thus far in America, reaching #18.
An acoustic ballad from their In Utero album, the live version of “All Apologies” from the band’s MTV Unplugged performance received significant airplay on the network. The track paused this week at #9 after hitting #1 a few weeks earlier. Tragically, seventeen days after this chart was published, Kurt Cobain would be dead and Nirvana would be no more.
The band’s first single from their debut album August & Everything After, “Mr. Jones” was a cross-format smash. The song, which was ubiquitous during the early part of 1994, reached #2 on the Modern Rock chart and was the first of 9 appearances on that chart in the ‘90s.
David Lowery, formerly of college radio favorites Camper Van Beethoven, enjoyed his biggest success with Cracker. The band scored 7 hits on the Modern Rock chart in the ‘90s, the biggest of which were “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” (#1), and two hits from the Kerosene Hat album: “Low” (#3) and “Get Off This” (#6)
This track from his album Brutal Youth was the final appearance for Elvis Costello on the Modern Rock chart. He’d previously hit #1 twice — “Veronica” in ’89 and “The Other Side of Summer” in ’91. One wonders how many hits he’d have if the chart had existed in the early years of his career when he was pumping out classic singles at a prodigious rate, none of which made a dent on the American pop chart.
The first hit by Beck Hansen paused at #5 this week two weeks after it had a grip on #1. From his album Mellow Gold, “Loser” is an iconic song of the ‘90s that also reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. It was the first of 17 appearances by Beck so far on the Modern Rock/Alternative chart.
Enigma was primarily the project of German artists Micahel Cretu, David Fairstein and Frank Peterson. They managed to take their single “Sadeness (Part I),” featuring the chanting of Gregorian monks over a trip-hop beat, to the top of the charts worldwide in 1990 (it hit #5 in America). “Return to Innocence” was the first single from their second album, The Cross of Changes. It reached #4 on the US pop chart and #2 on the Modern Rock chart — but soon the novelty wore off, and “Return to Innocence” proved to be Enigma’s last major hit in America.
Alice in Chains were a major creative force in the ‘90s. Another band from Seattle, their 1992 album Dirt is one of the decade’s most important works. “No Excuses” is a track from their acoustic-based 1994 EP Jar of Flies, and it reached #3 on the Modern Rock chart, one of 9 appearances for the band in the ‘90s. They had even more success on the Mainstream Rock chart.
This track was inescapable for a while during the spring of 1994. The Canadian band had a string of hits in their native country, but in America they are firmly in “one-hit-wonder” territory, as “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” hit #4 on the pop chart and it spent one week at #1 on the Modern Rock chart. It was their only Top 40 American hit, and even alternative radio essentially abandoned them after their trademark single faded away. But to be fair, as far as one-hit-wonders go, this is a pretty good one.
The first single from her second album Under the Pink, Tori Amos was #1 this week 20 years ago with “God.” It would be her only #1 hit on the chart — the follow-up single, “Cornflake Girl,” reached #13 (the order was reversed in the UK, where “Cornflake Girl” was the first single). Amos has enjoyed numerous cross-format hits over the last two decades and her albums continue to sell well. Her latest, Unrepentant Geraldines, is due to be released May 13.