A couple weeks back when the Grammys announced their 2018 nominees, a familiar complaint rang loud and wide: Why is the rock representation so terrible? Whether it was strangely placing an artist like Leonard Cohen among them or recognizing acts like Kaleo or Nothing More that ring hollow to even the most vigilant rock fans, the Grammys seemed once again out of touch with the genre. Hell, even well-established nominees like Metallica, Foo Fighters, or Avenged Sevenfold were hardly bringing their finest work to the table in 2017, and their recognition felt like the committee was simply at a loss for other worthy artists that captured wide attention.
Enter Los Angeles radio station KROQ and their annual Almost Acoustic Christmas. The charity event functions a bit like a festival, except it’s in an arena (The Forum) and has a revolving stage, meaning there is literally wall-to-wall music for six hours on two separate nights. The bill is a cross section of alt-rock stars from throughout the decades, and the throughline is that the bands are all pushing recent or upcoming material they hope makes a dent on radio, enough that they are willing to play the event without their typical fee. It’s the kind of situation where everyone wins, particularly the fans who are lucky enough to nab tickets to the sold-out event.
For 28 years, KROQ’s Almost Acoustic Christmas has been a class act of holiday programming for the Los Angeles area. It’s where I saw David Bowie in the late-90’s in what would end up being the only time I’d ever get to see him, and in recent years the event has managed to book acts like Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Linkin Park, Modest Mouse, Lorde, and Green Day. U2 was even supposed to headline a few years back until Bono crashed his bike. And this year is no different, offering up the likes of The Killers, Muse, Queens Of The Stone Age, 30 Seconds To Mars, Run The Jewels, Phoenix, Prophets Of Rage, and Weezer.
They even booked a canceled Morrissey set. It’s a hell of a show for even the casual rock fan, complete with a primo stage production, tons of holiday decorations, and plenty of surprises (unfortunately the biggest surprise this year was when Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme kicked a photographer in the face, sparking a major backlash against the band).
Taking in the festivities, it becomes a bit of a wonder that rock music is viewed by many as an obsolete art form. Let’s forget the wealth of smaller artists that we’ve championed on our year-end lists that are still under the radar of the radio world, acts like Japandroids or Waxahatchee or even more mature leanings that have seen some radio (and Grammy) attention like The War On Drugs or The National. The artists that play for KROQ veer towards the mainstream (strangely, the two biggest alternative rock crossovers of the year, Imagine Dragons and Portugal. The Man were not on the bill, and both were chosen as Pop acts for the Grammy nominations and not Rock), and many of them are shrugged off by the critical world. The event plays a bit like a State Of The Union for the alt-rock community, giving a glimpse into what still works on the radio waves, and whether there is indeed a healthy genre in spite of what is up for trophies at the year’s biggest music awards show.
Interestingly, radio is all about the song. Sure, being an established artist and the relationships established by your representatives help, but this year alone, we’ve seen acts like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry stumble with radio, and it is no different in the rock world. Every act on KROQ’s lineup has a song that they are pushing or riding in on, and that matters a lot more than their name recognition. That provides a good entry point to examine this year’s crop of alternative rock thoroughbreds.
The Band: Judah & The Lion
The Song: “Suit And Jacket”
The Verdict: Woof. Twenty One Pilots are just the latest alternative band to infuse hip-hop into their rock, a move that seems more natural in the iPhone generation than any other. So, it’s not a surprise that this Nashville band follows suit, but juxtaposing it with some Mumfords-influenced instrumentation makes for a particularly unsettling concoction. “Suit And Jacket” and their earlier hit “Take It All Back” are virtually the same song, shining a flashlight on ho-hum lyrics that bemoan maturity, making them one of the few current crop of KROQ bands that are a hard sell for me anytime I hear them on the radio. The songs are catchy and not surprising that they are hits, but we can do better.
The Band: Cold War Kids
The Song: “Love Is Mystical”
The Verdict: Surprised. The career arc of these Orange County natives is completely fascinating. Their first albums came out in the aughts and were downright abused by blogs like Pitchfork, but the band was still able to earn a pretty big following in part because the times were so kind to most indie rock, and their blue-eyed soul take on it didn’t get lost in the pack. But as their popularity started to wane, it appeared like the group wasn’t going to make it. Then their 2014 soaring anthem “First” became the kind of hit that careers are made of, topping the alt charts and never really leaving radio rotation, earning them a second life as a more mainstream artist.
So when the group attempted their follow-up early this year with single “Love Is Mystical,” my instant reaction was that it wasn’t quite as strong as “First,” retreating to the hooky soul rock that the band had been spawning for a decade. Still, the song is another big hit, securing their place as a formidable alternative rock force. The story of Cold War Kids felt like “First” was an apparition, but it’s proved to be something much more, and it’s hard to be mad at a hardworking band that has fought uphill for their entire career that has found their earned success. And it should be noted that on the first night of KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, they were the only band to really attempt something special, bringing out local sensation Bishop Briggs for a couple songs in a move that highlighted the extreme lack of women on the lineup.
The Band: Run The Jewels
The Song: “Nobody Speak”
The Verdict: *Makes a fist and gun with hands* The history of rap on rock radio is pretty thin. Cypress Hill works. Eminem has shown up in the past. I heard Post Malone one time. Jay-Z got some play when he hooked up with Linkin Park. But yeah, fans at the KROQ event were just as surprised as the self-proclaimed “black sheep” to hear such a traditional hip-hop set at the rock event. The song that radio is picking up on is a DJ Shadow single that features RTJ, and it’s hard to say what makes this song stand out as a “rock single” more than any of their others. The thing about Run The Jewels is that they’ll impress any audience they are put in front of, even a skeptical bunch of 30 Seconds To Mars fans. The song won’t be a huge hit, but it could pave the way from one of their more beloved tracks to storm alt radio.
The Band: Prophets Of Rage
The Song: “Living On The 110”